Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry, PC said that holding an election is not going to be a solution to the current crisis. The solution depends on the structural reforms that we are going to do.
The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said: “What are the solutions that we are going to offer to this long-standing economic problem? I don’t think anyone is more knowledgeable and capable of undertaking that reform other than President Ranil Wickremesinghe at this critical juncture. Therefore, this is the best possible opportunity to at least cooperate with him to do the necessary reforms.”
He said we have to be realistic to the ground realities. The ground realities are that the people are comparatively happy with the President’s leadership. At this time, we align with that in the foreseeable future and work as a team to put the country first before everything else.
Excerpts of the interview
Q: Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) National Organiser and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa said that the SLPP is ready to join hands with the UNP if that is what the supporters want them to do. Would you like to comment?
A: I think the vast majority of the rank and file accepted that President Ranil Wickremesinghe should run the country for the foreseeable future because we need good leadership to get the country out of the current economic mess. I think the SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa’s statement reflects that ground reality and the situation.
Q: At the last General Election the SLPP led coalition secured a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Do you think under these circumstances the SLPP needs to join hands with the UNP or any other party?
A: Actually, that was about three years ago. Since then so many things have happened. We can’t assess on the basis of the 2018 and 2019 results. Now the ground realities are different. So, we need to face the truth. We cannot be pessimists. In the meantime, we also cannot be overly optimistic. We have to be realistic to the ground realities.
Q: Addressing the All-Party Conference on Tuesday, the President said that all political parties should come to a common agreement to provide a solution to the ethnic problem by the upcoming 75th Independence Day celebrations. Your views?
A: Now there is a consensus among the vast majority of Sri Lankans across the party lines, both majority and minority parties that it is no longer viable just fighting for a futile propaganda or any other battle amongst our people. First, we must unite as Sri Lankans to resolve our issues. So, it is up to us to resolve the issues. There are three main factors such as the ground realities, PTA and land issues. Number two is truth seeking. We need to find the way out to visit the missing persons and get solutions to that and accountability.
That is where we are looking at truth seeking. The third aspect is longstanding power sharing. With the 13th Amendment which has been defunct to some extent, there is a structure which is working now. It is time that we work on that. I think those are the three areas that we should look into. I don’t know whether we can give a comprehensive solution by the 75th Independence Day celebrations. However, if we can make progress and come to some meaningful agreement, I think that is very vital.
Q: Certain sections attempt to portray the JVP is emerging as a new force as the people have lost their confidence in the main political parties. Is there any truth in this assessment made?
A: Comparatively, what they used to be. I think the people are looking at the JVP as an alternative. There is a truth in that. But the fact is not about X, Y or Z. It is what solution one is offering the people.
Otherwise, it will be another disappointment for the public. It is not about parties and personalities. It is about the economic reforms that we are offering. We have an oversized public service, loss making institutions, less tax revenue, less investment coming into the country and stringent labour laws which do not attract investors. These are the issues we need to look at carefully.
Q: Some say conducting an election at this juncture is the solution to the current crisis. Is there a need to go for an early election?
A: I don’t agree with that at all. I mean elections should be held in terms of the Constitution and it is a different matter. However, holding an election is not going to be a solution to the current crisis. The solution depends on the structural reforms that we are going to do. What are the solutions that we are going to offer to this long-standing economic problem? I don’t think anyone is more knowledgeable and capable of undertaking that reform other than President Ranil Wickremesinghe at this critical juncture. Therefore, this is the best possible opportunity to at least cooperate with him to do the necessary reforms.
Q: The Parliament expressed concern and displeasure regarding the incident where former Vice Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya Prof. Atula Senaratne was assaulted by a group of university students recently. What steps should be taken to prevent such unruly incidents in future?
A: That is very disappointing. I think students should behave like students. They are always talking about five-star democracies and the conduct of politicians. First, they must put their house in order. They can’t get into violence and their primary job is to study.
They must go to the university and conclude their classes as soon as possible and pass out as productive graduates to serve the nation instead of just waiting there for seven to eight years because they are blocking somebody else’s opportunity.
Q: At present over 40 SLPP Parliamentarians have crossed over to the Opposition and function as independent MPs. The Opposition says at present the Government doesn’t have a clear mandate. Would you like to comment?
A: That is not correct. Ranil Wickremesinghe could secure 134 votes in Parliament and be elected as the President. At the vote on Budget 2023 also the SLPP could get 123 votes. So, that is the majority. Who else can show that?
Q: The Opposition has urged the Government to refrain from approving a further hike in electricity tariffs. Would you like to air your views?
A: I think we have to be realistic. If there is no cost reflective pricing, then somebody has to absorb the cost. Who is that somebody? Is that the people who may use the electricity or not use the electricity? Is it those who may use the electricity at large scale or small scale? What we feel is the only way out is to reduce the cost, waste of power generation, distribution and other administration costs.
Until such a mechanism is implemented, we have no choice and it has to reflect the cost. I think the Power and Energy Minister has suggested short, medium- and long-term solutions to find a way out of it. We cannot run companies whose monopolies are on a loss and then expect the public to fund it. That is very absurd.
Q: You had told Reuters that Sri Lanka is expecting loans up to US$ 5 billion next year from multilateral agencies besides a deal with the IMF and the Government could raise up to US$ 3 billion through the restructuring of State assets. Could you explain?
A: Basically, what we are saying is that multilaterals may come once we clinch the IMF deal and finalise it and debt restructuring will take some time. But we have had discussions for project financing. So, that is not we are taking that loan and paying some other loans. The country is at a standstill.
The constructions and developments should take place. The finances come from multilaterals such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. So, we can carefully plan and get that into different areas that will help the country. If we can enter into an agreement that doesn’t mean everything will come back next year. We cannot put the country at a standstill. If the country is at a standstill, what happens is that the economy and unemployment will rise. So, it must get going. For that, project financing should come. That is an area we are discussing with multilaterals. The other one is that some of the SOEs, the President has gone on record saying that he is interested in taking them over and raise some funds from US$ 2 to 3 billion. That is where we are.
Q: You had recently said that Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring process has almost reached the final stages. Your views?
A: It is in the sense at the beginning debt restructuring has different stages. First stage is to get assurances. The assurances are at the final stage but debt restructuring per say will take time. If the assurances come from bilateral creditors, particularly India, China and the Paris Club, we should be able to conclude the initial disbursement from the IMF. So, that will be some step towards restructuring the debt and restoring democracy.
Q: Is the Government confident of receiving the IMF credit facility at least by April, May next year?
A: The idea is that. As I said earlier in order to do that bilateral creditors India, China and the Paris Club must give their debt restructuring undertakings. That assurance is there and we are working on it. If we get that towards the end of this year or early next year, hopefully we should be able to finalise it.
Q: Delivering the speech at the debate on the expenditure head of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, you told Parliament that all decisions taken by the Government will follow the Country First Policy adding that no foreign country or entity can force solutions on Sri Lanka. Your comments?
A: I think Sri Lanka should work in the interest of Sri Lanka. Whatever we do we must take into consideration all Sri Lankan citizens despite ethnicity, religion and so on.
That should come as a consensus among us and not imposed by somebody else that will be resisted by the majority. So, we need to work towards that. Sunday observer