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President seeks to unite governing MPs while Government faces growing dissention

a year ago

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  • G-10, clergy, and Opposition unite against Yugadanavi LNG deal
  • Basil cuts Gammanpila at Cabinet, sidelining G-10 in Government
  • New constitution imminent, says G.L.; Sabry pushes for dialogue
  • Premajayantha fires salvo against constitution drafting process
  • Cardinal continues to read riot act over Easter attacks probe
  • Amnesty International blasts persecution of Muslims in Sri Lanka
The Government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is facing a crucial litmus test that would decide whether the forces that worked to bring the Government to power would remain intact or part ways. The Government, for its part, has had multiple crises to deal with, ranging from an economic crisis that began building up since the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks to the added blows to the economy due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. The nationalist forces that joined in the run-up to the 2019 presidential and 2020 general elections had become critics of the administration they helped bring to power. Apart from the Group of 10 (G-10) governing alliance leaders, nationalist forces led by the likes of Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera, Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera, and others had expressed concern and displeasure over certain actions of the Government. The cost of living, which is reaching spiralling levels, and the growing dissension among the grassroots, including farmers, had compelled one-time government allies to make public their criticism. The controversial agreement between the Government and US-based New Fortress Energy Inc. on the Yugadanavi Power Station in Kerawalapitiya and the monopoly on liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies added salt to the already festering wound. The G-10 leaders as well as the key coalition partner of the governing alliance, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), continuously opposed the deal, which they claimed was reached in a surreptitious manner, leaving even the Cabinet of Ministers in the dark. Objections to the Yugadanavi deal continue to mount, with the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), engineers from the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), and Ven. Gunawansa Thera together with Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith filing fundamental rights petitions (FRs) before the Supreme Court challenging the agreement. However, it was the joint FR filed by Ven. Gunawansa Thera and Cardinal Ranjith that had the Government worried given the emergence of a new force – the unison of nationalistic and Catholic bases. Cardinal Ranjith and Ven. Gunawansa Thera filed the FR last Monday (18) requesting that the sale of the 40% stake held by the Government of Sri Lanka in the Yugadanavi Power Station to New Fortress Energy Inc. be revoked. The petition by the clergy had further requested that any decision or agreement authorising the procurement of LNG from New Fortress Energy be revoked and to issue an interim order to submit all documents, including the cabinet memorandum and decisions, regarding the sale of the 40% stake in Yugadanavi to the court. Prime Minister Rajapaksa, the Cabinet of Ministers, the majority (60%) owner of the Yugadanavi Power Station – West Coast Power Ltd. (WCP), New Fortress Energy Inc., the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), and Treasury and Ministry of Finance Secretary S.R. Attygalle were among the respondents named in the petition. New Fortress Energy, in July, publicised that it signed a framework agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka to construct a new offshore LNG receiving, storage, and regasification terminal, primarily located in the Kerawalapitiya Power Complex, to supply gas to Sri Lanka’s power plants. Thus, New Fortress Energy had added that it agreed to supply natural gas to the existing 300 megawatt (MW) Yugadanavi Power Station and was negotiating the purchase of the Government’s 40% stake in the Yugadanavi Power Station. Meeting allies It is in this backdrop that the President had scheduled a meeting with the governing alliance parliamentary group tonight (24). The meeting at the President’s house is to be followed by dinner. It is evident that President Rajapaksa is trying to hold together the governing alliance while fighting battles on many fronts. The meeting of the parliamentary group today is aimed at initiating a discussion on the growing concerns and dissension building amongst the governing party members. The G-10 leaders, together with SLFP Leader Maithripala Sirisena, had recently handed over a letter to the President seeking an appointment to discuss the agreement reached between the Sri Lankan Government and New Fortress Energy Inc. The request was made by the Democratic Left Front (DLF), Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), National Freedom Front (NFF), Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU), Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya, SLFP, National Congress, Eksath Mahajana Party, Sri Lanka Communist Party, Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya, and Yuthukama National Organisation. The party leaders in their letter had stated that the agreement needed to be revisited and discussed and that it should be implemented following a proper tender procedure after a formal study. The letter also stated that the Finance Ministry Secretary and CEB officials would be instructed to brief them on this. However, President Rajapaksa had responded in writing to the representatives of those political parties stating that it would be more appropriate to discuss the matter in the cabinet meeting or the governing party parliamentary group meeting. The President had also stated that the party leaders should raise their concerns with Prime Minister Rajapaksa or Minister of Finance Basil Rajapaksa if there was any issue in relation to the political decisions of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Meanwhile, SLFP Leader Sirisena last week noted that the meeting sought with President Rajapaksa by governing alliance parties regarding the Yugadanavi deal and the sale of LNG had not been dismissed as claimed. He told the media last week: “A time will be given for the meeting and the President has also appointed officials to discuss the matter regarding the Yugadanavi deal and the sale of LNG to foreigners.” Basil takes on Udaya The weekly cabinet meeting was held last Monday under President Rajapaksa’s patronage. During the meeting, Finance Minister Rajapaksa endeavoured to make a political play by trying to lock horns with Minister of Energy Udaya Gammanpila. However, Gammanpila, realising the politics at play, opted to withdraw without getting himself entangled in a clash. The Finance Minister had for some time been at loggerheads with Gammanpila as well as Minister Wimal Weerawansa for making critical comments over certain government decisions. Their leadership in the G-10 leaders of the governing alliance had also irked Basil for some time. Basil had, on several occasions, blocked cabinet papers presented by Gammanpila. One such instance was witnessed when Gammanpila, in April this year, sought a financial allocation of Rs. 2 billion for land clearance to set up a new oil refinery. The project was expected to bring in $ 3 billion as an investment and an annual saving of $ 400 million due to the purchase of added quantities of crude oil instead of refined petroleum products. However, the Finance Minister had stated that the financial constraints faced by the Treasury made it difficult for the allocation of such funds. The President had then requested Gammanpila to try and get the funds for land clearance also from an investor. Nevertheless, several cabinet ministers had noted that the Finance Ministry continued to release billions of rupees for projects under other ministries. It is in such a backdrop that Gammanpila had presented another cabinet paper at last Monday’s meeting. This time he sought approval for the establishment of a secretariat to take forward the de-carbonisation programme. The Energy Minister had noted that he sought approval for the establishment of the secretariat for that purpose while the rest of the work could be carried out by international climate change funds that were secured. The move required approval from several ministries – Environment, Transport, Industries, and Power. The Ministries of Transport, Industries, and Power gave the green light for the programme. The Environment Minister had questioned whether the proposed secretariat would clash with the work of the Environment Ministry. Gammanpila explained that the secretariat would get the technical details and work in tandem with the Environment Ministry, as it would be the enforcing authority. The Environment Ministry had then also agreed to the proposal. However, Basil opposed the cabinet paper. He claimed that despite claims that funds would be channelled from international sources, the burden would eventually fall on the Treasury in the event the required funds are not secured. “I know how these (things) end. It will finally be the Finance Ministry that will have to dole out the monies,” the Finance Minister claimed. “I assure you that funds can be channelled from foreign sources. We can move forward with the proposed secretariat and we can scrap it if we fail to secure the funds,” Gammanpila responded. Basil then turned to Gammanpila and accused him of trying to steal the show by taking over the President’s programme. “You are trying to be the leading figure in the Government,” Basil continued. All others present at the meeting had witnessed the change in Basil’s tone. After addressing Gammanpila first as “Mr. Minister”, it had later changed to “you”. The rest of the Cabinet expected Gammanpila to revert with a critical statement. Instead, he said: “I was only trying to help the President achieve his target, but if the Finance Minister is opposed to it, I will withdraw my paper.” After the cabinet meeting concluded, Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had approached the Finance Minister and observed that the manner in which he (Basil) had addressed Gammanpila was not proper. Basil’s response took the senior minister by surprise. Basil had claimed that Gammanpila was waiting to leave the Government and that his (Basil’s) actions were aimed at expediting the departure. Interestingly, the Finance Minister approved a request for funds presented to the Cabinet by Weerawansa. It was, therefore, evident that Basil was focused on building the SLPP as the single largest political party in the country after doing away with its alliance partners. Inter-alliance clashes Amidst the divergent opinions expressed by governing alliance partners, verbal clashes as well as fisticuffs between alliance partners continued to increase. While the SLFP had come under attacks over its criticism on the manner in which the complete ban on chemical fertiliser was imposed by the Government as part of its organic agriculture programme, members of another alliance partner were at the receiving end of physical blows during a divisional development committee meeting. SLFP Leader Sirisena had openly made critical remarks about the fertiliser shortage and the growing farmers’ protests witnessed islandwide. He noted that even he might not be able to visit his constituency in Polonnaruwa due to the growing dissension from farmers. Sirisena had also sent a letter to President Rajapaksa explaining the difficulties faced by the farmers as well as the threat to the country’s food security. SLFP General Secretary State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera had also openly criticised the Government over the fertiliser shortage. Several SLPP members including Minister of Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage and State Minister Roshan Ranasinghe had criticised the SLFP for its criticism of the fertiliser issue. “This is what happened back in 2015. There were conspiracies behind the Government itself. It would be better for those who cannot remain here to step down. The destruction faced by our country is obvious due to conspiracies. We cannot allow this to continue,” Ranasinghe claimed last week. It is in this backdrop that several SLPP local government members had claimed that constituent parties of the governing alliance should either tow the line or leave the alliance.  Their claim was that the SLPP was not prepared to be dictated to its constituent parties. SLPP backbench MP Tissa Kuttiarachchi claimed that disciplinary action must be taken against the “two-faced” SLFPers who are behind the farmers’ protests demanding fertiliser. “The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) says they are trying to correct the Government’s mistakes while remaining in it. This is foolish. The SLFP wants to destroy the Government while enjoying the perks, holding ministerial positions and offering vehicles for their children and spouses. As a backbench parliamentarian of the SLPP, which is facing pressure due to this, while being the Government’s main party, I want to request disciplinary action against those two-faced SLFP members,” Kuttiarachchi said at a media briefing last week. New constitution Meanwhile, the Government continues to express confidence in pursuing the introduction of a new constitution as pledged by President Rajapaksa in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election. Minister of Foreign Affairs Prof. G.L. Peiris last Monday stated that the work on the proposed new constitution had been finalised by the Expert Committee chaired by Romesh De Silva PC, and that a draft of the new constitution will be presented to Parliament in January 2022. “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ policy statement, clearly stated that he will bring in a new constitution. The current Constitution was created during the era of President J.R. Jayewardene in 1978, 43 years ago. During those 43 years, Sri Lanka has faced several changes in various aspects. The constitution is the supreme law of the country, but it is not engraved in stone. It should change according to new social needs and dynamics. President Rajapaksa appointed a committee composed of the most famous lawyers to do this and it was led by Romesh De Silva PC. This committee has finished its work,” Prof. Peiris told the media at an SLPP press conference last week. Prof. Peiris noted that Attorney General (AG) Sanjay Rajaratnam PC had sent the draft compiled by the committee to the Legal Draftsman’s Department for the compilation of the final document. “We hope that we can present it to the Government towards the end of this year. Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s inaugural Budget will be read in Parliament on 12 November 2021, and the vote on it will be taken on 10 December 2021. Thus, in January 2022, the Parliament will have the opportunity to focus on the new constitution.” Meanwhile, Minister of Justice Ali Sabry last Tuesday (19) said the final phase of discussions on the subject of a new constitution was currently underway. “We are currently in the final phase of the discussions pertaining to the new constitution. The committee of lawyers which had been appointed for the implementation of this new constitution is finalising discussions and the draft will be handed over to the President soon. After the draft is handed over to the President, and based on further study of the reports, I am sure the President will make a decision that will benefit Sri Lanka,” he said. Sabry further stated that once the draft is handed over to the President, discussions will once again take place before a final decision is made, and re-emphasised that whatever decision is made, it will surely be for the betterment of Sri Lanka. However, there seem to be divergent views within the governing party on the constitution drafting process. The statement in Parliament last week by State Minister Susil Premajayantha was clear of this divergent view. Premajayantha claimed that compiling the 1972 Constitution as well as moves by the previous Yahapalana Government to draft a new constitution were carried out by a parliamentary select committee (PSC). He noted that such moves were not initiated in this instance. “During the previous Government, a PSC was appointed and six subcommittees were appointed under it and legal experts were assigned to them to provide technical expertise. Otherwise, can this be called the legislature?” he questioned, adding that the 1972 Constitution was also drafted by a PSC and was ratified by Speaker Stanley Thilakaratne. “Today, some people don’t know how a constitution is drafted,” Premajayantha claimed. He pointed out that laws had to be compiled by Parliament and that he was not prepared to serve as a signal post and raise his hand in support of a new constitution that is drafted elsewhere. “People have not elected us to Parliament for us to become signal posts,” the State Minister claimed, after explaining his legal profession that spans over three decades and parliamentary career of over two decades. The nine-member expert committee was appointed in September last year. Led by De Silva PC, other members of the committee include Gamini Marapana PC, Manohara de Silva PC, Sanjeeva Jayawardena PC, Samantha Ratwatte PC, Dr. A. Sarveswaran, Prof. Wasantha Seneviratne, and Prof. G.H. Peiris. Spotlight on Easter attacks Cardinal Ranjith last week claimed that President Rajapaksa had spoken to him and informed that it was not possible to implement all the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter Sunday terror attacks, two days after the release of the report. This observation was made during a virtual discussion with a group of Sri Lankans living in Australia (in which Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobhitha Thera and several other religious leaders had also participated). Cardinal Ranjith had said: “When the President received a copy of said PCoI report, he appointed several members of his Government to implement or reject some of the PCoI’s recommendations, which was a political decision in the President’s interest. He told me that not all of the recommendations could be implemented since doing so would make him unpopular.” Prior to the presidential election in 2019, Cardinal Ranjith had claimed that then presidential candidate Rajapaksa was seen going around the country promising to bring justice to the Easter Sunday terror attack victims when he came to power, while pledging to implement the PCoI’s recommendations during a meeting with the bishops. However, the Archbishop had said that, so far, most of the recommendations made by the PCoI had not been implemented, and that the present Government and current leaders had shattered all hopes of the victims. “Due to these matters, time has been wasted, and we all lost hope. This report shows that the Attorney General should question about suspicious incidents from the intelligence services, but such a thing has not taken place so far. They have become mere words and the current Government and leaders have shattered all the hopes of the victims. We are amazed at their behaviour,” Cardinal Ranjith has claimed. He had further said the support of the international community was needed to find out who really was behind the Easter Sunday terror attacks. However, when asked about the allegations made by the Archbishop, President’s Spokesman Kingsley Rathnayake told The Morning that the President had not yet made an official response to it. “I also saw this circulating on social media platforms, but I have not yet been instructed to issue an official statement,” he said. Meanwhile, in reference to the Easter Sunday terror attacks and the probe into it, Cardinal Ranjith last week also noted that if anyone tried to come to power on the blood of innocent people, they would not be able to enjoy that power for too long. He made this observation during a service held last Thursday (21) at St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, which was one of the targets of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings. He had said: “If anyone tried to come to power on the blood of innocents, they would not be able to enjoy that power for too long. They must remember that.” He further said that if “they” are innocent, they should allow the authorities to carry out the investigations into the Easter Sunday bombings independently and should not be afraid to take action against those implicated in the Easter Sunday attacks PCoI report. “Those who have been implicated in the PCoI report must be brought before the law. If someone does not do that, then we have a question as to whether they are also guilty.” The Archbishop had further questioned as to why the freedom was not given to carry out investigations into the Easter Sunday bombings if “they” are right. “Where are the investigations that promised to find out exactly who is behind this conspiracy? Why can’t they be carried out? If they are innocent, why not give officials the freedom to investigate? Why not give the relevant authorities the power to investigate? Why are they trying to suppress this?” he had queried. He had also claimed that if anyone was trying to cover up the investigation into the Easter Sunday attacks, it was only because they were also guilty of it. It is in this backdrop that Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekera stated the same day that, after extensive investigations into the Easter Sunday terror attacks of 2019, the Sri Lanka Police had presented their findings to the AG. “The responsibility to file charges now lies with the AG,” the Minister stated in a Tweet. He noted that nine cases had been filed so far across five high courts against 32 persons, another 25 persons have been indicted, and that a Trial-at-Bar had been appointed to hear cases on a daily basis. AI report focuses on Muslims Amnesty International (AI), in a new report published last week, stated that Sri Lanka’s Muslim community had suffered consistent discrimination, harassment, and violence since 2013, culminating in the adoption of government policies explicitly targeting the minority group. The 80-page report, titled “From Burning Houses to Burning Bodies: Anti-Muslim Harassment, Discrimination, and Violence in Sri Lanka”, had traced the development of anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka since 2013 amid what it terms “surging Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism”. AI had noted that the discrimination had evolved from a series of mob attacks into government policies explicitly discriminating against Muslims, including the forced cremation of Muslim Covid-19 victims and current proposals to ban both the niqab (face veil) and madrasas (religious schools). AI Deputy Secretary General Kyle Ward had said: “While anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka is nothing new, the situation has regressed sharply in recent years. Incidents of violence against Muslims, committed with the tacit approval of the authorities, had occurred with alarming frequency. This had been accompanied by the adoption by the current Government of rhetoric and policies that had been openly hostile to Muslims. “From anti-terrorism laws and forced cremations to niqabs and madrasas, the Sri Lankan Government has pursued a blatantly discriminatory policy agenda against Muslims. The Sri Lankan authorities must break this alarming trend and uphold their duty to protect Muslims from further attacks, hold perpetrators accountable, and end the use of government policies to target, harass, and discriminate against the Muslim community.” Under rising hostility towards Muslims, AI had noted that violence towards Muslims had risen in frequency and intensity since 2013. There had been a series of flashpoints in which attackers and those responsible for hate speech had enjoyed impunity for their actions. This escalating hostility began with the anti-Halal campaign of 2013, when Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist groups successfully lobbied to end Halal certification of food, which demarks food permissible for consumption by Muslims, in accordance with Islamic scripture and customs. The campaign led to a number of attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses. The following year, anti-Muslim riots in the southern town of Aluthgama began after a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist group held a rally in the town. In the aftermath, perpetrators of violence enjoyed impunity and authorities failed to deliver justice to victims. Despite a new government in 2015, which promised justice and accountability for ethnic and religious minorities, attacks against Muslims continued. In 2017, anti-Muslim mob violence flared in the southern town of Ginthota, while similar violence was seen in 2018 in Digana and Ampara, towns in the Central and Eastern Provinces, respectively. Not only did perpetrators escape accountability, victims and witnesses alleged the Police and armed forces did not offer sufficient protection or act to prevent the violence. Referring to escalation since the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, the report had noted that hostility towards Muslims markedly increased after more than 250 people were killed in co-ordinated suicide attacks committed by a local Islamist group – and claimed by the Islamic State (IS) – on Easter Sunday 2019. Mosques across the country were also attacked, and a spate of “hate speech” and anti-Muslim vitriol was posted on social media. Emergency regulations rushed through by the authorities were also used to arbitrarily arrest hundreds of Muslims in the wake of the attacks. The report had further noted that since taking office, the current Government had continued to target and scapegoat the Muslim population to distract from political and economic issues. This was evident in the mandatory cremation policy on the disposal of the bodies of Covid-19 victims, which was implemented despite cremation being expressly forbidden in Islam, and a lack of scientific evidence to substantiate the claims that burying victims would further the spread of the disease. As for government policies targeting Muslims, AI had noted that the Sri Lankan authorities were now seeking to implement new discriminatory legislation, including a niqab ban and a ban on madrasas. If adopted, these restrictions would violate the freedom from discrimination based on religion guaranteed and safeguarded by Sri Lanka’s Constitution, and international human rights law which Sri Lanka is bound by. The authorities had used existing legislation to target Muslims, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which permits suspects to be detained without charge for up to 90 days, and without being presented before a court. The report also documented several cases in which laws were abused to target individuals, including Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer and activist who had been detained for more than 15 months, and Ahnaf Jazeem, a poet and teacher, who was arrested in May 2020 following unsubstantiated claims about his Tamil language poetry. Meanwhile, Co-Cabinet Spokesperson Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana had noted that the Government had assured the safety and security of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, as it had been given a mandate to ensure all Sri Lankans lived a decent life. According to Dr. Pathirana, while there were certain incidents reported following the Easter attacks, investigations into the same carried out by the authorities did not target any specific community. “We are a responsible government. We want to reiterate the fact that we will look after the interests of all the communities in the country, including Muslims, Tamils, and Sinhalese,” he had added.