Govt. in firefighting mode, as country reels from loss of Mangala 

  • With over 8,000 dead from Covid, Govt. extends lockdown by a week
  • S&P drops SL credit outlook to “negative”, reserves cover 2 months’ imports
  • WHO estimates lockdown to cost economy between $ 1-2 billion
  • Police fights magistrates over free speech, as JSC defends seminar for judges 
  • GL moves to salvage GSP+, as EU monitors expected on fact-finding mission 

The untimely demise of former Minister Mangala Samaraweera due to Covid-19, sent shockwaves across the country last week. Samaraweera’s death on Tuesday morning (24) stunned those throughout the political landscape.

A political figure that changed the course of politics in the country, Samaraweera, on many occasions, played the role of “Kingmaker”, playing a part in bringing three of the last four executive presidents into office. Nevertheless, Samaraweera never feared speaking his mind, even when the individuals who he had helped bring into power diverged from his moral or political positions. 

His outspoken nature and his abhorrence of any form of discrimination, especially ethnic and religious, resulted in him being called a traitor and terrorist among other epithets by the chest-thumping extremists who branded his form of patriotism as treachery. 

However, it was Samaraweera together with the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who secured the European Union’s (EU’s) ban of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and won US assistance to crackdown on LTTE funding mechanisms, money laundering schemes, and arms trafficking pipelines, all of which played a pivotal role in starving the terrorist organisation of funds and munitions, paving the way for their military defeat. 

In his first media interview after being sacked from the Cabinet of the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Government in 2007, Samaraweera said: “Despite all the provocation, the military did not respond at all, and as a result, he (Mahinda Rajapaksa) gained a lot of sympathy internationally, and he was also initially seen as a leader who was genuine and sincere, and his simplicity was appreciated. 

“As a result, in the early stages, even my job became easier, because when I campaigned tirelessly along with the Foreign Ministry to get the EU to ban the LTTE, his image counted. When I took over, out of the 25 members of the EU then, which is now 27, only 19 members were supportive of a LTTE ban. The remaining six members opposed it. According to the EU Constitution, even if one party is opposed to it, they cannot adopt it. 

“As a result, I campaigned tirelessly, going from one capital to another, spending sometimes 24 hours meeting the heads of state, foreign ministers; giving lectures at the strategic studies institutes; and meeting parliamentary committees. Finally, as a result of it, and perhaps because the EU also learnt that the LTTE was carrying out extortion and fund-raising in Europe, they agreed to the banning, and they did it on 29 May. Then, the Canadian ban came during this period. 

“After my meeting with Condoleezza Rice, she and the State Department were very supportive, and they started their sting operations against the funding in the US. They appointed a fulltime unit to monitor the LTTE’s activities in the US and in fact, went on to form a contact group, which monitors the LTTE in Southeast Asia.

“India too has supported us to the hilt. In the year I was Foreign Minister, I met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh five times and each time, various requests were made, even though we could not make them public for obvious reasons. They helped us immensely.” 

Samaraweera’s detailed response is in fact a response to all his detractors who called him a traitor and LTTE sympathiser.

However, his resolute stance against the LTTE did not extend to the Tamil community and he worked tirelessly to address the grievances of the minority communities in the country.

Even after the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019 that resulted in sporadic clashes between certain groups with the Muslim community, Samaraweera, the Finance Minister at the time, took the initiative of visiting one of his Muslim employees and celebrated the Ramazan festival (Eid ul fitr) with the family and posted pictures on his social media.

His ability to make righteous but unpopular decisions also resulted in his unpopularity to an extent with the nationalist vote bank. Nevertheless, Samaraweera has left a vacuum on the country’s political stage and a liberal movement with an uncertain future. 

Pandemic conundrum 

Samaraweera’s death due to Covid-19 also resulted in renewed interest in the havoc being wrecked by the pandemic.

With the death toll exceeding 8,000 and daily detections numbering over 4,000, the Covid-19 surge seems to be snowballing out of control in Sri Lanka. The latest sequencing data of the virus last Friday (27) revealed that the highly infectious and deadly Delta variant of Covid-19 has rapidly spread in the country, especially in the Colombo District. 

Along with the unabated surge, calls again were made by health authorities to extend the lockdown imposed on 20 August, ending Monday (30), for another two weeks.  

The Government, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, was once again faced with the lockdown conundrum. 

The Government on Friday decided to extend the lockdown for one week until 6 September.  

It is in this backdrop that a World Health Organisation (WHO)-backed study projected an increase in the country’s death toll to over 16,000 if the Government lifted the nationwide lockdown on Monday and relaxed restrictions. 

The same study had revealed that lifting the lockdown with gradual relaxation afterwards could contribute to a Covid-19 death toll in the country of 16,700, but limit the economic impact of the lockdown to $ 1.1 billion, or 1.3% of gross domestic product (GDP). 

Media reports stated that the study has projected that an extension of the lockdown to 18 September would result in a reduced death toll of 13,712 and an economic loss of $ 1.67 billion. A further extension of the lockdown till 2 October, the report had stated, would result in an economic loss of $ 2.2 billion, but limit the total death toll to around 10,400. 

The projections of the study published in The Morning stated a 10-day lockdown ending on 30 August, followed by a gradual relaxation, would cost the economy $ 1.12 billion, or 1.3% of GDP; a four-week lockdown ending on 18 September would cost the economy $ 1.67 billion, or 1.9% of GDP; and a six-week lockdown ending on 2 October would cost the economy $ 2.22 billion, or 2.5% of GDP. 

The projection was included in the report “Epidemiological and Economic Projections of Mitigation Measures for the Covid-19 Pandemic in Sri Lanka’s Roadmap” that was updated on 26 August through a webinar.  

Meanwhile, the Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) last week claimed that the nationwide lockdown and quarantine curfew would yield results only if the public behaves responsibly. 

PHIs’ Union Head Upul Rohana has urged the public to behave responsibly to minimise deaths from avoidable Covid-19 infections. 

The PHIs as well as government authorities have requested people to remain indoors and not to step out except for emergencies or essential needs. 

Cabinet discusses Covid  

The impact of Covid-19 as well as the lockdown on the country’s economy was discussed at length at the weekly Cabinet meeting last week. 

The Cabinet meeting last week was held via Zoom due to the Covid-19 health guidelines that prevent any form of public gatherings. 

The meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Rajapaksa. Addressing the meeting, the Prime Minister had pointed out the need for all stakeholders to work towards uplifting the country’s economy that is currently ailing. 

It was also noted that the ongoing lockdown would add to the burdens of the Government and that all ministers should be mindful of it. 

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, had last week received $ 780 million as Special Drawing Rights (SDR) from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

Finance Ministry Secretary S.R. Attygalle had told the media last week that the Central Bank of Sri Lanka had received the share of SDR roughly amounting to $ 780 million.   

The IMF says the SDRs are primarily meant to augment reserves, but the member states can use them for health and social needs where needed.   

Even with the additional IMF support, the Standard and Poor’s rating agency last week slashed Sri Lanka’s CCC+ rating to negative, noting that the country has foreign reserves remaining to cover only two months of imports, and that the lack of dollar inflow would place significant strain on the country’s ability to service its debt obligations. 

Trouble in alliance

Meanwhile, Ministers Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, and Vasudeva Nanayakkara participated in last Monday’s cabinet meeting.  

After discussing the cabinet papers, the Prime Minister was nearing the conclusion of the meeting when Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena had taken a swipe at the three G-10 leaders in the Cabinet, over the letter sent by the governing party alliance leaders to the President requesting a lockdown to control Covid-19. 

Abeygunawardena had said there were some members in the Government who did not want to shoulder the burdens and preferred to distance themselves from it. 

The Minister had further noted that the letter sent to the President and released to the media was an irresponsible act and called on the Prime Minister to advise these ministers. 

Minister S.M. Chandrasena had also supported Abeygunawardena and urged the Prime Minister to advise the three ministers. 

After Abeygunawardena and Chandrasena had expressed their views, the ministers had stayed silent for a few minutes, expecting a response from either Weerawansa, Gammanpila, or Nanayakkara. 

The Prime Minister had said: “Okay, okay let’s do that. But now, let’s conclude the meeting.” 

However, it was later learnt that Ministers Weerawansa, Gammanpila, and Nanayakkara had left the cabinet meeting after the cabinet papers on the agenda were discussed. 

However, the letter sent by the G-10 leaders was slammed by governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) General Secretary MP Sagara Kariyawasam. 

Kariyawasam charged that the letter sent by the G-10 leaders was an “international conspiracy”. 

Kariyawasam stated at a press conference last Monday (23) that this request letter was sent after the Cabinet of Ministers had agreed not to impose a lockdown. 

“We are unaware of what sort of a conspiracy this is. We request the President to investigate this matter because this is not the first time such a situation has arisen,” Kariyawasam claimed. 

He noted that sending a letter to the President and publicising it after an agreement was reached not to impose a lockdown, was done with the aim of placing the Government in a difficult position. 

“Constituent parties should act more responsibly. They should discuss and make decisions instead of addressing letters and releasing them to the media,” Kariyawasam said. 

However, the SLPP General Secretary claimed that stern action needs to be taken against such moves and that the President should take action to prevent such a scenario from taking place in the future. 

One of the main reasons for the talk of conspiracies was the fact that Ministers Weerawansa, Gammanpila, and Nanayakkara had left the cabinet meeting on the 17th before the meeting had concluded. 

However, it is learnt that the three ministers had left the meeting, after participating for nearly four hours, in order to attend a meeting of G-10 leaders that was previously scheduled at Gammanpila’s residence. 

The G-10 leaders had scheduled the meeting on the 17th, Tuesday, at 7 p.m., since the weekly cabinet meeting takes place every Monday. However, the cabinet meeting that week was postponed to Tuesday in lieu of the cabinet reshuffle that week. 

The G-10 leaders were unable to reschedule the planned meeting since most of the leaders in the group were to return to their constituencies after parliament sittings. The G-10 had decided to meet every two weeks, mostly during parliament sitting weeks, in order to discuss the issues faced by the Government and the country. 

The cabinet meeting on the 17th was one of the longest meetings, as it lasted nearly five hours. During the meeting, G-10 members had arrived at Gammanpila’s residence to attend the scheduled meeting, not knowing that the cabinet meeting was in progress. 

After 9 p.m., Gammanpila was unable to continue to attend the meeting since there were guests at his residence seated for nearly two hours. 

Gammanpila had then left the Zoom meeting around 9.30 p.m. and Weerawansa and Nanayakkara had also left the meeting at the same time in order to attend the G-10 leaders meeting. 

The letter sent by the G-10 was signed by Ven. Athuraliya Rathana Thera – Ape Jana Bala Party, Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara – Democratic Left Front, Prof. Tissa Vitharana – Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Minister Wimal Weewaransa – National Freedom Front, Minister Udaya Gammanpila – Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, L. M. Athaulla – National Congress, Tiran Alles – Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, Dr. G. Weerasinghe – Sri Lanka Communist Party, Asaka Navarathne – Sri Lanka Mahajana Party, and Gevindu Kumaratunga – Yuthukama National Organisation. 

Losing post 

However, the SLPP-led governing alliance seems to have decided to take some action against members of the G-10. 

Last week saw Minister Basil Rajapaksa-loyalist MP Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon being appointed as an Assistant Government Whip. 

The post was previously held by MP Asanka Navarathne, who represents the Mahajana Party. Navarathne had participated in G-10 meetings and plays an active role in the group. 

Prime Minister Rajapaksa last week handed over the letter of appointment to Tennakoon. 

It was immediately unclear whether Navarathne’s sidelining was part of the punishments to the G-10 members by the SLPP. 

Nevertheless, the G-10 leaders have expressed views that the criticism levelled against them is being carried out by Basil loyalists. 

Safeguarding rights

Meanwhile, the freedom of speech assured under Article 14 of the Constitution was last week quoted in court. 

The Colombo Magistrate’s Court had referred to Article 14 when Ceylon Petroleum Corporation’s (CPC) Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya Wing (JSS) Secretary Ananda Palitha was produced before the Court. 

He was produced before the Colombo Additional Magistrate. Palitha was represented by seven President’s Counsels (PCs). 

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had informed the Court that the suspect should not be granted bail and that if he was, he could continue to make statements that would further disrupt people’s lives. 

However, the Magistrate had pointed out to the CID that since the people are assured of freedom of speech under Article 14 (1) of the Constitution, expressing opinions based on factual information is not a matter for remand. 

He was released on two sureties of Rs. 1 million each by Colombo Additional Magistrate Lochani Abeywickrema. 

Palitha was arrested by the CID from the Wattala area last Saturday (21) following a complaint by the CPC on a statement made by him about an impending fuel shortage. 

Palitha told the media recently that the stock of diesel in hand would suffice only for 11 days, while petrol would be sufficient for 10 days. 

Srinath Perera PC, appearing for the suspect, had pointed out that Petroleum Minister Gammanpila had stated that there is a fuel crisis in the country, and it is not wrong for Ananda Palitha to make such a statement based on facts. 

The case has been rescheduled for 29 September. 

JSC responds to allegations

Meanwhile, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), which has been a topic of discussion following a controversial webinar held recently, has stated that the webinar for judicial officers including magistrates had not been organised by the JSC, but by the Sri Lanka Judges’ Institute (SLJI). 

The JSC, it is learnt, had further emphasised that it does not get involved in any activity that is not based on the powers vested in them through the Constitution. 

The Justice Ministry Secretary had communicated these facts to the Government Information Department Director General in a letter dated 23 August. 

The letter reportedly contains the clarification provided by the JSC to the Justice Ministry upon being asked about the controversial webinar by the Ministry, due to a question raised in Parliament by National Freedom Front (NFF) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. 

According to the JSC’s response, webinars of this nature are routinely conducted to give important information to judges, and this particular webinar had been conducted to inform judges on the subject of the Covid-19 regulations put forth by the Health Ministry. 

A letter that was circulated on social media recently had stated that the JSC had conducted a webinar titled, “Matters relating to judicial proceedings in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic” on 13 August. The letter had stated that the JSC, comprising Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya and Justices Buwaneka Aluwihare, L.T.B. Dehideniya, and Mahinda Samayawardhena, had conducted the webinar on 13 August.  

Media reports stated that several magistrates had expressed concerns about the webinar, as it had implied subtle pressure on the judicial mind. 

The letter informing of the webinar had also stated that “failure to participate in this webinar will be taken into consideration when recommendations are made for promotions, annual salary increments, foreign training, and appointment to High Court”. 

However, according to the JSC, the letter’s template has been in use for the past 10 years and the webinars conducted by the SLJI are funded by taxpayer money. Hence, attendance is monitored to ensure that public funds are not wasted.  

Focus on attacks probe

The Catholic Church, meanwhile, continued to exert pressure on the Government, demanding action over the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019. 

It last week urged authorities to inquire into the incident where several senior police officers met with the Chief Prelate of the Asgiri Chapter to express their grievances over alleged injustices faced by them due to the recommendations of the final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter Sunday terror attacks.  

National Catholic Social Communication Centre Director and Kurana St. Anne’s Church Parish Priest Rev. Fr. Cyril Gamini Fernando last week noted that it was unacceptable for police officers, who are tasked with ensuring law and order in the country, to go in uniform and inform religious leaders about private allegations levelled against them and to make media statements on behalf of themselves and not the Police force.  

Fernando observed that any person facing an allegation could clear their name through legal action. 

He further noted that the statement by some police officers that Sinhalese people are going to be punished for the Easter Sunday terror attacks was an attempt to create an ethnic conflict.  

On 19 August, senior police officers led by Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) Deshabandu Tennakoon and SDIG Nandana Munasinghe met with the Asgiri Chief Prelate, where they alluded to some injustice caused to certain police officials through the investigations into the terror attacks, particularly through the final report of the Political Commission of Inquiry (PCoI).  

SDIG Tennakoon, meanwhile, had stated that it was not easy to prevent a terrorist attack merely because intelligence is received to the effect. 

He had claimed that the Easter Sunday terror attacks were not the only terrorist attacks that could not be prevented despite receiving intelligence information. 

According to Tennakoon, intelligence information had been received with regard to the terror attacks on the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura, the Sri Dalada Maligawa (the Temple of the Tooth Relic) in Kandy, and many other locations during the war. 

“During the war period, many attacks could not be prevented despite the receival of intelligence information. That is the nature of terrorism, and police officials were not blamed at that time,” he had told the media. 

Tennakoon had claimed that it was unfair for the PCoI to have recommended a disciplinary inquiry be held against him since he was on leave during the Easter Sunday attacks. 

“I was on leave since 17 April 2019. Another official was assigned by the then Inspector General of Police (IGP) to cover my duties, but his name is not mentioned in the PCoI’s report,” he had added. 

Meanwhile, Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said last weekend that those who were behind the Easter Sunday carnage will face a similar fate like that of the blast victims. 

Speaking during a prayer service held at the Archbishop’s House chapel to commemorate the Easter Sunday victims, Cardinal Ranjith said those who commit those crimes will be punished, as it has been in the past. 

Meanwhile, several video clips circulated on social media platforms last week, particularly on Facebook, showing a group of people removing black flags hoisted in the Wattala area that were put up for the “black flag” protest organised by the Catholic Church on 21 August, demanding justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday terror attacks of 21 April 2019. 

EU’s GSP+ under scrutiny

With the EU’s GSP+ trade concessions to Sri Lanka under scrutiny, Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris had recently met Ambassador of the European Union Delegation to Sri Lanka Denis Chaibi at the Foreign Ministry.  

Chaibi recently said that a monitoring mission is expected in Sri Lanka towards the end of September. 

He further explained that GSP+ is an ongoing monitoring process and that the EU is in regular contact with the Sri Lankan Government in this regard. 

Minister Peiris discussed Sri Lanka’s wide-ranging co-operation with the EU in the political and economic spheres during the meeting with the EU Envoy. 

Attention was paid to Sri Lanka’s regular engagement within the EU-Sri Lanka Joint Commission framework, as well as constructive co-operation existing under the EU GSP+ monitoring process, including action underway by the Government on issues of relevance. 

Peiris had also noted the significance of EU-Sri Lanka trade relations which continue to be mutually beneficial with potential for further expansion. Matters related to co-operation in the fisheries sector were also discussed. 

The EU Parliament, through a resolution on 10 June, had expressed deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations and called for the abolition of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, No. 48 of 1979 (PTA).   

The European Parliament also requested the EU to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status and the benefits afforded by it, subsequent to the said resolution.    

Views expressed in the European Parliament in June highlighted the state of human rights in Sri Lanka, which was said to be gradually deteriorating, and noted that the Government was showing limited progress. It also stated concerns over the accelerating militarisation of civilian governmental functions, the reversal of important constitutional safeguards, the political obstruction of accountability, rhetoric to the effect of the exclusion of the minorities, the intimidation of civil society, and the use of anti-terrorism laws.  

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Ambassador to the EU Grace Asirwatham had recently stated that exports to the region were in an unfavourable position and warned that Sri Lanka would lose not only GSP+ but the export market in the region as well.  

She had made these observations during a recent webinar titled, “GSP+: Past, Present, Future”, which was organised by the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka and the Colombo Chamber of Commerce.  

Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa last week appointed an Advisory Board to advise him and make recommendations on the investigation, release, granting of bail, and future action related to persons imprisoned over terrorist activities and detained under detention orders. 

The Advisory Board was appointed as per the Section 13 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, No.48 of 1979.  

The Chairman of the Advisory Board is retired Chief Justice Asoka de Silva and includes retired High Court Judge A.A.R. Heiyanthuduwa and retired Solicitor General Suhada Gamalath. 

“Hitherto, the persons who have been imprisoned had no opportunity to make representations on their rights since an Advisory Board has not been established for a long time,” the President’s Media Division (PMD) stated.