From a failed political coup to the deadly Easter Sunday attacks in April last year, Sri Lanka’s former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s last term in office, from 2015 to 2019, witnessed several challenges. His then government tried moving forward with post-war reconciliation and a constitutional settlement to the national question, but could complete neither exercise before November, when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power with a big mandate. Mr. Wickremesinghe, now in Opposition and leading the United National Party (UNP), spoke on a range of subjects from bilateral ties to domestic political issues. Edited excerpts:
During his recent visit to New Delhi Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa sought a three-year moratorium in repaying the debt Sri Lanka owes India, but it doesn’t seem like New Delhi has got back yet. Do you think such a moratorium might help?
For 3% of the debt? Even if we include China and everyone else, the debt [owed to those countries] is less than 20%. It is the sovereign bonds that amount to most of Sri Lanka’s outstanding debt.
You spoke of regional and strategic integration. Your government had tried taking steps in that direction, where do you see that process now?
It has to be taken forward. As far as our government was concerned , the last government, we started discussing with India, a deeper FTA (Free Trade Agreement). And we made progress on many areas. We signed an FTA with Singapore and we also were to commence discussions with Thailand. Bangladesh too was interested in an FTA. It’s just [about] carrying that process forward, because we are countries whose economies are complementary. If four of us can certainly come to an arrangement, then the rest of the pieces in the whole subcontinent will fall into place. Malaysia and Singapore will also have some sort of understanding. India already has an agreement with the ASEAN countries, others will follow and maybe it’ll strengthen India and all of us in coming to an agreement with RCEP (the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) agreement. Now that India has opted out [of RCEP], the best would be to have the agreement here, but we should try and have an agreement which is deeper than RCEP.
Would that mean a freer trade regime?
Well, yes in some instances it can be in respect of tariffs, and in some it can be about the non-tariff barriers and the other standards. It doesn’t mean that all your tariffs have to be less than what is given in the RCEP. It also means you can handle your non-tariff barriers and your standards, which can go beyond RCEP.
You have stressed on the importance of SAARC, and that it would be good for the region if India and Pakistan were to sort out their differences. Is that something you had raised with PM Modi on the many occasions you met him?
We have talked about it and he has explained to me the issues of terrorism and the efforts that he has made. But you have to do this — we are talking of security integration . Look, the Indo-Pakistan tension is a global issue like ours, and for the first time you have the President of the U.S. even talking of intervening. So, it will be a matter of time. If you don’t resolve it yourself, there may be other outside actors who feel that they should come in.
I feel that it’s still possible for India and Pakistan to resolve their own issues, it will take time. And resolving it also means resolving some of the connected issues including Kashmir, but if it’s a slow process, it can [happen]. All that has to be done is to get the summits moving, and then continue the discussions.
How do you think Sri Lanka, which has good relations with both India and Pakistan, could contribute to improving this dialogue?
This is really a bilateral matter. But we can, not only Sri Lanka but also others, insist that they gradually come to a resolution to at least get SAARC summits moving. As President Jayawardene said, ‘we’ve got to have everyone around the table and talk’.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa made it very clear during his recent visit to New Delhi that the deals signed during your government’s time were not going to be taken forward, particularly referring to the MoU signed in 2017. Why is it so difficult to move forward on those projects like infrastructure in Trincomalee?
These were agreements between two governments . The delays we were having were not policy issues, they were more procedural issues, like environment, or some of the agreements we had with other parties.
But remember, as far as the LNG [projects] are concerned, both for India and Japan, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government granted them permission for a coal power station in Sampur (Trincomalee district). Originally, India discussed Foul Point (Trincomalee) with us, then went for Sampur. There were issues that came up. Similarly, another permit was given to the Japanese.
Then, after the Paris Climate Agreement, President Sirisena decided that we will not have any coal power stations. Then the Indian and the Japanese governments asked us whether we are going back on the agreement and we said this has come. They asked can it be LNG. We need power so he said yes, it’s LNG.
Then our authorities pointed out that if it’s LNG it should be in Colombo. So that’s all, we are just continuing it. Because the policies changed in regard to the fuel that has to be used for the power stations.
Of the other agreements, the Trincomalee oil farm is an old one, which we had agreed to. And it would just make Sri Lanka a hub for oil storage and delivery to India, and to any other country like Bangladesh that is interested, then we could expand on it. So, there’s a lot of potential and once we have an oil hub, getting industry there is not difficult at all. If you are now going back on it what do you want to do with those tanks? They were used to fuel the British and the American war effort in World War Two.
Even so, the accusation was that you were Prime Minister for about four years at a stretch and yet there was very little movement made on so many agreements. In fact, you said at one point that PM Modi was frustrated.
Even I felt frustrated. The East Container Terminal [at the Colombo Port] had been cleared by us, and that has been implemented, with Japan also coming in. So that is out of the way. But these are the two that really got held up. And then we were discussing the Mattala airport (near Hambantota). In the last stages we were waiting for a reply from the Indian side, that I remember. I was pushing hard for it.
India didn’t get back?
They came back towards election time. In the meantime, we got moving on Palaly ( airport in Jaffna ) and the ground work was done on Batticaloa (airport in the Eastern Province), that also has to be completed. Palaly is very important to us. India is already doing Kankesanthurai (port redevelopment in Jaffna), it is important. We had many other discussions with India on the Trinco-Dambulla highway. I don’t know what they [Rajapaksa government] want to do, because if you go back on it, it’s going to be a blow for Indo-Lanka relations. It is also in Sri Lanka’s interest to develop all this.
Following the November elections, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and PM Mahinda Rajapaksa have said Sri Lanka will pull out of the UNHRC process on accountability and reconciliation. Then, they dropped the Tamil national anthem — reintroduced by your government in the Independence Day celebration. How do you read this shift?
Firstly, as far as the resolution is concerned, we are co-sponsors till the end of the resolution, which is in 2021. You can’t just pull out. After 2021, you can decide whether you want to co-sponsor the next resolution or not. The resolutions are based on a commitment given by President Rajapaksa, at that time when he was President, to inquire into these matters and to take action.
And if you look at the cases, they’re all the cases pertaining to the fighting and the war, including some investigations which had been launched during the time of President Rajapaksa, which were concluded. We only had investigations in respect of the disappearances of certain journalists, which was an election issue.
But other than that, what they are talking of — they’re not talking of the journalists — about what we’ve been doing so far, is actually about us going ahead with what they started. If they didn’t start it, then there wouldn’t have been a question for us to get involved in.
Secondly, we couldn’t say no, because he had already started. He had already had a trial in respect of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and the White Flag incident. So, they’ve had their first trial, the parties had been jailed and they were inquiring into the others. How can you back out of such a process? We couldn’t back out of a process they started.
On the question of power devolution to the Tamils, your government tried bringing in a new constitution — not necessarily speaking about the 13th Amendment — but couldn’t complete the process. Your successor government — and even the Indian PM — are now talking about the existing 13th Amendment again. Is Sri Lanka going back in time?
Actually, our devolution proposals were based on the 13th Amendment . Furthermore, there is a report prepared by the chief ministers of the seven [southern] provinces, excluding the north and east, on devolution. All seven chief ministers were from the UPFA (the alliance that the Rajapaksas led). So we have only taken their reports.
Do you see Sri Lanka moving in a majoritarian direction? PM Rajapaksa told The Hindu that there will be no decisions taken on devolution that are not acceptable to the majority community
He has said that for the simple reason that first you will need to go for a two-thirds majority [in parliament] and a majority of the MPs are Sinhalese. You may have to go in for a referendum. But whatever it is, it must be based on the 13th Amendment, how do you go beyond 13th Amendment, and it should be acceptable to the Sinhalese also. It’s not just me, it’s Mr. Sampanthan (Tamil National Alliance leader), who has said even if you don’t require a referendum, you should have a non-mandatory referendum.
So you think that is the process?
It is the process. It has already been laid down by Mr. Sampanthan. There’s no question.
Turning to your past government, you had your differences quite openly with President Sirisena. You had come together at a very important time in Sri Lankan history, for a crucial election in 2015. How do you feel about the fact that he has rejoined forces with the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)?
If he has rejoined forces with the Rajapaksas, it means they accept what he did. He has not yet disowned what he has done. So if they are going to accept what he did, then they can’t say what we did is bad. That is what their own supporters are saying, those who’re against Sirisena coming. How can you now go to the country and say what we did was bad? I expected Sirisena to do this. Some people in my party thought Sirisena was only against me and not against them.
Do you think it is just politics as usual, or a conspiracy of some sort?
In 2018, Sirisena pushed [for the] Rajapaksas to come into the government. And he put me out. Mahinda Rajapaksa came in, but I do not know whether he [Rajapaksa] trusted it. For Mahinda Rajapaksa, he felt he had broken the alliance between both of us (Wickremesinghe-Sirisena). But the fact was that anyway it was broken. I don’t think Mahinda Rajapaksa actually manoeuvred it, so the question is whether Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to get his way by swearing himself in as Prime Minister, or whether Sirisena used Mahinda Rajapaksa in a manoeuvre that was unsuccessful.
Right after the elections you stepped down. It is considered a controversial decision in the sense that many in your party feel that maybe you should have stayed till the parliamentary elections.
Actually, we could have stayed on till the elections, but I must say that what the Pohottuwa (lotus bud, the symbol of SLPP) indicated was, if that was so we must have elections early. That was a matter of negotiations. There were members in my party who felt that we should wait for the longest possible time, even if it means going into the Opposition. And some of the ministers resigned as a result of it. Then I discussed with the members and thought the only option available for us is to go into the Opposition. That was an internal matter of the party. But some of the members of Parliament pointed out that when President Sirisena won, the UPFA had a majority, but we asked the then Prime Minister to resign I became the Prime Minister (minority). So, you are only establishing a precedent. There was only a short time. If it was a matter of two, three years it would have been different. In 2015 also it was a matter of a few months, and in 2019 also it was a matter of few months [before general elections].
There is a perception that you are reluctant to make way for a new leader of your party?
Maybe. In fact, I didn’t want to take on the post of the Leader of the Opposition. I said let Sajith [Premadasa] be there, or someone else, we will try out some new people. Because I have been there earlier. And we have to groom a lot of new people to come in. And after this [general election] you will see who are the ones who do well.
For party leadership?
No, for leaders of the party. Because at this stage one will have to be the leader. Then, it has to be a group. When there is leadership change, there is a group and someone from that emerges later on.
But shouldn’t it be Mr. Premadasa, he is your deputy, and was a candidate?
That is for the party to decide, not me. Many of those people will come after the elections and let them have a hand at reorganising the party, and prove themselves.
One of the first things that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said after his election was that he wants to get rid of the 19th Amendment (a 2015 legislation clipping the President’s executive powers and empowering parliament) that you have been a strong advocate of. How do you see that?
I thought the intention was all against his brother. You cut down the Prime Minister’s power, then it’s the President who is powerful. As it is, the parliament is powerful, so what do they want to do? This is not a question for me to answer, you put it to the wrong person. I think it’s good and we should keep it, but in this context, it is not a matter for me to decide.
You said the Indian Ocean Region should not become an area of contestation between the U.S. and China. During your time as prime minister, did you feel pressure from both sides?
You could see a sort of polarisation taking place, we want to avoid that. Basically, there should be freedom of navigation that is inclusive, like Prime Minister Modi said. Secondly, there should be no military aspects. Thirdly, our areas need connectivity.
So, if people come with different programmes, as long as there are no strings attached to it in regard to the military side, any country has the option to look at it. And let’s draw the rules of the game in the Indian Ocean. And then let anyone come — it can be U.S., or China. But then, U.S. also must come back and get involved on the economic side. What’s happening now on the Asia Pacific side is that they are pulling out of the economic and the trade side.
You don’t think this blue dot initiative is important? It doesn’t make money?
Yes. And the contradiction that is coming up is that for economic affairs they have to deal with China, and for security affairs they’re dealing with the U.S.
But your government also sent out conflicting signals. In one sense, there was Hambantota being handed over to the Chinese and on the other, you were negotiating a SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with the U.S.?
SOFA has already been there . And Hambantota agreement was basically to run the port. There was no way you could run a port and make money when there’s no hinterland. Either I had to not pay the loans or, I had to come back with some arrangement where the Chinese help develop a special economic zone there and we signed the agreement.
But you have to remember that in regard to the Trivandrum port you’re building, they want a minimum of 60 years for returns. So we have only made it 77, they can cancel it tomorrow if you pay them compensation. So it’s no different.
Our government said that we will have the naval southern Command in Hambantota and we are in charge of security, and at the same time in Hambantota was the headquarters of one of our infantry divisions.
What is going to be the impact of the U.S. imposing this travel ban on your army chief?
Earlier, after 2009, there had been a travel ban on Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, when he was the minister. I myself have intervened. But American rules are such that these are internal matters. We were not successful.
Then former Army Commander Jayasuriya was refused entry into the U.S.A. He was our Ambassador in Brazil. Then, General Wiranto was refused permission and even Prime Minister Modi. So all you could do was talk to them. But no one made a big issue whether in India, Indonesia or here earlier, because right or wrong the question of allowing people to come into your country is an internal affair of that country.
But we had taken it up and told them that we didn’t agree with the decision on Fonseka. Same was said of Prime Minister Modi when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. And the Indonesians said the same thing of General Wiranto, who was Minister of Defence, and he collaborates with the U.S. on defence.
So you don’t think it will have much of an impact on U.S.-Lanka ties?
I don’t think so. What we were anxious about was that this should not affect the military cooperation with the U.S., especially the chances that our armed force personnel were going to get in the U.S., for training and exposure. I myself told them that whatever happens, this is a matter of individuals.
You have been in Parliament for over four decades and PM more than once. The 30-year-war pulled back the country, and now 10 years after the war how do you see the lingering conflict being resolved?
A lot of these issues are over for the Tamils also. Main issue is missing persons and compensation, we have to sort that out. The other is that we still have war-damaged lands to be returned but that process is going on. In the Vanni most of it has been done. The building of houses is going on with the help of India, it’s a question of lifting the economy. That’s why we started with tourism, Palalay. Other than that, unless you are going to reopen the wounds, it will just heal. We are trying to hasten the process.
But in terms of the Tamils’ pending demand for devolution, you said the majority has to agree. Do you think they will resist?
No, it depends on what the powers are. I think police powers and all are questions, but not other things. I think Mr. Sampanthan was correct when he said I want the Sinhalese also to accept it.
Where do you see Sri Lanka in the next five years, with this new government? The Opposition is decimated… you have to rebuild your party
We have to rebuild but I think we will have a strong Opposition because in the last few months they [Rajapaksas] have not performed.
But do you foresee an ability to rebuild… because the party appears divided?
I think we can rebuild it. We also have to look at the fact that people opted out of the traditional politicians for someone who was not a politician. Well, you have seen that in U.S.A. Even in the U.K. they put the mayor of London. Generally, it’s a seasoned House of Commons parliamentarian who goes in. So there are changes, and I think our parties have to respond to that.
Are you worried about, what some fear might be, a shrinking of democratic space in Sri Lanka under the new government?
We won’t allow that. People also won’t allow that. They have to face Opposition both inside and outside the Parliament if they try that.