Sri Lanka was to hold the local government elections in March 2023. But on February 20, the Election Commission told the Supreme Court that it will not be able to hold the local council election as planned due to a lack of funding. The local government elections, which are supposed to be held every four years, were last held in 2018. One reason behind the government’s decision is that an increasing number of Sri Lankans, especially the youth, seem to believe that the time has come for a radical change in the country’s leadership. As an alternative to the two parties (UNP and SLFP) that ruled the country since independence, they have found an alternative in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Power (NPP). The NPP is expected to get the highest votes in the local government election when it is held. On Feb 23rd, President Ranil Wickramasinghe said in the parliament that the opposition party of Sajith Premadasa has also requested him to postpone the elections to stop the National People’s Power (NPP) wave.
Can the NPP lead the troubled island out of the depth it is in? In my previous article on this subject, I raised several questions about their ability to lead. Even if the NPP wins a future election, can it effectively deal with India, China, the US, and other international funding agencies? I recently sat down with Bimal Rathnayake, a former Member of the Sri Lankan Parliament. Bimal is a politburo member of the JVP and a top-ranking leader of the NPP coalition.
AD: Do you think the NPP is widely accepted at the grassroots level in Sri Lanka as an alternative to the current corrupt rulers?
BR: Yes. There are 14,000 village-level administrative units in Sri Lanka called ‘Gramasevaka Kottasha.’ We are already very active in more than 90% of them and have established people’s councils in 8,000 of those and currently building activities within the others. The unique feature of these units at the village level is the real community involvement. Women take a major role in these units and good citizens who broke away from the traditional parties they once trusted are joining our units in droves. The economy at the village level is horrible. Farmers have left for the city. People who are left in the villages are suffering under the burden of the mounting cost of living. One silver lining is that the younger generation has come forward to teach the older generation about the failure of the leaders they once trusted. Traditionally, these parties were led by reputed people like the school principal or the native healer at the village level. These people have already abandoned their parties, their policies, and the national leaders. Current members of the parliament from these parties can’t even go to their villages anymore. So, we are really evolving.
AD: We still see some support for the corrupt rulers on major media, social media, and political campaigns against the NPP.
BR: This is to be expected after 75 years of ruling by the two major parties or their coalitions. They own the media as well and have paid propagandists to cook up lies and other false narratives against their opponents. Among these lies are the ones the Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa is currently circulating saying that if the NPP comes to power, we will take over the private properties of people. Some are also assigning blame for the inhumane acts conducted by the government in the late eighties and early nineties on us as well. And there is a segment of the population who benefitted from the corrupt leaders, and they consume these lies and further propagate them.
AD: Why don’t you and the NPP respond to these false narratives?
BR: Well, we have addressed these at length, and many independent intellectuals, professionals, and artists also have been explaining and answering these fabrications for years. But our resources are limited. Only about 35% of Sri Lankans use the internet. People are not reading the newspapers as they used to due to higher costs and the poor quality and biased nature of the current journalists. We correct these false narratives at our village-level organizations, at larger meetings, and using our policy documents.
AD: If the NPP wins the local government elections when they are held, what are your plans?
BR: We will force parliamentary elections in 2025. President can dissolve the parliament after Feb 2023. He can’t continue to run without a mandate. If we win, we will inherit a troubled country. Our party and the movement are like firefighters. We are trained to face crisis modes. Our policies are sound, our vision is clear, our leadership is collective, and we are building international connections. We have a Rapid Response plan we have outlined. We have public support that is growing.
AD: NPP is also accused of the limited English language skills of your leaders. Will this be a problem when you must deal with the rest of the world?
BR: This is ridiculous. Non-English speakers have run our country. Mahinda Rajapakse has limited English language skills. Basil Rajapakse, the former finance minister, became a laughingstock for the same reason. The current G20 members have several non-English speaking members. This shows the colonial mentality of the people who raise these questions. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an inter-governmental economic organization with 37 member countries and they are not all English-speaking countries. Only a handful of their leaders work in English. The majority of English-speaking countries are in Africa. Almost all of them are poor. The International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAAP) has about 70 political parties from 33 Asian countries, including China, Russia, South Korea, India, Mongolia, and Indonesia. English is not their language.
AD: One final question. Recovery of stolen assets. Is that feasible? How do you plan to handle that?
BR: This is technically possible. There are already cases against some of the corrupt Sri Lankan leaders. On April 1st, 2022, former presidents Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapakse’s sister’s son Jaliya Wickramasinghe who was a former ambassador to the US and Mexico pleaded guilty in Washington, D.C., for wire fraud. Nirupama Rajapaksa who is a cousin of former president Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a former member of Parliament and served as deputy minister of water supply and drainage from 2010 to 2015. She and her husband, Thirukumar Nadesan, are involved in the Pandora papers. In another case, Namal Rajapakse, Mahinda Rajapakse’s son who is a member of the parliament and a former minister, is the main suspect in the 2013 Airbus bribery and corruption case in Sri Lanka. It is alleged that he accepted a bribe of $800,000 from Airbus in exchange for helping to secure a deal with Sri Lanka Airlines. The funds were allegedly transferred to a bank account in the name of Nimal Perera and were then passed on to Rajapaksa. All the corrupt rulers are trying to sweep these under the carpet, but they will not be able to do that forever.