Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has rejected the possibility that the controversial bond scam had soiled his “Mr Clean” image. In an interview with the Sunday Times, he said neither he nor his party had anything to do with it. He also reaffirmed the United National Party’s (UNP’s) commitment to abolishing the Executive Presidency and played [...]


National Government will continue after the polls

Bond scam has not soiled the 'Mr Clean' image; President's attacks are largely for the elections

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has rejected the possibility that the controversial bond scam had soiled his “Mr Clean” image. In an interview with the Sunday Times, he said neither he nor his party had anything to do with it. He also reaffirmed the United National Party’s (UNP’s) commitment to abolishing the Executive Presidency and played down differences between President Maithripala Sirisena and the UNP. Here are excerpts:

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

 On the election results
Turnout could be between 55 and 60 percent. The party that can get its voters to the polling station will win. The way it is now, the UNP will be ahead. This election is special in that it is under a new system. We will have to see what the results based on proportional representation are. The problem of every party is that some aspirants who did not get nomination are contesting as independents. The more their influence is curtailed, the better for the parties. Based on the outcome of the system, we will see what modifications are required.

 On a divided SLFP
The votes will be split between the two factions which are competing with each other. But these are temporary problems. They contested together at the last parliamentary election. We (UNP) must work towards increasing our own votes.

 The bond scam
The Central Bank bond issue has now been discussed for two years. I started the investigation. It was handed over to parliament and an Opposition MP was appointed the head of COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises). The COPE report was sent to the Attorney General for action. When it was proposed that a separate instrument be set up to inquire into Perpetual Treasuries, the President appointed a Commission with my agreement. We, too, gave evidence. The AG informed us he will act on the Commission’s recommendations. That is being done now. There was complete transparency and we supported the process in every way. The Commission says Perpetual Treasuries made undue profits, that there was an additional loss of Rs 600mn and an estimated total of Rs 9bn. We have frozen Rs 12bn in the Perpetual Treasuries’ account. On the Commission’s recommendations, we can recover the monies.

 On impact of bond scam on UNP
There was no black mark. We showed we were transparent while sitting in Government. The media might call it a black mark. The media have always attacked the UNP. I have no regrets. We handed it over to Parliament. They (COPE and the Commission) suggested further investigation of Perpetual Treasuries by the AG and police. The Commission found more details which, I suppose, would’ve been found even by the police and AG’s Department had they gone ahead. The Commission was good. Nobody has any complaints about it. We were willing to inquire into charges made while we are in power. That generally acts as a restraint on people who think that, ‘We’re in Government and we should try to make money’. You generally investigate what the last Government did, not charges against your own Government. By doing it, however, we are sending a message that there is transparency and if there are charges against you and you have been involved in corruption, no one can protect you. In that way, I think this incident has been very useful to us. People start questioning what you have done, politically, but those are issues you face from time to time. The media fail to point out that we checked ourselves. We have implemented the Right to Information Act. No one gets lifted by white vans when they write against the Government. We are building up the infrastructure of our democratic society. It’s still fragile. That’s why we feel that, when we win elections, we are actually strengthening the democratic structure.

 On appointing Arjuna Mahendran as Central Bank Governor
Mr Mahendran was qualified at that time to be appointed. The issue that we looked at was whether there was any undue influence when the bond was issued. That’s what the Commission and COPE went through. I would like to see the evidence once it’s made available because the Commission has made some references and I was not aware of that. I would like to see the evidence and read that. Then I could come to some conclusion.

 On not knowing the bond scam was happening
Two days after the bond, there were protests. That is why I appointed a committee. I presumed on what he (Mr Mahendran) told me, that the son-in-law has resigned from the company and was not working there. The whole business world knew he had resigned. I don’t feel let down (by Mr Mahendran). I want to see the evidence if there is anything I missed out.

 On soiling his “Mr Clean” image
The bond issue had nothing to do with me. The moment it came up, I looked into it. I appointed a committee of three lawyers and a Deputy Governor of the Bank to advise on it. They said there should be further inquiry. The COPE endorsed their findings.

 On Ravi Karunanayake being the “fall guy”
It has been stated that no UNP ministers are involved or responsible for the bond issue. We accept that. With regard to former Minister Ravi Karunanayake, there was separate evidence given for which it has been recommended that the final decision must be taken by the AG and the Bribery Commission.

 On action against Rajapaksa era corruption
We have identified several cases from the Rajapaksa era. That’s why action has been filed. There are some investigations overseas but that’s a really long drawn-out process because you have to get the legal authority of the Government concerned and go to courts. I wouldn’t like to mention the countries. At the banks, there are other procedures to be followed. But they are being followed, I must say. We know what has happened. The courts will punish them. Where the courts can recover the money, they will recover it.

 On President Sirisena’s attacks on the UNP
That happens on these platforms. We are criticised, our people also criticise. The two main parties unite to govern, not to contest elections. They protect their identities in the event that they contest elections separately. We had decided that we will contest every election separately.

 On the Alliance
We want to keep and protect the unity. We are committed to it, so we will carry on. We said at the last Parliamentary elections that, even if we get a two-thirds majority, we’ll form a national Government. It’s an experiment, let the country go through it. It might lead the way for occasional coalition governments and, also, the sharpness of politics will disappear. You won’t break your opponents head just because an election is on.

 On the cost of living
I admit the cost of living is a problem. The floods and drought caused a sudden, unexpected disruption of cultivation of crops. That led to prices rising. We have to now adjust it. Firstly, we have to start importing rice. I don’t think we will be self-sufficient even this season. Then we have to address the question of vegetables. The official outlets, both government and private, were selling at the maximum retail prices. Other traders were not conforming. Inflation has come down. Our real problem now lies with coconuts because the quarantine authorities are against importing them. So the prices will remain a bit high. We now have to get used to having long drought seasons or floods. We’re looking at how to adjust the cultivation patterns accordingly but remember that a drought or flood also means a loss to farmers. And they haven’t got enough money to cultivate the next season. We have learned some lessons in these few months.

 On foreign investment
The highest foreign investment to Sri Lanka came in 2017, US$1.5bn. Earlier, investors had to meet the President or a Minister to get something done. Today, they go to the Board of Investment and tell us in writing if there’s a problem. We don’t tell investors to meet us.

 On slow development returns
What we’re tackling is the invisible development of stabilising the economy. Without that, and getting the GSP Plus back, we could not have gone ahead. Now, with the investments that are coming in, we can give concrete results. But remember that, even under President Jayewardene, there was nothing very visible in the first two years. We need to tackle the economic issues. But the economy is solid. And people know we are doing it responsibly.

 On contesting the next Presidential Election
The UNP, the TNA and the JVP agreed before the (last) election to abolish the Executive Presidency and to devolve power without harming the unitary status of the country. That is part of the pledge we have made at the last election and part of the resolution passed at our party sessions. We must have a two-thirds majority and maybe a referendum. No party got a large majority at the last election so it’s a question of compromise. We still hold that position, although every party does not. The ‘pohottuwa’ has not stated its position. The SLFP says it is against abolishing the Executive Presidency but has offered options. We will discuss this after the election. We had agreed to introduce a Government accountable to Parliament and to decide on the Presidential powers separately. We will have to think about a Presidential Election only if this is unsuccessful. And, if so, we will decide at that time what we should do.

 On the local Government election being a referendum on the Government
It can’t be because the parties are contesting separately.

 On the Debt Liability Management Bill
Many countries with debt problems have passed this law so that debts are within certain limits. As a result of there not having been a framework, around Rs 4 trillion was taken without Monetary Board authority. The private placement–I don’t agree with private placements, the way they did it–but it’s significant that even that scheme had not been approved by the Monetary Board. According to the Bond Commission, losses for the EPF during that period were much bigger than Rs 9bn. This also spills over to the Stock Exchange because people were playing around with the Stock Exchange. So we have to have a very wide inquiry into these matters.

 On a corruption court
The number of complaints (being investigated) has gone up to 400. The court is to tackle the question of instituting legal action and getting quick results which is difficult under the present system. There are so many cases coming up. There is a backlog. So we thought a separate court will have day-to-day hearings and finish more than six cases per year. The court will consist of three High Court judges. From there, we are making provision for only one appeal to the Supreme Court, not one to the Court of Appeal and another to the Supreme Court. This means the original court will record evidence quickly. Otherwise evidence takes about four or five years to be recorded–witnesses are dead, witnesses have been bought over, and officers have retired. We want to get that process completed fast. We are establishing three courts with nine judges. It’s the maximum we can manage at the moment, although I would like to see five courts.

 On the new laws proposed by the Bond Commission
We are waiting to see the new laws. Then we will go into it.

 On being silent over President Sirisena’s attacks
I have said what I have to say. That’s all.

 On the President’s criticism of UNP economic policy
The President has explained to us there were certain things that he had questions about. Obviously, he’s expressing that view during election time. He said he would like to discuss some of these problems further in the National Economic Council. We have no problem with that. The UNP has a social market economy. The SLFP is gradually adjusting to that. But this is election time. Both parties are committed to the market economy and to foreign investment. The President has not moved away from that since the time of the Presidential Election. There are different emphases on the market economy between the UNP and the SLFP. It has to be. But it’s the market economy.

On friction in the Alliance
In coalition governments, there has to be friction, no? There have to be occasional issues. Do you think our single party governments have been free of problems?

 On picking Mr Sirisena as common candidate
I have no regrets. We had to beat Mahinda Rajapaksa and we did.

 On media backlash
I am used to the media. When did you ever say anything good about me?

 On his successor
My successor, the party will decide. At the moment, it’s good being in Government and this coalition because we are seeing people building up their experience. Before 2015, I had very few with Cabinet experience and they were the older lot. Now, a new lot are coming as Ministers, Deputy Ministers and MPs. We need at least seven in the running to get one. Only Mr D S Senanayake was lucky. In his party, three of his Ministers became Prime Ministers. One of his Ministers left him and became Prime Minister. So he and four others–that’s a record in any country. Apart from them, Mr Jayawerdene, R. Premadasa, D.B.Wijetunge and I have been prime minister. In this Cabinet, I think there are good people. There are State Ministers, Deputy Ministers. It’s a forming of a second line and a third line. It’s taking place now.

 On disillusionment among youth
They want the results. We haven’t delivered everything. But we have made society transparent, we have made society free. Youth go through these periods. That’s good. It makes politicians also realise they have to cater to a new generation, new moods.

 On the economy and jobs
There are a lot of problems to be solved. It will take about two or three years. The big problem was that we could not give jobs in the first year because of the economic situation. We are fixing that. Our plan is to create more jobs in the private sector. We must be ready for it. During the Rajapaksa era, there was a return to Government jobs. Under the current programme, the private sector will create more employment. Even now, it has about 100,000 vacancies for young people but there is no demand for these jobs. We are studying the reasons, to see what can be done.

 On debt
Investments are coming in, like the US$1.5bn in 2017. I’m not satisfied. I’d like to see US$ 3bn or 4bn, I go up to 10bn sometimes. But it’s been the highest. This year will be higher. It’ll take about three years. Thereafter, it will pick up much faster. We have to get the infrastructure going or some of these investments won’t come in.

Our revenue is sufficient now to do the debt-servicing annually. But what is left over is not sufficient for the full development programme. What we’re avoiding is taking loans to pay the loans. But we’ll take loans for new projects. By 2025, GDP will expand sufficiently and debt as a percentage of GDP will reduce. We don’t want to leave this issue to the next generation. We must resolve it in our time. It has to be resolved by 2025.

 New constitution or amendments
We are looking at a new constitution.

 On allegations that a private TV station got a frequency through President’s favour
They’ve got some licences. I don’t think it’s a favour. Frequency was given, I know that.

 The media
Which media helped us? We did not have any help from the media. We are being asked even now, ‘Why aren’t you catching thieves?’ but no media are asking why aren’t you catching those who killed journalists and assaulted them? We are doing the investigations. We are coming closer, step-by-step, and will do the rest after the elections. But I am surprised we don’t get any pressure at all. It’s like the media are talking about corruption only to hit out at the Government. Otherwise, you will take up media violations, too.

On what has been done for minorities
Certainly freedom has been given: freedom to worship, freedom to practise their culture. We are making a serious effort to establish a Sri Lankan identity. We are discussing devolution. Where investors are concerned, we have given high incentives for the North but the Northern economy and infrastructure are broken. It’s going to take a fair amount of time to be repaired. What the war destroyed cannot be repaired in one or two years but we are making that effort. In the East, we will be having more progress, with the developments around Trincomalee and in tourism, and the ability to modernise and develop agriculture in those areas. In the North, the whole economic framework and social fabric have collapsed. The traditional leaders of society are no longer there. They are abroad. The whole social system has collapsed. This is not so in the East.

 On SriLankan Airlines
We have now appointed an officials’ committee and they have to look at a Public Private Partnership and talk to the interested parties. The Board members have sent in their resignations. So they are there on a caretaker basis and the Minister will decide what to do next. Overall, there have been differences of opinion but the fact is running has improved. The big issue is this debt of about US$ 600mn which has been taken by SriLankan. The bulk of it has been guaranteed by two State banks. At the end of the day, we have to intervene to ensure that the banks don’t collapse.

 On overruling the Board removal of CEO Suren Ratwatte
I did not overrule. I asked the Minister what is happening. He said he didn’t know. The Board should have consulted the Minister before taking a major decision. The appointments (to the Board) were on the basis of them being competent people, those who had run corporations previously. One was a member of the Working Committee. Some of them happen to be Royalists. It’s a coincidence. I have not appointed anyone because of the school. They have all been cleared by the High Posts Committee which can scrutinise them. SriLankan has actually improved. The problem is the debt. It had a bad patch when the Katunayaka Airport was closed. Other than that the real problem with Sri Lankan is the debt.

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