By Udeni Saman Kumara
President Maithripala Sirisena in an interview with our sister paper Maubima said that people who elected him are still hopeful that the problems could be resolved through this government. “I like to unite and not to divide”, he said.
Q; This is the third year since you were elected as President. Half of the term of the government is already over. Are you satisfied with your performance in terms of establishing good governance?
I ask this question in the backdrop of some people alleging that there has been no development in the country since you took over.
A: The meaning in that statement, that no development is happening in the country is that compared to the development seen previously, not much seems to be happening now. That is one. Mega projects have not begun. Roads are not being built fast.
Based on such things, there is a view that the country is not moving forward. In fact, when we took over governance we inherited a set-up akin to an embellished celluloid doll. The country was hopelessly in debt. Had that development not been so much of a problem the former President might not have held elections two years in advance. He held the election because he was basically stuck and without the ability to move even another inch further.
Q;People expected a change because they had many problems over the previous government?
A: They were well aware and understood the enormity of the problems like the economic crisis, issues related to the Human Rights Council and the problems of the ruler’s family, when they went in for an election. We also could take more loans and carry out development just as they did. But we did not go down that path. The development projects they had carried out had many irregularities.
Q: What do you mean by irregularities?
A: They had built roads without estimates. Mega constructions had no Cabinet and Treasury approval. They had no national plan on the priorities. While the school buildings were collapsing in one district, they built large buildings in another district.
Development must be geographically balanced. Resource allocation must be balanced based on a national plan. But prioritizing development according to private agendas is neither suitable nor right. We changed that and the development is now carried out according to correctly identified priorities. Therefore, I am happy with the level of development work carried out by us so far.
Development cannot be limited to one aspect. People now enjoy freedom which had not been available in this country since the executive Presidency came into being. One day, they will understand whether the way they used that freedom is right or wrong.
Q: Improvements in terms of democratic rights and freedom which you mentioned are taking place. But weren’t people expecting something more tangible than this?
A: Since 1978, under each President, draconian laws, dictatorship and violence existed. Today, from the school child to the politician, all citizens including the public servants can think, read and write in a free environment. Development is not only building roads and airports. I prefer steady a march over fast moving. We can reach the destination even at a slow pace.
Q; It is alleged that you rose to power via an US-Indian coup of sorts, is this so?
A: They said I was pro-western and was elected to power through a US-Indian conspiracy. Now take President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China. They are leaders who are well versed in world politics. Will they regard a pro-western leader who came to power through a US conspiracy so highly? I would like to highlight that these two years is the time Sri Lanka gained maximum international support after the independence. This government was received by all States in the world as an independent and non-aligned State. All previous governments were ignored by one side of the world or the other.
Q; Can’t that happen due to the policies and political visions of those governments?
A: I can’t say whether they had given it up deliberately or not. That was the situation which existed since the beginning of the executive Presidency. If I outline the results of these two years, the most powerful State heads of the world have promised support to this government. They have promised not only to support us, but also promised to save us from any international pressure.
Q; When the coalition government was elected to power, people had high hopes in you. They did not trust the other political leaderships so much. They expected the good governance would be strengthened and the corrupt elements would be punished. But the process of justice is still very slow, why is this?
A: No, no! The process of justice is not so lackadaisical. We cannot resort to jungle law. We act on the existing law. Police, CID, judiciary and commissions have been given freedom to act. I have never asked to act against someone. But you are correct to a certain extent. People expected quicker solutions. But the law, constitution and human rights are all important. The same people wanted the jungle law disallowed.
I cannot make calls demanding judgments delivered in the way I want. I cannot call the CID urging them to act against certain persons. I cannot urge the Bribery and Corruption Commission to arrest one, to let another one go and to indict someone.
Many have still not understood the 19th amendment. I cannot act like the previous Presidents after the 19th amendment. Those individual powers have been taken away from the President. Before 19th amendment, the President had jurisdiction over appointing Chief Justice, members of the commissions, Attorney General, Inspector General of Police, judges and the senior State positions. Those powers were secured after 18th amendment. The society also must study these. They must study the changes of the constitution and the powers of the President had impacted the changes in the country in the past two years. They must study the impact when the institutes work independently and impartially. Even though you cry over the speed of actions, there is no such way in law, in the constitution and in terms of social ethics. We have to work respecting all those norms.
Q; It is often alleged that the UNP and the SLFP makes a mess in decision making. Rigid decisions are crucial for the development of a country. We have experienced this in the VAT crisis at the very outset of this government. In recent times, with the increase of lottery prices too you had to step in and lower the price. The Minister of Finance said that he would introduce a new lottery of Rs 50. Why do such things happen?
A: I don’t deny that there are such shortcomings. I have corrected them. I believe such shortcomings which prevailed in the early times may not continue.
Q: You stated that a cabinet reshuffle would take place to avoid inefficiency and shortcomings. Will that happen before the New Year?
A: It will happen in the future.
Q: You said clearly that there were corrupt elements in this government too, just as they were in the previous regime. That means you know who the corrupt elements of this government are. Otherwise, would you say so? If there are corrupt elements in the government, as the President and the Head of State, what actions do you propose to take?
A: A cabinet reshuffle will not be sufficient to correct the alleged errors. The best example is the Presidential Commission on the Treasury bond issue. In that case, for me, the issues like culprits being with government or opposition and the status of suspects did not matter. I removed the former governor of Central Bank and appointed one who is respected by people. I have taken such decisions and I will do the same in the future too.
Q;It is reported that Perpetual Treasuries which is connected to the Central Bank bond issue is investing that money in various businesses. They started a distillery in the Eastern Province. Although it was earlier announced that the use of this money would be legally restricted, it did not happen. What is the reason?
A: I cannot say exactly whether the said company earned its entire their wealth from this deal or from other businesses as well. The commission will investigate and decide.
Q: Do you mean that nothing will happen until then?
A: Whoever the owner of the business, action will be taken. The presidential commission is one action. It is true that people want prompt results. But we cannot accelerate them. I can assure that they will happen step by step.
Q:The election manifesto of the United People’s Freedom Alliance clearly said that all who are connected to the Central Bank bond scam would be punished irrespective of their status. The article 2.5 of the manifesto’s page 10 states that the six billion rupees lost will be retained. Will the usurped money be retained if the corruption is proved before the Presidential Commission?
A: We will investigate any issue irrespective of whether it is mentioned in the manifesto or not.
Q:I want to know if the usurped money will be taken back if a fraud is proved?
A: They are relevant to law. After the commission investigation is over, suing will take place based on those reports. They are legal measures and everything will happen according to the law.
Q; Being a lover of the environment, you took over the Ministry of Environment. But serious environmental issues continue in your tenure too. You once said that 60,000 cubes of soil had been dumped in the Muturajawela wetlands. Although you speak out against them, no action against the culprits seems to be taken. The newspapers report everyday about the clearing of State forest reserves, what’s happening?
A: The environmental degradation was hundred folds higher than this, before I came to power. Politicians of parliament and the Provincial Councils engaged in businesses related to sand, soil and timber with racketeers. Much of them have been taken under control. Wildlife, forest and Police officers cannot guard each tree in jungles. People’s support is crucial in preventing these crimes. People too must have feelings.
Q; People have taken to the streets to safeguard the environment which is being destroyed by the politicians and other powerful people, but what is the State doing about this?
A: See, the gold jewellery is hidden in locked wardrobes in houses. But thieves steal them. Even the banks are burgled. Nature faces the same situation. Earth, animals and vegetation cannot be kept hidden. People must have enthusiasm to protect them.
There are racketeers everywhere. State implements laws strictly and sues them. Before this, State institutes have not been deployed so much to protect environment in the past history. Today, three armed forces are also deployed to protect environment.
Navy checks if the natural resources are smuggled by way of sea. Air Force conducts once weekly air surveillance on forest clearings. Army and Police protect forests jointly. I receive weekly reports. I have deployed three armed forces because the cadres of the Dept. of Wildlife Conservation and forest officers are not sufficient. Today the information technology is advanced.
An incident is reported to media before the relevant institute receives the complaint. It is good. Before I was elected, these took place with the blessing of the authorities.
Q; You stated that the Ministry of Environment had granted licenses to cut soil in a hill near Ambepussa junction. But no action was taken although the hill no more stands there?
A: Not only my Ministry, 14 or 15 government bodies are connected to issuing of licenses for sand, soil and granite. They belong to various Ministries. Archaeology Department, local councils, Divisional secretariats, Urban Development Authority and other bodies are engaged in the process. In the incident in Ambepussa, 14 bodies had not performed their duties properly. They had not conducted post inspections after the licenses were granted. Some officials responsible for it have been interdicted.
q; What about dumping soil to Muthurajawela wetlands? We are a country which has signed the Ramsar Wetlands Conservation Convention?
A: A Deputy Minister and a government official involved in this incident in Gampaha district. Soil cutting had taken place there for over 25 years but nobody looked into it. Now it is banned. The hill in Divulapitiya was cut and dumped in Muthurajawela. We live in such a society.
Q; The Sinhala and Tamil New Year draws closer. The price of essential commodities increased in recent times due to VAT. People expected the commodity prices would be reduced but such a thing did not happen. Income is not sufficient for family maintenance. People live in difficulty. Will their burden not be eased?
A: Now the price of vegetable has been decreased. We know practically always that the prices go up during New Year and Christmas times.
Q: It is true that the government has imposed price control on rice. But rice at controlled price is not available anywhere. The importers say that they cannot sell rice at the controlled price because of the depreciation of rupee, what’s the big deal?
A: We have asked them to sell rice at the controlled price irrespective of the value of the dollar. They can import rice at lower prices even though the dollar is expensive. We have allowed it. We have instructed to arrest those who sell rice at higher prices.
We will take action. I will most certainly look into this and check on these allegations of rice being sold at a higher rate than the controlled price.
Q; The woes of the vegetable farmers over the prices were reported last week. Vegetables were dumped in Digampathana to be eaten by elephants because the farmers could not sell their produce, what is being done in this regard?
A: Vegetables being dumped for elephants to eat them is not something new; it didn’t commence yesterday or today, but has been happening from as far back as 30-40 years or so, in Dambulla. The cause for the situation is not implementing the instructions of the agricultural authorities. When farmers grow too much cabbage, the prices go down in the market. It is difficult to be sold. All, including the farmers, know the necessity level. For instance, the farmers in Nuwara Eliya must unite to decide about the amount they cultivate in each crop like carrot, leaks and cabbage. All of them have farmer associations. But all grow the same crop and the surplus of supply cause waste. Department of Agriculture knows the problem and they advise the farmers to cultivate wisely. But the farmers ignore them. This issue prevailed since the time even before the Economic Centre in Dambulla was opened.
Q;Why doesn’t the government facilitate preserving the vegetable stocks and exporting them?
A: As a country, we don’t have sufficient technology to preserve vegetable. We must have large freezers. The farmers have no access to the freezers of the big companies even though there are such facilities. We need more of them. That is one solution. On the other hand the crops must be planned according to the market needs.
Q; You know that the people’s organizations like trade unions and student movements hold protest to express their views. It is a characteristic of a democratic society. Some Ministers advocate to limit them and to allocate specific places for them. Do you approve of them? You started politics from the Peking Wing of the Communist Party. Can you restrict the people’s protests being the seasoned leader that you are?
A: With my experience, I must say that there are both fair protests as well as those conducted according to political agendas.
From the side of the university students, they are right. They have fair reasons. The government must solve them. But the problems were created not by us. They were created by the previous government even though they too protest now.
See the issue of Hambantota Port. Did we create that problem? The previous regime decided to hand it over to China. Now they turn the issues. Democratic countries must have protest demonstrations. We have legally allowed them.
But they must be carried out so as the majority of the people are not disturbed. When the roads are blocked at the time the people return home after work, innocent people have to suffer. Allocating specific places for protests have been implemented in other countries too.
Geneva is a place where human rights are highly regarded. There are specific places allocated for protests. Common public are not disturbed by protests. They are modern methods. Sometimes, the patients in ambulances were also disturbed. Ambulances were attacked. A pregnant mother delivered her baby in a three-wheeler due to being caught up in a street protest. Three people died in an accident in Gonapathirawa when they tried to move forward on a byroad. We have to consider all these matters. We must respect law. We must have ethics.
Q; Will the government bring laws in future to restrict protest demonstrations to certain places?
A: We hope to reserve such places. That is necessary for a country.
Q;Let us take the SAITM issue. You stated that a solution would be granted after consultation with all parties. But still that solution was not granted. Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), students’ movements and many other organizations have vowed to strike. What is your solution?
A: Free education must be safeguarded in the solution. University students must not be subjected to injustice. I have discussed with all the institutes like Ministry of Health, University Grants Commission, University Teachers’, Deans’ and Parents’ Associations. We have gathered lot of views.
Accordingly, I have advised the relevant bodies to plan the future programme. They must do it. Sri Lanka Medical Council, University Grants Commission and Ministry of Higher Education must resolve the issue so that no student is subjected to injustice.
On the other hand, we must remember that there is a case in the court. There is a court ruling too. An appeal has been filed against it. I have instructed to grant a solution fast, considering that too.
Q; What are those instructions? What are your priorities?
A: Number one, the rights of the students must be safeguarded. Number two, the problem of the SAITM must be resolved. That is not the issue of SAITM which is not important to us. All these are our children. That is my position.
Q;The government had no policy or plan to establish private medical colleges locally. There are many other degree offering institutes in terms of other subject streams. Government has no policy planning on them too. No proper regulation is carried out. If the government grants permission to private degree offering institutes there must be regulation. The confusion was created by allowing ad hoc institutes like SAITM?
A: All must be responsible for this issue. This is not a new issue even though it reached to the level of bursting out recently. Who helped this? Sri Lanka Medical Council, University Grants Commission, Ministry of Higher Education and SAITM management too must be responsible for this. Those who must be eventually responsible are the ones who created and worsened this issue. Not the present rulers. I will not stand for the foisting of the serious errors of the former rulers on the present government as our errors.
Q; People think that the proceedings of the Parliament have deteriorated. We can observe the parallel deterioration in many of the public institutes. Citizens are not being responded to, even though they bring it to the notice of those in authority. Problems are not being solved, why is this?
A: There is no such deterioration. Expected response is a solution. But honestly, only 10% can be solved. The issues related to land and property cannot be solved within a couple of days. There are shortcomings but the public offices have not declined like you imply.
Q’ It is reported that the UN conventions regarding prevention of drug abuse are not ratified in Sri Lanka although they have been signed since 1998?
A: All articles of the conventions cannot be ratified even though they are endorsed. The new President of US threw away the former President’s environmental charter. All endorse the international conventions. But the nations implement only what they can.
Q:You are the Leader of the United People’s Freedom Alliance. Now a group of your Alliance struggle for power in the Opposition of the Parliament. Some others want to appear independent in the Parliament. What is the meaning of this? All these groups may unite in the future for a separate march?
A: The internal problems of the Parliament must be resolved internally. UPFA must resolve the issues as they earlier agreed. A group demanded to sit as the Opposition in the Parliament. We allowed it. They must remain in that limit. The MPs of the UPFA must act according to the instructions of the Secretary of the UPFA. Otherwise, disciplinary action will be initiated. We cannot conduct disciplinary probes in terms of the behaviour of the MPs in the Parliament. We don’t have such tradition. But, Parliament can take decisions according to the Standing Orders.
Q’If there is a coalition shouldn’t all the groups involved work in unison?
A: We have not asked them to separate. They have done so. We have not asked anyone to go. A group is now displaying a board too.
Q; Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna has started a separate move and they hold press conferences, what of them?
A: All these are subject to disciplinary action. They are handled by non-MPs. We have files on each person. We will take disciplinary action at the proper time.
Q;When will the Local Government Election be held?
A: The Local Government Election will be held by the end of this year. We have to pass 56 regulations. I have instructed the Minister of Local Government to pass them soon and go for the elections.
Q: Doesn’t Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) consider their cadres joining the Podu Jana Peramuna a challenge to them?
A: I don’t think the new parties will have a future. There are social principles on which the political parties are based on. SLFP had such factors behind its formation in 1951. Sri Lanka needed such a party after the independence. It is a social and cultural force.
New parties cannot be formed for corruption, waste, theft and family rule. People need a clean political movement and a government that develops the country. People point finger at all sides. There is need for a clean political movement in the country.
Q: Will you form an SLFP Government?
A: I will lead the SLFP to victory in future elections. The Coalition Government between the two major parties is a new experience. It is not easy. People opined in every difficult moment that the political leaders should unite irrespective of party differences.
When this situation is considered, we shall move in unison during the mandate of this government. I must fulfil the hopes the people had in me in 2015. As you said, we have passed two years now. We did certain things and there are things we have missed. As a government, with the dawn of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, I will correct the errors and take the country forward. No one can hide the present crisis in the country. We must understand it with open heart. We have to resolve all the problems created by the past regime in the country. They have both pleasant and unpleasant sides. They stink, more than they smell good. Problems have been stale. Accusing is of no use now. The solutions are bitter and not like honey. We have to undergo bitter medication. As National Coalition Government, I commit to fulfilling the promises given to the general public.
Although allegations are made, the common people do not still want to form a new government. The people who elected me are still hopeful the problems can be resolved through this government. I will implement that programme before that trust is lost.
Q; Do you hope to unite the scattered groups of the party?
A: I like to unite and not to divide. I have always expressed it.
Q’ The rulers since 1956 had threats to their lives. Do you see such threat against you?
A: I don’t know about the threats to my life. But, I know that I have many enemies. On one side, the racketeers in pharmaceuticals, dangerous drugs and environmental sectors. On the other hand, some others who hate me politically. I have understanding on all these sides. Through that understanding, I know how to manage myself.
Q;You have named 2017 as the year of alleviating poverty. But certain sections say that the country will have to face severe economic crisis in 2017. What is actually happening?
A: There is no such severe crisis. There is fabrication. As I see, the country is not moving to danger. It is true that we have problems. But we can resolve them. No one must unnecessarily worry about it.
Q:You have promised to form a SLFP Government. Meanwhile, you say that you will move forward as the National Coalition Government too. It is difficult to understand. Why is this contradiction? This is the people’s problem?
A: A political leader should take his party forward. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe leads the United National Party. I organize the SLFP. We have agreed to move as a national coalition during the term of this government. Do you mean that these parties must be closed after 2020? No. Both UNP and SLFP have their own agendas.
Q; Is it a long-term strategy?
A: No, it is not strategy. Democracy is strengthened when the realistic political parties strengthen. Can the political parties be closed and made defunct? In a free and democratic country, democracy is strengthened to the extent the political parties are strengthened. If the political parties are inefficient and dead the country will move towards single rule and dictatorship.
Q’ Political parties advocate centralized democracy, but how many of them practise it?
A: On 8th January 2015, SLFP was defeated because of lack of internal democracy within the party. There was no democracy in the party, government or cabinet. The leaders of the UPFA did not open their mouths. The world develops when the people and society are free.
Q’ Wasn’t it earlier decided the coalition government was to coexist for two years?
A: No. We later decided that the National Coalition should go until the end of the term of this government.
Q; Was such proposal passed by SLFP Central Committee?
A: That could be passed in the Central Committee. But my election manifesto is stronger than that. In it, I clearly promised a National Coalition Government would be established to rule the country. People voted for it and elected me. That is the people’s verdict.