Will have to take unpopular decisions for the good of the country – Sagala


President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayaka in an interview with Ceylon Today elaborated on the government’s planned State sector restructuring process, amending laws pertaining to the national security and the future of the Wickremesinghe Government.

Following are the excerpts of the interview:

What kind of a role you play in the current government?

I am involved in both political affairs as well as government affairs. I’m not acting in the capacity of a Cabinet minister or performing duties in a particular ministry. Yet, under the present context I get actively involved in finding solutions, by coordinating various stakeholders, in a bid to end this economic crisis. I’m completely involved in ending especially the fuel crisis, gas shortage and medicine shortage. Now discussions are going on between a group of IMF officials and the Finance Ministry. The President also acts in the capacity of the Minister of Finance. So the President’s Secretary and I participate in regular discussions on his behalf.

Due to this economic crisis, there seems to be political instability in the country. Do you think that the continued existence of this instability will not affect us as a country?

Well, actually I have a completely different take on this entire claim about economic crisis leading to political instability. In fact, I think the economic crisis has led to a kind of political stability than at any other time. Even though some parties do not agree with us 100 per cent or support us wholeheartedly, the usual political dramas or exerting pressure for political gain are less or less visible. Maybe because they have put the country or people’s welfare before self, such trends are less prevalence compared to any other time. That’s why the President has got the ability to act even if holding one MP seat in Parliament.

That is why we are talking about a united all-party government. This is the best time to think about the country and the people and get everyone on board to support our programme. We must also not take things for granted and should know how to proceed with a good plan. Now, the people have some confidence in the President and the government.  While they understand that government cannot provide solutions overnight, they are confident that we will solve these crises. Our responsibility is to ensure that their trust in us is not breached.

An interim budget has been presented. Do you think that the people of the country, as a whole, have received relief from the budget at this moment when they are under severe economic pressure?

There are reliefs provided to the most deserving. Maybe this is not entirely a relief budget.  But we have given some amount of relief to those in the lowest layers of the income levels. However, the tax revenue of the government needs to be increased. So we increased the taxes to some extent. We had to take some unpopular decisions to move the country forward economically. In 2019 certain taxes like VAT reductions were granted, which were not sought by ordinary public.  On top of it, the benefits of the tax reduction did not directly reach the people. That is where this economic crisis started. Today we don’t have rupees… it’s not only about not having dollars. It happened because of this tax reductions. But these mistakes need to be fixed. You have to take the right path. We have laid the foundation necessary for that journey with this interim budget. When we present the budget for the year 2023, I hope we will be able to present a budget that can alleviate the sufferings of all the people of the country.  Rs 10,000 per month will be given to 61,000 low-income families. Pregnant mothers are given Rs 2,500 each during pregnancy and after delivery for up to two months. That is in addition to Rs 20,000 allowance which is already being given. Samurdhi stipends increased from Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,500. We have given as many concessions as possible and even those on the pending list are being given an allowance.

There are allegations that the party supporters as well as ineligible people, than those who are actually deserving, are likely to receive these benefits like it used to be in the past. Is there any plan to prevent these kind occurrences?

We introduced the Welfare Benefits Act in 2002. But that bill was not implemented. We are going to enforce it again. According to that act, severe penalties will be imposed if an ineligible person gets benefits or if benefits are given to such people by any official.

Are they trying to sell State institutions under the guise of reforming loss making entities?

No, we are trying to reform and restructure loss-making State institutions so that they are not a burden to the country. We will set up a separate unit to see if these institutions can be restructured in a way that does not burden the country. We will appoint a team of experts to this unit who can assist us with technical support and knowledge. There we will see how to bring these institutions to the point where they make profits. Also, these experts will present measures that can be taken to prevent corruption and irregularities in the public sector. Some institutions may have to be kept under State ownership, as a government while, some should be given to private sector.  Governments in many developed countries of the world do not engage in businesses or profit making enterprises. So I also think that it is not appropriate for a government to do business in general. However, during the restructuring process, the government stake will be withdrawn completely in some establishments while, partial withdrawal will take place in certain others.

In some cases, the government also has to play a part as a partner. However, there are people who say that we as a government should protect the most valuable resources of the country. In many countries, the distribution and generation of electricity is done by the private sector. There is no such thing in our country. However, we will not be able to reach these goals at once.

As you say, many institutions are being privatised. Does this mean laying-off of public sector employees?

We will never allow such a problem to arise. As a government, we will definitely provide criteria in this regard. According to that, the related parties take decisions. Those criteria contain do’s and don’ts. We are doing this in consultation with the employees and the trade unions of those institutions. I think that this is the best time to carry out such tasks. Today, some institutions are a heavy burden on the people. For instance, even a person who has never set foot in an airplane is paying the debt of SriLankan Airlines. So the people and many employees have understood the necessity to change and be reformed.

You are putting an end to public sector employees being recruited and asking public servants to go home. Public sector is heavily burdened with political appointments made without a proper assessment. Do you think TUs will allow these changes?

The time of playing politics by promising to provide jobs or people coming to politicians with an intention of finding a job must end here. There are some recruitment where the employees have nothing to do as their duty. Some don’t even have a place to sit. But salaries are paid. So shouldn’t this system change? Isn’t the people’s tax money being spent without any regard? So this is why we should investigate how to get the work of public servants done in an effective manner for the benefit of the country. Such things are revisited during restructuring. IMF will also assist such restructuring process.

There have been calls in the past for the Diaspora to develop the economy and participate in investment opportunities. Does the government have any programme to incorporate the Diaspora?

We are planning to set up a special office to deal with this matter. There are various negative connotations given to the word diaspora. Especially during war, the Diaspora was accused of collecting funds for the LTTE. This may be a small group. Anyone born in the country and has migrated are referred to as the Diaspora of that country. Therefore, considering these sensitivities we will be calling that establishment the Office of Overseas Sri Lankans.

Do you think there is a chance to reunite with your old party members?

Whether it’s for SJB or anyone else, our ancestral home Sirikotha is open.             You can come whenever you wish. But when we are in power, we are not ready to go on poaching members by putting other political parties into trouble. There is no plan to cause inconvenience to other parties or put them in crisis.

Is there any truth in the reports of  Samagi Jana Balawegaya MPs joining the government?

You’ll know it in near future.

Recently there were reports that you also participated in the discussions between the President and the group of SJB MPs. You must have some understanding of the agreements reached in those discussions?

I did not participate in the discussions between the President and various party leaders. He met SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and MP Ranjith Maddumabandara as part of these discussions. They were also publicised through the media.

I am not referring to the discussions with all parties held from time to time before the cameras. I am asking about the secret talks with SJB MPs?

I did not take part in those discussions either.

You were talking about going on a journey together. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the creation of an all-party government or rule, but it appears that everything has come to a standstill. What is the reason for this stalemate?

As a government, we have recently focused our full attention on presenting interim the budget. In addition, discussions took place with the IMF staff level group. The President was very busy as the Minister of Finance. This is the reason for the delay. By next week, we hope to complete arrangements regarding the formation of the all-party government and the appointment of State ministers.

Why didn’t Ranjan Ramanayake get a full presidential pardon?

He was accused of contempt of Court. That too was about insulting judges in public and criticising them. He was accused of making defamatory accusations against the judge. Therefore we acted on legal action and I think this was a good initiative.

It is reported that he will return to Parliament?

I do not think so. He can come to Parliament as an MP again after he gets his civic rights back only.

The leader of the Bodu Bala Sena was accused of contempt of Court but was pardoned by the President? Why is different treatments given to different people?

Different Presidents act in different ways based on the principles they believe in. one may completely act based on Executive powers while the other despite having executive powers would still honour the judiciary. 

You also work as a senior adviser on national security. What is the scope of your job?

We are establishing the Office of National Security. It does not say that I am doing the work of the Minister of Police or the work of the Minister of Defence. Although this is about national security, it is not only about territorial security. It may take into various aspects like food and energy security that would affect national security. With the establishment of the office and the secretariat on national security we will carefully assess our interventions in dealing with bilateral security operations with other countries. Basically, would be advising the President on how to deal with each country without running into compromising situations. Also, we have to act on how to deal with certain countries and how not to deal with certain countries.

If possible, can you elaborate on the planned office?

We are setting up a council for national security and a secretariat will be created just like this office. Accordingly, the existing archaic laws pertaining to the current National Security Council will have to be amended and the office will come into effect by next March.

It is now confirmed that former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will return to Sri Lanka. Do you think this will lead to a crisis again?

I don’t think so. We as a country are bound by the Constitution to protect him and his rights as the former President. As people in this country, we have to ensure that no harm is caused to him.

There are indications that there is a possibility that he will return to politics?

He has to assure the people what he wants to do or not do. He should instil confidence in the people.

Does protecting him also include protecting him from pending Court cases as well?

No, it won’t happen. As a citizen of this country, he has the right to come and be safe in this country. Why do we have to let our former president roam around in other countries?

It is reported that SLPP is exerting pressure to the President that the former President should be given a national list seat in Parliament or be appointed as the Prime Minister. Is there any truth to this?

No discussion in this regard was held. I don’t think he has any such intention. I don’t think he will return to politics. But I cannot speak for him. He himself can tell about what he plans to do

Sri Lanka is located in a strategically important place in Indian Ocean Region and is subjected to geopolitics of power centres like India, China and the USA. Are we under stress to maintain our sovereignty in this midst?

We are strategically located in a very sensitive and important place as a country. We deal with everyone on non-aligned policy. But we have responsibility for the security of the region. We have to take a tough stance as a country in case of violation of UN conventions or treaties.

(Pix by Venura Chandramalitha)

By Gagani Weerakoon