Govt. launches two-pronged battle here and abroad
= CEB and CPC face major crisis and consumers may have to pay for it
= South Africa takes initiative to revive Govt.-TNA talks on reconciliation
There is no one who is busier than President Mahinda Rajapaksa over the upcoming North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provincial Council elections.
Without the glare of publicity, in the past days he has been chairing meetings with MPs of different districts in the three provinces. Co-opted to help them and given specific areas to campaign are cabinet ministers. All of them have been told that they should work towards ensuring a higher percentage of votes than the previous 2008 elections for the UPFA.
It has become priority number one for Rajapaksa for many reasons. More than three years after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, he wants to demonstrate that the voters have endorsed his government’s achievements including the ongoing development programmes. The message to be delivered, both domestically and internationally, is that the Rajapaksa administration is having the full backing of the people. To achieve its goal, the government has intensified welfare measures. Farmers hard hit by the prevailing drought are receiving water pumps. Housing assistance is being provided to those wanting to improve their abodes. Ahead of the nominations, where it is legally permissible, hundreds received jobs. This week, Rs. 1.5 billion was set apart for development work in the North Central Province alone.
In the 2008 elections to the North Central Province, the UPFA polled 56.37 per cent of the 573,522 votes polled. The United National Party (UNP), its closest rival, came second with 37.64 per cent. This is despite the UNP contesting together with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). The SLMC, though a constituent partner in the ruling coalition, is going it alone this time. In Sabaragamuwa, the UPFA polled 55.34 per cent as against the UNP’s 40.53 per cent from a total of 901,673 votes polled. In the Eastern Province where 646,456 votes were polled, the UPFA won 52.21 per cent whilst the UNP obtained 42.38 per cent. Despite the increase in voter strength in all three provinces, the UPFA’s chances are very much brighter in both the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. However, the multi-ethnic composition of the voter strength in the Eastern Province coupled with the widespread unpopularity of former Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Piliyan’s administration had dipped the popularity of the UPFA. This time, the SLMC has fielded candidates in the east on its own. The demographic composition of the three districts, according to 2007 statistics of the Department of Census, in the eastern province is as follows: Ampara — Muslims 44 per cent, Sinhalese 37.5 per cent and Tamils 18.3 per cent. Batticaloa — Tamils 74 per cent, Muslims 25 per cent and Sinhalese 0.5 per cent. Trincomalee — Muslims 45.4 per cent, Tamils 28.6 per cent and Sinhalese 25.4 per cent. There has of course been a proportionate growth since then.
The murky politics in the east was muddied further by remarks made by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem. He told an election meeting in Sainthamaruthu in the Ampara District that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had successfully eradicated terrorism. In similar fashion, he said, Rajapaksa should eradicate what he called “yellow robed terrorism”. Hakeem was alluding to complaints of reported attacks on at least two mosques during the holy month of Ramadan. The remarks touched a raw nerve among members of the Buddhist clergy. There were strong protests by them over the leader of a constituent party of the UPFA making such remarks. Equally hurt or even embarrassed were a vast number of Muslims themselves. In the light of racial tension, the result of extremists in various communities fanning the flames of communalism, some had arranged for members of the Buddhist clergy and leading Buddhist citizens to attend Ifthar ceremonies which mark the end of the day’s fasting. Muslims partake in a pre-dawn meal and remain without food or water until sunset.
An angry Udaya Gammanpilla Deputy Secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a constituent partner of the UPFA along with the SLMC told the Sunday Times, “Rauf Hakeem’s statement clearly reflects the duplicity and double standards of the SLMC and his own. When he speaks in Sinhala and English in the South he praises the Sinhala monks and Buddhism. However, when he speaks in Tamil in the East, he insults the same monks labelling them yellow-robed terrorists. He has forgotten that the majority of the country praises Buddhist monks and consider them sacred. In this backdrop he has done irreparable damage to Sinhalese and Muslims by aiming for short-term electoral gains.”
Gammanpilla added, “I am confident that Muslims in the east are mature enough not to be deceived by hate speeches made by Mr. Hakeem. I urge the people in the east to denounce and defeat extremists elements who cause damage to national amity and unity.”
Even some of Hakeem’s UPFA colleagues were embarrassed. So much so, official government spokesperson, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella who is quick to respond aggressively to media queries told the post-cabinet news briefing on Thursday that the matter would be investigated. Faizer Musthapha, Deputy Minister of Technology and Research, told the Sunday Times, “Buddhists are very compassionate and have tolerance. For the past 30 years all communities have been divided. But after the end of the conflict all communities are living united.
Mr. Hakeem’s statement could be harmful to the national reconciliation process. He has now realised the gravity of his statement and he has decided to withdraw it.”
Added UPFA national list parliamentarian A.H.M. Azwer, “I will not agree with the statement made by Mr. Hakeem. It also insults the Muslim community. This will hinder the chances of winning the rights of our community in a democratic manner. As a founder of the SLMC, he should not have made that statement. In the past Muslim leaders worked towards ethnic harmony. Three-fourths of the Muslim population are living among the Sinhalese and we have cultivated a very good and healthy relationship. We have won their confidence. We should not antagonise them nor give cause for any misgivings.”
Senior Minister A.H.M. Fowzie said, “no comment.”By Friday, more angry reactions prompted Hakeem to tender a public apology. If he had hurt the susceptibilities of the Maha Sangha, the Maha Nayaka Theras and the Jathika Hela Urumaya, he said, he was tendering an apology without any reservation. Hakeem was campaigning in the east and was not available for comment. According to the statement issued in Tamil, Hakeem said he had referred to the incidents that have caused unrest among the Muslims. He said he took the “full responsibility” for making the controversial remarks.
In marked contrast to President Rajapaksa, his main rival in the political fray in the PC polls, Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is very much in the glare of publicity. It is, however, for the wrong reasons. Deep divisions within the party came to the fore again when a group of ‘revisionists’ went to two different courts challenging the decision of the UNP Working Committee to amend the party constitution to allow a party leader to hold office for six years. They said it was illegal.
A third case was filed before Colombo District Judge Dhammika Ganepola by Mahen Gunasekera, a former MP from Minuwangoda and a lawyer, challenging the UNP Working Committee for changing the constitution of the National Lawyers Association, an affiliate body of the party and electing a new set of office-bearers without the knowledge of the majority of the membership. The Judge issued an enjoining order preventing the new office-bearers from functioning in their positions till August 23 when the inquiry will be held by court.
Priyantha Fernando, District Judge, Mount Lavinia issued an interim injunction restraining the UNP from giving effect – until August 22 when the case will be taken up for inquiry – to the amendments passed at the Working Committee meeting on July 19. This case was filed by Southern province Councillor Maithri Gunaratne. On the same day Western province Councillor Srilal Viranttha Lakthillake went before Colombo District Judge Dhammika Ganepola who however ordered that notice be issued on the same 85 Working Committee members to appear before him on August 23. No interim relief was given. These twin cases were over the decision of the Working Committee on July 19 to amend the UNP Constitution.
In terms of the existing provisions of the UNP constitution (Article 8.1), the leader of the UNP, deputy leader, assistant leader, national organiser and the chairman of the party will have to be selected by the Executive Committee. On occasions when there is no unanimity, an electoral college comprising the Executive Committee and the UNP Parliamentary Group will elect such officials through a secret ballot. Article 8.7 of the same constitution says that such elected persons would serve a one year term.
The move to amend the UNP constitution to change this goes back to December 19 last year. This was during the election of officials for the first time since the UNP constitution was amended. Groups that expected leader Wickremesinghe to lose the vote attacked Sri Kotha, the party headquarters in Kotte causing considerable damage. Whilst launching a fund-raising campaign to repair it, Wickremesinghe appointed a four-member committee to probe the incidents. It was headed by Srinath Perera, President’s Counsel and comprised Nissanka Nanayakkara, Rajiv Seneviratne and Upali Perera. The six point findings of the committee (in their six page report) laid the blame on the party seniors Karu Jayasuriya, Sajith Premadasa and Dayasiri Jayasekera for the incidents. They held that the trio’s supporters were responsible for the attacks and the damage to the party office. However, all three flatly denied they instigated the attacks.
Of the three who were accused, Jayasekera has become the focal point of attention in the party after meetings he held both with President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He is reported to have also met with Namal Rajapaksa at a cricket club in Colombo. The meeting with the President had taken place at the residence of a businessman who is also chairman of a state venture. UPFA cabinet ministers began to speak in whispers that Jayasekera had sought a cabinet portfolio. It had been refused but he had been offered an ‘important’ deputy minister post, they claimed. This was to trigger an avalanche of telephone calls and visits to Jayasekera’s Colombo residence by senior UNPers. Jayasekera broke down in tears when former deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya visited him to appeal that he should not leave the party. In an unusual move, Jayasuriya took it upon himself to announce at a news conference that Jayasekera would not leave the UNP. On Friday, Jayasekera, who was preparing to campaign for the party at the upcoming PC polls, had bad news. He was told by the party hierarchy that he was not needed at the rallies planned in Kegalle and Anuradhapura. On Friday, Jayasekera scotched intense speculation in ministerial circles that he would make a statement in Parliament and sit as an independent MP. He told a confidant he would continue to watch the situation in the “next three to four months”.
It is amidst all these concerns that Wickremesinghe is spearheading the UNP election campaign together with his party seniors. With donors to the party diminishing, funds for the campaign are scarce. With a fractured party, even offering help to those affected by the drought, giving employment to those who are jobless or providing new shelters to the needy have all become difficult tasks. The UNP cannot match the resources available to the UPFA. In this backdrop, questions on the future of the UNP will become relevant on the basis of its performance at the polls. The bottom line is whether the party’s popularity at the grassroots level has enhanced or eroded, whether the party is prepared for a possible snap presidential poll next year and most importantly whether the party has become far too Colombo centric.
Of course, there are a multitude of issues on which the main opposition, the UNP, could have easily capitalised politically. One is the ‘Z’ score system of marking for GCE-A level students – most of them 18 years and over and therefore registered voters already. The issue has become a nightmare both for students and parents alike. On Thursday, 382 students were allowed leave to proceed in a fundamental rights petition filed in the Supreme Court. No opposition party has so far thought it fit to move a motion for the appointment of a parliamentary select committee and spelt out clearly the reasons why they were seeking one. At best their exhortations have been to call for government action which has not been forthcoming for months now. On the other hand, spokesperson Rambukwella, in his usual fervour, declared that “not one student will be made a victim of the ‘Z’ score system”.
And now, President Rajapaksa wants to appoint a commission of inquiry though what other commissions found out so far has never entered the public domain. Another issue is the distribution of adulterated diesel by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). If the first scandal to hit the CPC was the adulteration of petrol, for which no heads rolled despite an official inquiry, the second early this year came when kerosene was found to be adulterated. No one responsible was punished.
On Thursday, Petroleum Industries Minister Susil Premajayantha called upon four members of the CPC board of directors to tender their resignation. Only three others who hold ex officio positions — one representing trade unions, one from the Ministry of Petroleum Industries and another who is the Treasury representative — have been allowed to remain. The four told to quit are Dayananda Vidanagamachchi (Acting Chairman), Lakshman Gunawardena, Methsiri Wijegunawardena and Champika Amarasekara.
Tilak Collure, who served as Administrative Officer has been appointed as the new acting chairman. Other members of the new board are Susantha Silva, Hans Wijesuriya and Nalin Pattikirikorala.
Minister Premajayantha told the Sunday Times the provisions of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) Act under which the appointment of a chairman and a board of directors are made are explained in the letters issued to them. The idea, he said, was to remind them of their duties and functions as required by law. They have to play their role to prevent any form of malpractice or irregularities. “I have asked my Ministry Secretary to write to the Auditor General to carry out a full audit of the financial activity of the CPC from the beginning of this year. I want to ask the chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) to summon those who will be found responsible for misdemeanours before the Committee and questioned,” he said.
He added that the audits for 2010 and 2011 had already been carried out by the Auditor General. When pointed out that the AG would only go into the financial aspects and not adulteration, if there was any, Premajayantha said, “that aspect has been gone into by the three-member committee I appointed. I will take action on that when I receive the report on Monday.”
Last month, on a recommendation by Minister Premajayantha, the Cabinet decided that his Ministry should “make all endeavours to enter into term contracts for the supply of petroleum products, preferably with extended credit facilities, in lieu of the present practice of spot buying on a weekly basis.” Asked to comment on this decision, Premajayantha said this would ensure “a transparent system of procurements”. Tenders will be called through advertisements in the national media and the best offer particularly by those who refine petroleum products in foreign countries would be considered. In the case of “spot buying,” the Petroleum Industries Minister said even third parties who trade in petroleum products win contracts though they have no refining facilities.
However, the Sunday Times learnt that the cabinet of ministers last month endorsed a recommendation by the Special Standing Cabinet Appointed Procurement Committee on purchases of petroleum products from June 1 to June 30 this year. Covering cabinet approval was granted following recommendations of the Committee as well as the Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) for purchases during the period mentioned. It is not immediately clear whether the contaminated stocks of diesel were also procured during this period and thus won cabinet approval. If indeed that was the case, it does not take a rocket scientist to say that someone in the CPC’s fuel purchasing process misled the ministers too or misled themselves.
Another issue which has hurt practically every Sri Lankan is the cost of electricity, one of the highest in the world. The UNP has been oblivious to this factor and has failed to highlight the hardships caused by the steep increases in tariffs and now power cuts — a phenomenon which has come to haunt electricity consumers despite assurances to the contrary by Power and Energy Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka. He had announced a staggering electricity surcharge of anything between 15 and 40 per cent in February this year and declared that it would curtail the losses of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). However, not many Sri Lankans know that the CEB is facing an acute crisis.
The Sunday Times is able to reveal exclusively today that the CEB is confronted with a “severe financial crisis”. Minister Ranawaka has told his ministerial colleagues last week that there were four reasons for this situation. They are:
(i) Increase of cost of independent power producers (IPP) and CEB fuel due to increase of fuel prices by CPC and increase of thermal generation due to prevailing drought situation in the country.
(ii) Additional revenue on Fuel Adjustment Charge (FAC) is not sufficient to cover the increased fuel cost.
(iii) Non-receipt of subsidy from the Government for 2011
(iv) Use of CEB funds for capital works for which Government funds were not received.
In the light of this situation, Minister Ranawaka, with the concurrence of the Ministry of Finance, has sought to increase the borrowing limit of the CEB to Rs. 74.2 billion. The breakdown is as follows: Overdraft and term loans Rs. 45 billion, Provision for LCC (Letters of Credit) Rs. 10 million and new Guarantees for Independent Power Producers Rs. 19.2 million.
Minister Ranawaka has said outstanding payment for independent power producers and CPC had reached Rs. 16 billion and Rs. 15 billion respectively as at June 12.
This is how he describes the present situation: “As the expected monsoon rainfall has not materialised, generation of hydropower is very limited. Under these circumstances, the CEB is compelled to use additional thermal power generation to provide uninterrupted power supply to the nation.
“As payables to independent power producers have reached peak level, purchasing of fuel from CPC for thermal generation has been limited. IPPs have utilized their credit limit to maximum level. The CEB has obtained short term loan facility of Rs. 20,000 million during past few months to settle these liabilities to CPC, IPP and for coal importation. Accordingly total owed to the People’s Bank is as follows:
“Overdraft Rs. 800 million, Term Loans Rs. 5,410 million, Short Term Loan Facility (Bill Discounting) Rs 20,454 million; totals Rs 26,664 million. Letter of Credit/Guarantee of Rs 10,000 million has been fully utilised. Only a standby LC facility of Rs 18,000 million has not been utilised.”
Ranawaka has said as a temporary measure, the CEB explored the possibility of obtaining a term loan facility from the People’s Bank to settle a part of the dues to the CPC and IPPs. However, the People’s Bank has turned down such a request. It was on the grounds that the Central Bank had, through a Monetary Board decision, disapproved increasing the limit placed on any single borrower. Hence Minister Ranawaka wants his ministerial colleagues to approve his request to ask the Governor of the Central Bank to increase the single borrower limit to the CEB to Rs 74.2 billion.
The picture painted by Ranawaka to his ministerial colleagues, contrary to what he tells the public, is a very gloomy one for all consumers of electricity in Sri Lanka.
It is in the backdrop of a “severe financial crisis” that trade unions in the CEB are demanding a substantial pay hike. The government has stalled them so far. However, if the unions succeed in staging a strike and causing disruption, there would be no alternative but to heed their demands, even partially, pushing the CEB into a financial catastrophe. At the end of it all, for the consumers it only means that they face the threat of more increases in power tariffs when the CEB begins to feel the crunch. Successive ministers in charge of the power portfolio have done just that. Minister Ranawaka, who declared that power cuts would be a thing of the past just weeks before the load shedding began, will be left with no choice but to force the consumer to pay more. This is when what he calls the “severe financial crisis” in the CEB cannot be resolved with bank support any more.
Another matter of significance this week is the likelihood of South Africa becoming an intermediary to assist in the government’s reconciliation efforts. In Colombo this week is the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ebrahim Ebrahim who played a role in the peace process in the early 1980s. He is accompanied by Roelof Meyer. He was chief negotiator for the National Party (NP) government in South Africa. He was closely involved in the talks for the settlement of the South African conflict. It is in this capacity that he negotiated the end of apartheid together with Cyril Ramaphosa, who was chief negotiator for the African National Congress (ANC). These negotiations resulted in the first democratic elections in South Africa at the end of April 1994. After the elections Meyer continued in the portfolio of Constitutional Affairs in the cabinet of former President Nelson Mandela.
Together with the South African Ambassador Geoff Doidge, the delegation met President Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. According to External Affairs Ministry sources, the visit of the South African team for what they described as “testing the waters” was the result of initiatives by Minister G.L. Peiris.
A South African involvement in the reconciliation process, no doubt, would give the government credibility both domestically and overseas, at least to deliver a message that it is serious about reconciliation. However, whether South Africa could persuade the TNA to come back to the negotiating table will remain a billion dollar question. On the other hand, the South African initiative comes at a time when India has so far failed to persuade the government to heed Sri Lanka’s assurance that the 13th Amendment would be fully enforced. President Rajapaksa has declared that any political package to address Tamil grievances should be determined by the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC).
On Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva handed over to the Secretariat of the UN Human Rights Council Sri Lanka’s report on human rights issues. The final draft was formulated by Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga with Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, President’s Special Envoy on human rights issues. It was later handed over to the Ministry of External Affairs for onward transmission to Geneva. The report deals with pledges made by Sri Lanka at the last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2008, voluntary measures adopted by the government and the Action Plan for the implementation of recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Sri Lanka’s case under the UPR will come up on November 1.
This week’s developments show that the government has acknowledged the need to get its act together on issues concerning foreign relations whilst demonstrating through the upcoming polls that it has public support.
As exclusively revealed in the Sunday Times front page lead story last week, the government has decided to allow UN experts to visit Sri Lanka to advice on implementing the US-backed resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March. A visit by United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay is also expected before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Ms. Pillay’s term of office has become the subject of some attention at the UN in New York. Maththew Lee, of the Inner City Press, who was recently expelled from the UN Foreign Correspondents Club had this to say: “After Navi Pillay accepted or was forced to accept a two year than four year second term as UN High Commission for Human Rights, Inner City Press asked her directly and on camera if this made her less independent, less able to speak out. She declined to answer. Now Inner City Press has exclusively learned from well-placed sources how the two year compromise was reached.
“Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, at the direction of the United States and others, told Pillay that she could not have a second term, that to make it look better she herself should resign. Pillay refused, and threatened to go public. Other states, most prominently Pillay’s native South Africa, were enlisted to try to find a solution. In a cynical new low, South Africa was offered the Under Secretary General of Management position ultimately given to Japan’s Yukio Takasu if only South Africa would convince Pillay to leave. But South Africa refused.
“And so, the two-year compromise was reached, putting Pillay in a weakened position. Her team and reportedly herself will now visit Sri Lanka. Despite 40,000 civilians killed and no accountability — in fact, one of the generals responsible, even according to Ban’s own Panel of Experts report, is still listed as an adviser to Ban Ki-moon — we’ll see what Pillay says, or can say.”
Thus, the government appears to have launched a two pronged battle, one overseas and the other domestic, to give itself a new image. Yet, more challenges are ahead as financial crises hit key consumer oriented state organisations.
comments powered by Disqus