On March 24, 2023, Harvard’s Center for International Development and the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute co-hosted a conversation with Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, live from Sri Lanka, moderated by professors Tarun Khanna, Harvard Business School, and Asim I. Khwaja, Harvard Kennedy School. The event concluded with questions from the Harvard community.
Setting the Stage
CID’s Executive Director Fatema Z. Sumar opened the event with brief remarks about this critical moment in Sri Lanka’s history.
“Sri Lanka is at a pivotal moment in its history. The island nation is facing its worst-ever economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948. Since 2019, Sri Lankans have faced significant shortages of food, medicine, and fuel, as well as skyrocketing inflation. The economic crisis is estimated to have doubled the poverty rate between 2021 and 2022, increasing the number of poor people by 2.7 million. The news this week of the International Monetary Fund deal raises both hopes and questions on the economic trajectory the country will take and the reforms ahead. Tough issues remain to be resolved on democratic governance, reconciliation, the postponement of local elections, and the right to peaceful protest, among several civil liberties and human rights.”
After providing an overview of the President’s long political career and how he came to this current role in July 2022, Sumar turned the floor over to President Wickremesinghe. The President was given fifteen minutes to address the audience.
During his address, President Wickremesinghe spoke of the political disruption in Sri Lanka as he came to office, the financial hardships facing the country, and how he has focused his first nine months as President on restoring economic stability. President Wickremesinghe also acknowledged the challenges of reconciliation and expressed his commitment to unite all Sri Lankan people. In addition, he discussed his support for gender equality and youth representation in government. President Wickremesinghe concluded his address by outlining his 25-year vision for how Sri Lanka will achieve growth by prioritizing expansion into new industries and establishing new international trade agreements.
Professors Tarun Khanna and Asim I. Khwaja Moderate a Wide-Ranging Conversation
At the conclusion of the President’s address, professors Tarun Khanna, Faculty Director of the Mittal Institute and Asim I. Khwaja, Faculty Director of CID, took their seats at the front of the room to open the discussion. As economists from Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, respectively, they began the discussion with a question about the recent IMF bailout.
"Why will this IMF bailout be different than the 16 others in the past? What structural changes will your government pursue?"
The discussion continued with questions on social protections, relations with China, human rights, and civil liberties.
Harvard Community Takes the Microphone
In keeping with Harvard tradition, President Wickremesinghe took questions from members of the Harvard community who were seated in the audience. Students, faculty, and other community members probed the President’s commitment to holding local elections, his support of queer rights, and accountability for the previous President. The President also responded to questions about missing persons in Sri Lanka, abolishing the executive presidency, and Sri Lanka’s relations with neighboring countries, specifically India and China.
The final question from the audience was about reconciliation.
“What is your new plan to take into account the inadequacies of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and ensure that there is real national reconciliation?"
The President acknowledged the shortcomings of the LLRC and invited the audience member to come to Sri Lanka and meet with his government to help shape the discussion about reconciliation. He added,
“Tamils are a part of Sri Lanka. We are all together, as our national anthem says. We are the children of one mother…. We have to ensure that the injustices done to the Tamils are remedied.”
To conclude the event, Professor Khwaja posed the following question to the President:
"If there is one thing you would want to be seen as your legacy, to be remembered for by the Sri Lankan people, what would that be?"
The President replied,
“Give Sri Lanka a better future. That has been my aim, that is what I have worked for, what I have stood for, and lost elections because I have spoke out openly. And that’s what I will do. That the young people here will have a better future than us, and that’s why we brought in the 25-year long-term vision.”
Professor Tarun Khanna shared his thoughts on the event on his personal blog.
Fatema Sumar: Good morning. My name is Fatema Sumar and I'm the executive director of the Center for International Development here at Harvard University. On behalf of CID and the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard University, I want to welcome you to today's conversation with President Ranil Wickremesinghe live from Sri Lanka. Mr. President, thank you for being here with us.
The Mittal Institute engages in interdisciplinary research to advance and deepen the understanding of critical issues in South Asia and its relationship with the world. The Center for International Development works across Harvard University and a global network of researchers and practitioners to build, convene, and deploy talent to address the world's pressing challenges. Today's event originated from a discussion with Harvard students and alumni. As research centers at Harvard who work on complex and difficult issues, we believe robust dialogue is critical to understanding all nuances of the current situation in Sri Lanka.
We want to acknowledge that people have strong views, emotions, and feelings about what is happening in Sri Lanka and of today's event itself, and that what has happened in the country during and after the Civil War is deeply personal to many Sri Lankans, including those who are part of our Harvard community. Harvard University is committed to open debate and discussion, which are essential to improving public policy and public policy leadership.
Harvard acknowledges the rights of our community members to non-disruptive protests and to express dissent, as well as the rights to access and participate in discussions and events without impediment. We also acknowledge that speakers should have the chance to present their views and to be heard by those who wish to hear them. We expect speakers to take questions from the audience. And thank you for helping us follow decorum to have the most constructive dialogue today.
Sri Lanka is at a pivotal moment in its history. The island nation is facing its worst ever economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948. Since 2019, Sri Lankans have faced significant shortages of food, medicine, and fuel as well as skyrocketing inflation. The economic crisis is estimated to have doubled the poverty rate between 2021 and 2022, increasing the number of poor people by 2.7 million.
The news this week of the International Monetary Fund deal raises both hope and questions on the economic trajectory of the country and the reforms ahead. Tough issues remain to be resolved on democratic governance, reconciliation, the postponement of local elections, and the right to peaceful protest among several civil liberties and human rights.
Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the president of Sri Lanka on the 21st of July, 2022. He has been the prime minister of Sri Lanka on six occasions. He is the leader of the United National Party, Sri Lanka's oldest political party, founded in 1946, and he has served in all parliaments since 1977. President Wickremesinghe was elected president by parliamentary vote after the people's movement, Aragalaya, or “struggle,” toppled the serving president. Since taking office last year he has voiced his commitment to restoring economic and political stability to his country.
The future of Sri Lanka has important implications not only for the region, but globally as well. In the United States we are commemorating the 75th anniversary of bilateral relations this year. Today's run of show will include a 15-minute address from the president, followed by a discussion with our moderators. Professors Tarun Khanna and Asim Khwaja are both distinguished economists and the respected heads of our centers. They will come to the stage at the 15-minute mark to lead a moderated discussion.
Following this dialogue, and in keeping with Harvard tradition, the president will then welcome questions from the audience. Mr. President, thank you for joining us here at Harvard today for this important dialogue. Let me also acknowledge in our audience the presence of Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the United States. Mr. President, the floor is yours. Thank you.
President Wickremesinghe: Thank you distinguished guests and friends. First, I must thank Professor Tarun Khanna and Professor Asim Khwaja for inviting me to join this conversation with you researchers on Sri Lanka and what's happening here. As you pointed out, that Lakshmi Mittal at the Family South Asia Institute has certainly brought South Asia into focus, ably assisted by your Center for International Development. To save time, let's start at where what happened at the time I took over as president.
I became the president of the country amidst the worst economic and political crises in the 200 years of its modernity. As you said, poverty had doubled to 25% of the population. Over 500,000 lost their jobs. The nation's revenue as a percentage of the GDP fell from 12.5 in 2018 to 8.2 in 2022. It was insufficient to meet the vital needs of debt servicing, salaries, and social protection. The public debt increased to 11% of the GDP.
As Sri Lanka moved towards the abyss of economic obliteration, chaos erupted. My predecessor was forced to leave the country and resign. The president's house, the president's office, the official residence of the prime minister, office of the prime minister were all occupied by protesters. My private residence and library were set on fire. The attempt to occupy parliament and force the members of parliament out were prevented by the timely arrival of the army.
When I took over, our foreign reserves were down. There was no money in the treasury. I used to get up every morning, go into office, and meet with the officials to see where we could find an extra 100 million, an extra 200 million. The foreign reserves, as such, there were few days in which we had no foreign reserves. I had $2,000 at home. Therefore once in my life, I was richer than the state.
So my first task therefore was to arrive at a staff level agreement with the IMF. It required price adjustments, a difficult decision to make. But there were no options. Then came the IMF extended fund facility arrangement approved by the IMF board on 20th March. It's broadly a four-year program of fiscal consolidation from 2023 to 2026. It will also address the twin imbalances of Sri Lanka's economy, the fiscal deficit, and the balance of payment deficit.
We agreed on an ambitious program to restore macroeconomic stability and debt restructuring to achieve economic sustainability. The program will raise Sri Lanka's revenue to 15% of the GDP by 2026, improve debt management, and control public expenditure. This will make available much needed financial resources for education and health care, as well as allowing the expansion of the social safety net and the restoration of price stability.
More than the $3 billion that we receive from the facility, the value of IMF support is far greater. The credibility that is attached to the IMF program helps unlock other sources of financing from development partners and the global market in general. Such financing is essential to build Sri Lanka's foreign reserve.
Restoring external financing of our budget will also reduce the need for monetary financing by the Central Bank. Alongside negotiating for the IMF facility, Sri Lanka has embarked on efforts to restructure its debt. Precise negotiations with creditors on the modalities of restructuring debts will commence now. In reorganizing debt Sri Lanka, will ensure that the stability and integrity of its financial system remains robust and unhindered.
All these measures will stabilize the economy by 2026 at the latest. However, this alone is not sufficient. High growth has eluded Sri Lanka in the last few decades. Unlike the Southeastern nations, we have not been able to seize the opportunities and possibilities arising from the fast-changing global economic situation. This program then is a defining moment. The current structural reforms will release Sri Lanka's growth potential by enhancing competition, promoting trade liberalization, remove impediments to private investments, and implementing climate change. A program to put us onto a high growth trajectory.
It is my belief that the success and the sustainability of this reform will depend on a new political framework which addresses the requirements of the commitment to reconciliation amongst the major ethnic groups in the country, leading to a truly collective Sri Lankan identity. Politically settling the bristling issues pertaining to the ethnic groups in the country is a sine qua non for sustainable and lasting development.
I have been talking with the Tamil members of parliament both in the government, and the opposition to tackle the unresolved issues regarding national reconciliation. The expedient tracing of Tamils missing in action. This is an urgent measure. The issue of Tamil prisoners who were involved in terrorist activities. The release regarding them. Operationalizing the National Lands Commission under the Constitution. Return of the land in the North and East, settling the latent issues of the devolution of political powers and the implementation of the Presidential Commission report on the violation of Human Rights, to name a few. In addition, legislation is being prepared for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission alongside a new law to replace the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act.
I will be continuing discussions this time, not only with the Tamil members of parliament, but also with other Tamil groups, including the diaspora, and we are setting up a separate diaspora office to liaise with the Tamil diaspora community. I want everyone to be involved in this effort. To the commitment to equity, equality, inclusivity, diversity, and the genuine empowerment of women. Sri Lanka is in the process of fulfilling its long overdue commitment to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women by drafting pieces of legislation, the Gender Equality Act, the Women's Empowerment Act, and the National Commission on Women Act. The cabinet has already approved the national policy on gender equality and women's empowerment as well as the women's peace and security action plan.
Third, youth representation and the youth parliament. The youth have been calling for a genuine system change. I will be appointing a presidential commission on political party. We have already made provision for youth represented on the oversight committees of parliament.
Fourthly, responding to the challenge of climate change, and bringing in the Climate Change Legislation and Living Entities Act to take in five areas of Sri Lanka, the protection of the famous [INAUDIBLE] swamp land swamp land, and of course, the establishment of a Climate Change University, the first of its kind to serve the whole Indian Ocean region.
And finally, addressing social issues, we are calling for a social contract among all different economic partners, workers, farmers, businessmen, so that we all benefit from the growth agenda. It's not a question of few benefiting and others losing out. There will also be a Social Justice Commission to inquire into areas, which we call remedies by the state.
Looking beyond the short-term debt restructuring strategy and imbalances, we need to take this crunch as an opportunity to transform our economy to face the complex and multifaceted demands of the mid-21st century, posed by mass globalization, massive digitalization, high-tech multi speed of information, automation, impending artificial intelligence, climate change, and ecological responsiveness. Fresh understanding of plurality, diversity, and inclusivity, as well as the instabilities of the post-modern condition.
This requires a new economic model founded on a highly competitive export-oriented economy, and environment-friendly green and blue economy, and a digital economy. Professor Ricardo Hausmann, who is from Harvard, has already been doing work on the competitiveness of the Sri Lankan economy, and will be carrying forward that work, and I hope that he will be in Sri Lanka very soon.
The restructuring and the region of Sri Lanka's economy over the next 25 years is expected to bring about a high growth trajectory in the medium term, and to meet the following long-term goals. High economic growth of 7% to 8%. This is possible. We had it once for a short period. Increase international trade by more than 100% of the GDP. Annual growth of US dollars, 3 billion from new export, going up to the next 10 years.
And then also for the next 10 years, annually attracting $3 billion of investment. An internationally competitive workforce with market responsive skills coming about in the next 10 years, which will also require changes in vocational and university education.
And we will build on our natural advantages. Firstly ,the modernization of agriculture and the fisheries sector, then to make Sri Lanka a regional logistics center. We will build up diversity in tourism. Not merely the traditional tourist that come into Sri Lanka. We'll explore Sri Lanka's potential for green hydrogen, and by digitalizing the economy and introducing automation we aim to leapfrog into industry for our many manufacturing and services. That's a 10-year span, not a two-year span.
As I said before, this is an ambitious program for 25 years that will make Sri Lanka a high middle income country when it reaches a century of independence from colonial rule in 2048. This is not impossible. From 1977, in 10 years, we carried out a massive land development and reservoir program, which originally was to take 30 years. We opened up in that period a number of free trade zones. We've established a large number of factories for exports. It is a question of the will to repeat this by going in to further economic reforms.
Then if we are to do so, we also have to make use of our location in the region. To do so our strategic location being an advantage, we also have to face two immediate problems. Firstly, the lack of economic integration in South Asia. Apart from a few lukewarm efforts, there has been no sincere political will to amalgamate the region's economies into a powerful trading bloc. And it is further complicated by the flagging Indo-Pakistan relations. To move forward then, Sri Lanka needs trade integration with many of its neighboring countries.
Firstly, we will upgrade the free trade agreement in India to an economic cooperation and technical agreement. This is essential. India is going to be the next growth center, and it'll trigger off growth in South Asia. We are just 22 miles away, and we have to work especially to ensure that the synergies of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu are brought together.
Secondly, we'd like to come to an agreement with the RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. That Asia's largest trade bloc. Toward that will bring us to maybe the largest trade bloc in the world. And finally, as we go along, we would also like to join the Comprehensive Progressive Trade Agreement. With this Sri Lanka will be integrated with the three largest trade bloc, India, RCEP, and the CPTPP. This exercise will also determine the level of compliance and thereby provide the vital push for growth.
The other sticky issue that we need to take into account is the smoldering big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean. While the island has always maintained its political independence, India is regarded as the net security provider in the region, and is Sri Lanka's closest neighbor and the country which we have the longest ties. Sri Lanka is also a member of the Belt and Road Initiative. However the presence of the Chinese sea fleet ships and the formation of the QUAD, the security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and US have complicated peace and security in the Indian Ocean.
We have close ties with all the members of the QUAD as well as China. The rising level of competition between China and the QUAD has further been aggravated by the newly formed outskirts, with that pact between Australia, United States, and United Kingdom. Sri Lanka accepts the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific territory. We regard the Indo-Pacific as consisting of two distinct oceans. Our country is committed to the freedom of navigation and the security of undersea cables in the Indian Ocean. Therefore it is essential for Sri Lanka's future to ensure that the issues of the Asia-Pacific, especially that of Taiwan, does not spill over into the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka's access to the growing Asian market, as well as the opening of African markets, cannot be disrupted and should not be disrupted by big power rivalry or conflict. So this is the story of a country, a small country, but a country with a strong democratic tradition, with an open economy, which has been non-aligned, of arising out of the ashes of its old economy to build a new economy going hand in hand with the developments in the Asian region and the Indian Ocean.
So that's our future. It may be a difficult task but it is not an impossible task. We have to apply ourselves, and we are confident that with the rest of the Indian Ocean countries and South Asia, we will grow in the next 25 years. So I must thank you for having invited me. And I hope that I kept to the time limit, and I'll be able to complete this before my 15 minutes was up. Thank you, Tarun.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Thank you, Mr. President. You were one minute over, but we'll accept that. Thank you.
President Wickremesinghe: Not bad for a politician.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Actually it's pretty -- you're as impressive as the last time I met you. Mr. President, thank you for commenting on your taking over the presidency and reminding the audience of the circumstances and the difficult time that Sri Lanka found itself in and finds itself in, and for also starting to paint a vision not just for the next few years, but also for all the way up to 2048, which would be the 100th anniversary of the modern Sri Lankan state.
If you allow me will now turn to some tougher questions. First, so my colleague Asim and I will take turns asking you questions, if that's OK.
Mr. President, you were part of the past -- the recent past administration -- that some would say borrowed at relatively high rates for projects that sometimes the economists look at it, they wonder about the wisdom of some of the projects. The past administration also rushed through agricultural policy changes in ways that backfired. All compromising your beautiful country's ability to respond to the shocks that, of course, none of us could have foreseen caused by the tragedy in Ukraine, having to do with food and fuel prices.
Congratulations on the recent IMF deal. But I'll remind the audience that it's your 17th deal with the IMF. And as you observed or hinted, it stabilizes things for now, but it doesn't, by and of itself, position you for growth in the future. That requires many more very difficult changes.
As the audience would recall, GDP last year contracted by 9%. Most observers say that it will contract again by 6%. Inflation has not budged in the last few months. It's still in excess of 50%. I salute you for taking on this task. But why should your countrymen and countrywomen trust your stewardship in the years to come?
President Wickremesinghe: I was the only person who said that we still need the help of the IMF. I said that in 2020. I told them to go to the IMF in 2021. And again, I pleaded with the then-president, don't delay. Go to the IMF. That didn't happen. In 2002 when we are negative growth, as prime minister, I ensured they turned the economy around the next year. In 2015 when we came into power, again we had economic problems, but from 2016 to 2018, we were able to achieve the main goal of a surplus in the primary budget.
Now these are the achievements. And if we had kept on with that program we certainly wouldn't have been -- wouldn't have faced this problem at the time. So I think the people looked at me as being the only person who could resolve the issue. And I felt I had a duty to the country to come out at that time and take over this job. After all, the president offered it to the opposition. Opposition refused to take the job. There were no takers when I went. And that's how I went ahead, and now that I have delivered the results, I think the people will come along.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Well, I hope the people support you in this. As you know there are many tough decisions ahead. And I'm just reflecting on several of the difficult circumstances that countries that are in the middle of IMF-supported recovery procedures often find themselves in. I assume you'd have to do something about, for instance, your state-owned enterprises, to make sure that they are operating at efficient levels. Usually that goes hand in glove with more unemployment potentially, or having to redo something about the workforce. In your comments you spoke about a need to develop the human capital in the future, but the immediacy of change strikes me as being a very difficult pill for Sri Lankans who are already suffering to swallow. How will you handle that in the immediate term?
President Wickremesinghe: The state enterprises are a problem. They are not efficient and the money we have spent in subsidizing some of them like the petroleum corporation, the electricity board, and our airline is more than the total sum we have spent on education and health in a corresponding period. So there are two issues we are tackling. One need the state will not subsidize in enterprises anymore. It will be left for the enterprises to ensure their efficiency. Secondly, we are of the view that state must get out of the business. So in many of them we would like to call for bids to hand over to the private sector, but the state will decide we'll stay on in the financial sector. Outside that we are open.
Prof. Asim Khwaja: President, thank you again, this is Asim. I just wanted to latch on to the economics part of this conversation. I heard lots of things in your statement which were very encouraging about growth, about green growth, about getting participation of other sectors, about inclusive growth for all. I didn't hear as much about social protection programs. Can you just walk us through how you were thinking, because behind a lot of the current crises and a lot of the resistance, a lot of the protests, is this notion that the poor aren't being taken care of. What are the big social protection programs you're including? How do you think they will reach the poor? Do you have a sense of how they will be received by those who are expressing some of the concerns right now?
President Wickremesinghe: Well, firstly we stepped into the rice market. Last year there wasn't sufficient rice, and this year we said we will buy paddy at 100 rupees a kilogram. Rice was selling at about 80 to 85 rupees below the cost of production. Today rice is being purchased at about 102 to 104 rupees a kilogram.
In addition, the government will supply 20 kilograms of rice free to 2.8 million families that are at the lowest end of the income groups. The social protection net is being restructured. We find that about 30% to 40% of the people on the social protection net system is not entitled to the awards. They are not entitled to receive these benefits, and there are a large number who should be in it. So there is reform of the social -- the beneficiaries of the social protection net.
Next one is to ensure that we receive better results on the money we spend for education and for health. So this is what we is working on. We should ensure as far as we are concerned, we have the maximum benefit of every rupee we spend on health and we spend on education. My focus at the moment is on these issues. We are talking with the banks of how we can help some of the small and medium industries that have got into financial difficulties, and how we can revive employment for a large number of people who lost their jobs.
It is not easy. And we are living in a difficult time. I admit that. There are families which keep one meal. At least now they can have the two meals. We find it very difficult overnight when the dollar, the exchange rate for the dollar has gone up from 185 to 385. Everyone, all of us found life very difficult. And we have to ensure that the people who are the lowest income earners are protected.
The rural areas seem to be picking up. But what concerns me is the urban and the semi-urban areas, especially in the Western province where they have no chance of resorting to agriculture.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Mr. President, it was really nice to hear you reference our colleague Ricardo at the Kennedy School, and it suggests that you are open to receiving ideas from outside. From outside. And the comment about the targeting of the social programs makes me think about my own country of India, where targeting of social programs has improved dramatically in the last 10 years because of the tech stack, and the biometric identity. Just a note for the audience.
I want to switch gears a little bit to our other big neighbor, China. My colleague here, Asim, who is from Pakistan originally, reminds us that Pakistan has engaged in a number of Belt and Road deals also that are very similar to the port deal that Sri Lanka signed sometime back. When I was last in Colombo, I think it was in January of right before COVID hit, whatever year that was, 2019, 2020, all my Sri Lankan classmates from this University who were in Colombo and former students were asking, why do the Chinese own this port? What would you say to that? There's not that many container ships going through it right now, either.
President Wickremesinghe: So what's the question you want me to answer?
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Why do the Chinese own the port?
President Wickremesinghe: Chinese don't own the port. We own the port. But we have given out the operations of the port to China merchants. This is because we found that the Colombo Port Authority was unable to manage the port, and we are making big losses. There was no takers for the port except China merchants. Our other option was to close it. But the security of the port is controlled by the Government of Sri Lanka.
The Southern Command of Sri Lanka's Navy is -- will be in Hambantota. A number of US and Japanese warships have visited the port. The port has no basic military value, and Chinese will not use it for military purposes. They can't. We have had regular consultations with the US in regard to this port, as well as dealings with the Chinese. But looking at the arrangement of the ports that the Chinese are building in Africa, and somewhere in the Bay of Bengal, this will be certainly a crucial port as far as commercial activities are concerned.
I think this will be one of the ports where the goods are assembled and re-shipped to other destinations. I can't see a military use of it and the Chinese having the ability to have a large number of warships in the Indian Ocean in any way to counter India and the US.
Prof. Asim Khwaja: Mr. President, I'm going to switch gears a bit. First of all, just a heads up to the audience, we will be turning to questions from you in about five, 10 minutes, and so my request is prepare the questions you want, as succinctly as you can. We want to try and get as many questions in as possible. So try to keep them short.
So Mr. President, moving on to social issues. As we think of the crisis Sri Lanka is going through, the past is very much part of the present. There were accusations of massive human rights violations, large scale violence that the government also took part in during the Civil War, including longtime suppression of Tamil, Muslim, minority rights, restricting free press. They're concerned that this trend is continuing. The day after your inauguration in July, military and police forces were used against protesters in Colombo with more than 50 people, including lawyers and journalists, beaten and injured.
The Human Rights Watch has reported that the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been used to detain individuals without charges or due process. Even here today at Harvard students are peacefully protesting and raising their concerns.
Governments often suppress and discredit protesters by labeling them as anti-nationalist and problematic. Alternatively, one can instead view protesters as deeply patriotic and helpful. People who care so much about their country that they are willing to risk so much. Mr. President, can you let us know which of these two contrasting views of protesters does your government have? And how do you plan to listen to and act upon their concerns?
President Wickremesinghe: Firstly, after the war was over, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the then-Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-moon came to an agreement which we have yet to fulfill, and I have committed myself to fulfilling those demands. I have always been advocating reconciliation with the Tamils. I have lost elections because I have advocated reconciliation with the Tamils. And now I am going through the steps which I have discussed with the Tamil parties, and I'm willing to discuss with the diaspora. So I cannot be accused at any stage of dealing with any of these instances.
Now the Human Rights Watch talks of protesters being beaten up the day after I became president. Not so. Where there were protesters, as I mentioned, who are trying to take over parliament, and it was at that stage that the police intervened. And the army intervened. My house was burnt. I lost 3,000 books. That they were burnt by some of the protesters, some of whom are very educated people. We are repairing the president's house, which is costing us about 2 to 3 billion rupees, and some of the historic paintings and others are missing. So amidst the protesters who went in were also rogues and others.
As far as we are concerned I would not have allowed anyone to come into the house just as much as you are having inquiries in regard to the January 6 riots. So if you can prevent the capital from being taken over, why is it that you can’t prevent the Sri Lankan parliament from being taken over? Why is it that you are using these double standards? I believe in peaceful protests, and that's one thing that can't be said against me.
As prime minister I brought in legislation which did away with criminal defamation. We are the only country in South Asia without criminal defamation. I brought in the Right to Information Act. Three times I brought in the constitutional amendments which establish independent commissions, including the human rights commissions. Now why should I go and stop all this? I am the one who had done it. Why should I suppress the rights?
But we had a time when the parliament and the whole system was under. And that was the time that the army stepped in. And at that time, yes, two people were taken under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Isn't it setting -- catching hold of -- getting the president's house, taking over the government offices, taking over the prime minister's offices, and marching on to parliament. What do you call that? To throw the MPs out? And say that we are going to overthrow the government?
But I sorted it out. I do -- I didn't go to once the period was over and things had cooled off, we let them over. I could have kept them on for months and months. No, I didn't do that. Because we want democracy to function. But at the same time, the protests have to be peaceful.
Now the teachers went on strike, the parents also went on strike against the teachers. So that's the type of protest that goes on. This is what the human rights has put down here is without inquiry. And I am meeting with Amnesty International in the next few days. If I had anything to hide, I will not meet with Amnesty International.
Prof. Asim Khwaja: President, I appreciate that. Just one follow up on that. So we talked about the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It's been used. I'm just curious about your thoughts on future use of that act, but also what concrete steps are you taking to restore the rights for peaceful protest, and release those who are detained without due process.
President Wickremesinghe: Firstly, the right to peaceful protest is there. A lot of people are protesting. It happens when there is violence. There are two groups which say that we want to clash with the government. We are going to overthrow the government. That is what to call the Progressive Socialist Front. So what can you do if they come and clash with the police, and if they are not peaceful? That's all that I could tell you.
As far as people know that there were three people whom we detained, and they have all been released. Before the three-month period was up to extend the detention they were released as things in the country were peaceful, and I hope -- I had hope that they will not go on the rampage again. Unfortunately they are on the rampage. So what can I do? Then the police will have it. I am certainly not using the detention powers of the president. Rest of the detention will be by the courts.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Thank you, Mr. President. Just for the record, we're not giving the US a free pass either. There's plenty of contestation about the January 6 debate here in society as you know. It's good to hear of your future and continued commitment to human rights. I want to turn to our students and colleagues who are in the audience who I'm sure will have a number of questions, and then we will moderate from here, if it's OK with you. So I'll ask people in the room to raise their hands, and someone will come with you to with a mic to go from there. So please.
Prof. Asim Khwaja: And we'll try and take three questions in a row. If you feel comfortable, you're welcome to introduce yourself. That's totally up to you. But we'll take rounds of three questions or so.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: And please be succinct and as respectful as possible. So there's a question here in the middle, I think.
Audience member: Thank you for your speech. Thank you, Mr. President. Given that you spoke about the importance of the social contract and Sri Lanka's Democratic tradition, and given that the public have so far not had a say in the formation of your current administration, what is the importance you place on the conducting of local government elections, and what is your commitment to ensuring that they will take place now that they've been rescheduled. Thank you.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: We'll take two more questions.
President Wickremesinghe: Has been confirmed by parliament, as required by the Constitution, and constitutionally it's valid. I don't think anyone can question it. In our parliament, if the presidency becomes vacant you have to elect a president. In your system if the vice president becomes vacant, you have to elect a vice president, and one of those vice presidents also became the president. The parliament in parliament there is a majority. I have asked all parties to support me. And I can get legislate -- the government can get legislation through.
As far as the local authority elections are concerned, there was also a call. And I also mentioned it, appoint a delimitation commission to reduce the number of members from 8,000 to 4,000. They think there are too many politicians at local level. And there's also a legislation which has been brought to ensure 25% of youth representation in the local authorities. So when the elections are called before that, and I also when they asked me, I said the economy won't be really functioning till about June. Any case, when the elections were called, there were two sets of cases, elections are called as a result of two parties going to the Supreme Court and asking for elections where the Election Commission agreed, then two other parties went to Supreme Court and said to hold -- to stop the elections. Now that case is going on. That's all that has happened. But once the Supreme Court decides what the cases are, then we will go ahead accordingly. Remember, this is not the first time that the holding of local authority elections have been dragged. In the last parliament when I was prime minister, the opposition and the government and the parliament couldn't agree on the delimitation, and again the elections were dragged on, were not held for a year and a half.
At that stage the Supreme Court stepped in and said the elections must be held. It has gone on long enough. If the parties can't agree. Now the same parties who are in that government with me and who had no problem when the elections were postponed by one year is now complaining that elections should be held immediately. In both instances, the courts had to decide.
In earlier instance also, the courts had to decide. Unlike the presidential system, elections and the parliamentary elections for which dates are fixed by the Constitution. So these are issues that have been going to courts not once and not twice. Even earlier the holding of local authority elections, and once the courts decide, we'll go ahead. If they say, yes, you have to hold it, if they say no, then they have to think take another day, another day, think of another date. That's all.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Mr. President, we are going to bundle the questions. So if you could just wait till we get two or three in and then we'll turn to you for you to answer as you see fit. Thank you. Just in the interest of getting more comments in. There's a gentleman here, and then we'll go to the back there.
Audience member: Thank you Mr. President. Could you talk about-- you mentioned, it's a turning point for our country, and in building a nation of Sri Lanka. Could you talk specifically about queer rights and their protection?
Prof. Tarun Khanna: We go to the back please.
So the question was about queer rights. Just in case you didn't hear it, it was a bit soft. Thank you.
Audience Member: Thanks. I'll introduce myself briefly. My name is Phoebe Canagarajah. My parents are Tamil origin from Sri Lanka. We left Jaffna during the Civil War, and so my question is related to that. Canada recently sanctioned both Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa for gross violations of human rights, coupled with credible allegations of economic crimes that forced them from power. How does Sri Lanka intend to hold the Rajapaksa is accountable for violations of domestic and international law?
Prof. Tarun Khanna: I'll take one more. Maybe the person right next to you. Yeah, go ahead. Either of you.
Audience member: So Sri Lanka has the world's second highest number of UN registered enforced disappearances. The Office of Missing Persons, which was established in 2017 under a government you were a part of has been touted as a sign of progress despite the fact it has yet to resolve a single case. How does your government plan to tangibly meet Sri Lanka's international commitments to provide answers on the missing?
Prof. Tarun Khanna: OK, thank you. I'll turn to you, Mr. President.
President Wickremesinghe: OK. On the first question of the queer rights, as our law now stands homosexuality is an offense under the Penal Code, but it has not been enforced for the last five decades, to my knowledge. Certainly with the government. We will not enforce that law.
But now a group of parliamentarians are discussing and most probably will take action to bring legislation to repeal this provision of the Penal Code. I know the discussions are going on. And maybe at some stage they will bring the resolution, the law, to parliament.
Then comes the next question you asked me about the missing persons. We've had a missing persons office, and the missing persons office started in 2017, but somehow or other the work was slow at that time. I admit it. Now they have really appointed a large number of committees to go into the missing persons, and they are hoping to clear a few thousand cases this year. In addition to it where they feel a person is missing, we are setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At the moment two of our ministers are in South Africa holding discussions with the South African government, so the cases could be referred there.
Tarun, I just forgot what the third question is, but you tell me. I will answer that.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Mr. President, third question was from a lady whose parents are from Jaffna and had to leave during the Civil War. And she was asking how are you going to hold the Rajapaksa brothers to account based on the Canadian government sanctioning them for economic and other crimes. I take it. Yes? Yeah. That's the question.
President Wickremesinghe: When we were in government into 2015 to 2019, many allegations of corruption were actually investigated and action was filed against many members, including some in the Rajapaksa family. There was no evidence against the others. So that's what we have done, and the courts are still hearing the cases. Some, I think, have been concluded, others are being heard. So that we are trying them under our own system. We do not accept the Canadian jurisdiction on this matter. We feel this is a matter for the Sri Lankan courts, and we are not members of the International Criminal Court. So we will go ahead and whenever there is evidence, we will investigate and take action.
I know the suffering that you all have gone through in Jaffna. I know how much the war affected you. I know how many people had to leave Jaffna and to leave Sri Lanka. Finally, not only Tamils but Sinhalese, Muslims have also had to leave the country. I realize the pain that the Tamils have of having to leave their property, of losing their loved ones. I certainly understand that. And that's why we have set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to go into those cases. But while we find out the truth and decide what to do in those cases, we must also go in for reconciliation.
So I would like everyone to join and let's all work together to ensure that these problems of Sri Lanka are resolved, and it's a terrible experience. I've been through it all. I've seen so many people killed. Both Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims. I wouldn't like to live through it. And people are killed when the fighting was going on when they were outside. I know the pain that you have.
Prof. Asim Khwaja: I'm conscious of the president's time. So what we'll do is take one last round. Just maybe a couple of questions. The lady in front.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Let's go.
Audience member: Hello, President. My name is Wenjuan Zhang. I'm a Chinese working in India, and I'm a visiting fellow here. So based on my observation I find that there is increasing distrust and divisions, even polarization either in domestic politics or international politics. As a very experienced kind of a politician, I think you might have your own observation thinking. So what's the deep cause for this kind of increase in distrust and divisions among people, among nations, and what might be the implication for the weaker either the group, or the country, and what might be the possible ways for us to go out of this? Thank you.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: How about this gentleman here, and then.
Audience Member: Hello, my name is Asoka Obeyesekere, I'm a Mason Fellow at the Kennedy School. My question is about your experience as a legislator for over 40 years, and your commitment to re-empowering parliament. And whether before the end of your term as president you will finally be the president who abolishes the executive presidency as many before you have promised.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Last question. Go ahead.
Audience Member: Hello, Mr. President, thank you for your speech. And I had a question about Sri Lanka's relations with its neighbors. And you gave us a rundown about Sri Lanka's long-standing relationship with India and its projects with China. And now that we've seen India and China face off on the border and we see the world dividing into these borders. If Sri Lanka was at a crossroads and had to choose between India and China, where do you think that relationship would evolve towards?
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Mr. President, we'll take one last question, and then turn it over to you. A short question, please.
Audience Member: Yeah. Hi, Mr. President my name is Priyanka Krishnamoorthy. My question is about the point you were making around reconciliation across all the different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. And you referenced the Presidential Commission report and the LLRC. This was drafted in 2011. It hasn't been implemented, and it's been also considered wholly inadequate. And there have been a lot of challenges that the country has faced since. What is your new plan to take into account the inadequacies of the LLRC, and ensure that there is real national reconciliation?
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Over to you, Mr. President.
President Wickremesinghe: Yeah, firstly, one, on the nature of politics, certainly it is becoming more and more confrontational throughout the world. And that is unfortunate. The use of television and more of the social media has led to this situation in many countries. So politics is down really based on how do you divide the numbers so that you can get a majority. And cast a minority onto your opponent. So that's one of the issues that we have here in Sri Lanka. And add to that the ethnic issues, it really is bad. So we need reconciliation to go ahead.
And secondly is the question that Asoka asked, well, at the moment I have only one member of my party in parliament. But we are also I've been first pursuing the issue of electoral reform. But I'd also like to take and resolve the issue of the executive presidency that is not responsible to parliament. A president or a prime minister has to be directly and indirectly responsible to parliament. Yes, but we will have to work towards it. There are two reports that we can work on. Now one is the report of the parliamentary committee in the 2015 parliament, which has gone through many of the items, and secondly the Romesh De Silva Constitution committee report. So we could work amongst the two of those two reports.
Then comes the third question about Sri Lanka and India and China. So far I think India and China wants the issue to be bilateral. And they've held it. There has been intervention, maybe by Russia and others indirectly. We all like to see that no confrontation breaks out between India and China, India and Pakistan. So far the situation has held. There is the most tense place in the world with three nuclear powers. But I don't want to -- none of us want to come to a situation -- that we have to choose between India and China if there is a confrontation. Our job is to ensure that there is no confrontation and that there is easing our relations.
Now this is going to be a difficult task at the moment when the QUAD is operating on one side, China on the other hand, and Ukraine has really raised the level of confrontation between the West and China, going door in our part of the world. We are not involved in the Ukraine issue, and has kept away from taking sides. But this is why I was worried that the presence of UK in the Indian Ocean and Pacific, where they shouldn't be in that military power, can make things worse.
I think between us in the region, we will be some more managing. So we don't want the things to become worse and we'd all like to ensure that we all work with India, China, US, Japan, and everyone else. That's our aim. Not to have big power rivalry in the area.
And Priyanka, yes, there were a shortcoming there largely there were the other reports. So the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a commission headed by Justice Nawaz to look into all these reports, and come back with a comprehensive report. They have just handed the reports to me, and that will cover what has been said in the earlier reports. I think that would resolve most of the issues. But Priyanka, do you come to Sri Lanka anytime?
Audience member [Priyanka]: Yes.
Prof. Asim Khwaja: She's saying, yes.
Audience member [Priyanka]: Yes.
President Wickremesinghe: Come next time, let me know, tell the ambassador. All of you there who wants to know what is happening on the Tamil issue, you can come, we can ask Tarun also, we can invite you to come with the professor. All of you come down there, and we'll be more than happy to have the people who are working on it to meet you. You can meet with the opposition parliamentarians. Any other group. We want you to join us. Because we want young people like Priyanka to tell us what we should do, and how we can make Sri Lanka tick again. Are you willing? Priyanka?
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Sure, I think there's time.
Sure. Just quick. Very, very short.
President Wickremesinghe: Ambassador, you should get a hold of Priyanka and find out when she's coming, and who else wants to come to Sri Lanka.
Audience Member [Priyanka]: Mr. President this is me, I'm Priyanka. I am Sri Lankan. The only passport I hold is Sri Lankan. I think, therefore, I want to feel at home in my own country, and I would be very willing to come back and work as long as the country is also accepting of someone like me who is Tamil, and has grown up my whole life there, and wants to give back. But I think that is on you, Mr. President, and your government to make sure that it's an enabling environment for educated people to come back and join and serve. Because there's nothing I would love more.
President Wickremesinghe: I certainly will build an enabling environment, Priyanka, but you must-- you and your friends must tell me what more has to be done. Whether it's in Colombo, or whether it's in Jaffna. Whether it's in Nuwara Eliya or Batticaloa, come and tell me what exactly you think should be done. We look at what we are going to do. And then tell us what else you feel we should do. So next time you are -- before you when you come to Sri Lanka, tell the ambassador, and I will get all those who are in charge to speak with you and any of your friends.
Tamils are a part of Sri Lanka.
Prof. Asim Khwaja: Thank you.
President Wickremesinghe: We are all together as our National Anthem said, we are the children of one mother. And all are basically our culture, you can't remove one. If some of us trace it back to Tamil Nadu the rest of us many of the Sinhalese trace it back to Kerala. So that that's the way we are. And we have to ensure that the injustices done to the Tamils are embodied.
Prof. Asim Khwaja: Mr. President, thank you again for being willing to take and respond to these questions, especially the tougher ones. We fundamentally believe democracy works best when leaders are held accountable to the public. This is true as much in the US as it is in all parts of the world.
I'm just going to end with one sort of -- what I hope will be a slightly lighter question. Perhaps a more contemplative one.
In cricket parlance, Mr. President, you have completed a half century in politics. During this time you have held incredibly important positions. You are now leading your country as we discussed in one of its worst crises. There are many challenges ahead, but there are also incredible opportunities. I also understand it's your birthday today. One's birthday can often offer a moment of reflection. As you reflect, if there is one thing, one thing -- this is going to be hard -- you would want to be seen as your legacy, to be remembered for by the Sri Lankan people, both those here and the diaspora, what would that one thing be?
President Wickremesinghe: Give Sri Lanka a better future. That has been my aim. That is what I have worked for. That is what I have stood for, and lost elections because I spoke out openly. And that's what I will do. That the young people here will have a better future than us. And that's why we brought in the 25-year long-term vision.
Prof. Tarun Khanna: Mr. President, on behalf of the Center for International Development, the Mittal Institute, and the Harvard community, I want to thank you for your time and reiterate Asim's thanks for being willing to engage the conversation. These are emotional and deep and fundamental issues, as you can see from the questioning. But we always appreciate dialogue. And we will try to take you up on your invitation to organize students to go back and forth and faculty to go back and forth, because that's the foundation of all academic discourse and general discourse.
Just a word to the audience. We're going to allow the Sri Lankan delegation to leave first. If you could just stay in your seats for a few minutes for security reasons. And then we can all file out. Mr. President, thank you very much.
President Wickremesinghe: Thank you, thank you, Tarun. And I hope I'll see you in Colombo.