40 years in retrospect : Prime Minister crosses the Rubicon | Sunday Observer

40 years in retrospect : Prime Minister crosses the Rubicon

Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka’s four-times Prime Minister and the futurist largely credited with forming a national government with arch rival, SLFP - a first of its kind - has been in politics since the late ’60s.

He got into active politics as a member of the Youth League of the UNP while in the university. Wickremesinghe, as a young university student, like many others, was not too happy with the educational reforms proposed by the Education Minister of the Dudley Senanayake Government. During that time, Wickremesinghe liaised between Prime Minister Senanayake and university students, by working closely with the Prime Minister, an experience he fondly remembers to date.

Although entering politics was not his childhood dream, the major factor that drew him deep into politics was the deleterious policies of the then Sirima Bandaranaike government.

The young lawyer in the making, his compatriots and other young people of the UNP wanted to rejuvenate the party to face future political challenges.

The sentiment expressed by many that the policies of Prime Minister Bandaranaike were intruding into the democratic rights of the people more or less rekindled their inspiration to explore the right path through democratic means.

“It was disastrous. Gradually, the restrictions on democratic rights became worse - we had to fight back,” Wickremesinghe recalls.

“I was a young lawyer and with other young lawyers and young people- we got more involved in politics. Though I did not entertain any desire to contest; circumstances compelled me to do so.”

People expected President J.R. Jayewardene’s brother, H.W. Jayewardene QC and erudite civil lawyer to come forward. When he refused the mantle automatically fell on Wickremesinghe. When Wickremesinghe was first offered Kelaniya, his reply was in the negative.

“I would have preferred Colombo. I was compelled to go when President Jayewardene personally asked me to. Then in the 1976 re-demarcation by the delimitation commission, Kelaniya was split into two seats - Kelaniya and Biyagama and I was given Biyagama which was predominantly UNP.”

In a recent interview with the Sunday Observer at the Temple Trees, a confident and futurist Prime Minister answered our questions on a wide range of topics from politics to good governance and literature.

Looking back on his political career spanning 40 years, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe says it had been a rich experience as it gave the opportunity for him to contribute significantly to improve the lives of people in Sri Lanka and to strengthen democracy and the space for freedom of movement. Although the country has gone through very difficult times over the past 40 years, Wickremesinghe is hopeful of restoring unity and reconciliation among all communities through the policies of good governance and unity. “After 40 years in Parliament and in public life, I realize that you need the longest periods to be able to handle the affairs of state.”

Excerpts of the interview;

Q: Do you see yourself as a veteran in statecraft?

A: A veteran in politics; 40 years in Parliament and 45 years in active politics. I suppose that is the spirit of a politician.

Q: What were the most crucial political decisions you had to take in the past four decades?

A: First, I was involved in some of the crucial decisions that were made by other leaders such as President J. R. Jayewardene and President R. Premadasa. On my own - yes, I had to take some crucial decisions as well.

One of the earliest decisions in my political career was to press for the free trade zones (FTZ), and the decision to build an FTZ in Biyagama.

As the Minister of Education I took decisions on improving the quality of education, not allowing politics to enter into the Ministry of Education and emphasizing on teacher development.

I am quite happy about my decision to set up the National Youth Services Council and the National Apprenticeship Board - the two institutions that continue to support thousands of youth to launch their careers here and abroad.

Another crucial decision was to stand for national unity when the riots took place in 1983 and to look at the political solution that President Jayewardene proposed. I was involved in most of the major decisions taken by President Jayewardene.

During the time of President Premadasa, the foremost step that impelled me to take was to stand by him during efforts by some to impeach him through Parliamentary procedures. My efforts were successful which prevented a breakup of the party – that itself was a very important achievement in my political life.

Elaborating on his political achievements Wickremesinghe said that as the Minister of Industries, he actively supported President Premadasa’s economic agenda by getting the IMF and other donors to stand by Sri Lanka, thus ensuring economic growth.

Treading on contemporary politics and its fallout the Prime Minister recalled one of the most poignant and critical moments in his political life. It was when President Premadasa was assassinated in 1993. “We were heading for another crisis,” he said.

The Prime Minister vividly explained how he had to take another major step to stabilize the country - that was to appoint then Prime Minister D.B. Wijetunga as the President after consulting then Leader of the Opposition Sirimavo Bandaranaike. And I was chosen to be the Prime Minister during the Presidency of D. B. Wijetunga.

In 2002 as the Prime Minister of the cohabitation government (with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the leader of the SLFP at the helm as the President), I took a decision to go for peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE). At that time people didn’t realize the strategic moves made by the UNP government. But, latterly even the LTTE said it was a ‘trap’. That gave the Tamil people the opportunity to realize that ‘peace is possible’. During the process not only Karuna, but more and more people on the Tamil side realized this; their thinking was, “look, we can’t get a separate state; we can’t get everything; but there could be a durable solution.”

Our next challenge at the time was to turn around the economy which had negative growth. We brought the economy forward, while giving my best to run the cohabitation government.

Amongs the more recent successes, the Prime Minister said that one of the most crucial decisions in his political life was to support a common candidate on a common platform for the Presidency in 2015 where I was made prime minister of the national government. After the general elections in 2015 I became the Prime Minister again under President Maithripala Sirisena.


Q: In 1987 when the Indo-Lanka agreement was signed and after the 13th Amendment, what were the problems the government faced? The LTTE refused to surrender in terms of the Indo-Lanka accord.

A: President Jayewardene expected normalcy somewhere in 1988. Then the LTTE u-turned. But Indian defense minister K C Pant was here when it happened. So we spoke to him and he committed the IPKF to take over the role of ensuring that the LTTE was brought under control.

Q: Looking back, how do you analyze the 2002-ceasefire Agreement? And what support did you get from the government?

A: I think it was a good decision still. It was a necessary step, given the time and circumstances. Our economy had virtually broken down; there were military setbacks. We needed that ceasefire. It was an opportunity for Tamil people to realize how a peace process could work - for both sides there were reasons for the ceasefire. The LTTE couldn’t win the war anyway in those circumstances. Before that, even former president Chandrika Kumaratunga had tried it in 2001 after the LTTE attack on the airport, but it didn’t work.

Party support - We had a mandate to go for the peace accord - we had a majority in Parliament and a lot of people in the country wanted it.

Q: How did former President J.R. Jayewardene influence you to become a political leader?

A: I worked very closely with President Jayewardene, in the opposition and the government. We talked a lot about the country’s issues. I learned a lot from him, on how to handle state affairs. I was not a contender for a post or a successor. He faced some of the most difficult issues during his tenure. He had a very successful program under the government, to take the economy forward. But when the 1983 riots broke out, everything got disrupted and we picked up the pieces and started again. I remember him at that stage giving advice to us, repeating a verse from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem - ‘IF’.

“If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings,

And never breathe a word about your loss.”

Rebuilding - And from ’83 onwards, we learned the art of rebuilding. Then under President Premadasa we learned how to revive the economy at times of war. Through the Ministry of Industries throughout the war, we launched a huge economic development program.

The focus on industrial promotion, infrastructure development and industrial estates in rural areas, 200 garment factories and the promotion of tourism were key areas.

I also must mention that I had the privilege of working with Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake during the last part of his life, Presidents J. R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa and D.B. Wijetunga.

I must say that President Premadasa’s is yet another experience - his approach is different. I am quite happy that I backed him as the presidential candidate and supported him throughout. He had a very grassroots approach. His policies were people-oriented. I think he, together with President JR Jayewardene, were proponents of the social market economy, but he was more into explaining that to the people than President Jayewardene.

I also worked with President Chandrika Kumaratunga in the cohabitation government. I certainly had no issue from my part although there were ups and downs until November 2003. Apart from that, I also had the opportunity to know former political leaders such as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Dr. N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva and Bernard de Soysa. Some of them were my father’s friends as well. I also knew Mahinda Rajapaksa for a long time.

Q: As a political veteran, what lessons would you like to share with young people and would-be politicians?

A: I am still learning in politics, and keep learning. Whether you are in politics or in any other profession you are in the University of Life - you never can graduate from it.

You must learn to face adversity in life - not to go under. There has to be a certain amount of detachment in yourself. This applies to everyone. The main thing is to ‘hang on’ - what I have learned.

Q: People describe you as a resilient leader. Do you agree?

A: I think in the past 30 - 35 years, the whole country has become resilient - now we have to build up- grab opportunities. The national government is a new experience for all Lankans.

Q: Is it difficult to run a coalition government?

A: Running a government is difficult even with your own party; so it is more difficult to run a coalition government. It is also about how you work with Parliament. If you are willing to consult Parliament and work alongside with them, it is fair. Running a government is not only about forming a government. It is time to ensure that Parliament gets involved, participate in the process of government.

Q: Prime Minister, you were proposing oversight committees - what are the latest developments?

A: That also is a recommendation we have been making for a long time. I am happy we brought it in, because it is working well now after initial setbacks. Then we have also held that the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises should not be headed by members of the government and the UNP has adhered to it. We also created a Committee on Public Finance. Now we want to bring in legislation to establish the parliamentary budget office. Also, we have agreed in principle that the J. R. Jayewardene Centre will have the added task for parliamentary research, and running legislative information service for MPs; the centre will do research for them and we are amending the Act and the centre will be under the supervision of Parliament. It also gives us the opportunity to have the centre separate from Parliament which means a lot of things can be done without having the security checks in Parliament which makes many people reluctant to come into the building now. The Speaker and I are taking some of these additional responsibilities and we need more space outside Parliament. We decided to undertake the present Agriculture Ministry for this work and the Ministry has put in a Cabinet paper to move elsewhere which decision has been much criticized. The reason is, we needed buildings near Parliament.

Besides, we got independent commissions working; the Constitutional Assembly (CA) is working well and the basic framework for democracy is established now.

Q: We are a country burdened with debts. What is your next step to increase revenue?

A: When we took over we could not even pay the interest on public debt; we had to borrow. Now with macroeconomic stabilization, the revenue has increased. At least we are able to pay the interest on our debts.

We have to increase revenue - again we are criticized for that. Our revenue has dropped to 10 or 11 percent of the GDP; taxes are not collected; people with political influence are getting away. Our plan is to have the revenue to become 15% of GDP by 2020. I remember earlier we had revenue of 20% and then came down to 18 %. With this you can see the loss.

We will have to reschedule our debts or at least go in for new borrowings to repay old loans. That’s why we are going in for an investment strategy. Once the investments are coming in, we will be earning more foreign exchange. So our strategy has to be an investment-driven, outward-looking, export-oriented one. After the next five years we will be in a position even to repay our debts. When GDP expands, and the economy stabilizes hopefully by 2020, our burden will be less. But the fact is we will have to pay our debts. We do not want to keep this burden for the next generation. Now we are starting on our investments - then from 2020, to 2025 the economy should be picking up so we can repay our debts.

Q: Prime Minister, you’ve been positive about the Indian port development sector.

A: We are the transshipment point of India; if India develops its ports, it is beneficial to us. Besides we are working with India to develop the Colombo and Trincomalee ports. Japan is also supporting us to develop these two ports. We want to make it the hub of the Indian Ocean with three harbours and two airports - maybe three airports later with another in the Eastern or the North Central province - but, that’s a long way off. I think we should be able to get a Private Public Partnership (PPP) agreement on Mattala soon.

Q: How are the other key development projects progressing?

A: There are plans for every district. Through the Hambantota port agreement the government expects USD. 1.1 billion - that will reduce our debts from USD 26 b to 25 b.

We have two corridors - South West Corridor from Kandy to Kurunegala, Kuliyapitiya, Chilaw, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, up to Moneragala, connecting two harbours and two airports.

Surbana Jurong of Singapore is working on the Eastern Development plan, including the Trincomalee port activities and the tourism industry, down to the Southern part of Arugam Bay, to Kuchchaveli, then under the President’s supervision to Polonnaruwa , Moragahakanda, Malwathu Oya and the cultural triangle.

Among the other major plans are Colombo metropolis which is underway; Kandy city development project which is being done with Japanese assistance; Kurunegala will have a major development program with Central Expressway, Chilaw tourism development project and the Matara/Dedduwa tourism zone. We want to develop Hingurakgoda as the main regional airport and the Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva is currently working on this project. The development of heritage properties in Matara and Galle are being looked at. Kalutara will be developed as a tourism and industrial district. And economic development projects for North and East are another priority. Colombo will be the main financial services centre.

The development process needs two major ingredients; one is reconciliation and peace, which we are moving towards, putting the past behind us. Secondly, the democratic structure for a stable government.

Q: What are your views on the media’s responsibility?

A: The problem is most people in the media have got the background experience of a different era (Rajapaksa era) and government intervention in economics. It got inculcated with the Rajapaksa theory of development. None of them today talk about democracy and doing away with corruption - I wonder what they were doing during that era!

I hope now that new people are coming in, it is going to be different. There are several new publications that have come up after 2015; but you have to give them time and space to change and we are not asking them to give uncritical support to the government.

But there are key areas and certainly you should not go in for extremism in race and religion. The country voted against it, we cannot go back.

Q: Your decision to implement the Right to Information Act (RTI) is a great leap towards democratizing society. What compelled you to do so?

A: The RTI was the draft we prepared in 2003; cabinet approved it; went to Parliament. Then the new government which came in after 2004 promised to go ahead with it, but they didn’t.

As far as the UNP is concerned we are committed to the RTI; so was the civil society. When we won this election, we went for it. Many were interested in it, but hesitant to implement it. So when we came to power we wanted to do it; there are shortcomings - my approach was ‘let us implement it - and let us amend it’ after looking at it for two years. Had we started looking at every possible scenario we wouldn’t have got the legislation. We have now identified the shortcomings of the RTI - the fact is that we got it - it is an achievement.

Q: You are also the longest serving party leader of the UNP. What is the secret?

A: There’s no secret. Remember, in 1994 all the party leaders were pruned; I had to hang on and wait, and to build up. Some of them left politics. We went through a lot of party issues - our people got killed. But I took the challenge of keeping the party together. I think no party leader had to go through the experience I have had.

Q: For Sri Lankan women, irrespective of their achievements in many other fields, entering politics is still a distant dream.

A: Young people and professional women did not enter into politics due to the preferential voting system which costs money. From 1977, the focus was lost, especially in the past 10 years. The new system will ensure that more women are entering the political system, beginning from Pradeshiya Saba level.

Q: You are an avid reader - who are your favourite authors?

A: The best book I have read is the Dhammapada. I read on politics, history and world affairs. I used to read Sinhala books as well. But today I don’t find many good books of Sinhala literature.

But I think this is due to the suppression of democracy over the past decade. Unless you have a really free society, peoples’ creativity skills would not come out freely.

Art suffered under this political patronage of the previous regime.

We have to catch up and I think in the next few years we would see a revival of art, theatre and music. Once you’ve killed, suppressed democracy - the right to expression - it takes time to revive.

Q: How do you take criticism?

A: You reply when you have to. You are not what you were five minutes ago.

Q: Prime Minister, in five years from now, where would you see Sri Lanka?

A: My belief is a better nation and a strong economy; gradually build up our saying in international affairs. More than that, I want to see a Sri Lanka where younger people and the newer generation will be confident of their future. The world is transforming. And to know how to capitalize on it and how to play our cards well is important.

[PM’s leisure]

Best book – Dhammapada

Favourite readings - history, Buddhism and world politics

Authors - Martin Wickremesinghe, Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, Richard Nixon, Arthur Shields

But, Shakesphere is the best!

Profile pix: Wimal Karunathilaka