His best efforts, it is said, were when the party faced seemingly insurmountable odds. Cooray in this interview with the Daily FT speaks about the current political situation, the distance the new Government has come, where it appears to have erred and the challenges ahead.
Q: The biggest and perhaps the most damning scandal that has hit the new Government is the one related to the Central Bank bond issue. The Auditor General claims that a staggering Rs. 1.6 billion was lost to the country. The ultimate loss of course will be a compound of this amount given the long-term nature of the issue. Ultimately Governor Arjuna Mahendran’s contract was not renewed. He left under a cloud. What do you think of the way that the Government handled this matter?
A: First of all the jury is out on the issue of wrongdoing. While concerns have been raised the principle of presuming innocence has to be affirmed. Yes, the Auditor General has submitted a report. Yes, COPE is looking into the matter. Yes, the three-member committee appointed by the Prime Minister submitted a report which called for further investigation. What does all this add up to except the inalienable primacy of process? It is one thing to accuse, but quite another to establish guilt. If the Government went around sacking each and every person charged with wrongdoing, nothing will get done. If Arjuna Mahendran had been removed the moment someone accused him, it would have set a very bad precedent, regardless of who was making the accusation. The Government did not crack down on the objectors as has often happened before, but instead gave free rein to the Governor’s detractors. So what we have is an endorsement of democratic principles as well as deference to due process, both necessary for the re-establishment of a different and more democratic political culture in the country. This is what people wanted and asked for on 8 January.
Q: Since you spoke of process, what do you have to say about the claim that this Government is carrying out a witch-hunt against the Rajapaksas and key officials of the previous regime?
A: Let’s have some perspective here. People who elected this Government were crying out for the blood of the Rajapaksas and for understandable reasons too. Perceptions should never be confused with proof. However, this Government came to power vowing to do things differently and most importantly to re-establish the rule of law. We saw how Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, a war hero mind you, was dragged out of his office, put behind bars, tried and convicted in a manner that brought discredit to the entire judicial process. This was immediately after the Presidential Election of 2010. We also saw how Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was ousted. This Government, in contrast, called for and allowed investigations to take their natural course without any interference.
As the Prime Minister has pointed out, these things can take time. However, once the evidence is in and if and only if court is satisfied that arrest is warranted then suspects are arrested, regardless of who they are and whose friends they happen to be. That process has also been complemented by a transparent process of appointing judges as per constitutional provisions. In other words steps have been taken to correct the flaws of the judicial system and to strengthen relevant process. Rest assured, the same principles will be invoked should anyone in this Government or supportive of this Government is found guilty of wrongdoing. Today the FCID and the CID are conducting its affairs in a professional manner and that should be appreciated. They don’t just put people behind bars and then look for reasons like what happened during the Rajapaksa regime. It is some something that should be appreciated and not condemned.
Q: Let’s talk about the 8 January result, the promises made to the people, the 100 Days Programme and the implementation of the same. There’s been a lot of talk but there’s also criticism that there’s very little action in terms of promised reforms, general development and the cost of living. Is the Government a victim of what might be called over-ambition or is it simply incompetent?
A: Deadlines have come and gone, this is true. You may be right about being over-ambitious. Nevertheless no sensible person can claim that things are not better. There is a palpable sense of greater freedoms especially to criticise the Government without looking over one’s shoulder. Then there are the tangible benefits. The 19th Amendment was passed. This not only pruned the powers of the Executive President but established strong independent commissions which have helped restore the dignity of the public servant. The all-important Right to Information Act was passed. None of this was easy.
If, for example, Ranil Wickremesinghe had gone back on his word to work with the President by forming a National Government and if President Sirisena had put party before country, none of this would have happened. Indeed part of the delay can be attributed to the difficulty of obtaining agreement simply because even the two major parties were unused to working together. However, important steps have been taken and taken in the correct direction. The true weight of these measures might not be immediately apparent and this might be why there’s frustration, but by and by when people recognise their rights and politicians realise that things have changed, people might very well applaud the Government for erring on the side of getting it right as opposed to being hasty about important legislation.
Q: Some people claim it all began with the initiatives taken by the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero and the current Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya. We know that the late Thero expressed disappointment during his last days. Today, we don’t hear anyone talking about the late Thero and we see hardly any mention of Jayasuriya. Was the late Thero’s disappointment justified and is Jayasuriya silently endorsing the late Thero’s sentiments?
A: One cannot say enough about the contributions made by these two individuals. Their initiative, courage, determination and convictions went a long way in producing the 8 January result. You are correct in that the late Thero did express disappointment, especially with regard to reforms, but then again as I mentioned before some processes take longer than people envisage they will. The late Thero was probably very conscious of the fact that the would-be change agents operate in a forbidding political culture and moreover have in their ranks many who neither have the political will not the political maturity and indeed lack the political knowledge necessary to contribute effectively.
Karu Jayasuriya can speak for himself of course. Suffice to say that as always he has focused mostly on getting things done. History will one day salute him for the hard work he’s done behind the scenes and out of the limelight to operationalise the 19th Amendment through the Constitutional Council and the independent institutions. He also for years worked with a great deal of passion and commitment on the all-important Right to Information Act. He has been the quintessential elder statesman in this long and arduous process and has risen above parochial party politics in the larger interests of democracy and the country.
Q: You mentioned democracy. Yes, basic democratic principles and fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression, the right to life, freedom to gather and protest, etc., have been upheld. But democracy is also about elections. Why are the local government elections being postponed?
A: I think the Government missed a political trick by not holding local government elections immediately after the Presidential Election or at least the General Election. On the other hand the honest thing for a regime that swears by democracy to do of course is to dissolve the relevant bodies at the end of the respective terms. We didn’t see either of these options being taken. Instead we see postponements. According to several ministers and spokespersons for the Government the delay is due to the long-drawn out nature of the delimitation process. On the other hand, the Elections Commissioner has stated that the majority of local government bodies do not require delimitation and that elections can in fact be held for the same.
Now I am not a fan of staggered elections. We saw how the previous regime used that method to obtain unfair and indeed undemocratic advantage. Having said that, I think that local government elections should be held sooner rather than later. I say this for two reasons. First, it makes sense politically for the Government to assess how the people view its performance. A strong endorsement would be a boost. A lesser endorsement would be a reality check which again would be useful. But more importantly, it must be understood that people equate democracy to elections and postponement does not sit well with the promises made to the people. Most importantly, local government bodies are where electors and elected can have the best interaction. A Government that talks of power devolution must not be seen as lacking in faith when it comes to representational democracy at the grassroots.
Q: But what of development and the cost of living? Even his most ardent critics would say that Gotabaya Rajapaksa did a splendid job of turning Colombo into a garden city and maintaining it that way. Today there are complaints about garbage not being collected and general squalor.
A: Yes, this is true. We must keep in mind that one of the reasons why Gotabaya Rajapaksa was able to do all this was the fact that he had arrogated upon himself some of the powers of his presidential brother. Now that would be feudalism. Secondly, he was able to deploy military personnel for the city beautification projects less on account of mandated powers than those which he assumed and which were not contested for the simple reason he was a Rajapaksa and that there was also absolutely no room for criticism. That said, I do agree that there’s a lot of room for improvement in this regard. But first things first. Development with scant regard to established procedure especially when it comes to procurement, tenders and other safeguards might look nice but would not be cost-effective in the long run over and above the fact that it would be obtained by robbing the people. However it is not a defence for red tape or ineffective and inefficient decision making.
There’s also the problem of an economy that had been under severe stress due to both theft and mismanagement, factors exacerbated by external factors such as the oil crisis, the slowing down of the Russian and Chinese economies etc. All these factors have put the brakes somewhat on development and have challenged the Government to control the cost of living. On the other hand, we have a forward-looking Prime Minister who is determined to get fiscal management back on track. It might take time, but in certain situations there’s no way around it either. Perhaps what’s lacking is an effective communications strategy on the part of the Government to explain to the people why things are how they are and to keep them updated about developments and what to expect.
Q: But would the people believe? After all, even as the people are being made to tighten belts there’s also extravagance and a clear case of self-indulgence on the part of politicians, for example the allocation of funds for the import of super luxury vehicles.
A: I am not a spokesperson for this Government and neither am I obliged to defend and applaud every decision and act. You are right. Such moves do hurt credibility and make communications such as what I outlined earlier difficult. The most generous explanation would be that this is one of the drawbacks of a unity government in a climate where constitutional amendment is a major part of the mandate. Numbers matter and people have to be kept happy. It is in fact an indictment of the entire political culture of the country that we have come to this.
Q: This Government was clearly looking to the West and regionally to India. In fact the term that was used was ‘Lackeys of the West’. However, after Brexit, the Government has stated that it will have to look to Asia as it struggles to get the economy back on track. China virtually owns the debt of the USA and European economies including Britain’s. Was it general preference or poor reading of global realities that made the Government snub China at least in the early days?
A: I think this is more complex than it seems. Strong relations with the West have helped, especially when it comes to support from the IMF, getting the ban on fish exports lifted and also re-gaining GSP Plus. Maybe it is the strong relations that the previous regime had with China that feeds the perception that this Government was or is anti-China. However, the President and the Prime Minister have repeatedly stated that the Government’s foreign policy is essentially one of establishing and strengthening diplomatic relations with all countries.
With respect to China it was about streamlining relations as opposed to ad hoc assistance-seeking that characterised the Rajapaksa era. Anyway, whether we like it or not, blanket refusal to deal with concerns raised by powerful nations, regardless of the true intentions of such powers, hurt Sri Lanka. This we must acknowledge. We didn’t have our house in order and this was what gave legitimacy to moves that were too easily labelled ‘anti-Sri Lanka’. What is necessary is a pragmatic approach to the all-important subject of foreign relations.
We cannot afford to be idealistic. We cannot afford to have enemies either close to home or far away. There has to be political maturity to negotiate even in unfavourable circumstances, understanding that it is interest and not friendship that move the other party or parties as the case may be. I think our political leadership is mature and pragmatic. I believe there’s reason to be hopeful. We are also fortunate to have a foreign minister who knows what he is doing. His seriousness of purpose and knowledge should be appreciated.
Q: You haven’t painted a rosy picture but neither have you described a doomsday scenario. Where are we headed and what do you think needs to be done to ensure that Sri Lanka emerges as a nation that is stronger, more democratic and one where the people have less reasons to complain?
A: We have a long way to go, obviously. I think we are headed in the right direction. The foundation is almost complete in terms of establishing the basic democratic institutions, processes and practices. The economy will continue to be a challenge, but this challenge is being approached pragmatically and without sentimentality. Hard and unpopular decisions have to be taken and some have already been taken. One of the biggest obstacles will be the lack of human resources at all levels.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is a man of vision, but vision alone will not do it. Supervision is equally important otherwise the vision will remain a vision and will not get implemented. President Premadasa had vision and a skilled, capable, tireless and dedicated team that could help him supervise the implementation. Indeed that was an extra-brilliant team that included the likes of Bradman Weerakoon who was in charge of international relations, K.H.J. Wijedasa was the Secretary. Evans Cooray was the man in charge of media, Susil Sirivardana was the architect of the Janasaviya programme and the redoubtable R. Paskaralingam, the last of whom is advising this Government and hopefully helping develop the next generation of public servants. President Premadasa’s most trusted public servant was Paskaralingam because he was committed and delivered results. Our country unfortunately now lacks public servants of R. Paskaralingam’s calibre.
Speaking of Premadasa, his work ethic should be studied and emulated by all politicians. He had a remarkable ability to identify the right person for the right job. He was up early morning, called all his Secretaries to the point that they made sure everything was in order because ‘the boss’ not only called but cross-checked, read all the newspapers and kept himself updated. He also stood by his staff and had faith in them. In other words there has to be a determined and well thought-out strategy to develop the human resources of our country.
Finally, there’s the issue of communication. In this age, if your communication strategy is weak or worse it is non-existent your project will falter and collapse. Mind you, this is not about glossing over flaws or exaggerating virtues but telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the long run, politicians and political parties will be rewarded by strong and unwavering loyalty that can outlast governments and even survive several generations.