Former President, prior to his departure to Japan, spoke to Kelum Bandara of Daily Mirror about the current situation of the country in the aftermath of the Cabinet reshuffle and his plans for future politics. He shared the following:
How do you look at the current political climate in the context of the Cabinet reshuffle?
It was not a reshuffle as such. It was just a change of a few heads. The one, dubbed as the best Finance Minister in the world, was assigned with a different portfolio. Instead, the Finance Ministry was assigned to Mangala Samaraweera. There was a change in the Port and Shipping Ministry. That was actually to facilitate the selling off of the Ports. Arjuna Ranatunga, who held he was stripped of it because he was opposed to the concept. We cannot call it a reshuffle. If the government intended to do so, it should have been done with a purpose. It was a just a change of ministerial posts to execute the same policy line. This would not serve any purpose.
It is in speculation that some institutions such as the Development Lotteries Board, Sri Lankan Airlines and Mahapola Scholarship Fund are going to be placed under the purview of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. This is a joke.
Sirisena was a minister in my government and the General Secretary of the SLFP until he defected at the last moment. I never removed him from any of those positions he had held in my government. The differences were in his head, not mine
You mentioned that Minister Ranatunga was removed because he voiced against some projects. Why do you say so?
Arjuna voiced against the sale of national assets in the Cabinet. That should have been the reason. The President has control over everything. I must say that. Yet, the UNP portfolios have been shuffled among its members and the SLFP ones. Some young MPs waited in earnest to get posts. Today, they are a desperate lot.
From your point of view, what would the end result be?
That is the fear we harbour. We fear that this would lead to a situation similar to Greece where the economy collapsed. Be that as it may, there is no option for this government. It has to go borrowing or find money through selling off the assets.
After the reshuffle, there were reports that you talked to Foreign Affairs Minister Ravi Karunanayake over the phone. How true is it?
Yes, I spoke to him. Normally, I am in touch with everybody. He was dubbed the world’s best Finance Minister. It is a great insult to him that he was removed from it. He received an award but it boomeranged on him eventually.
Officially, I am not the leader of the Joint Opposition or the Sri Lanka Podujana Party. But I lead the political movement that would form the next government and I would lead the campaign on behalf of this movement at all future elections
Indian PM Narendra Modi, during his visit to Sri Lanka in view of UN Vesak Day devoted 45 minutes out of his 24-hour schedule in the country to meet you. You were once critical of India for playing a role to unseat you. Now, this meeting has given rise to speculation that you are looking to new ties with India. Your comments…
I know PM Modi well. I attended his swearing in ceremony. Also, I met him during a SAARC summit. Again, I met him in Nepal. There is nothing wrong if a Head of State meets with a former Head of State.
You were critical of India, then how do you look to the future?
We had quite a good understanding with India when the Congress government was in power. There were some issues due to pressure from Tamil Nadu, but the understanding between the governments continued. The former Indian External Affairs Secretary Shivshankar Menon had spoken with appreciation in his book of the understanding that existed between our countries. He has reaffirmed this in his interview with you some time earlier.
However, after the government in India had changed, certain misunderstandings emerged between India and Sri Lanka. The new Indian Government did not have the time to get to know us better. I feel that both sides are now ready to look at things afresh. India and Sri Lanka are neighbours, and in order to maintain good relations, we have to talk. The Indian PM and I met during his visit to Sri Lanka and he has invited me to India too. Both countries should frankly discuss each others’ needs and concerns and arrive at a working arrangement. The two decades from 1956 to 1977 was the golden era of Indo-Lanka relations which proved that a working relationship based on mutual respect was possible. We have to look back at that era and see how the leaders of the two countries sort out bilateral issues. The key words are ‘mutual respect’.
I have been in politics since 1970, and I have faced defeat earlier as well. It was the defeat of 2015 that enabled me to identify all the betrayers and conspirators who were around me
After the May Day rally at Galle Face, you have created some momentum. How do you sustain it as there would be no national elections till 2020?
The next presidential election will have to be declared at the end of 2019. The support that you see in the country for the opposition is not something that has been artificially created which needs to be maintained through various strategies. Resentment against this government is increasing by the day, and will continue to grow so long as it holds power.
The feedback that we were getting indicated that we would draw a record crowd which was why we asked for the Galle Face Green. But it was still an awe inspiring experience even to us, because nobody had ever seen a gathering like that before in this country.
After the rally, we heard calls by the SLFP section in the government to unite the party. What are your suggestions for uniting the two factions?
There was no split in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) when President Maithripala Sirisena assumed leadership. When he defected from the party and contested as the common candidate, he could not get a bulk of the party votes. In my understanding, he got only around 5% of SLFP votes. He had got other votes and won.
This split has come about due to a part of the SLFP being used to prop up the UNP government. The SLFP and UPFA contested the 2015 August parliamentary election under my leadership on an anti-UNP, anti-yahapalana platform. Yet, the present leader of the SLFP and some SLFP parliamentarians are propping up this government, while the majority of the MPs and party supporters have opted to remain in the opposition.
How is it possible to unite the two factions?
There is little point in talking about uniting the SLFP so long as a part of it continues to support this government. Unity is unrealistic as long as a section of the party holds responsibilities in the government. The SLFP is equally held responsible for the wrongs of the current regime. It cannot abdicate its responsibility.
Unity is unrealistic as long as a section of the party holds responsibilities in the government. The SLFP is equally held responsible for the wrongs of the current regime. It cannot abdicate its responsibility
Do you think the SLFPers holding posts in the government would quit at one point?
Time is ripe for them now to quit. They have to think of people at large and decide. They have to give it a serious thought if they are to do electoral politics in future.
Now, you cannot seek presidency in terms of the Constitution. Then, what sort of role would you play at future elections?
Officially, I am not the leader of the Joint Opposition or the Sri Lanka Podujana Party. But I lead the political movement that would form the next government and I would lead the campaign on behalf of this movement at all future elections. I cannot contest for presidency. Yet, I have the capability to ensure the victory of the chosen candidate. A leader, caring for his motherland, would emerge among people at the right time.
It is said that your brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would contest for presidency next time. How true is it?
The main election pledge made by the ‘yahapalana camp’ was the abolition of the executive presidency. However, if they don’t implement that, and another Presidential election comes around at the end of 2019, at that stage we will announce who our candidate would be. The decision would be made by the Joint Opposition. We will field the best possible candidate. It would be either A or B.
Some SLFP ministers talk against the abolition of executive presidency…
Those voices are reflective of the opinion of the top in power. There are pluses and minuses of having the executive presidency.
How prepared are you to reconcile the differences with President Sirisena?
It is not a matter for me to decide upon. It is an initiative meant to be taken by him. I handed over the party leadership to him. Yet, since then, I am subjected to slander and harassment. There is no end to it.
Sirisena was a minister in my government and the General Secretary of the SLFP until he defected at the last moment. I never removed him from any of those positions he had held in my government. The differences were in his head, not mine. So, he will have to think matters over on his own. There is little or nothing that I can do in that regard.
As things stand at the moment, SLFP is heading for a split? From your perspective how certain is it?
The SLFP is already split. Almost all the SLFP parliamentarians who have remained in the opposition have been removed from their electoral organiser positions and replaced with pro- government individuals. Once these positions have been given to other people, they cannot be taken back. So, the split among the SLFP groups in the government and the opposition would widen.
There is a perception that you made a mistake by calling for a presidential election prematurely. Some said that you did so anticipating a serious financial crisis. What made you to take that decision?
Past Presidents including JR Jayewardene and Chandrika Kumaratunga held early elections. The Constitution allows presidential elections to be called at any time after the fourth year of the term. I too called an early election at a time I thought was opportune. There was certainly no financial crisis at the time when I held the election. On the contrary, one of the reasons why I thought I should call an election was because the economy was booming. The financial crisis that affects Sri Lanka was entirely a creation of the present government. As for me, having made a mistake in calling for an early presidential elections, I am now beginning to think that on the contrary, that was one of the best decisions I had made; a decision to my defeat. But defeat is something that all politicians are accustomed to. I have been in politics since 1970, and I have faced defeat earlier as well. It was the defeat of 2015 that enabled me to identify all the betrayers and conspirators who were around me.
Today, I lead a very strong and united opposition movement made up of nationalists, Marxists, conservatives and liberals. All of them have united under one banner with a clear political objective and they remain committed to that goal despite threats, arrests, court cases, behind bars for longer periods and every kind of harassment that one can think of. I wouldn’t have had the privilege of leading a people’s movement like this if not for the defeat of January 2015.
In your view, what are the mistakes that you made or caused your downfall?
I ran a government that had many achievements to its credit. We won the war that nobody else could do. We built infrastructure projects that other governments could only talk about but never even initiate. The day-to-day running of the economy was very efficient. We brought down the debt to GDP ratio. We successfully carried out all the basic rehabilitation work in the north and east. The per capita income in US Dollar terms increased threefold in just nine years. Nobody could have done more. Then where did we go wrong? Firstly, I have to admit that I failed to take action against certain individuals who engaged in actions that brought disrepute upon my government. The whole country saw how these very individuals went out of their way to betray me after I lost power. The fact that several members of my family served in various positions in the government was also used in propaganda against me. At the 2005 presidential elections, I got little or no support at an official level from the SLFP which was then led by CBK, so it was a group of individuals and political parties that gathered around me personally, carried out the election campaign. Several close relatives played key roles in the campaign and some of them ended up in various government positions. Our political enemies made use of this to make various allegations against my government. Our biggest mistake by far was not responding adequately to the wild allegations that were levelled against me, my family and my government in general.
After the defeat at the 2015 elections, how would you change your policies and approaches in future?
We must not have any illusions about what the situation would be like, by the time the yahapalana government comes to an end. The top priority for any future government would be restoring stability to the economy and putting the day-to-day administration of the country back on track.
The government blames the current economic problems on the borrowings made by you. How do you respond to this?
From January 2015 up to now, this government has obtained more than USD 13.3 billion in foreign currency loans. All that has been for consumption. No previous government has taken such a large amount of money in foreign currency loans in such a short time. It was they who brought a debt crisis upon this country. My government took foreign currency loans only in a planned way so that repayments would not become a burden on the economy. Because of the short-term loans that this government took, massive repayments are due in 2018/19.
There are corruption charges against the members of your family. There is a saying that ‘there cannot be smoke without fire’. How do you react to these charges?
There have always been corruption charges against politicians in this country. When there are mega development projects, it is easier to make allegations about kickbacks. But in 2015, the yahapalana propaganda against my government was false. They claimed that the infrastructure projects that I built could be completed with 10% of the estimated cost and that members of my family had pocketed the remaining 90%. The present finance minister went on record saying that I had amassed a fortune of USD 18 billion during my tenure in power! Some people actually believed this nonsense mainly because there were inadequate response from our side to these allegations. When I was in power, if there was any large house being built anywhere, it was alleged to be Basil’s. Every hotel that was built, be Namal’s. After my defeat, the houses and hotels all vanished and the people realized that they had been taken for a ride.
Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka even said you should be hanged. What is your view?
I don’t think discussing Sarath Fonseka’s ravings would serve any useful purpose!