Opposition common candidate Maithripala Sirisena and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe held a Q&A session with the business community at the Cinnamon Lakeside yesterday. The session was moderated by former banker Ranjith Fernando. Following are excerpts from the session:
By Marisa Wikramanayake and Waruni Paranagamage
Q: How do you address corruption charges without disrupting business activities and investment?
As far as corruption charges are concerned, we already have mechanisms in place. Just go on with it - why should business get disr
upted? 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.
Q: How would you address war crimes charges against Sri Lanka?
Actually we haven’t signed the Rome 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.
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.
Q: How will you restore external policy to benefit industry, trade and investment?
If you want external policy to benefit internal trade and investment then you have to be open to the markets. You have to develop relationships with them to the extent that we got a free trade agreement that no one else got. Maithripala Sirisena is committed to developing those relationships with the West and with India.
You have to remember that all the Asian countries, like India and China, we are all competing for Western markets. And our relationship with the West has been the longest, longer than even India’s. People don’t realise that in World War II it was Sri Lanka that stood by the Allies, not anyone else and that’s something that the Americans, British and others have forgotten. And our record of democracy. Why are we blowing this up now? I don’t know where the Foreign Ministry is. If anyone can find the Foreign Ministry, kindly let us know.
Q: There have been many people involved in corruption at the provincial council and secondary level in Sri Lanka. What will you do about this?
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.
Q: Will you confirm whether you will continue with the investigations you started into Mrs. Kumaratunga during your last tenure as Prime Minister?
I did not start any inquiry against Mrs. Kumaratunga when I was Prime Minister. I could not have inquired against the President. Anyway as rule I do not make inquiries against my friends, even if my friends forget me sometimes. And I also count President Mahinda Rajapaksa as one of my friends. I can tell you that I did not start any inquiries.
Maithripala: As in the previous answer, I will take action to ensure that anyone who has been previously involved in corruption, where no charges have been made or no action has been taken, will also be dealt with under common law, whether they are a politician or a government official.
Q: Can you confirm that projects like the Waterfront project at John Keells and the Port City will not be arbitrarily cancelled without an objective process to look into all development projects set up by the previous Government without cancelling them outright because they have not gone through a feasibility study or an environmental impact assessment?
I can’t guarantee you that we will carry out everything that the Rajapaksa Government has done. We are about change not continuity. But what I told you 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 Matala 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 despite intervention by the Government. But I think we should be and we can go green. We have always been that. And as you can see Maithripala has started to do that.
It’s coming up and we have a big role to play. And remember sustainable development also gets you good financial assistance when you become a low income country and that’s your balance of payments and so in that way, with objective criteria, we will look at everything but we need a feasibility study because after what happened to the Hamabantota Port and the airport it will be a mistake not to look at all the feasibility studies of all these projects.
Q: What is your Plan B for the election and what about the fear of a military takeover? And what about import taxes impacting the local industry? For instance, the floor tiles industry has an issue where the products are so expensive people can’t afford to build their houses.
That’s a long question. Plan B was yesterday. As the government counterpart, the chances of people trying to back them in these ventures and I don’t think the military will do that. lf the Government loses, that’s half the military – more of the military votes against the Government and it’s increasing and it’s just not possible. It is a foolish risk and especially if you are in Colombo – this is a completely UNP city so if you put the army in and try to run it then you will have people turning against you. You wanted me to answer a question about import taxes. I mean, we are developing industry so we will back them up and give them the assistance to go out and become more competitive. Do not think Sri Lanka is the only market. At least go across and we can be proud of the standards that some of our industries have reached and not only the big industries but I know some small industries. But look we need more and more. We need thousands and thousands of factories in this country all going high-tech and we will give you all the assistance to go there. We will support you to get there and we will make floor tiles much cheaper for all of you to build your houses – maybe you can get other types of flooring also, you need not have floor tiles all the time.
Q: What will you do to protect women and children if elected?
The Government makes the wellbeing of women and children a priority. But Mahinda Rajapaksa regime has almost neglected this area. The principles of the people have been significantly destroyed within the last few years. Government politicians in provincial councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas have committed several rapes and child abuse within the last few years.
The Ministry of Child and Women Affairs and Child Protection Authority could not enforce the law. There was political interference in the appointments of chairmen in both departments. The civil law in the country and the legislation power were not enforced.
The law could not take action against serious offenders. But we will ensure that children, women and mothers are protected under our new Government. And we will enhance the laws on their nutrition and introduce new laws for their nutrition and protection. I think the chairmen of these departments must be selected by the legislative. Retired judges are suitable to decide upon and appoint the chairmen of these departments. The President does not need to appoint them.
Ranil: We have, in the UNP, a committee set up to investigate the abuse of children and women and to look into better ways of protecting them and we have Rosie Senanayake and Karu Jayasuriya as members on that committee. But there is a problem with the enforcement of the law and corruption. Last year there were 2200 complaints of rape but only seven of them have been filed.
Q: What is your view on the ability of the Government and private sector to make policies?
The Government makes policies by considering the needs of a few parties. But we will consider the ideas and needs of all parties when we make policies. And we will do that and be responsible to the citizens as well in a transparent way. We wish to make it easy for people to understand what is going on. We want to be transparent to the citizens so we need to consider ideas and viewpoints from the relevant political leadership, expert committees and the people when making policies.
Q: Mihin Lanka and Sri Lanka Airlines are facing losses. How will you address this?
Mihin Lanka is a huge drain on the country’s national worth. Both were created to fulfill the needs of just a few parties. We will try to consolidate both airline services and we hope to investigate the corruption that occurred while purchasing the aeroplanes and other equipment. We will appoint suitable experts to manage both these services. Today these are managed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s relatives.
: In the first half of 2013, the direct investment of BOI enterprises in the services sector was $ 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 should buy it.
Q: If communal unrest does arise how do you plan to deal with it?
From the beginning we will maintain law and order and I think Maithripala Sirisena’s reign begins from the moment we get votes because we have to ensure that there is law and order in the country in order for his Holiness the Pope to visit Sri Lanka. As we get together and we try and overcome the divisions of ethnicity and religion, the chances are less but there are a few troublemakers who might try something in the first year or so. So we will be alert and both the security services and the general public must help in keeping the peace during that time. For the first time after 1940 there is a chance of getting everyone together. I think we should all make that effort in order to claim that we are truly Sri Lankan.
Q: The lack of law and order is the elephant in the room. How do we ensure that the rule of law applies to all regardless of whether the person is related to the President or is someone who sweeps the road?
First to correct you, it isn’t the elephant in the room that’s the issue. It’s the lack of the elephant in the room. I think we are looking at modifying the immunity of the President and so he will be open to prosecution and the laws regarding this will be made not by the politicians but by the people in society. Everyone should be under the law.
Here no one gets touched but look at China. How many senior members are getting locked up for corruption? We don’t do that. In India, look at the number of ministers who are getting hauled up? In the UK, the Minister Chris Huhne was sent to jail for giving false evidence.
We have to get back to the rule of law and that is something we are committed to. There has to be rule of law.
Q: What is your national policy on the stock market?
The stock market has already taken two good chairmen as sacrifices. 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.
You need to look at how we can expand the stock market. We have to remember that to do this we have to clean up the stock market and we had chairmen that left and that is remembered by foreign investors and so we have to make it clear with the securities and exchange. So we need new laws around the financial sector itself and the role of the Central Bank and the monetary board and there will certainly be new laws coming into place to ensure firstly that our stock exchange is above board and that we seldom raise issues in Parliament. Secondly, we must look at the niche markets where we can get a name because in time to come some of the hot money will cease as I think the European Union’s economy by 2016 will pick up and America is doing well and so is Britain and sometimes the money will be moving back. So you cannot just run on hot money alone and so you have to look at niche markets in the financial sector – where will you specialise? So you have a big stock exchange in Singapore and another one in Kuala Lumpur and another one in Mumbai so in the long-term that is what we want to think of so I am sure our private sector will not be short of ideas on how it should be done.
Q: Could you comment on the ETF issue and the cutbacks?
President Rajapaksa had it in his labour manifesto but he has done nothing about it for the past ten years. They are stealing the ETF money. It is important to make sure that the money is secure, that they do not damage the ETF. It prevents people from accessing their money and we need to make sure that the money is kept safe for them.
Q: Can you please explain the role of Mr. Sirisena after the 100 days? Will he continue as President or will he take on the role of Prime Minister? If he continues as President will he be a non-executive President?
He is directly elected by the people so we thought that while we amend the Constitution to move away from this creation of the Rajapaksa executive presidency that not even J. R. Jayawardena did. The Parliament cannot by law give the president whatever functions he has to perform because he is directly elected by the people. The next president will not have those powers that the Parliament will confer and there are two main issues that we currently have because there is going to be a changing role of the President which is important. Instead of three branches of the Government - the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary - we are going to take on a fourth branch, good governance, where the presidency, etc. all come in. There the President takes over. That will be his branch so he will be the umpire. And he will ensure that good governance policies will be moved and the essential powers will be given there. The other issue is that we are trying to work together for three to four years so when the political parties are trying to work together there will be room for certain interplay and as the President he will bring everyone together and we are also looking at public funding of political parties so this whole role of getting a less political system and a more consensus-oriented system – that’s a role the President will have to take on because for those of us in the combative politics of Parliament, where do we stop? Where do we draw the line? If he takes on the role of the President he will also be re-fashioning the whole political structure in Sri Lanka. And then what’s the role of the non-government sector, of the charity organisations? So there is certainly a role for the President of Sri Lanka to play.
Q: In the event that the 100-day program cannot be completed, will you consider extending the 100 days for another 100 days?
100 days is 100 days.
Q: How will you tackle the issue of high interest loans and the debt we have incurred?
We will show our 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.
Maithripala: I can guarantee you that we have not done anything that we have not told the public about. Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe and I have not signed anything between us since I became the common candidate and there will be nothing signed. We wish to be transparent.
Q: What will you do to ensure that the election is held so that voters are not blocked or prevented from voting?
We are making all efforts but it is not only us. The general public is important in getting people to go vote. I don’t think there will be violence. There may be areas in which they try to block votes which we are identifying and taking up with the Commissioner of Elections and I think it’s a matter for Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, who is heading the committee on election day arrangements and election votes.
Q: What you will be doing to help the local dairy industry compete and be profitable?
The Government has been lax in implementing a national plan to support dairy farmers and the ministry has also been unable to implement grassroots level programs to identify the farmers’ needs.
We can guarantee that that the purchase price paid to dairy farmers for a litre of milk will be raised by Rs. 10 from the present Rs. 60 within the first 100 days of me taking oath as president. New Zealand farmers produce 25 litres of milk per cow per day. We have to improve manpower, labour skills, logistic and production in the agriculture sector. After becoming President I will introduce a program to identify farmers’ needs and to support the industry in meeting local demand and becoming sustainable and profitable.
Q: What are your plans regarding the coconut industry?
: As a coconut grower I won’t forget the coconut industry. But we do have one issue and that is that we have to sit down with all in the industry and put together a plan. Part of the problem is that, especially in the Northwest, we have to find new land for coconut development. It is a crucial area and that is why it was not included in the 100-day program because unlike tea or rubber we really have to first consider where we are going to find the new land for coconut plantations and whether it is going to be large scale or smaller. So we have to work it out and we cannot forget parts of the Northwest where the best coconut-growing lands are.
Q: There is a lot of discrimination for business in the policies so will all that be removed?
A level playing field. There is nothing more that we can give you.
Q: How do we overcome this issue of debt in such a short time period?
As I said, first we convert the short-term debt into long-term debt. Second, we double the GDP within the next eight years and if you do that then you can double it again. So as your GDP grows twofold, fourfold and eightfold you have to expand along the way.
Pix by Daminda Harsha Perera