Colombo, March 2: Former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe answered a wide variety of questions from Jamila Husain of Daily Mirror on issues agitating Sri Lankans, including the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the April 21, 2019 suicide bombings, the backing out of an agreement to set up a joint venture to build and operate the Eastern Container Terminal in the Colombo harbor, the prospects for Sri Lanka in the on-going session of the UN Human Rights Council and measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are excerpts re-arranged by newsin.asia
Q Where our foreign policy is concerned, somehow lately we have portrayed an anti-India sentiment.
I always maintain we need India, we need Japan and we need China. We were able to get along with everyone, even the US. I do not think we should ever play one against the other. We have to balance all our partners well. That is what you call a strong foreign policy. Whatever agreements the government has entered into should never be cancelled. There maybe provisions which you may want to alter in the agreements when the government changes but you should never cancel it. That is bad.
Q What can you say about the East Container Terminal and this government’s decision not to hand it over to India to manage?
Firstly, I would like to say that we got into the terminal operations, separating terminal operations from Ports during Chandika Kumaratunga’s period. Then both in regard to the South Asia gateway and Colombo International Container terminal, we had only 15 per cent. But I think separating the two is a good thing. When it came to East Terminal, we insisted to have a company come in, with the government holding 51 per cent of the shares. So we sort of changed it as far as the stakes were concerned. But we thought in terms of the West terminal joint venture partners would have the majority. So that is the plan we had. There was no sell out. Secondly, 75 per cent of our container traffic goes to India. So we have to work with the Indians also. And the fact is that they took even less than 10 per cent in this. Adani’s was the largest group to come in at that time, but they were not named till the end. Thirdly, if we are to be the hub of the Indian Ocean then our ports can service India, and the Bay of Bengal and even Karachi. But the bulk is in India. By 2050, India will be the second largest economy in the world. Which means their GDP will increase by three folds or more. Which means more shipping is needed but they have not got the harbour capacity. So if we worked well with India we could have even developed Colombo Port as well as the Northern Port and the Trincomalee Port. Now we lost that opportunity. Sri Lanka could have been to South Asia what Singapore is to Indonesia, Malaysia and others. We could also have asked for rights to operate some terminals in India. We had a lot of scope and this would have been our biggest foreign exchange earner. We missed that opportunity.
Easter Sunday Attacks
Q Moving on to the Easter Sunday attacks, there are a lot of allegations that you and former president Maithripala Sirisena failed as leaders of the country. There are allegations that you and other leaders were so involved in political bickering at the time that you all failed to see that something deadly was about to happen despite being warned. What can you say about that?
There are two things here. First, I will talk about the bickering you mentioned. There were problems in the previous government but then there were problems even during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s time as well. But the fact is life was much better then. Cost of living was bearable. Income was coming in. Health service had increased. Education had increased. A lot of money was allocated for infrastructure development. We were trying to be the hub of Asia. So if that is what you can do by bickering, you are doing much better than this government where you have just one family and group together and they cannot even get a basic thing such as the anti-COVID-19 vaccines. We had differences no doubt, but for an economy that was negative, we brought it up to plus growth. Our differences did not stop our progress. Maybe it could have gone much faster. As far as this issue of the Easter Sunday attacks is concerned, the first is that I certainly was not informed of these warnings. There was an issue that I should have informed Parliament, but Mahinda Rajapaksa was also the Prime Minister at one point and even he did not feel it necessary to inform Parliament. On their observations and recommendations on former President Sirisena and the officials, I do not want to comment on that because I know they want to take legal action and I want to stay out of that. There were two issues involved. One is why did the information come late to the government about the possibility of the attacks. They had briefed the President in February, but before that there had been no major reports coming in. So what happened there? Secondly, during the last few days we had information which came from the Indian side. I find that this is very incomplete. If you do not mind a long answer, when I got in that day, soon after the attacks, and spoke to them after the bomb blast, within nine hours they had identified Ibrahim and others and cracked open the case and had gone into Dematagoda. That means when they were under pressure they can work really well. Why was it that they could not tell us about Zahran and the others earlier?
I always maintain we need India, we need Japan and we need China. We were able to get along with everyone, even the US. I do not think we should ever play one against the other. We have to balance all our partners well. That is what you call a strong foreign policy
Q Who are the ‘they’ you are referring to here?
There were a number of agencies, the SIS, the TID and the Intelligence; there were a lot of them. Why is it that we did not get the information earlier? So that is an issue.
Q Well there are questions that need to be answered no doubt, but you cannot ignore that you were among the leaders in charge? Did you not fail in your duties to safeguard the nation?
Well we were the government at that time so we were responsible for the security. One was that why didn’t the information on Zahran come to us earlier? And two why was it that the killing of the two policemen had not been investigated? Those are the key issues. Even the appointed commission has not investigated that fully. For instance, the Americans filed action in court. We have not asked them what it was about. Then we have not asked the question as to how the two T56 weapons were obtained. I do not think the terrorists got it from the LTTE who had buried them. There has been collaboration between some of these Muslim groups and parts of the security units, at the time of conflict. But what happened after that. Even in 2015 we told them to get the remaining arms and ammunition. Why hasn’t the commission gone into all this fully? There were different views on that matter. I do not know which were correct. Secondly, Naufer Moulavi said they were planning to first attack the Dalada Maligawa on Independence Day 2019. What made them change it from attacking the Buddhists to attacking the Christians and the Tamils in Batticaloa? That is the question everyone has been asking me. Even after the report people are asking me why that hasn’t been gone into. The third, I would also say is that regarding the murder of the policemen. What happened there? We had so many security intelligence and security systems in the East. Why couldn’t they crack that? If they could show me results in nine hours and within a few days we had virtually identified most of those behind the attacks, why did it take them so long to answer all this? We have to go back and find out who was behind all this. How is it that Zahran ended up with Ibrahim? They are two different entities. These are some of the main issues that arise and right now I must say everything is very incomplete. It really does not sort this issue out. The select committee went into the question of what happened on the day of the blast and whether information was given and whether we did not act on it. They did not go beyond that and that is why they recommended a commission to go into all this.
No Foreign Hand
Q There seem to be a lot of unanswered questions over the Easter attacks which need to be probed into. Do you think somehow, through your experience that there maybe an outside hand in this whole thing? Maybe a foreign hand?
We did not see any foreign hand in these attacks. But what worries me is that someone who is connected to the security establishment knows how to short circuit. Somehow Zahran and them knew the security system and they stayed out of sight. That is a very worrying issue as in the future the same thing can happen. There are always double games in this whole system. You always safeguard it and this needs to be checked on. Both sides seem to be using the same people. After the bombings I raised some of these issues and I thought the commission would find answers to this but they have not. We know India gave information but what did they do in those 10 days?
Firstly, we have not ordered a sufficient number of vaccination doses. So we will be behind in this programme. Secondly, we have to take some precautions in economic security and health security, but those decisions are not being taken. Thirdly, the WHO standards are not being followed
Q Have you alerted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa about this because you said there maybe a possibility that this may be repeated?
If they ask me I will tell them. You asked me and some other journalists asked me. So I am telling it. They have not done their research.
Q Very recently President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed yet another commission over the Easter Sunday attacks. Haven’t people lost faith in these commissions?
What I read in the papers is that this committee is to look at the recommendations and see what should be implemented. If this new commission tries to go beyond that and evaluate then it will be a mess but if it is to study the recommendations only then it maybe alright because then we can see the recommendations and have a debate on it.
There are two things here. First, I will talk about the bickering you mentioned. There were problems in the previous government but then there were problems even during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s time as well. But the fact is life was much better then
Q Somehow the Easter attack shook up the previous government. Our national security was also shaken up. Do you think the Easter attack was the main turning point for the victory of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa?
That was one of the reasons but remember 83 gave us a shakeup and 87 gave us a shakeup. Another shakeup was the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa when a person working with him was associated with it. Similarly, the attack on President Kumaratunga was also a shakeup. So these things happen. The Easter Sunday attack still has a lot of unanswered questions and that is very unfortunate.
Q Focusing now on the ongoing UNHRC session, what are your views on this? Do you think the present government is handling it well?
There is a big row going on. The fact is that you should not get into a fight with anyone. And these are countries that are in a position to help Sri Lanka and have helped this country. Let’s go back as to why this arose. It is because then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ban Ki Moon had made a joint declaration where Mahinda Rajapaksa assured human rights allegations would be probed. So if he had not made this declaration we would have still been under pressure but not like this. Thereafter my government went along with it and we avoided any issues with the international community and even got the GSP plus lifted. If you want to change course again, we must plan it out instead of going there and then looking for allies at the last minute. Also be mindful that these sessions are America’s entry into the UNHRC. They will also be mindful of that when taking decisions. President Biden knows about Sri Lanka. Once the joint declaration was made by the former Rajapaksa government with the UN Secretary General you are bound by it. There is no way you can escape it. Otherwise, do not do it.
Q Where progress is concerned, how do you think the Rajapaksa government is faring?
You show me the development done by this government and I will comment. You look at your household now and then ask me.
Q You have been criticizing the government’s ongoing vaccination programme. What do you think is going on?
Firstly, we have not ordered a sufficient number of vaccination doses. So we will be behind in this programme. Secondly, we have to take some precautions in economic security and health security, but those decisions are not being taken. Thirdly, the WHO standards are not being followed. So that is why I say, we could have had a much better vaccination programme. If Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Maldives have placed their orders why haven’t we still been able to? We need about 30 million doses to cover 15 million people. The Serum Institute in India has to first give 300 million doses to India. Then they have to give to the other countries who ordered first, we are at the bottom of the line. We are getting about four million from COVAX plus 100 million from Serum, it covers about seven million. What about the remaining half of our population? This needs a certain commitment by the government as this will require a lot of costs and right now we cannot afford that.
Q Mr. Wickremesinghe, have you been vaccinated.
Yes, I took my first dose at the Army Hospital as I am over 70 years old.
Q Economically people are suffering, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Where do you see us one or two years down the line under this government?
Very bad. Together this government could not do it, now they cannot do it even after bickering with each other.
Q Do you think we are heading for an economic crisis?
We are definitely going to face a crisis by the end of the year or next year. Already people are feeling it but it will be more than that when we face the crisis.
Q You have a vast knowledge about the economy and you seem to be clearly saying that the government is making mistakes. But you and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa are the best of friends? Can you not advise your friend?
I am in the opposition. I have known Mahinda Rajapaksa for a long time, but it is not unusual that the Prime Minister and an opposition politician are good friends. I have known him longer than anyone else other than Chandrika Kumaratunga. I have known them the longest. We talk and we chat. This happens in other countries too. At times the relationship is strained but in most instances, it is very cordial. When President Biden was sworn in, President Trump said he would not attend but Vice President Pence said he would. That is part of politics. Personal communications must be there. You must not try to equate the personal relationship with the political one.
Role Of Opposition
Q Don’t you think that presently we have a very weak Opposition to counter this government?
The Opposition is splintered in Parliament. Neither the government nor the opposition is organised. They are all suffering. The entire Rajapaksa administration and the government machinery. But their party organisation is weak. We need a new party organisation in place. That is why I said we need to build ourselves outside the Parliament. We need a new party system.
State of UNP
Q You are still the leader of the United National Party (UNP), a party that goes back a long way. At the moment Your party has no representative in Parliament and it has been months. Do we have any hope that we may see the UNP appointing an MP anytime soon?
Well the party is talking of whom to send and what to do next. So I presume that there will be someone going in. But the more important thing is to build up the party outside Parliament. That is where a strong opposition has to come in. So I think most of them are busy with that.
There are always double games in this whole system. You always safeguard it and this needs to be checked on. Both sides seem to be using the same people. After the bombings I raised some of these issues and I thought the commission would find answers to this but they have not
Q Are you and your party in talks with other opposition parties, such as the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), with which your party is trying to merge and form a stronger opposition?
We have spoken about the All Party report and trying to see about that.
Q What are your plans Mr. Wickremesinghe from here on? You are obviously advising your party in making a comeback but what are your current plans?
Well, you will have to wait and watch. The more you watch the more you see. The more you see the more you watch.
Q How long will you continue in the leadership post of the UNP?
The party will decide that.