MR rallies SLPP allies while Governmet hints at ‘no relief’ Budget this week

  • MR’s ‘secret’ speech at SLPP anniversary celebration a clear message to BR
  • Disgruntled Sabry prepares to resign; President declines to accept resignation
  • Opposition mounts over Ven. Gnanasara Thera’s ‘one country, one law’ PTF
  • Cabinet discusses growing concerns over decline in paddy cultivation this season
  • Bandula, Mahindananda, and Namal take on Sarath over conduct of Police
  • Secrecy clause in controversial Yugadanavi deal exposes a compounded issue

The Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa that was formed in August 2020 has had a bumpy road so far. Fourteen months down the line, all signs now indicate an even bumpier path ahead given the crises brewing on all sides, including within the Government.

Senior members of the Government were, last week, seen making comments critical of the Government while former Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa claimed that the present Cabinet of Ministers was a failure and that, due to the Government’s failures, there was no way to prevent an alternative force from emerging in the country.

It was in such a backdrop that Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s speech at the fifth anniversary celebrations of the governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) hit a home run among a section of SLPPers, especially the coalition allies.

The Premier noted that ensuring harmony within the Government was the responsibility of the SLPP.

He made this statement while addressing the attendees at the SLPP anniversary celebrations, which were held at the Nelum Pokuna last Tuesday (2).

“All our parties must be in harmony. Ensuring harmony within the Government is the responsibility of the SLPP. I believe the reason for this extended issue of teachers and principals was because we were away from politics. This is the same reason for the farmer protests. We need to understand the voice of the people, and we need to actively engage in politics while we are in power,” the Prime Minister stated.

He also said the party could not afford to alienate its minor allies, which have stood by it and worked for a common objective during difficult times.

Asserting that those parties were not aides or sidekicks of the SLPP, the Prime Minister noted that it was important to stand together with all.

Rajapaksa also noted that the youth, who were so hopeful after the present Government assumed office and who drew wall paintings in public places to express their hopes and aspirations, were queueing up to obtain passports to go abroad.

“The SLPP has to play a historic, futuristic role to win over such youths,” the Prime Minister added.

The Premier’s words, it seemed, were aimed directly at his younger brothers – the President and Finance Minister.

Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa had been on a collision path with SLPP allies, as he gave them the ultimatum of “toe the line or leave”.

The Premier’s words surprised many in the audience, and it is learnt that several senior members of the SLPP had tried to get hold of a copy of the Prime Minister’s speech prior to it being delivered at the anniversary celebrations.

Knowing the opposition that would arise from some of the SLPPers, including the party’s National Organiser, over the content of the speech, the shrewd politician in Mahinda Rajapaksa had taken all necessary measures to ensure that his actual speech for the occasion was not seen by any other individual, it is also learnt.

Sabry’s conundrum

The internal squabbles between the governing alliance partners were last week eclipsed by the open displeasure expressed by Justice Minister Ali Sabry PC over the appointment of the “one country, one law” Presidential Task Force (PTF) led by controversial MP Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera.

Sabry claimed that he was completely in the dark over Ven. Gnanasara’s appointment as the head of the respective task force, as the matter was not discussed with him.

Officials at the Justice Ministry informed the Minister that the task force directly infringed on the legal reforms process that was initiated by Sabry.

Since assuming the portfolio of Justice Minister, Sabry commenced a legal reforms process more thorough and meticulous than those pursued by his predecessors in any recent government, including Nimal Siripala de Silva, Thalatha Athukorala, and Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. Under Ali Sabry’s leadership, the Justice Ministry aggressively pursued much-vaunted reforms to several laws core to the Sri Lankan justice system, until the appointment of the one country, one law PTF undercut the authority and credibility of his Ministry’s efforts in a single blow.

Since the President was on an official tour in Glasgow, Sabry met with Prime Minister Rajapaksa last Wednesday (3) and expressed his displeasure over the incident, and noted there was no point in holding the justice portfolio if incidents such as the appointment of the controversial PTF were to take place without his knowledge, undermining him.

The Prime Minister tried his best to pacify Sabry and asked him not to make any hasty decisions. He asked Sabry to wait until the matter was discussed with the President.

Sabry met with the President last Friday (5) with his letter of resignation in hand.

The meeting was lengthy and lasted over two hours. During the meeting, it is learnt, Sabry had voiced his concerns over the appointment of Ven. Gnanasara Thera’s PTF.

Sabry had informed the President of the displeasure expressed by the legal fraternity over the PTF and the concerns of the minority communities over the composition of the PTF.

Sabry had told the President that he was prepared to resign from his party membership, parliamentary seat, and justice portfolio.

President Rajapaksa had said the PTF was not aimed at slighting the Justice Minister or the law reforms process initiated by him. He had noted that the PTF was not to form laws, but to provide a concept document on the one country, one law policy.

The President had refused to accept Sabry’s resignation letter.

Since Ven. Gnanasara Thera’s appointment, Sabry faced much criticism from officials in his Ministry, and it is learnt that Sabry faced massive protest from the Muslim community as well, compelling him to rethink the viability of retaining his cabinet portfolio.

Sabry was also a notable absentee at last week’s Cabinet meeting.

Paddy concerns for Cabinet

The Cabinet of Ministers last Monday (1) focused attention on the growing dissent among farmers, as well as the issue of farmers deciding not to cultivate paddy during this Maha season.

It was Finance Minister Rajapaksa who raised the issue, noting that it was a growing concern due to the impending rice shortage that would be prevalent next year.

Basil informed the Cabinet that there was a growing issue in paddy cultivation, as reports received by him had indicated that one-third of the paddy farmers had not cultivated their lands this Maha season. He explained that paddy cultivation could not be carried out if it’s not done during the ongoing rainy season.

“This issue will result in a rice shortage during the April New Year season, and, given the current state of the economy, we will not be able to import the required quantities of rice as well,” Rajapaksa further noted.

“Apart from the Northern and Eastern Provinces and the Kurunegala District, there are issues in paddy cultivation,” he added.

Finance Minister Rajapaksa then turned to Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage and asked him to push the farmers to cultivate their paddy lands, as it was his responsibility as the Minister in Charge.

Aluthgamage responded that there were over 100,000 paddy farmers in the country, and that it was not possible for him to compel these farmers to engage in paddy cultivation.

Several cabinet ministers noted that the ongoing fertiliser issue was one of the main issues plaguing the farming community.

Aluthgamage explained that the Government had taken measures to distribute organic fertiliser among the farmers.

The rest of the ministers noted that, despite the distribution and propaganda campaigns carried out by the State, the farming community was not prepared to accept it. “The farmers claim they are not aware of its usage and suitability for the soil and crops,” several ministers noted.

However, the issue ended with the decision that the growing crisis should be taken up for discussion during a meeting presided by the President.

Sarath under fire

The last cabinet meeting also saw Law and Order Minister Sarath Weerasekera facing much flak over the actions of the Police.

Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardana complained to Weerasekera that he had lodged a complaint with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) against the former Director General of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) after he had alleged that Gunawardana had robbed money; and instead of probing the complaint, two officers investigating the complaint had been transferred.

According to Gunawardana, the two police personnel who were transferred were those who had taken down his statement.

“If this is my plight being a minister, I can imagine the plight of ordinary citizens when they lodge complaints,” he added.

Weerasekera immediately called the CID Director during the meeting and inquired about the allegation levelled by Gunawardana at the Cabinet. He asked whether two CID officers probing Gunawardana’s complaint were transferred. The CID Director had responded saying there had not been any such transfers and that the probe was ongoing.

Aluthgamage quipped in saying that the police force was working against the incumbent Government.

He explained that even by 2021, there has been no progress on the complaints lodged by him regarding the top 10 corrupt ministers of the former Yahapalana Government in 2018.

The next to speak was Minister Namal Rajapaksa, who said that the Police took prompt action and conducted investigations within 24 hours during the former Government.

He then questioned what had happened to the efficiency of the police force.

After listening to the growing criticism against police personnel, Weerasekera said that he should be informed of any issue related to the Police force, and that he would respond with facts within 24 hours.

Gearing for 2022 Budget

Meanwhile, the Government will likely face more opposition during the impending 2022 Budget presentation scheduled for the coming Friday (12).

It is learnt that the Government was looking to forgo providing the usual budget goodies in the form of various relief proposals.

Senior government sources said the 2022 Budget would focus on getting foreign fund inflows to the country through development projects, as well as strategic enterprise development.

Last week, Finance Minister Rajapaksa, referring to the impending budget proposals, said the Government would have to “take” from the people instead of “give” to the people.

“The 2022 Budget is a secret. The people will not gain anything. Instead, we will be taking from them,” Rajapaksa told the media.

Also, President’s Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, last Tuesday, told the media that a budget proposal, with a new vision and programme that goes beyond the traditional budget proposals, would be presented this year for the 2022 financial year. 

In order to prepare the public for the Government’s move to slash any public relief in the impending Budget, several government ministers made comments publicly last week that there would not be any relief in the budget.

Yugadanavi controversy continues

Amidst the many fires raging around and within the Government, the agitation over the controversial Yugadanavi deal with US-based New Fortress Energy Inc. (NFE) continued.

Trade unions representing the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) carried out a protest from 12 p.m. last Wednesday at their respective offices.

CEB United Trade Union Alliance Convener Ranjan Jayalal had said the protests would take place at the respective headquarters of the three state-owned enterprises. 

The protest campaign was carried out despite the CEB management’s announcement that all staff leave had been cancelled until further notice.

“All employees will take sick leave and be in Colombo for the protest, where we also hope to hand in a petition to the relevant authorities,” Jayalal told the media.

Jayalal further noted that the joint trade union alliance would also eventually engage in trade union strike action if the Government failed to suspend the sale of the Treasury’s 40% stake in the Yugadanavi liquefied natural gas (LNG) power plant to NFE. 

Meanwhile, the governing coalition parties, or the People’s Council that held a meeting on 29 October, were yet to reach an agreement on what its proposals would be regarding the Government’s controversial agreement with NFE.

The governing coalition party leaders were asked to submit their proposals on the controversial Yugadanavi deal, which was to be looked at before the finalisation of the agreement during a meeting at Temple Trees with President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Rajapaksa on 28 October.

However, the People’s Council, led by the Ministers Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, and Vasudeva Nanayakkara heavily criticised the agreement between the Government and NFE.

It is in this backdrop that CEB Chairman M.M.C. Ferdinando, last Wednesday, told the media that there was a condition in the agreement where it had been stated that it should not be disclosed without the consent of both parties. He noted that this was why the agreement was not publicised.

“The agreement has not even been presented to the CEB yet. As far as I know, the Treasury has sought advice from the Attorney General on whether there would be any issue for the State if the content of the agreement was disclosed,” the Chairman said.

He said it was a commercial agreement, and that there would be negative impacts if unauthorised persons got hold of such agreements.

Speaking of the issue of the LNG monopoly that would be held by NFE, Ferdinando noted: “On 5 July 2021, the Treasury Department and New Fortress Energy Inc. signed a framework agreement. (The) Cabinet of Ministers’ approval was given for this. Based on that framework agreement, as an extension of it, a share sales and purchase agreement (SSPA) was signed about the sale of the 40% of the shares owned by the Government of Sri Lanka. This was a non-binding instrument, which also included a non-binding term sheet about the purchase and supply of LNG. This does not create a monopoly. That agreement says that the gas is purchased by a state corporation, which includes the Treasury Secretary and the Power Ministry Secretary, amongst other individuals. This state corporation will import and distribute natural gas to Sri Lanka. New Fortress Energy Inc. will only sell gas based on the price agreed (upon) together with this state corporation. They will not be allowed to import or distribute gas. The import licence will be given to the state corporation.”

However, in a press release issued in September 2021, NFE said it would acquire 40% of the shares at the 310 megawatts (MW) Yugadanavi Power Plant in Colombo, and that as part of the agreement, it would also provide about 1.2 million gallons of LNG to the Government per day, through an LNG terminal which would be built off the shores of Colombo. “New Fortress Energy Inc. will acquire a 40% ownership stake and plan to build an offshore LNG receiving, storage, and regasification terminal located off the coast of Colombo. New Fortress Energy Inc. will initially provide the equivalent of an estimated 1.2 million gallons of LNG (35,000 metric million British thermal unit [MMBtu]) per day to the Government of Sri Lanka, with the expectation of significant growth as new power plants become operational,” the statement noted.

Meanwhile, Power Ministry Additional Secretary Dr. Susantha Perera, responding to allegations that a transparent tender process was not followed to grant the aforementioned deal to NFE, said that a tender process was not required by law. “The tender process currently occurs through guidelines which were approved in 2006 by the then Cabinet. However, that is not the law. Those are just guidelines. The President of the country can decide, depending on the situation, such as the needs of the country or international agreements and understandings, that the tender process does not need to be adhered to,” Dr. Perera noted.

However, it is learnt that according to existing laws in the country, an agreement of this nature cannot be publicised prior to its conclusion and only after conclusion. Given the Right to Information (RTI) laws in the country, there are doubts over the legality of an agreement with a clause that prevents the public from knowing the content.

G-10 under fire

However, the group of 10 (G-10) governing alliance leaders who had spoken against the arbitrary actions of the Government were under pressure by their SLPP colleagues to leave the coalition government.

Last week, several cabinet and state ministers made public statements against the G-10 and its actions.

Refuting the claims made by the G-10 on the Yugadanavi deal, Minister of Power Gamini Lokuge said that politicians should not provoke people when the country was at a critical juncture, and that they should instead act to take the country forward by protecting it.

He told the media that they should not speak to the gallery but take action to develop the country by reviving the economy.

“Ministers Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, and Vasudeva Nanayakkara should not speak to the gallery. It is easy to speak to the gallery. It is better if they criticise the Government after stepping out of the Government. Our party also has discipline. We cannot allow them to go astray,” the Minister said.

Lokuge noted that the three ministers did not object to the transfer of the 40% stake of the Kerawalapitiya power plant to a US company during the recent meeting at Temple Trees.

He said that if they wanted to create a path to future leadership or presidential dreams by talking to the gallery, they could do so, but that the SLPP would not allow them to do it while being in the Government.

Catholic Church stands firm

Meanwhile, National Catholic Centre for Social Communication Director and St. Anne’s Church, Kurana Parish Priest Rev. Fr. Cyril Gamini Fernando last Tuesday (2) filed a fundamental rights (FR) petition in the Supreme Court seeking an order staying the CID, Inspector General of Police (IGP) Chandana D. Wickramaratne, and any other police officer from arresting him.

CID Special Unit Officer-in-Charge (OIC) Chief Inspector of Police (CI) Lalitha Dissanayake, CID Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Rohan Premaratne, CID Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) W. Thilakaratne, IGP Wickramaratne, State Intelligence Service (SIS) Director Maj. Gen. Suresh Sallay, Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, and Attorney General (AG) Sanjay Rajaratnam PC were named as respondents in the petition.

Fr. Fernando had stated in the petition that he had been summoned to appear before the CID last Wednesday (3) at 9.30 a.m. He was earlier issued summons to appear before the CID on 28 October to record a statement regarding a complaint made by Maj. Gen. Sallay, and he (Fr. Fernando) then requested a period of one week to appear before the CID. 

He had further claimed that the purpose of CI Dissanayake, who is the first respondent, in sending a notice requesting him (Fr. Fernando) to appear before the CID on 28 October without disclosing the fact that he was being suspected of having committed serious offences, was not only for the purpose of recording a statement from him, but also for arresting him when he appeared before the CID.

“The petitioner also believes that the purpose of CI Dissanayake in planning to arrest him (Fr. Fernando) is for the purpose of stifling the Catholic clergy and the public expressing their opinion on the Easter Sunday massacre (a series of bomb blasts that took place on 21 April 2019) and thereby preventing everyone from agitating for the truth behind the Easter Sunday terror attacks,” the petition had stated.

The petition had also stated that Fr. Fernando was ready to co-operate in whatever investigation CI Dissanayake carried out, as long as the latter or any other police officer did not make an unlawful arrest.

Claiming that there was a high likelihood of him being arrested when he appeared before the CID on Wednesday, Fr. Fernando had stated that there was an imminent danger of the fundamental rights guaranteed to him under Article 12 (1), Article 13 (1), and Article 14 (1) (a) of the Constitution, which deal with equality and equal protection of the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and freedom of speech and expression including publication, respectively, being infringed.

“If the aforesaid stay order is not granted and if the petitioner is arrested by the above-mentioned first four respondents, or by any other police officer acting on the directions of the four said respondents, irreparable damage would be caused to the petitioner,” the petition had further read.

Also, Fr. Fernando, who was scheduled to appear before the CID last Wednesday, had informed the CID that he would not appear before them, as an FR petition had been filed before the Supreme Court.

A letter to CID Special Unit OIC CI Dissanayake by Fr. Fernando’s legal representatives had read: “Our client has already filed a FR application in the SC complaining that there is an imminent infringement of the FR guaranteed to him under Articles 12 (equality and equal protection), 13 (1) (freedom from arbitrary arrest), and 14 (1) (a) (speech and expression) of the Constitution, when he appears before the CID.”

The Supreme Court last week announced that Fr. Fernando’s FR petition would be taken up tomorrow (8).

Meanwhile, Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Cardinal Ranjith had stated that victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks were only seeking justice and not money or any other privileges.

These comments were made by Cardinal Ranjith when addressing a function at St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, one of the targets of the Easter Sunday terror attack.

He also said: “We do not expect a lot of money or anything to be built. We only want justice to be served.”

According to Cardinal Ranjith, justice for the Easter Sunday terror attack was not expected from anyone as a gift, and he said it was the victims’ right to know the truth.

“We have always been saying only one thing. That is, we need to know why these people were killed for no reason. It is our right and not a gift given to us by anyone. We requested the leaders of the country again and again to reveal the full story behind this attack. We, therefore, would like to remind that to the leader; leaders of this country. We want justice to be served. That’s all we expect,” he added.

Meanwhile, Minister Weerasekera told the media last week that all investigations carried out by the Police regarding the Easter Sunday terror attacks had been completed.

Under fire

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) last Tuesday, in a letter to President Rajapaksa, said that the new PTF for “one country, one law” would usurp the functions of many institutions which were already established under the Constitution, including the Parliament and the Ministry of Justice.

“The appointment of a task force to oversee the work of the Ministry of Justice is, in view of the BASL, improper and outside the accepted framework for lawmaking. Any alienation of what are proper functions of the duly elected legislators and proper legally mandated executive functionaries by relocating their functions elsewhere, involves erosion of the sovereignty of the people. The BASL is of the view that no useful purpose would be served by the creation and appointment of the aforesaid task force,” the letter stated.

The BASL had noted the seriousness of preparing draft legislation and studying existing legislation, which involves several state institutions, including the AG’s Department, and had identified concerns with the role the PTF would play vis-à-vis the AG and his officers.

“The BASL further observes that the task force itself is not a representative body, given that it has no female representation nor representation from several ethnic groups and religious groups in the country. Serious doubts also exist as to the qualifications, expertise, and suitability of the Chairperson of the task force and of many of its members to engage in the functions described in the gazette,” it further stated.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Sri Lanka, following a meeting with Catholic parliamentarians, both from the Government and the Opposition, last week expressed its deep concern over the “erosion” of the democratic principles and values in Sri Lanka.

In a media release, the Conference noted that despite the promise made by the President and the Government before and after the elections, the formulation of a new constitution for the country had been put on the back-burner with the adoption of the “unholy and manipulative” 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

“It is being exploited beyond its limit, to the detriment of the wellbeing of the country,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference noted.

It went on to note that no one would oppose the one country, one law objective in governance, provided it stemmed as a corollary of the Constitution of this country. 

However, it was noted that to appoint a PTF comprising hand-picked individuals from outside without any reference to the democratically elected legislature was “unacceptable”, as the parliamentary process had been ignored in a matter of such grave concern.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Sri Lanka also said that leaving out the Tamils/Hindus and Catholics/Christians, the two minority groups in the representation of the task force, to study the implementation to achieve the purported objective of the one country, one law concept “makes no sense”.

Referring to the appointment of Ven. Gnanasara Thera as the Chairperson of the PTA, the Conference stated that to appoint a person without giving any consideration to his past records added insult to injury.

The statement issued by the Conference elaborated that it was their considered view that the relevant gazette be repealed and a new constitution be formulated which will give a guarantee to all citizens to stand equal before the law.

Meanwhile, Ven. Gnanasara Thera stated that even though the said task force chaired by him could not make laws, it would expedite the process of bringing about legal reforms that had been delayed due to various unscientific processes and political influences in the past.

Speaking to the media at the Presidential Media Centre (PMC) last Monday (1), the monk stated: “At present, even laws and regulations that have been drafted on issues that are hotly debated in society have not been passed. As a presidential task force, we don’t make laws, but we hope to speed up the process.”

Claiming that many parties including the Buddhist clergy have, in the past, fought for these issues, the legal reforms process, however, had not been able to proceed properly due to the lack of speed on the part of the parties involved. He alleged that various unscientific processes and political influences were the main reasons for this.

Meanwhile, the media also questioned him regarding the criticism by various parties, including the parliamentary Opposition, regarding his appointment as the Chairman of the PTF.

The Thera responded saying: “There is nothing to say about the government and Opposition parties that talk about me. They are the reason for all this. The reason why President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed this task force is because they have not fulfilled their responsibilities properly.”

During the discussion, he was also questioned about the composition of the PTF, especially the lack of representation of the Tamil community, to which he said that the task force should be appreciated if it is to function properly without any racial or religious differences.

People’s Tribunal

“The People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists” located in The Hague, the Netherlands last Tuesday launched its tribunal to indict the Government of Sri Lanka over the assassination of slain Editor of The Sunday Leader newspaper Lasantha Wickrematunge and its prolonged failure to bring his murderers to justice.

The launch of the tribunal also coincided with the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.

In addition to Wickrematunge’s murder, the Tribunal, launched by Free Press Unlimited, Reporters Without Borders, and Committee to Protect Journalists, will inquire into the murders of two other journalists, namely Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Turkey, and Maltese journalist Daphne Anne Caruana Galizia, who was assassinated in Malta. Khashoggi’s girlfriend and Galizia’s son are also scheduled to testify.

The Wickrematunge murder case was heard first, at which his daughter Ahimsa Wickrematunge, who has been fighting to bring her father’s killers to justice, also testified. In a tweet, she said that she was honoured to support the Tribunal.

The Hague is also where the International Criminal Court is located.

The project, titled “A Safer World for the Truth”, is a collaboration between Free Press Unlimited, a press freedom organisation based in the Netherlands, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders.

According to the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists, since 1992, more than 1,400 journalists have been killed, and in eight out of 10 cases where a journalist is murdered, the killers go free.

Minister Weerasekera, meanwhile, had assured that justice will be served over the murder of editor and journalist Wickrematunge.

He made these statements during a televised interview with a prominent international media network.

“Definitely, justice will be done, and the culprits will be taken to book. If somebody has done a wrong thing, as per Buddhist theory, it says that even if you were out at sea or in space or inside a cave, you cannot escape. I believe in this,” the Minister said.

Wickrematunge was murdered on 8 January 2009 on the Attidiya Road in Ratmalana when he was on his way to The Sunday Leader office.