Will Maithri extend an olive branch to Mahinda?
The year 2017 dawns with new hopes of prosperity, coexistence and reconciliation in our hearts. The twenty two million people of Sri Lanka look forward to an era of sustainability with a determination to alleviate poverty in all its forms, President Maithripala Sirisena said in his New Year message to the people.
"It is imperative that we overcome the challenges ahead of us. The progress of the human race was pioneered by people who faced challenges with confidence, utmost courage and determination amidst obstacles. Our goals could be achieved if we manage our work efficiently and productively, and do the right thing at the right time with unwavering commitment to serve the greater good.
The adverse effects of climate change show us the imperative need to be prepared for weather uncertainties. We have to be determined this year to live with nature and not above or against it.
I wish all of you a prosperous new year in which the fruits of progress are distributed fairly and the aspirations of the people are fulfilled," he further stated.
As if to keep his word on the New Year resolution to live with nature and not above or against it, at the end of the revived call for his intervention in the destruction and deforestation taking place at Wilpattu National Park, he last week directed the authorities to publish a gazette notification declaring the Wilpattu sanctuary and all forest reserves abutting it as a Wild Life Zones.
Following a special meeting held on Friday at the Presidential Secretariat, President Sirisena instructed all heads of departments under the Ministry of Environment, that action be taken forthwith to use modern technology to obtain a bird's eye view of all forests including Wilpattu.
He pointed out that those involved in deforestation in whatever manner should be severely dealt with regardless of their status and said the fines and the jail term presently in force should be imposed to the maximum. He said he would request the Judicial Services Commission further, in this regard. The President also instructed the officers concerned to investigate the allegations of destruction of forests in the Mannar and Puttalam districts and deploy a special team to inquire into it and submit a report.
This investigation team would include personnel from the Environment Ministry, Forest Conservation Department, Wild Life Conservation Department, representatives from environmental organizations and journalists. He also instructed the officers to implement the law to the very letter, if forests are destroyed illegally in the Wilpattu sanctuary area, and when re-settlements are being made, to select lands situated away from the forest areas and also to implement a plan of action in identifying such lands.
Unfortunately this was not the first time the issue was brought up with the President on the alleged involvement of his Cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen in this case. Environmentalists pointed out that deforestation at Wilpattu is taking place rapidly with the blessings of Minister Bathiudeen in the name of resettling Muslim persons who were displaced due to war.
Earlier, on 11 May 2015, the committee report prepared on an investigation into the alleged deforestation of Wilpattu National Park buffer zone was handed to President Sirisena.
He, on 8 May 2015, also warned that he will not hesitate to use his executive powers on wrong doers and ordered to immediately stop deforestation in the land reservation around the National Park and reserves. However, the destruction continues despite several warnings by the President.
MR's New Year resolution
As Yahapalana Government increasingly losing its popularity over delays in ending corruption and blunders at the economic front, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, perhaps for the first time, openly declared his desire to end the current unity government.
At a meeting held with foreign correspondents in Colombo where they were served hoppers, a political symbol that became famous ever since he announced that his then Cabinet colleague Sirisena betrayed him after having hoppers together, Rajapaksa also indirectly expressed the possibility of him working together with or under Sirisena. He however, did not miss the chance to add 'only if his conditions are met'.
The much publicized meeting gathered wide publicity and received mixed reactions from both the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
While UNP members attempted to brush aside his remarks as mere day dreaming, SLFPers, especially those who are at the grassroots and have also pledged support for President Sirisena were seen elated by this new development.
They even came before media to express their willingness to accept Rajapaksa even as Prime Minister under President Sirisena as long as the SLFP is able to form a government.
Those who criticized the Rajapaksa administration after his shocking defeat in January 2015 were also seen welcoming latter's remarks as a goodwill gesture that would preserve the SLFP intact without splitting.
Rajapaksa who is still widely popular among the majority of Sinhala Buddhists, did not shy away when he said that he does not need power to call cards and he still can control.
In less than 48 hours of his remarks, State Minister Priyankara Jayaratne resigned from his post as the State Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government. He had reportedly met President Sirisena on Friday evening to inform of his decision and hand in his resignation.
Jayaratne has, in his letter of resignation, said that Local Government members in his district (Puttalam) and his supporters had been pressuring him to give up the ministerial post over the inordinate delay in conducting mini polls and he had acted according to their wish.
He has also mentioned in his letter that though he resigned from the ministerial portfolio he would continue to be an SLFP MP and that he would never hold a ministerial post again until an SLFP Government is formed.
He was first appointed Prison Reforms Minister of the incumbent government and thereafter made the State Minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils.
Following Jayaratne, a group of SLFP MPs are planning to leave the government after 8 January 2017 and among them are 10 State and Deputy Ministers.
These State and Deputy Ministers are said to be representatives of the Galle, Puttalam, Kurunegala, Gampaha, Moneragala, Ratnapura, Matale and Badulla Districts.
However, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is set to make a special statement on the current status of the UNP-SLFP Unity Government and its future policies on 5 January.
According to party sources, he is set to focus specifically on tasks achieved during the 16-month period of the current regime, while also touching on issues which the government is determined to resolve during its remaining four years in office.
The PM is also scheduled to express his views on the recent public statement made by former President Rajapaksa, who has spoken of his desire to topple the current administration during the course of this year.
Oil that matters
Meanwhile, Mahinda Rajapaksa during his meeting also attributed his defeat in the January 2015 presidential polls to the Opposition campaign that he accused the US and India of backing.
"That was too much for us. We didn't know what was going on inside the party," the Hindu Newspaper reported quoting him.
"Those days our Indian friends were shouting at me when a (Chinese) submarine came calling at the Colombo Port, they were very worried... Now they are like a mouse." Suggesting that India had other interests in forcing this apparent shift in its response to Colombo-Beijing ties, the former President said: "They [India] also must be getting something. I don't know whether the Trincomalee Harbour is going to them or Palaly [airport] and Kankesanturai [harbour]," he had said referring to projects in the North and the East.
Trincomalee, Palaly and Kankesanturai are commonly known as the triangle India is extremely sensitive about.
It is in the midst of this that four officials, including a deputy manager of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), who had gone on an observation tour of four oil tanks belonging to the CPC in China Bay, had been held captive by officials of the Indian Oil Company (IOC).
The deputy operations manager of the corporation Menaka Jeewasiri, Assistant Engineer K. P. Easwaran and two security officers, who had accompanied them, had been held captive by the IOC officials.
Four of the oil tanks at the tank farm in China Bay had been handed over to the CPC with the approval of the Cabinet, and these officers had examined them for the purpose of further development. During their tour, the officers had been subjected to this treatment, media coordinator of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation said.
It was also reported that the two vehicles the officers had come in had also been held by the IOC officials. He said that the officers had later lodged a complaint with the China Bay Police concerning the incident.
The Chairman of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation was quoted in media as saying that they had informed the Ministry Secretary of the incident and further action would be taken.
Meanwhile, the China Bay Police said that Chiththam Raju, the Senior Vice Chairman of the Indian Oil Company had complained to the police that officers of the CPC had trespassed on their company property. In his complaint, Raju had said that the officials had been given permission to enter the area only on one particular day, but the officials had come on a different date. He had said there was a bilateral agreement and no one was allowed to enter the site without the permission of higher officials.
The Indian company said to have taken on lease 84 oil tanks from the oil tank farm at China Bay in Trincomalee has made the oil tank farm a restricted area without allowing any official of the Sri Lanka Government to enter the area, All Ceylon Petroleum General Employees' Union charged.
The President of All Ceylon Petroleum General Employees' Union Ashoka Ranwala said the lease agreement that was to be signed within six months of the agreement reached in 2003 was not implemented and as such the Indian company has no right to use any of the oil tanks in the farm.
He said there are 16 more tanks in the farm and the government has approved a Cabinet Memorandum to use the tanks.
The officials of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation who had arrived at the oil farm to carry out their duties according to this Cabinet Memorandum have not been allowed to enter the complex by officials of the Indian company, he charged.
The officials of the Indian company have said no one would be allowed into the complex without permission from the Indian Government he said noting that this is a very serious situation.
All Ceylon Petroleum General Employees' Union has asked the government to take over all oil tanks that are being illegally used by the Indian company and if they want to use them to follow the correct procedure to lease them out.
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