While noting that successive governments had failed to safeguard the interests of the armed forces, National Peoples Movement (NPM) presidential candidate General (Rtd.) Mahesh Senanayake pointed out that national security was only one aspect of a president’s responsibilities.
“This is not only about national security. As the president of the country, there are so many areas that have to be given priority,” he said, adding that his only concern was the country and its people who have been fooled by politicians for the last 71 years since Independence.
Senanayake further said that while he respects fellow candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a fellow soldier, he does not respect anyone around him, since “they were the biggest rogues in the country five years ago and the people rejected them”.
Below are excerpts of his interview with The Sunday Morning:
You are a respected military officer and former Army Commander. Why enter politics and risk destroying that image?
That’s a very pertinent question that people ask me every day. Yes, till 18 August, people said that I was one of the most effective army commanders but after my retirement, when I spoke with my children, the youth of the nation, and when I met with the public, I realised what had happened to us in the past 71 years and what will happen in the future.
Somebody has to come out and take up leadership to safeguard the country from these so-called politicians. Earlier, it was terrorism or invasions by others, but today, the damage done to the nation by these politicians is vast. They have created a system that is failing miserably. Somebody has to come forward and I thought it was my responsibility and obligation to do so.
I gave up ambassadorship, my next appointments or promotions in the Government, and I decided to join with the professionals to bring a solution and change. I’m not worried about myself; I’m worried about the masses who have been fooled by the politicians for the last 71 years.
Internationally, the military continues to face allegations linked to human rights. How would you look to tackle this?
These are only allegations and nothing has been proven as yet. When a war is concluded, it is the responsibility of the government of the day to resolve this. But unfortunately, they neglected it and put our soldiers and officers in trouble.
Today, it is the Army and the troops that are suffering. Not the politicians. So when I became the Army Commander, I did my best to clear the officers but still, the existing Government and the previous Government did not contribute the way they should have. After the war, there were local commissions and inquiries and many recommendations were made but none of them were implemented. If it was implemented at that time, the situation would have been different 10 years down the line.
So when I become president, I will give priority to implement all the recommendations made by local commissions and if anyone in uniform is responsible for any wrongdoings during the war or after the war, action will be taken. That is for the sake of the country – not to look after any individuals.
When you were Army Commander, how were you influenced by politicians?
No. Even the President or Prime Minister did not interfere with the way that I was commanding the Army because we were a professional outfit and we exhibited our professionalism throughout. I know that people may be asking this question because of the actions of one of the ministers in the aftermath of the Easter bombings, but it was a total misrepresentation of what happened. One of the reporters had used an incorrect term which made it look like I was threatened, but it was merely a request and I answered accordingly.
Can you say that you, as Army Commander, had a clean record – so much so that you feel suitable to lead the nation?
Very much so. I’m the only qualified officer for that matter. I know there have been allegations made against me. Till 18 August, everybody commended me and noted that I had a good record but now people are saying that I’m unsuitable. Why do they make these allegations? Because they are scared and they never thought I would be a threat to their agenda of taking over power again. I refer to both parties.
Their equation has been challenged and that is why they are talking against me and not the other 30-odd candidates. I have a proven track record; I have served the nation; I have never run from the battlefield or the country. That leadership is still there and I can definitely be a servant to the nation again and not a politician.
What is your opinion on former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa contesting the election?
Personally, I have respect for him as a fellow soldier, but I do not respect anyone around him. They were the biggest rogues in the country five years ago and the people rejected them. Now they have come back with a new face seeking power. This is not acceptable and the people shouldn’t accept it.
Secondly, one-and-a-half years ago, we were talking about the Bond Scam. Now that group has come back with a new team. Both sides are rogues. That is the problem I’m here to solve.
There are allegations that most of the 33 alternative candidates, including yourself, are contesting to break the votes of the two main candidates or eventually back one of the two. Are you one of these dummy candidates?
No. I have been a four-star general and I have commanded a victorious army. So nobody can play with me or my policies. I’m here to gain votes, not to break votes. They are worried about breaking the votes. I’m interested in serving the public, not my family or friends. Even during this race or after, there is no way that me or my team would join hands with anyone from the existing major camps.
Some ex-military officers have backed Rajapaksa at this election. What is your take on that?
I’m also supported by many retired officers but this is not a battlefield. This is not only about national security. As the president of the country, there are so many areas that have to be given priority. It’s not my concern who these ex-military officers supporting Gotabaya or the other candidates are. I’m surrounded by more intellectuals and professionals. The question is – who have surrounded the other major candidates? The military is not the answer to everything.
What is your solution to the ethnic issue?
The ethnic issue didn’t exist till Independence. It is a creation of the politicians – the two parties that have been ruling. I’m coming out as an independent, impartial candidate. I’ll be the only person who can find the best solution for co-existence. I look at Sri Lanka as one. There is one family called Sri Lankans. In that, all other communities live as children while the Sinhala-Buddhists, as the majority, should act as the father figure of this society and look after their children equally. Then there will be no ethnic or religious problem.
Do you think you have a realistic chance of winning this election?
Yes. This is the time that everyone is saying that the 225 (parliamentarians) aren’t necessary and they should be sent home. The youth don’t have faith in the leadership and have no confidence. There are so many floating voters still deciding who to vote for. They don’t want to take the side of either camp. So a person like me coming with the support of civil society has a better chance. There are another 28-odd days to go so we must continue this struggle and bring gentlemen politics to society. My aim is to change the system and bring in a different political culture.
Were you involved in Nagananda Kodituwakku losing his candidacy?
I have met this gentleman in person only about four times. On several occasions we have spoken over the phone, but him losing his candidacy has nothing to do with me. I always say we must follow gentlemen politics. Him coming as a candidate is not a threat to me. But his own methodology of working would have kept him out of the race. I worked only with one party.
Assuming you lose this election, what next for Mahesh Senanayake?
Parliamentary election. We will continue this struggle. Why are we here? This is not my personal dream. We are here to change the system and bring in a new political culture to this country. At least when we contest, other major parties will become disciplined. Then you contest at the general election and have more intellectuals entering Parliament to take decisions and work for the nation.