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Sumanthiran leads MPs’ call: Postpone debt repayment now

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‘Deepening crisis cannot be addressed solely by meeting foreign loan obligations’

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M. A. Sumanthiran, PC, on behalf of several political parties, represented in Parliament, has requested the government to delay the repayment of foreign debt. Jaffna District MP and the TNA spokesperson Sumanthiran said that he had launched an effort to seek a consensus with his colleagues in his former capacity as the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Public Finance.  The group questioned the government strategy meant to address the deteriorating financial crisis.

The following is the text of the statement titled ‘A collective response to our economic crisis’ issued yesterday: “Sri Lanka is in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, causing severe hardship to all segments of our society, especially our working people and the poor.

Undoubtedly, the government has a daunting task ahead, and as a country there is a need for us all to come together to overcome this challenge.

At the same time, the government’s approach to resolving the crisis raises some serious questions. Its focus, almost solely on meeting foreign debt obligations, is draining the country of dollars needed for importing essentials for our people. The government’s emphasis on avoiding a default at any cost appears to be downplaying a fundamental question – can our people eat? After all, a country’s pride rests not only in repaying its loans, but also in ensuring no citizen goes to bed hungry.

Recognising this dire situation, a group of leaders from over half a dozen key political parties in Sri Lanka came together in a closed-door meeting on Thursday 27th January 2022, to brainstorm ways to tide over this crisis, given the responsibility we have towards the Sri Lankan people.

I approached parliamentary colleagues and party leaders, in my capacity as a former chairman of the Committee on Public Finance in Parliament. MPs came together in the knowledge that Parliament is expected to have full control of public finance, and that each MP, therefore, also has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the proper management of public finances in Sri Lanka.

The crisis, we noted, is of a proportion that is historically unprecedented for many reasons:

(1) The country’s ratings have fallen to the level of being blacklisted in international credit markets. Since April 2020, Sri Lanka has been locked out of borrowing using International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs) in the international market

(2) Repaying US dollar debt in this context means that the usable foreign reserves are down to below one month of imports – the lowest on record since independence.

(3) The ratio of interest on debt to government revenue was above 70% in 2020, a historical high for Sri Lanka, and amongst the highest in the world.

(4) The ratio of public debt compared to the value of Sri Lanka’s domestic production (GDP) is also the highest on record, at 120%. It skyrocketed, by almost 25 percentage points, in the last two years.

Each of these situations by themselves would spell a serious economic challenge. Occurring simultaneously, they threaten our future in both the short term and long term.

In this context, the Central Bank’s policy has been to hoard the scarce dollars to pay creditors in full and on time. This has fueled a shortage of dollars for the needs of our own people, and reduced imports of essential items such as food, medicines and fuel. We see the shortage manifesting in long queues for essential items and frequent power outages. The situation will only worsen over the year, if the government does not urgently shift gear and ensure adequate dollars are available to the Sri Lankan economy.

Already, the government’s rash chemical fertilizer policy has impacted farmers across Sri Lanka, leaving us with an imminent food crisis. The government’s current policy path on debt management, as it was in the case of fertilizer policy, is exacerbating the crisis, without a sensible or viable solution in sight.

Our recent meeting provided a platform for political leaders to share the concerns of their constituencies and identify the critical issues that require urgent attention. There was wide acknowledgement that the Central Bank hoarding dollars to make lump-sum debt payments was leading to a shortage of dollars to procure essential supplies within the country. This is resulting in severe economic hardships for the people of Sri Lanka and long-term damage to the economy, while providing windfall gains to the holders of Sri Lanka’s Sovereign Bonds.

We agreed that Sri Lanka should take immediate measures to protect the poor from the adverse impact of this economic crisis, and postpone repaying its debt as a first step. Participating MPs also felt that we need sound reform to the national economic policy to address the root causes of the crisis and ensure sustainable solutions.

This group of political leaders agreed to continue engaging and working together towards ensuring justice for the people of Sri Lanka, through solutions that are sustainable. We must steer the country out of this unprecedented economic crisis, and forge an equitable and just future for our future generations.”



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Contentious Chinese research vessel docks in Maldives

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Xiang Yang Hong 03 has previously visited Indian Ocean on several other occasions

A contentious Chinese research ship reached the Maldives on Thursday in the latest sign of the archipelago’s diplomatic reorientation towards Beijing and away from its traditional benefactor India.

Local residents said they had spotted China’s Xiang Yang Hong 3 at the Thilafushi industrial port near the capital Male.The 100-metre-long (328-foot) vessel was at an anchorage near Male on Thursday evening, according to the website Marinetraffic.

The Maldives’ pro-Beijing government said earlier the vessel was docking for a port call to rotate crew and take on supplies, on the condition that it would not conduct “research” while in its territorial waters.

Media reports in India had suggested that the vessel was conducting surveillance for Beijing.

India is suspicious of China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean and its influence in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, which are strategically placed halfway along key east-west international shipping routes.Relations between Male and New Delhi have chilled since pro-China President Mohamed Muizzu won elections last year.

Muizzu has asked India to withdraw 89 security personnel based in the Maldives to operate reconnaissance aircraft by March 15.But the president has also insisted he does not want to upend ties with New Delhi by replacing Indian troops with Chinese forces.

Sri Lanka refused entry to Xiang Yang Hong 3 after two other port calls from Chinese vessels since 2022 raised objections from India.That included the ship Yuan Wang 5, which specializes in spacecraft tracking and which New Delhi described as a spy ship. (AFP)

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MP Harsha in Australia as “Special visitor”

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Harsha de Silva

Opposition MP and Chairman of the Committee on Public Finance (COPF) Harsha de Silva is currently in Australia as a special visitor.

Taking to ‘X’, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP said he had embarked on a nine-day visit on an invitation extended by the Government of Australia.

“My engagements with policymakers, academics, scientists and investment managers began in Melbourne and will continue in Adelaide and then public officials and politicians in Canberra,” he added.

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ADB country chief hopes Lanka could sustain policy reforms despite elections

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Takafumi Kadono

ECONOMYNEXT –The Asian Development Bank (ADB) expects Sri Lanka not to reverse its International Monetary Fund-led policy reforms despite elections soon, the ADB Country Director for Sri Lanka Takafumi Kadono said.

The island nation has witnessed repeated reversals of policy reforms in the past due to greedy politicians who misled  the people to vote for them by sowing the seeds of subsidy mentality with unsustainable debts at expensive borrowing costs, economists say.

That led the country into an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022 with a sovereign debt default. Sri Lanka is still struggling to come out of the crisis.

The IMF has strictly placed some reforms including in state sector enterprises, fiscal and monetary sectors.

Sri Lanka has implemented the painful IMF reforms so far including higher personal income taxes, but economists have raised concerns over the sustainability of the current reforms due to possible changes in the policies in the event of a new president or government comes to power after democratic elections.

“If that kind of reversal happens, we also cannot justify our support,” ADB Country Director for Sri Lanka Takafumi Kadono told EconomyNext on late on Wednesday.

“We do expect these policy reforms to be sustained. So that is our expectation. That is the premise which we are providing our budget support. If they reverse, the whole premise will be collapsed. That kind of policy reversal cannot happen.”

The island nation had sought IMF bailout package for 17 times including the ongoing support. However, the authorities have failed to complete most of the past IMF loan disbursements due to politically motivated contradiction with the global lender’s tight fiscal policies.

Sri Lanka has shown some signs of recovery in the third quarter of 2023 with the economic growth turned to positive from contraction for the first time in seven quarters.

However, opposition political parties have promised to revisit the IMF deal if they come to power.

Higher taxes, soaring cost of living, and lack of salary hike have made President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government unpopulour among the public, analysts say.

Wickremesinghe has said the country will hold both presidential and parliamentary election by 2025.

Some government politicians have told EconomyNext that the higher taxes would be eased from April and the authorities will try their best to meet the IMF conditions for the third disbursement in June this year.

The presidential polls should be held by October this year, but opposition parties have said President Wickremesinghe is in the process to delay the poll.

However, Wickremesinghe’s office last week said Presidential Election will be held “within the mandated period”, without giving an exact time.It also said the General Election will be held next year, “according to the current timeline”.

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