Former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera speaks about the current political impasse and responds to the allegations made by President Maithripala Sirisena against the United National Party (UNP).
Excerpts of the interview:
- President is upset as he could not get through, the tenders of his daughter and son-in-law
- Butterfly is better than leech
- There is no truth in allegation about the plot to kill Prez
- President’s burning desire to be presidential candidate created this problem
- When he joined us at the presidential election, Ranil Wickremesinghe was a well-known politician
Q What do you think about the dissolution of Parliament?
I would say it is the world’s first. The President has violated the very constitutional amendment he introduced. It was passed by the Cabinet and approved by Parliament with a majority of two-thirds. It has led the country into a serious constitutional crisis. The judiciary is, perhaps, the only hope we have to stop this country from sliding towards dictatorship.
Q Otherwise, how ready are you for a general election?
As I said, as a party that has governed this country for a longer period than any other party since Independence, we are always ready for an election. It is nothing to do with our readiness to face elections. It is about the fundamentals of democracy. If we allow the President to violate the constitution in such a manner, he can dissolve Parliament again when he does not want to see the face of the Prime Minister-elect.
I think Sri Lanka is facing one of the gravest political crises since Independence. It is a unique political crisis not only in Sri Lanka but also in the world where the Head of State himself instigates a coup against his own government. It has now led to a constitutional crisis. Despite the fact that we had clearly shown a parliamentary majority, he refused to resolve it as early as possible. As a person who played an active role in electing this gentleman, I really feel despair at the tragedy which is unfolding before us.
Q Yet, the President said he still did not want to reappoint UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. Then, wouldn’t it have compounded the crisis if not for this action?
As the Prime Minister (Mr Wickremesinghe) correctly pointed out in the interview with the Hindu newspaper, a constitutional crisis could not be solved according to the personal whims and fancies of the Head of State. If Parliament says that they have faith and trust in Mr. Wickremesinghe to continue, he is obliged to appoint him. With regard to the no-confidence motion brought against Mr. Wickremesinghe, it was his first attempt to unseat him constitutionally. It failed. I still remember, in one of the discussions we had with him, he lost his marbles at one point and banged on the table. He said, “If I have to leave, I will leave. Before I leave, I will set the country on fire”. There were about ten other witnesses. He was trying to set the whole country on fire
Q In his televised address to the nation, the President made a whole lot of allegations against the UNP leadership. He talked about the lack of transparency in tender deals. What is your response to those allegations?
First, there was the allegation about a plot to assassinate him. I have studied the case. I have seen the B report based on what was put out by the person who made this allegation. He was one of the paid employees of one of the Presidential units. In that statement, nowhere does he talk about an attempt to kill the President or former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It is nowhere to be found.
He said he offered the prime minister post to Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya some months ago. That is a long time ago before these allegations were made. It, again, shows that he had this enormous jealousy and inferiority complex regarding Mr. Wickremesinghe. That this allegation about someone trying to kill him is totally fabricated.
As for his allegation about corruption, every single Cabinet paper was discussed at the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM). It was a transparent, open process where the line ministers, officials were present. If it is a controversial tender, all the parties concerned were brought before it. The final decision was referred to the Cabinet. It was a very successful way of working.
His family- his daughter, son-in-law, - was very upset that they could not get these through. That is because we have such a tender process. Then, the National Economic Council was formed. It was an utter failure. Actually, it was not Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe who brought this Cabinet paper for a railway line in the Polonnaruwa district. It was not Mr. Wickremesinghe who brought a Cabinet paper to buy aircraft for Sri Lanka Airforce, built in 1968. These are the kind of things which we rejected.
Q What is the reason for antagonism between the President and Mr. Wickremesinghe to rise to such high levels?
Despite being the target of this political coup, Mr. Wickremesinghe has not criticized President Sirisena even privately. He always took his insults and all kinds of various allegations with a smile. That question should really be directed at President Sirisena. But, the real truth is that it is his burning desire to become the presidential candidate again. To do so, he tried to break our party several times, offering the prime minister posts to Mr. Premadasa and Mr. Jayasuriya. But, unlike the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), ours is a highly disciplined party which is always loyal to its leader. As a result, they did not go along with the coup. So, he decided to get together with his arch enemy. It shows how power hungry this man is.
Q Actually, don’t you think that the policy contrasts of the two leaders along with their cultural difference added to this crisis?
When he joined us at the presidential election, Ranil Wickremesinghe was a well-known politician. His whims and weaknesses were known all over. He did not come and join an unknown entity. Even the policy market-friendly policies of the UNP were well known. Knowing all these, he joined us. I remember the first speech he made at Sirikotha. He said, “Even If I become the President, I would call Mr. Wickremesinghe sir.”
This is the man who walked into an alliance with the UNP with all the facts in his hands. To say now that there were cultural differences was an attempt to justify the unjustifiable.
Q Anyway, this is a government of two parties with contrasting policies. Isn’t it?
You are right. Actually, I, as the Finance Minister was very frustrated because Mr Sirisena represented an economic outlook which was long outdated. The kind of economic outlook he advocates is long outdated. It can only be found in places like Venezuela. It is a closed –socialist policy that has brought ruin. He is always talking about a Deshiya economy. We have to proceed by linking up with the global economy. We must have a modern economy with the private sector having the due place. He basically was stuck in the 1970s bubble. He still wants to go back to the closed economy of the days of former Prime Minister the late Sirimawo Bandaranaike.
Q Don’t you think that the UNP should have made certain compromises?
We were making compromises all the time. When it came to the liberalization of the shipping sector, we compromised with the President and the Minister concerned, who was basically a prisoner of that shipping mafia. Likewise, we did compromise. When I brought that amendment to the alcohol law in Sri Lanka, I informed him about it. When the Buddhist priests and others protested vehemently, he asked us not to do it. He is not a leader. He proved over and over that he was a lesser being than a Grama Sevaka.
Q What is your response to the allegation of the government being run by a ‘Samanala Gang’?
I, of course, say that the butterfly is much more beautiful and dignified than a leech. Leech basically sucks off the blood of others. When sucking the blood of one person is over, it will fall out and go in search of the next person. It is very similar to what is happening now. Every decision was taken transparently by the Cabinet.
Q Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his capacity of the Finance Minister, announced certain relief measures. What is your view on it as the former Finance Minister?
It is a disaster. Our revenue is just enough to pay off our debt. To give these frivolous hand-outs is putting the economy in great peril.
If they go on the same path, we will face a Venezuelan or Argentinean type of crisis. In the Stock Market, what has gone out in a single day is what we lost in a year. Foreign investors are moving out like hell.
Q If you become the Finance Minister again, will you undo these measures?
I will not undo my own policies. Most of these measures must be presented in Parliament.
Q You are the former Foreign Affairs Minister. There is criticism that the President was kept in the dark about the UNHRC process. What is
The UNHRC resolution 30/1 was explained word by word to President Sirisena. Then, I was in New York with President Sirisena. My Foreign Ministry officials were witnesses to it. It was a great victory for Sri Lanka.
We asked the UNHRC not to present their resolution until we presented our own resolution. If not for that, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have been subjected to an international travel ban. We got it off the agenda. We made our own resolution which was co-sponsored by the United States. That is based on our own transitional justice process. We brought the three-pillared role. We saved Mahinda Rajapaksa from the guillotine.