Washington tweets its
concern of the strategic island’s indebtedness to Beijing
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother have a difficult economic path ahead of them but can count on financial favors as China, India, the U.S. and Japan vie for influence.
Asia regional correspondent , Nikkei Asian Review
BANGKOK — Sri Lankan voters have already detected a whiff of what the electoral landslide won by the country’s most influential political clan earlier this week means to the international community, or at least what it means to India, the U.S. and Japan.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the tone by going on a charm blitz. He called and tweeted at his counterpart, caretaker Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, part of that political clan, even before the final results were in, giving the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, a Rajapaksa political vehicle, 146 seats in the 225-member legislature.
“We will work together to further advance all areas of bilateral cooperation and to take our special ties to ever new heights,” Modi tweeted on Thursday, one day after the general elections.
Hours later, the U.S. embassy in Colombo, the island’s commercial capital, reached out, also on Twitter. “As the new parliament convenes,” the tweet says, “we hope the government will renew its commitments to building an inclusive economic recovery, upholding human rights and the rule of law, and protecting the country’s sovereignty.”
That “sovereignty” nudge was a reminder of the massive amount of loans Sri Lanka has taken from China for infrastructure projects, one of which two years ago prompted The New York Times to write this headline: “How China Got Sri Lanka To Cough Up A Port.” That was a dig at the $1.5 billion southern port in Hambantota, built with Chinese loans, that the debt-strapped Sri Lankan government gave to the Chinese on a 99-year lease as part of a $1.1 billion debt swap.
The Sri Lankan public was not privy, however, to the mood inside the Chinese embassy on Friday, following the pro-China Rajapaksas’ triumph. They are “so happy,” was the sentiment making the rounds within some Colombo-based diplomatic circles.
Foreign policy insiders in the country regard these rhetorical cues as a hint of the “diplomatic balancing act” that looms for the new government in Sri Lanka, increasingly wooed by China, India, the U.S. and Japan, all covetous of the island’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean.
Yet, the foreign policy insiders are sanguine. The decisive electoral mandate won by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, or SLPP, will afford the Rajapaksas enough political stability to chart a firmer diplomatic course.
“One thing out of the way with the general elections is we will not have partisan quarrels over foreign policy,” said a veteran Sri Lankan diplomat, referring to the previous coalition government, one marked by disunity when it came to foreign relations with China, India and the U.S. “The people’s mandate gives the government a stable domestic platform to deal with foreign powers.”
The elections cemented the Rajapaksas’ political comeback after a five-year lapse. In November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s younger brother, won a sweeping mandate in the presidential election. The brothers had risen to dominate the country for a decade during Mahinda’s two terms as president, which came to an end in January 2015.
It was during Mahinda’s presidency that Sri Lanka tilted
toward China, ending decades of influence that India had enjoyed. Beijing poured in military assets that enabled the Rajapaksas to end Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war and followed it up with billions of dollars worth of infrastructure loans to help revive the war-shattered economy.
The general elections also serve as a reminder: Foreign-funded infrastructure projects and foreign assistance have become political fodder and will pose an early foreign policy challenge for the Rajapaksa brothers’ new administration.
On the eve of the elections, a Colombo port trade union with ties to the Rajapaksa camp launched a protest to stop the development of a container terminal that India, Japan and Sri Lanka agreed to build last year.
Likewise, speakers on SLPP platforms during the campaign opposed Sri Lanka signing a deal for a $480 million grant from the U.S. government under its so-called Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is aimed at improving logistics and transportation on the island. Anti-U.S. sentiment was also stoked by Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which mentions Sri Lanka and a need to counter China’s presence in the nation.
According to Palitha Kohona, a former Sri Lankan foreign secretary, it will be difficult to ignore the national mood laid bare during the elections. “There is pressure on the government not to hand over the terminal to Japan and India … and the political mood is entirely against the MCC,” Kohona said. “It is also a reaction that you cannot conduct foreign policy by giving out bits and pieces of our real estate.”
Seasoned geopolitical observers reckon that New Delhi, Tokyo and Washington recognize the edge China will enjoy under a Rajapaksa administration. “India, Japan and the U.S. have long been concerned that Sri Lanka may go down Pakistan’s path: become another country in South Asia that is heavily indebted to China,” said Aparna Pande, director for the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think-tank.
“[But] what Delhi-Tokyo-Washington will need to understand is that Colombo has access to a constant tap of dollars from Beijing,” Pande added, “and that they will need to be willing to disburse more money if they want to play the game.”
Well-placed sources within Sri Lanka’s financial sector point to the country’s need for a financial lifeline as the $88 billion economy teeters on the brink of a worsening crisis. The island’s international reserves have shrunk to $6.5 billion, and growth is forecast to contract by 1.3% this year, a further drop from the 2.5% in 2019, the worst in 18 years.
Gotabaya has already made desperate appeals to India and China for relief from mounting external debt payments that will average over $4 billion a year until 2024. China has already stepped forward with a $500 million loan. India has pledged $450 million.
“We need every dollar we can lay our hands on,” said the head of a Colombo-based financial sector company. “The Rajapaksas cannot antagonize our allies — they need foreign friends, not foreign enemies, to tap funds.”
Japan, which holds 10% of Sri Lanka’s debt, a share matched by China, will matter in this equation. It appears not to have been lost in Tokyo’s tweet to congratulate the new Rajapaksa administration.
“Japan, as a long-standing friend of Sri Lanka, will continue to support Sri Lanka’s effort towards further development as a hub of the Indian Ocean region,” it said.
20A passed at first reading stage amidst protests from SJB
By Saman Indrajith
The 20th Amendment Bill was passed yesterday in Parliament at the first reading stage amidst protests from the SJB.
Justice Minister Ali Sabry presented the Bill to the House.
SJB members who were wearing black armbands and badges with ‘No to 20’ printed on them shouted. They held placards denouncing the 20th Amendment.
Some SJB MPs were seen coming from their desks to the Well of the House, and then the government MPs too came down and shouted, ‘Yes to 20’.
Serjeant-at-Arms Narendra Fernando and his deputy Kushan Jayaratne were seen standing before the Mace
Trade Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardane moved a number of Orders under the Special Commodity Levy Act for debate.
Seconding the move, Samurdhi, Household Economy, Micro Finance, Self-Employment, Business Development and Underutilised State Resources Development State Minister Shehan Semasinghe said that the Opposition should have raised their concerns elsewhere.
“They can now go before court and express their concerns. They have one more option. That is to secure a two-third majority in Parliament and defeat the Bill. Without doing any of them they shout here to disrupt sittings and thereby waste public funds. We remember how they behaved when they were in power; they brought in several no-confidence motions. They did so after suspending the Standing Orders of the House. The then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya suspended Standing Orders to allow JVP MP Vijitha Herath to move a motion. We do not act in such undemocratic manner. People have given us a mandate to do away with the 19th Amendment. We act according to that mandate.”
SJB Kegalle District MP Kabir Hashim:
There are two groups in this House. One group ruled this country for 20 years. We were in power for five years.
If they say that they need more powers to develop this country that is a joke.
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa said the TV camera was not focussed on MP Hashim.
SJB MPs shouted demanding that the camera be focussed on him
If this is the manner the government ensuring the rights of MPs before the 20th Amendment, what will happen to us after it becomes law?
Have you been able to bring down the price of a single commodity after coming to power? When you came to power in 1994 you promised to abolish the executive presidency, and do away with the open economic policies. You did not do so. Mahinda Rajapaksa too came to power on the same promises. But his government did not honour thems. Today, we are staging this protest to save the powers of the Prime Minister not for our sake. Do you remember the Subha and Yasa story. A palace guard and the king exchanged their places for the fun of it. But the guard did not give back the throne to the king. He remained in the position and even killed the King. The same will happen here when the 20th Amendment is passed.
Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage:
This is a government of the people. We will not do anything against people’s aspirations. We uphold democracy. During the times when you were in the government you did not hold elections. There are many MPs in the opposition today who want to join our government. By this morning there were 17 opposition MPs who wanted to join us. We will get 20 MPs from the Opposition to secure the passage of this Bill. You do not worry about saving the powers of the Prime Minister. We will see to that. You passed the 19th Amendment to prevent the Rajapaksas from coming to power. The Opposition paints a dismal picture of the 20th Amendment. Former Minister Hashim laments about the prices of commodities. Tell me the price of a coconut. Tell me. You cannot because you do not know. You do not know because you are living in luxury away from people. Today a coconut is Rs 70 in the market. You are not with the people that is why you lost the election.
Industry Minister Wimal Weerawansa raising a point of order said that MPs could not demand that the camera be focussed on them. “Whenever there is a protest in the House, the camera should focus either on the Speaker or the Mace. That is the procedure. It was introduced by the former Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara.”
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa:
We register our opposition and frustration over the 20th Amendment. This amendment has provisions that will erode democratic values.
Speaker berates opposition for resorting to harangue at question time
By Saman Indrajith
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena yesterday (22) reprimanded the Opposition MPs for wasting the time of the House. He said that MPs should not make speeches when raising questions listed in the Order Paper because only one hour had been allotted for the question time.
He said so when Ratnapura District SJB MP Hesha Withanage raised supplementary questions and made a lengthy speech.
Withanage demanded to know from the Prime Minister the number of Cabinet ministers in governments since 1978.
Responding on behalf of the Prime Minister Chief of the Government Whip Highways Minister Johnston Fernando said that there had been nine parliaments since 1978 and there had been different numbers of Cabinet ministers in those government. He said that the first parliament in 1978 had 25 cabinet ministers and the second parliament in 1989 had 21 cabinet ministers. The third parliament in 1994 had 23 cabinet and 31 deputy ministers with a total of 54. The fourth parliament of 2000 had 42 cabinet and 36 deputy ministers with a total of 78. The Fifth Parliament of 2001 had 25 cabinet, 27 non-cabinet and eight deputy ministers with a total of 60. The sixth parliament of 2004 had 31 cabinet, three non-cabinet and 31 deputy ministers with a total of 65. The seventh parliament of 2010 had 37 cabinet 39 deputy ministers with a total of 76 ministers. The eighth parliament of 2015 had 45 cabinet and 38 state ministers making a total of 87 ministers. The eighth parliament of 2019 had 16 cabinet and 38 state ministers with a total of 54. The ninth parliament of 2020 has 27 cabinet and 40 state ministers with a total of 67.
The first and second parliaments of 1978 and 1989 had one female cabinet minister each. Third parliament of 1994 had three cabinet and five deputy female ministers with a total eight female members. The Fourth parliament of 2000 had four female cabinet ministers. The fifth parliament of 2001 had only one female cabinet minister. The sixth parliament of 2004 had three female cabinet ministers. The seventh parliament of 2010 had two female cabinet ministers and one female deputy minister post making it three female ministers. The eighth parliament of 2015 had a total number of six female ministerial posts – two cabinet, two state and two deputy posts. The eighth parliament of 2019 had one female cabinet minister. The ninth parliament of 2020 has one female cabinet minister and two female state ministers with a total of three.
The highest percentage of female ministers was in 1994 with 13.04% and the lowest was in 2020 with 3.7 percent, Minister Fernando said.
Responding to the question the percentage of female ministers in the present government, Minister Fernando said it was 3.6. He said the figure was the same as the percentage of female representation in Parliament.
When the time came for the supplementary questions, MP Withanage said that if the funds spent on the number of Cabinet ministers since 1978 had been spent for the development, the country would have been in a better position. Then he lamented that the percentage of female members in parliament did not tally with the population’s female percentage. Thereafter, he said that under the previous government a ceiling on the number of Cabinet ministers had been imposed and the incumbent government was planning to remove it. He asked how the government would justify the proposed increase in the number of ministers.
Speaker Abeywardena intervened and said the MPs could not be allowed to make speeches making use of time allocated for questions. “You should ask only supplementary question. This cannot be permitted. We have to give consideration to the time. We move on to the next item in the order paper.”
S.M. Marikkar raising a point of order said that the government Cabinet, state and deputy ministerial posts to serve their people. The Opposition MPs had only one opportunity and that was by raising the people’s questions. “That is our right. Do not deprive us of our right,” MP Marikkar said.
The Speaker said that his concern too was to ensure the MPs’ rights and for that purpose time had to be managed.
Minister Fernando said that MP Withanage had not raised a single supplementary question and made a speech instead and, therefore, if the latter could raise a specific question the government was ready to answer them.
20A challenged in SC
A petition was filed in the Supreme Court by Indika Gallage, a lawyer, yesterday, challenging the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. The petitioner has requested the Court to declare that a referendum and a two-thirds majority in Parliament are needed for the passage of the 20th Amendment.
Gallage has made the Attorney General the respondent. The petition claims that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution violates Articles 01, 03, 04 (d,) 12.1, 14 (1) g, 27 (2) and 27 (3.)
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