By Santhush Fernando
The upcoming August 17 General Election would solidify the historic people’s revolution won on January 8 and the government-hopeful United National Front’s Five-fold Plan (Pancha Widha Kriyawaliya) gives the much-needed boost to make Sri Lanka a global knowledge economy, emphasized UNP Party Leader and United National Front for Good Governance prime min50isterial candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an interview with The Sunday Leader.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: How do you see the success rate of your government during the 100-Day Programme?
A: The 100-Day Programme has been mostly successful as we were able to kick start most of the initiatives envisioned in it. Of course some of its projects are long-term, the benefits of which we would see in the future. But I can say without any doubt that we were able to reduce the prices of essential goods and thereby cushion the burden of cost of living, which caused much hardship to the public. On the other hand, we were successful in increasing the income levels, especially of the farming community, to have more disposable income than ever before.
We were also able to create a more free and unhindered environment for people to live in. In the sphere of constitutional reforms, we have been able to pass the historic, much-needed 19th Amendment and thereby minimize the powers of the executive presidency and set up the Constitutional Council (CC). In order to tackle bribery and corruption we set up a number of strong mechanisms within such a short period. In fact I think it’s safe to say that we have accomplished much, much more in these 100 days what many governments could not achieve in even five years.
Q: What led to your party – the United National Party – which is the single largest political party in the country, to contest the forthcoming August 17 General Elections as the United National Front for Good Governance?
A: We united together on January 8 to set a revolution in motion. The whole world now recognized this transition as a people’s revolution. Then there arose a risk of Mahinda Rajapaksa regime being resurrected, within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and within the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). With this new situation, we had discussions with a number of parties and decided that there was not enough time to register a new political party – the United National Front – since an election had already been declared. As such the only viable option was to unite and contest under the United National Party as a temporary mechanism. I told all parties that this was merely a boat to cross the river of majority government.
Q: You were the pillar of strength behind President Maithripala Sirisena. Many charged that the President had betrayed the people’s mandate given to him on January 8. How do you feel about Mahinda Rajapaksa being given nominations by him?
A: My honest feeling is that Mahinda Rajapaksa, as a defeated president, should not have sought nominations in the first place. He broke this undeclared tradition. Although de-jure President Maithripala Sirisena was the leader of the SLFP/UPFA it was apparent that he did not command its majority. He was helpless at times. He had to make a hard decision on whether to allow the party to split. Thereafter, we took a conscious decision to go on our own.
For the first time in its history the SLFP/UPFA too has taken a baffling decision, by going against its own party leader. There was a group which wanted a return to the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime even at the height of breaking social norms and traditions.
In 2005, the party entered into an agreement with the LTTE Leader Prabhakaran, who attempted to assassinate one-time party leader President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in order to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa as president. They betrayed their party leader once, back in 2005 and again they have risen against their current party leader, i.e. President Maithripala Sirisena. So people will ask what morals and values the party has now.
Q: If that is so, do you believe that you can work with such a party in the future?
A: We will definitely muster a majority. There’s no question or doubt about that. But if we want to create the change, i.e. Constitutional reforms and we require the support of more parliamentarians, we need to discuss with the leader of the UPFA, who is President Maithripala Sirisena.
I think things will change after the election because the SLFP/UPFA will have to respect the people’s choice. Actually it’s up to that party to set the party straight. But we would like to ask whether it is really the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, when they go against their own leader.
We can work together if we have political consensus. This lack of working together was not a problem for us but in fact for the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. He took UNP members in hordes into the UPFA fold which ultimately led to his defeat.
Q: Time and again, some have raised concerns that coalition governments are unable to create long-term stability. In such a situation how do you hope to bring in stability?
A: We will introduce a brand new Constitution, doing away with the current Preferential Voting System and replace it with a Hybrid System of the Proportional Representation System and the First-Past-the-Post System, similar to what has already been proposed.
We want to introduce the Committee System, where all MPs can get involved in ruling the country. It will be headed by a chairperson whilst heads of District Development Committees would also be included in this system. So all 224 Parliamentarians (sans the Speaker) will be directly involved in ruling the country under a new consensus democracy or consociational political model, the same way Lichchavis ruled. This will be a brand new concept.
Through the 19th Amendment we have imposed a ceiling on the number of MPs who can be absorbed to the Cabinet of Ministers and limited it to 30. However, if the two majority parties form a national government, such a Cabinet can exceed this number if the Parliament decides so.
Q: Despite the defeat of the LTTE, some have charged that the country is still in an insecure state. What is your response?
A: How can the country be insecure now? We all know that the whole country was in a very insecure state during the Rajapaksa tenure. If we were able to ensure security having a minority government within a mere 100 days all the while, we will definitely ensure national security when we set up a majority government.
Q: We see that your main contender this time is a two-time president. How do you view this contest?
A: My main contender has to be the prime ministerial candidate of the UPFA. Is there one? No! So there’s no contender for me. The UNP, of course, has a contender which is the UPFA, but I don’t have one as that party has not named anyone as prime ministerial candidate.
Q: Another major criticism raised during the last six months was that although the UNP swore to bring perpetrators of corruption and nepotism to book, it had failed to do so. Do you agree?
A: No. We will only work in accordance with the law. Our first challenge was to set up bodies to investigate into and prosecute charges of bribery and corruption. Even vacancies of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption have not been filled and the Commission was severely understaffed. Now we have gathered a number of investigating officers and arranged them to be trained by experts in the field from India, United Kingdom and United States of America. Already investigations into 150 such charges have commenced although the current workforce is inadequate to conduct these 150 probes.
Where there was adequate evidence, we pursued the due process. Yet some have petitioned Courts and have obtained restraining orders against such probes. As such some of these investigations will take time but hopefully in due time, we expect the Courts to clear the way around September or October.
However, there’s no protection accorded to by law for perpetrators of crimes and corruption, even if they are parliamentarians. All are entitled for protection under rule of law but cannot hide behind power and go scot free. Under the previous regime, there was no rule of law but we have restored law and order now.
Although some claim that KP (Kumaran Pathmanathan of the LTTE) and RADA (Reconstruction and Development Agency) will be investigated, as a Supreme Court order has been issued, no arrests will be made pertaining to alleged misappropriations of RADA till September.
Q: The 30th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is scheduled for September 2015 where the report on Sri Lanka would be taken up. How do you hope to respond to this report?
A: Once the Geneva Report (on the investigation carried out by the UNHRC) is made public, we will come out with our stance. As far as I know, the report is to be presented during the upcoming UNHRC session.
We have firmly stood by the premise that no international probe can be initiated since we are not a signatory to the Rome Statute and so we will have our own domestic mechanism instead. Unfortunately in 2009, Sri Lanka moved for a resolution at UNHRC and in addition came to a consensus with the Secretary General of the United Nations to the effect that Sri Lanka could be subject to an international probe. That time, the main requirement for an international probe was that the independence of the judiciary in our country was compromised and no one had faith in it. But our stand is that since Sri Lanka has an independent judiciary, we will work according to the domestic judicial procedure and not a foreign one.
I have saved Mahinda Rajapaksa from the electric chair and ICC (International Criminal Court) since we have not signed Rome Statute. He should always be grateful to me for that. No one can take our soldiers to ICC. But wherever a soldier commits a crime and an issue pertaining to the reputation of our armed forces, it is an offence punishable both under our domestic common law system as well as the military law. Therefore we don’t need ICC or any international probe.
Q: The issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen encroaching into Sri Lankan waters seems to have aggravated. How do you hope to resolve this issue with India?
A: This problem had been there always, during the time of many governments. However, we couldn’t curb this due to the ongoing war at the time. However, when I became Prime Minister in 2001, I took steps to curb LTTE’s naval activities.
We are still in the process of negotiating with Indian authorities. The Indian government requested that grace periods of two to three years be given for Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters until Indian boats are modernized and fish stocks in Indian waters are replenished). We have expressed that we may be agreeable if our fishing communities are OK with it but we have firmly emphasized that bottom trawling should be stopped. The rest of the issues can be negotiated. Sri Lankan fishermen have informed us that they too are agreeable for a grace period if their Indians counterparts abstain from bottom trawling. We must remember that both communities of fishermen are relatives separated by the Palk Strait. In fact former Indian President Dr Abdul Kalam told me that although he lived in Rameswaram, he has relatives in Sri Lanka!
Q: The European Union has been our main trading partner. Two issues that have hampered our foreign trade with EU is the withdrawal of GSP Plus concessions to Sri Lanka and the EU ban imposed on our fisheries exports. Are there any efforts to get these restrictions lifted and boost our trade?
A: We have taken steps to comply with fisheries regulations of the European Union. In fact we believe we have achieved much progress and expect a positive outcome when the next EU team arrives in September. Vessel Management Systems have to be installed in order to find the locations of fishing boats. We hope that majority would be equipped by September.
Also we hope that GSP Plus concession would be restored and extended to Sri Lanka by 2016 since we have taken many steps towards restoring democracy. We need the European Union and the GSP Plus.
Q: You are renowned as a clean statesman. However, President Sirisena in his address to the nation stated that he instructed you to request Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran to step down pending an inquiry. Why did you not try to absolve yourself by ordering the governor to resign?
A: Media threw this question to President Maithripala Sirisena. We appointed a committee to look into this and found him, i.e. Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran innocent. In addition, a Fundamental Rights Application was filed in the Supreme Court in this regard and was dismissed. So there’s absolutely no basis to proceed against the Governor. Parliamentary Select Committee pursuing this matter could not complete this process. That’s why I said a Parliamentary Select Committee would be appointed by the next Parliament to look into this. If we get a ruling from that, PSC we can proceed with it. How can we proceed since even I could not be called in to give evidence?
We must remember that many discrepancies happened during the tenure of the previous governor. First issue is that the company in question, Perpetual Treasuries, was issued with the licence around 2013 by the then Governor Ajith Nivad Cabraal when his own sister was a Director of the said company. At the time, when this particular incident took place too, she remained on the board of directors. So the question arises as to whether there was a leak of sensitive information and if so who were the culprits. The Parliament should look into this. Another issue was the forced buyout of troubled finance companies by the Central Bank. There are lots of such issues that need to be investigated. On the other hand it was this Governor who raised the monies needed for the 100-Day Programme. If foreign investors did not have faith in the Governor, would they invest in us?
Q: Why did you offer the position of Central Bank Governor to a person with a citizenship of another country?
A: He is not a foreigner but a Sri Lankan. There are lots of persons who obtained foreign citizenships during the Rajapaksa regime. In fact, even Gotabaya Rajapaksa was made Defence Secretary whilst being a citizen of a foreign country and later on only he obtained dual citizenship. The citizens of the United States are required to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law. Even a former citizen is still liable under US laws even after the citizenship had lapsed. For instance, if at all there is a war between US and Sri Lanka, he, i.e. former Defence Secretary, will have to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; and bear true faith and allegiance to the same.
Q: The whole political arena has become a hotbed for plutocracy, corruption, kleptocracy and nepotism. What do you think has led Sri Lankan politics to such a sorry state?
A: One reason is the Preferential System which had its systemic failures. In 2005 when President Rajapaksa took over, our legal and judicial system was operating well. But of course the Rajapaksa regime empowered the drug peddlers, ethanol smugglers, etc. The whole system fell apart. By the time of the next Provincial Council Elections and the 2010 General Election, hordes of these criminals were brought in. However, now these perpetrators are being brought before the law.
Q: In your view, what are the burning issues of our country that have to be addressed immediately?
A: First and foremost we need to address the national issue. We need to create harmony amongst all ethnicities – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers and amongst all religious groups. Education system has collapsed. We will create a total paradigm shift within the education system. To make 13 years of school education mandatory, open up new vistas in vocational training, develop university education, increase funding for education and employment generation.
Q: How do you hope to reinvigorate our foreign policy, which has come under heavy criticism?
A: Our foreign policy is to have cordial relationships with all nations. We have already seen benefits. From India to China to United States to Japan to South Korea, all countries have accepted this change. However, due to politicization, our foreign service is now in tatters and it will take at least a decade to uplift our diplomatic corps. Lots of talented diplomats have unfortunately left the service. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has already requested for training and technical assistance from Singapore.
Q: What would be the slogan for your campaign?
A: We will seek a mandate for our manifesto – Five-fold Plan, which is a development master plan with a five-year horizon. There’s no point in giving election-centered promises. We had immense success with the 100 days programme. Likewise this five-year programme will help us to develop our economy creating one million job opportunities. We are asking for a social mandate to create the necessary economic and legal framework for growth. My message to the people of this country is give us the majority we need to make the change you want to see in our nation by solidifying the people’s revolution we experienced on January 8, and we will deliver the goods.