Ravi Karunanayake, the Finance Minister, has come under much criticism from the Opposition and has been under a cloud of allegations since his appointment to the Cabinet. This reached a boiling point on Monday when a no confidence motion was brought against him, signed by more than 100 UPFA parliamentarians. On the same day however, Colombo High Courts acquitted Minister Karunanayake and two others on a long-standing case on charges of money laundering in violation of the Exchange Control Act. In an interview, Daily Mirror spoke to the Minister about these developments and other allegations levelled against him.
QThere has been a no confidence motion brought against you with signatures of 100 MPs. What have you got to say about this?
Now they have no other job to do. This is a senseless case that they are bringing up. They have mentioned the Exchange Control case which is now a thing of the past. That case did not hold ground because it was a preposterous case against me. Then they have brought up the Arjuna Mahendran’s appointment which is not under the purview of my Ministry. So this is an absolute waste of time.
Let them do what they can. I am not worried at all because this is an absolutely sinister move. It is because what they couldn’t do in 10 years we have done in a few months. We are cleaning up society and they are trying to thwart that effort. They have harassed us all along. Let them try to do what can be done, we won’t be stopped.
QLet’s talk about the Financial Crimes Investigation Department (FCID) which has come under much fire recently. Can you explain how this unit works and can you vouch for its independence?
Yes it is certainly independent. It comes under the purview of the Police. This is a unit we are trying to bring in without showing favouritism or harassment to anyone. This is a difficult task. When there is blatant corruption which is manifestly clear where people’s money has been robbed to glory, what do they expect us to do? I am stunned to disbelief that people like Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was acting like a lion when in power, are now meekly going to Courts like a kitten and saying that they cannot face FCID and the Bribery or Corruption Commission. If they are clean, what are they so afraid of? These are people who were willing to go to the Electric Chair. So what is the fear to go before the FCID? Obviously, they are corrupt and that is why they are scared now. If they are clean, they should have no fear.
I was actually amazed that when the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa went to meet President Maithripala Sirisena, one of Mahinda’s requirements was to dissolve the FCID. This actually shows that they are not looking at how to protect the country and the people but how to protect themselves. They have no fear in committing the error, but they want to stop the questioning.
I am a minister appointed and over the last few months in the government, I have spent 25 days in Court. I have gone there on every single one of my Court dates to show my respect for the judicial system of the country. That is the difference in the good governance.
QSince you are the Finance Minister, are you directly involved with the operations of the FCID?
No, we do support them but this is a completely independent institution. We thought it would be better not to have any political involvement in this department so as not to distort or twist any information. So being out of it and supporting it from outside is better.
QIs it true then that government Ministers such as Minister Champika Ranawaka and Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe are having a say in the investigations of the FCID?
No, that is not right at all. None of them call any of the shots. The shots are called by the people who are appointed to this unit and those who have the competency to do so. When people are taken in for questioning, they are taken in after close scrutiny. People are clamouring as to why they have not been taken in. There are certain people who have not been taken in for questioning.
Also, when Mahinda Rajapaksa had to be taken in to the Bribery or Corruption Commission, people were sleeping on the Parliament floor. When Gotabaya had to do it, he went before the Bribery or Corruption Commission and made a big noise. When Basil Rajapaksa was taken in however, no one did anything. Why is that? Why are there two different treatments by the Opposition?
QWhy do you think that is?
I don’t know, I am perplexed. I would like them to give an answer.
QYou mentioned certain people have not been taken in for questioning. So who decides who is taken in for questioning?
They bring out instances of corruption into light and basically ensure that these people are taken in for questioning. They give a list and tell [the FCID] to go ahead and look into it.
They meaning a group of all political party representation.
QSome would argue that the FCID is not truly independent because they show leniency towards those in the government and those appointed by the government such as Arjuna Mahendran?
Arjuna Mahendran was questioned by the Bribery or Corruption Commission. He was grilled and every possible thing that could be done was done. Then he was taken to Supreme Court as well. Since he was appointed by the Government, he could have been protected but he was not. He did not go to Court and ask them not to take him in for questioning.
QEven so, there is a criticism that he was in fact protected by the government and his name was cleared without conducting proper investigations. Some are also implying that you have some connection to him and this is also one of the reasons for the No-Confidence Motion against you. Is there any truth in these allegations?
It doesn’t come under my Ministry. But we are a government that works together. We have a collective responsibility. If there is a doubt, then you appoint a committee. The committee gave a report and then he was taken into Bribery or Corruption and the Supreme Court as well. Everything that could have been done has been done.
I would like to ask whether Bandula Gunawardena has convenience amnesia where he has forgotten that Nivard Cabraal that ran the CB for 12 years has allegedly robbed the country. What were these high officials doing then? Why didn’t they take Nivard Cabraal and his team to Court before? When we make issues public, when we let everyone know what is going on, they have a problem!
QDid you have any personal acquaintance with Mr. Mahendran prior to his appointment? And were you aware that he was a friend of Raj Rajaratnam, the jailed businessman you were alleged to have taken a Rs. 390 million (US $3 million) from?
He can be friends with anybody. He was appointed as the Governor of CB. If I as the Finance Minister had not known him, then there must be something wrong. He is a well-known person and he is a person of stature. His father has been in the diplomacy field and has done a great service to the country.
People question and ponder on many matters. But when it comes to people who are working only they raise questions. Those who have been robbing the country to glory are not talked of.
QSo you are saying that Mr. Mahendran’s appointment was not a questionable one?
Well, he was appointed. He can’t be appointed if it was questionable. Sometimes, the questions levelled are very unfair. If it is a question to be asked and clarified, that is fine. But to go on a voyage of discovery thereafter, based on speculations, is preposterous.
QThere is also an allegation that the committee appointed to investigate on the bond issue was biased because it comprised of all UNP lawyers. What is your response?
You are right to ask the question but when no committee was formed during the Nivard Cabraal days and the Rajapaksa regime, I find it astonishing that there are such questions raised now. There should be a limit to absurdity. Bribery or Corruption Commission rejected the allegations, the Supreme Court rejected them, what more should be done? Why aren’t they questioning about Nivard Cabraal, the hedging deals, the mafia?
QIs your government planning on questioning them?
Well, it is in the hands of professionals and an independent system.
QBut are they enjoying immunity from the law?
No. Even when Ministers don’t have immunity, how can they have immunity?
QWhat have you got to say about Gotabaya Rajapaksa receiving immunity for arrest by filing a FR petition? Wouldn’t this be a precedent for those anticipating arrests to avoid them in the same way?
It is a mockery of law. Do you subscribe to it? This should be asked from the Courts, not from us. There are several serious allegations levelled against him.
I find it disgusting that first of all, people who thought that they owned the country and ran it the way they wanted, are now afraid to face the law. In their time, those who worked against them were taken away in white vans. They had no chance to even face Supreme Courts. As I said earlier, unless you have a fear to hide something, you should have no fear to face the law.
QAs the Finance Minister, could you clarify CBK’s comment about the Treasury not having enough money to pay salaries?
This has been a curious question posed by the media and it was distorted. She never said that, she said that it was an economic mess that we inherited from the Rajapaksa regime. At the time of her speech, the problem was very elegantly mentioned so I am stunned that the media misquoted it. It must have come from someone who wanted to protect the past regime and wanted to shield the truth. Certainly, the Treasury has enough money.
The previous regime did not just touch the Treasury, they robbed it! We had 1784 billion rupees in the beginning of 2005. Now the public debt has increased to 8990 billion rupees as of today. We still don’t know how much more is coming because there are expenditures without Cabinet approvals.
We are trying to change that, we are re-defining the entire system. We want to maintain transparency and openness because we are here to serve the country and the people, not ourselves. Our job here is not to reduce corruption, but to eradicate corruption. So we are undoing the mess that is there and we are cutting down on the extravaganza.
QLet’s talk about the stock market and the bond market. It has been said that there is a mafia in the stock and bond market that is running the show and calling the shots.
The mafia was in the Central Bank and the rest followed suit. But now we have cleaned it. I have the confidence that everyone involved has gotten the message that we mean business. Our intention is to run it in a proper manner for the ultimate benefit of the people. Society is accepting our clean approach.
QIt has also been alleged that some of the top guns in the mafia are UNPers themselves and UNP supporters.
I would not colourise any of them. All I tell them is that if they have been misguided, guide themselves into the correct destiny. Otherwise they will become misfits and there would not be any opportunities for a distorted approach.
QThere have also been questions raised about an instance where you appointed your long-time Co-ordinating Secretary Silhan Rahman as a Director of Merchant Bank of Sri Lanka. Isn’t this an undue appointment, considering how you (the then Opposition) criticized the previous government for appointing their close associates to such high positions?
So what is the problem? What relationship have I got to him? We criticized the Rajapaksa regime because the President was Mahinda Rajapaksa, Economic Minister was Basil Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary was Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Speaker was Chamal Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa was an MP and Shashindra Rajapaksa was a Chief Minister. That was the question we raised.
Whom are we to appoint? Are we to appoint from the Welikada Prison? It is a political appointment. Who has to make these political appointments? Minister of Finance has to make political appointments. A professional can be appointed to these posts. Otherwise who are we to appoint? This is a non-related appointment, so there is no problem with this at all. This is an absurd question!
QSpeaking about the current political climate, there might be a possibility of Mahinda Rajapaksa making a comeback as the Prime Ministerial candidate at the soon-to-be held General Elections. Is the UNP worried about this?
Absolutely not. Such a bad taste about Mahinda has been left in the people’s minds. That is why he doesn’t want to face the Bribery or Corruption Commission and Courts. Because when the people get to know the truth, there will be no mercy for him. And I sued him for Rs. 5 billion because he opened his mouth on an area he did not know about and he thought we would be silent on this matter. He should not judge us by his standards.
QYou publicly challenged Gotabaya to a debate. Has he responded?
No, he hasn’t and I don’t think he will. He doesn’t have the backbone to face me in a debate. They only have a backbone when they are in power, with every conceivable protective measure with them.
QThere is also a rumour that Gotabaya will be contesting from Colombo at the upcoming General Election and Colombo is the UNP stronghold. Will he be a threat to the UNP in Colombo?
People of Colombo District are not like people of Hambantota District. He will be given a proper answer. Colombo people are those who have a mind of their own. Trying to beautify Colombo at the expense of the people will not fool them.
QCan you tell me when the Parliament will be dissolved and elections will be held?
It is around the corner, that is all I can say.