- Country is in a dire predicament
- Prorogation of Parliament not appropriate at this hour
- Ready to support Govt. to get out of this mess
Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Gayantha Karunatilake, in an interview with the Daily Mirror, responds to questions about the present economic plight of the country, prorogation of Parliament and the conduct of MPs in the House.
Q When talking about the current precarious situation of the country, some people blame the inefficiency of the government for it. The government, instead blames the pandemic. What are your views as an opposition MP?
The economy is in a dangerous crisis. Everybody feels the pinch of it. Youth are queuing up to get their passports to leave the country. Instead of being a country that has amazing resources for living, Sri Lanka has become a country for people to abandon it and leave.
Q The government attributes the whole crisis to the pandemic-induced reasons. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t see it as a phenomenon of the way the country was governed for 73 years in the post-independence period by the two main parties one after another. There would have been shortcomings in the modes of governance adopted by these two parties. Instead, the Rajapaksa administration should be held responsible for the present plight of the country. What we witness today is the economic downfall triggered by the Rajapaksa rule that started back in 2005. They depended on foreign borrowings to carry out development projects which are nothing but mere eyewash. We can cite the Hambantota port, the Sooriyawewa cricket stadium, the Hambantota conference hall and the Lotus Tower as examples. They borrowed to implement these projects.
That is the reason for the current crisis. We have to raise loans even for debt servicing. None of these projects is yielding. The Lotus Tower is not even ready to be open for people to watch from it at least. It has been made compulsory to bring in imported vehicles only through the Hambantota port. If an aircraft lands at the Mattala airport, it will be as rare an event that the media would cover. They made borrowings at exorbitant rates. They went to burrow from the EXIM Bank of China. They did not go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) instead.
For example, Japan offered to construct the light rail project. The interest for repayment of the loan was minimal. There was an extended grace period. But, the Rajapaksa rule did not like the project. They only go for projects which give them underhand benefits. If a highway is built linking Colombo with Malabe, it would only benefit the motorists. But, a light rail project would have brought a great deal of benefit for ordinary citizens who don’t own vehicles.
Q But, the political party you represented also governed this country from 2015 to 2019. You were a cabinet minister in it. Aren’t you also responsible for not correcting the situation?
I am trying to press home the point that the Rajapaksa regime is responsible for the present economic woes. It is not the 73-year post-independence governing model adopted by either party, but the only Rajapaksa rule that depended on high interest loans is held responsible for the economic mess. We took loans for the Mahaweli accelerated development project. It was granted on a concessionary basis. It was not a white elephant. Those loans have now been settled. Besides, people enjoy lots of benefits from that now. The government gave tax concessions only to its lackeys. We know there were frauds related to the imports of sugar and antigen test kits under this government.
Q The country is facing a foreign exchange crisis. The government says all the foreign exchange sources – tourism and remittances from foreign employment – have been curtailed due to the pandemic. How do you agree with it?
They say all the foreign exchange sources have been blocked. During the time of crisis, the apparel industry has been the main source of foreign revenue earning. It is an industry developed by the UNP government after the introduction of open market economy in 1978. When we talk about it, we cannot forget our then President, the late Ranasinghe Premadasa. Today, the apparel sector keeps functioning. The government could not afford to close its operation even during the pandemic. Tourism has been hit by the pandemic. Tourism was also a brainchild of our late leader J.R. Jayewardene when he was in the Dudley Senanayake government. The first tourist hotel was opened by him in Bentara where I hail from. The then opposition was critical over it. They said these hotels would be converted into hospitals once they got back to power.
All the foreign exchange earning sectors were introduced by our parties. They ridiculed the garment industry saying it was meant for making underpants for white women. But, today it is one of the major foreign exchange earners.
Q There is an argument by some economists that the present balance of payment crisis is a phenomenon created by open economy policy in 1978. They say it is a result of Sri Lankans consuming more than what they manufacture. Can you share your views?
In my previous answer, I meant to negate that argument. There may be shortcomings. It is natural to have shortcomings as far as any project is concerned. The successive governments never did away with the open market economic model. The Chandrika Bandaranaike government, in fact said the open market system would be given a human face.
Then President J.R. Jayewardene opened the economy even before India. It was the best model at that time. Before that, we experienced queues to get foodstuff. We are now heading backwards to the same dark era. People gave a mandate for the introduction of such a model in 1977.
At that time, people had to queue up to buy even a vehicle tyre. People waited in queues for long hours to buy a piece of cloth from cooperative outlets. Sugar was rationed. Rice could not be transported from one area to another. We are heading towards the same system again. The younger generation is unaware of such hardships. But, we experienced it.
Q How do you see the prorogation of Parliament…?
Even Government MP Anura Priyadarshana Yapa said it was surprising that Parliament was prorogued at a normal time like this. Parliament is the platform for public voice to be represented. Today, parliament has been prorogued. Most government Ministers have gone abroad. Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa is also out of the country. He has gone to his motherland. Parliament has been prorogued as a step to suppress public voice being raised. If Parliament had not been prorogued, we could have asked about the payment of US$ 6.7 million to China in the fertilizer transaction.
Whose money is spent for this even before receiving the consignment?
Why did they open the Letters of Credit (LC) without testing the quality of the product manufactured by the Chinese company? Today, People’s Bank has been blacklisted as a result. Our credibility has suffered. Those responsible for this improper transaction should be punished. People need to know about this.
Today Sri Lankans cannot use their credit cards abroad. Parents cannot send money to their children studying abroad. The country has no foreign exchange to import pharmaceuticals and essential foods.
We have only one billion US dollars left in our reserves.
Q Are you asking the government to approach the IMF for a bail out?
The government’s stubborn, arrogant attitude led to the worsening of the economic crisis. We are ready to support the government to come out of it. We, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), are ready for it though we are critical of the government’s way of handling the issues. As a responsible opposition, we point out what should be done.
The opposition leader asked the foreign envoys to help Sri Lanka to come out of this crisis whenever he met them. Ours is not an opposition carrying tales to the world. Today, we see reports about striking a deal with the IMF. It is not something for the government to keep pondering so much. Had the government gone before the IMF earlier, the issues would not have gone to this extent. It was an advice given by economists. Now the government is in a dire predicament being unable to settle loans.
Q You now serve in a committee appointed by Parliament to look into the conduct of MPs. Physical exchanges have been reported among MPs at times over the years under different governments. How are you going to address it?
I have served in Parliament for 21 years. Before that, I was privy to parliamentary affairs because my paternal uncle served in Parliament between 1977 and 2000. I have been in the House since 2000. I am someone who observed parliamentary proceedings from my school days. I have served as a backbencher and a middle level member. Now, I am a front-liner. Also, I remained as the Chief Government Whip in the past under a coalition government. For a few months, I was also the Chief Opposition Whip. I am aware of parliamentary procedures.
I noticed heated arguments across the political divide. They sometimes lead to tense situations. Physical exchanges were something rare. One such incident took place during the 52-day government. We saw how chairs were smashed, books hurled at others and chili powder was sprayed. Our MP Gamini Jayawickrama Perera had to seek treatment. Even microphones fixed on desks were forcibly removed. The then Speaker faced the situation with much difficulty. It is a question that action was not taken at that time. Action should have been taken at that time.
I regret the latest incident. I believe there has to be some restraint in exchanging verbal arguments. I never condone mudslinging. We all should exercise discipline. In the latest case, even those holding responsible positions crossed the floor to instigate near violence when one of our MPs came to the Speaker to question something. But, some from the other side crossed the floor and started threatening him. It led to the chaos afterwards. Parliament is not a place to show muscle superiority.