has now got its act together"
and Consumer Affairs Minister Ravi Karunanayake says the
government is looking at a budget that is certainly going to be
pro-active and a salary increase which is going to be
between 25 to 50 per cent to the public sector. "That shows
that the government has seriously sat down and got its act
together. Today the country has got its economy back in
order," he told The Sunday Leader in an interview.
What are the Free Trade Agreements (FTA) the government has signed so
far with foreign countries and how successful have they been?
We are moving forward by having FTAs with the USA, Bangladesh, Pakistan,
Egypt, Singapore, Thailand, Maldives, European Union, Qatar, Madasgascar
and Dubai. The reasons for that are that we have looked at our trading
patterns where we could trade and we have followed that as an example
for bringing FTAs. FTA is normally perceived as an opening of the gates
for imports to come, which is quite wrong. An economy that is basically
stagnated, or which was not having any growth when we took over have to
be made viable. The way that we could have moved forward was either by
looking at increasing the capacity in the country or increasing the
market shares worldwide. Regional approach or the FTA approach was the
best way forward. So the only way forward was through bilateral,
regional, and multilateral trading.
With regard to the signing of the FTA with the Indian government there
have been complaints that the Indian government was only one-sided or
not in favour of local industrialists. How do you respond?
I do admit that when we took office it was the case, but today we
have managed to fight the system and FTAs are given a more balanced
approach. There are certainly more improvements that could take place,
but from what it is, it is certainly an improvement. What is significant
is that when we took over the exports, imports were 1:14 and
it is now down to 1:4, so there has to be some benefit in this
process. The FTA that we are talking about also covers economic
cooperation from goods to services as well.
Could you please explain as to what has happened to the negotiations
with the Indian authorities with regard to the removing of non-tariff
The non-tariff barriers are protective measures that are brought in to
stymie agreements that have been coming through this FTA process. One of
the main issues we took over, was that we asked when we started
renegotiations whether it was a win-win approach or whether it was a one
sided approach that is required. It was a unanimous win-win approach
that was looked at. From that point of view, the areas of documentation,
costuming, areas of specifications and areas of classifications have all
been put - forward.
The US Deputy Trade Representative who visited Sri Lanka recently
declined to give a time frame for the Sri Lanka-US Trade Agreement, but
hinted there was a possibility. How soon do you think Sri Lanka would be
able to enter into a FTA with the USA?
I think the FTA matter should be categorically mentioned. It was
something that was initiated by the Prime Minister and pursued by my
Ministry in order to ensure the fruition of it as soon as possible. For
the last 14 months, Professor G. L. Peiris and I have been discussing
this and it has now come to a situation where a turning point took place
in Mexico. Mexico was the real impact where they realised that Sri Lanka
was a country which saw the writing on the wall earlier, which showed
that we are pro-active and that we were visionaries. Sri Lanka's role
was appreciated within two weeks when Ambassador Josette Shiner was sent
to Sri Lanka and at that particular moment, a formal request was made by
the Prime Minister and myself for a FTA and it was customary that they
cannot answer. The Congress
has to determine the outcome. To answer your question, when the
Prime Minister visits the USA on November 3 and meets with President
Bush, it is our belief that the FTA will be discussed at that particular
Does the government have other plans to sign such bilateral agreements
with other countries?
We intend having bilateral agreements with Bangladesh, Egypt,
Maldives and Pakistan, will also be looked at in the next couple of
months - that is within three to five months. We are looking at Thailand
by June, Singapore by April 2004 and then we are looking at Qatar, Dubai
and Oman by July/August 2004. We are looking at the USA as soon as
possible. We will be starting negotiations with the European Union
within the next month or two and that would basically leave us to
address China. However, we will not know the timeframe very frankly.
The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is expected to
take both India and Sri Lanka to a new level of bilateral economic
By when do you think this would be a reality?
I think it would be a reality by March 2004.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga said the mass rally held on October 24,
was only a starting point to overthrow the UNF government. Do you think
that was really a starting point to overthrow the UNF government?
The problem is that President Kumaratunga never finishes what she
starts. All her plans are mere dreams and the past seven years stand as
testimony to it. When we inherited the government, we had three burning
issues. We had an unbearable cost of living, a war that was festering
and also an economy that was in negative growth. What have we done? We
have converted war into peace. We have converted the cost of living that
was uncontrollable to controllable limits. Economy has been transformed
from a negative to positive growth with job creation, a booming stock
market and foreign investors who went out of the country returning with
highest amount of foreign investment reported was last year, with almost
US Dollars 290 million. Tourism reached unbeatable levels. The most
important thing is that the general perception of the public is that the
country is on the move. So, I guess with that in mind, the President is
feeling jealous as she could not reach such heights in seven years,
which the UNF government has reached in a short period.
How do you foresee politics in Sri Lanka within the next two years,
especially when the President is going to be in power?
In two years the President, if not removed has to step down, as she is
constitutionally debarred to go forward. Prime Minister Ranil
Wickremesinghe is the Presidential nominee from the UNP and whom will
the PA put forward? There is so much bickering going on in the PA about
their presidential nominee. I am not sure whether it would be Mangala
Samaraweera, Mahinda Rajapakse, Nimal Siripala de Silva or we are not
sure whether they will borrow someone from the JVP.
President Kumaratunga also managed to mobilise a large number of people
without the help of the JVP during the last rally. Do you think that
this would in any case pose a threat to the government?
If that was a large number, the meetings we held before would have been
thunderous or monstrous. What is the JVP? It is another fundamental
party and it was definitely involved because Wimal Weerawansa and all of
them spoke about it about it during those days. Everybody got involved.
The numbers were poor and the President got so annoyed that she did not
even come for the meeting. She was expecting to have a rollicking crowd
and she was sadly let down. Do you think she would not have gone on
stage if the numbers were so large?
The JVPers are trying to re-group once again. Do you think this would be
Do you know that we cannot put ice and fire together? That is the
logical answer. Are you expecting a party that has two ends of the
spectrum trying to get together? The President who said that the JVP
killed her husband Vijaya Kumaratunga is now working together with them.
It is surprising that these guys who called President Kumaratunga, Dona
Catherina, last week were able to work together. Do you think the JVP,
which says that they do not want Ministries and Indian involvement in
the peace talks could work together? This is hypocrisy. But I hope that
this type of marriage happens quickly because the SLFP has to always
have a partner to come in - be it in 1956, 1960, 1970 or 1994 - and at
every particular moment it was the party that got together ended up
ruining the marriage.
Last week's attack and riots in Colombo during the Sinhala Tamil
Cultural Show explains well that there are racist elements in the
country capable of igniting ethnic riots. How would you comment?
Absolutely never. Never as long as Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and the
United National Front government is in power.
How would you describe the whole incident?
I would say, pathetic, dastardly and barbaric.
That is all that can be said. We never condone such activities.
It is a shame that these things have happened.
The Sihala Urumaya Leader Thilak Karunaratne has said that there are
Pro-LTTE Sinhalese in the country, especially in the UNF. How would you
I guess each one can tell different things, but at the end of the day,
you should not try to make false accusations just to create a vote bank.
I guess, the Sihala Urumaya, the JVP or other fascist parties who are
unable to collect people to fill even a trishaw are saying this. They
are the ones who are trying to tell these kind of things. I guess you
have to look at it from a completely different point of view.
You have to address these issues with a rational, tolerant and
more unanimous approach.
How do you view the attitudes of the Sihala Urumaya, towards the peace
I do not think you should have such a lot of emphasis on such a party.
It is a
non-entity. They are doing the same thing what the JVP and the PA
are doing. Please rephrase the question by saying, "Is this what
the opposition is doing?"
Opposition means the PA and other sundry parties. Remember, the
opposition today is opposing everything and that is completely in
contrast to what Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did when in the
opposition from 1994 - 2001. He supported the government at every given
moment. The President and the rest of the parties are now opposing for
the sake of opposing.
The President used her executive powers vested in her to send the Sri
Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) Chief out of the country. Does this
disturb the government in any way?
It does not disturb the government, but it is just annoying because
she used her executive powers in order to destabilise the country. Her
biggest problem is that she cannot realise or reckon the fact that there
have been 22 months of peace in this country and instead of lending her
support she is trying to destabilise it.
Unfair for the government to have let Tellefsen walk out after having
invited him to monitor the Ceasefire Agreement reached between the
government and the LTTE?
It is sad. This basically means an international country that is a
facilitator is looking at two political parties that cannot see things
eye to eye. I think the country will now understand the load of
challenges the government has to face.
Do you think that the President's arbitrary action taken with regard to
Tellefsen's issues is a blow to the peace process?
I would not say it is a blow to the peace process. It only shows how
desperate she is to wreck the peace process.
Do you think she has misused her executive powers as the SLMM was
brought into the country following an MoU signed between the LTTE and
Absolutely. It is a complete misuse of power.