Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 8 February 2015





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‘Let’s be citizens and not subjects’

‘It doesn’t matter what you know, but who you know’ – This was the unfortunate reality of the past decade in Sri Lanka, where political ideology was so ‘naturalised’ to the extent that everyone believed it as their fate. This mentality created a huge void in society as far as the role of the citizen was concerned.

Are Sri Lankans subjects or citizens? The answer is that we are probably both. During the past decade, instead of becoming citizens of a modern state, we became more or less subjects in a monarchy, who expected social justice through superstition and also it was a ritual to visit the first person of the country bypassing all the authorities, even to get a solution for a minor matter.

We as a nation were going backward to a feudalistic society.

In this context ‘Citizens Power’ (Purawasi Balaya) a collective of various professional, artistes, intellectuals and citizens of the country, came forward against all odds and stood for re-establishing the rights of the citizens which was long overdue.

The Sunday Observer interviewed Gamini Viyangoda co-convenor ‘Citizens Power’ collective to know their stand with the present government and their future endeavours for a free nation.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: How do you define the concept of a ‘citizen’?

A: I must say ‘Citizens Power’ (Purawasi Balaya) collective was not formed merely focusing on the recently concluded Presidential election.

It was the outcome of a series of discussions we had with different groups and people for the past two years with the intention of empowering citizens, by forming a strong pressure group that stands for the rights and responsibilities of citizens of the country.

For the past few years ‘the role of the citizen’, was being diluted in society.

There was no connection between the citizen and their representatives once they are elected.

All the important decisions are taken by these representatives and their allies not with society in mind but only for themselves. This is not possible in a progressive society where there are citizens.

A citizen is a person who elects his or her representative to Parliament not only to be ruled by them but also to make sure they represent their aspirations and raise a voice and is involved whenever it’s needed. That is the difference between a citizen and a subject.

Pix: Susantha Wijegunasekara

Subjects never takes into consideration social responsibilities but they assume they have to be ruled by the ruling class.

They never question the ruler or fight for their rights and stand against injustice. Subjects are satisfied with what they get. They never make a noise about their frustrations because they never think the mismanagement of the ruling class is one of the major reasons for their frustrations but reason it out most of the times as Karma.

A citizen is always aware about his/her rights in the society. Whenever their rights are violated, they give it serious thought and organise themselves to stand up for it.

Those who are conscious of their rights as a citizen of a country and those who are actively involved and stand up to secure the citizen’s rights can be defined as a citizen.

Q: Could you elaborate more on the role of ‘Citizens Power’ collective?

A: Unfortunately, in our society there are more subjects than citizens. The intention behind the ‘Citizen’s Power’ collective was to address this issue.

We point fingers at politicians for corruption and for abusing power, but we shouldn’t forget that we are all equally responsible because they are our representatives and are our choice.

In a country, if the number of passive citizens are on the increase, it is a blessing for the ruling class to abuse power.

We hardly saw active citizens in our country during the past decade when the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was in power.

Actually there was no room left in society for active citizens and suppression was unprecedented during that decade, that people self-censored without expressing the true point of view as they didn’t want to land in trouble.

However, we were not that kind of a society. During the post colonial era, when we compare our society with another South Asian country, our society was fairly progressive in terms of the socio-political condition.

This was mainly due to the patronage of the traditional Leftist movement.

For instance, Peter Keneuman, Colvin R. De Silva, S. A. Wickramasinghe, N.M Perera and many others have escorted many social power forces and actively been involved with the power politics of the country. That was a politically conscious society.

This society turned upside down with the open economy in the late '70s and the role of the citizen was isolated and society was superseded by the feudalistic culture.

Thereafter, it became the norm that the people’s representatives(MPs) had enormous power, even to abuse it as they want, where the citizens had no control over it.

In this context, the pressure groups have an immense role to play in society to educate and empower citizens to stand against the violation of their rights.

As a pressure group our intention is to restore political consciousness into society.

Q: A citizen of a country in which capacity should get involved with its country’s politics?

A: It depends on incident to incident. For instance, due to the Beruwala incident there was a huge threat among the nationalities in the country.

We saw how bhikkhus of the calibre of Ven Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thera behaved and his hate speech in Beruwala was an insult to humanity. It was an open invitation for another disastrous war which we had just came to an end with another nationality in the country.

It was an incident where the citizens’ involvement was crucial.

It is not only to secure the rights of the Muslims’ but also to uphold the word of the Buddha. But that did not happen.

Citizens direct involvement with politics was quite low during the past decade. It is not possible to draw the line and show to which extent citizens have to get involved in the country’s politics but it’s important to be conscious and to be aware and pressurise the government to direct the country in a democratic manner.

Q: However, compared to other democratic countries, especially in the West, once citizens elect their representatives to Parliament, they don’t have much involvement with politics in the country. Despite we being passive citizens, more than 75 percent of our day- to-day life is dominated by political situations or politicians of the country. How do you understand this scenario?

A: It’s an important point that you’ve raised. In a democratic country like France, citizens are not heavily involved with political activism.

It is mainly because they have very powerful institutions and processes based on firm foundations. Citizens’ democratic rights are secure and they have nothing to worry.

According to their judicial system, cabinet ministers can be brought before courts and the President too is answerable when his presidential term is over.

We don’t have that kind of powerful system in our country.

There are many loopholes in the system. We should not forget that even the West came to this level as a result of continuous struggles of the citizens, social power forces and activists.

It’s our responsibility and duty to guide our representatives and force them till they form a solid foundation to re-establish the institutions and processes which secure our rights of democracy and thereafter we also can rest.

Q: How important is it for a society to have pressure groups?

A: In a country such as Sri Lanka, it is quite important to have pressure groups with progressive ideas, because they are the ones who keep the flicker alive.

We rescued our country from the MR regime because of the pressure groups who worked in different fields such as human rights, democracy, the legal fraternity and many other areas who continuously agitated even though there was huge suppression from the ruling class.

It is important to have pressure groups who work in different fields to empower the moral strength of citizens and make them aware about their democratic rights as well as to keep on the struggle against the ruling class.

Q: ‘Citizens Power’ collective was actively involved in the past presidential election to defeat the MR regime, which is a reality today. What is the stand of ‘Citizens Power’ with the present Government?

A: We are agreeable to the 100-day program implemented by the Government. We don’t believe the democratic society that we are expecting can be achieved at the end of the 100- day program.

As ‘Citizens Power’ collective our ultimate goal is to establish the democratic culture in society, which cannot be achieved by passing an Act in Parliament. It is a long process which cannot be achieved overnight.

Our intention is to create the necessary environment in society which backs this process.

Let’s imagine the executive presidential powers being taken over by Parliament.

It does not solve the problem, rather it is only a partial solution. It is important to have concurrent space in society for the democratic culture. Both should happen simultaneously.

We are paying attention to set up that culture in society, which is our ultimate goal. However, currently we are monitoring the100-day program, so that the government will not deviate from its original plan.

The Government has not yet decided whether they are going to reform the electoral system or not, before the general election due to the lack of time.

In this matter our stand is that we have to reform the electoral system before the upcoming general election, if they cannot do it during this 100-day program, there’s no restriction to make it 125 or 150-day program.

This is a crucial moment, which we should not waste because the Opposition also agreed to the 100- day program and this is the ideal time for all these crucial reforms to be implemented.

Q: Recently members of ‘Citizens Power’ met President Maithripala Sirisena. This was the practice when former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power. This is a characteristic of a feudalistic society where people have to go and meet the King individually to raise issues. Don’t you think this is a wrong practice which we have to change?

A: As a pressure group who has been actively involved in the current political situation, there are two ways that we can pressurize the Government.

One is through personal interaction, which is quite limited and could create the wrong impression if we only rely on that, as the previous regime.

However, we don’t think we have to eliminate that method.

We used the opportunity we got to meet President Maithripala Sirisena to convey a few ideas we had as a collective.

We raised the point that even though former President Rajapaksa could go down in history as the leader of the country who won the thirty- year civil war, he couldn’t bring peace to the country.

President Maithripala Sirisena has a fair chance to bring back the long overdue peace to this country and write his name in history.

As a symbolic approach to win back the trust of the Tamils, we made a request to President Maithripala Sirisena to re-implement the rights of Tamils to sing the national anthem in their language which was stopped during MR regime.

It is a myth that the national anthem should be sung only in one language. If the meaning is the same, they have the right and pleasure to sing it in their own language.

If President Maithripala Sirisena could make this change, there will be immense appreciation from the Tamil community.

We conveyed more ideas that we had as a collective and he listened carefully and said he will make the necessary arrangements after discussing with the other members of the government.

Personal lobbying was one method that we conveyed our opinions and suggestions directly and when it is not enough we’ll use other methods too to convey our ideas to the Government.

Q: ‘Citizens Power’ which was heavily in action during the presidential election addressing public gatherings around the country by bringing popular icons on stage, which is a popular political technique that has been used and misused for the past decade.

With these below-the belt political techniques, the mindset of the citizens of the country could never be changed. As a pressure group which works to restore democratic culture, how are you going to change the mindset of the grassroot level in society?

A: Actually during the past presidential election, people only rejected the MR regime and we as a pressure group also did not expect anything other than that by actively being involved in the campaign.

Now only are we starting the real battle of changing the mindset of the people and rescuing them from the feudalistic mindset and setting them free as true citizens of the country.

We are planning another round of public rallies covering the entire country to talk about the real problems that we have as a nation. Also we believe our nation has to rehabilitate every individual’s thinking as it has been warped by the previous regime.

We are about to start setting up a democratic culture in our society.


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