Rajapaksa Govt. makes dramatic moves to improve ties with New Delhi; Japan to help rebuild relations with US  Rajapaksa to go ahead with NPC elections despite dire warnings from the JHU and the NFF By Our Political Editor Even if most Sri Lankans did not realise it, this week’s developments came as further proof that [...]


Rapprochement with India, way cleared for C’wealth summit


  •  Rajapaksa Govt. makes dramatic moves to improve ties with New Delhi; Japan to help rebuild relations with US
  •  Rajapaksa to go ahead with NPC elections despite dire warnings from the JHU and the NFF

By Our Political Editor

Even if most Sri Lankans did not realise it, this week’s developments came as further proof that the Government is on reverse gear over important domestic and external developments. In essence, it reflects a clear policy change in some areas and underscores a new resolve to address issues differently.

On the domestic front, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced at the UPFA’s well attended May Day rally that some drastic changes would be made to the recently raised electricity tariffs. That was indeed a paradox. The revision of tariffs was done with his concurrence. The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) cleared it through a statutory mechanism in place to look after consumer interests. That was the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) which heard public complaints from many not to increase prices. The PUCSL still approved it, but offered no rationale for its action.

Now, President Rajapaksa has played the role expected from the PUCSL. He has freed nearly fifty per cent of the country’s electricity consumers from paying the higher tariff. Details of the revision appear elsewhere in the Sunday Times. Two major opposition parties — the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) — reacted with lightning speed to claim credit for the move. Whoever was responsible, it was not those within the UPFA though many ministers were uncomfortable with the tariff revision. So much so, Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara even sought a special cabinet meeting to discuss the issue. Though not publicly known, state intelligence arms in their reports to the ruling hierarchy did voice concerns over consumer discontent.

Lesson number one from Rajapaksa’s May Day order: Neither the CEB nor the PUCSL, it is now clear, did its homework before making a final decision. It seems their thirst to raise badly needed revenue was the only motivating factor. Two Ministers — Keheliya Rambukwella and Sarath Amunugama — were to justify the increase on a non-existent issue, a so-called subsidy. That turned out to be a facade. Now, more details of the basis on which the increases were made are emerging.

Dr Dipu Moni, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh, and Chair of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting the press at Marlborough House, London. Picture courtesy Commonwealth Secretariat

The larger volume of the increase had been queued for sectors that consumed the least electricity. Thus, Rajapaksa’s May Day order was that there would be no increase in tariffs for those using less than 60 units a month.

They had been called upon to pay five rupees per unit as against the three rupees they paid earlier. They will now continue to pay the old rate. In addition, this category and those using up to 180 units will have a 25 per cent reduction on their fuel surcharge, a levy that varies according to usage.

Through the tariff revision, the CEB expected to raise some Rs. 34 billion via domestic consumers but it would be eight to nine billion rupees less after the latest change. However, there will be no change in the revenue of some Rs. 12 billion the CEB expects from industrial users.

The new tariff increase is across the board. It is in marked contrast to a slab system (example 0 to 30 units, 30 units to 60 units and 60 to 90 units and so on) that it replaced. Earlier, users who were able to minimise their electricity usage paid less. However, the current increase does not afford them this opportunity.

This is because there is a flat rate for a large segment. On the other hand, some industrial users are switching to solar energy and are collaborating with the CEB by selling them excess power generation. The system is monitored through a net-metering system where the CEB only charges for the electricity used. If no power from the national grid is used, the CEB credits their accounts to be offset later.

Rajapaksa’s order notwithstanding, CEB sources say, a wider segment of the middle-income groups are still affected. “Only when these consumers receive their bills later this month will they realise the tsunami effect of the increase,” said a CEB source who did not wish to be identified. The source added, “The cascading effect of the tariff hike, where rates for goods and services will increase can be seen by the same time.”

Besides an impending bus fare hike, several industrialists say price revisions of their products would be made after they assess the costs they would incur under the increased tariffs.

On the external front, the most significant development came when the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) met in London on April 26. Its members endorsed that the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting would be held in Colombo, as planned, on November 15, 16 and 17. The Sunday Times revealed exclusively in these columns last week that “….an influential member of the Commonwealth who is not a CMAG member strongly lobbied for Sri Lanka….” It was India. India’s one-time senior diplomats and now Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma charted the course of events so successfully at the CMAG meeting at the ‘Marlborough House’ in Sri Lanka’s favour. As revealed last week, there were strong criticism over Sri Lanka from Foreign Ministers of Canada, Sierra Leone and Trinidad and Tobago.

They had accused Sri Lanka of violating ‘Commonwealth principles’. The consensus of the majority CMAG members, diplomatic sources said, was in favour of Sri Lanka. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni was to point out that CMAG had no mandate to seek a venue change and hence no such move was entertained. Quite clearly India delivered on its latest promise.

Barely a week after CMAG, Secretary General Sharma has already presided over a Commonwealth Roundtable on Reconciliation where a Sri Lanka delegation is also taking part. During his address, Sharma noted, “You will no doubt be aware that during the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review, several Commonwealth member states accepted recommendations that included taking all necessary measures to implement national reconciliation strategies and to reinforce related mechanisms; to follow up on recommendations from truth and reconciliation commissions; and to share experiences regarding their national reconciliation mechanisms. Our Commonwealth contribution is to help our member states get to where they want to be — in this case to help build capacity and advance reconciliation.

The focus over these three days will also be on practical experience gained from existing models of judicial and non-judicial mechanisms of transitional justice, including truth commissions, memorialisation, restorative justice and criminal prosecution. Through exploration of case studies shared by Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Northern Ireland, we hope to broaden and deepen understanding of how post-conflict challenges have been dealt with in a range of specific contexts, and to glean new insights into best practices.”

The roundtable was held on May 1. Earlier that day, a delegation from the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka met Sharma. It comprised Commissioner Sri Warna Mahanamahewa, Thangavel Kanakaraj, Regional Co-ordinator for Jaffna; Rohitha Priyadarshana, Regional Co-ordinator for Vavuniya; and, Abdul Careem Abdul Aziz, Regional Co-ordinator for Batticaloa. The Commonwealth Secretariat said it plans to “help the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka in achieving specific targets that the Secretary General has identified….”

A statement added: “The Commonwealth Secretariat and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka have agreed on two immediate areas of technical assistance, which are expected to be carried out over the next three to six months. This will entail strengthening the capacity of the Commission on effective use of national inquiries as a means of human rights protection, and on its role in taking forward an agenda aimed at national reconciliation…

“Also discussed were remaining challenges of land resettlement of people who had been displaced by conflict; reconciliation efforts linked to Sri Lanka’s trilingual policy of Sinhala, Tamil and English; and the importance of an effective grievance reporting system.”
It is clear that the Commonwealth is laying the groundwork to address issues raised in the second United States resolution at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. In other words, the Sri Lanka Government is now making a serious effort to address issues raised in the resolution and also address international criticism. That means when the UNHRC meets in September, the Government would be able to go with a report card instead of hurling criticism at the UN and its top officials. How far the moves would proceed remains to be seen. Yet, the Government could now make claim that it has the backing of the 54-member Commonwealth.

How did all this become possible? The answer lay in the remarkable thawing of relations between Colombo and New Delhi, in the weeks after the UN Human Rights Council sessions in March this year. The UPFA leadership at the highest levels had made it clear to their Congress Government counterparts in New Delhi of the willingness to forget the past, restore good relations and move forward. The result was a flurry of diplomatic activity. Sri Lanka has agreed to address matters of concern raised by New Delhi. These had included even some matters of international concern like human rights issues and reconciliation.

A quid pro quo has been New Delhi’s assistance, like clearing the decks for the CHOGM to be held in Colombo, and having Sharma proceed on priority basis in setting the ground for an international effort at addressing most of the issues involved. For India, it seems a foreign policy victory. It is viewed as dispelling perceptions of a sole Chinese stranglehold on Sri Lanka or a major sphere of influence for Pakistan.

Both Sri Lanka and India are on the verge of reaching accord on the multi-million dollar coal fired power project in Sampur. Two key agreements for power purchase and implementation have almost been concluded. Indian concerns over the future of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution have been allayed. President Rajapaksa has reiterated that elections to the Northern Provincial Council would be held in September. The fact that such elections would take place is an acknowledgement that the 13th Amendment would stay, barring possible amendments, contrary to demands by sections of the Government that it had to be annulled. Concerns about a possible abrogation of the tank farm agreement in Trincomalee, where some oil tanks are leased out to Lanka-India Oil Company (LIOC), have been formally contradicted during official diplomatic contacts. Even some specific security concerns that weighed heavily on New Delhi have been dispelled.

Just a week ago, the Government agreed to India’s nomination of Y.K. Sinha, a career officer in the External Affairs Ministry, as India’s new High Commissioner in Sri Lanka. He is the son of Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha who was appointed by the then BJP Government as the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir. Interesting enough, the outgoing High Commissioner Ashok Kantha is also the son-in-law of a BJP stalwart and one time External Affairs Minister, Yashwant Sinha.

Putting Indo-Sri Lanka relations on the track to reach out to Commonwealth and other nations does not seem the only priority for the Government. UPFA sources hinted yesterday that Sri Lanka may obtain the good offices of Japan in its efforts to improve relations with the United States. More so since External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris has declared in Parliament that there was no change in relations with the US. That reply to the opposition suggested that the ties remained strained, notwithstanding efforts by Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Sri Lanka’s envoy to Washington, to break new ground with the US. Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso arrived in Colombo on a two day visit on Wednesday. He is also the Minister of Finance and is officially following up on a visit to Tokyo by Rajapaksa in March this year. Aso is en route to Tokyo after attending the 46th annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank in Greater Noida, India. Rajapaksa has developed a personal relationship with Aso from the days when he was Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister. Taro is accompanied to Colombo by Yuko Obuchi, Senior Vice Minister of Finance.

In fact, Japan has been playing a role in reconciliation efforts. Its Ambassador to the United Nations, Tsuneo Nishida, handed over last year a special report to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on issues relating to reconciliation. This was after representatives of Bangladesh, Nigeria and Romania, under an initiative from the Programme on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights examined the situation in Sri Lanka.

A conciliatory move towards the US came just weeks earlier when the Government decided to sell the land adjoining the US embassy, the earlier British High Commission premises, to it. The request has been on hold for years and earlier the Government offered a land in Galle Road, Kollupitiya. However, the US was not in favour of it.

Rajapaksa’s latest stance on the 13th Amendment, reflected by the impending Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections, does not seem an issue that would sail smoothly. Two of the UPFA’s constituent partners — the National Freedom Front (NFF) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) — are bitterly opposed to the 13th Amendment and the conduct of the NPC polls. Yet, ministers close to Rajapaksa say this was a relatively small issue for Rajapaksa who had carried through many major controversial issues despite initial protests by some partners. One case in point, they say, was the introduction of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Another, they say is this year’s impeachment of Chief Justice 43, Shirani Bandaranayake.

In this regard, the strongest critics over NPC polls are NFF leader, Wimal Weerawansa and Jathika Hela Urumaya General Secretary Champika Ranawaka. When Weerawansa charts a course different to that of the UPFA, his adversaries say he is put up by the UPFA leadership to take up that position. “This is not true,” he told the Sunday Times when asked about veering away from the UPFA May Day rally to hold its own one. He said it was done to express his party’s “strong objections to the NPC elections.” Here again, he said, it was not at the instigation of the UPFA leadership.

He said; “The conduct of the Northern Provincial Council elections will lead to a constitutional crisis. The TNA, if it wins, will form its own police force and take over lands. There is provision in the law for a police force and land use. It will work on a plan to push the military out of the north. It will collude with those in the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in the Eastern Provincial Council to form an axis where one side will control the north and the other the east. That is the strategy it is working on. Thereafter, it will call for UN intervention in Sri Lanka. What they could not get through a separatist war, they will achieve through an election.”

Minister Weerawansa said the NFF would launch a campaign “in the next two weeks to educate the people of the dangers and prevent the conduct of the NPC election.” He told his party’s May Day rally he was not interested in his ministerial portfolio and was willing to give it up if he could ensure no polls were held.

Minister Ranawaka told the Sunday Times, “It is undemocratic to conduct the elections to Northern Provincial Council. The people did not give a mandate for such PCs. We accept that the Government was under pressure to agree to the 13th Amendment. The other thing, the LTTE chased away the Sinhalese and the Muslims from the North. There were systematic massacres. Earlier there were 20,000 Sinhalese and 10,000 Muslims. Today there are only 746 Sinhalese and some 1800 Muslims. It has disturbed the ethnic balance. We don’t want the Government to give legitimacy. We want it to restore the ethnic balance. If the TNA gains control, it will destabilise the Northern Province. It will then tie up with the disgruntled elements in the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in the East. Together they can team up with those in Tamil Nadu. The 13th Amendment has to be changed. This is particularly after the passage of the Divineguma Bill into law. Otherwise, the TNA can hijack legislative power and even campaign against the armed forces.”

Tamil National Alliance leader, Rajavarothayam Sampanthan was away in India on a private visit. The party’s National List parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran responded to the comments of the two ministers. He told the Sunday Times, “We have heard about the remarks made by Ministers Ranawaka and Weerawansa against the TNA. They are used by the Government to make these remarks. The Government is not sincere. These are not their own comments, but are those made on behalf of the Government. Minister Weerawansa has threatened to resign if the Northern Provincial elections are held. He should do so now since a public assurance was given by President Mahinda Rajapaksa that the NPC elections will be held in September. Even Minister Ranawaka is trying to safeguard the Government by making such remarks. The two ministers have created a false fear among the public that if the TNA wins the Northern Provincial elections, the Army would be driven out leading to the creation of a separate state. We have put forward our proposal to the people at the 2010 elections. Even in this election let the people decide.”

Amidst these developments, on Thursday, Azath Sally, a former UNP Deputy Mayor of Colombo was arrested by detectives of the Police Department’s Terrorism Investigation Division (TID). A known political pole vaulter, he had quit the UNP and joined the UPFA some time ago. During his tenure with the UPFA, he faced allegations in courts of fraudulent conduct but the case was withdrawn. Sally parted ways to form his own Muslim-Tamil Alliance and contested the Ampara District in the Eastern Provincial Council elections last year. He lost and later became a vociferous critic of President Rajapaksa on TV talk shows and media interviews. He earned the ire of hard-line Buddhist groups for his biting criticism of them. Several of their websites poured scorn on him after the arrest. On the other hand, he won the support of Muslim groups which strongly condemned the arrest which has gone high profile. Joining in was the Canadian Government with a call for his release. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, said in a statement: “Canada condemns the arrest of Azath Sally; leader of Sri Lanka’s newly formed Muslim-Tamil National Alliance.”

Amnesty International also followed suit. The arrest also angered the Government’s coalition partner Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which Sally has often criticised. Its leader and Justice Minister, Rauf Hakeem called for Sally’s release “unconditionally” and told the Sunday Times “otherwise he would become the first Muslim in Sri Lanka to be charged with terrorism under the PTA on a non-LTTE related case. Similarly the PTA could be used on other Muslims too.”

He said, “(Sally) may have used intemperate language or conducted himself badly. However, you do not use an iron rod, a crowbar or other weapon when only a pin would do.”

A cabinet minister who did not wish to be identified said, “The arrest under the PTA was ill advised and had made Sally a hero, something he never would have achieved through his political pursuits. We have helped him.” He lamented that those who made these costly mistakes did not learn.

Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper said in Ottawa this week that he would skip the CHOGM in Colombo due to the Government’s “human rights abuses.” However, British Prime Minister, David Cameron will take part. The Daily Telegraph on Friday quoted an official spokesperson as saying “Mr. Cameron had decided to make a robust stand in person against Sri Lanka’s human rights record and attacks on its democratic standards by its authoritarian president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. We do not think that turning away from the problem is the best way to make progress in Sri Lanka. There’s nothing to suggest that not going will convince Rajapaksa he must do more.” An official announcement was also made in London yesterday.

Last week’s exclusive front page report in the Sunday Times and reference in this column about Cabinet approval to re-fleet Sri Lankan Airlines at a cost of Rs. 315 billion with ten Airbus aircraft with British Rolls Royce engines noted “…Britain may take part at the highest levels in the light of Prime Minister, David Cameron’s Government weighing in favour of trade as part of its foreign policy pursuits.”
The re-fleeting deal itself has raised eyebrows in sections of the UPFA. Their concern is over whether such a colossal amount was high priority when more important issues like electricity tariffs have been raised. They ask how the Government was going to raise funds when it was finding it difficult to meet essential requirements and had more to spend on CHOGM. Two major promoters of the deal, one the head of a state company and another monitoring many a government activity, the Sunday Times learns are of the view that the required funds could be obtained through private banking sources. They have opined that only a Government of Sri Lanka sovereign guarantee would be needed. However, those backing the move have chosen to ignore the fact that the burden of repayment including high interest rates would fall on successive Governments or generations to come.

Civil Aviation Minister Priyankara Jayaratne told Cabinet last month, “The aging fleet of A 340 aircraft needs to be replaced in the year 2014/2015 as the leases of these aircraft expire during this time frame and these aircraft are also approaching the end of their useful design life, thus there been (sic) no other option than replace them with a suitable available aircraft type. The new generation wide body aircraft will not be available with the manufacturers until 2019, and with Lessors until 2017. Therefore, also considering the commonality with the current fleet, the Airbus A 330 was selected as the most suitable option to replace the A 340 fleet.

“The A 330-300 variant is a larger aircraft compared to the current A 330-200 variant used by SriLankan Airlines and has 299 seats compared with the 269 at present and the range and payload is also more aligned to the mission requirements of the airline and is therefore the preferred option. Airbus offered aggressive discounts for the aircraft whilst Rolls Royce engine is preferred as it is the engine used in the current fleet and also as considerable discounts in both price and maintenance cost has been offered by Rolls Royce.”

With regard to the procurement of seven Airbus A 330-300 aircraft, Minister Jayaratne has said that the Sri Lankan Airlines fleet needs to be replaced from 2017. Besides the purchase of ten aircraft (six A 330-300 each costing US$ 234,389,333 or more than Rs. 29.5 billion and four A 350-900 aircraft each costing US$ 283, 308, 300 or more than Rs. 35.6 billion), the Cabinet also gave approval on April 18 to:

  • Lease aircraft for an additional three A 350-900 to be delivered in 2017 as replacement for A 330-200 aircraft.
  • Fund for one on sale and lease back method for all six A 330-300 aircraft. This is on the grounds that the current generation aircraft, SriLankan Airlines does not propose to own them due to the risk of falling value in the future.

This means, besides the purchase cost of Rs. 315 billion, Sri Lankan will incur further expenses running into millions of dollars or (billions of rupees) for the leasing of three more A350-900 aircraft. This again means more loan and interest payments.

The absence of a coherent foreign policy for Sri Lanka, there is little doubt, has led to the present situation. A Government that took on the international community aggressively has opted for a new route now. At least with one country, the United States, it is after paying over US$ 100,000 every month (more than Rs. 12.6 million) to persuade Washington to change its attitude towards Colombo. The money is being spent by the Sri Lanka embassy in Washington DC and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) to lobbying firms. Instead, Sri Lanka is now changing its policies for a more realistic approach and not Washington.

Yet, the turnaround is unreservedly a credit for President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Domestically, he weakened opposition parties so much that they have ceased to be a potent force. On the external front, at least for now, he has set the cat among the canaries. Canada and Britain and even Australia which are close allies are at opposite poles over attending CHOGM. More importantly, his action has also driven a wedge between the Conservative Government of Premier Cameron and the British-based Global Tamil Forum. This group made up largely of the Tamil Diaspora has been supporting it.

A rapprochement with India has not only delivered CMAG support but also cleared the decks for the Commonwealth summit. However, the billion dollar question is whether the External Affairs Ministry will be able to maintain the status quo he has secured through an element of successful political manoeuverings. That takes much more than rhetoric, prose and media statements.

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