“We should have acted more prudently on SLMC issue’
by Saman Indrajith
Responding to criticism on moves to hand over the East Terminal of the Colombo Port to India’s Adani Group, Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, said that the government has not opted for the outright sale of national assets, but it should be borne in mind that many types of companies have to be considered when it comes to foreign investment.
“There are companies which provide management services and also firms that come as partner companies. We have not gone for outright sale of assets. We try to protect what we have and maintain our existing market, but we have to look 20-30 years ahead to remain globally competitive”, the Minister said in an interview with The Sunday Island.
Deals such as signing of the Hambantota port agreement by the previous regime would not happen under this government, he assured.
Asked about the controversial sacking of the president and four members of the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC), the Minister said: “I think we should have acted more prudently. It is one of those institutions manned by leading members of the medical profession in the country. We, as a party, had disagreements with the SLMC, but we never approved the way the members were removed”.
Q: However, the government stands accused in some quarters of doing exactly what it vehemently opposed when in the opposition.
There are ways to look at these issues. Take the withdrawal from the UNHRC resolutions, as an example. If we had given into pressure, it could have resulted in losing almost everything, but we stood up against it. Then it was said that our stand against it would distance Sri Lanka from the international community.
Nothing of the sort happened. Take the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) agreement issue as another example. We opposed it. Now, the US has announced that it would not proceed with it. Even the leader of the opposition now says he’s against it. These things will take their own time but at the end nothing detrimental will happen to our national interests. We are reviewing some projects that are stuck in the state sector. We have also suspended some projects.
There are some limitations to progress. The President has made a decision that we must end the sin of producing thermal power. The losses incurred have been a huge burden on the treasury. We have options now to move from hydro power to other renewable options to generate electricity.
Q: What is your assessment of the current political situation?
The people gave an unprecedented mandate to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and our government because they have trust and confidence in our ability to deliver and our unwavering commitment when it comes to national security.
The composition of the opposition also changed because never in history have the people voted the UNP out of parliament. There were times when they voted out UNP governments but not the entire party. Some of those who had been in the UNP having realized the cardinal mistakes their party made left it to join other parties or to form new parties. The opposition missed the opportunity of working with the government for the sake of the country even after the President expressed his readiness to work with them.
When the new government came to power following the presidential election victory in November 2019, there were a lot of arrears to be settled and loan commitments of the former government to be honored. So we submitted to parliament a supplementary estimate for the purpose of cleaning up the mess they had created. Instead of supporting us, they plotted till the last moment to put the government in difficulty.
The President understood their intentions and decided to call for a general election as soon as he could. In that election, we received an overwhelming mandate from the people. The electoral results of the North also changed this time. The TNA campaigned as the ‘one and only representative of the Tamil people’, but the people of the North this time sent some elected members from new parties.
An entirely new situation has been created in the polity and we have a clear and strong mandate to solve any issue democratically under Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. We, as a government have identified our responsibilities and obligations, to develop the country in the next five years.
Q: The confidence of the people you once commanded seems to be eroding fast in the context of surging Covid-19 pandemic situation.
The masses have reposed tremendous confidence on us. That public confidence got a boost following both local and international accolades we won by successfully managing the pandemic. Coronavirus is a problem affecting the whole world. The world will never return to the pre-Covid-19 economy again. The post-Covid situation will be different from country to country and region to region on the basis of economic survival factors.
We faced the general election under the corona threat. At that time too, the opposition said we had lost the popularity we commanded. But, at the presidential polls, the government won impressively with a two-thirds majority. Once again, there is criticism against the government. While accepting the fact that there is criticism, we must also assess from what quarter such criticisms emerge.
The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government does not have wavering policies. Our policies on foreign relations and national security are not shaky, but are on firm ground. The criticism comes from those who did not have such policies. So it is reasonable for them to make statements that the confidence of the people in us is eroding, but the truth is far from it.
Q: The MEP is one of the very old parties in the ruling coalition. What is the role of the MEP in the present context?
The MEP in its long existence as a political force has always fought for upholding national interests. We gave priority to sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and to protect national interests. There is no change in that standpoint. Some parties now in the opposition did not accept the value of giving priority to national interests in the past but they too have been compelled to change their standpoints. We are a democratic party. We never took to arms. We, as a party, worked for the protection of all, including those who took up arms at one time and later abandoned it. We continue to stand for the promotion of an indigenous and local economy and local entrepreneurs.
Since its inception, our party we fought for the rights of the local entrepreneurs as we believe they should have a share in the national economy and that share should be increased. We also advocate the strengthening the public sector.
Q: It is claimed that cracks are appearing in the SLPP coalition as some of its partners are divided in opinion and unhappy particularly over the SLMC and the PUSCL issues.
We have a common program and a common objective. We have agreed on issues such as safeguarding national security, economic development, working for the betterment of the common man etc. For example, we will not let the national economy end up in the hands of a few. We have seen in the world how the economies of many countries similar to ours have been taken over by a few companies. Ours is a coalition government with many parties represented. They have freedom to make statements and express their opinions on various issues. It is a natural phenomenon the worldover. Many countries in the world today are governed by coalition governments. Member parties have the independence to maintain their diversity. It is democratic to maintain that diversity.
There is no issue big enough to break up this coalition. If you remember there were many disagreements when the 20th amendment was introduced, but everybody united in the end to see it through.
Q: There are concerns being raised about the provincial council election.
For any election, the existing electoral system has to be changed first. It has been accepted that the existing electoral system is a waste of public funds. There is consensus among all parties to do away with the existing electoral system. Apart from that, those in the government and the opposition mentioned in their manifestos that a new electoral system will be introduced.
When the time was up to conduct fresh provincial councils elections, the then (UNP) government brought a new bill against it. It also got the JVP and TNA to vote against holding elections. Following our opposition, the then speaker suspended parliament sittings to seek the advice of the then Attorney General, who is the incumbent Chief Justice. The Attorney General was of the view that if the government wanted to push ahead with some sections of the bill, then it would require two-thirds majority in parliament. The government of the day did not have two-thirds majority.
They waited till some MPs returned from abroad and rushed them to Parliament. The government also got the TNA and the JVP to vote with them. That was how they got the bill passed. Some of our new MPs do not know how this chaos was created. It was their creation. Now we cannot hold the elections as per the provisions of that bill. Scrapping that law does not activate the previous law. There is a need to bring about new laws which may take months.
Q: How do you see the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka, which was co-sponsored by then government?
While we were in the opposition, we said the resolution was detrimental to our national interests. The Yahapalana government used its vote against the country. It was against the constitution of the country. It also had an idea of contributing to the agenda to convert the country into a federal structure of governance. There are many inquiries from various countries and asking us what we have done after withdrawing from the resolution and results it produced. We have presented facts to support our decision.
Lord Naseby, the Honorary President of The All Party Parliamentary British Sri Lanka Group, said in the British House of Lords that the way the UK had acted with regard to Sri Lanka was wrong and if it continues to do so, that is also wrong. We have friendly countries; I think all countries are our friends.
Q: On foreign relations, where do we stand now?
The President, the Prime Minister and I visited India prior to the worsening of the coronavirus pandemic. The situation with regard to foreign relations is not what many have perceived to be. The Chinese Foreign Minister visited Sri Lanka followed by the Foreign Ministers of Russia. Japan and Pakistan. The US State Secretary also came here. The UK Foreign Minister spoke to us several times. All of them pledged their support to develop the country. The propaganda spread by the opposition is not the real story.
Q: There is speculation of a cabinet reshuffle in the offing.
I never worked for positions or to protect positions. We never engaged in politics with a power hungry motive. It is those who crave for power that somersault.
SJB: Excise, FM officials all out to pocket Rs 1 bn
By Saman Indrajith
Matara District SJB MP Buddhika Pathirana yesterday told Parliament that the Finance Ministry and Excise Department officials had misled Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and State Minister Ajith Nivard Cabraal in order to obtain billion rupees, fraudulently.
The officials had got a contract for printing stickers or barcodes to be displayed on bottles of liquor awarded to an Indian company.
“The project would result in one-billion-rupee loss to the government coffers annually,” the MP said, adding that the money being taken from the public purse would end up in the pockets of corrupt officials.
Pathirana said that the Excise Department had commenced a project to paste stickers on bottles of liquor to differentiate them from the fake and counterfeit bottles in the market.
“As per this project’s requirements, 32 million stickers would be needed per month. The stickers are to be purchased from Madras Security Printers company of India. This method was proposed in 2016 but it failed and the officials thereafter decided to introduce a barcode system.
“The cost of a sticker at 25 cents and the new barcode system will cost of two rupees a piece. This is a dubious deal. It seems that the Finance Ministry officials and the Excise Department heads have ganged up to give the contract to the Indian company and get commissions. There are many unanswered questions. First, the contract of printing the barcode too has been given to the MSP company, which could not secure the first contract. I want to know whether the proper procurement process has been followed. The second question is whether the barcodes would be up to the standards listed in the tender. Third question is who had selected the MSP company which is black-listed in India after being found guilty of frauds with Indian liquor companies in providing stickers to them. MSP has been blacklisted in many other countries. The company has been banned in Sudan and Liberia for supplying the stickers to private companies. The last question is whether this fraud is being committed with the knowledge of ministers of this government.”
Reserves fall to lowest since 2009, rupee strengthening to be short-lived: report
by Sanath Nanayakkare
Sri Lanka’s Foreign reserves had dropped to USD 4.1bn in March 2021, the lowest since August 2009, on the back of over US$ 4bn outstanding debt payment during April-December 2021 period, a report issued by First Capital Research yesterday said.
According to the report, rupee appreciation is likely to be short-lived considering Sri Lanka’s depleting foreign reserve position, high foreign currency debt repayment requirement and limited funding sources available in the market are expected to further increase depreciation pressure on the currency during 2Q and 3Q.
“We maintain our exchange rate target for 1H2021 at Rs. 196-202 with 2021 year-end target at Rs. 205-215 as mentioned in our ‘Investment Strategy 2021 – January 2021,” the report recalls.
“Sri Lankan rupee appreciated 5% against the US dollar over the last 2 market days reversing the continuous accelerated depreciation witnessed in January-April 2021. On 12th April, Sri Lankan rupee recorded a historical low of Rs. 201:1 US$. Ministry of Finance (MoF) reported on the same day that the government of Sri Lanka entered into a loan agreement with the China Development Bank (CDB) for US$ 500mn and MoF expected the funds to be disbursed during the same week. Following the announcement, the market registered a steep appreciation with mid-rate recording at Rs. 190.9 on April 19,” it says.
The total foreign debt repayment (capital and interest) for 2021 is US$ 6 bn, according to the report.
Meanwhile FC Research believes that the temporary appreciation in USD-LKR, may adversely impact earnings of export companies such as Hayleys, Haycarb, Dipped Products, MGT Knitting Mills, Teejay Lanka, Expolanka Holdings etc. in the short term.
“However, considering the potential future currency pressure, we expect an overall depreciation of approximately 12% for the rupee providing a significant gain for companies with foreign currency revenue”, FC research predicts.
Govt. asks Opposition not to propagate lies
By Saman Indrajith
Chief Government Whip and Highways Minister Johnston Fernando yesterday accused the Opposition MPs of abusing parliamentary privileges to mislead the public by propagating lies about the Easter Sunday terror attacks.
Addressing Parliament, Minister Fernando said: “The Opposition MPs level wild allegations in the House knowing that they have the cover of parliamentary privilege. If they have anything substantial or any knowledge of the perpetrators of the Easter attacks still not in custody they can go to the CID and lodge complaints so that such complaints could be investigated.”
Fernando said so after SJB Galle District MP Manusha Nanayakkara had told the House that he possessed evidence of those who carried out the Easter Sunday terror attacks.
Nanayakkara also said that the facts that he had were not in the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday carnage.
“You are making various statements regarding the Easter Sunday terror attacks in the Chamber without any proof because you know that you have Parliamentary privilege. You even quoted some statements which are not included in the PCoI report. How did you obtain such information? Why didn’t you complain about this to the CID in the first place? Your action is aimed at misleading the public,” the Minister said.
Minister Fernando said that the Opposition should stop insulting Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith by misinterpreting the latter’s statements.
“When you are in the Government you never said that this is a Buddhist country. Now you are insulting the Cardinal too. You should not do that,” the Minister said.
“The former Government should be responsible for the terror attack. Now we are trying to punish those who are responsible for it. We will take action against everyone who is responsible. You should support us, not try to obstruct the on-going investigations,” Minister Fernando said.
SJB: Excise, FM officials all out to pocket Rs 1 bn
Reserves fall to lowest since 2009, rupee strengthening to be short-lived: report
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