by Camelia Nathaniel
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: During the previous Rajapaksa regime the UNP was very critical about the dependence on China for development projects. However, now why has the UNP done a complete turnaround and seeking China’s help?
A: We did not ever see China as a threat, enemy or a bad country. How we saw it was that the whole problem when it came to China was the way the previous regime dealt with them.
They did projects that were utter failures. For example, the Hambantota Port, Mattala Airport are all unprofitable ventures and according to media reports the Mattala Airport was making only around Rs. 16,000 a month. Similarly the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant was also one of those failed projects. However, we don’t say that China is failing for otherwise China can’t be a developed country.
The reason why we were opposing the Chinese projects was because of the investments that were done by the previous regime with China. The previous regime did not have a proper structural strategy, environmental reports or proper planning for these projects, which resulted in the failure of those projects. They just invested the country’s money, for loan after loan at 6%-8% interest.
Hence we were against that and not China or India. We don’t favour any particular country and Sri Lanka cannot isolate itself from the rest of the world, but that does not mean we have to sell ourselves to any country. The diplomatic ties we had with the rest of Asia were in jeopardy due to the manner in which the previous regime dealt with these countries.
Taking into consideration the geopolitical location of the country, we did not have a good relationship with India. Similarly we did not have a good relationship with Pakistan, Bangladesh or the Maldives for that matter. As a South East Asian country we were isolated in the region itself. As a whole the country was falling apart not just locally but internationally.
The United States was against us and a UN resolution was coming up and the EU banned our fishing trade and we lost the GSP Plus. In fact the country was going from bad to worse, due to the way the previous regime was handling the diplomatic ties. They were just counting only on China and were making the wrong decisions that we now have to pay for. So we did not blame the Chinese but of course the previous government was at fault as they are the ones who had the power to make decisions and they certainly made the wrong decisions.
As for us we have maintained good diplomatic relations with everyone and no country has let us down. Now Sri Lanka is not an isolated country anymore.
Q: With regard to borrowing, now your regime too has borrowed money from other countries and now the IMF. However, don’t these loans too, especially in the case of the IMF, come with many conditions, and will the people eventually not have to bear the burden?
A: This is very simple mathematics. IMF gives loans only when a country has the capacity to repay, and when they have an economical plan to develop the country. That is why when the IMF gives loans they come with a set of rules and regulations, as they don’t want the country to go bankrupt and default on the loans.
We had to take loans from India, etc. in order to repay the loans taken during the time of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. The country cannot move forward like this. We did not have a good industry and most of the industries were falling apart. The Katunayake FTZ had over 8,000 youth being employed and they were losing their jobs as big companies were shutting down and they were moving into India and Bangladesh. The country’s economy was hitting rock bottom.
Earlier Sri Lanka’s main exports were tea, coconut and rubber but now the world has changed and natural rubber is no longer used and synthetic rubber is used. Now most people worldwide drink cola in place of tea, and coconut oil is no longer used for health reasons. The world is changing and for the past 20 years there was no proper economic plan to develop the country. The previous regime gave all wrong statistics to mislead everyone. They were fooling the country and everyone.
Q: So does the good governance regime have a proper strategy to restructure and run the country’s economy?
A: Now we are trying to strategize and have a plan for the development of this country. When it comes to investments, we need infrastructure facilities and we have to provide these and the foreign investors need to see a safer country for them to come here confidently and invest.
In the past the previous regime even ran the national carrier SriLankan Airlines to the ground. Emirates was running it and the country had no benefit, and Emirates was holding 50% of its shares. Now it has been taken back but we had to pay Emirates that money. The previous regime was only interested in filling their pockets irrespective of what happens to the country.
Now we have a plan to get the investors to come here and invest. In order to do that we need to take loans as we can’t increase taxes any more. So we need to take loans at lower rates in order to develop the country to create a more conducive environment for investment. In the years to come, people will start seeing the fruits of our efforts.
Q: While the good governance regime criticised the previous regime on corruption, there still is rampant corruption taking place even in the current regime. What are you all doing to stop this corruption?
A: Now the law and order of the country has been restored. There is a huge difference between the past regime and the current good governance regime. Now we have established a Police, Bribery and Corruption Commissions, FCID, etc. We did not even have the democracy to criticise the government even if we knew the government was wrong. Under the previous regime if anyone criticised them, that would be the end of them.
We cannot completely wipe off certain corrupt officials. It’s not possible to clean up everything overnight, but we are working towards it. Things are moving towards restoring the country. Misuse of power is also corruption and during the past, this was the most rampant form of corruption.
We are not trying to justify even the minute corruption of our regime. But we are working towards wiping out corruption. We are trying to take this country forward cleaning up past mistakes. But everything takes time.