- Both major parties finalising plans for local polls, but different views on when they will be held
- Anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat closed down, but PM’s office sets up PR unit with similar tasks
- New Ports Minister Samarasinghe works out compromise on Hambantota, signing likely within weeks
By Our Political Editor-Sunday, July 23, 2017
President Maithripala Sirisena hurriedly interrupted the Cabinet meeting that was in progress last Tuesday. He rose from his chair and asked ministers whether they could feel something like a tremor that was causing vibration of the floor.
He said he could feel such a phenomenon where he sat — the podium in the onetime Well of the House of Parliament facing ministers seated behind rows of tables. Soon, members of his personal protection group were summoned and told to find out what was happening.
The men who left the chamber returned sometime later to tell Sirisena that the vibrations were caused by piling equipment being used in the Chinese funded Colombo Port City project. It was just across the road from the Presidential Secretariat. “Let’s hope that when the construction work finishes, the Presidential Secretariat will be intact,” he remarked half-jokingly. The meeting continued. When discussions or decisions on some 49 items on the agenda were concluded, it was time for “any other business.”
Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe rose to explain why he has been accused of abusing United Nations envoy Ben Emmerson QC, Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter terrorism. During a five-day visit to Sri Lanka, Emmerson met Rajapakshe at the Justice Ministry. Emmerson is retiring from the UN system later next week.
Rajapakshe told the meeting that Emmerson had claimed there were 200 Tiger guerrilla suspects in government custody. This, the minister declared, was a highly exaggerated figure and he had asked Emmerson to explain how he arrived at such a number. The real figure, Rajapakshe said, was sixty. Emmerson had replied that he had obtained those figures from “reliable sources” but had refused to elaborate. The Justice Minister claimed he told Emmerson to rely only on “authenticated” figures. It is in that hostile tempo that the duo had discussed the introduction by the Government of a new counter terrorism law. Here again Rajapakshe was to tell Emmerson that interference was not welcome since the introduction of a new law was the sole prerogative of a sovereign government. He appeared unaware that such foreign intervention was inevitable since the Government had co-sponsored the US backed resolution on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. In that too, Sri Lanka had assured that the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) now in force would be repealed.
Private tuition in diplomacy
Rajapakshe’s lengthy explanation notwithstanding, he received some private tuition on diplomacy and diplomatic conduct from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his own ministerial colleagues. “We need to get along with the international community. We don’t want to return to the Mahinda Rajapaksa era,” declared Wickremesinghe. He said in that era, top UN officials were either not allowed to come to Sri Lanka, or were abused when they did arrive.
Even if Wickremesinghe did not say so, one such instance was the comment made by then cabinet minister Mervyn Silva. When the UN’s former Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay was in Sri Lanka, he made a public statement that he wished to marry her. In another instance, the then Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne was to describe a visiting UN dignitary as a “terrorist.”
The Premier said that in the recent past, UN reports on Sri Lanka had not been inimical. Only one such report had made some critical references and was bad. Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake declared that such undignified remarks against a visiting UN dignitary only made his job difficult. “I am also a patriot but I don’t go about confronting others to demonstrate it,” he said. Endorsing those views were also former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne.
President Sirisena disclosed that he had received reports that some pro-Tiger guerrilla elements had been responsible for taking Emmerson to a detention centre. That should not happen, he said, and asked who gave permission for this. Prison Reforms Minister D.M. Swaminathan was quick to disown it was he or his Ministry. It turned out that the Foreign Ministry had agreed to the visit in accordance with previously agreed procedures laid out for UN special mandate holders. Such visits, once again, were the result of assurances agreed to by Sri Lanka in the US sponsored Human Rights Council resolution.
The ‘tremor’ or vibration that Sirisena encountered when chairing the cabinet session was relatively minor compared to the political tremors he is experiencing. On the one hand, just two weeks after admonishing his partner in governance, the United National Party (UNP) leadership for stalling investigations into high profile cases involving former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and members of his family, Sirisena has placed the state investigative agencies on high gear. A number of cases have now been revived after they had been in limbo for some time. Opposition parties have renewed their campaign against such action, particularly with regard to cases involving military personnel. This week, the UNP also struck a discordant note and delivered what seemed a veiled message to Sirisena.
On the other hand, a group of pro-Sirisena loyalists of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) seem hell bent on quitting ranks and sitting as an independent entity in Parliament. The group met twice this week, in the homes of two different SLFP cabinet ministers, to discuss the move. At least a few seem poised on leaving ignoring Sirisena’s appeal to stay together till December 31.
This new deadline is to decide on whether or not to renew a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the SLFP and the UNP to continue the coalition. That new deadline is not lost on the UNP too. It is also busy working out counter strategies.
ACCS closed down, new PR unit set up
This week, the Government’s decision to close down the Anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat was officially conveyed to relevant authorities. This Committee served as a ‘clearing house’ of sorts for public complaints on bribery, corruption and fraud and directed them to the relevant state investigative agencies. It functioned under a Cabinet Subcommittee chaired by Premier Wickremesinghe. The decision of the Cabinet has been clearly enumerated. It says:
“The major role of the Anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat (ACCS) was to forward the complaints received by it from various parties, to the relevant agencies such as the Sri Lanka Police, Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID), Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption etc;
“That, since the FCID is fully functioning at the moment, the need for the functioning of the ACCS does not arise; and
“That, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption can initiate investigations into an allegation of bribery or corruption, whether of its own or on a complaint made to it, as per provisions in Article 156A(1) (b) of the Constitution;
“After discussion, taking into consideration the views expressed by the Members of the Cabinet, it was decided not to extend the term of office of the Anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat, the term of which has already expired on 2017–06–30.
“To inform the Secretary to the Prime Minister to take action:
Handover all pending complaints related to documents presently in the possession of the ACCS, to the appropriate Investigative Authorities to pursue action on such complaints;
To assign the officers who have been temporarily released to serve in the ACCS, to their substantive positions in the relevant Institutions;
To terminate the services of the officers/employees, if any, recruited on contract/temporary basis, with immediate effect; and
To transfer the assets of the ACCS, if any, appropriately to the relevant Institutions, for their use.”
To transfer the assets of the ACCS, if any, appropriately to the relevant Institutions, for their use.”
Two officials from the Prime Minister’s office took charge of the Secretariat Office along Colombo’s Perahera Mawatha, just outside the northern entrance to ‘Temple Trees’ on Wednesday afternoon. The next day (Thursday), former parliamentarian and diplomat Rosie Senanayake, who is the Deputy Chief of Staff at the Prime Minister’s Office, declared open what was formally called a “Public Relations Unit” in the same building.
J. Dadellage, who is in charge as Consultant of this Unit told the Sunday Times, “This Unit will receive any complaint of public grievances or complaints including cases of bribery or corruption. Thereafter, we will direct it to the relevant agency for investigation or necessary action. The public at times are not aware of the institution they should submit their complaints.”
Dadallage added, “In turn we will give the relevant agency a time frame to look into the complaint and submit a report. We can then keep the public informed about the progress concerning the investigation or issue. We will evaluate the progress made regarding the complaints.” Dadallage, a retired state service officer, himself was involved in a controversy before retirement. He once declared that there was nothing wrong in using government funds to purchase and distribute Sil cloth. This is a white cloth worn by Buddhists when they take part in religious observances particularly during Poya Days. Dadallage then equated the gifting of Sil cloth as similar to making Samurdhi payments. However, the former Presidential Secretary (Lalith Weeratunga) has been indicted for using funds from the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) for procuring Sil cloth and distributing it.
It was only at the previous Cabinet meeting (July 11) Premier Wickremesinghe urged that the Anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat be brought under his purview. This is by placing it under his Secretary’s charge. However, this was turned down by Sirisena. He explained that the Premier would have to face more allegations if that was done.
If Dadallage’s assertions that the new ‘Public Relations Unit’ will play the role of the Secretariat – i.e. receive public complaints and direct them to the relevant state investigative agencies is correct, then it makes a joke of the ministerial decision based on the President’s remarks to shut it down. It is compounded by Dadallage’s remarks that the Unit would give time to those agencies to investigate and monitor such public complaints. Such an arrangement could have continued even with the Anti-Corruption Secretariat in place. Hence, reasons for the closure of the Secretariat have more to it than what has surfaced.
On the face of it, no one can fault Premier Wickremesinghe for setting up a ‘Public Relations Unit’ – one which perhaps could be established even by other Ministers. His office, the PMO, woefully lacks public relations. It cannot even send out a simple press release properly, in any language. There’s no spokesperson for the PM or the PMO.
With the setting up of the Unit, it seems its direction is elsewhere. The unit could also seek public complaints and direct them to relevant investigative agencies. However, unlike the Anti-Corruption commeittee Secretariat for which Wickremesinghe obtained prior approval, those PR units do not require the permission of the Cabinet of Ministers. In doing so, Wickremesinghe has delivered to his critics, Sirisena included, that he could have his own mechanisms to fight bribery and corruption. If one institution is denied, there are other institutions that could do the job, seemed the message. Yet, it raises questions of legality on whether a PR Unit can direct state investigative arms to carry out probes and demand periodic status reports.
That the UNP ministers have been smarting after Sirisena’s verbal attack over two weeks ago is known. At a previous Cabinet meeting, Enterprise Development Minister Kabir Hashim was to reflect this anger. It began after reported remarks by Minister Mahinda Amaraweera who allegedly told some MPs that certain members of the Rajapaksa family would be arrested soon. Since Amaraweera is known to have the President Sirisena’s ear, his alleged remarks gained currency. When members of the Rajapaksa family raised issue, he reportedly relented and issued a statement that the Rajapaksas should be pardoned if there was any wrong doing. Amaraweera’s colleagues said that he was worried about his eroding support base in his electorate in the Hambantota District. Hashim took the opportunity at the ministerial meeting to ask who was supporting the Rajapaksas now. He said the UNP was being accused of doing so when it only wanted to act in “keeping with the law.”
Among the state investigative agencies, the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) which comes under President Sirisena, is to be revamped. An agreement for a grant of Rs 35. 2 million (US$ 250,000) is to be signed by the Government with the US State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour. A programme to be completed this year includes the funding of training for officers, updating the CIABOC website, acquisition of technical equipment and compilation of code of guideline made by the East West Management Institute (EWMI). The EWMI has been selected by the Department of State to implement the 18 month project. Robert H. Hilton, Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy in Sri Lanka said in a letter to Sarath Jayamanne, Director General of CIABOC, early this year that the project also includes sub-grants to the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) and civil society organisations to raise “public awareness concerning anti-corruption activities.”
Other than these political issues, the Government’s concerns are also focused on the economic front. One such issue is the national carrier SriLankan Airlines. Negotiations are under way with two West Asian carriers for a partnership arrangement. One of them was to complain this week that while a dialogue was under way with it, the national carrier was expanding operations to Melbourne with a weekly flight from Colombo – and blocking the potential partner from the route traffic. They pointed out that such activity prevented it from making a complete study of the operations of SriLankan Airlines since they kept changing.
For the Government, pumping colossal amounts of money to keep the airline afloat is not the only commitment. It also has to keep declaring periodically that SriLankan Airlines is “a going concern.” This week, Public Enterprise Development Minister Kabir Hashim made a request for the Government to certify that SriLankan Airlines is a “going concern.” The audit for the year ended March 31, 2017 is now being carrid out for SriLankan by the Auditor General’s Department through KPMG, the well-known global network of professional firms providing audit, tax and advisory services. The External Auditor has asked a letter from the Treasury that the Government of Sri Lanka will extend financial support to SriLankan to maintain its “Going Concern” as a strategic partnership, but it is yet to be worked out. Hashim is seeking Government approval for the Treasury Secretary to issue such a letter. Previous years too, such letters have been issued.
In fact, financial backing from the Government, akin to dumping money into a bottomless pit, continues. The Government has already given the green light to a request by SriLankan Airlines to receive a monthly payment of over Rs 1.525 billion for one more year. This is to cover operational costs and will also include payment of salaries among other matters. It was revealed recently, how some of those in the top rungs of the SriLankan management receive handsome pay packets.
This week, SriLankan Airlines which has now merged with Mihin Lanka, received another financial boost. It won government approval for Letters of Comfort for “operations” by the national carrier. Mihin Lanka ceased by the end of October 2016 when the operating routes were taken over by SriLankan Airlines. The Letters of Comfort for a specified period of Rs 1.65 billion each from both the Bank of Ceylon and the People’s Bank will now be issued by the Treasury.
In addition, the National Savings Bank, which has been named the “Lead Manager in the re-orientation programme for SriLankan” is receiving Rs 169,303, 748. This is for actions that include “preparation of detailed Request for Proposals, inviting partners, management contracts and preparing comprehensive Information Memorandum. The National Savings Bank Fund Management Company selected reputed consultancy firms to complete the assignment. The consultants were the Attorney General’s Department, KPMG, BNP Paribas, Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy and F.J. and G. de Saram. Despite all these efforts, SriLankan Airlines has still not been successful in finding a partner and thus stem the haemorrhaging of public funds.
Hambantota Port project
Another area of economic importance is the Hambantota Port project. Since Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe took over, fresh negotiations have been going on with the Chinese firm. Government sources said yesterday that a draft Concession Agreement has almost been knocked into shape and could be ready for sigining within weeks. Samarasinghe is seeking government approval for the Treasury to make repayments of the loan instalments for the project beginning this month. This is particularly in view of the benefits of the Port of Hambantota accruing to the government.
He has said that the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) will make the repayment when the Concession Agreement is signed and funds are received from China. He has noted that no allocation of funds for this loan repayment has been made in the revised budget of the SLPA approved by the Board of Directors last month.
Funds had been allocated only for future development of Ports other than Hambantota in the revised budget 2017 in the expectation that the burden would be taken over by the Government. Provision that the Treasury would make re-payment of loans is being made in the Concession Agreement.
The construction of the Hambantota Port has been undertaken in two phases. The first phase has been completed and the second is now under way. The port development project including bunkering facility and tank farm has been financed by loans from Exim Bank of China amounting to over US$ 1.3 billion and a loan of over US$$ 20 million from the Bank of Ceylon.
The remaining funds were from the income from Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). Government sources said Minister Samarasinghe has successfully obtained changes in the Concession Agreement from the previous draft (formulated under the previous Minister) to ensure they do not violate any laws including the ones governing the SLPA.
Amidst the uneasy calm, both the pro-Sirisena SLFP and the UNP are busy preparing themselves for upcoming, long postponed local polls. If Sirisena has said that such polls will be early next year, Wickremesinghe has declared it would be in November or December. Even on that, there is no unanimity.
The Premier was busy last Monday night hearing power point presentations by foreign electoral strategists on how to win the local polls. He also discussed with his party officials details related to the polls campaign. Amidst some uncertainty, Sirisena has also been talking to his own SLFP ministers. It is becoming clear that both the SLFP and the UNP have agreed to disagree. Though gradually, their plans are unfolding.