‘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
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’
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
This was mainly due to the patronage of the traditional Leftist
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
One is through personal interaction, which is quite limited and could
create the wrong impression if we only rely on that, as the previous
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.