Crisis-riddled Govt. goes into denial mode
The UPFA Government seems to be in a state of denial. The latest addition to that syndrome came from External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris.
He was asked in Parliament last Tuesday by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe for his response to a reference in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of July 6 that the Government has allowed the state owned China National Aero Technology Import-Export Corporation (CATIC) to set up an Aircraft Base Maintenance Centre (ABMC) in Trincomalee. He replied: “The Opposition Leader has stated a wrong fact. He stated that a decision has been taken to set up this project in Trincomalee. No such decision has been taken to permit the establishment of an Aircraft Base Maintenance Centre in Trincomalee….”
Is this claim fact or fiction? The Cabinet of Ministers at their weekly meeting on May 29 did unanimously approve a recommendation by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to establish this maintenance centre in Trincomalee. It was thereafter recorded in the minutes of that day’s meeting. Peiris, however, was not among the 44 ministers present. He was perhaps on one of his many overseas visits and was represented by Neomal Perera, then acting as External Affairs Minister.
In an eight-page proposal, President Rajapaksa who is also the Minister of Defence, on May 5 noted that the Chinese had offered “very favourable terms” due to the close ties between the two countries and added that their service “is reliable.” In terms of the decision, the ABMC was to be established within the “precincts of the Sri Lanka Air Force Academy at China Bay” at a cost of US$ 40.3 million or more than Rs. 5 billion. With the objectives of reducing the cost incurred on overhauling of Chinese origin aircraft and “realizing the nation’s future goals,” President Rajapaksa observed that the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development had authorised the Sri Lanka Air Force to explore the possibility of establishing a maintenance centre for aircraft of Chinese origin. He has added that in response to inquiries made by SLAF in mid-2009, CATIC, the sole Government authorised agency in China to export aviation related products and support services to foreign nations, provided an initial technical concept proposal. Thereafter, the MoD had granted approval to the SLAF to conduct negotiations with CATIC. The matter had later been examined by the Standing Cabinet Appointed Procurement Committee (SCAPC) and a Technical and Financial Evaluation Committee appointed by the Department of Public Finance in the Treasury.
The Government decided to set up a 30 double bedroom pre-fabricated accommodation block for the Chinese crew at Marble Beach where the SLAF operates holiday cottages for tourists. Once the agreement with CATIC expires, the SLAF hopes to add this 30 room facility to tourism promotion. The SLAF is to acquire capability to overhaul six types of Chinese origin aircraft and the maintenance centre will have a floor area to repair two aircraft simultaneously. Chinese experts will provide certification of the overhaul facility, Quality Assurance services and re-certification of services for ten years from the date a contract is signed. In addition to providing training both in China and Sri Lanka, the centre will also provide gainful employment to those who retire from the SLAF. The centre will also attract orders from outside sources either with the approval of CATIC or subcontracted by it.
Before delving into why Peiris parried the questions, here are excerpts of what transpired in Parliament during the Q & A last Tuesday.
Ranil Wickremasinghe: Hon. Speaker: ” The Sunday Times of July 6, 2014 (page 13) reports that China National Aero Technology Import-Export Corporation (CATIC) has been permitted to establish an Aircraft Base Maintenance Centre in Trincomalee…….. It is also reported that this proposed Maintenance Centre is to service all Chinese made aircraft of the Sri Lanka Air Force. The Government of Sri Lanka has not denied these reports to date. Actually, they should have clarified the situation, in my view…….
“The Sri Lankan and the India media and commentators have also drawn attention to the Indo-Lanka Agreement because the exchange of letters between the Prime Minister of India and the President of Sri Lanka in July 1987, which was a part of the Indo-Lanka Accord, made provision not to allow our respective territories to be used for activities prejudicial to each other’s unity, integrity and security. This included not allowing Trincomalee to be used in a prejudicial manner to India, just as much as Indian territory could not be used to harbour terrorists, who are acting against Sri Lanka.
“Succeeding Governments have conformed to this arrangement and this has been an understanding, which has guided the relationship between our two countries. Therefore, will the Minister of External Affairs make a full statement to this House? I think the House is entitled to know what the real situation is in respect of the above-mentioned agreement with CATIC, whether consultations or discussions were had with India prior to reaching the above mentioned agreement and whether this matter was raised at the meeting between the External Affairs Ministers of the two countries?”
External Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris: “The Opposition Leader has stated a wrong fact. He stated that a decision has been taken to set up this project in Trincomalee. No such decision has been taken to permit the establishment of an Aircraft Base Maintenance Centre in Trincomalee. The idea of this project is to have an Aircraft Base Maintenance Centre. The benefits are many. Foreign exchange can be saved. If not we would have to send these machines for repairs overseas. We can also train our persons. We also have the advantage of gaining technology. He is trying to make a problem about the location –Trincomalee.
“We have considered some options but there is no decision about Trincomalee. There is no mention about Trincomalee in our decision. What has been mentioned is about the project. This is a good project. There is no mention that it will be set up in Trincomalee. Attempts are being made to create confusion on imaginary ideas. One of the essentials here is that we have to find a place where you can land jets. There are only three such locations, namely Katunayaka, Mattala and Trincomalee. We have to look at these three locations and make a decision but no decision has been taken so far. There is no mention that the project will be set up in Trincomalee.
“As Mr. Wickremesinghe thinks there is no major controversy over this. As he thinks it has not turned out to be a major problem between India and Sri Lanka. When the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj met me she asked for the details. (Emphasis ours). We had a cordial discussion. This did not turn out to be a major issue between the two countries. That was a wrong impression. This is an attempt to fish in the muddy waters. That will not be a success. We do not need any agreement with India to have cordial relations. We will not let Sri Lanka to be used in a prejudicial manner to India. There is no need for agreements between the two countries.
“The friendship between the two countries is sufficient. Though he spoke about the 1987 Agreement (Indo- Lanka Accord), he is aware that there have been so many differences between 1987 and now. Chinese have their major investments in India. Therefore the attempts by him to create suspicion and hatred are not there. I wish to say that when Ms. Swaraj was the opposition leader the President and myself met her. One thing which she mentioned is fresh in my mind. She said, ‘We criticise the government in power. That is the duty of the opposition. But we do not create conflicts when it comes to foreign policy of India. We have one voice.’ She was the opposition leader like Mr. Wickremesinghe is the opposition leader now.”
“She further said ‘We love the country. We enter into debates, but when it comes to issues about other countries we do not want to create problems. We see it as something wrong. We cannot do that according our conscience.’ ”
Ranil Wickremesinghe: “I asked this question here as the Government has not made any comment on the Sunday Times report. I took this up in the Parliament of Sri Lanka and not overseas. I am thankful that the Minister accepted that the government and the opposition should act according to the Indo-Lanka accord. The Minister said that the maintenance unit will help to get new technical assistance. We have a small Air Force in this country. We have 44 Chinese built aircraft …….. We have repaired these in Sri Lanka for over 30 years. Only the engines are brought from there. I don’t know what we can get from such a maintenance centre. We don’t even spend one million dollars a year to repair these…….”
G.L. Peiris: “We need to maintain the aircraft we use and there is a considerable amount of money needed for it. So instead of sending the money abroad we can keep the money here and get the repairs done. We think it is opportune to train the younger generation in this regards. The Government has every right and a responsibility to act in this regard.”
Ranil Wickremesinghe: “We already have the repairing facility here except for the installation of new engines. The Minister can look into this. I have been told that for a year it does not cost more than US$ 1 or 2 million. We don’t need to take a huge 20 year loan for this. The three airports which can land jets are Katunayake, Ratmalana and Hingurakgoda, not Trincomalee. There is a fourth one at Mattala.”
G.L. Peiris: I said Mattala was one
Ranil Wickremesinghe: No.
G.L. Peiris: I said Trincomalee
Speaker: You did not mention Hingurakgoda.
The Government’s decision to establish the Aircraft Base Maintenance Centre in Trincomalee still stands. This is because no proposal has still come before the Cabinet of Ministers until this week to change the location. However, such a change is indeed expected and the maintenance centre will not be set up in Trincomalee now. This is the direct result of concerns voiced by India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Such concerns were voiced by her during talks with Peiris in New Delhi on July 11. As revealed exclusively in these columns on July 13, Peiris was told that the move violated the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. Though Peiris admitted in Parliament that his Indian counterpart Swaraj “asked for details,” he did not elaborate. Instead, he has accused Wickremesinghe of trying to create confusion over “imaginary ideas” and was trying to “fish in muddy waters.” The Sunday Times has learnt that Peiris also briefed the Indian Minister on the Government’s plans then to widen the scope of the Commission on Disappearances and appoint a Council of Advisors. If his effort was to win Indian endorsement, it did not come. A source in New Delhi said Swaraj took note of his remarks but made no comment.
Reacting to Peiris’ position, Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe told the Sunday Times, “I raised issue since a number of questions still remain unanswered. This is an important issue. All what External Affairs Minister Peiris has done is to both mislead me and the House. That is a serious matter.”
If China is extending a concessionary loan ofUS $ 40,300,000 for the Aircraft Base Maintenance Facility, there are free grants too. With an increase in military cooperation between Colombo and Beijing, some outright gifts have also been made by China. Last Thursday, the Cabinet of Ministers approved a request by President Rajapaksa to waive all tariffs and other taxes on goods and materials that have arrived in containers at the Colombo Port. They lay in 40 and 20 feet containers and are for the Auditorium Complex China is building at the Military Academy in Diyatalawa at a cost of 85 million Yuan or more than Rs. 1.7 billion. It is a gift from China. The waivers are on the basis that the project is a donation and that the Sri Lanka Army does not have financial provision to meet them.
The weekly ministerial meeting also saw Minister Navin Dissanayake making an explanation over speculation in sections of the media that he had planned to quit the Government. President Rajapaksa was to take note that some media were reporting different things which were not accurate. Dissanayake said he had no intention of leaving the UPFA Government and would always remain loyal.
Domestic probe on war crimes
Another area where the UPFA Government has gone into a state of denial is the widening of the scope of the three-member Commission on Disappearances. Although the terms of reference of the Commission, among others to probe alleged war crimes, are contained in a proclamation issued by President Rajapaksa on July 15, the Government has remained silent on the appointment of the three foreign nationals to an Advisory Council with plans to appoint more. Since they are only in an advisory capacity and are to be paid by the Government, it is logical that they would guide the Commission that will conduct the domestic inquiry into alleged war crimes. Yet, no explanation has so far been made over this Advisory Council.
Other than the publication of the presidential proclamation in a Gazette notification, UPFA Government leaders have neither made any remarks explaining the reasons for the proclamation nor issued any statements. The only aspect that is clear is the widening of the Commission’s terms of reference. The trio in the Advisory Council are Sir Desmond de Silva, QC, Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC and Professor David Crane. Maxwell Paranagama, Chairman of the Commission on Disappearances told the Sunday Times: “Following the gazette notification we now have to publish a public notice about the expansion of the scope of the Commission. We have not been informed so far about the dates when the Advisory Council members will visit Sri Lanka.” He said the Commission would continue its probe on disappearances with a visit to Mannar from August 8 to 11.
One of the UPFA Government partners, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), broke silence to call for the immediate withdrawal of the proclamation. Its General Secretary and Minister Champika Ranawaka told the Sunday Times: “Those responsible for the move have lost the moral responsibility to claim no war crimes took place during the final stages of the separatist war.” He warned that if anything were to happen to the soldiers “we will hold those who proposed this and implemented it responsible. We know who they are and their tactical moves,” he said.
Minister Ranawaka said that after the proclamation was Gazetted, both the JHU and the National Freedom Front (NFF) led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa met to discuss the “dangerous situation.” He said that ahead of a UPFA resolution in Parliament to win bipartisan support against the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) international investigation, there had been a meeting of partners of the UPFA. “There, we discussed the need to evolve a comprehensive strategy to counter the international investigation. This is a complete strategic blunder,” he said. The NFF has called upon President Rajapaksa to withdraw the proclamation but it is unlikely it will, like the JHU, press the issue any further. This is in the light of moves by NFF leader Weerawansa to patch up differences with President Rajapaksa and continue to remain a partner in the UPFA. Compared to the aggressive stance he adopted weeks earlier, he has been more conciliatory in his approach in recent times.
For different reasons, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the key stakeholder in Sri Lanka’s peace and reconciliation process, did not welcome the Advisory Panel of foreign experts. Its leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan told the Sunday Times: “It is significant that this step has been taken by the Government after the international investigation has commenced its duties. I do not know whether it is the expectation of the Government that the functioning of the international investigation can in any way be diluted by this new process. That cannot happen because the persons responsible for the international investigation have made their position very clear. They will perform their duties regardless of anything else in keeping with the resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Also significant is the fact that these new international persons appointed to play a supportive and advisory role to the domestic Commission already appointed, will play that role only at the request of the domestic Commission as and when requested. The real authority lies with the domestic commission. It is they who will decide when advice will be required and when not. So the whole exercise seems cosmetic.”
The opposition political parties seemed somewhat muted in their response to Rajapaksa’s proclamation which marks an about turn of the Government’s official policy. If for more than five years, the Government has maintained that troops have not committed any war crimes, it has bowed to international pressure and concurred that nevertheless a domestic inquiry was necessary to determine the facts. The only exception was the main opposition United National Party (UNP) which issued a rather acerbic statement but went into silent mode immediately thereafter. Here are some relevant excerpts:
“Since the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), over five years ago, the UPFA Government has consistently maintained that no war crime probes were necessary since Sri Lankan troops have not committed any of them….. Addressing the nation on Victory Day, President Rajapaksa has repeatedly re-iterated that the troops fought with the UN Human Rights Charter on one hand and a gun on the other. At last year’s elections to the Southern and Western Provincial Councils, he exhorted from public platforms that he would rather face the ‘electric chair’ than betray the troops of Sri Lanka…….. In what is clearly a complete reversal, the Presidential proclamation now seeks a probe into such alleged war crimes. To say the least, the UPFA Government is now concurring with the views of the international community that alleged war crimes should be investigated…….
“The United National Party strongly believes that both President Rajapaksa and his UPFA Government should reveal to the public why a major policy change on such an important matter was made secretly. The UNP notes with serious concern that this course of action has been without any recourse to the Cabinet of Ministers……. Nor has the UPFA Government informed Parliament…
“They (the public) should be told why President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who boasted he would sit in an ‘electric chair’ than betray soldiers, has now done an about turn and that too quite secretly. The UNP strongly believes the public should also know whether the actions are in the best interests of Sri Lanka or are the outcome of ignorant, shady but powerful brokers who are on an adventure wrapping up secret diplomatic deals behind the backs of the people. This is whilst the country’s diplomatic missions have become havens for jobs to mostly unqualified friends and relatives of UPFA leaders…..”
In London, Tamil diaspora groups are preparing a campaign in western countries against the three-member panel of advisors allegedly on the grounds that they were being hired by the Government for money. They claim they would merely endorse the Commission’s findings. Among the campaign is the collection of video recordings of public statements by UPFA leaders who are shown rejecting both an international investigation and a domestic one on alleged war crimes. This is whilst human rights lobbyists have pressured the UK Bar Association to act against the two QCs for what they claim is misconduct.
Though not publicly, the Government is turning to its advantage the domestic inquiry into alleged war crimes. One such area, the Sunday Times learnt was in diplomatic consultations between Colombo and Tokyo. Japan, one of Sri Lanka’s largest aid donors, like its western counterparts, has been urging the UPFA Government to heed calls for a domestic inquiry. This and other measures adopted by the Government, an External Affairs Ministry source said yesterday, had paved the way for a visit to Sri Lanka in early September by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Sri Lanka Government would no doubt then stake its claims of having won over a strong ally of the west.
Hakeem’s Saudi visit
These apart, there were more worries for President Rajapaksa this week. He was livid last Monday that Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, on a visit to Saudi Arabia for Umrah, had met officials of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Umrah is a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by Muslims that can be undertaken at any time of the year as against Haj which is performed during the annual season. During the visit, Hakeem, who is also leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), has had a meeting with Iyad Madani, Secretary General of the OIC. This organisation of 56 Islamic countries promotes Muslim solidarity in economic, social and political affairs. In addition, Hakeem also had a meeting with senior officials of the newly set up division in the OIC which deals with the subject of Islamophobia. It functions under the OIC’s Department of Muslim Minorities whose officials Hakeem met. The SLMC leader’s delegation included A.M. Faiz, Director International Affairs, Nizam Kariapper, Deputy Secretary SLMC, A.M. Jameel, a member of the Eastern Provincial Council and Maulavi Kaleel, High Command member.
Questions have been raised from the SLMC delegation on the recent incidents in Aluthgama, Dharga Town and Beruwala. President Rajapaksa contemplated strong action against the SLMC leader but a UPFA source said he later decided against it. He met face-to-face with Hakeem after Thursday’s weekly ministerial meeting was over and he was stepping out. The President told Hakeem he knew he (the Justice Minister) had met OIC officials. Hakeem confirmed meeting OIC officials in Saudi Arabia. “I also spoke with them,” the President remarked somewhat sarcastically as he walked past Hakeem. That was to tell Hakeem that he (President Rajapaksa) gave his own version of events at Aluthgama etc., to OIC leaders whom he knew himself. Hakeem told a meeting of party seniors at SLMC headquarters “Darus Salaam” in Kompannaweediya that his engagements in Saudi Arabia were in his capacity as the leader of the largest Muslim political party in Sri Lanka. He said the OIC routinely engages minority groups in different countries including Russia and China.
Abolition of executive presidency
Also of concern to President Rajapaksa was a meeting at the New Town Hall on Thursday. It was convened by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera’s National Movement for Social Justice. The event that brought together a formidable section of the opposition and even the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a partner of the UPFA, clearly portended a new course in the country’s political future. All of them agreed on the need for changing the presidential system. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Democratic Party Leader former General Sarath Fonseka, TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) MP Sunil Handunneththi, Chief Justice 43 – Shirani Bandaranayake, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Bar Association President Upul Jayasuriya, Western Provincial Council member Udaya Gammanpila, JHU, Parliamentarian Ven Athureliye Rathana Thera, (JHU) and Ven Girambe Ananda Thera, Anunayaka of the Rammannya Nikaya were among those present. The audience included politicians, professionals, academics and civil society representatives.
Launched at the meeting was a “Public Agenda for a Better Tomorrow.” It calls for the abolition of the executive presidency and the re-enactment of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. To achieve these goals; the National Movement is calling for the fielding of a common candidate at the upcoming presidential elections. Behind the scenes consultations are underway by the prime movers of this proposal towards forging agreement. Several political party leaders have been consulted and the dialogue continues. Such a suitable candidate, the promoters say, would have to pledge the abolition of the executive presidency within six months of being elected. The very fact that those holding diverse opinions came together clearly highlights the uneasy political undercurrents in the country and the deep discontent over the prevailing system. It also underscores the fact that the participants are willing to ignore their other differences and unite for a significant political change.
Will this development impact on moves by some of the UPFA’s influential sections who want early elections, possibly by January? They are trying to frustrate the actions of the National Movement and put counter measures in place. Holding a presidential poll in January would mean the visit of Pope Francis would have to be called off. No such moves have been initiated, but informal soundings have already been made to the Church. However, to the contrary, an advance team from the Vatican was in Colombo and travelled to Jaffna. The Catholic clergy there handed them a petition to be given to the Pope. Among the matters they have sought is for the Pope to make an appeal whilst in Sri Lanka about the safety of minority communities and pay a visit to Mullaivaikkal, the scene of the final battles of the separatist war in May 2009. The team that met officials in the Ministry of Defence has been told such a visit would not be possible but recommended that the Pope visit the Madhu shrine in Mannar. That is being included in the pontiff’s itinerary. Until yesterday, the Pope’s visit was on schedule.
This week’s developments are a clear pointer of the coming together of opposition forces of different hues to jointly take on the UPFA Government. That certainly cannot be good news for President Rajapaksa. Yet, the savvy politician and public relations maestro will not lose steam. He looks prepared to forge ahead. Not surprising when the main opposition UNP is unable to cope with issues that are falling on its lap week after week. It appears content making only statements. Its internal squabbling is yet to be resolved.