Opportune moment to start a new political culture - President | Sunday Observer

Opportune moment to start a new political culture - President

2 July, 2023
President Ranil Wickremesinghe being interviewed by France24
President Ranil Wickremesinghe being interviewed by France24

In an interview with FRANCE 24 on the sidelines of the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris, President Ranil Wickremesinghe responded to questions posed by FRANCE 24.

Following are excerpts of the interview
Q: You became President in a very difficult situation for your country. There were street protests triggered by the country’s worst economic crisis since its Independence. Sri Lanka has defaulted. It has reached a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) back in March. And there are reports by the Reuters news agency that the World Bank is about to approve US$ 700 million in budgetary and welfare support at its next Board meeting. Can you confirm that this is indeed happening?
A. We are anticipating money from the World Bank. So far, we have fulfilled all the benchmarks and, therefore, we are qualifying for the assistance from the World Bank. It is much-needed money at the moment and will certainly help to strengthen the economy. (Editor’s note: Since this interview was aired, the World Bank has confirmed this facility).
Q: Obviously, here in Paris and I assume in many other arenas where you are travelling and participating, the issue of your debt is extremely important because you need financial oxygen. Obviously, your debt, external debt, stands at US$ 42 billion, I believe. Are you making progress with the different creditors? There is the Paris Group. There is China. Are you making progress?
A. Discussions are going on with the different groups. We have an agreement with Lazard to represent us. And the Domestic Debt Restructuring (DDR) program will be presented to the Cabinet soon. I think over the weekend they are hoping to finalise it. It will go to Parliament on Friday before the Public Finance Committee (PFC). Then on Saturday it will be debated in Parliament and will be approved by Parliament. Thereafter, we can start the rest of the negotiations with our creditors.
Q: What is in this plan? What is the idea, to postpone the debt, to reduce it or a combination of both, what is the idea?
A.  Well, it is a question of giving a longer period for repayment. And we have also been looking at some form of a reduction in the amount due. So those are being discussed now. And hopefully by Sunday or Monday, the final document will be available to us.

Q: OK. So you are making progress both with China and other creditors?
A. With China, Lazard is discussing with all and also Sri Lanka. We’ve been discussing with all the creditors and with China also. I mean, China has not joined the Common Platform, but they have been there at every meeting. And all details have been shared with China. China has shared information with them. So except for formally being on the platform, China has been a party and is aware of all the information that is being shared.
Q: In Paris, there was an agreement on the debt from Zambia with both the Western creditors and China. Is this a good omen for a country which shows, obviously every situation is different, that there is indeed a possibility to find an agreement with both China and other creditors?
A. We are confident of China coming along with the others. The Zambian one was announced this week and it is good that China has been able to sort out Zambia. I listened to the speech of the Chinese Prime Minister both yesterday at the dinner, working dinner and today, it shows China, for the first time China has shown its approach to the whole issue of debt restructuring. And it is a positive message.
Q: Speaking of China, there has been speculation about China’s presence in Sri Lanka.There have been reports, especially in the American press, that there could be a military presence in Sri Lanka. Is this the case? And do you rule it out for the future?
A. Well, the Chinese have been there for about 1,500 years. So far, there has been no military base.There is a lot of speculation about the Hambantota Port. We have called for it and it has been given out to China Merchants. But the security is controlled by the Government of Sri Lanka. The Southern Naval Command will be shifted to Hambantota. We have got one brigade stationed in Hambantota and the nearby areas and there certainly has been no issue of military use by the Chinese.

The same company also runs a terminal in the Colombo Port, in the South Port and that is where warships come from all countries. Now, no one is complaining of the terminal they are running in Colombo.
They are only complaining about the terminal and the port that they are managing in Hambantota.  We have no military agreements with China. There won’t be any military agreements. I do not think China will enter into one. We are a neutral country, but we also emphasize on the fact that we cannot allow Sri Lanka to be used as a base for any threats against India.
Q: You recently declared, some groups involved in traditional politics are actively working to hinder our economic revival, they are spreading false information and misleading the public with claims that you are selling off the country. What exactly do you have in mind?
A. There have been people who say we have been selling off the country.

Q: Who are these people, Mr. President?
A. Part of the Opposition. Part of other groups. So I just pointed out each achievement we had and I asked, is that selling off the country? If we reduce the price of fuel, is it selling off the country? We are working with foreign economies, not only Western but also Eastern, like Japan, Korea and China. And working with them does not mean we are selling off the country. It means that we are developing the economy and I asked them to reply. It is just a sort of debate that goes on in Sri Lankan politics.

They have not been able to reply. So I think there are other issues also that we have asked them. So I asked them, what I have told all the parties is that we are in a very difficult situation now. Let us all get together and look at how we resolve it.

And then when you go to the elections, next time you can say we have all been stakeholders in this development.
But if you all keep criticising in the old way with out any other reasonable alternative, the fact is that the voters will turn you out. So it is much better for us to start a new political culture where we can all work together.
Q: Speaking of bringing people together, the Cabinet has approved a proposal to establish a South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Will it happen and will it satisfy the demands from the Tamils from the island? They have asked for an international probe into alleged war crimes.
A. The TRC has been agreed by all and that is one of the conditions that the Geneva Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) has also taken up. It was drafted some time ago but after I became President, I have been talking to them. Even today I spoke to President Cyril Ramaphosa about the Commission and for them to come and help us.

This is what we wanted and I will get it passed in Parliament by August. And already we are making plans to set up the TRC Secretariat. We require the South African assistance. There will be a lot of foreign observers, independent observers. So that is within the framework that we have so far specified.
Q: When do you expect it to begin?
A. I would think that in my view, the legislation will be enacted by August.
Q: There is also talk about granting political autonomy to the Tamil-dominated areas. What about that?
A. Tamils are in different parts of the country and have different categories.

If you look at it, you have the Tamils in the North and the East. Then, the Tamils of the Hill Country, whose origins trace back to India.
Now we have been sorting out a lot of the issues there.

In fact, the Tamils have been given voting rights in one area, one district called Nuwara Eliya, where all of a sudden, the Sinhala majority became a minority and the Tamils have become a majority.

That has not happened in many countries that I am aware of. But we have to uplift the economic and social standards of the Tamils living in those areas. They take part in the politics and they have members serving in the central Cabinet. As far as the North is concerned, especially the leaders and members of the Tamil parties have been asking for the Government to ensure that the devolution package which is in the Constitution is implemented.

Q: Will it be?

A. It has been implemented, but the Central Government will not interfere in it. We have given that guarantee and we are prepared to bring legislation.
I have told them, in addition, they have asked for some of the other powers, not only for the North, but for all the nine provinces. It has been supported by some of the former chief ministers in the other areas. So we are having discussions. I think we can identify some more subjects to come under the purview of the Provincial Councils (PCs).
Q: There was a report that was published just a couple of days ago mentioning the role of your predecessor, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in hampering some investigations into mass graves that were found during the fighting, obviously, in the 1980s and 1990s. Should there be investigations about his role, about the role of others, or is the TRC the only way to turn the page?
A. Well, I would like any allegations to come before the TRC, because it is about to be implemented. But if you are going to run a parallel investigation, we are only undermining the TRC. If anyone has any complaints, they can go before the TRC.
Q: And it can involve anyone, eventually, former, very senior figures?

A. They can call the former President or anyone else. And the fact is, no one can say it is a cover-up, because there will be foreign observers.