‘UNP will choose presidential candidate democratically’ - Malik | Sunday Observer

‘UNP will choose presidential candidate democratically’ - Malik

26 May, 2019

The following is an interview with Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade Malik Samarawickrama on the Easter bombings, trade and the UNP’s stakes in the 2019 presidential race

Q: It has been over a month since the Easter attacks took place. There has been a public outcry for accountability, and even the Bar Association has filed a court case against the Cabinet including yourself. As a Minister, do you feel responsibile for allowing the Easter attacks to have taken place and for the chaotic aftermath?

Much can be said about these attacks. The important thing is, our priority must be to look after the victims and their families. This is not an overnight response required from this Government, but a debt that will be owed by all future governments to the families of the dead and injured, for the rest of their lives.

Regarding the role played by the Government, it is important to draw a line separating the periods before and after the blasts. Many who survived the attacks did so due to the courage and professionalism of the medical personnel and other first responders. The police and military immediately adapted to a counterterrorism role, not overnight, but within minutes. The next day, a team of CID and military personnel detected and safely disposed of a car bomb near St. Anthony’s Church that could have killed hundreds.

In less than a week, the police and military identified all the safe houses of the terrorists, incapacitated their leaders and key personnel, and secured their explosives and facilities capable of manufacturing more. They coordinated with international agencies including Interpol to arrest suspects abroad. When communal tensions broke out, curfew was declared immediately and all those responsible apprehended within 48 hours. These are accomplishments no other Sri Lankan Government can speak of in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

What happened before the attacks may be a different story. It is clear that some individuals and institutions sat on reliable intelligence that could have prevented the bombings and saved lives. They should be identified and held accountable. You mentioned cases filed in the Supreme Court. The President also appointed a committee of eminent experts including a Supreme Court Justice, former IGP and former Law and Order Secretary, to determine who was responsible and whether criminal negligence occurred. All these mechanisms are proper and legitimate, and will lead to the public learning the truth, to the guilty to be held accountable, and most importantly, to the development of systems and institutions that prevent such a catastrophe from happening again.

As a Cabinet Minister, I have to say neither I nor the Cabinet was ever briefed on matters of national security such as these. But this is not an excuse. As citizens and public officials, we are all introspective about what we each could have done to prevent these attacks. More importantly, we are determined to never let such a thing happen again.

Q: Many people feel the country is still not safe, and that it would not be safe until it is led by someone like former Defence Secretary and presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. How does this affect the UNP electoral strategy?

No country will ever be safe under the rule of a man who would capitalize on the deaths of nearly 260 innocent children, men and women to launch an election campaign. Sri Lanka needs to become more united and connected with the outside world, not regress into dictatorship and sectarian violence for political gain.

As for this supposed presidential candidacy, I am not aware of any political party that has said that Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be their candidate. If he is trying to frighten, bully and intimidate his own party and family to make him a candidate, I shudder to even think of how he would treat ordinary citizens so that he could stay in power.

Q: But there will be a Presidential Election by December 8 this year. That means candidates would have to be announced within months. What is the UNP’s strategy for selecting a presidential candidate? Will the party field its own candidate or support another common candidate?

Firstly, we must understand that the UNP is not like many other political parties. The Podujana Peramuna is a family party. Their candidate will be decided by their ruling family. If that candidate wins, their family will rule the country. In the UNP we have always had a democratic process for selecting our presidential candidate and party leader. As the party that fights for democracy in Sri Lanka, we are committed to having democracy in our party too. I believe all UNP members must be free to speak their mind and share their views on this matter without fear of retaliation. When the time comes the UNP will come together as a party and select a candidate who can not only win an election, but is honest, hardworking, and committed to democratic values and ideals.

Q: As a Government Minister, what have you or your Ministry accomplished since you took office, and what are the initiatives you won’t be able to finish before the next election?

The Ministry of Development Strategies and International Trade (MODSIT) was formed with me as Minister in 2015. We have got several projects off the ground in the last few years, but two complete accomplishments that I am proud of are the rescuing of the Hambantota Port project and the Singapore Free Trade Agreement.

Before we came to power in 2015, the Rajapaksa government had signed a $1.4 billion cheque that the people of Sri Lanka could not cash. Our Ministry managed to negotiate a deal for the loan to be written off in exchange for the Port terminal operations to be run by the Chinese company. This deal saved the country from an economic collapse, as our foreign reserves were running dry after a decade of mismanagement.

Even though we signed it at a difficult time, we were able to negotiate a buyback clause that would allow a later government to repurchase the lease and end the deal with the Chinese in times of prosperity. It was a port that Sri Lanka did not need and could not afford to pay for. The Singapore Free Trade Agreement is the first comprehensive FTA ever signed by Sri Lanka. It is the legacy of our chief trade negotiator, the late Dr. Saman Kalegama, who tragically passed away before the agreement was concluded. MODSIT concluded this agreement, which has attracted investment from Singapore and other regional countries to Sri Lanka, sending a signal of confidence in our economy.

It has now been active for over a year, and we are meeting with the Singaporeans to discuss possible amendments. Despite a lot of vague calls for amendment last year from various groups like the GMOA, I have called for suggestions on what to amend, but concrete proposals are yet to come.

FTAs are a long-term investment. Our Ministry is about strategy, not about the next election. We are negotiating a similar expanded FTA with India, right now for ‘goods’ only which doesn’t include services or investment, unlike the Singapore FTA, which was also our first FTA with an ASEAN country.

MODSIT has also identified and addressed some of the main bottlenecks to investing in Sri Lanka, such as the difficulty in securing industrial land. We have spearheaded the opening of the Bingiriya Industrial Park, with many more in the pipeline.

Q: Isn’t it another part of your Ministry’s role to help domestic industries to compete in international markets? Why has this area not been prioritized?

It is wrong to say we have not prioritized aid to domestic industries. We have several initiatives underway at MODSIT to improve competitiveness by providing these industries with supportive policies and strategies, financial aid, technical support and enabling infrastructure. These are things that should have happened over a decade ago when the need arose. Again, these are not overnight plans that would see results in a few weeks or months before an election, but thoughtful, long-term strategic plans that build confidence and signal stability to these industries. There is the National Export Strategy we debuted in 2018, focusing on six key sectors and three trade support functions. We are focusing on established sectors ripe for growth as well as emerging opportunities in a 21st century economy.

We also established a Market Access Support Program which helped several local enterprises to improve the quality of products, marketing and technical resources, and to see more success in the international market. MODSIT also prepared Sri Lanka’s first ever Trade Adjustment Program to create a framework for the domestic private sector to adapt to a more liberal trade regime. It will soon go before Cabinet and provide safeguards against import surges and dumping by international trade partners.

Q: Why have you waited until the end of the Government to address issues as critical as import surges and dumping? What took so long?

These are additional measures. We passed the Anti-Dumping and Countervailing Measures Act (ADCMA) and the Safeguard Measures Act in Parliament last year. These were landmark legal achievements long overdue and addressed pain points that several governments had allowed to go unchecked. Thanks to these laws, our domestic enterprises have legal cover to combat instances of import surges, dumping and unfair trade practices by foreign countries. This is how any government should responsibly go about liberalizing trade while looking after local industries. Previous governments should be asked what took them so long. Due to several reforms that this government implemented, Sri Lanka has gone up 11 places in the “Doing Business Index” in 2019.

Q: What else is the UNP doing to prepare for the Presidential Election?

Let me be clear, none of the things mentioned here are things we are doing to prepare for an election. In advance of the election, just like during the rest of our term, what we are doing is governing responsibly and putting the security and long-term interests of the country and its people first. Let me tell you what we are not doing, so you can compare this to the last presidential election. We are not deploying the military to intimidate opposition voters. We are not parking white vans outside journalists’ homes. We are not going to take money from the TRC and use it to buy ‘Sil Reddhi’ for our election campaign. We are not using the intelligence services to spy on our political opponents.

We are looking forward to democratically selecting a candidate to put before the people, and achieve a democratic victory in a free and fair election.