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Sri Lanka urges BIMSTEC Member States to embrace the “new normal” for regional prosperity

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Foreign Secretary Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage chairing the 21st Session of the Senior Officials’ Meeting (SoM) urged BIMSTEC Member States to embrace the “new normal, and adapt fast”, at the first virtual meeting held on Wednesday in Colombo.

 In his inaugural remarks, the Foreign Secretary said that  global dynamics will not be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic as it has affected  all  States,  in various  degrees, as  it  transformed from  a health crisis  to an economic and human crisis  as described by the  United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.

In fact, the   crisis has affected the very fabric of   daily life of BIMSTEC Member States as  economic activities have slowed down with global and regional value chains disrupted, millions of people have lost their jobs with many pushed into poverty and  therefore the  meeting was timely, as it  is an opportunity to build on the assurances made by Heads of State of BIMSTEC Members on combating the adverse effects of COVID-19 at the 23rd  Anniversary of the BIMSTEC Day held in June 2020, the Foreign Secretary noted.

He further said that their messages were clear and encouraging as the Leaders had reiterated and acknowledged the need to build a better and resilient   organization that could leverage regional cooperation in the recovery and rehabilitation process in post COVID-19. 

 Given that the region is home to 23% of the world population, he pointed out that the devastating effects affecting the vulnerable sections can only cripple economies and divert resources that were once used for upward mobility in Member States. The collective GDP of US dollars 3 trillion, which was a benchmark prior to the pandemic, should not become an unattainable goal in the face of this devastation, and the goal should be to surpass it, Colombage continued.

Therefore, he said that the sector driven organization  should collectively promote trade and investment cooperation, strengthen energy cooperation, increase connectivity and people-to-people contact, focus on disaster management and public health, combat terrorism and extremism, deal with the adverse effects of climate change and work towards poverty alleviation.

 As the lead country for Information, Technology and Innovation sector in BIMSTEC, Sri Lanka informed that it will put forward proposals that would enhance the use of technological tools in daily life to address post COVID-19 effects and also cater to the demand for internet based economic activities and that the proposed setting up of the BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility, in Colombo would further augment the work Sri Lanka proposes to undertake in the sector.

 The 21st SoM was preceded by the Fourth BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee (BPWC) chaired by Additional Secretary Economic Affairs, Ambassador P. M. Amza of the Foreign Ministry.

The discussion of the meetings centred on administrative procedures and financial considerations of the organization and preparation and finalization of documents   for the approval at the 17th Ministerial Meeting and adoption at the 5th BIMSTEC Summit. 

The Sri Lanka delegation indicated its readiness to host the 5th BIMSTEC Summit preceded by the 17th Ministerial meeting, as it has earned  the ‘Safe Travels’ stamp from the World Travel & Tourism Council in recognition of the comprehensive health and safety measures the government has put in place. The dates of the meeting are to be decided in consultation with Member States, given that the Member States are in different stages in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

 The Member States commended the work of Ambassador Shahidul Islam, whose three year term as Secretary General will come to an end in the later part of September 2020. Sri Lanka made special note of his contribution and support during its Chair. The Member States also took note of the nomination of Tenzin Lekphell, as the next Secretary General of BIMSTEC from Bhutan.  

 Proposed by Sri Lanka, the Member States, observed a minute’s silence in solidarity with the President, Prime Minister and the people of India on the sad occasion of the demise of former Presi

The Sri Lanka delegation comprised Actg. Director General of Economic Affairs (Multilateral) Anzul Jhan, Deputy Legal Adviser Tilani Silva, and Executive Assistant Kalani Dharmasena of the Foreign Ministry.



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Wide ranging rackets benefiting CEB engineers

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By Ifham Nizam

The Ceylon Electricity Board implements most of its power transmission and distribution infrastructure development projects like the construction of new transmission lines, transmission and distribution substations, etc., using loan funds obtained from international lending agencies such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

These “concessionary” loans are guaranteed by the government, and projects funded by those loan packages are implemented through specially set up project management units (PMUs).

Engineers attached to PMUs are given special facilities and monetary incentives on the understanding that they will work outside normal working hours and weekends to complete their projects on time and within the allocated budget.CEB often justifies these projects for priority financing citing “great national importance” and the critical needs to improve the power transmission and distribution infrastructure of the country.

Almost all of these project titles carry the words like “green energy”, “clean energy”, “green power”, etc., signifying these investments are primarily aimed at using renewable energy.

However, according to a senior official of the Ministry of Power & Energy, these projects are seldom completed within the given time period or budget. Because of this reason not only the expected benefits of these investments are often lost to the country, but the government incurs heavy losses by way of commitment fees paid to lending agencies.

Once project funds are committed through a loan agreement, the government has to pay this fee to the lending agency, generally computed as a percentage of the loan amount or the “commitment amount”. It is a significant burden to the government, especially in a situation where there is a severe shortage of foreign currency.

If the loan funds are disbursed within the original term of the loan, this “front end fee” is charged at a lower percentage. Hence, when CEB does not complete projects in time, the government ends up paying a higher commitment fee, and is also forced to seek an extension to the original loan disbursement period, thus incurring further costs.

Even more disturbing than long delays in project completion is that some completed projects have turned out to be wasteful investments of foreign funds given to the country.It is understood that the former CEB Chairman M. M. C. Ferdinando had questioned why the new 132kV transmission line between Ambalangoda and Galle, which was completed in 2017 at a cost of Rs. 1,500 million, remained unserviceable to date.

The Sunday Island understands that CEB’s System Control Center is able to switch on this transmission line only when the Samanalawewa Hydropower Plant is running at full capacity.This project had been billed by CEB’s transmission planners as a high-priority investment and solution for the serious transmission bottlenecks in the southern network of the country. Southern areas had been experiencing serious transmission capacity restrictions for decades.It is understood that the CEB General Manager has responded to the Chairman’s inquiry by stating that the commissioning of several new transmission lines that are presently under construction would make the Ambalangoda-Galle transmission line operational.

The 220kV transmission line from Pannipitiya to Polpitiya via Padukka is another example of a costly planning blunder by the CEB. Construction of this long transmission line commenced in 2015 but was delayed owing to many problems, including public protests and court cases filed by some landowners.However, when this ADB-funded project was eventually completed in late 2021 (after a delay of over five years), it has been discovered the power flows in the wrong direction when the line is switched on, causing overloading of the Pannipitiya substation.Hence, this transmission line also remains idle presently. It is understood that CEB planners have explained that power would flow in the right direction once several other transmission lines (being constructed under different loan packages, and already delayed by many years) are completed.

The then CEB General Manager taking part in a national television discussion following the countrywide power outage on August 17, 2020, explained that the unavailability of this critical transmission line was a major contributing factor to CEB’s inability to restore supply for many hours.Another example of colossal waste of funds is the transmission substation at Kappalthurai in the eastern province that has cost the country over Rs. 2,500 million of ADB loan funds. Since there is no high demand for electricity or no future growth in demand in the area, this installation will be idle for the foreseeable future.

According to CEB employees, the existing Trincomalee substation, which is situated about 11 km from this new substation, has ample capacity to serve the electricity demand in the area for many years to come. In the meantime, CEB has made a large investment in increasing the capacity of the Trincomalee substation as well.It is also understood that CEB’s Projects Division has been maintaining several non-functional PMUs for years, spending large sums of money on rented project offices and large project staff, even when no funding has been secured for relevant projects.

CEB employees complain that project directors and their engineers attached to these “white elephants” are allowed to enjoy all benefits, including project allowance (an additional amount equal to one-third of monthly salary) and luxury SUVs because most of them hold important positions in the powerful CEB engineers’ union.They claim that the CEB management never holds to account any project manager responsible for long delays, but they are allowed to continue to enjoy all the perks. According to a senior engineer who works as a consultant on project-related work, this guarantee of “job security” acts as a strong incentive for the project engineers to prolong their projects.CEB employees believe another reason for this lackadaisical attitude of CEB top management is that foreign-funded projects have long been a steady source of luxury vehicles for CEB engineers.

Most vehicles used by top CEB engineers including the General Manager have been provided under different foreign-funded projects, as the existing government guidelines will not allow the purchase of such high-end SUVs having large engine capacity including premium European makes like Audi and Mercedes Benz for government officials.CEB employees complain that the Ministry of Power & Energy generally turns a blind eye to these irregularities mainly because the majority of project managers and their project engineers are top officials of the powerful engineers’ union.

They allege that even the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL,) which has the legal obligation to ensure CEB will not make unnecessary or wasteful investments in its transmission infrastructure, has never questioned CEB regarding assets that are idling for many years after spending billions of rupees of public money.

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Gota leaves Singapore after fleeing protesters at home

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(AFP) Former Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Thursday left Singapore where he had taken refuge following his escape from protesters at home, after he was given a visa only for about a month in the city-state.Rajapaksa flew into Singapore from the Maldives on July 14 after fleeing a deepening economic crisis and widespread protests in Sri Lanka. He tendered his resignation shortly after his arrival.Sri Lankans arriving in Singapore normally receive a 30-day visa, but authorities said they had initially given Rajapaksa only two weeks and later extended the visa by another two weeks.

“The Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) confirms that Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa left Singapore on 11 August,” Singapore’s immigration office said in reply to an AFP query.

It did not say where the former leader was headed but the Thai foreign ministry, as well as a source in Colombo, said Wednesday he was seeking a new safe haven in Thailand.Rajapaksa fled his nation after tens of thousands of protesters overran his official residence last month angry about acute shortages of food, fuel and medicine endured by Sri Lanka’s 22 million people since late last year.An international human rights group last month formally asked Singapore to indict Rajapaksa for crimes against humanity during his country’s decades-long civil war that ended in 2009.

The South Africa-based International Truth and Justice Project said it had urged Singapore to exercise universal jurisdiction to arrest the former president for grave breaches of international humanitarian law.Rajapaksa helmed Sri Lanka’s defence ministry while his brother Mahinda was president when the country’s brutal Tamil separatist conflict came to a bloody end.Singapore’s Attorney-General’s Chambers confirmed it had received a complaint from the rights group without giving details.

“His Singapore visa runs out on Thursday,” a close associate of Rajapaksa told AFP in Colombo on Wednesday.

“He had applied for an extension, but it had not come through as of Wednesday morning.”

The source said Rajapaksa now planned to go to Thailand for a short stay but return to Singapore.The Thai foreign ministry confirmed it had received a request from Colombo for the 73-year-old deposed leader to visit and an assurance that he would not seek political asylum.

“The Thai side received a request for the former president to enter Thailand from the current government of Sri Lanka,” ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said in a statement.

“The stay is temporary in nature with the aim of onward travel. No political asylum has been sought.”

The Rajapaksa confidant told AFP that the former leader was keen to return home as protests against his administration had fizzled out, but his successor Ranil Wickremesinghe had advised him against an early return.Singapore officials had said he was on a private visit to the city-state and the foreign minister stressed that he was not given any special privileges.

“In general, the Singapore government does not accord privileges, immunity and hospitality to former heads of state or heads of government,” Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a written reply to a question in parliament last week.

“Consequently, former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not accorded any privileges, immunity or hospitality.”

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Harsha won’t join cabinet, but urges All Party Govt. to implement his economic recovery plan

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Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) MP Dr. Harsha de Silva Friday (12) requested for the support of all political parties represented in Parliament for what he called a short-term programme meant to revive the national economy.The MP said so after submitting his set of proposals to the Parliament. The former non-cabinet ranker who served the previous UNP government said that he prepared the proposals in consultations with academics, specialists, professionals, politicians and ordinary people.

Declaring that he wouldn’t join the government under any circumstances, the economist assured his support to President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government through Parliament.Expressing confidence his proposals could secure the backing of external powers, the Colombo District lawmaker said that he received the blessings of Opposition political parties in this regard.

Lawmaker de Silva said that once the government took measures required to remedy the national economy the country could go for general election.The top SJB spokesperson said that Wickremesinghe’s all-party-government could adopt his proposals. Urging leaders of all political parties to support his initiative, the former UNPer said that depending on their support the administration could with the support of the public here and foreign governments overcome the daunting economic challenges. MP de Silva said that there was no point in his accepting a cabinet portfolio. The current crisis couldn’t be addressed by dispensing ministerial portfolios (SF)

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