‘Politicians will always use religion to further their agenda’: Harin
MP Harin Fernando says it’s unfortunate to see Catholic Church being politicised
The six-member Parliamentary Committee appointed to study the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter Sunday terror attacks has finished its study and compiled its findings. Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Harin Fernando has been vocal in his criticism of the PCoI’s report, its findings, and recommendations on how to prevent a further attack and bring justice to the victims. The Morning spoke to Fernando on what he believes is lacking in the report and how he expects justice to be served to the victims.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
In the past you have made allegations that the PCoI report was incomplete. What more did you expect from the PCoI regarding the report?
The traitors who are behind it were not properly identified. If it was the international terror organisation, ISIS, then who had taken the initiative to do this in Sri Lanka? Things like that have not been found yet.
The question of who was the mastermind is more important than who neglected such an incident happening. The Catholics need to know this because the Catholic principle is also to forgive; but to forgive, the victim should know who, and the reason behind it. It cannot have been a one-off case of a contract. If so, then who is behind this particular contract?
To start off with, there are certain discussions that were out there. We would have hoped to see the Commission actually inquiring into these questions. More or less to see who actually paid Zaharan initially and the group up until 2014? Who has been having the closest links to the Zaharan group? The report does not go into detail on those matters.
I have reasonable doubt and I have a reason to state these things.
You have mentioned previously that you believe Zahran is not the mastermind behind the bombings and that you know the real mastermind. You also said that you would reveal the mastermind’s identity in Parliament. Who is the mastermind and why have you not revealed the name in Parliament yet?
I have reasonable doubt, and I will mention in Parliament details about the speculation about who supplied illegal weapons to the terrorists. We will put it out eventually, but not right now.
Do you not see anything positive in the report?
The positive things that I see are that the report has addressed extremism, and extremism is not limited to only Muslims. Extremism can also be a Buddhist or even Catholic issue. The report has addressed the question of how to move forward as a society. The report also touches on how we as a community, starting from our younger days in school, should respond to other religions or how we should react and how to expect others to give respect. Those are the positive things that I see.
You have had your disagreements with His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, but the both of you do agree that the report was lacking in certain aspects. Have you spoken to him recently?
Not really, because in the Catholic Church, His Eminence the Cardinal is The Archbishop of Colombo. The Bishop Conference is what the head of the church is; all the major decisions with regard to the Catholic church are taken by the Bishops Conference.
I have been meeting confidentially with Cathloic priests who are helping the public understand the requests of the Catholics with regard to Easter bombings. On a party hierarchy, or political level, my party leader, Honourable Sajith Premadasa, keeps relationships with His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal.
Do you think His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith is guided by political motivations?
I think I had some concerns before, but my leader Sajith Premadasa intervened and made me have a dialogue with His Eminence, and we cleared whatever doubts I had of him, and he had of me. I think the lack of communication issue, and also the media played a big role in trying to pit us against each other. I think we figured that out when Honourable Sajith Premadasa made us talk to each other. I may have also been a bit harsh previously in my criticisms, and I accept that I was also angry and I was ticked off.
My honest sentiment is if you look at any religion, politicians will always use religion to further their agenda. I do not think that religion and politics anyway go very well together because it creates tension. If the religion becomes politicised, then people may lose faith in that religion. I would like to see religion being just religion and politics being politics and them being kept separate from each other.
However, in Sri Lanka that is not very practical. The Catholic Church in the past was not very involved in politics unlike the Buddhist clergy who openly talk about politics. Recently, it has been unfortunate to see the Catholic Church also being a bit political.
As a party, the SJB did not participate in the Black Sunday protests. Did you take part?
On that particular day, I did go to Church for the Mass. I wore black as a respect for the people, but I did not stand with a hoarding or placard outside the Church. I am also a legislator who is also responsible as a citizen at a particular point. I did not want to mix politics there. I joined the prayers but did not join the protest.
Did the SJB not participate in the Black Sunday protests for fear of alienating its voter base?
I absolutely do not believe that. The principle why I am a SJB politician is that we have a strong belief that we should not play religion with politics or vice versa. We remained independent in this matter but we most certainly support and endorse the Black Sunday protests, but we did not want to do cheap politics or further any political agendas through this.
The PCoI report has recommended criminal charges pressed against former President Maithripala Sirisena. Do you agree with this?
The Commission called me before it, and also asked me what went wrong. For me personally, it was done by a group of people who wanted political advantage. I was very open and vocal about the fact that national security has a lot of weight.
He was the former Defense Minister as well, and he should have more responsibility than someone from the military although they are responsible as well. But the fact that he neglected actions and duties really takes away from the perpetrators’ political reasons for these attacks. Therefore, I do not know whether he should be tried under the Penal Code.
I believe that Ranil Wickremesinghe was also kept in the dark about matters of national security. However, Ranil Wickremesinghe and the entire Cabinet then is responsible to a certain extent, but I believe natural justice of the people was served considering the elections.
That responsibility of that Government was neglected and people understood that. We are all responsible collectively, because we cannot shy away from it and people have spoken against us in the elections. However, the expectations of the people for this Government are also not being met.
Recently, you had released your Ordinary Level (O/L) qualifications when questioned about it. Do you think every politician must do so and is that the standard that should be there?
In Sri Lanka, there is a lack of respect for politicians. Education alone is not enough to be a politician – you have to understand people, and give a certain commitment and respect to the electorate. It should be up to the party to have a set of criteria and basic qualifications. The past generation did not see a need for these standards. End of the day, a politician serves educated people as well and they may not respect that particular politician when the educational qualifications are lower.
There was also the Right to Information (RTI) being used to request the educational qualifications of all politicians in Parliament, but the request was denied on the basis that it was “not in public interest”. Do you agree with this?
Although the RTI is a phenomenal part of our political culture, I think that even under the RTI, there is certain information that people do not want to divulge, which is unfortunate.