- Calls for genuine reconciliation and rebuilding along with greater national unity
- Proper legal action against widespread corruption
- Urgent constitutional and electoral reforms; hints next Parliament after general election
- will have to think of a new Constitution
- Says the interim Govt. has delivered thus far on its promises and some will take time
- Rs. 400 b payment pending as compensation for land acquisitions for highways; Estimates overall unpaid bills by Govt. to be Rs. 1 trillion
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday shared with editors and owners of media the list of immediate priorities for the country in the national interest, noting that the interim Government had thus far delivered results whilst some would take more time.
In his first formal interaction with the media since assuming duties as Prime Minister following the game-changing victory of common Opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena on 8 January, Wickremesinghe indicated that ensuring genuine and effective reconciliation and rebuilding of conflict-affected areas as well as the nation embracing national unity were immediate priorities.
“The dialogue among political parties is not sufficient. Genuine reconciliation needs to engage people. The best safeguard against a return of terror is political reconciliation supported by all people,” the Prime Minister said.
“In that context, every Sri Lankan must support national unity,” said Wickremesinghe, adding that the media too had an important role to play.
He said that the new Government successfully met the looming challenge of the UN Human Rights Commission taking up report on Sri Lanka at its March sessions in Geneva and a possible avoidance of economic sanctions. However, this was possible due to the commitment shown and early measures taken to ensure a more credible reconciliation process.
“If we were in power, we would have done it differently. However, since early January we have taken several measures as we are committed to restoring human rights, accountability and welfare of people affected by the conflict,” Wickremesinghe said.
He referred to the setting up of an Office for National Unity headed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga as well as retention of four international experts who were originally appointed to advice the Maxwell Paranagama-led Commission of Inquiry.
Calling for greater harmony, Wickremesinghe said the country needs to rethink. “If we can get together as a nation for cricket, then why not for national unity?” the Premier quipped.
He said that whilst stepping up engagement with the international community, fresh efforts were underway to draw key lessons from the South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, the learnings will be adapted to suit Sri Lanka’s cultural, social and political scenario.
Focusing on the second most important priority, the Prime Minster said there had been widespread corruption, with some charges levelled by the UNP as well as others. “However, more time is needed to take proper action. We are committed to ensure rule of law rather than rushing to lock up people,” Wickremesinghe added.
He also drew attention to the need for more skilled investigative and enforcement officers. Even after recent additions, the Bribery Commission has requested 100 more officers. The CID has also been tasked with some of the probes whilst a specialised Financial Crime Unit has been set up. “Some of the cases need expert forensic experts and we have sought expertise from the US, UK and India,” the Premier said.
“I am asking the country and people to give us time,” Wickremesinghe added.
He also said complaints of non-payment on Government contracts and projects were on the rise. “We are talking of tens of billions of rupees, not millions,” he said, adding that outstanding compensation payment on land acquisitions for highways alone amounted to a staggering Rs. 400 billion.
“Some have undertaken projects without signing contracts. We are prioritising payment on a specified basis. I believe the total unpaid bills could be as high as Rs. 1 trillion,” the Prime Minister disclosed.
Focusing on political reforms, he said that tabling of the 19th Amendment in Parliament was a major breakthrough and the Government would await further deliberations as well as the Supreme Court ruling on some of the amendments to determine whether a referendum is required or not.
“Our legal advice is that there won’t be a need for a referendum but we will await the Supreme Court opinion,” Wickremesinghe said.
It was pointed out that the emphasis was on a presidential system accountable to Parliament via the Cabinet of Ministers. For the time being, the President, apart from being Head of State and the Armed Forces, will also see Provincial Councils coming under him.
“People wanted a change and I am confident we will get the necessary support to see the 19th Amendment through,” the Prime Minister added.
He said that discussions were on with political parties on the appointment of suitable persons for independent commissions.
With regard to electoral reforms, the Prime Minister said further discussion and agreement was needed for a mixed system. “We will reach a consensus within the next 10 days and the changes will come in the form of the 20th Amendment,” said Wickremesinghe, who noted that the parties may consider opening up agreed electoral reforms for greater public discussion.
He said that the Government’s 100-day program had progressed well, with a host of measures to bring relief to the people via the Budget and other measures, tabling of the 19th Amendment and progress on electoral reforms. “The Opposition helped the process and I must thank them as well,” the Prime Minister added.
During his meeting with media heads and owners, the Premier, referring to the expanded National Government, also said that the Government and Opposition working together in the Cabinet was far more challenging than doing the same in Parliament.
Wickremesinghe was of the view that the term of the Interim Government would end in 100 days and dissolution of Parliament will be decided on thereafter. He opined that the country would have to consider a new Constitution after the general election to consolidate the ongoing reforms and good governance measures.
“It is likely that at the general elections, the political parties and/or their alliances will compete with each other, but we will get together post-election. In that context, the next Parliament will have to think of a new Constitution,” Wickremesinghe emphasised.
CBK to head Office of National Unity
Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga will head the proposed Office of National Unity to champion the cause and efforts for harmony as well as post-conflict reconciliation.
Govt. retains 4-member team of international experts
The Government has decided to retain the services of four internationally-renowned experts who were originally hired by the previous regime to advice the Commission of Inquiry to investigate allegations of war crimes by all parties to the conflict.
The UN Human Rights Commission deferred taking up the report on Sri Lanka during its March session to September. The hiring of four international advisors and their related work had been at a cost of over Rs. 300 million.
In 2014 July, amidst international pressure especially from the UNHRC, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa issued a proclamation appointing the international experts’ team to advice the Maxwell Paranagama-led Commission of Inquiry, whose term has been extended till 15 August this year.
Ranil not overly concerned over China impact
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday dismissed any serious concern on the impact an angry China would have on Sri Lanka following the temporary suspension of the Port City project and investigations into alleged corruption in some projects promoted or funded by it.
“I am not concerned because we are following the Chinese Communist Party and their fight against corruption. We respect China’s own political system and the same is expected from them on ours. We are answerable to our people,” Premier Wickremesinghe told a meeting of editors and owners of media houses.
He also said that Sri Lanka, given its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, would remain important. “No one can do anything against us, nor will we do anything against
others, except follow the law and proper procedures,” Wickremesinghe emphasised.
It was disclosed that specific concerns on environmental issues had been identified initially and responses from the Chinese side would be awaited. Several other concerns such as sewerage, accessibility and land space need further probe, the Prime Minister added.