In far-reaching interview, reiterates national unity here to stay; Govt. to lift Lankans to new socioeconomic heights
Under constant watch by the Joint Opposition and the country at large, Malik Samarawickrama is one of the most powerful ministers of the unity Government and a close confidante of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Apart from being Chairman of the UNP, Samarawickrama holds the crucial portfolio of Development Strategies and International Trade, on which rests the responsibility of shaping proper policies and championing projects of strategic and national importance. The Daily FT met up with Samarawickrama to get his insights on the success of the Yahapalanaya unity Government so far as well as its response to current issues and some of the allegations of the Joint Opposition. The following are excerpts.
Q: We are now two years into the Yahapalanaya unity Government. As a senior minister of this Government, how would you describe the accomplishments and failures of the regime?
A: First of all, the Government has not been in power for two years. We formed a Government on 17 August 2015. When you look at the pros and cons of this Government there are obviously more pros than cons. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, both mature and seasoned politicians, realised the critical importance of the two major parties - the SLFP and UNP - working together to bridge the fundamental divides in this country and work jointly towards a shared prosperity.
Not since the presidency of J.R. Jayawardene has our country been led by politicians who are focused on the needs of the next generation instead of the needs of their ministers and themselves at the next election. This type of long-term and strategic thinking is what we lacked during the defeated regime of the Rajapaksa family, where all major decisions that affected the country were taken by considering first what would most benefit the first family.
In terms of concrete accomplishments, remember that we inherited a ticking time bomb of public debt, completely demoralised and politicised law enforcement agencies and a public service rife with nepotism and corruption at every level. The President and Prime Minister took several steps to repair the culture of the public service, eradicate impunity for wrongdoing and set in motion the apprehension of the criminals who robbed the country blind over the previous decade.
Q: What concrete steps can you point to in this regard?
A: Maithripala Sirisena is the first head of state in the long history of Sri Lanka who had the courage to take steps to reduce his personal powers during the term of his presidency. In doing so, he had the ideal partner in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who not only made a Sirisena presidency possible by throwing the full might of the UNP behind a blue-blooded SLFP candidate, but even after winning the election, kept his promises to elevate several SLFP strongmen to honestly and cooperatively share power in a way that allowed ministers of both parties to serve as checks and balances on each other and prioritise democracy over their personal interest.
The Prime Minister knew full well that had he called a parliamentary election in the immediate aftermath of the January 8 presidential election, the UNP would have swept the polls in a way that the country nor his party has not seen since 1977. Instead of selfishly thinking about UNP politics, he joined hands with President Sirisena and worked to keep the promises they had made to the people, fully aware that this would help strengthen President Sirisena’s leadership of the SLFP.
In essence, he prioritised the strengthening of the SLFP leadership over the electoral success of the UNP, in the sort of nod to good governance that was unthinkable in Sri Lanka before the Yahapalanaya regime came to office.
From a policy perspective, the Government moved swiftly to control the national debt, which had spiralled out of control as the Rajapaksas and their allies amassed billions in offshore wealth to the detriment of the country. Rather than set up the sorts of kangaroo courts and convictions-by-degree that the Rajapaksa regime used for their witch-hunts against Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, the Government strengthened independent public institutions and left it to law enforcement agencies to bring criminals to justice.
The entire Judiciary was shaken and demoralised by the way that Chief Justice Bandaranayake was ousted. Similarly, the army was horrified and demoralised by the way that their commander was shackled and imprisoned for political reasons. Within months of coming into office, the Government addressed both these venomously calculated injustices, perpetrated by the Rajapaksas in their thirst for limitless power.
We restored Justice Bandaranayake as head of the Supreme Court, and reinstated Sarath Fonseka, exonerating him of all the false charges levelled against him and elevating him to the rank of Field Marshall.
These decisions were a signal to both the Judiciary and the army that this Government values their role in our society and will treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve, instead of leaning on them as political pawns.
The President established the Stolen Assets Recovery Task Force (START), through which the CID, FCID, Central Bank and Attorney Generals Department are all working together to identify and repatriate billions of rupees stolen from the public purse before President Rajapaksa was defeated on January 8, 2015.
The Financial Crimes Investigation Department (FCID) was established to empower the police to investigate the complex cases of fraud and money laundering. The procurement process was revamped to bring transparency to Government tenders, and political appointments were minimised within ministry secretariats, to strengthen the public service cadre.
Q: Why do you think it is that despite all of this, the Government is so unstable?
A: The only instability in the Government is in the eyes of a handful of Members of Parliament who call themselves the ‘Joint Opposition’ and try to carry tales to create the perception of friction in the Government.
For over a year now, this ‘Joint Opposition’ has been charging that the Government is likely to fall at any minute, and despite there not being a shred of evidence, the media continues to support this view and contribute to the echo chamber by minimising their coverage and reporting of any of the Government’s achievements, such as the ones I refer to above.
Remember that those who are shouting themselves hoarse about the imminent collapse of the Government are the very same people who used to say that Mahinda Rajapaksa could never be defeated. Today they do not even have a political party.
When this so-called ‘Joint Opposition’ says that the people are clamouring for another Mahinda Rajapaksa-led regime, do not forget that Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only president in the history of Sri Lanka to be defeated in a presidential poll, despite ramming through a constitutional amendment designed to help him cling on to power. This was in no small part due to public frustration and fury over the daylight robbery and culture of violence that he presided over. Many people in the UNP, SLFP, journalists and civil society leaders risked their lives to bring these crimes to light. One of my dearest friends, Lasantha Wickrematunge, even paid with his life for trying to shine a light on these crimes.
Q: The Government came into power promising to act against those responsible for the murders of journalists like your friend Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of The Sunday Leader. What has this Government done to help bring the perpetrators to justice?
A: This Government has done and continues to do what Lasantha himself would have wanted us to do. One of Lasantha’s many visions for Sri Lanka was to take politics out of law enforcement. It is fitting that what the Prime Minister and Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka have done is only to instruct that the Criminal Investigation Department reopen the case, and thereafter we have given complete autonomy to the career detectives at the CID to investigate independently. Make no mistake. This Government is 100% committed to bringing Lasantha’s killers to justice, no matter the cost.
These are confidential matters so I cannot say too much, but it has already been reported elsewhere that the CID has access to unprecedented resources for this investigation. This is no accident. When Lasantha was lowered into his grave on January 11, 2009, all of us present, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, knew that we owed him a debt of honour that could only be repaid by bringing his killers to justice.
Whatever the CID needs to solve this crime, we will provide, and this Government will not allow anyone involved in this vicious attack to escape prosecution, no matter their status or political affiliation.
Q: There has been a lot of talk about former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa seizing power and becoming the next leader of this country leading an uprising in the style of Donald Trump. Is this something that the Government is concerned about?
A: There is one thing that Gotabaya Rajapaksa has in common with Donald Trump. They are both citizens of the United States of America. Under the Constitution no person who is also a citizen of another country can even become a Member of Parliament, let alone be elected president. So my suggestion to Mr. Rajapaksa would be that he first legally renounce his American citizenship before continuing to give false hopes to his supporters.
It is well known that Gotabaya fled the war with his family to live in America, and returned to Sri Lanka only when his brother was contesting the presidency in 2005. He has also recently said that as a civilian he had no control over the military, which calls into question how much he contributed to winning the war. His popularity stemmed mainly from his stated role in helping the military to defeat the LTTE. However, if he is now saying that he had no control of the military as a civilian, why should anyone vote for him?
All of this talk is part of their campaign to instil an irrational fear in the minds of those who might want to cooperate with the Government in bringing them to justice for the crimes they have committed. It doesn’t concern us at all.
Q: There has been a lot of public debate and outcry about the Hambantota Harbour deal. After promising a Government free of corruption, how do you justify this deal and the role that you have personally played?
A: This is yet another example of us coming under fire for trying to clean up the fiscal mess left by the Rajapaksas. Throughout their reign the Rajapaksa-led Ports Authority was never transparent in their deals, such as the original Hambantota Harbour deal with China Harbour Corporation and the Chinese Exim Bank or the Galle Marina Project.
By the time this Government had passed its first budget, the situation was so dire that the Treasury could not even afford to make the loan repayments to China for the Hambantota Harbour project. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe personally led a delegation to China to try and negotiate either the cancellation of the loan or a deferment of payments, ultimately compromising on a debt-to-equity transfer that allowed us to settle the loan with the Chinese Exim bank.
Because of the debt ceiling imposed by the IMF, the repayment of the loan would allow the Government to contract for another project that fell within the ceiling. After calling for initial bids and revisions, the Negotiating Committee made its recommendations.
However, the NPP value for the entire project didn’t meet our requirement of immediately paying back 80% of the China Exim Bank loan. This was studied by several senior officials including Central Bank Governor Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy and Treasury Secretary Dr. R.H.S. Samaratunga.
Now China Harbour has withdrawn its offer, although discussions continue with China Merchant. There is a lot of healthy and welcome scrutiny over the Port Authority assertion that the China Harbour offer was the best. Once again, the SLPA broke the transparency requirement by failing to disclose the conflict of interest given that they are partnered with China Harbour on the Port City Development project that granted China Harbour the right to land fill and to lease a larger portion of the land and granted free hold land in violation of Government policies. The full details were not revealed to Cabinet and this was done in an irregular way since ministry secretaries typically are the ones to carry out negotiations.
The new Cabinet of Ministers suspended the agreement in January 2015 after finding fault with several aspects of the deal including a lack of legal authority to execute the agreement, the granting of free hold land to a foreign entity, and the absence of required environmental impact assessments. Though the board of directors at the ports authority have changed, the officials have not, and so serious questions remain about the Ports Authority recommendations in regard to the Hambantota Harbour also.
Q: What lessons have you learned since coming into power that will change your approach to governing for the remainder of this Government’s term in office?
A: Firstly, this Government is in its infancy. Several of the policies we have brought into place have yet to take effect and we have many years to go before we can see the fruits of good governance.
One of the things we have learnt along the way is the importance of a well thought out and unified communication strategy to educate the public about how the policies we are debating and implementing will impact their day-to-day lives.
Most importantly, I think the public takes for granted the level of process and transparency that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have brought to the formulation of public policy. The drafting and implementation of landmark legislation such as the Right to Information Act and the Witness Protection Act were done in a way that accommodated the perspectives of all political parties and civil society groups.
Similarly, even the constitutional reforms are being debated and drafted openly and transparently, unlike the approach adopted by the previous regime.
Throughout the remainder of our term, the Government must make its case to the people by ensuring that they are conscious of and able to exercise the basic rights that we have won back from the Rajapaksas and understand the importance of safeguarding those rights at any cost.
The President and Prime Minister both, perhaps to a fault, have cast aside the petty party politics that dominated Sri Lanka since independence, and have united the UNP and SLFP in working together for the first time for the benefit of the country. As important an accomplishment as that is, it is equally important that we highlight this paradigm, its benefits and its future promise to the people in a way that gives lie to the false propaganda being manufactured and disseminated by this ‘Joint Opposition’.
Q: Most of your criticism appears to be directed at the opposition and not at yourselves. So what in your view should be the role played by the opposition in a democracy? Should they not protest?
A: When this question was asked of the previous regime they made quite clear that the response to protest or speaking against the Government was best delivered by a white van or commandos on motorcycles. Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa once famously declared on BBC that the very act of dissent during wartime was tantamount to treason. As I said earlier, many of us fought and some like Lasantha gave their lives to win basic freedoms such as the freedom to criticise the Government without fear of persecution. When we all fought and bled to win those rights, that victory belongs to all Sri Lankans including the defeated Rajapaksas and their acolytes. They are more than welcome to enjoy the right of free speech and protest.
This Government will never seek to silence them, certainly not with the brand of violence that so many endured at their hands. However, we will fight back with words, with the truth, and let the people be the arbiter of who is right, as should be the case in any true democracy.