The two ‘drivers’ of the opposition coalition which is aiming to oust Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a presidential election on January 8, on Tuesday assured the country’s business community of the proper enforcement of the rule of law, an end to corruption, equality to all big and small businesses and the restoration of [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Maithri – Ranil promise to wipe out corruption, restore ‘decent’ ties with the West


The two ‘drivers’ of the opposition coalition which is aiming to oust Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a presidential election on January 8, on Tuesday assured the country’s business community of the proper enforcement of the rule of law, an end to corruption, equality to all big and small businesses and the restoration of ‘decent’ ties with the West.

Maithripala Sirisena, main opposition presidential candidate and Ranil Wickremasinghe, Prime Minister-designate in a new government, jointly delivered a series of promises on how Sri Lanka’s economy will be structured and how the main arms of the state – the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary – will function in an independent era. A fourth arm called “good governance’ would be created and come directly under a future President.

Blinded with infrastructure

Addressing the business leaders, Mr. Sirisena said, “The Rajapaksa family badly blinded us with development of infrastructure. They have invested in several superfluous white elephant projects. They have swiftly mortgaged our future generation.” He said that he and others in the Cabinet were powerless to stop the highhandedness of the Rajapaksa clan who bulldozed these projects. “The poor rural and urban people have no use for some of these mega projects. Eminent professionals from our common parties with a brilliant track-record have said that the economy will soon collapse and end up in the ICU of the Treasury.”

Presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Commenting on President Rajapaksa’s ‘Momentum’ Forum for business leaders, Mr. Wickremasinghe (amidst laughter tingling with the Christmas spirit) said, “Last week you listened to Moses, who didn’t come down from the mountain but he came over the satellite. And he told you that money is the god of our times and that Rajapaksa is its prophet.”

Eliciting more laughter from the audience, Mr. Wickremesinghe added, “I hope that you enjoyed that (Momentum) hospitality, because it all came from the money you had to pay upfront just to get your jobs done and I am sorry but we are not in any position to match that level of hospitality and we can only offer you a few sandwiches and a cup of tea, which can last you another hour or so.” He said that he won’t start about the Momentum, because there is none. Quoting economist Razeen Sally, he said, the Government’s headline economic numbers are exaggerated, as many serious observers have pointed out. “But this masks something more alarming. Post-war growth is debt-fuelled and driven by an expanding, inefficient public sector, not by productivity gains. A borrowing spree finances fiscal largesse, and it increases reliance on volatile international capital markets for debt financing.”

Defence Budget has risen

Trade protectionism has increased, Mr. Wickremesinghe alleged, charging that competitiveness has declined and foreign investment is stagnant. “Infrastructure projects have had massive cost overruns. Meanwhile the defence budget has increased and the military has diversified into business activities. There is widespread perception that the benefits of growth have accrued disproportionately to those with privileged political access.”

He said that the Rajapaksa slant on foreign policy runs directly counter to Sri Lanka’s global economic interests. The US and European Union account for two-thirds of Sri Lankan exports and the country has everything to gain from closer economic relations with India, particularly with the four states of neighbouring South India that constitute a market of 300 million people.

Mr. Wickremesinghe noted that today in the Global Competitive Index 2013–2014, Sri Lanka is number 65. “The good news is that we have overtaken Rwanda which is number 66. We are, generally better than India but India is number 6 and China, 29.”

Mr. Wickremasinghe added that the head of the second largest party under the future national government would not be named Opposition Leader but Deputy Prime Minister since he has held the former post for too long, which drew laughter from the gathering.

On addressing corruption charges without upsetting the business environment, Mr. Wickremesinghe said, “As far as corruption charges are concerned, we already have mechanisms in place. Just go on with it – why should business get disrupted? In the US, how many charges did they have? And not only in the courts – some of the banks such as HSBC were brought to account but there was no breakdown. Basically it’s a purifying process and nothing else. Business will continue. If you have not made any ill-gained wealth, why should you worry? If you have ill-gained wealth then just go to the income tax office and pay it off and sort it out immediately.”

No war crimes tribunal

On war crimes, he said that the country hasn’t signed the UN convention. “It was President Rajapaksa who went before the Human Rights Commission and Council and instigated an investigation. Fortunately, the fact that we haven’t signed it means that we can’t be taken before the War Crimes Tribunal. And I don’t think this is a matter that has to be taken to a foreign jurisdiction. I never asked for it. The whole thing of an international inquiry into Sri Lanka from 1989 was something that President Rajapaksa as a backbench MP advocated. So I think as far as we are concerned we should deal with these matters locally within our own jurisdiction but it first requires an independent judiciary and without an independent judiciary there will always be pressure for an international inquiry. If there was an independent judiciary then of course we can go through this process but there has been a large number of people involved throughout the country, I think all the parties will agree, so if something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would go into it and they make a recommendation covering all of these concerns, we could head towards forgiveness and apologies. I think most parties are in favour of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission approach in how we do it as we must have an independent judiciary and we must stand on our own.”

The audience. Pix by Athula Devapriya

He said there are other issues where “we are not up to the human rights standards and we think we can negotiate in Geneva for things like that, like our Human Rights Commission coming up to international standards, then making sure that the ICCP is operative; those are things that we have to do”.

No lobbying

Mr. Sirisena said that they will honour the international investor protection agreements Sri Lanka has signed. “In our Government, foreign investors need not lobby politicians or public officials for their investments or projects. Established institutions will have power and authority to expeditiously and professionally carry out their duties without any interference.”

He also pledged to prioritise growth of small and medium export enterprises and industries. “You should be clever enough to harness advantages of all Free Trade Agreements, tap India and China. We will definitely re-open links with traditional markets in US, Europe and Japan.”
On corruption at the provincial councils, etc, Mr. Sirisena said, “We can’t limit ourselves to just the provincial councils. From Parliament to provincial councils and municipal councils, politicians and government officials are doing the same thing. We will act accordingly under the common law in the country, with no excuses, to resolve this issue”.

Responding to a query on projects like the Waterfront project at John Keells and the Port City which the UNP leader had reportedly said would be cancelled, Mr. Wickremesinghe said that he cannot guarantee that they will carry out all that the Rajapaksa Government has done, but promised continuity. “But what I said about the Port City is that we had, as a principle in the manifesto, an environmental assessment and feasibility study.
You must also know whether it is feasible. I mean, take the example of the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport. We have ended up with a cricket stadium. They are not feasible. We want projects that are feasible. Now the Waterfront Project was not looked at but if you want me to do the same thing about the Waterfront, I can consider it. I will tell you one thing – this Government will go in for sustainable development. We are taking global climate change very seriously. We should go green. We have always been that. And as you can see (honourable) Maithripala has started to do that.”

Abandoning women and children

Mr. Sirisena said that the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration has almost abandoned women and children, adding that the politicians in provincial councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas have committed several rapes and child abuse within the last few years.

Mr. Sirisena added that Mihin Lanka is a huge drain on the country’s national worth. “We will try to consolidate both airline services and we hope to investigate the corruption that occurred while purchasing the airplanes and other equipment. We will appoint suitable experts to manage both these services. Today these are managed by President Rajapaksa’s relations.”

Dishing out interesting statistics, Mr. Wickremesinghe noted that in the first half of 2013, the direct investment of BOI enterprises in the services sector was US$ 80 million dollars. “In the first half of 2014 it was $ 410 million dollars, the difference being what we have paid for the purchase of aircraft for Sri Lankan Airlines and Mihin Airways. That’s $ 330 million and now we have to find a way of paying this without putting the burden on you all through direct and indirect taxes. That’s the basic issue that we have. I thought I would just give you the figures of what you will have to pay if we don’t succeed in sorting out the present airlines. The airlines have also become a family property – I think they (the family maybe) should buy it.”

Corruption in the CSE

Mr. Wickremesinghe added that corruption has also seeped into the stock market which has sacrificed two good chairpersons. “We have to ensure that there is no question about the stock market. It cannot be questioned. Until about 2008 people had confidence in the stock exchange.” He said this needs to be ‘cleaned up’ and that new legislation has to be introduced. In order to attempt resolving high interest loans and the debt the country has incurred, Mr. Wickremesinghe said that they aim to show their plans for repayment to the various countries involved and discuss it with the World Bank and the IMF. “The plan is to make sure we can turn those short-term loans into long-term loans so that we then have more time to pay it off and there is less pressure on us and the economy and this in turn will allow us to grow.”

Cross section of Lankan business community upbeat on new businessprospectsA cross section of Sri Lanka’s business community was upbeat on the new business prospects outlined by common opposition Presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena while pledging to create an environment conducive for businessmen to conduct their business legally and freely in a corrupt-free society.

Several business leaders, small and medium scale entrepreneurs, bankers, lawyers, past and present heads of trade and commerce chambers, stock brokers, chiefs of shipping companies and corporate heads appeared enthused by the proposed new opportunities offered by the opposition. The Kings Court of the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel had a packed audience of around 1100 participants keen to hear what the main opposition candidate had to offer.

Mr. Sirisena joined by Ranil Wickremasinghe shared his vision for a united and prosperous future with the business community while firmly asserting that action will be taken to eliminate corruption meeting out punishment against those involved in corrupt deals in accordance with the country’s law.

A sense of optimism was in the air with a large number of business leaders, small and medium scale businessmen sensing an improved business climate and many of them predicted good prospects for the country’s economy on the sidelines of the business forum.
Several businessmen, bankers and stock brokers told the Business Times that the country needs a change for doing business in the right way with financial integrity, transforming the marketplace and thinking long-term.

From the conversations with the Business Times – though reluctant to identify themselves in the brief interviews and at times requested the newspaper photographer not take their pictures (featuring business repercussions) -, they were highly impressed by Mr. Sirisena’s new vision to harness a greater private sector role for equitable development in Sri Lanka and Mr. Wickremasinghe’s far sighted strategy of improving growth prospects while making the country a good place to do business and strengthening fundamentals. They said that Ranil is now at his best to serve the country.
Forum moderator Ranjith Fernando, a former Ministry Secretary and banker kept the audience spell bound using his language skills both Sinhala and English. Arrangements at the ‘Let’s Unite’ business forum reflected the simplicity, and dignity of Presidential candidate Sirisena who was warmly greeted by the business community present on the occasion.

Highlights of the opposition strategy for the economy:

- Creation of a Megapolis Development Corporation to
transform the Western Province into an “intelligent’ city of the future
- Systematic and transparent infrastructure
- Implement certain measurements relating to pawning
- Better revenue collection
- Invest in people
- 100 factories to Hambantota and more business to the Mattala airport to make these structures viable
- Regain GSP + and reach out to the West which is the country’s main export partners
- Restructure the foreign service and restore it to its former, professional status
- Creation of an independent judiciary and a system of governance where everyone would be equal in the eyes of the law
- Minimise losses in Mihin Air and Sri Lankan Airlines and bring them under a single unit. Appoint the right people to run them – not relatives or cronies
- Maintain law and order
- Establish new laws for the share market to restore
- Convert short term debt into long term loans
- Develop an export-led growth strategy
- Instill confidence in businesses
- Focus on high production and thousands of small
- Create an innovation-driven economy

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