Restoring the economy, the utmost priority - Shehan Semasinghe | Sunday Observer

Restoring the economy, the utmost priority - Shehan Semasinghe

2 October, 2022

When elections are declared, we can divide ourselves and contest:
People should have a reasonable living standard:

State Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe said that all Members of Parliament irrespective of political differences should make their effective contribution to the National Council and turn that endeavour a success.

It is the responsibility of everybody to join hands and provide solutions to the burning issues faced by the country. He said the country is already under tremendous pressure and we should make sure the challenges are not over and everybody should get together to sort out the problems of Sri Lanka. When elections are declared, we can divide ourselves and contest.

Excerpts of the interview

Q: What is your idea on the proposed National Council? Will it help to stabilise the country at the present juncture?

A: It is the responsibility of all Members of Parliament to make this endeavour a success. We must know this is a very challenging period for Sri Lanka. I don’t want to talk about the history about who is right and who is wrong and where it went wrong. We have to stabilise the country and make sure the people have a reasonable living standard.

So, it is the responsibility of everybody to work together at this juncture. I think the country is already under tremendous pressure and we should make sure the challenges are not over and everybody should get together to sort out the problems of Sri Lanka. When the elections are declared, we can divide ourselves and contest. Right now it is the responsibility of everybody to join hands and provide solutions to the burning issues faced by the country.

Q: The SLFP, JJB, 13 SLPP independent MPs and Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya led by MP Wimal Weerawansa boycotted the inaugural meeting of the National Council held at the parliamentary complex on Thursday. Would you like to air your views?

A: It would be good if they could participate in it. When it is a Government with many ideologies, they might think their particular ideology must get prominence. I do understand that. But we are not in a position to do politics right now and we have to understand that. Once again I think it is better for the country, if they rethink about it and also give their guidance to make decisions for the Government to move forward. Then the Government will be able to participate in the process in a more fruitful manner.

I do understand they also have their concerns. However, if it is going to be a fault-finding mission all the time, it will neither help the Government or the Opposition or people in Sri Lanka. If these parties are going to rethink about the decision to participate in the process, that would be good.

Q: There is controversy over the declaration of High Security Zones (HSZ) by the President and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka have pointed out that HSZ could infringe on the fundamental rights of the people. In your opinion, are the HSZ necessary to maintain law and order?

A: I don’t think any individual except the security personnel who are involved in this matter can comment whether it is required or not. The politicians should not get involved in deciding on what should be a HSZ and whether it is required or not.

I think it is the responsibility of the Security Forces and the Police to decide on that. If they feel that it is required, they should be allowed to do that. If they think this is the time to remove it, then they can remove those HSZ. I think it is better, we as politicians keep away from it.

However, if there is some injustice happening, we can intervene. When you look at the past, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, they were making one-sided statements. I think it would have been better if they spoke about the wrongdoings or wrong decisions made against the Government and the former President. It would have been okay supporting the people but at the same time they should have also thought about the breach of human rights on the other side of the story. So, it would have been nice and a bit human for them to talk about the victims of that as well.

Q: Trade unions representing Government sector officials have decided to file a Fundamental Rights (FR) petition in the Supreme Court against the social media related restrictions imposed on Government officials, claiming that it is a violation of their freedom of speech. Would you like to comment?

A: They have all the right to go to the Supreme Court or the judicial system in Sri Lanka and seek some justice if there is any breach of their human rights. They have all the rights to do so and we don’t want to obstruct that. On the other hand when it comes to public servants, there is a code of conduct for them. So, things have to be within that code of conduct as well. If it is challenged in courts, let us see what the determination of the Supreme Court is. We will have to act according to the Supreme Court determination.

Q: There are many calls to hold a General Election as soon as possible, probably by the middle of next year. What is your view on this? Are you in agreement with holding an election or should the present President and Government run their course for the next two years?

A: That I don’t know whether the President and the Government should complete its balance two years term or not. However, the first and the utmost priority is to restore the economy in the country.

If the restoration is allowed without disturbance, I think we can go for an election and that is not an issue. Nobody should disturb the restoration process of the economy. That is the utmost priority as we think. Secondly, the economy has not yet recovered. Inflation is almost hundred percent. There is a shortage of essentials as well as other goods. So, our priorities will be to restore this. Amidst the greatest difficulty with the management teams, now fuel is available not freely but to do the day today activities. I know there is inconvenience to certain segments. So, it is not fully restored. Just because the fuel is available, we have not taken this lightly because there are major reforms to be done for us to restore the economy.

So, we request every political party as well as civil society groups to let the Government restore the economy. Once it is restored, we can go for elections and the people can elect the representatives they want. But I can say with responsibility if this process is not disturbed by unwanted things, we are confident that we can overcome this most difficult challenging period. I think we have never gone through such a difficult period during our lifetime. Still the problem is not over and we have to sort it out. That is our prime objective.

Q: There are lots of accusations that the Government is suppressing the rights of the people. On the other hand some Government Ministers say that continuous protests disrupt the economy and also affect sectors such as tourism. What is your view on this issue?

A: The immediate recovery for the economy is to be involved in the tourism sector. It is going to bring a lot of income to Sri Lanka. So, we should ensure that there is a peaceful and non-violent environment in Sri Lanka for the tourists to come and spend their holidays. We are indeed required to use foreign currency. When there is a shortage of foreign currency only most of the problems are occurring. Then there will be restrictions on imports and the import of certain items to be suspended.

All these decisions have been taken because we are at a shortage of foreign currency. So, please don’t disturb tourism and make it proceed as expected. Sri Lanka is a lovely country for the tourists to visit and spend their holidays. So, please don’t disturb the tourists coming to Sri Lanka.

Q: Do you see any deliberate attempt by certain groups to create a crisis in the country and disrupt the lives of the people?

A: We will not allow any deliberate attempts of anybody to disturb the lives of the people. We will not entertain that. I don’t think people should go into any deliberate attempts to disturb the lives of the people. Every minute we attempt to deliberately disturb the day-to-today activities of the general public, it will add additional pressure on them.

Q: Despite the President and the Government declaring State expenditure will be curtailed to enhance relief to the people who have faced hardships due to the economic crisis, what led the Government to appoint 38 new State Ministers?

A: The people will realise what the State Ministers are doing. We know the people are under pressure and they are going through severe hardships.

There is an impact on the SME sector and inflation has also an impact on the day-to-today living pattern of the people. The people are not in a position to buy things that are in the market. They might not be able to have peace of mind in their families. All these problems are there.

The State Ministers will never become a burden to the nation. We all are working very hard and act together to take the country forward. Let us do that. If we fail, put the blame on us. Give us a chance to do it and show it by our performance.

Q: The JVP and certain sections say the basis of this crisis is the political culture. If we want to get out of this crisis, we need to change the political culture. Your views?

A: I agree with them to a certain extent. The political culture has to be changed in Sri Lanka. If we want to change Sri Lanka, the people will have to realise the political culture has to be changed. We accept the JVP commenting on that. At the same time, we can’t provide any room to destroy democracy in the country. While talking about changing the political culture, if anybody attempts to storm into Parliament, disturb Parliament and destroy it, then that doesn’t link together. The way they attempt to capture power is completely wrong and it goes back to the era of 1988-89 of what we have seen.

Q: Are you confident the majority of the countries would extend their support to Sri Lanka at the UNHRC vote on October 07?

A: If you take the economy, we can see there is a change in it and international credentials on Sri Lanka as whole. The countries are appreciating the steps taken by the present Government and the President. When the President explained how transparent and fair the Government executed all possible avenues, the ambassadors commended the moves taken by the Government. We hope the international community will help us to overcome the current situation.

Q: The economy suffered a lot due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis emerged afterwards. What measures have been taken to address the situation?

A: A series of initiatives have already been taken to address the situation. However, the IMF bailout is the key thing to restore the economy. The staff level discussions have ended in a positive manner.

There are certain reforms to be made which we are doing right now. Of course, the short term Budget was focused on those reforms on economic revival as well as financial liquidity.

The 2023 Budget will focus on the reforms and financial discipline which the country requires. Secondly, we are in discussions with creditors. With bilateral creditors, we have to restructure and sort it out. We are still at the primitive stage.

Last week only the Central Bank Governor and Secretary to the Treasury presented proof to the creditors. That process has to go through and we have to finalise that to get a final determination of the IMF. We are trying our best to expedite the process. We have very qualified financial and legal advisers who are very transparent. So, they will deal with the proceedings which are required to be done and I am sure we will be able to overcome the challenge.