Minister of Science, Technology and Research Susil Premajayantha in an interview with the Dailymirror said that it would be ill-advised for the government to go for a referendum at this time. He said his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was only for Constitutional Reforms that do not warrant approval of people by referendum. He shared the following:-
QThere were reports about your visit to the USA. It was rumoured that you had been sent as an emissary of President Maithripala Sirisena to engage with President Donald Trump. Could you elaborate the actual position?
That is total misinterpretation. I have been invited by the Senate and Congressional Committee to attend the annual prayer breakfast meeting. Once a year, with the participation of delegations from 160 countries, they have this event for three days. On the final day, the US President, the Vice President and many Senators and Congressmen and Governors attend it. This year, I, along with Minister Duminda Dissanayake and former parliamentarian Rosy Senanayake attended. That was the main event held in Washington. After that I paid a visit to Geneva to sign an agreement with the CERN laboratory. I also attended the Independence Day celebrations at our mission in the USA.
Q During the meeting in the US, did you get any chance to interact with the US officials?
No. The thing is that the US leaders only come for the main event, deliver their speeches and go. For meetings, we should make prior arrangements through our mission. There is a procedure to do it. You have to follow that.
Q Yet, the President had earlier said he would directly engage with US President Trump on the Sri Lankan issue. What is your position?
That is in his capacity as the President. He can write and speak to his counterpart in the USA regarding the resolution primarily moved by the USA and adopted by the UNHRC. That is of course up to the President to do it. The Foreign Affairs Ministry or the Minister for that matter can follow it up.
Q Are you aware of any such plan in the future?
No, I do not know.
Q How do you look at the current political situation?
As for the unity government, we, the SLFPers, joined it after a decision taken by the Central Committee of the party. None of the main parties could form a government. It is the duty of the President to form a government for a limited purpose. The main purpose is to overcome the issue in the UNHRC by showing the collective strength of Parliament. The second objective is to overcome the financial crisis we are facing today, and the third is Constitutional Reforms. Now we have to assess after two years whether we have achieved these objectives or now our next decision would be based on achievements in this regard.
Q With reference to the financial crisis, we read reports that the Central Bank Governor briefed the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management that outlining a bleak picture for the next three years. Could you share your views?
If I do not go deep into the depth of the crisis, basically I can say that our import bill is US $ 20 billion. Our export income and foreign remittances account for US $ 12 billion only. Then, there is a trade deficit of US $ 8 to 9 billion. In addition, we have to repay loans with interests accrued. By the end of 2017, it would amount to another US $ 4 billion. In the actual context, we have a serious deficit of US $ 12 billion in that manner. How are we going to earn this? This is the main issue. Any party that would come to power should work out a solution to it. If you try to address this issue within the box, it will be very difficult. You have to limit imports and increase exports and investments. On the other hand, you have to increase taxes. Then of course, prices will soar. To address this issue, there should be a collective effort. The Finance Minister, alone, can’t do it. The UNP, alone, can’t do it. They have to discuss it with their coalition partners and take into account our views. For the last budget, we gave them 12 proposals. However, we are not satisfied with the way it was presented. In the 2016 budget, none of the targets was achieved.
Q The government has proposed to privatize in part institutions, including the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport. What are your views on that model to get over the crisis?
First, we must ensure that management capabilities are introduced to run them. If you do not have such managerial skills, then you can consider some other alternatives like Public Private Partnership. First of all, have we taken any effort to manage these institutions? We have around 250 public enterprises. Who are the CEOs and Chairmen running them both during the present and the previous governments? Are they competent enough to manage them? You had appointed an ex-planter to SriLankan Airlines. Now, you have appointed an ordinary businessman to run it. To my personal knowledge, we have the management issues in all these institutions. As a result, they incur losses. Privatization is not the option. Before that, you have to take certain actions to manage them properly. If you can’t manage an institution like SriLankan Airlines, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation or Ceylon Electricity Board, how can you govern a country? You have to choose the right man for the right job.
Q These institutions were run incurring heavy losses during the previous regime which you represented and held portfolios. Why did you fail then?
It’s OK. For instance, if you are given a business that is running at a loss; are you going to close it down? You are given a challenge. What you have to do is to improve the management gradually to reduce the losses. Then you have to convert it into a profitable venture. If you are unable to do it, it shows your inability. Even the PPP model is needed for certain areas.
Q What do you think of its application for restructuring SriLankan Airlines?
First, you have to appoint a capable CEO and a Chairman to run it. You must give them a time-bound target. If you can’t deliver, then you can think of taking the next step.
Q With reference to this Constitution making process, there is this allegation that the current stalemate is due to the SLFP not submitting its proposals. What is your response to them?
The SLFP has clearly indicated that if the new Constitution making process leads to a referendum, it is not appropriate at this stage. Before a referendum, you have to settle other issues. You find other social issues-economic crisis, unemployment issues etc. One has to be mindful of what is happening in other countries. We are of the opinion that this is not the ideal time to go for a referendum. At a referendum, people will not confine their decisions solely on constitutional matters. They would vent their anger against the government on other matters. Therefore, we are of the opinion that we should do some amendments to the existing Constitutions without calling for a referendum. Later on, it could be considered.
Q How do you expect the parties like the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to fall in line with your stand?
We fought a war for years. We were suffering from this issue for 65-70 years. You cannot give solutions at once. They are in a hurry. But, we are not. There should be a permanent solution. To do that, you have to convince the people.
Q Do you advocate power devolution?
Yes, up to a certain extent only. You cannot amend the Constitution or replace it with a new one leading to the partition of the country at any stage. You see what is happening in the north. NP Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran goes to the eastern province and canvasses for the amalgamation of the two provinces. There is a Supreme Court ruling here. The Chief Minister is also a retired Supreme Court Judge. First of all, he should read the relevant judgment. You cannot go there and utter certain things.
Q How longer could the government go on like this when the Ministers are taking on each other?
The groups representing the two parties meet at least once a month and discuss the current political situation. But apparently there is no result. So far we haven’t found any result. In my personal view, if we continue like this and remain silent, it would be the same forever.
Two different parties have got together to form a government. We find policy differences between the two. For example, the SLFP’s policy is nationalization of assets. During the last government, we did not privatize. The UNP’s policy is different. It is for privatization. Founder of our party S. W.R.D. Bandaranaike started with nationalization.
Q There is talk about the need for a Cabinet reshuffle to correct the situation. How do you see this?
Even in the past, the Prime Ministers and the Presidents took some steps to change the portfolios. This is one alternative that the leaders can arrest the situation.
Q Will it happen?
I have no idea about it.
Q Unity of the SLFP is challenged these days. One section is with the government while the other with the opposition. How do you address it?
There are reasons for it. The SLFP leadership was changed amicably after the Presidential Election. Some allies of the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) thought they would not get enough opportunities under the new leadership. They were targeting the last general election. After the Presidential Election, there was a gap of seven to eight months for the general election in August, 2015. In the meantime, I was the UPFA Secretary at that time, and Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa the SLFP General Secretary. We did not take any rash decisions. We did not remove anyone. We did not even advise the President to do so. Even they criticized the party, we responded in a mild manner. We did not want to see division. We managed to do it. I, as the UPFA Secretary, managed to get all under the betel leaf for the election. The most difficult task was to accommodate former President Mahinda Rajapaksa into the UPFA nomination list. That was very crucial and critical. As a result, we managed to win 95 seats. The UNP got only 106 seats. Otherwise, the UNP would have got 125 seats.
Q How realistic is it to bring about unity between former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena?
In our country’s political history, you would have seen many occasions where there have been unifications despite differences. That had happened in the greater interests of the country.
Q As per your experience, would the two leaders unite with each other?
It happened just before the last general election. Immediately after the Presidential Election, there was a rift until nominations were signed. But, we managed to get some consensus between the two. As a result, the former President was able to sign the nomination paper. Who was the leader of the UPFA? It is President Sirisena!
Q However, it is widely believed that the President’s actions in the run up to election ensured the defeat of the UPFA. What is your opinion?
Yes, definitely. If not for the suspension of me and Anura Priyadharshana Yapa at the last moment, the result would have been different. The difference between the UPFA and the UNP was only 11 seats. If we had won three districts - Matale, Kegalle and Gampaha - we could have got seven more seats. Our surveys showed that we could have got more than 104 seats if not for that incident. The UNP would have got 98 seats. That was the past.
Q Would you be working for bringing about unity between the two leaders at the moment?
Not at the moment. If I am asked to do so, I will intervene.