Editorial/Opinion

Trump sends confidential message to President Rajapaksa

  • Pompeo shares mobile number with President to keep in touch
  • SJB dismisses Diana’s claim of holding party stronghold
  • SJB to part ways with minority parties at the next national election
  • Workings on new constitution commence with call for public proposals

The highlight of last week was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s brief official visit to Sri Lanka. During the visit, he met with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, and there was much excitement leading up to Pompeo’s visit due to its timing and the pending US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, as well as Sri Lanka’s growing financial dependency on China.

Prime Minister (PM) Mahinda Rajapaksa was a notable absentee in Pompeo’s agenda for meetings during his visit.  

It is learnt that a meeting with PM Rajapaksa was not included in the final agenda, which was prepared by the Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs Ministry in consultation with the US Embassy in Colombo, despite indications to the contrary made at a media briefing held prior to the visit in Washington.

When contacted for clarification, PM’s Media Secretary Rohan Weliwita said neither the US Embassy in Colombo nor the Foreign Affairs Ministry had sought a time slot for Pompeo to the PM during his visit.

There was much speculation over the Prime Minister’s absence from the bilateral discussions. The tight-lipped nature with regard to the Prime Minister not holding an official discussion with the US official gave way to speculation that he had stayed away to appease the Chinese, who publicly expressed displeasure over Pompeo’s visit.

However, the discussions between Pompeo and the Sri Lankan administrators did not touch much on the topics that were believed to figure in the meetings. The former military/intelligence chief was efficient in steering what seemed like choppy seas in Sri Lanka quite candidly with pleasant engagements with the Sri Lankan side.  

What was seen was the US official striking a good relationship with the Sri Lankan officials, paving the way for more bilateral engagements.

The official discussions focused on security, economic development, and technology sector co-operation.

Pompeo arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday (27) evening from New Delhi where he held bilateral talks with the Indian leaders. He was received by State Minister Tharaka Balasuriya and Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage.

 , Pompeo said on Twitter soon after landing at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA).  

On Wednesday (28) morning, Pompeo met with President Rajapaksa for bilateral discussions.

The read-out from the US State Department noted that Pompeo, during the meeting with the President, had reaffirmed the US’ commitment to a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka and to advancing shared interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific region.   

The US official had also stressed the importance of strengthening democratic governance, human rights protections, and of fundamental freedoms to ensure long-term stability and prosperity. The two leaders agreed to remain in contact on issues of mutual concern, including co-operation on counterterrorism, and the post-pandemic economic recovery.  

It is learnt that after the official bilateral discussions, Pompeo had requested for a private one-on-one discussion with the President.

The message

Albeit brief, during the one-on-one between President Rajapaksa and Pompeo, the latter had conveyed a message from US President Donald Trump.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 28 October 2020. Photo President Media Unit

Pompeo had said that the Trump administration is now revising its foreign policies, especially with more emphasis being laid on strengthening relations with small nations. It was conveyed to the President that the US was now recalibrating its focus from the bigger nations to the smaller nations.

The US Secretary of State had said that his country wants to work more closely with Sri Lanka and that US companies will be requested to invest in Sri Lanka.

Afterwards, Pompeo had asked the President whether there was a specific industry that required development assistance.

The President had said there was a lot of scope for development in the country’s agriculture sector.  

Pompeo, who entered politics through the state of Kansas, had said that given his roots from an agricultural state, he understood very clearly the need to ensure a sustainable agriculture industry in the country.

Given Pompeo’s military background, he had inquired about President Rajapaksa’s military career and whether the President, during his military days, had attended any programmes in the US.

The President had then said that he had in fact participated in a programme at the Fort Benning military academy in the US, which Pompeo had also attended during his military career.

Striking a friendship through shared interests, both the President and Pompeo had agreed to keep in touch and further discuss development co-operation between the two countries.

Pompeo had then shared his mobile number with the President and concluded the conversation with a commitment to continue the engagement between the US and Sri Lanka.

Meeting the media

Following the meeting with the President, Pompeo visited the Foreign Ministry and met with Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, after which he met with the media.

Addressing the media, Pompeo refrained from making any specific comments on the reason for the visit but indicated that it was a visit that had to be cancelled on an earlier occasion.

Nevertheless, the visit seemed to focus primarily on countering China’s influence in Sri Lanka by reiterating the US’ commitment to the country’s development within a democratic framework and painting China as a “predatory” foreign power.

The presser was also held a day ahead of the 72nd anniversary of the establishment of US-Sri Lanka diplomatic relations.

Neither Gunawardena nor Pompeo divulged any specific details on the discussions held or on any agreements reached during the Sri Lankan visit.

It was stated that the fourth US-SL partnership dialogue would be held in early 2021, with the previous sessions having been held in May 2019 in Washington DC, and the second was that the next session of the US-Sri Lanka joint council of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) would be convened “at the earliest opportune time frame”.  

Subsequently, a press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the two parties agreed to “invigorate” the TIFA and the US GSP (Generalised Scheme of Preferences) facility.

Pompeo also expressed confidence that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would promote accountability, justice, and reconciliation. “In his victory speech last year, President Rajapaksa stated that he is the President of all citizens, and not of only those who voted for him. As our two nations move forward, the US is counting on those words to hold true. We fully expect Sri Lanka will fulfil its pledges to take meaningful, concrete steps to promote accountability, justice, and reconciliation.”

He added that wide-ranging discussions were held on security co-operation, which helps keep one of the world’s most vital sea lanes open.  

72nd anniversary of US-Sri Lanka diplomatic relations marked with a Press Conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 28 October 2020

Both Gunawardena and Pompeo referred to the US as a “friend” of Sri Lanka’s, with Gunawardena expressing gratitude for the US’ assistance of over $ 2 billion to Sri Lanka since Independence in 1948.

“The US has been a friend and assisting Sri Lanka in times of difficulty, and we remain deeply grateful for your support. The US’ assistance to Sri Lanka after the Asian tsunami in 2004 was significant. For the assistance in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019 and also most recently, for Covid-19 mitigation, especially, I extend my sincere thanks and appreciation once again for proscribing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorist organisation even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks up to now.”

Pompeo echoed these sentiments, stating that the US has donated just over $ 6 million in Covid-19 assistance to Sri Lanka and that earlier in the pandemic, Sri Lankan apparel manufacturers saw “hundreds of orders” for high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) from the US.  

Afterwards, Pompeo visited the St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, which was one of the worst-hit venues during the Easter Sunday attacks last year.

Pompeo was the first high-ranking foreign dignitary to visit the shrine and pay his respects to those killed there during the bombing.  

MCC out?

However, it seems that the controversial MCC Compact is either on hold or off the table altogether, following the discussions that took place during Pompeo’s visit.

The US-Sri Lanka relationship will not be affected even if Sri Lanka chooses not to avail itself of the MCC five-year, $ 480 million compact, Pompeo said.

“It’s one of many things that’s being offered. If it doesn’t make sense for Sri Lanka, then Sri Lankans will choose not to accept that. The strengths, the depths, and complexity of our relationship far exceed any one transaction and one opportunity. There will be plenty,” he noted.

“We will work closely on them alongside the Sri Lankan Government,” he said in an interview with electronic media.  

Cold war

Pompeo’s Sri Lankan visit has further exacerbated the ongoing US-China clash which commenced as a cold war and has now converted into a full-blown free-for-all.

The day before Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka commenced, China last Monday (26) issued a statement making its views clear on the upcoming visit and his remarks to the effect that Sri Lanka needs to make difficult but necessary decisions on its foreign relations. China also offered some advice to the US in terms of strengthening bilateral ties with Sri Lanka.  

Following is the statement issued by Spokesperson/Chief of Political Section, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Sri Lanka:

On 22 October, US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dean Thompson openly instigated and interfered in China-Sri Lanka relations during a press briefing on Secretary Pompeo’s upcoming visit, and even urged Sri Lanka “to make difficult but necessary decisions” on its foreign relations, which is a blatant violation of diplomatic protocols.  

On the next day, the Spokesperson of Chinese Foreign Ministry has responded strongly and stressed that the remarks of the US official were filled with cold war mentality and hegemonistic mindset doomed to fail, which fully exposed the consistent US practice of arbitrarily interfering in other countries’ domestic and foreign policies and forcing small and medium-sized countries to choose sides.

On local and international media inquiries, the Embassy further solemnly states as follows:  

  1. The people of China and Sri Lanka have a history of friendly exchanges for nearly 2,000 years. We have enough wisdom to handle relations with each other and do not need a third party to dictate. Even before the two countries established diplomatic relations with each other in the 1950s, we broke through the US blockade and sanctions, and signed the historical Rubber-Rice Pact. Today, in the 21st Century, it is more impossible for the two countries to succumb to the coercion of any external forces. As a sincere friend of the Sri Lankan people, China is happy to see the island developing healthy relations with other countries. However, we are firmly opposed to the United States taking the opportunity of the State Secretary’s visit to sow and interfere in China-Sri Lanka relations, and to coerce and bully Sri Lanka. It is hoped that the United States will face up to the just calls of the international community, face up to the popular base of China-Sri Lanka relations, face up to the real needs of the Sri Lankan people, “make difficult but necessary decisions”, and correct the ugly practices of arbitrarily interfering in other countries’ domestic and foreign affairs.  
  2. At the same time, we also sincerely advise the United States that true friends should put themselves in the other side’s shoes. Currently, Sri Lanka is facing the most severe challenge since the outbreak of Covid-19, and the local health system can no longer bear any imported risks. The United States has sent a large delegation and batches of advance teams into Sri Lanka when its own confirmed cases reached 8.8 million and the death toll surpassed 230,000, and made various requests for the visit and even for an emergent road construction. The general public are constantly questioning: Does this approach truly prove your respect to the host country? Is it helpful to local epidemic prevention and control? Is it in the interests of the Sri Lankan people?

III. Recently, a high-level Chinese delegation also visited Sri Lanka, bringing much needed assistance and support to Sri Lanka’s pandemic fighting and economic reviving. Furthermore, although the pandemic has already been effectively controlled in China, in order to minimise risks and respect the host country, the Chinese delegation still minimised its activities and personnel as much as possible, strictly abided by Sri Lanka’s epidemic prevention guidelines, and resolutely avoided any trouble to the host country. We are willing to share these practices with the United States, hoping to provide some reference for Mr. State Secretary’s visit and its handling of relations with small and medium-sized countries, the statement concluded.

It is in this backdrop that Pompeo in the joint press conference stated: “We see, from bad deals, violations of sovereignty, and lawlessness on the land and sea, the China Congress (Communist) Party as a predator. And the US comes in a different way. We come as a friend and as a partner.”

The Embassy of China in Colombo, meanwhile, hit back at the US State Secretary’s comments, tweeting:

However, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena stressed that Sri Lanka, as a sovereign, free, independent nation, will maintain a neutral, non-aligned, and friendly foreign policy.

President Rajapaksa also tweeted that Sri Lanka will not be embroiled in the conflicts between power blocs and insisted on maintaining a neutral stance in the country’s foreign policy.

JVP awakens

Last week also saw the one-time rabble-rousing Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) once again taking to the streets in protest against Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka claiming it to be part of the US imperialist agenda.

While the fact remains that Sri Lanka should firmly follow its non-aligned foreign policy and ensure that no foreign nation, be it the US, India, or China, is allowed to interfere in the country’s internal affairs, the JVP last week seems to have been woken up from a deep slumber it had enjoyed for quite some time.

After remaining silent for several years during visits of many foreign dignitaries including a recent visit of a high-level Chinese delegation to the country, the JVP seemingly has adopted “a better late than never” attitude when organising a protest outside the US Embassy last Tuesday, the day Pompeo arrived in the country.

While claiming that there were hidden agendas behind Pompeo’s visit, the JVP urged the US not to interfere with the independence and sovereignty of Sri Lanka.

JVP MP Vijitha Herath told the media outside the US Embassy in Colombo that the US has consistently resorted to bringing Sri Lanka under its sphere of influence and thereby dragging Sri Lanka into an unnecessary and costly global and regional power play.

He further alleged that the Sri Lankan Government held a hidden agenda of discussing the MCC pact with the visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“The President or the Prime Minister had not officially said that the MCC would not be signed. We are sure that the Government was planning to discuss the MCC pact,” he said.

“We are well aware that the US is willing to violate every democratic and international norm and principle when it comes to protecting its interests. World history is littered with far too many examples of the US’ bullying of independent nations that also include interference with elections, usurping of democratically elected leaders, and providing military and economic support for dictators and terrorist organisations,” the JVP stated in a letter handed over to the US Embassy last Tuesday.

The letter added that several critical military and trade agreements were pending which the US Government is pressuring the Government of Sri Lanka to enter into without proper accountability and due process.

“Unfortunately, the current Government of Sri Lanka has proven itself unable to maintain an independent and non-aligned stance on these issues. We find the statement by the US Government urging Sri Lanka to make ‘necessary but difficult decisions to secure its economic independence’ not just hypocritical (given that the US Government is making all efforts to undermine Sri Lanka’s political and economic independence!) but also threatening and deeply disrespectful of an independent and sovereign nation-state,” the letter noted.

“We categorically affirm that the people of Sri Lanka have no intention of tying its fortunes to a regime which has been violating every decent principle of international co-operation, collaboration, and diplomacy. We assert that we will take all steps in our power to resist the ambitions of the US Government to compromise our nation’s regional and international independence.

“We call upon the people of the US to join us in resisting imperious ambitions of any global power, including that of the US, and to work towards a system of international co-operation and collaboration that prioritises the interests and wellbeing of people and our planet,” the letter added.

SJB crises

Apart from Sri Lanka taking centre stage last week over the unfolding clash between the US and China in the Indian Ocean region, the country’s main Opposition, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), was still in the process of disentangling the mess that has been left behind following the vote on the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in Parliament.

With eight SJB MPs voting in favour of the piece of legislation, the party was pushed into a set of unexpected issues.

SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa decided to expel the errant MPs with immediate effect following the vote the previous week.

The decision was further followed up by Chief Opposition Whip SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella, in a letter addressed to Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena last Thursday (29), stating that nine MPs were expelled from the SJB and requesting that they be allocated seats in the Chamber from the Government side.

Kiriella told The Sunday Morning: “The MPs clearly dishonoured the three-line whip decision that the SJB took to vote against the 20th Amendment. We no longer recognise them as members of the Opposition, which is why I requested the Speaker to assign them seats on the Government side going forward.”

He stated that these MPs will no longer hold a position in the Parliamentary Committee of the Opposition, and in keeping with the SJB bylaws, an inquiry will be carried out on all nine members in the future and necessary disciplinary action will be taken thereafter.

When asked about the legal hold MP Diana Gamage claims to have over the SJB, Kiriella stated that the party’s Executive Committee shall take a decision over her actions, and that the leadership has the necessary paperwork to expel and remove her as a member from the SJB at any moment.

The nine MPs who were expelled from the SJB after voting in favour of the 20th Amendment as a whole or over Clause 17 that allowed a dual citizenship bearer to enter Parliament were; Diana Gamage (National List), A. Aravindh Kumar (Tamil Progressive Alliance/Up-Country People’s Front), Ishak Rahuman, Faizal Cassim (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress [SLMC]/National List), H.M.M. Harees (SLMC), M.S. Thowfeek, Naseer Ahamed (SLMC), A.A.S.M. Raheem (All Ceylon Makkal Congress [ACMC]), and S.M.M. Muszhaaraff (ACMC).

Meanwhile, it was revealed last weekend that the SLMC MPs who voted in support of the 20th Amendment, had reached an understanding with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa prior to the vote.

SLMC Deputy Leader H.M.M. Harees, who was among the four MPS to back the 20th Amendment, has said that several key issues were discussed with the Prime Minister and senior government members before the vote.

He told reporters in Kalmunai last Sunday (25) that the issues discussed related to the Muslim community, but maintained that most matters could not be revealed to the media as it was “sensitive”.

However, Harees asserted that the SLMC MPS who backed the 20th Amendment had no intention of joining the Government.

He had further stated that the four SLMC MPS who voted for the 20th Amendment had the support of Party Leader Rauff Hakeem and that Hakeem had allowed the MPs to vote according to their conscience.

Parting ways

Given what has transpired since the Second and Third Reading votes on the 20th Amendment, it is evident that the SJB and its leadership are left with no choice but to make some hard decisions.

It is learnt that despite claims by MP Gamage that she and her husband wrest control of the SJB since it is a conversion of the party – Ape Jathika Peramuna – initially held by them (Gamage and husband), the SJB maintains that the duo does not hold any legal stronghold of the party.

SJB General Secretary MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara maintained that the party was officially handed over to the SJB by both Gamage and her husband and they were now merely the Assistant Secretary and Assistant Secretary, respectively.  

When asked whether the transfer of the party had been carried out in an official manner and been recognised by the Election Commission, Madduma Bandara maintained everything was in order.

He further maintained that of the 25-member Executive Committee of the SJB, 23 members were pro-SJB and Premadasa, leaving only Gamage and her husband on the other side.

Madduma Bandara added that the SJB, led by Premadasa, held nine key official posts in the party as well.

According to him, the SJB would definitely sack Gamage from the party.

It is now learnt that not only Gamage and her husband, but the SJB is also looking at parting ways with the minority coalition partners – the SLMC, ACMC, and Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA).

Although no immediate action would be taken to sack the parties from the SJB, the SJB seniors have reached a decision that the party should build its base among the minority communities without depending on other political parties that have their own agendas.

According to Kiriella, the matter of depending on parties like the SLMC, ACMC, and TPA to bring in minority votes for main parties was a result of bad political decisions made by United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

It is believed that Wickremesinghe had outsourced the UNP’s vote base in the East to the SLMC and ACMC, while in the estate sector, it was assigned to parties in the TPA.

“There have been many UNP members those days who complained of being sidelined due to the prominence given by the UNP at the time to minority parties. We plan to change this,” Kiriella said.

The SJB seems to be paving a new path for itself by working towards building its own political strength amongst the minority communities.  

Constitution making

Amidst all the political drama, Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena ratified the 20th Amendment Act last Thursday (29).

The new constitutional amendment will now be considered as the law of the country with immediate effect, Parliament Deputy Secretary General and Chief of Staff Neil Iddawela stated.

The existence of the Constitutional Council has now come to an end with all provisions of the Amendment (law) now becoming operational.

The draft bill was signed at the Office of the Speaker in the presence of the Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General of Parliament.

Apart from the abolition of the Constitutional Council, several other major constitutional changes including the following will take place with the introduction of the new Amendment:

Under the observation of Parliament, the President possesses the power to appoint the Chief Justice, justices to the Supreme Court, President of the Court of Appeal and its judges, the Attorney General, the Inspector General of Police, the Auditor General, and the Ombudsman.

The Article which says the President shall, on the advice of the Prime Minister, appoint from among MPs the ministers to be in charge of ministries will be repealed in the 20th Amendment, and the President will have the power to appoint the Prime Minister and the ministers at his discretion.

The President also possesses the power to hold a ministerial post under his purview.

The number of Election Commission members has been revised to five and the President is given the power to appoint members of the election body as well as its Chairman.

The President has been empowered by the new constitutional Amendment to dissolve Parliament after two-and-a-half years of its sitting, amending the previous Article which stated that Parliament could not be dissolved until four-and-a-half years of its sitting.

The Constitutional Council will be abolished and instead the Parliamentary Council has been introduced.

Being a dual citizen will no longer serve as a disqualification to run for the presidency or contest a parliamentary election, as the barrier was removed by the newly passed Amendment.

The power to appoint heads of departments is now vested with the Cabinet.

Through the 20th Amendment, the number of Supreme Court judges has been increased from 11 to 17 while the number of Court of Appeal justices was raised from 12 to 20.

Meanwhile, the process of formulating a new constitution is currently ongoing.

Justice Minister Ali Sabry told Parliament on the last day of the debate on the 20th Amendment to the Constitution that the Government would present the draft for a new constitution to the House within a year.

Winding up the debate, Sabry said that President Rajapaksa has appointed a nine-member expert committee, headed by Romesh De Silva PC to draft a new constitution.

“We will also allow a representative from the estate workers community in the Hill Country to this committee of experts. We have appointed experts from all walks of life into this committee. Every citizen shall be proud of this new constitution, one that will strengthen the Sri Lankan identity. Such a constitution will turn over a new leaf in our country’s progress,” Sabry said.

“We are dedicated to bring in a new constitution within a year’s time. Our attempt is to bring in a constitution which will embrace diversity among our people, give the foremost place to Buddhism, respect each other’s religious beliefs and cultural values, and create a long-lasting constitution which is inclusive, forward looking, and will serve as a catalyst for national unity, amity, progress, and accelerate the economic growth of our country,” he added.