In a recent interview with Deutsche Welle, President Ranil Wickremesinghe addressed several critical topics, including the Berlin dialogues, economic challenges and allegations of human rights concerns.
President Wickremesinghe acknowledged the progress made during the Berlin dialogues, emphasizing improved understanding and cooperation between Sri Lanka and European countries, particularly France and Germany.
Regarding economic challenges, he clarified the situation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and stated that they have reached an agreement, with discussions on alternative proposals to meet revenue targets on-going. He acknowledged historical taxation issues but expressed confidence in resolving them.
He highlighted that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a significant step toward addressing reconciliation and human rights issues.
When asked about calls for an international investigation into human rights abuses, President Wickremesinghe rejected the idea, asserting that Sri Lanka would handle investigations internally with the involvement of Sri Lankan personnel. He also dismissed the recent UN report on human rights, asserting that the government had rejected it.
The interview concluded with President Wickremesinghe defending his government’s efforts to address these challenges and its commitment to cooperating with the international community.
Following is the full interview President Wickremesinghe had with Deutsche Welle;
Interviewer: President Wickremesinghe, welcome to Deutsche Welle. Thank you for being with us. Any good news that you’re taking home from the two days of the Berlin dialogues?
President Wickremesinghe: What I can take back from here is that the gap between us is closing, and there’s more understanding, especially on the European side. I had the chance of attending the Paris climate summit, and I’m here in Berlin to say that within the European Union, both France and Germany know our thinking and are attuned to our thinking, and they are trying to find a way of resolving some of the issues.
Interviewer: It is the IMF that seems to be not completely attuned to your thinking, right? Over the last couple of days, the IMF has said that they will stop the second package, at least pending negotiations, because there has been a 15% failure to meet the expectations for revenue, which essentially means that you have a problem with taxation. This problem seems to be very pressing. Is there a particular plan to actually accelerate this process?
President Wickremesinghe: It’s not that they are stopping the second package; we have come to an agreement. We have the view that we will have the results of what we’ve done this year will be shown next year. In regard to the targets, it was always felt that some of the targets may not be achieved, and they were told of it. And now we are talking about how we can fill that gap. And in regard to it, there are some proposals to which we have not agreed because we feel it might add to the burdens of the ordinary people. The IMF has asked us to come up with alternate proposals. Before I left, the alternate proposals were given to them, but they were leaving the next day.
Interviewer: Sorry for interrupting, but you do have a historical and serious problem with taxation, and this cannot be news to you since you’ve been in power six times.
President Wickremesinghe: Look, I am the first one to admit that. And we say that we need a new revenue authority. I brought it up in 2003, and I lost the election in 2004. But it’s not only a question of revenue evasion, which we have agreed. It is from where are you going to take that money in? Revenue evasion cannot be overcome in one year. We are already talking, and they’ve already given us, we’ve agreed with many of it. It’s just where do we find the money at the present time. It will be resolved.
Interviewer: How long do you think it will take?
President Wickremesinghe: I think by next week it will be resolved.
Interviewer: There is actually a very pressing question about poverty. Save the Children International is talking about a full-blown hunger crisis in Sri Lanka.
President Wickremesinghe: There was a pretty bad hunger crisis last year. We’ve reduced it. No one is saying no. But once this package is done, we’ll take the next step. When the economy collapses, it has to be. People didn’t have food, people are out of jobs, industries are collapsing. Now we are getting along, for instance, as far as the tourism is concerned, the whole sector is picking up.
Interviewer: The report from Save the Children International is less than a couple of weeks old.
President Wickremesinghe: So I read that report. I read the report. I am not saying no. We may not agree on the figures, the amount, percentages. There is hunger. I am not saying no to it. Obviously, when the economy collapses, there has to be. I am trying to get out of it. And there is a new report of proposals on childcare, which is not merely a question of hunger. There are a large number of children who are not receiving proper childcare. And that report is given to me next week.
Interviewer: Education is also suffering severely.
President Wickremesinghe: Education broke down. Now we are trying to get back into the normal regime, which is 2024 or 2025. We have now met and decided on far-reaching reforms to education. There is no need to accuse us.
Interviewer: No, no, it’s not an accusation. There is a difference in the times that a state has to solve its problems and the time that a parent has to feed a child.
President Wickremesinghe: Can you fulfill it within one year? We know the economy collapsed. Only this year it started moving, not even one year. And hunger is down. Poverty is down. More people are getting jobs. It’s a transition period. We are not saying there is no hunger. We say there is hunger. That’s why I took over. I finished the hunger.
Interviewer: Okay, let’s go to what has become probably one of the biggest stories in Sri Lanka over the last couple of weeks, which is the Channel 4 report on the presumed collusion of members of the state with a terrorist group in what is the worst terrorist episode in the history of Sri Lanka.
President Wickremesinghe: Why do you treat Channel 4 as sacred?
Interviewer: I don’t. I actually don’t.
President Wickremesinghe: A lot of people in Britain don’t. So is this just, I mean, Why are you only asking Channel 4?
Interviewer: you flatly deny it?
Interviewer: I’m not asking Channel 4. What I’m saying is that there is a very concrete accusation. When there is an accusation of this size.
President Wickremesinghe: Well, I mean, just because the media gives the accusation, why should I do this?…The former Attorney General has made accusations. The former director of CID has made accusations. Why do you need to ask me on all four?
Interviewer: It’s really not just Channel 4. It’s a Catholic Church that is asking for an investigation. It’s actually a former president under whom you served.
President Wickremesinghe: Look, I’m asking you that. You didn’t ask me that. When I pressed you, only you said that, that former president asked for it. You came with the Channel 4 report as gospel truth. Their point of the story is not gospel truth. Can you let me answer?
Interviewer: By all means, please. Please do.
President Wickremesinghe: Firstly, in regard to the Channel 4, I’ve appointed a committee with a judge who’s heading the committee, a former commander of the Air Force, and a well-known lawyer, to go into it. Secondly, in regard to the…
Interviewer: There is nobody that believes that this commission has teeth enough to do anything other than the Federal Republic Commission.
President Wickremesinghe: That is your view, not mine.
Interviewer: No, no, it’s not mine.
President Wickremesinghe: As far as I am concerned, I am dealing with the Bishops Conference, not with the cardinals, and they come and meet me, and the Bishops Conference wanted all the proceedings, and I gave it to them.
Interviewer: They are looking for an independent investigation into what had transpired.
President Wickremesinghe: This is the independent Commission that they agreed to. As far as I am concerned, you don’t deal with the bishops’ conference, I do. They come and meet me, not you. You sit here with a piece of paper, I talk to them when I go back again. The second one is a Parliamentary Committee. So if there is something that has not been done in this committee, the Parliamentary Committee will again go into it. It’s the Parliament that has to finally decide. As far as President Sirisena’s matter is concerned, He will meet me when I come back because, since he appointed one commission, I want to ask him whether he wants to. I have done nothing. I am not involved in it.
I am trying to resolve it. And you take a piece of paper by the cardinal, and you are reading it out there. Have you spoken to the bishops’ conference? Have you spoken to the Catholic bishops?
Interviewer: No, no, I have not.
President Wickremesinghe: Then you have no right to ask me this question.
Interviewer: Well, I think that’s an exaggeration. I think that it’s in the public interest to ask a question.
President Wickremesinghe: No, no. In the public interest, I am answering. Who are you?
Interviewer: So, can I move on to the next question?
President Wickremesinghe: No, no, you didn’t come here to ask questions. You tried to corner me. The government is not doing anything.
Interviewer: I have certainly not claimed that you are not doing anything.
President Wickremesinghe: No, no, you will take this western attitude out. I said, you are, you are doing it.
Interviewer: I think it’s actually the case that you have several people that have requested an international aided independent investigation of the eastern bombings.
President Wickremesinghe: Sri Lanka government doesn’t have international inquiries. Full stop. It’s the, a few people may have asked, but parliament doesn’t. And there is, I forgot to tell you, the FBI reports, which says that no one outside was involved. We had the FBI, we had the, it’s called the British police, we had the Australians, we had the Indians, we had the Chinese, all there, and the Pakistanis.
Interviewer: You do realize that this makes it look like you are paying lip service to the question. I am not saying that you are. – I am not saying that it makes it look… – No, no, sorry, sorry.
President Wickremesinghe: If the FBI has come in, if the Indians have come in, if the English have come in, if the Australians have come in, if the Chinese have come in, and if those secret service agencies have given reports, then what are you saying? – Well, What I am saying is you are talking nonsense. –
Interviewer: It might well be, but you have a long history.
President Wickremesinghe: No, no,
Interviewer: May I ask a question? – No, my… – You can answer whatever way you want, but if you would let me ask the question, then at least we will get to that.
President Wickremesinghe: I am telling you, don’t come and accuse me. That is not the way you run. Look, I have been doing this game long before you. I have been involved in television, I have been involved in media. I am telling you, we have a thing that the western media thinks we are bad. The way we have enquiries, we are by using Sri Lankan personnel. Now, you are saying, look, that is out. We will not have international enquiries on any issue. UK hasn’t got. Germany hasn’t got. What have you got? What are the international enquiries you have gone into? What are the ones that UK has gone into? Why these poor Sri Lankan Asians? You think we are second class?
Interviewer: No, I don’t. Not at all
President Wickremesinghe: Then why are you asking that?
Interviewer: Because you have a history of commissions since 2008, at least, till today, that have essentially produced nothing. I can list them for you. Udala Gama, Lessons Learned…
President Wickremesinghe: Can I tell you? This was the commission about the Easter blast. and, and, and, there have been enough of those. We have acted on all that. On, reconciliation is a different matter. There are commissions we have acted on, there are those we haven’t.
If you think that we are a third-rate country you have got it wrong.
Interviewer: It’s not the claim and it’s not what I said.
Here is the next question. As a matter of fact, I mean, there is now the last report of the UN on Human Rights in Sri Lanka remains dismal. So much so that now the American Congress has 12 people from across the aisle that are actually asking the Biden administration to put pressure on your government to figure out how you’re going to actually curb what are abuses. You have just announced a couple of months ago a new Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the ones I just listed had essentially no teeth.
President Wickremesinghe: You got it wrong. That is not a normal Presidential Commission. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be agreed with these countries that we have established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At the moment discussions are on with the parties plus the government, and we are talking with the western governments. The senators may put this in. We are talking with the western governments, and the Truth and Reconciliation Bill will come to Parliament before the end of the year. Since I took over there has been no major issue.
Interviewer: You can actually go yourself and I am sure you have seen the UN report for less than a month ago that is still talking about. May I finish the question?
President Wickremesinghe: No, no. I’m telling you that UN report has been rejected.
Interviewer: By whom?
President Wickremesinghe: The government of Sri Lanka has rejected it.
Interviewer: Okay, the government of Sri Lanka has rejected it.
President Wickremesinghe: Who has given it? I am not accepting that UN report.
Interviewer: So the UN is wrong about this?
President Wickremesinghe: Not the UN. The Human Rights Commission is wrong.
Interviewer: The Human Rights Commission is wrong. Clearly Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are wrong as well.
President Wickremesinghe: Human Rights Commission is wrong. The report is given by Human Rights Commission. If Amnesty International says there is something new, let them come.
Interviewer: Will you commit to having a criminal investigation? I mean the ministers in your own government that are requesting.
President Wickremesinghe: Who are the ministers? Look, the question is would you agree to have the criminal investigation department?
President Wickremesinghe: You tell me that I have two ministers. Minister of Commerce is Fernando. Minister of Tourism is Fernando. Neither of them have asked for it. You have made a serious accusation. You tell me the Fernando.
Interviewer: What is the serious accusation?
President Wickremesinghe: That two ministers of my cabinet wanted investigation.
Interviewer: It’s not an accusation. It’s actually public domain.
President Wickremesinghe: But that means you are wrong. As far as I am concerned there is only one. Under the law only the police can investigate like in your country. Right. And then if the police reports to the magistrate, the magistrate can order further inquiry.
Interviewer: Would you bring the criminal investigation department to investigate?
President Wickremesinghe: Certainly. Certainly, they are investigating. They are already there.
Interviewer: Okay, and there will be absolutely no question of international observers or collaboration to guarantee transparency.
President Wickremesinghe: Do you have international observers in your cases?
Interviewer: Between 60,000 and 100,000 people disappeared in Sri Lanka, and you still have no…
President Wickremesinghe: At the end, we have to still work. I think the numbers are supposed to be less.
Interviewer: So, it’s basically something that can be cavalierly dismissed.
President Wickremesinghe: We have a missing persons commission that’s going into it.
Interviewer: That has been going into it for a while.
President Wickremesinghe: I became president only one year ago.
Interviewer: Well, you’ve been prime minister. You’ve been in power six times. Yes, sir. So, this is actually part of the country that you inherited but you have also built.
President Wickremesinghe: I’ve been prime minister. You stop it, I stop it, we go off. Right? You know, you are shouting I am being bad.
Interviewer: Why can’t you answer?
President Wickremesinghe: Look, you haven’t done this your homework properly. You come to come and shout here saying that we are violating human rights. We are not.
Interviewer: There is a very strong case.
President Wickremesinghe: I disagree.
Interviewer: Can I ask you a last question, perhaps? Obviously, you can completely disagree with this. But in fact, there are like a lot of people in centres of power around the world that you actually are now reliant on that believe this to be a very serious issue and believe to be Sri Lanka. Let me please finish this question. Believe actually Sri Lanka to have not delivered on accountability, not delivered on justice. What you are promising for many of these people is essentially moot. Are you concerned that this kind of attitude will compromise what actually you now need from the international community? Is this a concern at all?
President Wickremesinghe: I am working with the international community on putting this right. We are working together with them. They know we are doing it. We are discussing everything. My foreign minister is discussing with them all the time. And they know all that. So what you have got is a lot of bunkum. Well, it’s just fine for that. You know, you ask the question. I gave a reply. It’s all right.
Interviewer: This is not a concern at all.
President Wickremesinghe: I don’t think we are doing it with the country. I respect human rights as the best record. You just come here and shout.
Thank you very much. Thank you.
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