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Sri Lanka voters hand Rajapaksa strength to face India and China

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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.

MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR,

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.

 



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SC: Anti-Terrorism Bill needs approval at referendum and 2/3 majority to become law

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Certain sections inconsistent with Constitution

By Saman Indrajith

Deputy Speaker Ajith Rajapaksa informed Parliament yesterday that the Supreme Court (SC) has determined that some sections of the Anti-Terrorism Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution and, therefore, the Bill had to be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum.

Rajapaksa said that the Supreme Court had determined that the Sections 3, 4, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 72 (2), 75 (3) and 83 (7) of the draft Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution.

The SC has determined that sections 3, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 75 (3) should be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum if they are to become law.

Sections 4 and 72 (2) of the Bill have to be amended as per the SC determination.

Section 83 (7) requires passage by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

However, the SC had stated that it could be passed by a simple majority if the recommended amendments are accommodated, Rajapaksa said.

Opposition MPs say the Anti-Terrorism Bill is being introduced in an election year to repress Opposition parties.They said the proposed law is a threat to democracy itself.

“This Bill is being presented not at a time of terrorism prevailing in the country but during an election period. The Bill has not defined nor analysed what a terrorist is. Anyone can be arrested,” SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said.

The MP said both the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the controversial Online Safety law were meant to quell democracy.

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Harin’s claim that SL is part of India: Govt. says it is his personal opinion

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Manusha accuses Wimal of having taken parts of Fernando’s speech out of context

By Saman Indrajith

Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara told NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa in Parliament to refrain from taking chunks of others’ speeches out of context and misinterpreting them for political mileage.

The Minister said so following concerns raised by Weerawansa over a recent statement by Tourism Minister Harin Fernando on India-Sri Lanka relationships.

Weerawansa said that Minister Fernando had recently stated that Sri Lanka was a part of India. “Was it Minister Fernando’s personal opinion or the government’s official standpoint? Was it the opinion of the Cabinet?”

Chief Government Whip Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said what Minister Fernando had stated was the latter’s personal opinion.

Minister Nanayakkara: “If anyone has read the entire statement made by Minister Fernando this type of question would not have arisen. The Tourism Minister was referring to historical relationships between India and Sri Lanka to ask Indians to visit Sri Lanka.

A distorted version of the speech by Minister Fernando is being circulated on social media. Certain parts have been removed while some words have been introduced to this edited version. Ones should read the statement in its entirety to understand it. We have not discussed this in the Cabinet meeting” Minister Nanayakkara said.

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US backs Lankan journalists vis-a-vis Online Safety law

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Kumar Nadesan, Chairman Board of Directors of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (left) Elizabeth Allen ( Centre) and US Ambassador Chung (pic courtesy US embassy)

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Elizabeth Allen on Monday (19) declared US support for journalists here against the backdrop of enactment of ‘Online Safety Bill’

She spokes about press freedom and related issues at the Sri Lanka Press Institute Press Club.

A statement issued by the US Embassy quoted Allen as having said the U.S. Embassy is all in on supporting your incredible work. Sure, we might bump heads over a story now and then, but above all, we’re your biggest fans. We’re all in on programmes that hone your skills because we believe in your right to pursue journalism freely and fearlessly.

I want to thank you for protecting the rights and freedoms of journalists here in Sri Lanka and around the world, ensuring all citizens enjoy the right to express their ideas and opinions openly and freely. Even in difficult times, you continue to press forward and ask difficult questions. Your commitment to seeking out the truth and shouting it from the rooftops remains a democratic staple, and I truly appreciate what you do.

It’s only fitting that I begin my remarks this afternoon by telling a story that I think is relevant in light of today’s topic about the media’s role in a democracy.

Over a century ago, American media coined the term “muckraker” for journalists who delved into societal issues, exposing corruption.

Although the term carried a somewhat negative connotation, labeling these journalists as mere “gossip mongers,” today, we honor them as the pioneers of investigative journalism.

These muckrakers played a pivotal role in ushering in the Progressive Era, a time of significant social and political reform in American history.

Even President Theodore Roosevelt referred to them as “muckrakers,” criticizing their focus on society’s flaws through figures like Lincoln Steffens, whose work shed light on corruption and spurred a nationwide call for accountability and reform.

Steffens’ book ‘The Shame of the Cities,’ published in 1904, made him renowned for uncovering corruption within American cities, highlighting the nefarious links between political leaders, businesses, and organized crime.

His fearless journalism raised critical awareness about the urgent need for governmental and corporate accountability. Steffens wasn’t acting as a public relations officer for the government; his role was to uncover the truth; however unpleasant it might be.

Faced with the stark realities Steffens presented, American officials and the public were compelled to confront a pivotal question: ‘Is this the kind of country we aspire to be?’ The resounding answer was no.

Steffens’ work didn’t just expose wrongdoing; it sparked a nationwide demand for reform and played a crucial role in fostering a dialogue about the essential role of investigative journalism in ensuring power remains accountable.

This story showcases how freedom of the press and freedom of expression are not just fundamental human rights, they are also vital contributors to a country’s development and growth.

This brings me to my main point: how the global media space supports democracy and fosters peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.

In my mind, the correlation is obvious: When a government constricts the rights and freedoms of its citizens, the future and the development of the country will naturally suffer.

Globally, we’re witnessing serious and escalating challenges to media freedom. The United States stands firmly for the freedom of expression, advocating for press freedom both online and offline, and ensuring the safety of journalists and media workers worldwide. Unfortunately, these essential freedoms are under threat globally, including concerns raised here in Sri Lanka.

When governments intensify efforts to withhold information from the public by restricting internet access and censoring content, we must speak up. Notably, when Sri Lanka’s Parliament passed the Online Safety Bill in January, the United States voiced concerns over its potential effects on freedom of expression, innovation, and privacy.

It’s common to hear arguments against unfettered freedom of expression. Critics claim the media is biased, aiming to embarrass governments and undermine public trust. Others worry that without checks, freedom of expression may fuel the spread of misinformation. Some argue that an unchecked press can incite tension and compromise security. And there’s concern that continuous reports on corruption, violence, and political strife can tarnish a nation’s image, deterring investment and hampering development.

However, the media’s bias should lean towards the public’s interest, acting as a guardian to ensure that leaders fulfill their duties. This principle holds in Sri Lanka, the United States, and globally.

The challenge of negative press, often labeled as “fake news” or “biased journalism,” is not new. For generations, governments and the media have navigated a complex, sometimes adversarial relationship. This dynamic isn’t unique to any one nation; in the United States, for instance, presidents from both major political parties have experienced their share of friction with the press. This tension, a hallmark of democratic societies, plays a crucial role in fostering transparency and encouraging effective governance. It’s a familiar scene: politicians and journalists engage in heated exchanges, especially when leaders feel their actions are misrepresented, leading to accusations of inaccuracies and biased reporting.

The press’s duty is to deliver facts as they stand, shedding light on the government’s achievements as well as spotlighting areas where policies or programs fall short. This transparency not only informs the public but also strengthens the nation as it encourages constructive action and improvement.

And suppressing voices only complicates matters further. Attempting to conceal issues rather than addressing them is akin to hiding a broken tool rather than fixing it. True progress comes from collaborative dialogue, even if it means embracing the messiness of public discourse.”

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