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Interview with 2020 Presidential candidate
There is a tradition in the field of politics in Sri Lanka that the political leaders will become rulers. But, this is the first time that a businessman is going to contest the forthcoming Presidential Elections in 2020 thereby breaking that age-old tradition.He is none other than Rohan Pallewatta. Businessman Pallewatta spoke of his future ambitions in an interview with the Daily Mirror. Following are excerpts of the interview.
Q Could you tell us as to why you have decided to contest as a candidate for the 2020 Presidential Elections?
I think it’s better to explain my background before explaining why I took that decision. In cars one sees airbags and for this to operate one needs to have an inspex sensor. These sensors are imported, but I have been manufacturing these sensors here in Sri Lanka for the past 15 years. This is the business I am engaged in. The quality of the sensor is measured by a PM rating. Our product is up to international standard. When we attempted to make them in Sri Lanka many people said that it was impossible. But, I took the challenge and have been successful in this business so far. The airbag inspex sensor is a tool that can decide the fate of a driver during an accident.
A foreign company assigning us with the task of manufacturing this sensor is similar to handing over the lives of human beings. The product that I manufacture is used by Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi, BMW Martin and other companies in America. Many people question why I am entering politics despite me being in a sound financial position. I have amassed a lot of wealth. The reason which compelled me to enter politics is that Sri Lanka is at present paying 95% of its Gross National Product as loan installments. That leaves us with a mere 5% for all other activities. Leave alone a country, not even a household can survive with this amount. Given the economic crisis Sri Lanka is facing I decided to step out of the luxury life I am living and contest the elections. I don’t want to be selfish because I have understood that I must do something for the country.
I have been manufacturing these sensors here in Sri Lanka for the past 15 years. This is the business I am engaged in
The reason which compelled me to enter politics is that Sri Lanka is at present paying 95% of its Gross National Product as loan installments
I see that it is essential to win at the election given the situation the country
I think the Government is in a fix when considering the commissions being taken and the corruption that is taking place
The corrupt will not take my option because they can only survive in this situation
There is the sovereignty of people. But it’s implemented only during an election
A society which is devoid of shame and fear, will not feel ashamed when their is theft
Q Do you think that you can win given the political situation in Sri Lanka?
It is not a matter of winning at any cost. I see that it is essential to win at the election given the situation the country is in. I know for sure that this isn’t an easy task. People have the mentality of slaves when they work with the main political parties. It is a challenge to change their mentality. But I hope to explain the real situation the country is experiencing to the people and create awareness. We have a programme for that. We have a programme that will target the grassroots level. We hope to provide people with the strength needed to escape from this mentality. For this to happen we need to provide them with knowledge and create awareness among them.
Q You have once said that there is a possibility of paying off all of Sri Lanka’s debts at once. How is that possible?
When we consider the external debt situation, that means the loans payable to the foreign countries, the figure was 45.6 billion dollars by the end of last year. If my memory serves me right out of those debts the amount payable to China is about 9 billion dollars. Accordingly, the interest rate that we pay for some loans are between 5.5. % and 6 %. We call them commercial rates. I am going to propose that we should consider working with institutions that are willing to grant us loans at 0.5% interest. If we do so, after paying all debts overnight to the countries concerned, we only have to pay 0.5% to the institutions from which we obtain these loans from.
The companies which were capable of investing money for it arrived in Sri Lanka during both the last regime and during the present Government. But they returned discouraged due to the commissions that were demanded. You may be surprised to hear that the payback period to recover the colossal amount of money invested on the refinery project is as short as eight months
There are such institutions in the world. They have come forward as well. For example there are such institutions in America. USA’s State Department in a statement has stated that it has focused its attention on why China has granted loans to Sri Lanka in a manner that we (Sri Lanka) can’t sustain. One may say that those who arrange to offer Sri Lanka loans at 0.5% have a political agenda. If the leader of this country can do a balancing act, ensure the economy finds equilibrium and take the middle path amidst international influence this is possible. That is why I say that these loans should be restructured because otherwise we don’t have a future. Somebody told me the other day that when we obtain loans at 0.5 % interest there is a condition laid by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that the Sovereign Bonds can’t be kept further by Sri Lanka.When we spoke to them (IMF), they said that we could negotiate.
Q You say that a county like Japan gives loans at low interest to some countries. Then why can’t Japan give our Government loans?
I think the Government is in a fix when considering the commissions being taken and the corruption that is taking place. It is because of such a corrupt set-up that the Government is unable to go in search of institutes which offer loans at a low interest rate. When one considers the news appearing on TV or other media institutes during the past week there was nobody who could speak seriously about the economy. Most politicians are compelled to talk things other than the economy. The corrupt will not take my option because they can only survive in this situation.
Q Have you obtained IMF’s opinion regarding this?
Yes I have.
Q What is their opinion?
They say that this is negotiable.
Q Have you informed the Government authorities about it?
I, for one, don’t like to level allegations against anybody at this time because then I might lose focus and I will be compelled to answer various other questions. I have spoken to several relevant authorities in the Government about this. I don’t want to be critical about their inability to do so. There may be things better known to them than to me regarding this.
Q Then what is the opinion of the Government about it?
I think it is the Government that should answer your question. Several weeks have passed since I made my statement regarding this. They put forward the 20 – 25 vision. We are studying it to see whether it’s good for the country or not. First of all, I say that we should do the things that can be done like the restructuring of loans, reducing the loan interest from 6% to 0.5% and thereby reducing the burden of loans on the country by 70% within a day. It can be done. What is required is to create the necessity for it. There are projects that can be done for the benefit of the country. For example, our oil refinery can deliver only 20% of our requirements.
I am going to propose that we should consider working with institutions that are willing to grant us loans at 0.5% interest. If we do so, after paying all debts overnight to the countries concerned, we only have to pay 0.5% to the institutions from which we obtain these loans from. There are such institutions in the world. They have come forward as well
80% of the oil requirement is imported to Sri Lanka. If we can refine oil according to our requirements, then we have to spend Rs. 1.2 billion. The companies which were capable of investing money for it arrived in Sri Lanka during both the last regime and during the present Government. But they returned discouraged due to the commissions that were demanded. You may be surprised to hear that the payback period to recover the colossal amount of money invested on the refinery project is as short as eight months. There are reports of feasibility studies done by the University of Moratuwa regarding these companies. We can manufacture grafin from our graphite deposit and titanium dioxide from mineral sand.
Having understood such projects, we are going to establish a shadow cabinet and implement them at the suitable time. I request the votes of the people not only to win the presidential elections, but also to get the essential projects implemented.
Q You said that you met several Government authorities. Didn’t those ministers tell you that there would be some pressure from the countries from whom these loans have been obtained when they are settled at once?
Of course. It’s a certain opinion held by some people. Some said that China will be unhappy if we settle our loans overnight. The relationships we have with the countries like China will be strained if we pay off the debts overnight. But the question I ask as a Sri Lankan is what is the cost we have to pay to strengthen the relationship with a country? Therefore, a country like ours can’t bear that burden. If some country is willing to strengthen its relationship with us, it should be happy when we pay off the debts adjusting the loan interest to 0.5%. We are compelled to bow our heads because our foreign policy has ‘derailed.’ China wants Hambantota while India wants the Mattala Airport. As a result we have distributed the most important resources to other countries in the world.
We have made them satisfied. Should this be our foreign policy? Or else we have to come to a non-alignment policy like the time when Sirimavo Bandaranaike ruled this country. We had become a member of the UN Security Council. We have gone off the foreign policy track and now try to satisfy foreign countries by offering our resources to them. If countries don’t like when we pay off our debts we can’t agree with them. There are countries in the world that haven’t become preys in the power struggle by adhering to the non-aligned policy.
China wants Hambantota while India wants the Mattala Airport. As a result we have distributed the most important resources to other countries in the world. We have made them satisfied. Should this be our foreign policy?
Q Do you have a political party to represent when contesting the Presidential Elections in 2020?
We have made a request to register a party by the name Social Democratic Party. We are going to function through that party in the future.
Q You said that you studied the Economic Development Plan for 2025 launched by the President and the Prime Minister. Is it good for the country?
We can’t express our views now because we are still studying it. We do not view this plan from a political point of view. There may be things which are good and bad for the country. If there are things that can be implemented before 2025, we are ready to propose those things as well.
Q With your plan to enter politics do you wish to follow the policies of American President Donald Trump.?
Not at all. I didn’t conceive an idea by viewing Trump’s political campaign. There is a big back ground for me wanting to take to politics. I understood the background in Sri Lanka. The trends in France and America encourage us. But my idea to enter politics hasn’t been influenced by considering the political background of these countries.
Q What is your opinion on Sri Lankan people?
They have a big challenge. According to the existing political party system, there is a disorderly situation. They have contributed to that situation. There is the sovereignty of people. But it’s implemented only during an election. The candidates for the elections are chosen by the political parties, hence the people’s expectations may not be fulfilled. There are male and female candidates, but they won’t be able to come forward due to this party system. It’s because of this situation that we have decided to go on this journey with the people.
I am coming out not to hold the post of chairman in any institution. I am trying to occupy the highest position that a Sri Lankan can hold. It is my duty to present the facts to the people. The result may be favourable or unfavourable. These are the connections I have
Q There is much talk about the ‘sill cloth’ incident and the monetary frauds that had taken place due to this incident. How do you see this problem?
As a Buddhist, I have heard that Lord Buddha had said that the society exists on shame and fear. This was his response to the question ‘what does the society survive on’. A society which is devoid of shame and fear, will not feel ashamed when their is theft. That is the direction the country is marching towards. It is essential to establish the rule of the law in this country. It is more a question of a break down of the social fabric rather than a question of a Central Bank bond scam or the theft of a Sil cloth. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the media too to bring back the reserved state of the politicians who lived in the 50’s and 60’s.
Q When you said that you are going to contest the elections, did anybody discourage you?
Various people said various things. They asked why I am going to contest when I am so wealthy? But my intention is not to earn name and fame. I have helped to bring lot of foreign exchange to this country via my business and also provided a lot of employment opportunities to many people. Some said that politics will tarnish my image. Now I am thinking about my country.
Q Do you approve of the sale of the country’s properties?
I don’t. That is why I told earlier that when Hambantota was given to China, India requested Mattala. Where does this trend stop? There are other powerful countries in the world. Does that mean that when they request we are going to give something to each and every country? Are we going to equate the power struggle among powerful nations without adjusting our foreign policy?
Q Do you have the support of other countries to contest the Presidential Elections?
At present nobody has offered direct help. But I think some countries will support us largely for our policies.
Q But, do you think that the Japanese Government will support you ?
I expect Japan to support me.
Q Were you part of the group which met the Japanese Premier when he visited Sri Lanka?
Yes. That happened in 2013 or 2014.
Q Did you represent Sri Lanka or the Government of Japan?
I represented the Japanese Government. The reason for this was because I received an invitation via the Embassy of Japan.
Q Don’t you think it better to give the Hambanthota Port to the businessmen in Sri Lanka than to give it to China?
Definitely. There were some proposals made regarding this. A country should have an ability to manage its resources tactfully.
Q: Do you know that there are politicians in the parliament who have not passed even the GCE O/L Examination? Do you think that this has affected the downfall of the country?
Definitely. When decisions are taken people’s education must also be considered. Education decides whether a business becomes successful or not? The same theory applies to a country. I think my view is correct because my business has been making profits for the past15 years. By the way the President’s Awards for Exporters ceremony is tomorrow and I am slated for an award.
That is why I told earlier that when Hambantota was given to China, India requested Mattala. Where does this trend stop? There are other powerful countries in the world. Does that mean that when they request we are going to give something to each and every country?
Q The present President hails from a remote area. Is he a relation of yours?
Yes. My grandfather and the president’s father are brothers.
Q Don’t you have an idea to obtain the support of the President to launch your programme?
No. We are on different tracks. He is also following some programme as the President of the country. My vision is different. He is also engaged in a power struggle. He had to remove a minister yesterday. The time is limited. That is why I say a person like me who has no connection with politics is the best choice. The reason is that I do not have to play a balancing act. I think that is the biggest qualification I have to come forward and give direction to this country.
Q You entered the business field from the low rungs. Can you comment?
Yes. I received my education at St. Anthony’s college, Kandy. When I was studying in that college I got a scholarship to Japan under the Cultural Exchange Programme of the American Field Organization, for one year. When I was in Japan, we were accompanied to visit big companies like Honda, Toyota and National Panasonic. So when I went to Toyota Company, I planted the seeds of business and I am reaping the benefits now.
Q You have come to this position today with great effort. Can you see the same approach being taken by the present society?
Today there are less than 4% of businesses owned by sole proprietors. It is necessary to increase this kind of businesses up to 20% when a country developes. Our economy is $ 80 Bn. But our exports are less than $ 8 Bn. It means that only a contribution of $ 10 Bn is made by our economy towards exports. Therefore we must convert our country to be a production economy and make it a country that exports local products.
Q There is sea around our country, but we are importing fish. Why should we do so?
Our ocean region is 9 times larger than our country. Therefore we can’t say that our country is a small country. We don’t have the proper technology to obtain the economic benefits from the sea. We must sign some agreement with Japan or some other country regarding to technology and obtain economic benefits. We must launch action plans not just have concepts. How to do this is very simple. First of all prepare a methodology and the country can be brought onto the correct path. Then there will be no need of a person called Rohan Pallewatta. Then anybody can take this country forward through the system we created. Especially the youth can have a future in the country.
Q A Taxation Bill has been presented now. Will this affect the entrepreneurs negatively?
These days I am studying the ‘think tank’. We are not expressing our views by reading first pages of the bill. We must fully read this. There are protests against this and some books have been written about this. Bandula Gunawardena has also written a book on this Tax Bill. We read his book too. We read these without bias and will soon say whether this is good or bad for the country.
Q Your Political Party hasn’t been accepted by the Commission of Elections. What are you going to do about this?
We have resorted to take legal action. We must express that 80 political parties have applied for registration. Only 6 or 7 parties were given registration out of the 80. We are the only party which resorted to take legal action.
Q Is there any politician whom you like in politics?
Internationally I liked Nelson Mandela. I respect Mahathma Gandhi even though he is not a politician. There are some other characters too.
Q Is there any individual you respect in Sri Lanka?
It is a difficult question. I don’t like to criticize any person as a policy. Most politicians have a mix of good and bad in them. That means, there are good and the bad in D.S. Senanayake, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Sirimavo Bandaranaiake, J.R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa, Chandrika Kumarathunga and Mahinda Rajapakse.
Q Do you have any connection with Basil Rajapakse?
When Basil Rajapakse came to Gampaha for the first time he settled down in my house. I issued a statement to the press explaining the relationship with the President and my connection with Basil Rajapakse. Since I am a lawyer by profession there is no need to conceal essential facts. I am coming out not to hold the post of chairman in any institution. I am trying to occupy the highest position that a Sri Lankan can hold. It is my duty to present the facts to the people. The result may be favourable or unfavourable. These are the connections I have. I am not a cat’s paw of some other person. It is my duty to express my views to the people.
Q Other Political Parties are already getting ready and have targeted 2020 elections. But there is no such sign seen from your side.
If you see social media I have received the attention of 2.4 million people after I announced that I would be contesting the 2020 elections. This is the biggest response a person who has just entered the mainstream of politics in Sri Lanka has probably received. I have got a good response. There are many phonecalls especially from expatriate Sri Lankans.