- 20th Amendment is what we broadly campaigned for in 2015
- MR has no moral right to seek office again
- Government is run on Buddhist principles
Public Enterprise Development Minister Lakshman Kiriella, in an interview with the spoke about the current status of politics in the country, the possibly candidacy of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the financial position of SriLankan Airlines. Excerpts:
Q What is your opinion on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa trying to obtain legal clearance to contest the presidency again?
Mahinda Rajapaksa has no moral right to seek office again. He conducted elections in 2015, two yeas in advance because he could not govern the country. He cannot contest again. According to the 19th Amendment, it is very clear. Mahinda Rajapaksa had a role to play. He played that role. That was in crushing the Tigers which was a long-felt need. That was his role in the country’s history. He is not a person who can initiate economic development in the country. He was unable to bring democracy and ensure human rights in Sri Lanka. Why did he have elections in 2015? If his Government had remained, Sri Lanka would have faced economic sanctions. When I was in the opposition, I was the shadow minister for foreign affairs. I used to follow these international developments very closely. If Mahinda had won in 2015, by March of that year, you would have faced sanctions.
Q You mean it has retrospective effect in that sense?
Yes, it has.
Q Have you studied it properly?
Yes I have.
Q Recently, President Maithripala Sirisena said it was the Prime Minister who was all powerful, not the President. What is your view?
That is correct. Under the 19th Amendment, the President willingly gave away his powers to the Prime Minister. This is the first time in Sri Lanka’s history that the President has given away his power willingly to the Prime Minister.
We may have shortcomings as the Government. I do no deny that. But, the Yahapalana Government established democracy and the rule of law. Today, the judiciary is totally independent. There is media freedom to a very large extent.
We may have shortcomings as the Government. I do no deny that. But, the Yahapalana Government established democracy and the rule of law. Today, the judiciary is totally independent. There is media freedom to a very large extent
At that time, the Government was behind certain unlawful activities like abductions, disappearances of persons, the white van syndrome and sacking of the Chief Justice. Now, there is crime, but, the Government is not behind them. We are running the country on Buddhist principles. There are no abductions, disappearances, killing journalists, setting fire to the media institutions etc. The Government is not involved in any violence.
Mahinda boasted of being pro-Buddhist. To sustain Buddhism, there must be Amisa Pooja and Pratipatti Pooja. Amisa Pooja is building temples and monasteries. Pratipatti Pooja is following the principles of Buddhism.
The Yahapalana Government has followed Buddhist principles by upholding human rights , the rule of law and human dignity.
Q How do you view the international developments such as the United States pulling out from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)?
We have to build up an argument. This is a clear set of double standards. One set of rules for the super powers, and another set for small countries. How can the UNHRC find faults with us when the country that supported the resolution on us violated the UN charter? This shows the double standards of the big powers.
Q How is the United National Party (UNP) bracing for elections?
We are ready. Ours is the single largest party in Sri Lanka. We are ready for elections. We are forming our party branches at village level. We are appointing new organisers.
Q Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in India, said that his brother would be a contender for the presidency. Indirectly, it means former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be the candidate. How does the UNP view this?
In my opinion, Gota can be defeated. That is as far as we are concerned. That is what I have to say.
Q What is the reason for you to come to such a conclusion at this juncture?
That is because he has too many skeletons in the cupboard. All those will be highlighted during the election campaign. It will be like the election campaign of Minister Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 Presidential Elections as the common candidate. When he was fielded, he was thought of to be the sure bet to become the President. When the campaign commenced, he succumbed. He exposed himself. Military men, in any case, do not make good campaigners.
Q Minister Fonseka is your Cabinet colleague now. He is critical of the Government. What do you think of his conduct now?
In the Cabinet, there is a thing called ‘collective responsibility’. You cannot speak out of turn. If you do not agree with the Cabinet, it should be taken up at the Cabinet itself. There is no point in holding press conferences and making statements to the media. It is an act of cowardice. We have the Cabinet meeting once a week. We can discuss everything there.
Q How do you see the current status of the Government as far as the chemistry between the President and the Prime minister is concerned?
In the run up to the Local Government Elections on February 10, 2018, it was low. It has improved now.
Q What is the position of the Government or the UNP regarding the 20th Amendment to the Constitution?
I have not gone into the details of the amendments. If it is to abolish the Executive Presidency and to give powers to Parliament, I will support it personally.
How can the UNHRC find faults with us when the country that supported the resolution on us violated the UN charter? This shows the double standards of the big powers.
Q What is the Government’s position?
Still we have not taken a decision. We have not studied it as a Government. Recently, when I met JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, I suggested to him to have a debate regarding this. We would like to know what it is about. He said it was too premature for a debate.
The 20th Amendment is broadly what we campaigned for in 2015- the abolition of executive presidency and restoration of parliamentary power.
Q As the Leader of House, how certain are you of getting this enacted in Parliament?
It is too premature for me to say something. If it happens, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will like it. That is because he can contest again.
Q Actually, the Government has undertaken its own constitution making exercise. It is already underway. You have made some progress. You even promised to present a draft of it to Parliament soon. Ahead of it, the JVP brought this out. Why is it?
I think it is an option. The JVP would have intended to say that there are several options. The parties can decide at the relevant times what option should be taken.
Q When are you going to present your draft?
It will be done very soon.
Q How far have you progressed?
I think we would get a basic draft very soon. In it, you will find the points we have agreed upon and the points on which we have several options. All options will be tabled in Parliament for the perusal of MPs.
Q It means there are areas to be reconciled among the parties. What are they?
There is a question mark regarding the character of the Constitution- the unitary status. There are various versions of the unitary status. All those positions will be made known to Parliament. Once the draft is presented, the parties can debate it and reach some conclusion.
Q What is the stand of the UNP regarding this matter?
We believe in a unitary state, if there is agreement with other parties. Otherwise we will be flexible.
That is because he has too many skeletons in the cupboard. All those will be highlighted during the election campaign. It will be like the election campaign of Minister Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 Presidential Elections as the common candidate. When he was fielded, he was thought of to be the sure bet to become the President.
Q SriLankan Airlines is under your purview. What are the plans in place to restructure it?
It is totally in debt now. It amounts to US $ 110 million. The plan is this. First, the directors are not drawing any salary now. They are not given free air tickets to travel abroad. They have set an example for the future. We are looking for a foreign investor. Why did we fall into this mess? Emirates was running this airline at big profit. During the Rajapaksa rule, the contract was terminated because the airline did not give free tickets to his entourage. At that time, the airline was run at US $ 20 million a year. That was prior to 2006 according to my guess. What has happened today? It is run at huge losses. This is a result of one foolish act. It was a personal decision to get rid of Emirates.
If Emirates was there, the airline would have run it profitably. Their management style was good.
We are in search of an investor. But, no investor is ready to take over the airline with such massive liabilities. We want to remove debt from the balance sheets of the airline. We will create a special account in the Treasury for this purpose. That is a Special Purpose Vehicle. The balance sheets will be free of debt. We have to remove debt from the balance sheets. We have to show investors that we are on the right path. There are so many parties who are interested.
Q Can you name a few?
There are several from Japan, China and Germany.