SPECIAL REPORT : Part 178August 8, 2017, 8:18 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Sri Lanka finalized an agreement with state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings (CMPH) to develop, manage and operate Hambantota port, which is on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
The agreement was finalised on July 29, 2017, with the participation of senior members of the UNP-SLFP coalition. The signing of the agreement, between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and Hongkong headquartered CMPH, took place consequent to UPFA/SLFP National List MP Mahinda Samarasinghe receiving Ports and Shipping portfolios in May, 2017.
Samarasinghe succeeded Arjuna Ranatunga, who had been elected to parliament at the August 2015 parliamentary polls, on the UNP ticket. Ranatunga succeeded in forcing some changes to the agreement before he was named Petroleum Resources Development Minister.
China will invest USS 1.2 bn in accordance with the 99-year lease agreement. The Chinese investment is part of its strategic ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, launched in 2013. India strongly opposes the Chinese project.
The port is situated within 10 nautical miles of the main shipping route from Asia to Europe.
Although, the Joint Opposition, comprising 52 members of parliament, loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had strongly opposed the agreement on the basis of its being disadvantageous to Sri Lanka, it was the former leader who reached an understanding with China on building the Hambantota port, along with an international airport in the region at Mattala during the eelam war.
Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion, in May, 2009.
In fact, the former President, accompanied by post-war External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris visited Beijing, after the change of government, on the invitation of China, to explore ways and means of reaching a consensus on the Hambantota port. Had they succeeded, there could have been an understanding among China, Sri Lanka and the JO.
Whatever the post-presidential polls rhetoric, the Rajapaksas couldn’t have deprived China of the Hambantota port after having built it with Chinese funds. It would be pertinent to mention that China accommodated Hambantota in its ‘One Belt, One Road’ imitative at a time Western powers believed the LTTE might couldn’t be militarily defeated. Port construction commenced in January, 2008, as the Army was struggling, on the Vanni front, with the liberation of LTTE - held Kilinochchi, seemed too a difficult task. China steadfastly backed Sri Lanka throughout the war. The Previous government received continued Chinese backing at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) as the US-led coalition, including India, vigorously pursued Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. The project culminated with Sri Lanka co-sponsoring the US spearheaded Geneva Resolution 30/1 on Oct 1, 2015 to pave the way for a hybrid war crimes court, constitutional reforms et al.
The US and India, working closely to oust the Rajapaksa administration, is certainly not a secret. As the writer pointed out in last week’s column, former US President Barak Obama had publicly referred to the Indian role in Sri Lanka. The US, India, Japan and EU felt the Rajapaksas’ relationship with China gravely undermined their overall security, political and economic objectives, hence the regime change project.
Recent sensational revelation made by former Times of Ceylon journalist Hassina Leelarathna, in respect of USAID making available urgently required funds to the tune of US 3.4 mn, to the UNP-led 100-day administration, in the run-up to the August 2015 parliamentary polls, is the latest illustration of US intervention. The funds had been meant to provide, what the USAID called, visible support to the newly elected administration. US made fresh commitments though the USAID in spite of contemplating a lesser role for the agency here a few years ago.
The US-based Leelarathna, who co-edited with her husband Deeptha, the first Sri Lankan newspaper published in the US years ago made the disclosure on the basis of information she had obtained from USIA on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Accordingly, USD 3.4 mn had been released from Complex Crises Funds (CCF) which was meant to make available USD 40 mn in support of governance, rule of law and economic reform in Sri Lanka.
In addition to that, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Burma had been categorized as ‘democracy projects’ that received USD 585 mn during 2015. Although specific amount of funds, made available to Sri Lanka, through the US State Department, hadn’t been revealed, Sri Lanka received CCF amounting to USD 13,589,951 in 2015.
Who received such large amounts of US funding? Did political parties, NGOs/civil society organization, journalists and individual members of parliament benefit from US funding? Did any other country, or international organizations, provide funds required for regime change operation?
Those sponsors would never have anticipated The Central Bank-Perpetual Treasuries bond scams, in Feb 2015, and March 2016, that had jeopardized their well planned, well-funded project. The UNP-led administration, in spite of drawing support from the US-India coalition, to oust seemingly unbeatable Rajapaksas, ended up joining the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.
Extremely serious allegations
Sports Minister and Co-Cabinet spokesman, Dayasiri Jayasekera on August 2, alleged that the JO had disrupted an adjournment debate on SLPA-CMPH on Aug 28, 2017. Jayasekera claimed that the decision to sabotage the adjournment debate had been taken by an embassy and was carried out by JO members. Both Jayasekera and his cabinet colleague, Dr Rajitha Senaratne, refrained from naming the country though it was clear government spokesmen targeted the Chinese embassy.
Subsequently, a section of the press reported Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s directive to the Foreign Ministry to inquire into the alleged embassy intervention.
Jayasekera declared that the embassy had intervened through a top JO politician. Was he referring to former President and Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa?
Now that cabinet spokesmen had claimed of foreign intervention, the government should take it up with the Colombo-based diplomatic mission without further delay, if it hadn’t taken up the issue already.
Interestingly, on the day the JO had disrupted the adjournment debate, Parliament received a consignment of computers from the Chinese embassy in Colombo. In addition to 225 computers, for members of parliament, including the Speaker, there were 40 more computers for the use of parliamentary staff. China had gifted computers, each estimated to be worth Rs 140,000, on a request made by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.
In the wake of government allegations in respect of China interfering in parliamentary proceedings, tough talking Chinese ambassador in Colombo Yi Xianliang visited parliament on Aug 4, 2017 to officially hand over the computers.
Did China direct JO to disrupt parliamentary proceedings? Will recently appointed Foreign Secretary, Prasad Kariyawasam, raise, the issue with Chinese Ambassador Xianliang?
JO MP Udaya Gammanpila is on record as having said that had government ministers really believed a Colombo-based diplomatic mission intervened, it would have had influenced Speaker Jayasuriya, who called off the day’s proceedings. Gammanpila pointed out that it was the Speaker who had adjourned parliament till August 4, 2017. Kariyawasam recently replaced Esala Weerakoon, who opted to leave the ministry. Career diplomat Weerakoon’s move seems to be timely. The former top envoy to Oslo and New Delhi now functions as Secretary to the Ministry of Tourism.
Xianliang sets the record straight
In Nov, 2016, Xianliang strongly disputed the then finance minister Karunanayake’s assertion that the previous government had obtained ‘expensive loans’ from China. Xianliang responded to Karunanayake, at a seminar organised at the Chinese embassy. The Chinese envoy wouldn’t have chided Karunanayake without consulting Beijing. Xianliang said some Sri Lankan ministers and the media had talked about ‘expensive loans’ from China. He added: "I talked with Ravi [Karunanayake], the Minister of Finance. I asked him, if you don’t like this one [loans from China] why have you spoken to me about getting another one?"
The ambassador explained that the interest rate for loans from China’s Exim Bank was 2 per cent for friendly countries. He asked why this was considered expensive, when the rate for commercial loans from Europe was 5 per cent.
Xianliang said claims that China’s loans were expensive were ‘really unfair.’ He added: "The Sri Lankan people, and the government, should have a more thankful attitude towards China. For a long time, we have supported and assisted Sri Lanka in international forums and bilateral business fields."
Yi also voiced his concerns over the slow progress of China-funded projects in Sri Lanka. Xianliang stated: "I do believe that political in-fighting should not be linked to Chinese assistance."
Immediately after the change of government in January 2015, Sri Lanka stopped the China’s flagship, the US 1.4 bn Colombo Port City Project, launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping and the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in September 2014.
UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe declared, on Dec 16, 2014, that the Colombo Port City Project would be scrapped immediately after the change of government, in the following month. The government had no option but to renegotiate the Colombo Port City Project leading to resumption of the plan about one and half years later.
The UNP propagated that corruption couldn’t be tackled as long as high profile Chinese investments continued. China was flayed for corrupt transactions here.
In the wake of the latest allegations, directed at China, in respect of its intervention in parliament, it would be necessary to examine various perks and privileges received by members of parliament from various governments. Sri Lanka should decide on a policy, regarding receipt of benefits at the expense of taxpayers’ of various developed countries. Recently (July 2017), Speaker Jayasuriya’s Office announced that another group of parliamentarians toured China subsequent to a request made by Speaker Jayasuriya on their behalf.
The code-of-conduct for members of parliament should include specific instructions in respect of acceptance of foreign tours. Members of parliament certainly cannot be allowed to benefit at the expense of the country.
A high level parliamentary delegation, in late June, this year, toured Germany, on the invitation of Prof. Norbert Lammert, President of the German Bundestag. The visit followed Lammert visiting Colombo in April. Did Germany spend on the Sri Lankan delegation, comprising party leaders and senior parliamentary officials? If not, did those Sri Lankans struggling to make ends meet to pay for their visit. The country cannot squander money on members of parliament at a time ruling coalition leaders repeatedly say Sri Lanka lacked the wherewithal to service its massive debt.
Against the backdrop of the government attributing its decision to give controlling interests of the Hambantota port to China, due to difficulty in servicing annual loan repayment estimated at Rs 9.1 bn, Sri Lanka shouldn’t waste precious foreign exchange.
Xianliang has now said that a clarification was required from President Sirisena as to the changes Sri Lanka sought in the July 29 signed agreement. The statement was made on board Chinese military hospital vessel Ark Peace anchored at the port of Colombo on Aug 5.
Civil society campaign
Civil society groups that had campaigned for President Rajapaksa’s defeat at the January, 2015 presidential polls are in the process of organizing a meeting in Colombo next Tuesday (August 15) to pressure the government to fulfil its promises. Purawesi Balaya co-convenor, Gamini Viyangoda, in a brief interview with The Island, emphasized the responsibility on the part of the government to take stock of the situation without further delay.
Declaring that the introduction of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the Right to Information Act and restoration of democracy had been major achievements, Viyangoda explained that the government couldn’t, under any circumstances, absolve itself of its responsibility for failing to address several key issues, including crucial constitutional changes.
Viyangoda alleged that the government had pathetically failed to bring in investigations into massive corruption, perpetrated by the Rajapaksas and their henchmen, during the previous administration, to a successful conclusion. Viyangoda blamed Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC and Law and Order and Southern Development Minister Sagala Ratnayake for the extremely slow progress in investigations.
The political columnist said that President Maithripala Sirisena should decide on the abolition of the executive presidency without further delay. "We’ll display a huge portrait of the former convenor of the Movement for Just Society, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha at the venue of the August 15 meeting with the government’s achievements and failures highlighted. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe should resort to tangible measures to achieve much touted promised objectives," Viyangoda said.
He said the Central Bank-Perpetual Treasuries bond scams should be examined against the backdrop of the failure to introduce the National Audit Act during President Sirisena’s 100-day programme. In addition to the non-accomplishment of bringing those high profile corruption cases to a successful conclusion, the government failed to intervene immediately after the first bond scam in February 2015, Viyangida said. Had that happened, the government wouldn’t have been in the current predicament over shocking revelations made before the on-going three-member Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI) probing the bond scams.
Asked whether the Central Bank-Perpetual Treasuries scams could undermine government objectives that could be only achieved through the ruling UNP-SLFP coalition, Viyangoda admitted that CoI probe and subsequent judicial process could cause irreparable damage to good governance project.
One of the strongest critics of the previous administration, Viyangoda flayed the incumbent political leadership for giving the Rajapaksas and their henchmen an opportunity to subvert them. Had the government acted decisively and swiftly to recoup losses caused by the first scam and took punitive measures against those responsible, the JO would have been in a much weaker position today.
Viyangoda said the bond scams, and various blunders and lapses on the part of the government, had diverted attention away from what the activist called primary objectives. The government was weakening due to such factors as bond scams it would make it extremely difficult for them to push for constitutional reforms.
"There is no one to blame but itself for the current crisis."
Responding to several queries by the writer, Viyangoda emphasized that the government’s failure to bring high profile investigations against the Rajapaksa clan, and those near and dear to them, to a successful conclusion, shouldn’t be wrongly construed as they were found innocent and the allegations baseless.
Viyangoda explaining the recent talks civil society representatives had with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Sirisena pointed out that the JO and various other disruptive elements, always exploited reluctance on the part of the government to promptly take decisions on critical issues. The NGO activist faulted the government over its strategies, while appreciating the recent deployment of the military to neutralize petroleum workers who resorted to trade union action.
He emphasized that the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), students and the JO shouldn’t be allowed to influence the people to such an extent it would undermine the country. "We are opposed to the widespread use of trade union action as a political tool", the anti-Rajapaksa activist said
India funds Ven Sobitha project
If not for Ven. Sobitha’s intervention, perhaps, twice President Rajapaksa could have succeeded in securing a third term, thanks to 18th Amendment to the Constitution that did away with restrictions placed on him to contest presidential polls a third time. In fact, National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa, too, accepted Ven. Sobitha’s leadership, in July 2014, in the run-up to the Uva Provincial Council polls later that year. Whatever Weerawansa said today, the one-time JVP firebrand, too, contributed to a campaign that ultimately brought down the Rajapaksas, in January 2015.
Many an eyebrow was raised when the Ven Sobitha Commemoration Foundation received a staggering Rs 300 mn from the government of India to build a new village at Elapathagama, Mahavilachchiya, in the Anuradhapura district, in memory of the late prelate. Ven. Sobitha had run a special project in support of the village during the war.
The signing of the agreement between India and Sri Lanka took place at the official residence of the Speaker, in July this year.
The shocking decision to seek Indian funds for a project launched in memory of the good governance architect proved the ordinary people shouldn’t expect the government to be sensitive to their feelings. Had the government really respected Ven. Sobitha, it would have undertaken the project with Sri Lankan taxpayers’ money. Instead, massive amounts of funds had been allocated to acquire brand new super luxury vehicles for Ministers, State Ministers and Deputy Ministers, foreign jaunts, renovation of official bungalows belonging to members of parliament. In addition, the state had been deprived of much needed revenue by allowing members of political parties to sell their duty free super luxury vehicles. Some JO members, too, had sold their duty free vehicles at the expense of the national economy.
Public litigation activist and attorney-at-law Nagananda Kodituwakku’s efforts to move the judiciary against corrupt members of parliament over the duty free vehicle scam, have been thwarted by political parties taking a common stand on the issue.