Seeking divine blessings as clouds of uncertainty looms over Yahapalanaya
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Wednesday (21), left for Chennai to visit the Tirupati Kovil, a sacred place where almost all rulers of this country pay homage to. Wickremesinghe was visiting the shrine after a lapse of 16 years. The last time he visited the sacred shrine was when he was in office as the Prime Minister of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Interestingly, his visit to the famous hill shrine of Lord Venkateswara at Tirumala to offer prayers comes at a time he is holding the same position when a President who is from the main opponent party is heading the country – a scenario similar to that in 2002.
Indian media reported Prime Minister and his wife Prof. Maithree Wickramasinghe were accorded a traditional welcome by the temple priests and functionaries and later taken to the sanctum sanctorum of the 2000-year-old shrine.
Chairman of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) Chadalawada Krishnamurthy has said the Prime Minister and his wife together made an offering in the hundi (offering box) of the shrine, where they spent over 20 minutes.
He was accompanied by Ministers D.M. Swaminathan, Palani Digambaram and other officials during his 15-hour spiritual visit.
The Premier was honoured with a sacred silk cloth besides the holy laddu prasadam and Theertham (holy water), while the priests, amid chanting Vedic hymns, gave their blessings.
Wickremesinghe's Tirupati Visit comes at a time when ministers and legislators of the two main parties, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), of Yahapalana government have started exchanging verbal fireworks against each other. The situation has reached to a level where UNP MPs come before media challenging SLFP ministers to leave the government if they are not happy with the way country is ruled.
Local government polls
The pressure is mounting on President Maithripala Sirisena and the government to hold the local government elections soon. Many view this as the litmus test for Yahapalanaya as a whole and for each political party.
It is in the midst of this the Executive Committee of the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which met under the patronage of President Sirisena on Monday has reached the decision to conduct the Local Government elections during the first quarter of next year.
It was also agreed to contest under the 'Beetle Leaf' symbol of the Alliance and President Sirisena has agreed to take up the matter with the SLFP Central Committee as it was earlier decided to contest under the SLFP symbol 'Hand' as a single party.
It was also discussed about making necessary preparations to face the Local Government election during the first quarter of 2017 at electoral base level. Minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils Faizer Mustapha last week said that the government would hold the Local Government polls in March next year as the Delimitation Committee has informed him the report is scheduled to be handed over on 27 December. Once I get it I will gazette it on the 28th, he said.
Earlier the Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said that the Local Government polls can be held within two months after the receipt of the Delimitation Committee report.
However, election monitoring body CaFFE, yesterday charged that things may not go as planned as Minister Mustapha is all set to fly abroad.
"Even if the minister is not in the country, we are hoping that the Committee will hand over its report to the Acting Minister or Ministry Secretary so that things can proceed as scheduled," CaFFE's Executive Director Keerthi Tennakoon said.
Super powers not welcome
Meanwhile, except United National Party, many have voiced its opposition to the proposed Development (Special Provisions) Bill which aims at allegedly creating a super minister.
Those who are opposing claims that the 'Super Minister' will be able to take decisive decisions regarding the economy of the country, thereby manipulating authorities and departments, even bypassing subject ministers.
The Super Minister will be able to control institutions such as the Board of Investment (BOI), the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and the Urban Development Authority (UDA). If something goes wrong or the Super Minister makes an errant decision, then no one will be able to take action against him or her as this post will be vested with legal immunity. This is a serious situation. The powers of the President would be betrayed with the appointment of such a minister, those who are voicing opposition said.
Meanwhile, the Joint Opposition is getting ready to challenge the Bill in the Supreme Court once it is presented in Parliament.
When the matter was taken up with the President, at the UPFA Executive Committee meeting, the President vouched that no Bill that would prune the powers of any other local or provincial authority will be allowed to be passed in Parliament.
Minister Chandima Weerakkody who shared the sentiments of the majority said that UNP is trying to centralize power to one individual when the President himself is trying to lessen powers entrusted to the Executive President.
Meanwhile convening a media briefing at the SLFP Headquarters, State Minister Dilan Perera and Chief Minister of the Western Province Isura Devapriya, vehemently condemned the attempts made by the United National Party to centralize power.
Dilan Perera expressed opposition to the Bill saying that "they are showing off the one stop shop", and are trying to create an all powerful 'mudalali'. On one hand there are expectations on a new Constitution, when we are attempting to devolve power, on the other hand they are trying to consolidate power that has already been devolved..."
Chief Minister of the Western Province, Devapriya added that "there were unofficial super-ministerial posts in our government as well," while adding that UNP ministers have now forgotten the criticisms they levelled when they were in the Opposition.
Therefore, if they appoint a Super Minister then there would be no use having a President or the Prime Minister - and then there will be no use of Chief Ministers and they could dissolve everything and the existence of a Super Minister would be sufficient, he alleged.
A feature of the Development Special Provisions Bill that has drawn much attention is the inability to file civil or criminal cases. Section 51 a and b of the Bill reads as follows – "No action or prosecution shall be instituted against – (a) the Agency, Board or other institution for any act, which in good faith is done, or purported to be done, by such agency, board or other institution coming within this Act; or (b) any member, officer, servant or agent of such agency, board or other institution for any act which is done, or purported to be done by him in good faith under this Act or on the direction of such agency, board or other institution, as the case may be.
Such immunity from prosecution has only been provided by the Constitution to the President of the country thus far. Incidentally, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, introduced following the election of President Maithripala Sirisena, limited the immunity afforded to the President, creating instances where even the President of the country can be brought before the law.
Legal experts opined that this Bill, if enacted, would create a Super Ministry which centralizes several powers in it and most dangerously who could appropriate the powers of the other ministers. And it brings under his purview, all economic and financial affairs.
Meanwhile, the government said that the Development (Special Provisions) draft Bill is likely to be presented to Parliament in February.
Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade Malik Samarawickrama, however, said the Bill is not to help create a 'Super Minister' as claimed by the Opposition.
He said that President Maithripala Sirisena is supportive of the Development (Special Provisions) draft Bill. He also said that some members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party have got a wrong impression about the Bill.
He insisted that the Bill is not to create a "Super Minister" and the Government opposes creating such a post.
China in Hambantota
With concerns on the rise, about 15,000 acres of land in Hambantota and surrounding areas to be given to China, including Magampura Harbour, the government has specifically informed China that the Hambantota Port cannot be used for military operations after leasing.
Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade Malik Samarawikrama said only the Sri Lanka Navy can use the Port for military purposes. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe also said recently that a complete Naval Base will be established adjoining Hambantota Port.
Samarawickrama said the Indian Government has not expressed any opposition to the agreement with China regarding the Hambantota Port. This deal is an entirely financial proposition. Therefore, this will not trigger any regional security issues, he stated.
"The former government just built the Port. They did not have a plan to generate profits from the project. Because of that, the country has to bear a debt interest of US$ 30 million per year at the moment. That is why the current government had to take this decision because we cannot afford such a debt interest," he said.
Furthermore, an additional amount of US$ 600 million should be used to develop the port site. The Chinese firm has agreed to invest that amount, Samarawickrama said. The government is expected to receive
US$ 4 billion from the proposed cement plant, oil refinery and dock yard in the medium-term, Samarawickrama added.
The Diplomat recently analyzing relations between Sri Lanka and China stated that Rajapaksa upgraded ties to a 'strategic cooperative partnership,' opened Colombo's doors to a wave of senior Chinese defence and political officials, pledged respect for China's 'core interests,' and enthusiastically supported China's OBOR initiative. The real prize for China, however, were the ports of Sri Lanka, positioned as the island-nation is along the principal east-west sea lines of communication (SLOCs) connecting China to its energy suppliers in the Middle East and Africa.
A month before Rajapaksa signed the first arms agreement with China in 2007, he inked a separate deal to lease land to a Chinese consortium at Hambantota, where they planned to construct a $1 billion deep-water port. Poorly located in a desolate jungle, Hambantota was the President's home district and the port his pet project. The $361 million first phase was completed in November 2010, funded by loans from China's Ex-Im Bank. (India, the United States, and others were also offered the Hambantota Port contract).
In 2010, Beijing lent Sri Lanka an additional $200 million to build a second international airport near Hambantota, and in 2012 offered $810 million for the second phase of the port project.
In November 2013, Chinese firms were contracted to build a $272 million railway in Sri Lanka, "the first new railway construction in Sri Lanka within a century."
The same month, China offered to take a leading role in the development of a new mega project at Sri Lanka's main port in Colombo. Various plans for a Colombo Port City Project (CPCP) had been percolating since 2004, but China had the capital and experience to realize the vision. China Merchants Port Holdings had already constructed – and taken an 85 per cent ownership stake – in the South Container Terminal at the Colombo Port on a 35-year right of ownership agreement. A separate deal signed in 2009 had granted China an exclusive investment zone 34 miles from the Colombo Port.
This was a more ambitious endeavour. The $1.4 billion CPCP was billed as the largest infrastructure project in the country's history and would require reclaiming 233 hectares of land adjacent to the existing port. The new 'mini-city,' to be built by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), would include shopping malls, apartments, golf courses, hotels, and an F1 racing track.
Some in Sri Lanka and across the Palk Strait began voicing concerns about Colombo's embrace of China and its growing indebtedness to Beijing. Since 2005, China had funded and/or constructed 70 per cent of new infrastructure projects, overtaking Japan as Sri Lanka's largest donor.
Chinese non-military aid soared from a few million dollars in 2005 to $1 billion in 2008. An additional $5 billion in aid and loans was distributed between 2009 and 2015. "Critics of the Rajapaksa regime fear that the Sri Lankan Government will be unable to repay such large loans in time, giving the Chinese an opportunity to turn part of the loan into equity, making them part owners of vital projects and installations," noted Indian defence analyst Nitin Gokhale.
However, with the proposed ETCA which PM Wickremesighe pledged would be signed by the end of last November not seeing the light of the day and failed Sampur Power Project, India will push for the proposed economic zone in the East, even though it completely observe silence on the surface over recent developments. If they will not be allowed to make their presence in the country to balance the Chinese presence, India is highly unlikely to look away.
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