House watchdog committees paint a bleak picture as SLPP seeks passage of Colombo Port City Bill
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Justice Minister M.U.M. Ali Sabry, PC, on Sunday (18) declared that the commissioning of the Colombo Port City was an occasion to celebrate. Declaring that the high-profile project is turning point for post-war Sri Lanka, Minister Sabry explained how the mega project could transform the country.
Sabry, who had served as the Treasurer and as the Deputy President of the Bar Association (BASL) on many occasions, assured there was absolutely nothing to worry about the project.
Former President of the BASL U.R. de Silva, PC, Chief Advisor to the Justice Ministry, too, defended the project. Among those who defended the project were lawmakers Prof. G.L. Peiris, Keheliya Rambukwella, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Shehan Semasinghe and Namal Rajapaksa.
The government responded following an unexpected attack from former President of the BASL Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC. If the former Justice Minister, while being a member of the current administration’s parliamentary group, had not mounted such a frontal attack out of the blues, the government wouldn’t have had to mount such a strong defence of the Colombo Port City project. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, attack was followed by the BASL declaration that it would move the Supreme Court against the establishment of an Economic Commission (EC) to manage the Colombo Port City. Saliya Pieris, PC, in his capacity as the President of the BASL, moved the SC against the government move. In nearly 20 petitions filed against the proposed Bill, the defendant is Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC.
One-time internationally recognised top law academic Prof. Peiris emphasised that the proposed Bill was in line with the Constitution and received the sanction of the AG before being presented to the Cabinet of ministers.
It would be pertinent to mention that the CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Limited had been the main sponsor of the National Law Conference 2020 on Feb 14, 2020 at Jetwing Blue, Negombo, during the tenure of Kalinga Indatissa, PC, as the President of the BASL. The CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Limited had been among nearly 40 sponsors. USAID had been among the group. On the following day, Dr. Harsha Cabral, PC, and Dr. Asanga Gunawansa addressed the members on ‘Port City-Development of the law, local and international arbitration’. There were several related sessions which dealt with offshore financing, banking investment and FDI and its legal regime. Saliya Pieris and Manohara de Silva addressed the gathering on fundamental rights, labour laws and conflict of laws.
At the end of the inauguration of the event, on Feb 14, CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Limited distributed a 51-page report titled ‘Economic Impact Assessment of the Port City Colombo’ prepared by leading multinational audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (Pvt) Limited. The distribution of the report followed the briefing given by the CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Limited. In spite of the PricewaterhouseCoopers (Pvt) Limited declaring the report was meant for general guidance as regards matters of interest only and should be taken as investment advice, it presented an attractive picture of the project.
The Presence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, Attorney General Dappula de Livera PC and Justice Minister Sabry PC underscored the importance of the event. The writer was present on the occasion.
Clash over China project
All political parties should bear in mind that the current pathetic state of the economy cannot be blamed on China or any other country. If Parliament fulfilled its primary obligations as regards ensuring financial discipline and enactment of laws, the country wouldn’t have been in an extremely dicey situation, financially. Politicians now opposing the China led project, as well as those backing it, should keep in mind how the political parties, they represented ruined the national economy through their profligacy and downright mismanagement.
During the yahapalana administration, BASL received quite a bit of negative media coverage following revelation it received Rs 2.5 mn sponsorship from the disgraced Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) for the three-day Law Asia 2016 Golden Jubilee Conference in August, 2016 during President’s Counsel Geoffrey Alagaratnam’s tenure as its President. The sponsorship was accepted over a year after the first Treasury bond scam perpetrated in late Feb 2015 caused a national stir.
A section of the Opposition, some members of the civil society, and SLPP Colombo District MP Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, are up in arms over the proposed establishment of an Economic Commission (EC) to manage the Colombo Port City. Some trade unions, affiliated to political parties, too, are opposed to the move. As to how sincere their loud outcry is yet to be determined by the highest court in the land.
JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, compared what he called a future Chinese administration of the Colombo Port City with that of China-administered Hong Kong. The same JVP turned a blind eye when the yahapalana government with which they were then openly cavorting with, gave away the Hambantota Port on a platter to Beijing on a 99-year lease.
Those opposed to the proposed EC asserted that as the Colombo Port City would be outside the purview of Parliament, it wouldn’t be subjected to domestic laws. The Cabinet of ministers, recently sanctioned legislation that once gazetted and passed in Parliament it would enable the setting up of an EC.
Samagi Jana Balavegaya lawmaker Attorney-at-Law Lakshman Kiriella warned of the Colombo Port City becoming a federal structure beyond the financial control of the Central Bank, Monetary Board and the Finance Ministry. Among those who moved the Supreme Court against the proposed Bill are the BASL, Purawesi balaya, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), the JVP and the UNP. Three civil society activists, Oshala Herath, Dr. Ajantha Perera and Jegan Jegatheeswaran, too, filed cases.
Rebel lawmaker Wijeyadasa Rajapakse last Thursday (15) flayed the entire political system with the focus on the incumbent government over the move. MP Rajapakse basically repeated what JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said several days ago. What is really interesting is where the former Justice Minister addressed the media. Many an eyebrow was raised when the MP lambasted the government at Abayaramaya, Narahenpita, with Ven Muruththettuwe Ananda by his side.
Some monks are sullying the robe by getting involved in virtually every other brouhaha raised in the political arena, when they should essentially be guiding the adherents of Buddha’s teachings on that path.
On the following day, the former minister claimed that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa blasted him over the statement made on the previous day. Lawmaker Rajapakse acknowledged that he wouldn’t hesitate to take a decision regarding his political future with the SLPP government. The government parliamentary group is likely to be undermined by this development. It would be pertinent to mention that the government overcame opposition to the 20th Amendment to the Constitution from its ranks. The 20th Amendment required two-thirds majority.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa presented the Colombo Port City EC Bill to the Cabinet of ministers. The 76-page Bill provides for the establishment of an EC authorised to grant registrations, licences, authorisations, and other approvals to carry on businesses and other activities in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to be established within the Colombo Port City.
The proposed EC will consist of not less than five members and not more than seven members, including its Chairman and they will be appointed by the President, under whose purview the Colombo Port City functions.
The Bill, titled the ‘Colombo Port City Economic Commission Act’, is expected to be presented to Parliament within the next few weeks.
Lawmaker Dissanayake declared that Parliament should defeat the move. However, with the ruling party enjoying a two-thirds majority in Parliament with its group numbering 145 members, the dilapidated Opposition is not in a position to thwart the government’s mega project.
A US warning
Against the backdrop of continuing US-China rivalry, Sri Lanka should be extremely cautious in finalizing the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Act. Unsolicited and clearly interfering, the US advice into the country’s internal affairs in this regard shouldn’t be ignored.
The media recently quoted the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Alaina Teplitz as having said: “Any legislation relating to the Port City has to be considered very carefully for its economic impact. And of course, among those un-intended consequences could be creating a haven for money launderers and other sorts of nefarious actors to take advantage of what was perceived as a permissive business environment for activities that would actually be illegal.” Teplitz was further quoted as having said: “I do recognize that the government of Sri Lanka wants to take advantage of the investment that has already been made in creating the Port City foundation, but the legislation really needs to be reflected to address these challenges and to be careful of what it might be to open doors to bad practice and unfair competition for the rest of the country.”
The country’s tax revenues have plunged in 2020, raising concerns over debt and the fiscal path, credit downgrades and Sri Lanka’s ability to sustain vital public services to the people, while managing loss-making state enterprises.
Let me examine shocking revelations in Parliament, pertaining to waste, corruption and irregularities as the fiscal environment continued to deteriorate. Evaluation of reports released by the Communication Department of Parliament as regards inquiries conducted by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) and the Committee on Parliamentary Finance (COPF) chaired by Prof. Charitha Herath, Prof. Tissa Vitharana and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, respectively, would enable the public to grasp the gravity of things that had been perpetrated and the resultant situation.
The country celebrated Sinhala and Tamil New Year in an utterly bad financial environment, undoubtedly exacerbated by the pandemic as has happened world over. Televised celebrations also involving lawmakers representing the SLPP and the SJB highlighted the absurdity of a deteriorating situation. Lawmakers joined celebrations amidst continuing controversy over unprecedented slashing of duty on sugar imports, importation of contaminated coconut oil, destruction of forests and unbridled corruption.
Statements issued by the Communications Department revealed a horrifying picture. A pathetic situation caused by those who enjoyed political power since the introduction of the JRJ Constitution in 1978. Interestingly the two major political parties primarily responsible for the current predicament are no longer in power. The last general election, in August 2020 reduced the UNP to just one National List MP. The SLFP parliamentary group consists of 14 members with only one of them elected on the SLFP ticket. The rest entered Parliament through the SLPP. Political parties essentially engineered, encouraged and conveniently turned a blind eye to corruption. The examination of the House Communication Department statements revealed how the political set up, public sector and the private sector perpetrated corruption.
Parliament faces challenges
COPE Chairman Prof. Herath explained the growing financial indiscipline among those enterprises coming under his purview when he presented their first report to Parliament on March 10, 2021. SLPP National List lawmaker alleged that the power of Parliament to supervise public sector enterprises had been challenged. Prof. Herath cited the Auditor General’s report on the Lakvijaya coal-fired power complex at Norochcholai, Puttalam, as an example to highlight the financial lawlessness. One-time Media Secretary questioned how some public sector enterprises were excluded from the AG’s scrutiny.
Another SLPP lawmaker Shantha Bandara pointed out how various public sector institutions blatantly ignored instructions issued by parliamentary watchdog committees.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, himself under fire for accommodating the members of his family and relatives on his staff assured that ways and means to address those issues would be addressed through the proposed new Constitution. Abeywardena insisted that the current situation could be addressed only through the enactment of a new Constitution.
Can Speaker Abeywardena’s assurance be accepted under an extremely volatile fiscal situation? How can tangible measures required to address the crisis be further delayed on the assurance that such issues would be dealt with through the proposed new Constitution. Unless Parliament accepted its responsibilities namely (a) enactment of new laws and (b) financial discipline, the country faces an extraordinary crisis.
The statement issued on April 12 by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, ahead of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, is a grim reminder of Sri Lanka’s predicament. Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Beijing Dr. Palitha Kohona signed the loan agreement with the China Development Bank at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Beijing. The latest loan is the balance of USD 1 billion, out of which USD 500 million was received last year.
Before examination of COPE, COPA and COPF reports, let me remind what Secretary to the Finance Ministry S.R. Attygalle told Parliament on Dec 07, 2020 in response to a query pertaining to discrepancy in pensions. The Communications Department of Parliament quoted Attygalle as having said that the annual salary, pension and gratuity payments cost the Treasury a staggering Rs 1.1 trillion. In addition to that amount, the absorbing of 50,000 graduates to the public sector in terms of a 2021 budget proposal as well as 100,000 employment opportunities to the poorest of poor families, too, would cost a hefty sum.
When the writer sought a clarification from Attygalle on April 15th morning, the official explained the salaries amounted to a staggering Rs 800 bn annually and the rest for pension and gratuity.
Public finances are in turmoil. COPE, COPA, COPF as well as Parliamentary Consultative Committees essentially highlight waste, corruption and irregularities. The following are some samples of revelations.
The COPA on March 26, 2021, revealed the failure on the part of the Inland Revenue Department to collect taxes. The Communications Department reported how the Inland Revenue Department received 6,878 dishonoured checks worth Rs. 240 million as at 31 Dec, 2020. It was also revealed at the COPA meeting that Court cases had been filed by Inland Revenue Department in the Colombo Magistrate’s Court to recover Rs. 2670 million in tax arrears from casinos.
The Communications Department of Parliament on March 24, 2021, on the basis of Consultative Committee of the Ports and Shipping Ministry, reported a highly contentious matter involving Sri Lanka Customs. The Consultative Committee was told how due to failure on the part of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) to pay due taxes to the Customs for the importation of gantry cranes, the latter was now entitled to 50 per cent of the fine imposed on the SLPA. The Consultative Committee, while asserting such a payment to the Customs was a major problem recommended talks with relevant officials, including the Secretary to the Treasury to recover the money as a payment to the government. The Communications Department quoted Ports and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena as having said that the issue at hand should be also discussed with the COPA.
The Communication Department of Parliament on March 2, 2021 reported the shocking revelation of how Lanka Mineral Sands Limited caused substantial revenue loss at a time the country was facing an extremely serious financial crisis. The report dealt with the COPE meeting held in Parliament on the same day. COPE Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath instructed the Secretary to the Ministry of Industries, Anusha Palpita, to immediately investigate and submit a report on the tender awarded by Lanka Mineral Sands Limited for the sale of 85,000 metric tonnes of ilmenite at USD 147 per tonne to the third-place bidder instead of the prospective winning bidder, who had offered the highest price of USD 165 per tonne of ilmenite. Lanka Mineral Sands claimed that their decision was based on a recommendation made by a tender subcommittee appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers and that the transaction received Cabinet approval. Questioning the rationale in awarding the tender to the third-placed bidder, COPE discussed the possibility of the Lanka Mineral Sands Limited deceiving the Cabinet of Ministers. The inquiry revealed that the current price of a metric tonne of ilmenite is close to USD 240. Many an eyebrow was raised when it was revealed that substantial part of the sold stock to a buyer in October 2020 was still stored in the Pulmudai at the expense of the Lanka Mineral Sands. The buyer hadn’t paid the full payment, the COPE was told.
The Island received the entire set of statements issued by watchdog committees. A communiqué issued on March 15, 2021 by the Communications Department of Parliament revealed the failure on the part of the Finance Ministry, Inland Revenue and the Justice Ministry to take remedial measures in respect of laws delay. Their failure seriously affected the revenue collecting process.
The Commissioner General of Inland Revenue H. M.C. Bandara has told COPA that his department had not been able to recover billions of rupees in tax arrears due to lengthy judicial process and the attendant delays. The COPA assured that the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Finance and the Inland Revenue Department would be summoned for a discussion. That promised meeting is yet to take place. During the COPA meeting held on March 10, 2021, it was also pointed out the deficiencies in a list that contained names of tax defaulters. The COPA also pointed out the shortcomings in Legacy and Ramis computer systems that controlled tax files and the revelation of Rs 107 bn in tax arrears according to Legacy system, out of which only Rs 224 mn have been recovered exposed the chaotic situation.
The government needs to address shortcomings in the revenue collection process without further delay. In an utterly corrupt system, delays, failures and shortcomings seem to be deliberate and well calculated. With the country on the brink of financial disaster, it would be the responsibility of parliament to take remedial measures. Perhaps, the Presidential Commission inquiring into the Customs should summon parliamentary watchdog committees at the onset of public sittings to obtain a clear picture of the ground situation before it proceeds.
Readers should not think we are merely scare mongering, but the truth remains that we must be responsible for our future instead of ever being ready to beg for handouts or rescue packages from outside. True that unlike most powerful Western nations and their lending arms China has not been behaving like the proverbial Shylock. But we have an inherent duty not to live beyond our means.
Growing foreign dependency and India’s USD 4 bn lifeline
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Japanese embassy and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund, previously known as United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), on 16 March, 2023, issued a joint statement that dealt with the impact the developing political-economic-social crisis is having on the poor in Sri Lanka.
The statement focused on the suffering of the children and measures taken by UNICEF, in consultation with the Governments of Japan and Sri Lanka, to provide relief to the needy.
However, what really captured public attention was the declaration made by the Japanese Ambassador, in Colombo, Mizukoshi Hideak, that with the latest contribution, amounting to USD 1.8 mn, the total Japanese financial assistance, provided through UNICEF alone, exceeded USD 3.8 mn, since the beginning of last year. That is definitely a significant package provided through a single UN agency, particularly against the backdrop of the unceremonious cancellation of the Japan- funded Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, in late Sept., 2020, by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government.
The directive, in this regard, was issued on 21 Sept., 2020, by Dr. P. B. Jayasundera, in his capacity as Secretary to the President, to the then Transport Secretary, Monti Ranatunga. That move ruined Sri Lanka’s relations with Japan.
Whoever advised the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to terminate the project, without consulting Japan, as head of the Cabinet-of-Ministers, he couldn’t absolve himself of the responsibility for the ruination of vital relationship with Tokyo. Had it not been the case, Japan, most probably, would have delivered a substantial assistance to Sri Lanka, at the onset of the ongoing unprecedented crisis.
Sri Lanka made a failed bid to secure as much as USD 3.5 bn loan from Japan, during the tenure of Sanjiv Gunasekara as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Tokyo. Gunasekara, a close associate of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned in the wake of the 09 May, 2022, violence, that gave a turbo boost to the campaign against his government.
Unlike Japan, India provided direct aid in various forms to Sri Lanka, struggling to cope up with what became an insurmountable crisis to overcome on our own. India has repeatedly declared that the continuing assistance is in line with Premier Narendra Modi’s much touted ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Sri Lanka received concessional credit facility, amounting to USD 1 bn, in March last year. In addition to that, by the second week of March this year, Sri Lanka received other lines of credit, worth over USD 3 bn. Therefore, the total Indian assistance is worth over USD 4 bn, a staggering amount as Sri Lanka’s debt before the Japanese and Indian interventions stood at over USD 53 bn. Indian intervention cannot be compared, under any circumstances, with assistance provided by any other country.
The Indian assistance is of immense importance as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after much deliberation, promised USD 2.9 bn over a period of four years. The delay on the part of China to provide an assurance as regards debt-restructuring support, hindered the finalization of the tripartite agreement involving Sri Lanka, creditors and IMF. Finally, China gave that assurance, in writing, early this month.
The situation was so precarious, Sri Lanka couldn’t have even provided the free text books that have been given, annually, to the student population ,from the time of the JRJ regime. Those who had been at the helm of political power, over the past three decades, to varying degrees, ruined the economy, and, by 2021/2022, Sri Lanka was unable to provide even the basic requirements, like cooking gas, kerosene, petrol, etc., as even remittances from our expatriate workers, which in the past amounted to about seven billion dollars per year, dropped drastically due to the illegal underground banking system, hawala/undiyal, hijacking much of it from the normal banks. The government didn’t have the means to provide school text books for the 2023 academic year. In consultation with India, of the USD 1 bn concessional credit facility, over USD 10 mn was utilized by the State Printing Corporation, and private importers, to procure printing paper and other material from India. India met 45% (four mn students) of the total requirement. Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay visited the SPC, on 09 March, 2023, to dispatch a consignment of textbooks to schools. Education Minister Dr. Susil Premjayantha joined Baglay. The Indian High Commission statement, issued two days later,, was aptly titled ‘India’s support for text books investment in Sri Lanka’s future.’
The government and the Opposition should be ashamed of their failure to provide for the children’s need.
Perhaps, a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) should be appointed to examine the circumstances leading to Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status. Decades of utterly irresponsible management of the economy, coupled with an explosive mixture of causes – waste, corruption and irregularities – caused the current crisis.
Political parties, represented in Parliament, are responsible for the continuing crisis, to varying degrees.
Controversy over ISBs
The Island discussed some of the issues at hand in last week’s midweek piece, headlined ‘All praise for Lanka’s saviours!
What Dr. Coomaraswamy didn’t say was that as the CB Governor, he was also directly responsible for the Yahapalana government borrowing a record USD 12.5 bn from the international bond market, at high interest rates, from private lenders, primarily in the West. So what did that government achieve with such huge borrowings? All that the Yahapalana regime achieved, with all that money, we cannot see, except to lay the foundation for the current debt crisis?
Our comment on the basis of recent claims that the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Coomaraswamy (2016-2019), only told one side of the truth, attracted responses from several parties, including the Central Bank.
Consequently, the writer discussed the borrowing of USD 12.5 bn, and related matters, and was told the following: First, it is important to point out that the Governor, Central Bank, has no authority to approve or undertake any borrowing on behalf of the government. The borrowing limit, in any given year, is set by Parliament. Therefore, the government cannot borrow beyond the limit set by Parliament. In addition, all external borrowing has to be approved by the Finance Minister, and the Cabinet of Ministers. The Governor and the CBSL only have an advisory role. On ISBs, they have marketing and issuance as additional responsibilities once the Cabinet approved the transaction.
It is also important to recognize that ISBs are only one channel for external commercial borrowings. Others include short-term SWAPs, foreign term loans/syndicated loans and external flows into government rupee securities. The article dealt with only one instrument, having ignored the switching that was undertaken during 2015-19 to increase the maturity and reduce the cost of foreign borrowing.
As regards the USD 10 bn increase in ISBs outstanding during 2015-19, USD 5 bn of this increase can be attributed to switching away from shorter term (one year or less) and more expensive SWAPs and highly volatile foreign portfolio investment (hot money) in Government rupee securities to longer term (5 and 10 years) and less costly ISBs. SWAPs were reduced from approximately USD 2.5 bn to USD 500 mn.
Volatile and foreign investment in government rupee securities was reduced from USD 3.5 bn to USD 600 mn. In addition, during the course of 2019, a second ISB of USD 2 bn was issued to create a stronger buffer of external reserves to address the inevitable increase in uncertainty going into elections due shortly thereafter. (The money required for 2019 had been raised through an ISB, issued in March 2019.)
So about USD 7 bn of the USD 10 bn increase in the stock of ISBs outstanding, during 2015-19 may be attributed to increasing the stability and reducing the cost of the ISBs outstanding by switching instruments and raising the buffer provided by external reserves prior to a period of uncertainty, associated with elections.
The remaining increase of USD 3 bn may be partly attributed to the fact that borrowing incurred earlier had not resulted in a sufficient increase and/or saving of foreign exchange. Hence money had to be borrowed to repay debt incurred earlier. In fact, Verite Research found that 89 percent of external debt, repaid during 2015-19, could be accounted for by liabilities incurred prior to 2015.
The adverse debt dynamics were recognized and the Medium Term Debt Management Strategy was published in April 2019 to chart the way to sustainability. In addition, the Active Liability Management Act (2018) was introduced to expand the tools available to the CBSL for managing external debt sustainably. The CBSL, as the economic adviser to the Government, also advocated that there should be a primary surplus in the budget and that non-debt creating inflows (such as exports, remittances, tourism proceeds, FDI, inflows into the CSE and government securities) should be increased to enhance the capacity to service debt while supporting the level of imports necessary to achieve the growth potential of the economy.
They also pointed out that only one of the ISBs, issued during 2015-19, has been settled to date. This amounted to USD 500mn. They expressed the view that it is not possible to sustain the argument that servicing ISBs, incurred during 2015-19 ,led to the standstill in debt repayments in April 2023.
Treasury bond scams and tax cuts
Sweeping tax concessions to the rich and reduction of VAT, that had been introduced by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government to encourage business in 2019/2020, escalated the financial crisis, leading to the declaration of the state of bankruptcy, two years later. No one in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cabinet dared to challenge such far reaching tax concessions and VAT reduction.
How the loss of as much as Rs 600 bn in revenue, as alleged by the Opposition ,due to tax concessions and reduction of VAT, contributed to the current crisis, should be examined, also taking into consideration (1) Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb, 2015 and March 2016 at a time the CBSL has been under the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Affairs (2) Enactment of new Foreign Exchange Act in 2017 in the wake of Treasury bond scams. Critics say the repealing of time-tested exchange control law that has been in place for decades paved the way for exporters to ‘park’ export proceeds overseas. Of the 225 MPs, 94 voted for the new law whereas 18 voted against. In spite of Justice Minister, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, taking up this issue, both in and outside Parliament, remedial measures hasn’t been taken, to date. The Finance Ministry owed an explanation as to how it intended to compel the exporters to bring back export proceeds (3) Continuing public-private sector partnership in corrupt practices, particularly mis-invoicing (under invoicing and over invoicing of imports/exports) (4) Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila, MP, has moved the Supreme Court against the Central Bank Bill. The Attorney-at-Law alleged that the new law violated Article 3 and 4 of the Constitution hence needing the approval of the people at a referendum. In addition to Gammanpila, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera and Jathika Nidahas Peramuna leader Wimal Weerawansa, too, moved the Supreme Court in terms of the Article 121 against the Bill titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka.’ Former JVP MP Wasantha Samarasinghe, on behalf of the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB), too, moved the Supreme Court in this regard.
A warning from Hanke
The country is in a bind. In spite of the execution of the agreement with the IMF later this month, the situation remains dicey. The absence of economic recovery plan continues to cause further instability.
Therefore, the government and the Opposition should seek a consensus on a national action plan, even if Local Government polls cannot be conducted in late April, regardless of the Supreme Court intervention.
Steve Hanke, Professor of Applied Economics, at Johns Hopkins University, in the USA, recently issued a dire warning to Sri Lanka. Appearing on CNBC’s ‘Squawk Box Asia,’ Prof. Hanke declared Sri Lanka needs institutional reforms in order to achieve long-term debt sustainability.
Referring to Sri Lanka and what was described as emerging markets (Argentina and Montenegro), where he played a key role in establishing new currency regime, former economic advisor to US President Ronald Reagan warned “Unless you change the institutions and the rules of the game, governing these countries, they’re always going to remain in the same … situation that they’ve been in for a long time.”
Prof. Hanke added: “In fact, most of the personalities, involved in Sri Lanka ,at the high level, are exactly the same as they’ve been for years. So nothing has changed.”
In other words, those who have ruined Sri Lanka are spearheading the economic recovery process. The American is spot on. Sri Lanka is in a pathetic situation. Those who had systematically brought Sri Lanka to its knees, by pursuing ill-fated policies, emerged as its saviours. That is the bitter truth. The role of the executive, legislature, and judiciary, needs to be examined. Those who have moved the Supreme Court against the Bill, titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka,’ have quite conveniently forgotten how the Yahapalana government, and Central Bank, twice perpetrated Treasury bond scams. What would have Prof. Hanke said if CNBC raised Treasury bonds scams during ‘Squawk Box Asia.’
If not for Deepa Seneviratne, the then head of Public Debt Department, Governor Arjuna Mahendran’s role couldn’t have been proved. Former Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe said so at an event organized by the Colombo Municipal Council years ago.
Sri Lanka cannot forget Prof. Hanke’s remark in the CNBC programme. “You have to remember that we have a country that since 1965 has had 16 IMF programmes and they’ve all failed. You get temporary relief in anticipation of a bailout. But in the long run … none of these IMF programmes work.”
It would be pertinent to briefly examine how interested parties brazenly protected perpetrators of the Treasury bond scams.
Having named Mahendran as the Governor, regardless of the opposition from President Maithripala Sirisena, those planning to commit the first daylight robbery of the Central Bank moved Deepa Seneviratne to the Public Debt Department as its head, in spite of her not having had any previous experience in the particular division. It seems they had obviously felt comfortable in having a lady officer there they thought they could manipulate her to suit their need. But Seneviratne turned tables on the bond thieves by putting up a note to register her strong opposition to Mahendran’s move. She should have been rewarded for her fearless stand with at least a national honour if not an international one, even from bodies like the UN, the Transparency International, Amnesty International, etc. But it seems that even these international busy bodies have their own political angles.
It would be of pivotal importance to keep in mind that President Sirisena appointed a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) in January 2017, about 10 months after the second robbery, and two years after the first.
The Commission comprised Justice K.T. Chitrasiri, the late Justice P S Jayawardena and retired Deputy Auditor General V. Kandasamy. Sumathipala Udugamsuriya functioned as its Secretary. CoI issued a devastating report that implicated Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) in the Treasury bond scams.
President Sirisena went to the extent of dissolving Parliament, in June 2015, to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) tabling its report on the first bond scam. SLFP leader Sirisena owes an explanation. Justice Chitrasiri’s CoI didn’t inquire into that aspect. Sri Lanka’s response to waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement is baffling. Let me end this piece reminding how the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) secured a substantial sponsorship from Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) deeply mired in a bond scam, in 2016, for the Law Asia Conference during the tenure of its then President Geoffrey Alagaratnam, PC. The BASL never explained why it obtained PTL sponsorship even after the exposure of Treasury bond scams. That partnership also escaped the CoI. The rest is history.
Knowing what is now happening to the US economy with a string of bank failures and unprecedented bailouts, especially due to hoodoo economics it introduced in recent decades, like repeated quantitative easing (blindly printing trillions of dollars leading many to say the dollar is now only good as toilet paper) that has been practiced to ensure its world hegemony, the whole world might be hit with bank failures and even by a depression worse than the one that befell with the stock market crash of 1929. Already the contagion has spread to Europe with some leading banks there also requiring help.
Washington’s debt now stands at USD 31 trillion and climbing, but our own debt burden is still under USD 55 billion. So if we can get our exporters, who have stashed export earnings abroad, to bring them back, the picture here will not be as scary as it is made out to be. Even Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse has said that our export proceeds that have been parked overseas is in the region of USD 55 billion.
Soonwe will start receiving the IMF bailout, but our economic whiz kids have not done anything to plug the massive foreign exchange leak that has been freely draining foreign currency from the country, since the nineties, by way of private foreign exchange dealers who have been allowed to sell foreign exchange to any Tom, Dick and Harry, including drug dealers, to take their sales proceeds out of the country!
We would also like to ask the relevant authorities what they have done to recover monies stashed abroad by Lankans illegally that were exposed in great detail by the likes of Panama Papers and Pandora Papers.
A Miscellany of Thought
N. A. de S. Amaratunga (2022)
A Review by G. H. Peiris
I cannot claim to have the scholarly competence to place under critical scrutiny all items in this collection of writings authored by Professor N. A. de S. Amaratunga, and published in The Island from time to time since the early years of the present century. Accordingly, this ‘review’ is no more than an attempt to convey to a wide readership my gratitude for what I have learnt from Professor Amaratunga’s insights on a series of metaphysical and secular issues that have figured prominently during the recent past in the arena of debate and discussion among our intellectual elite, my appreciation of his rational perceptions and his subtle banter in responding to bizarre elements in our public affairs.
As a brief introduction to the author I should state that Professor Amaratunga’s career record is featured by several decades of distinguished and dedicated service to the University of Peradeniya in teaching, research and clinical work. Acquiring advanced skills in the field of ‘Maxillofacial Surgery’, he has provided physical and psychological relief of life-long impact to thousands of patients. He is also credited to have trained several of his junior colleagues in the Faculty of Dental Science, had has served as its Dean. The offer he received from the Peradeniya University of the Prestigious Award of the ‘Degree of Doctor of Science’ is testimony to his eminence in Sri Lanka’s community of scholars and professionals.
What probably enhances Professor Amaratunga’s status among the intellectual elite of Sri Lanka is the fact that his talents, interests, and concerns have not been confined to professional expertise. He has authored several creative writings in Sinhala which the cognoscenti place at par with the best works of that genre. More relevant than all else to the present ‘commentary’ is his capacity for elucidating the essence of certain complex metaphysical issues – especially those of Buddhist philosophy ‒ with the same clarity of thought seen in his contributions to media forums on current affairs.
In his ‘Introduction’ to the volume Professor Amaratunga makes a categorical statement regarding the paradigmatic guidelines of his ‘thoughts’. They are rendered below in abridged form as follows:
(a) The distinctive elements of our island civilisation are derived from Theravada Buddhism and the Sinhala language.
(b) The leadership of Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics since the termination of British rule in the mid-20th century has continued to be impaired by a cultural duality – on one side of the divide, the ‘alienated’ whose behavioural values and norms bear the imprint of subservience to values prescribed by the ‘West’, and, on the other side, those who treasure our civilisational heritage and understand the needs and aspirations of the majority of our people.
(c) His standpoint is that of an ardent ‘nationalist’, in the sense that he is unequivocally committed to safeguarding and promoting Sri Lanka’s national interests.
On literature, Professor Amaratunga adds that he is inclined towards the need for ‘social relevance’ of the fine arts, and believes that the paradigm of ars gratia artis (‘art for art’s sake’) is inappropriate for Sri Lanka, especially in creative writing.
The ‘miscellany’ of this volume is structured to constitute four ‘Sections’ – titled as: 1. ‘Literature and Culture’; 2. ‘Religion’; 3. ‘Economy’; and 4. ‘Health’. The first two of these ‘Sections’, consist respectively of 25 and 19 essays of unequal length. In these ‘Sections’ the reader could pick out from different points of the temporal sequence in which they are arranged items that constitute a mutually cohesive group from the viewpoint of content. For example, in the first ‘Section’, there are six such items, each serving as a contribution to an ongoing media debate, but when considered as a group would be seen as an invaluable enrichment of understanding on a significant feature of the educational system of the country – such as, say, the impact of the nation-wide ‘Fifth-standard Scholarship Examination’ or ‘The general decline of standards in higher education’. Likewise, in the total of 18 articles in ‘Section’ 2, thirteen items could be considered as a mutually cohesive group of thoughts that illuminates certain vitally significant aspect of Buddha Dhamma and Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka.
The forgoing observations do not detract from the intrinsic value of the short contributions referred to. Indeed, in my amateur assessment, in Section 1, the items titled ‘Quality of University Education’, ‘Purpose of the Novel and its Appraisal’, and the twin items titled ‘Darwinian Evolution vs. Intelligent Design’; and in Section 2, ‘Truth in Buddhism and Realism in Literature’, and ‘Mind, Matter and Nirvana in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism’, are examples of the author’s extraordinary depth of understanding and his skill of disseminating that knowledge in a lucid form.
It is in the 3rd Section of the volume titled ‘Politics’ that the real ‘miscellany’ of Thought is found, consisting of 78 items, and accounting for well over half the total page-length of the volume. Since they have been presented in a chronological order ‒ with the first item published in 2001, and the last in 2021‒ the list of items, at first glance, looks like a total mess which, indeed, is how our politics look. But a closer scrutiny show that all items in this list could be placed in one or another of 6 ‘Sub-Sections’ titled as ‘Ethnic Relations’, ‘Foreign Affairs’, ‘Electoral Politics’, ‘Development Plans and Projects’, and ‘Constitutional Issues’, with the chronology of the list providing the vicissitudinous background of each contribution which Professor Amaratunga has made, and each discussion or debate in which he has participated.
Once again I should emphasise that foregoing observation does not imply that the ‘Thoughts’ in this section, read individually, are either uninteresting or irrelevant to our present concerns. On the contrary they offer ideal readings both as reminders of the volatile scenarios we have passed though during the past two decades as well as the unshakable faith our politicians appear to have on the widespread dementia among the voter-population and on their own ability to hoodwink the electorate. Professor Amaratunga’s thoughts could re-kindle fading memories, especially on repeated failures to fulfil campaign pledges, the large-scale losses due to financial malpractices, the allegations of ‘war-crimes’ and of ‘violation of human rights’ in the counter-attack by the major powers of the North Atlantic alliance in retaliation to Sri Lanka’s close relations with the People’s Republic of China, the ingredients of success in the US-sponsored ‘regime change’ effort culminating in the establishment in 2015 of a puppet government in Colombo, the betrayal of our national interests by our own self-seeking representatives at the protracted Geneva inquisitions, the constitutional fiasco of August 2018, the euphoric Gotabhaya victory about a year thereafter, and then, the stunning exposure by the pandemic of the fundamental weakness of our dependent economy.
In the 4th Section of the volume titled ‘Health’, most of the items are devoted to diverse experiences witnessed globally and in Sri Lanka during the Covid-19 pandemic, but in an unconventional manner in the sense that they emphasise significant aspects that have not received adequate attention in the analytical writings on the pandemic. In my view the most significant issue highlighted in this section is the need for Sri Lanka to adopt development strategies towards self-reliance, especially in the availability of medicinal drugs and on food-security. Implicit in several items of this section is a forewarning of the risks entailed in the pursuit of development policies that enhance Sri Lanka’s macroeconomic dependence on the major global and regional powers.
Many items in this miscellany of thoughts contain a prominent element of dissent and disagreement with other participants in the media debates and discussion for which The Island has served as a major forum. But that dissent has all along been featured by a laudable sense of “civilised intelligence”. As a professional whose skills have an intense demand, his interests and concerns have not remained confined to his professional expertise – a feature often seen among other ‘specialists’ including those of the university community.
This volume is, first of all, a demonstration of intense and well-informed concern on a wide range of issues of vital importance to Sri Lanka. Had that quality been more widespread it is unlikely that those earning six-figure incomes would threaten collective action to bring the economy to a standstill to express their dissatisfaction on a relatively marginal erosion of monthly emoluments at a time of unprecedented national crisis, attempting to conceal their avarice with a façade of safeguarding democracy, or eliminating public corruption, or on grounds of their capacity to earn higher incomes outside Sri Lanka.
Yet another exemplary feature I discern in this ‘Miscellany of Thoughts’ is that its contents are not angry knee-jerk reactions when provoked by thoughts different to his own. Professor Amaratunga’s dissent is entirely free of the crude clashes often seen in the so-called social media. Nor are his thoughts based on a hurried consumption of internet ‘short-eats’. In his thoughts that extend beyond brief corrective interjections of ‘common sense’, what we see is an extraordinary depth of knowledge acquired through serious reading and a thorough understanding of the issues on which he had focused.
Loneliness of the Bottom Half
By Lynn Ockersz
There you crouch by your hearth,
Seeing your fires sputtering out;
Your hopes of a bubbly pot of rice,
Ending in inflationary smoke spirals,
Leaving you with the painful thought,
That your dignity as mother and wife,
Is gravely harmed and beyond repair,
For, a turn of events not of your making,
Has reduced you and yours to penury,
So much for that Trickle-down Theory,
That Pundits say will end your misery,
But they tell you not to stop dreaming,
Because soon you will be bailed out,
Of your State of longsuffering;
Thanks to Princely tips from ancient Italy.
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