Former Army Commander, Mahesh Senanayake, is contesting the forthcoming presidential election to change the current political culture.

Former Army Commander, General Mahesh Senanayake, fresh into his retirement has decided to throw his lot in with the alternative groups vying to enter politics with the aim of changing the current political culture and introducing an ethical system of governance. General Senanayake was named the presidential candidate of the National People’s Movement, on September 29, 2019.

General Senanayake and the former Auditor General Gamini Wijesignhe spoke to a small group of media persons on October 2, in Colombo.  The National People’s Movement aims to unify a cross section of the population, civil society groups, professionals, the business community, youth and village communities with a people-centric constitution that empowers citizens.  Sri Lanka continues to be governed by rules and regulations introduced by the colonial masters, and while the country was robbed by them at that time its resources continue to be abused by those who succeeded them, states Mr. Wijesinghe.

He explained that Sri Lanka’s farmers, for instance are constantly cheated out of a fair price for their paddy, because the rates are fixed to subsidise farmers of Pakistan and India, from where rice is exported.  It’s all about corruption and paying off commissions and not about lifting our farmers out of poverty, he added.  According to him, Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) is not the answer to halt the country’s downward economic trend; promoting local industry and doing away with the colossal amounts of commissions that are paid for every deal are issues that must be dealt with.

Unlike mainstream parties, which they alleged are spending Rs. 4 to 5 billion on their campaigns, the NPM has chosen a low-key path, where their message will be spread by word of mouth, without the use of posters and polythene.  Their manifesto is due to be made public after October 7th.

The NPM has drawn up its criterion to choose a candidate according to specifications outlined by all the leading members of the clergy; Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim.   General Senanayake was proud to claim that he met all of the specifications.  General Senanayake could have availed   himself of the usual perks and perhaps an ambassadorship on retirement, however, his conscience, he said, pricked him.   The country is in a mess, and he has seen that at close quarters, having held the post of Army Commander until very recently.  The country’s politicians are only interested in safeguarding themselves and their families, but “we are here to serve you and your families.”

But, he is man with a military background.  Would he be able to uphold democratic values if he becomes the president, or will he run the country with an iron glove, as a military establishment?  He allayed fears in that regard explaining that the Army is a structured environment unlike civilian organisations, and as a young officer up to the point of Major, one only commands men.  From the point of Lieutenant Colonel to General one manages men and resources. And that, he said has given him the experience of straddling both worlds.  Additionally, in peace times, the Army has been exposed to civilian organisations, worked on re-settlement and reconciliation issues, and is now popular with the people. “An army fights when there is a war, and works to prevent a war at other times, I have the benefit of having managed 200,000 personnel, that is a huge exposure.  The catchword is “discipline” to be a leader of quality and also being a good listener, if not, I would have failed as Commander” he explained.

This writer pointed out that the Executive Presidency comes with excessive powers, would he not be tempted towards a dictatorship, if things do not go his way. “Since 1978, the country has had civilian rulers, and they all abused the powers, it was not misused by the military’ he pointed out. “ I am working with a team, and while I need to contest the presidency through a party, I will divest myself of that, and be apolitical and independent.  That is the requirement of the President, so he/she has no group, political party or family to safeguard,’ he responded.

The General was questioned about his role during the Easter Sunday attacks by a media person who asked him why anyone should vote for him, when he did nothing to prevent the incident. He countered with a question, “who had the responsibility for law and order?’  The powers were not with the military. Once the military was deployed there has been no incident, he said adding that the armed forces have been given those responsibilities of late, with the issuance of a gazette notification, section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance, which allows them to assist the police in maintaining law and order in the country.

Fielding a question on the many investigations and recommendations regarding the many allegations of crimes against humanity in the run up to the end of the war, he stated that there have been many investigations since 2009, but, the recommendations have not been implemented.  At the minimum, he said, the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) should have been implemented.

Mr. Wijesinghe pointed out that it is essential that permanent secretaries are re-appointed to Ministries, instead of the current practice where ministers appoint their friends and family to those positions.  It’s a top heavy system, where a colossal amount of money is spent as salaries, when the country can run with much fewer personnel. During the October 2018 situation and even with many Provincial Councils currently standing dissolved, there has been no breakdown in the administrative system.

They explained that national security alone is not enough, but if the country is to get back its economic power, much needs to be done to alleviate poverty.

Mr. Wijesinghe is of the opinion that these systems could be rectified within months of General Senananyake becoming the President, as all necessary legislations are ready and only need to be implemented.  Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s parliamentarians shirk their duties, he said, and drag their feet over getting the necessary laws implemented.

The NPM and its allied groups are working with all Grama Sevaka divisions to ensure a win at the election and are confident that first time voters and the vast numbers who are disillusioned with mainstream politicians will back their cause of turning the country around through a new political culture.


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