The rustic mansion along Colombo’s Gregory’s Road, a stone’s throw away from the British High Commission, has been home for some of Sri Lanka’s colourful personalities of recent times.
It was the official residence for one of the country’s illustrious Foreign Ministers, the late Lakshman Kadirgamar. Maithripala Sirisena, the then Minister of Health, lived there after the assassination of Kadirgamar in 2005. He continued to remain there for many months after being elected President in January last year. The building has been transformed over the years into a luxury abode.
The front room at the main entrance, now with a marble floor, has seen the making of history on many occasions. Some crucial foreign policy decisions were made here. It was here that President Sirisena together with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sat together to choose the Cabinet of Ministers of the United National Front (UNF) Government.
The mansion is now the official residence of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. As I sat in the front room talking to him, there were streams of visitors. A family walked in with two brass caskets (heppuwa) of betel leaves covered by white cloth. They presented it to him at the auspicious hour of 10.06 a.m. That was to invite him for a wedding.
Just two days before, he had addressed a news conference exclusively for Tamil journalists. There, he declared that Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran was not a racist and agreed that those (suspected of LTTE connections) not facing charges, now in jails, should be released. The event was organised by his former Tamil Media Co-ordinator Ramswamy Sivaraja, a former journalist, who had been recalled after he ended a two-year stint at the Sri Lanka Embassy in Berlin, Germany. His appeals for extension of service, supported by two leading Tamil political leaders, had been rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Rajapaksa is now the de facto leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) group opposed to President Maithripala Sirisena, the leader of the SLFP. His group which has the blessings of the ‘Joint Opposition’, has embarked on the creation of a new political entity. They are focused on causing a dent in the Government’s popularity, just ahead of the proposed local government elections and the planned referendum once a new Constitution is formulated. It is no secret that Rajapaksa and his allies are drawing crowds at public rallies, a key element in moves to form a new political party. Yet, Rajapaksa is downplaying this aspect though many measures make it clear that the new party is the ultimate goal.
“My biggest mistake,” for the defeat at last year’s presidential election was “in not recognising the traitors around me,” he told the Sunday Times. He charged that they were “in league with various foreign agents and working hand in glove with our political enemies.” Rajapaksa revealed that he “failed to rein in certain elements who with the support from certain foreign powers and help from within my Government were out in the streets creating disturbances and driving wedges between religious and ethnic communities.”
“When we discussed in Cabinet taking action against the artificial creation of ethnic and religious tensions,” Rajapaksa disclosed that “one Minister stood up and said he would bring members of the Maha Sanghaout onto the streets in their thousands if we took action against these trouble makers with suspicious foreign connections.” Rajapaksa then made a startling confession: “I allowed myself to be blackmailed into inaction by such threats.” The remarks were a veiled admission by him that he acknowledged the minority communities, under threat, voted against him.
Rajapaksa said, “We now see that this particular Minister was all along in league with our enemies and after having destabilised my Government using his acolytes, switched allegiance to the other side”. He added that the “perpetrators and the victims of the street disturbances that took place after 2012 are all on the same side, against me. Asked to identify the Minister, he declined.
He alleged that the “change of Government was the result of a grand conspiracy.” He explained; “On the one hand were the street disturbances meant to polarise various ethnic and religious communities and to change their voting pattern. Then there was an unprecedented campaign of slander and vilification against me, my family and my Government over websites and the social media. One of the biggest mistakes I made was in not responding promptly to these wild allegations. Because there wasn’t an adequate response from my side, quite a number of people may have believed that there was some substance in those allegations. There were many shortcomings of that nature in my Government. This was why our enemies were able to get the upper hand. But I would like to point out that even though my enemies were skilled at conspiracies and manipulation, they cannot govern.”
Rajapaksa was non-committal about the formation of a new political party. “A political party is merely a legal framework. Does anybody remember the political party through which President Sirisena contested the last presidential election,” he asked. He said, “Everyone remembers the Swan symbol, but not the party. He argued that “what is important is not the political party but the people.” He declared that “what we want to do is build a national consensus to oppose the anti-national, anti-people policies of this Government.”
Yesterday’s meeting in Ratnapura was meant to “highlight several issues including the increase in VAT, increase in the price of fertilizer, the plan to sign the ETCA with India, the imprisonment of our war heroes, the harassment of opposition politicians, and the intimidation of media among many others.” He said the objective was to build public awareness about the issues.
Here are edited highlights of answers Rajapaksa gave to questions posed by the Sunday Times:
THE CRUX OF HIS PROBLEM WITH THE SLFP LEADERSHIP: The present leadership of the SLFP is in a coalition government with the UNP. We, however, have opted to remain in the Opposition. That is the main point of departure. My belief is that our founding leader the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and my father the late D.A. Rajapaksa did not leave the UNP to form the SLFP in order to see the SLFP once again becoming a tail of the UNP. Going by what President Sirisena said at the first anniversary celebrations of the UNP-SLFP coalition government held in Matara and also at the UNP’s 70th Anniversary celebrations at Campbell Park, this marriage between the UNP and the SLFP is set to continue indefinitely. The policies of the SLFP are not compatible with those of the UNP. However the party that makes policy decisions in this ruling coalition is the UNP with the SLFP playing a subordinate role.
In January 2015 when the SLFP-led UPFA had more than 150 seats in Parliament, the post of Prime Minister was given to the UNP which had about 46 seats. Then the local government institutions – the vast majority of which were under SLFP control – were dissolved without being given an extension which is provided for in the law. Then when it came to the parliamentary elections the leader of the SLFP acted in such a manner as to deliberately undermine the campaign of the UPFA by writing open letters saying that I would not be appointed Prime Minister even if the UPFA won, and sacking the General Secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA just before polling day. When the General Secretaries of one of the two main political parties are sacked just before polling begins, can that be called a free and fair election? The present SLFP leadership has consistently acted in a manner designed to subordinate the SLFP to the UNP.
ON CURRENT DIVISIONS BIFURCATING THE SLFP: The SLFP is already bifurcated with one part of it serving in the Government and the other remaining with the opposition. We have to understand that people always divide as pro-government and pro-opposition at elections. If the Government is popular it will win the elections, if it is unpopular the Opposition wins. The UNP is not going to gain anything even if the SLFP splits because the part of the SLFP that is in a coalition with the UNP is seen as a part of the Government. Those who are happy with what the Government is doing will vote for it. Those who are not happy with the Government will vote against it. Party names don’t count anymore.
MAIN ISSUES FACING THE COUNTRY: There are more issues than we can keep track of. One is at a loss to figure out where to begin. We are in the midst of a comprehensive political and economic crisis created by this Government. At the political level, what we have in this country now is a Yahapalanadictatorship. Both the parliamentary government and the official positions in the parliamentary Opposition are dominated by partners of the Yahapalana conspiracy. Despite having 51 MPs, the Joint Opposition is not recognised by the Yahapalana Speaker as the legitimate Opposition. We have never before had a situation where the legitimate Opposition has been suppressed in this manner. Then there is the reign of terror launched against Opposition MPs. The media are being harassed with the Prime Minister openly threatening journalists and media organisations. The owners of media organisations are being pressurised in various ways.
The Government tinkered with the fertiliser subsidy and now the prices of fertiliser have doubled. The application of fertiliser has halved in some sectors such as tea smallholdings. Then they fiddled around with the distribution of the school uniforms and that created problems. They tried to cut down on the duty free vehicle permits for government servants and that gave rise to protests. They tried to replace the Customs Ordinance with a new law and that led to a work to rule campaign and demonstrations by Customs officials. There is unrest in the Inland Revenue Department, in the Excise Department, the Labour Department, among plantation workers, school teachers, the university students are up in arms over changes made to the university admissions policy. There are problems everywhere. The budget 2016 was a total mess. The proposed changes to the VAT have run into a lot of controversy and once these reforms are passed there will be immediate all round price increases giving rise to even more problems. Commodity prices all over the world are declining but in Sri Lanka the prices of everything will be going up because of Government taxes.
The Government stopped work on the main development projects that we had initiated as soon as they came into power and that shook investor confidence in this country. Foreign investors started exiting the bond market and the stock market. In a situation where even Britain was seeking Chinese investments, the new Government in Sri Lanka was openly insulting China and even halting Chinese-funded projects. That alone was enough to frighten away foreign investors. The next major folly was the unaffordable concessions that were given to win the last parliamentary elections. This led to a massive shortfall of Government revenue to meet the increased expenditure and led to increased borrowings.
Since January 2015, we have borrowed USD 10.5 billion in foreign loans alone. The Forbes magazine reported that since the Yahapalana Government came into power, domestic debt has increased by 12% and foreign borrowings by 25% without initiating any major development projects. When I was voted out of office, foreign reserves were USD 8.2 billion now they are down to USD 6.2 billion. One of your group newspapers reported that we are now among the slowest growing economies in South Asia. When I was in power we were the fastest growing economy in South Asia. That’s where we are now.
ON HIS REFERENCE AT A MEETING IN WELIGAMA TO A COMPANY THAT HAD MADE AN UNPRECEDENTED PROFIT OF RS. 5.2 BILLION. HE SAID A FURTHER AMOUNT OF RS. 2.5 BILLION IS YET TO BE DISCLOSED: The entire financial system of the country has been shaken by the fact that a company that was at the centre of a major controversy over a bond issue made by the Central Bank would report profits that exceed even that of some major banks. This company was set up only in 2013. Now the Auditor General is reported to have reconfirmed a loss of Rs. 1.6 billion from the bond issue made in February 2015. And that was only one transaction.
In the case of allegations against members of the Joint Opposition, you will see that there is a clear difference in the allegations that were made before the elections and the investigations now being carried out. Before the last presidential election, people were talking about bribes and kickbacks amounting to billions of rupees but the investigations being carried out now are over the alleged misuse of cars, passports, carom boards bought and distributed by the CWE and other such minor matters. But the corruption that has already come to light in relation to the YahapalanaGovernment all involves billions of rupees. Take the bond scam and the coal tender for example. These are matters that have been scrutinised and confirmed by COPE and even the Supreme Court.
ON ACCUSATIONS THAT HE RAN DOWN THE ECONOMY WITH LOANS FOR EGOISTIC PROJECTS: What are these egoistic projects? The most expensive project completed during my tenure is the Norochcholai power plant. It has paid for itself and is rendering enormous service to the economy. All the highways I built are making money every day and will continue to earn revenue in ever increasing amounts so long as the country exists. The only problem is with the Mattala airport. The Hambantota harbour is picking up with revenue increasing by large amounts year by year. These are long term projects which need longer gestation periods. Nobody expected the Mahaweli project to produce results in two or three years after it was completed.
Likewise, a second harbour and a second airport need time to produce results. My Government was not in power long enough to take things to the next level. What we had planned was a new economic zone centred in Hambantota and extending throughout the East coast. New industries had to be set up, the railway line had to be completed to bring people and raw material to that area. But what has the present Government done? It has once again focussed on the Western province. Our policy was to correct the imbalance between the Western province and the other provinces by taking investment and jobs to areas like Hambantota and the East coast to create another population centre and a development zone. We are now a nation with a population of 20 million and we need another population centre and another economic zone instead of everyone converging on the Western province as has been happening over the past century. If this Western province centred policy continues for a few decades more, there will be a huge development imbalance in the country. Politicians should think of the future also, not just of the present.
ON MAKING ENEMIES WITH THE WEST AND THE RESULTANT UNHRC RESOLUTION; As for making enemies of the West, certain Western countries wanted us to stop the war against the LTTE and I refused. That was why they fell out with us. If I had caved into their pressure and allowed the LTTE to exist, the Western powers would all have been my friends. The UN Human Rights Council did pass resolutions against Sri Lanka during my tenure. However, nobody should be under the illusion that voting in the UNHRC is free and fair. The powerful Western countries twist the arms of smaller and weaker nations to get them to vote even against their conscience. On every occasion that resolutions were passed against Sri Lanka, the Obama administration was able to get a certain number of countries to refrain from voting. That is what enabled the resolutions to be passed because the votes not cast are not taken into account. If we go into the records of the UNHRC, we will see that all those countries that refrained from voting made speeches in Sri Lanka’s favour and then refrained from voting – which was their way of indicating that they were refraining from voting in favour of Sri Lanka only under duress.
This was the international fallout from our decision to defeat the LTTE. In many Western countries, Tamil Diaspora members can manipulate politicians by delivering block votes in marginal constituencies. You obviously know about the famous Wikileaks revelation of a dispatch that an American Embassy official wrote after meeting a British official in Sri Lanka where the latter had said that David Miliband spent 40% of his time on the Sri Lankan issue in 2009 because the elections were coming up. We can’t cave into that kind of pressure coming from overseas and expect to rule a country. I ruled the country on behalf of the people of Sri Lanka not for politicians in Western countries to win elections. Some Western nations were angered by my decision to defeat the LTTE. But the people of this country will agree that if antagonising the West was the price we had to pay for defeating the LTTE, it was still worth it.
ON ONGOING INVESTIGATIONS INTO MATTERS CONNECTED TO HIS FAMILY AND SUPPORTERS:These are investigations into fabricated charges. This is why a special police unit called the FCID (Financial Crimes Investigation Division) is being used for these investigations. The Police had a Fraud Bureau. Then there was the Bribery Commission. But the Yahapalana Government set up a special police unit to investigate matters referred to them by a special committee of Cabinet Ministers and political appointees headed by the Prime Minister. This is a politically orchestrated witch-hunt against the opposition.
ON HIS NEPHEW, FORMER AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA, UDAYANGA WEERATUNGA ABSCONDING FROM AN INQUIRY: I don’t think he is absconding from any legitimate inquiry. Everything in the so-called inquiry where his name has been mentioned in relation to, has been gone into over and again. This has been the subject of litigation even in the District Court of Mt Lavinia and that Court is in possession of all the relevant documentation. Anyway, Udayanga Weeratunga has made his position clear. Since the Government is out on a witch-hunt against members of my Government he has said openly in a media release that he considers it his bounden duty to see to it that the Government goes through the maximum trouble and effort to carry out that witch-hunt.
HIS VIEWS ON SLFP CABINET MINISTERS JOINING THE GOVERNMENT TO ESCAPE PROSECUTIONS: It is only too obvious that these so-called inquiries against members of my family and close supporters are politically motivated. There was a bond scam at the Central Bank last year. Then there was the great coal tender scam this year. There are allegations about ministers taking buildings at highly inflated rents. There are allegations about paddy stocks being sold for a song but there are no inquiries into those allegations. The only people who are being hauled before the FCID are members of the Joint Opposition.
ON WHETHER THERE HAVE BEEN OVERTURES TO RE-UNIFY THE SRI LANKA FREEDOM PARTY: Various overtures have been made. However the sticking point always has been the fact that one part of the SLFP is in a coalition government with the UNP. That is not a situation that we can countenance under any circumstances. We don’t want to have anything to do with the UNP Government. I would like to remind members of the SLFP who are serving in this Government that the name of the political party does not matter. Those who are happy with the Government will vote for it. Those who are disgruntled will vote for the Opposition. I would like to ask all members of the SLFP in the Government to inquire around and see whether the people are happy with this Government. I would advise them to get out of that sinking ship while there is still time.”
Rajapaksa vowed that he would not quit politics and will “continue to serve the people”, no matter what obstacles were placed. “They will not deter me,” he declared. His assertions, some of them for the first time, make clear the opposition groups are set to exploit the lapses and shortcomings in the Government. Paradoxical enough, such a move comes at a time when the Government has not put in place a cohesive mechanism to keep the public informed on matters relating to various issues including perceptions that bribery and corruption are on the steady increase. The only exception appears to be a weekly media briefing that follows the meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers. Here again, it centres mainly on the discussions and decisions made by ministers at their weekly meeting, and often the personal views of the spokesperson.
Quite clearly, the void that exists is being exploited by the Opposition. One glaring area where the public who voted the Government are deprived of information is the investigations into allegations of bribery, corruption and other malpractices. Thus, only when statements are recorded or when suspects are produced before courts does one become aware. Otherwise, a veil of silence and secrecy prevails and public uneasiness is growing.