“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.
Foreign Secretary sounds ‘consensual resolution’ as pressure mounts in Geneva
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Foreign Secretary Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage on Monday (25) night revealed that the government was having discussions with the UK-led Sri Lanka Core Group in a bid to explore the possibility of reaching a consensus on what he described as a ‘consensual resolution’ ahead of the 46th sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) scheduled for Feb-March this year.
Admiral Colombage acknowledged that an agreement on a consensual resolution was a politically challenging task. FS Colombage said so in conversation with Faraz Shauketaly on ‘News Line’ on TV 1.
Asked whether the government was under pressure to co-sponsor the new resolution or face a vote in case Sri Lanka rejected the UK-led move, the naval veteran said there was dialogue between the two parties in this regard. Talks have to be concluded today (27)
Prof. Colombage ruled out the possibility of Sri Lanka co-sponsoring the new resolution. The top Foreign Ministry official also dismissed the interviewer’s assertion the government was under pressure to accept the new resolution.
Admiral Colombage said they were also studying some suggestions made by the Core Group.
Asked whether the government would try to convince the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led political grouping that had demanded an international war crimes investigation in addition to a range of punitive measures to reverse its decision, FS Colombage emphasized that Sri Lanka waged war against an internationally proscribed terrorist group.
The interviewer sought the Foreign Secretary’s assertion of retired justice C.V. Wigneswaran, MP, who signed Jan. 15 dated petition, in his capacity as the leader of Tamil Makkal Thesiya Kutani (TMTK). Altogether, 13 lawmakers represented the three political parties that called for external intervention.
Declaring that serious war crimes hadn’t been committed during the war, FS Colombage questioned the motives of those continuing to harp on unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. Referring to the failure on the part of the Northern Provincial Council to spend the funds allocated for the benefit of the public, FS Colombage asked whether an agenda detrimental to post-war national reconciliation was being pursued.
In the wake of Sri Lanka quitting in Feb 2020 Geneva Resolution co-sponsored by the previous government against one’s own country in Oct 2015, Geneva has warned Sri Lanka of serious consequences. In addition to freezing assets and travel bans slapped on those who had been ‘credibly accused of human rights violations,’ Geneva recommended the launch of criminal proceedings at the International Criminal Court and an international mechanism to gather evidence.
Referring to the US travel ban imposed on Army Commander Gen. Shavendra Silva in Feb 2020, the interviewer sought the Foreign Secretary’s opinion on the Geneva report. Refuting allegations, Admiral Colombage alleged serious shortcomings, including factual errors.
Asked whether the recent appointment of a three-member Commission of Inquiry (CoI) chaired by Supreme Court Judge Nawaz to examine previous CoI reports et al wasn’t too late as well as insufficient just ahead of the 46th sessions, Admiral Colombage explained how eruption of first Covid-19 wave that resulted in the postponement of general elections scheduled for April 2020 caused serious setback to government efforts.
Commenting on simmering controversy over the Sri Lanka-India agreement on the East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo harbour, Admiral Colombage expressed confidence the issue could be resolved soon. The former Navy Chief categorically denied India’s valuable support to Sri Lanka at Geneva et al would be linked with agreement on ECT.
Responding to criticism directed at India over a spate of issues, including the forced imposition of the 13th Amendment thereby creating the Provincial Council system, Admiral Colombage pointed out the Tamil Nadu factor. Admiral Colombage, having reiterated President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s foreign policy statement, assured Sri Lanka’s commitment to friendly ties with major powers.
FS Colombage emphasized that Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations wouldn’t be at the expense of another country.
Admiral Colombage regretted the recent mid-sea collision involving an SLN Fast Attack Craft and an Indian fishing trawler that resulted in the deaths of four fishermen. The FS emphasized that the incident happened well within Sri Lankan waters near Delft Island.
Navy headquarters last week alleged that the Indian vessel collided with FAC while trying to flee a naval cordon.
Admiral Colombage said that the SLN vessel would have suffered serious damage if the Indian trawler happened to be one with a steel hull.
Asked whether US, India, Japan and Australia would take a common stand vis a vis Sri Lanka in respect of accountability issues, Admiral Colombage asserted that wouldn’t be the case. “Sri Lanka is important to them” Admiral Colombage said, while describing them as the four pillars of the Quad-a security alliance.
Commenting on the disclosures made by Lord Naseby in the House of Lords in Oct 2017, Admiral Colombage appreciated the British politician’s efforts to set the record straight as regards war crimes accusations. The Foreign Secretary said that the revelations were made on the basis of genuine and accurate sources.
The British Lord used classified wartime British HC cables (Jan – May 2009) obtained following a legal battle to counter Geneva accusations. Sri Lanka is yet to officially request Geneva to revisit the 2015 resolution on the basis of Lord Naseby’s revelations.
UK takes up forced cremation of Covid-19 victims
The UK has raised human rights concerns with Sri Lanka including forced cremation of COVID-19 victims.
High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Sarah Hulton OBE said in Tweeter message that the UN report in this regard is to be published next week and she would inform the approach to UN Human Rights Council.
“UK raising human rights concerns with Sri Lanka, including forced cremation of COVID19 victims. UN report to be published next week, will inform the approach to @UN_HRC,” she tweeted.
Electors unaware of electoral register revision process – CMEV
Text and pictures by PRIYAN DE SILVA
National Coordinator of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) Manjula Gajanayaka, who visited the polling districts of Puttlam and Vanni, last week, to look into allegation that more than 7,000 voters in the polling division of Mannar were to be struck off the electoral register, said that electors were unaware of the electoral register revision process. He called upon the Election Commission of Sri Lanka to take immediate steps to educate the public on what actually is taking place; he urged the political parties not to capitalise on the situation.
Additional Commissioner of Elections Rasika Pieris said that electoral registers had been revised annually in accordance with the Registration of Electors Act 44 of 1980 to make voting more convenient to the electors by assigning them to the polling stations closest to residences.
Pieris added that in addition to convenience there were many more advantages to be registered as an elector in the district one resides in.
Retired Irrigation Engineer A. L. Burhanudhdheen is a chief occupant that has received the Revision of Electoral Register Notice sent by the Assistant Election Commissioner, Mannar.
Burhanudhdeen had been a resident of Akaththimurippu, Mannar until being driven out by the LTTE in 1990. After being displaced he took refuge in Puttalam and at present lives in a modest house at Nagavillu, Puttlam.
Burhanudhdeen said that he visited his property in Mannar whenever it was possible, but was unable to construct a new house there due to financial constraints. He also said that whenever possible he and his family had exercised their right to vote in the polling district of Mannar up to the 2020 Parliamentary election. At the last presidential election they had been provided with transport while the Election Commission arranged for a cluster voting facility in Puttlam for the last Parliamentary election, he said.
Voicing his fears Burhanudhdeen said that he and his family might be struck off the electoral register in Mannar if their appeal was not accepted and added that they had not registered as voters of the Electoral District of Puttalam even though they were resident there.
Assistant Commissioner of Elections Mannar J. Jeniton said that taking action based on reports submitted by Grama Seva Niladharis nearly 10,000 revisions of election register notices had been sent by registered post to electors in the Mannar polling division.
Jeniton said that the majority of them were known to be persons who were forced to flee from their homes in 1990 due to the conflict. It had been found that they were not resident in that area, he added.
Jeniton said that about 700 persons had been requested to attend the inquiries and bring with them documents to prove their residence, but only 15 persons had been present.
Chairman of the Musalee Pradeshiya Sabha A.G.H. Subeeham said that 3,542 constituents in Musalee had been served with Revision of Electoral Register notices requesting them to explain why their names should not be struck off the electoral register. Subeeham said that he did not understand the basis on which the list had been compiled as even persons who had been resident in Musalee for the past 10 years had received such notices. He appealed to the authorities to give the IDPs a grace period of two years to resettle.
The polling districts of Mannar, Mulaitivu and Vavuniya make up the Vanni Electoral District and six Members of Parliament represent the District.
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