The Prime Minister of the country and leader of the United National Party (UNP) – the main party of the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) - Ranil Wickremesinghe is one of the forerunners at the upcoming General Elections. In an interview with the he discussed a wide range of issues, including the Central Bank bond controversy, the plan to revive the economy and battle against corruption, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s comeback into politics and the possibility of creating a new Constitution.
Says will turn around the economy and political culture in five years
Q : Why did you decide not to go for elections soon after the Presidential Election?
We decided to kick off and complete the 100-Day-Programme. People had suffered a lot and there was no freedom in the country. Corruption was rampant in the country. Therefore, we decided to implement the 100-Day Programme and then go for an election to ask people for their mandate. We did not want to make empty promises.
Q : You have a five-fold plan in your manifesto. How practical is that plan? Or will they be empty promises as we have seen in the past?
This is a plan done by many parties. It is not merely a set of promises. I have always delivered the goods. I turned the economy around before and I will do that again. The media cannot tell the people what to do.
Q In your manifesto, you have a very detailed plan to revive the economy, which you have been claiming was in a shabby condition during the Rajapaksa regime. How are you going to raise the financial resources and attract foreign investment to implement your plan?
In 2001, I was asked to take over the economy, which had negative growth and we turned it around. And on this occasion too, there is the confidence of the foreign investors, who are coming in.
Volkswagen is an early example – they are looking for a stable government. We can raise foreign funding at a much cheaper rate and some at a concessional rate. We have a gap of about two years, where we have to find the funding and then the foreign investments will start bearing fruits.
You will find our foreign exchange increasing, overall trade increasing and our revenue also increasing. We have about two years to get through, but from there onwards, it should be much easier for us to handle. We have the confidence of the world and we are going to have an open and transparent system.
Q In such a system, how will you ensure that corruption does not creep in?
That is why we are bringing in new laws and a new mechanism. We signed the UN Anti-Corruption Convention and were supposed to bring in new laws but that did not happen. So now, new laws are being drafted by civil society. A law for freedom of information will be passed, the National Audit Commission will come into place and so on. There will be a series of measures, we will be taking but we have also got to train the people to have the trained staff capable of looking out for corruption and filing action.
Q The UNP has pointed out that billions of rupees has been wasted on useless infrastructure projects such as the Mattala Airport and the Hambantota Port. Do you have a plan to recover some of these lost funds?
What has been spent has been spent. We have been trying to reduce the cost of the others.
" Invariably you have to take on the manifesto on which the mandate was granted. They accepted him and now all of a sudden they are saying they don’t want the mandate the President received, they want him to follow the man who was rejected "
Q What about the Port City Project? This is a project that came under heavy criticism and now it has been put on hold. What is happening with this project?
It is being renegotiated. Coming within the laws of Sri Lanka, we are looking for the environmental report and we will act in accordance with that. There has to be other legislation necessary for the Port City to operate but firstly, the issue of the environment has to be resolved. The Chinese have agreed to abide by the law of the country.
Q But is there a possibility of this project being completely abandoned?
I cannot see that happening. Certainly there are no signs of complete abandonment as far as I am aware. I think the environmental report will make some suggestions on its own. Even the Singaporean Megapolis Plan did recommend having a landfill but of much smaller extent. So, what size is environmentally suitable would be the issue.
Q Another issue is the Chinese loans, which have been criticized as very high-cost loans. Will your Government reduce or stop borrowing from China and if so, what alternative countries will you be borrowing from?
We are looking to reduce the cost of Chinese loans and we are also getting a certain number of soft loans from other agencies. In addition to the ADB, the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will also enable us to get funds.
Q Isn’t it true that in the stock and the bond market, there is a mafia that is manipulating the market and controlling its mechanisms? How are you planning on putting an end to this?
There have been manipulations in the financial markets, so we are bringing in new laws and we are giving more teeth to the Securities and Exchanges Commission. Parliament itself will play a far more important role with their Oversight Committees looking into the financial sector.
You have to keep a constant eye on the financial sector. Inability to regulate the financial sectors properly led to the great financial crash of 2008. Throughout the world they are tightening regulations. We have been lax. That was why many of the financial companies collapsed. So, we have to bring in a new system altogether.
Q What kind of system would this be? Because even developed countries have trouble curbing massive financial crimes… Is the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) sufficient for this purpose?
FCID is one of the components but we have to look at the system as a whole. For instance, Canada’s regulations of the banks proved to be successful; they had no bank failures. Similarly, you have to be quite alert on what happens both on the stock market and the other financial markets. It has to have mechanisms which have to be reviewed and updated once in about ten years. " I never contested for Presidency after my two terms and then try to come back. If I had done two terms of Presidency, I would have retired then. He got defeated in asking for a third term. He got rejected because he wanted a third term. So, that is a special occasion – to be defeated after trying for a third term after his two terms. The people told him to go home and he must respect that verdict "
Q However, in the recent times, the FCID came under heavy criticism. What have you got to say about this?
We promised to eliminate corruption and that we would empower the Police to carry out this task. The corruption had taken place in a very crafty manner, covering up tracks. The Police needed business knowledge as well to investigate these financial crimes. In countries like England and New Zealand, these investigations were carried out with the expertise of the legal sphere, the Police as well as the business knowledge. This was why the FCID was set up and the goal is to give them the necessary powers in writing in September when a new Parliament is established.
Q : Now, Mahinda Rajapaksa is saying that although there were allegations brought against him, that was done as political revenge and nothing has been proven. Meanwhile, the JVP and other sections of the society have been saying that the mechanism of catching rogues has not been efficient and effective. What is your response?
It was not political revenge. Can you say taking action against corruption is revenge? We have 200 allegations already. Investigations on about 20 of them are completed. Then, everyone went to Court and got stay-ons. By September, when many of the cases come up we want to get the Supreme Court to give one determination. Then if necessary, we will bring in additional laws. The current laws in the country are not adequate to curb and take action against corruption.
The Bribery Commission was not functional and there were 1900 files which have not been touched. There are over 200 vacancies. Now there is a difference of opinion between the three Commissioners and the Director General, which has made it dysfunctional. So, the new Parliament will have to appoint a new set of Commissioners.
Q Even though you are talking about establishing a clean Government, the bond issue in this Government has created a controversy. Don’t you think this was a black mark on the UNP?
What is the loss from the bond issue? When the Government sold bonds to foreigners, we gave the market interest rate. But when we sold to local companies, the market interest rate is not given.
This is unfair. We criticised this in the Parliament, when we were in the Opposition. We put down a mechanism to investigate allegations of fraud and take action. The Committee appointed to look into this matter concluded that the Central Bank Governor did not commit any wrongdoing but to look into the Perpetual Treasuries Company.
During this time, some people went to the Supreme Court asking to remove the CB Governor. This initial petition was rejected by the SC. However, I said that this should be investigated by the Parliament. New information came into light.
It was revealed that a Director of this company is the sister of the former CB Governor. We went for the General Elections before these investigations could be completed. We have decided that in the new Parliament, a Parliamentary Select Committee will be appointed to complete these investigations and take action accordingly. " Well, once you correct it, you have to put in the form of a new Constitution rather than bringing amendments. It is very confusing to read amendments upon amendments. So, we should think seriously about it. Yes, certainly it is possible "
Q But the President said in his statement that he expected you to remove the CB Governor following this issue…
We wanted to take action after a full and comprehensive investigation had taken place by the Committee. The President consulted me about the media reports on this issue and asked what would be the best course of action. I told him that the media has only woken up now and that I have taken correct measures to investigate this matter. After all, the man has not been found guilty. None of the frauds that were committed during the former Governor’s time was investigated. You are taking one issue and trying to make sure that the UNP will be defeated. That will not happen. I certainly am not going home so others should decide what they are going to do.
Q What can you say about the No-Confidence Motion that was set to be brought against you?
They never brought it forward. I had no problem. I said if it was passed, I am going for elections. They were the ones who wanted to block the elections.
Q Another criticism against you is that you are not able to speak and relate to the grassroots level. What is our response?
I have spoken to the grassroots level and I have won them over. People have given the verdict – we won the Presidential Election.
Q You will have to face the Geneva Human Rights Commission in September. How will your government face these war crimes allegations and the pressure for an international investigation? And, is there going to be a domestic inquiry?
Firstly, it is a commitment made by the Rajapaksa government to the then UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon.
We have not signed the Statute of Rome. So, therefore, there is no question of an international inquiry.
We believe in domestic jurisdiction, so we are looking at a domestic mechanism, which could inquire into these issues.
We are also taking measures to have a Truth Commission, looking at the South African experience, because we have to heal these wounds. We cannot be allowing the wounds to continue. So Truth Commission would be the best mechanism in many instances.
Q : If the UNP cannot secure a majority at the upcoming elections, are you still willing to form a National Unity Government with the SLFP and the UPFA?
We will gain the majority. And the leader of the UPFA and the SLFP is the President, who is a member of the Cabinet and presides over the Cabinet.
Q How do you see Mahinda Rajapaksa’s comeback into politics and the claim that he is coming to save the country?
This is not a campaign to save the country; this is a campaign to save Mahinda – to give him saline.
Q Many people saw the President granting nominations to Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest from the UPFA as a betrayal of the UNP and you especially. Do you agree?
Actually, it is good that the President is in control of the party. I don’t think he had much of a choice; the old guards still had a majority. I just cannot think of how they got this idea that they could mix the two together.
President won the election, defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa and the corrupt system. Now he has a mandate and under the SLFP, the member of the SLFP, who has the mandate of the people becomes the leader.
Then, invariably you have to take on the manifesto on which the mandate was granted. They accepted him and now all of a sudden they are saying they don’t want the mandate the President received, they want him to follow the man who was rejected. So, there was no chance that you could expect the President to work on those conditions with Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was just a pipe dream. They have made the party bankrupt.
Q The UNFGG has been critical of MR re-entering politics claiming that he is defeated leader desperate for power. Couldn’t that same criticism be levelled against you as you too were defeated several times?
I never contested for Presidency after my two terms and then try to come back. If I had done two terms of Presidency, I would have retired then. He got defeated in asking for a third term. He got rejected because he wanted a third term. So, that is a special occasion – to be defeated after trying for a third term after his two terms. The people told him to go home and he must respect that verdict. " I thought his slogan was that he has defeated the LTTE. So, how can we face another war if you have defeated and wiped out the LTTE? If he got a mandate saying that he wiped out the LTTE, how can they come back again? So, I cannot see that happening. It is just a scare story to get votes "
Q The UPFA and Mahinda Rajapaksa are trying to create a fear of another war and of the LTTE raising its head again if you become the Prime Minister. In fact, that seems to be his main slogan these days. What is your response?
I thought his slogan was that he has defeated the LTTE. So, how can we face another war if you have defeated and wiped out the LTTE? If he got a mandate saying that he wiped out the LTTE, how can they come back again? So, I cannot see that happening. It is just a scare story to get votes.
Q What about the 20th Amendment? It was blocked earlier and it never went through. In a government led by you, how will this be brought in?
Well, they brought in this whole issue of a no-confidence motion. We have narrowed the gap. I think the new Parliament is good because we know our relative strengths. We have agreed on the principles. But when it comes to the working out, there are different parties; we are the larger party, then there are the smaller ones and the regional ones so each one will think on how it will impact them.
Q The 19th Amendment – although passed – was not passed in the way that you wanted it to be passed. If you form a Government, are you bringing in more reforms to the 19th Amendment?
We are bringing in more Constitutional reforms. The basic issue is that the Constitution was based on a strong Executive Presidency, so there has to be various, far-reaching amendments in some sections. I think that will require a new Constitution.
Q Are you bringing in a new Constitution altogether?
Well, once you correct it you have to put in the form of a new Constitution rather than bringing amendments. It is very confusing to read amendments upon amendments. So, we should think seriously about it.
Q Do you think it is possible to bring in a new Constitution and build a new country in just five years? Is that enough time?
Yes, certainly it is possible. We turned the country around in 1977. If not for the war, we would have gone ahead.