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Political and economic crisis: Family affair will continue even if 20A is abolished- Sumanthiran, M.P.

  • Some of President’s powers shared with PM when 20A abolished
  • Executive Presidency must be abolished in toto
  • Political stability key to negotiations with IMF
  • Tax cuts in 2019 triggered economic crisis
  • Complete system change will benefit SL and its people
  • Positive signs in protests for progressive change

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has to resign for someone else to take over in order to ensure political stability, which is an important factor in Sri Lanka’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other lenders, asserted Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A. Sumanthiran in an interview with The Sunday Morning.

“So long as there is political instability, our negotiations won’t go anywhere. People need immediate relief and that has to come through an IMF programme, which is also going to take time, so we can’t delay this. Those things have to be immediately rectified and political stability shown if we are to negotiate properly with the IMF and other lenders,” he pointed out.

“The President has to resign for someone else to take over because political stability is an important factor in our negotiations with the IMF and even other lenders. So long as there is political instability, our negotiations won’t go anywhere”

The TNA MP pinpointed the tax cuts introduced by the President in 2019 as the trigger for the ongoing economic crisis: “Soon after the President won the election, he wanted to hold a General Election as early as possible and in order to give sweetness to the people, made heavy tax cuts. That’s the immediate trigger that caused the ratings to come down and as a result we couldn’t borrow. When we couldn’t borrow, we started dipping into the reserves and now we’ve come to this point. This President and this Prime Minister who was Minister of Finance at the time both must bear the blame.”

Sumanthiran also backed former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s suggestion for a new budget to be immediately introduced, development activities to be halted, and that money be given as welfare to the people. “I think that is a good suggestion that will immediately benefit the people who are struggling,” he emphasised.

As for the stance of the northern people in relation to the ongoing protests calling for change, he highlighted the resounding silence from the south when things were far worse in the north, adding however that the north was nevertheless supportive of the people’s protests. “Aerial attacks and carpet bombing were commonplace, but the rest of the country didn’t care. That is no reason to withhold support now. They may want to support the current protests; they think they are legitimate and particularly the youth are coming forward to do that, but they can’t forget the fact that when this was 100 times worse, these people did not open their mouths,” he noted.

The MP lauded the youth being at the forefront of the ongoing struggle and their stance: “We have seen very positive signs in the protest at Galle Face – some of those placards they hold, even seeking forgiveness for not acting on behalf of the Tamils and Muslims and so on. There is a lot of goodwill and apparent recognition of wrongdoing. If that genuine feeling progresses, then certainly we are looking at progressive changes.”

Following are excerpts of the interview:

What are your thoughts on the current political crisis and where does the TNA stand?

The current political crisis is linked to the economic crisis. The economic crisis is, as we have said again and again, caused by heavy borrowing from our side. Our practise has been to borrow and repay, except that this time in April 2020 our ratings dropped and we were shut out of the markets.

The reason for the ratings to drop were the tax cuts imposed in December 2019. That was a political thing. Soon after the President won the election, he wanted to hold a General Election as early as possible and in order to give sweetness to the people, made heavy tax cuts, with the result that at least 25% of revenue was lost and about 33% of those paying income tax got out of the tax net.

Now that’s the immediate trigger that caused the ratings to come down and as a result we couldn’t borrow. When we couldn’t borrow, we started dipping into the reserves and now we’ve come to this point. This President and this Prime Minister who was Minister of Finance at the time both must bear the blame for the collapse or the slide beginning.

Although there was a historic aspect to it, in that all this money was borrowed to fight a war, the immediate cause was this anxiety to win elections and the tax cuts that were done. It has resulted in a very serious and unprecedented economic situation. This happened under the watch of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and he must resign. That’s our position.

The TNA has been pushing for legislation to abolish the Executive Presidency. Has there been any progress? How has it been received among other political entities?

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) is putting forward the bill to abolish the Executive Presidency and we are supportive of that. Our policy has always been that the Executive Presidency must be abolished. Not as the TNA but as a lawyer I have been involved in the process of drafting the 21st Amendment they are introducing today (21 April) to abolish the Executive Presidency in full.

Do you believe that the Government is sincere when it speaks of repealing the 20th Amendment, bringing back the 19th Amendment as a base, and introducing the 21st Amendment?

I don’t know about the sincerity of the Government – that’s not something anybody can talk about – but they may want to for various other reasons. Apparently the Prime Minister has signed a Cabinet paper which will be taken up on Monday where he has suggested that the 20th Amendment be repealed, the 19th Amendment be revived, and any other matter also to be included in the new amendment.

I met the Prime Minister last evening (20 April) and I met him the previous week on Monday (11) as well. When I met him yesterday, my advice was that the Executive Presidency must be abolished in toto and that if it requires a referendum, in the current context the people will definitely grant that approval.

Will the abolition of the 20th Amendment and a new constitutional amendment provide solutions and how long will the process take?

The process can take about two months, but it will not grant solutions to the current problem. Even for political stability I don’t think it is going to do much, because it just takes away some of the President’s powers, which have to be shared with the Prime Minister. Again it’s just a family affair. That’s not going to solve the current issues.

Until these constitutional issues are resolved, what can be done about the ongoing people’s protests? What can the people hope for?

The President has to resign for someone else to take over because political stability is an important factor in our negotiations with the IMF and even other lenders. So long as there is political instability, our negotiations won’t go anywhere. People need immediate relief and that has to come through an IMF programme, which is also going to take time, so we can’t delay this. Those things have to be immediately rectified and political stability shown if we are to negotiate properly with the IMF and other lenders. That is why, although people may be looking towards an economic programme to alleviate the current crisis, you might still have to deal with the political situation and show stability.

That is one. The other is of course former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s suggestion that a new budget be immediately introduced, for all development activities to be completely stopped, and all that money be given as welfare to the people. I think that is a good suggestion that will immediately benefit the people who are struggling.

What is the situation in the north at present?

The north is a little amused that people are unable to cope without electricity for a week or two, when they have done that for a decade or two, without any electricity at all. They are rather amused that their brethren in the south don’t have any resilience to face this kind of hardship. They didn’t have fuel for 10 or 20 years. No diesel and no petrol at all, no batteries, power was totally out, but they managed. They grew their own food and they had alternatives that they worked out.

These are recent memories so they all remember those things and they don’t look at it as a major hardship. That’s one. They also produce; although the production yield has been affected by this chemical fertiliser policy, they do grow a lot of food. They are able to cope to some extent. As things get worse, I think they will also want to come out and protest. Right now they are not doing that for two reasons. One is this, the other is that when calls come from the south for the north to join, etc., they have a justifiable question – that this did not happen from the south when the north bore a lot of attacks.

“We have seen very positive signs in the protest at Galle Face – some of those placards they hold, even seeking forgiveness for not acting on behalf of the Tamils and Muslims and so on. There is a lot of goodwill and apparent recognition of wrongdoing or sitting by when there was wrongdoing happening.”

One or two people being killed on the streets is a huge issue here, but scores were bombed and destroyed not just during the final phase of the war but right through that period. Aerial attacks and carpet bombing were commonplace, but the rest of the country didn’t care. That is no reason to withhold support now. They may want to support the current protests; they think they are legitimate and particularly the youth are coming forward to do that, but they can’t forget the fact that when this was 100 times worse, these people did not open their mouths.

As things stand in Sri Lanka right now, what is the best way forward? What is your hope for Sri Lanka?

If there is a wholesale system change, that will benefit Sri Lanka and its people. The youth have been at the forefront of this struggle and that’s a good thing because they are not bound to any particular practice; there are no hard and fast rules for them. They look at delivery more than process. So if this will bring about a complete system change – which is why we are also backing the call to abolish the Executive Presidency, since accountability to the people will be far more pronounced if it’s in Parliament – that kind of change is not just in the law but also in the attitude of the people.

We have seen very positive signs in the protest at Galle Face – some of those placards they hold, even seeking forgiveness for not acting on behalf of the Tamils and Muslims and so on. There is a lot of goodwill and apparent recognition of wrongdoing or sitting by when there was wrongdoing happening. If that genuine feeling progresses, then certainly we are looking at progressive change.

By Marianne David/ TM

 

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