I care for the people and speak to the head
In a wide-ranging interview, UNP presidential candidate and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe explains his relations with the US and India, the Ceasefire Agreement, federalism as a key to solving the ethnic question and economic policies. Excerpts
You have forgotten to include any reference to the media in your manifesto. But we acknowledge the fact that as Prime Minister from 2002-2004 you repealed the criminal defamation law, promoted self-regulation, drafted a Freedom of Information Act, and gave support to a liberal media policy. What have you in store for the future under your presidency?
The People’s Agenda is based on items that are of concern to the people. The media did not come high on the list despite the measures the UNP had taken between 2002-2003. Nevertheless, as a party we are committed to upholding our policies – we have not changed them. We will be presenting the Freedom of Information Bill in Parliament.

During your stint as Prime Minister, you indicated a strong pro-US stance. Will you continue to do so, and if so why do you follow such a foreign policy? You are the vice-president of an ultra-Conservative world organisation that has right-wing leaders like the Conservatives of the UK, the Republicans of the US, Prime Minister John Howard of Australia in it. Is Non-Alignment dead, as far as you are concerned?
In my view Sri Lanka has political and economic interests. In my time we had dealings with the US. We dealt with the US in regard to the peace process. The US became interested in our peace process and finally became a Co-Chair.

Another issue of concern is the abolition of Multi-Fibre agreement and the need for Sri Lanka to enter the duty free US market. I had to lobby hard to make progress in the US.

Thirdly, I was able to obtain aid to Sri Lanka through the Millennium Challenge Account – this also required lobbying in the US.
The US also gave us a coastguard ship and increased opportunities for our military.

You are calling me pro-US because the others have failed to get the best for Sri Lanka.

The IDU consists of parties of the Centre Right and the Conservative parties. There are no ultra-conservative parties in the IDU. The UNP is a centre party. Other international organizations don’t function anymore. Originally the Democrats and Republicans were members of the IDU. Later on the Democrats dropped out. John Howard got the opportunity to be the serving chairman of the IDU. The IDU was interested in extending links to Asia and for these reasons I was elected the President of the Asia-Pacific Democrat Union and Vice President, ex-officio, of the IDU.

While the non-alignment movement meets regularly they have not come up with viable initiatives for the past two decades while the member countries are making their own arrangements. The trend is to make their own arrangements. India is making security arrangements with the US separating the non aligned movement.

And your relations with India are special?
I have maintained close ties with India. I think any Sri Lankan Government must maintain close ties with India since India is our closest neighbour. In my two years as Prime Minister I did a lot with India – and India is not a threat but an opportunity. There is also a cultural bonding with India since Buddhism came from India. Culturally, South Indian States, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have a very close relationship. In fact many foreigners are struck by the similarities between Sri Lankans and South Indians and the differences between them are minimal.

But India does not support any special truck with the LTTE. How do you see this affecting your friendship with India?
India has always been interested in Sri Lanka’s peace process and backed it both when I was the Prime Minister and subsequently. In the last discussion I had with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in October 2003 his position was that India supports the process of seeking a negotiated settlement acceptable to all sections of the Sri Lankan society within a framework of a united Sri Lanka.

Does the 'international safety net' that you introduced to ensure that the LTTE does not misbehave during the peace process work?
You have used the term “international safety net” – a controversial term with different interpretations. It is not an alliance against the LTTE. What I did was to get the International Community’s support for peace and reconstruction. Therefore, I will call it the international community and the peace process. The international community came into Sri Lanka’s peace process at the Oslo conference in November 2002, which was attended by both the Government and the LTTE.

The objective of the conference was to support the peace process and to provide immediate financial assistance. This conference decided to call the Tokyo Donor Conference in June 2003. The LTTE declined to participate at the Tokyo Conference. The objective of the Tokyo Conference was to provide international support and encouragement to the parties to make further progress with the peace process. Four members were appointed as donor co-chairs.

When the LTTE suspended its participation at the talks, the international community ensured that a dialogue was maintained. As a result we agreed in October 2003 to resume the talks. This is reflected in the Government’s communiqué of November 2003. Unfortunately before the talks resumed the three ministries were taken away.

I must say that the agreements and understandings reached between February 2002 and November 2003, provided a strong foundation for the ceasefire. We must proceed from this point. The international community and the co-chairs have also helped to ensure that the peace process did not break down between April 2004 to date since there has been no direct talks between the Government and the LTTE. They have, from time to time, influenced the Government and the LTTE to adhere to the CFA and to move the peace process forward. At the Tokyo Conference, the International Community committed US$ 4.5 billion for reconstruction and development parallel to the peace process. I do not know whether the peace process and the CFA would have withstood the strain without the support and goodwill of the International Community.

There is much debate in the country about the Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE you signed in February 2002. Your protagonists at the time, led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, are now singing its praises. What, in your view, were the pros and cons of it?
The CFA has brought the war to an end. This was accepted by the Government. Mahinda Rajapakse who originally wanted to cancel the CFA now wants to amend it.

The CFA also affirms safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka without engaging in any offensive operations against the LTTE.
The enforcement of law and order of the CFA is under the Government of Sri Lanka. There are several shortcomings – this takes place from a no-war situation until peace is negotiated. Unfortunately before we finalized the arrangements the government changed. The law and order has not improved since then.

How did you feel when the President took over the three Ministries which were in your charge in November 2003, as a prelude to the formation of the PA-JVP coalition, and then the dissolution of Parliament, elections, and the UNP's defeat?
The President has now stated that she had to dissolve Parliament on the pressure brought by the JVP. She told me that she had pressure from sections of her Party who were aligned to the JVP. I told her that I cannot agree with her and wanted the Defence Ministry back. While we were getting ready for Provincial Council elections the JVP pushed for dissolution of Parliament. As you can see the coalition had made the situation bad for the country.

But didn't you feel the need to get ready for an election. Even your budget of 2003 was bereft of benefits for the people.
I think you are referring to Budget 2003 for the fiscal year 2004. It gave a pay increase but I did not want to make promises and put things in jeopardy because of the poor performance of the economy in 2001.

It is because of the prudent measures we took in 2002 and 2003 the economy is still holding. We had in fact made arrangements for the Tokyo aid to fund our development plans in 2004 and also large investments were due to come to Sri Lanka which would have helped our economy to grow at over 8% percent. This was one of the reasons for the JVP to pressurize the President to dissolve Parliament. If we had continued the UNP would have been unbeatable.

About your economic thinking. Very few people seem to comprehend your economic thinking of modernizing Sri Lanka. Is that their fault for not understanding the modern world - or your fault - for not getting the message across?
Many people like to see a modern society and a modern economy. All young people want a modern economy – a dwelling place, a good system of transport and they want to live in a progressive society. But there are forces who do not want change – they feel they would lose out. You find forces opposed to progressive measures blocking the progress. This is what happened to the Alliance and the results became very clear within a few months. There will always be push and pull in this process. The youth want advancement in life where they want initiatives rewarded.

Can you tell us, as briefly as possible, what your economic policies will be. For example, what about agriculture. Do you think growing paddy is a waste of time and money, and we should industrialise instead.
Of course growing paddy is not a waste of time and money. It remains one of the most important and productive economic activities in the country. Perhaps what we need to do is to improve the yield and provide them an opportunity to get a competitive price for the farmers produce. But we have to develop industrial and other sectors to provide employment. We have to modernize the agricultural sector like in Thailand. Most successful economies have a balance of agriculture, industry and services. As far as paddy is concerned, in 2003, we had the largest produce after hundreds of years because of D.S Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake, and continued by JR Jayewardene. I feel we may be able to export certain varieties. Therefore as a nation the challenge for us is to modernize our agricultural sector and there by improve the living standards of our farmers and their families.

You seem to have been forced into announcing some populist measures in your manifesto - like free milk to school-children. Any comment.
I have always been for free milk for children below the age of 5 years to overcome malnutrition. Milk would also enhance the mental and emotional well being of a child. As regard to the programme to give relief to the consumers, today prices of goods are increasing faster than the income. So it is the responsibility of the state to cushion people from such increases. People should not be allowed to suffer due to poor government actions.

What in your view is the basic difference in UNP economic policies, and SLFP-JVP economic policies.
There are no SLFP-JVP economic policies. SLFP has since 1994 followed open economic policies. As for the JVP, they want closed economic policies. This is why the UPFA government could not deliver. The UPFA period was similar to the 1970 – 1977 regime. What has taken place is that the SLFP candidate is espousing the JVP policies contrary to his Party policies and the Party cannot accept the Mahinda Chinthanaya. On the other hand, the Budget did not contain any proposal regarding the Mahinda Chinthanaya. I do not think you can cover this up by calling it SLFP/JVP policies. Mahinda Rajapakse has become the JVP Trojan horse.

Why do you keep saying Federalism is the answer to the LTTE's bid for a separate state? How confident are you that the LTTE will drop its separate state demand for a Federal state.
We need to look at a federal structure, the President also has been talking about this. If you are going to suspect the LTTE from the start they will go back to the issue of a separate state. Should we not discuss with them what shape it would take. If we say the LTTE is not keen on a federal structure then what other options do we have?

President Kumaratunga has suddenly shown some affection towards you, shall we say, at least, politically. How do you explain this?
You should ask this question from President Kumaratunga! Since your newspaper and President Kumaratunga are not the best of friends, you will have it unanswered!

Her recent remarks seem to say that she would rather have you as the President than her own party candidate.
This question should be directed to her. Their Party candidate has been disowned by the Party Leader.

You intend continuing with the Presidential system, don’t you ? Hasn't the Presidency proved to be too much power centered on one person?
The Presidential system will be essential to maintain the new leadership and the political system.

We need to reform the constitution, and this will bring about the necessary balance, to allay your fears on concentration of power in the hands of the President. My idea is that Parliament should be the real seat of people’s power, and Parliament should be strengthened. All this can be achieved when we finish the work on the peace process and begin reforming the constitution in consultation with political parties and with a referendum.

Why should the people vote for you over, especially Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, for the job of Chief Executive Officer?
There are several burning issues. I care for the people and I will address the burning issues and I am a person who speaks to the head and not to the heart. I have proposed a bold initiative where the two Parties should work together for the betterment of the country. The main objective of Mahinda Rajapakse and the JVP is to defeat me and not defeat hunger and joblessness and this is the reason why people should vote for me.

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