Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has granted an exclusive interview to the Political Editor of the “Sunday Times” which appears in the latest issue of the paper dated November 25th 2018. The following excerpts are from the “Sunday Times” interview.
You have caused a serious political crisis in the country by your actions. Why did you do it?
The person responsible is Ranil Wickremesinghe. Not I. After the January 8, 2015 Presidential elections, both of us were sworn in. One minute after I was sworn in as President, he took his oaths as the Prime Minister. We began work as a new government. In the first week itself, he went against our manifesto.
What did he do?
He was very stubborn and was not accommodative. He even exercised my powers. That continued.
Can you give an example?
It began with the formation of a Cabinet of Ministers in January 2015. We had asked a three-member Committee of University academics to allocate ministerial subjects on a scientific basis. I don’t think he even read their report. The allocations were made in a haphazard way. It generated laughter among people. One was the setting up of a Ministry of Higher Education and Highways. Another was how state owned banks which have traditionally been with the Finance Ministry were placed in a different Ministry. He took under his purview the Central Bank which had also earlier been under the Finance Ministry. These financial institutions have never changed hands since 1947.
But you continued thereafter with those arrangements. Why now?
He not only exercised Prime Ministerial powers. He also began using the powers of the President. That began to increase.
Why did you allow him to usurp your powers?
Some may argue about that. As a gesture of gratitude in electing me to power and not to hurt him, I allowed him to carry on with the work. That was also a gesture of humanity from my side. However, he took advantage of it.
Can you cite an instance?
Yes, take the case of the appointment of a Governor to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL). I am the appointing authority. He insisted that Arjuna Mahendran be appointed. This man is one of those most wanted in Sri Lanka now over the bond scam investigation. There is a warrant out for him and he is evading the law in Sri Lanka. I was against this appointment. I told then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe that Mahendran is not a citizen of Sri Lanka and there were others more eligible for the post. He was not in favour of those names and insisted that I appoint Arjuna Mahendran. I did so purely to avoid a confrontation with my then Prime Minister. Some may say I am at fault. I did so only because I wanted to work with him.
In just three months, the CBSL bond scam took place. The first one was in March 2015 and thereafter there was another. What were the pledges we gave the people? We ousted the Mahinda Rajapaksa government mainly over issues related to corruption and to ensure we restored democracy. What happened thereafter?
What do you think happened thereafter?
Corruption was high in the Cabinet of Ranil Wickremesinghe and it continued. I do not want to speak at length about it. I have revealed some of the instances in public. The UNP leadership should take responsibility. Just a month before Mr. Wickremesinghe was removed as Premier, there was a massive transaction involving the E.A.P. Edirisinghe Group. It had been awarded to a foreigner who had quoted much less. A Sri Lankan had made a higher bid. That was a corrupt deal.
What do you propose to do about it?
I hope to conduct a full inquiry when the political situation settles down. It will be a Committee of Inquiry and will go into all aspects. It will also identify those involved. I can name many more such deals that were corrupt. The former Prime Minister also failed to recognise the culture of our people or discern their needs. Local industries were neglected. Mr Wickremesinghe’s ideology on foreign investment was wrong and tainted with corruption. The term “foreign investment” was synonymous with corruption. This led to several confrontational situations.
Did you raise issue with the then Premier Wickremesinghe over these matters? What was his response?
After the outcome of the local government elections on February 10, I told him that the people had rejected his economic policies and political vision. Some 1.5 million state sector employees had voted against the government. The majority of the armed forces personnel and Police too had voted against. So had a vast section of the Buddhist clergy. I asked him to step down as Prime Minister and hand over the office to someone else. This was the first time I told him such a thing. I invited Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to be Prime Minister. He rejected it. I also asked Sajith Premadasa. He was not agreeable. I experienced a conflict of policies, which were opposed to our own manifesto. They revolved around misuse of state property, lopsided economic policies, lack of political vision, growing corruption and arbitrary decisions.
The second occasion was after he survived a Vote of No-Confidence in Parliament in April this year. I told him people are not happy with the government and were disillusioned. I told him that the best way to move forward was for him to step down as Prime Minister and hand over to a person of his choice in his party. On no occasion did he respond to what I told him. He simply listened.
What forced you to take a hurried decision to remove the previous Prime Minister? Would it be right to call that the proverbial last straw on a loaded camel?
It was the conspiracy to assassinate me and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. I can say quite categorically that people in the government tried through various means to disrupt the investigations. A Cabinet Minister’s name has transpired. A Deputy Inspector General of Police has been taken into custody.
The mystery behind this plot has thickened. The Inspector General of Police (Pujith Jayasundera) has so far avoided making a statement which the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is seeking from him. It is this same IGP, who declared even before the investigations began, that the claims of the informant on the assassination plot was “suspicious.” How could he say that even before an investigation has begun? Is it fair for an IGP to make such comments as the head of the Police force? Why is he saying it?
Can you disclose to the people details related to the plot?
I do not want to say anything more since the matter is pending before courts. By next week, I will direct that the investigations are carried out in “in a new path.” There are several obstacles for the investigations today. This is a very serious matter. As a result of all this, I had to ask Mahinda Rajapaksa to take the post of Prime Minister. It is not something that happened suddenly. It is the outcome of a three and half year old conflict with the former Premier. That was the last resort.
Did you warn Ranil Wickremesinghe about this?
Yes, I have told him many times. I reminded him that I was left with only one and half years more to serve as President. I implored on him to allow me to function for this period without let or hindrance. I also told him to refrain from the habit of taking arbitrary decisions. He did not pay any attention. I have also periodically advised him about the corruption taking place among his ministers. As a result, public opinion was building against the government. I was concerned about this.
Did you have talks before appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister? When did you take a decision to change premiers?
It is between October 20 and 25 that I had been thinking of this. Not that I was having discussions with Mr Rajapaksa. Since I learnt of the plot to assassinate me and the reluctance of those in the government to probe the matter, these things happened.
Meeting Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa at the residence of S.B. Dissanayake in Battaramulla:
I did not attend that meeting.
Dissolution of Parliament, the appointment of a new Prime Minister and proroguing Parliament – have you acted correctly?
I reject claims that I have acted in violation of the Constitution. The removal of Mr Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as his successor and a new Cabinet of Ministers have been done legally. So has the prorogation of Parliament. No one has gone to courts and challenged them. What has been challenged in the Supreme Court is the dissolution of Parliament.
What happens when a ruling is given by the Supreme Court?
I will accept any decision given by the Supreme Court. I am a person who protects democracy. I act according to the Constitution. I have acted in accordance with the law. We will continue to respect democracy. We will implement the law. We will maintain peace. The Parliament should follow Standing Orders and if a majority is shown by the UNF, the issue can be resolved.
If Mahinda Rajapaksa has the majority in Parliament, he can continue the government without any obstacle. If it is proved that Mr Rajapaksa does not have a majority, I believe that he will take a decision. When the majority is shown in Parliament, the responsibility lies in the party leaders to continue with the work. Whoever has the majority of 225 member House will be the Prime minister.
You have said on two occasions that you will not appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Will that change if a majority is shown?
During my tenure, I have removed two Prime Ministers. The first was D.M. Jayaratne who was removed on January 9, 2015. He had the support of 162 MPs. In contrast, Mr Wickremesinghe who only had 41 MPs was sworn in as Premier.
It is the President who has the responsibility to appoint the Prime Minister.
Therefore, an acceptable solution should emerge from Parliament itself by showing of the majority. I removed Mr Wickremesinghe from the Prime Minister’s position legally. It was in accordance with the powers vested in me as President.
I have no possibility of appointing Mr Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister again. I will stick to that principle. The reasons are the happenings in the three and half years.
How do you explain the imbroglio in Parliament?
Many questions have come up. One is on who has the majority in Parliament. In terms of Standing Orders, there are three ways. I have been in Parliament for 27 years as an MP and as a Minister. I have been a Leader of the House. I have an idea. Standing Orders can be suspended and a vote can be taken by a voice count by the Speaker. Another is a roll call of the names. The third is through electronic voting.
Though there is provision in the Standing Orders, a majority voice vote on a matter of changing a government, nationally important, is not suitable. The Standing Orders set out the procedure on how No Confidence Motions should be handled. Since it did not take place in this manner, both sides had an issue.
I condemn vehemently the clashes that took place in the well of the House. It is disgusting when MPs resort to violence, whichever party they may belong to. Knives were brought to Parliament. Technical equipment was broken. The Speaker’s chair was broken. Police officers were assaulted, chillie powder and books were thrown.
What do you think of the Speaker’s role? Your members have accused him of acting “illegally”.
If the Speaker had taken a vote by name than a voice vote, that would have been better. I hope he will act in the correct manner. Karu Jayasuriya is a good person. The question was on his failure to follow procedure.
What is the status of investigations into the Central Bank bond scam?
There was hindrance placed in the way of the investigators. Some CBSL officers asked my permission to leave the country for fear of reprisals by interested parties. There is a need for amendments to the Bribery Commission Act. The Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), which also probed the matter, recommended a series of changes to the law. Three parties – the CIABOC, the Attorney General’s Department and lawyers in the President’s Office – formulated draft laws. This would have facilitated dealing with the culprits within just one year instead of four or five years.
It was sent to Parliament but was not taken up. At my insistence, the draft laws were taken up in October but only two MPs took part in the debate. On the instructions of then Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe voting was postponed indefinitely. The reason was to avoid persons from his own party being prosecuted over the bond scam.
What do you hope to do about it now?
As soon as things return to normal in Parliament, my first task will be to ensure these amendments are introduced and passed. Otherwise, we will not be able to deal with the culprits involved in the bond scam and recovering the looted funds would be jeopardised.
Have you explained your position to the Colombo-based diplomatic community? There are fears of punitive action by some countries.
I have explained everything to them. I met the envoys collectively and even individually thereafter. I also told them why it became difficult to continue with the then Prime Minister. I think they have understood my position. Reports of such action are being spread by our opponents to frighten us through a campaign of disinformation and fake news. We know who is behind them.
Are you worried about the state of the economy?
Remember, the economy did not deteriorate during the last three or four weeks. It is the result of economic policies pursued by former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. He could not improve the economy. He heaped hardships on the people. The business community was complaining of mounting taxes. He has gone to the extreme of new liberalised policies. People were burdened with rising living costs and a mounting fuel price increases. Who has to answer for all this?
How long more do you think people will have to endure this situation?
The issue can be resolved by proving who has the majority in Parliament. The other issue – the dissolution of Parliament – will be resolved when the Supreme Court gives its ruling on December 7.
Have you been preparing with Premier Rajapaksa to contest parliamentary elections under an alliance?
We have not thought about an election. Only if the Supreme Court accepts the dissolution we will think about it.
Courtesy: Sunday Times