Govt. should revert to non-aligned policy: Ranjith Madduma Bandara

By Sarah Hannan 

Although Sri Lanka was to present alternatives to the UN resolution that they withdrew from in addressing issues such as holding inquiries over the alleged war crimes, impunity, and minority issues, the Government decided instead only to reject the report furnished by the UN Human Rights Commissioner, stating that it was incorrect. 

SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara

Against this backdrop, The Sunday Morning Hot Seat reached out to Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara, to question him on the stance of their party that is heading the Opposition and what they would have suggested the Government do, given that Sri Lanka is facing grave issues in the face of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at this point.  

Following are excerpts of the interview: 

Do you believe that Sri Lanka can redeem itself at the ongoing UNHRC sessions? 

The present Government has actually placed themselves in a difficult position by denying and discarding the observations that were shared by the Human Rights Commissioner earlier this year. The observations that she had presented were 17 pages, out of which in over 14 pages she highlighted the inactions of the incumbent Government. 

The Human Rights Commissioner’s observation highlights the inactions of the successive governments. Why couldn’t the United National Front (UNF) Government take action against the various findings and the long-standing issues during their tenure?   

During the tenure of the UNF Government, there were certain steps that were taken towards resolving matters related to war crimes, impunity, and ensuring that the media had the freedom to carry out their duties.   

We did so in keeping with the democracy of the country to ensure that the voices of the minorities were heard and commissions were appointed to fact-find. These commissions were able to implement the Right to Information Act which is widely used to assist with uncovering corruption and improving transparency. 

The report commends the actions and the initiatives that the UNF Government executed during their tenure, and the present Government is questioned over not taking forward or acting on the recommendations that were presented.   

Like I said before, within the construct of this country’s democracy, the UNF Government did implement the necessary commissions and institutions to ensure that the recommendations of the resolution it co-sponsored were considered and acted upon. 

The incumbent Government has decided to continue with some of the reconciliation programmes that the UNF Government established. Do you think this is just a façade that the incumbent Government is placing to pretend that they want the country to reconcile?

We are glad that they decided to continue the work of the Office of Missing Persons, Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, and Office of Reparations. We cannot continue to live as a country that is not open to take forth the good work that was done.  

We hope that the Government will continue the work that has been done so far through these institutions and allow the country to reconcile by working towards achieving the objectives that were set forth. 

Do you think a purely domestic mechanism could work in terms of finding answers and achieving accountability?  

Sri Lanka needs to work closely with the international community in establishing its position of holding those accountable for war crimes, impunity, and oppression towards minorities. We don’t see how Sri Lanka can address these issues through a domestic mechanism. 

As the Opposition, were you given an opportunity to share your proposals on fulfilling the resolutions that are set forth?  

We were neither asked about what we thought about the report that was presented nor did they allow us to share our concerns or recommendations to fulfil the resolution. The incumbent Government should understand that we are working within a democracy and as a democratic nation, they should also allow the Opposition parties to discuss and find solutions that affect the country as a whole. 

Opposition MPs that took part in the Pottuvil to Polikandi protest are now facing inquiries from the Police. What are your thoughts?  

It is unfair to penalise these MPs, as the Government seems to have denied their right to protest. Their freedom of expression has been taken away from them. When situations like this take place, divisive forces can easily take advantage of such a situation and attempt to establish terror cells in the country once again.  

Moreover, the Government should first of all question people like Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, who once served as a member of the now banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), on the objectives they pursued during the 30-year war. Instead, he is now being allowed to practise politics, while the MPs from other Tamil and Muslim parties are being questioned about their intentions over taking to the streets to highlight the issues concerning the Government. 

Do you think this has curtailed the rights of the minorities of the country?  

Of course, it is incidents like this which can push such communities to rally together. But once again, divisive forces can always make use of such situations and attempt to re-establish themselves in the country. 

How do you see Sri Lanka’s relationship with India and China? What would you have the Government do differently?  

Sri Lanka from time immemorial practised a non-aligned approach when it came to international relations with its counterparts. However, this geopolitical war that is currently ongoing was a creation of the Rajapaksa regime and they have to solve this matter before it gets out of hand.   

If we take the issue with the East Container Terminal, where India and China are involved, the incumbent Government is not seen to be acting on resolving the matter diplomatically. While the issue still persists, the Government last week decided to invite the Prime Minister of Pakistan. We see this as a mistake that the Government made at this juncture.   

It is better if the Government can once again revert to the non-aligned approach that was practised throughout. 

What are your plans to strengthen the Opposition and garner enough support to challenge the Government on key issues?   

We are launching several conferences from 3 March onwards that will be taken to all areas in the country, where we would discuss the ongoing issues that the country is facing, with the participation of grassroots-level political activists and our organisers.   

Matters concerning the public need to be heard and we will ensure that these long-standing issues are addressed at Parliament and brought to the attention of the Government. 

The Leader of the Opposition is continuously being blocked by the Speaker of Parliament from raising important issues. What are your thoughts on that?   

Ideally, the Speaker should be the Speaker of Parliament and take a mediatory role when it comes to the matters of Parliament. However, what we have witnessed is that he is functioning as the Speaker for the President and the Prime Minister.   

It is undemocratic of him to continuously bar the Leader of the Opposition from raising important issues and questioning the Government.   

A just government would allow the opposition to challenge them and question them over their governance. But today, what we see is that the Speaker has become the mouthpiece of the President and the Prime Minister and he is nit-picking as to what matters can be discussed by the Opposition at Parliament. 

Do you have a plan to get the rest of the MPs in the Opposition to raise the same issues in his stead? 

Of course we do. We are looking at a strategic approach on how all the MPs in the Opposition can raise the issues the Speaker is barring the Opposition Leader from raising. If I share the exact plan with you, it would defeat the purpose of devising a strategic plan, right?