Rajitha says new Constitution and referendum, but senior  SLFP leaders say no new constitution and referendum Cabinet reviews Arjuna’s proposals to link world cup winning cricketers with apartment project; Ranawaka says he was misled By Our Political Editor Government leaders, it appears, are taking turns to contradict each other’s statements on matters of official policy. [...]


UNP, SLFP at cross purposes on key issues


  • Rajitha says new Constitution and referendum, but senior  SLFP leaders say no new constitution and referendum
  • Cabinet reviews Arjuna’s proposals to link world cup winning cricketers with apartment project; Ranawaka says he was misled

By Our Political Editor
Government leaders, it appears, are taking turns to contradict each other’s statements on matters of official policy.
Last Wednesday, there were two such occasions. Official Cabinet spokesperson and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne at his weekly news briefing re-iterated that there would be a new Constitution for Sri Lanka. He said a referendum would also be held to win the approval of the people. However, Minister Chandima Weerakody, a former Deputy Speaker, uttered different words elsewhere almost at the same time Senaratne was speaking. Notwithstanding whatever the United National Party (UNP) says, he declared, there will be no new Constitution and no referendum.

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera addressing the UNHRC sessions in Geneva this week.

That the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the UNP are at cross purposes over this crucial issue is all too well known. However, lesser known is the fact that the two sides are now entrenched in their own positions and have begun sniping at each other — in public. If more proof is needed, it came a day later. Fisheries Minister and United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera told a news conference on Wednesday at SLFP headquarters that a new Constitution was a matter on which President Sirisena had not taken any decision. He added that for the President, the conduct of a referendum was a position that was not negotiable. He was not in favour. Those remarks simply meant there would be no new Constitution either. The reason — some of the new provisions, if not most, in a new Constitution would require a referendum.

Then, Amaraweera’s assertions appeared to be a counter to Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, during his speech at the high level segment on Tuesday, that “the constitution drafting process is for us both central and essential not only for democratisation, but also for ensuring non-recurrence of conflict. He said that the “parliamentary process and referendum are for us, imperative.”

Samaraweera began his speech with a strong aside clearly on US President Donald Trump though he did not name him. He said, “I stand here today at a time when the very basis and fundamentals of human rights are being questioned around the world. Many of the universal values that we subscribe to are being challenged in the name of ‘populism’, with populists spinning webs from threads of ignorance. The role of this Organisation, in this context, is becoming more important than ever….”

There appeared to be an aside on Samaraweera too in Colombo though it did not relate to his criticism of Trump. President Maithripala Sirisena did not mention him by name but noted that people who go abroad to talk about the country should have the backbone to say what is right. They should not bow down to the wishes of foreigners, he said speaking at the SLFP Executive Committee (Vidayaka Sabha) meeting at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) on Thursday.

He was alluding to the inclusion of foreign judges in an inquiry into alleged war crimes by troops and guerrillas during the last phase of the separatist war in May 2009. Sirisena has declared that he would not allow foreign judges to serve on any probe team. Joining him on Thursday was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In what might be seen as an about-turn in his approach to this vexed issue, he said such hybrid courts were not “politically feasible” because it could mean a referendum. He was speaking at this week’s National Law Conference where the new Chief Justice, Priyasath Dep, took his seat. The PM said that the independence of the judiciary had been restored in Sri Lanka. That immediately raised questions on who decided that Sri Lanka should co-sponsor the US resolution moved at the UN Human Rights Council in 2014 which called for hybrid courts with international prosecutors and foreign judges. Some SLFPers have also complained to President Sirisena about the non-inclusion of any party member in the Sri Lanka delegation to Geneva this time.

Minister Amaraweera was asked at the news conference about the pledge made in Sirisena’s presidential election manifesto to abolish the Executive Presidential system. He cited references in the same manifesto in which Sirisena declared, “I will not touch any Constitutional Article that could be changed only with the approval at a Referendum….” That line could strengthen the argument of those not wanting the Executive Presidential system abolished for it would, like others, require a referendum.

However, the UNP in its five point ‘manifesto’ for the August 2015 parliamentary elections declared that it would introduce a new Constitution. Under the title “Ensuring Freedoms,” this is what the UNP said:

  • “Together with the cooperation of all political parties the next Parliament will introduce a new Constitution in keeping with the principles of good governance to strengthen the country’s democracy and entrench it further in the Government while strengthening local representation and doing away with disparities between individuals and communities to strengthen the principle of equality.
  • “The President will exercise his powers on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of ministers who are answerable to Parliament. Thereby the supremacy of the legislature will be upheld. The powers held by incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena will remain…”

It is not only the increasing inter-party contradictions that have surfaced in the public domain but also issues that are intra-party. The latest is the six-page cabinet memorandum Public Enterprise Development Minister Kabir Hashim placed before his ministerial colleagues during their meeting on February 26. It was an indictment on his party and cabinet colleague Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. He also pointed out that though he was the Minister in charge, the SriLankan Airlines management had altogether ignored him. Details of the memorandum, revealed exclusively in the Sunday Times last week bared how compensation of US$ 154 million for three Airbus A 350-900, ordered by the previous Government, was finally negotiated with International Lease Finance Corporation (ILFC). This was after negotiations had gone on with the Dutch firm AerCap for many months and payment was approved for it by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM).

Now there is a sequel. Minister Hashim circulated a note this week at Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting. He said he would be presenting another cabinet memorandum next week together with Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. Needless to say, Hashim is being made to climb down from his aggressive position after he was pulled up by his leader, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to display a show of solidarity. Soon after ministers discussed the issues he raised, he had a separate meeting with the Premier and later issued a statement which claimed that the payment of compensation for the aircraft, which was negotiated, was a saving for the country. Yet, those who placed the order for the new aircraft as well as those involved in raising bank loans to pay for them are yet to be identified. Another instance of intra-party confrontation came months earlier. This was after Finance Minister Karunanayake announced that foreigners bringing US$ 350,000 or more would be entitled to a resident visa. His colleague, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha responded publicly that he would oppose the move. He said crooks and criminals from abroad could bring in their money and use Sri Lanka for their activities.

In this backdrop, the Sunday Times today reveals how Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga is trying to obtain Government approval for a mixed development project including the construction of apartments. According to documents available, this was through Wills Realtors (Private) Limited, a company which he formed with Prasad Wasantha Sirimanne on July 25, 2013, in terms of a declaration made under the Companies Act for the purpose of registration. Ranatunga’s address is given in the application for registration as 50/4C Pelawatte Road, Nugegoda whilst Sirimanne is at 45/7 Koranelis Mawatha, Sri Subuthipura, Battaramulla. However, on November 25, 2016, when he became a Cabinet Minister, Ranatunga had withdrawn from the Board. The form for Change of Director/Secretary (Form 20) now lists P.W. Sirimanne, V. Krishnamurthy Rao (from Mumbai) with Ranatunga’s local address and Dileepa Hemamali Dhanatunge. The company’s registered address remained his Pelawatte Road, Nugegoda, home.

Ranatunga, it has now transpired, persuaded Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, to present a cabinet memorandum on the project. In that, Ranawaka said, “the 1996 Cricket World Cup Winning squad has duly incorporated a company named M/s Wills Realtors (Pvt) Ltd. under the Companies Act No, 7 of 2007. It bore company registration No: PV 93826 with the registered office at 50/4 C Pelawatte Road, Nugegoda.   They asked that the land belonging to the Urban Development Authority (UDA) behind the HSBC at Rajagiriya, now worth Rs 1.5 billion, for a mixed development project.

In fact, the UDA, Wills Realtors (Pvt.) Ltd as the Investor Company and Sampath Bank as their banker had entered into a tripartite MoU on October 30, 2014. That was during the Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration.  At the time of signing the MoU, the company has paid Rs. 345 million to the UDA as “commitment fee” for the allocation of the land. The memorandum said “since the company was unable to provide the investment details including their credentials, the UDA had extended the validity of the MoU till January 1, 2017. The Board of Investment too had approved the project.

However, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM), the cabinet memorandum noted, wanted the matter referred to the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) to ascertain whether there was any “bribery or corruption” in raising funds. In fact, Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva (who is an MP from the Kotte electorate) had sent a rider to ministers after receiving a copy of the memorandum. He was then acting Minister of Foreign Affairs. He raised issues over the “ability of the said company floated by the 1996 World Cup winning cricket team to undertake a project of the said magnitude.” Then, he too believed it was a company floated by the World Cup winning cricketers. CCEM had also urged that checks be made with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC). It came to light that there were no complaints. Hence the UDA took action to revise the land value and its Board approved the project.
The cabinet memorandum came up for approval at a meeting of Ministers on January 31. Harsha de Silva, who was acting Foreign Minister, dropped a bombshell. He said the claim that the “1996 Cricket World Cup winning squad has duly incorporated a company” was false. He had checked and found the cricketers were not involved. It was Minister Ranatunga, the captain of the World Cup champion team, who was behind the move.

It transpired that the cricketers who won the Cricket World Cup in 1996 (or the entire team of 14) had already been given land that year itself by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on a proposal by then Minister Lakshman Jayakody, a former Trinity College cricket vice-captain. They were given 20 perch blocks including one lot for Ranatunga. They still held them. The cricketers were expected to build their own houses.  Some had tried to swap this land with the UDA property but were not successful.

President Sirisena intervened at the ministerial discussion. He requested that Minister Ranawaka’s cabinet memorandum be withdrawn. He asked Acting Foreign Minister de Silva to meet Megapolis and Western Development Minister and brief him of the factual position. Thereafter, Sirisena said, Ranawaka should present a new cabinet memorandum for discussion.

Minister Ranawaka told the Sunday Times, “Facts were misrepresented to me. I was misled. That was how the first cabinet memorandum spoke about a company formed by the cricket squad that won the World Cup in 1996. I must thank Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva profusely for raising this and later explaining matters to me in detail.” De Silva, however, declined to comment saying that the matter was before the Cabinet of Ministers.

In this new cabinet memorandum, taken up for discussion at a ministerial meeting on February 28, there was no reference at all to the company being “duly incorporated” by the World Cup winning squad. It has been deleted since it was found to be false. Yet, a provision has been included, at Ranatunga’s insistence, that “each member of the 1996 Cricket World Cup winning squad will receive a four bedroomed apartment totally free which is worth around US$ 800,000 or over Rs. 120 million. They would also receive a cash payment of two million rupees each.”  That would mean US$ 11.2 million would be spent to build free houses on State land for the cricketers. On top of that, a total of Rs. 28 million would be paid to the 14 cricketers. The memorandum adds; “A percentage of the profit which will not be less than US$ 1 million of the project will go towards a charity formed by the 1996 legendary cricketers to help/assist past cricketers and to develop school cricketers in the country.” Ranatunga seems to be setting the stage for the project with promotional advertisements about the “legendary cricketers”.

He has not only described himself as one of the “legendary cricketers” to qualify for a Rs. 120 million worth apartment and cash, that too 21 years after the World Cup glory, but has used his official position, as a Minister, to first mislead a ministerial colleague and then to change his proposal to a more attractive one for the World Cup 1996 players. Re-living the glory after 21 years. They will now have not only their land in Denzil Kobbekaduwa Mawatha (Battaramulla) but also a new apartment and two million rupees each. This is at a time when the country is facing an acute economic crisis and is struggling to raise funds. That is not all. There is growing public discontent against the Government with the cost of living soaring.

The extent of land at Rajagiriya is two acres, three roods and 24.2 perches which Wills Realtors (Private) Ltd. had sought and paid an advance. It was part of what was acquired by the UDA under the Land Acquisition Act. The lease of the land is expected to be for 99 years. The Government Chief Valuer has said that at the present market value, the land is worth Rs 1.5 billion.

The lease premium on nominal ground rental is to be Rs 1,000 per acre or an amount to be determined by the Government Chief Valuer. Due to the prevailing financial constraints, the Cabinet of Ministers are now awaiting the observations of Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake before a final decision is made.
After the declaration of Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte area as the administrative capital of Sri Lanka, the UDA was directed to identify and acquire/vest the developable lands to fulfil the land requirements of State institutions as well as private sector for development work. It is in keeping with this policy that an extent of around 24 acres facing the Parliament Road abutting the Kolonnawa Ela at Rajagiriya (behind the HSBC) was acquired. Part of the land had been given to the HSBC for its Asian Region Centre, some for the Ministry of Education for a rugger playground and some for the Kotte Municipal Council for a public playground. It is the remaining extent of land that Wills Realtors (Pvt.) Ltd. had sought.

There were a number of other issues too that were cause for concern for the Government. Last Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting began with a statement by President Sirisena on the controversy over the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM). Most ministers, he noted, were only talking about one side of the story and making references to courts. There was a larger student population who were concerned about SAITM. He said the Government would have to listen to them, seek their views and take a final decision. Otherwise, he warned, the beneficiaries would be the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and what he called the antherey kalliya, the faction led by Kumar Gunaratnam. The reference was to the Inter-University Students Federation.

Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake briefed ministers on the different Gazette notifications issued by the Central Bank on the issue of bonds. Though President Rajapaksa, who was Finance Minister, ceased to be in office after January 8, 2015, the Central Bank had issued for publication Gazettes under his name. The Gazettes in question, he has said, had not been referred to him before publication. He said it was a ‘serious’ matter that had to be gone into. President Sirisena then named a ministerial subcommittee chaired by Premier Wickremesinghe. The other members are Ravi Karunanayake, Sarath Amunugama, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Patali Champika Ranawaka. The subcommittee was asked to recommend ways and means of overcoming the practice that has been resorted to by the Central Bank.

On Thursday morning, Sirisena chaired a very brief meeting of the SLFP Central Committee. The ten minute session did not discuss key issues or take decisions. Earlier, it was expected that a decision made by SLFP ministers in January that President Sirisena should be their candidate at the 2020 presidential election was to be placed before the CC. However, none of the matters was brought up.

In the evening, Sirisena addressed the SLFP Executive Committee. The theme of his speech was for the SLFP to practice what he called “clean politics”. This, he said, was what people expected from the Government.  There were allegations against even ministers. We should put forward people who have untarnished reputations. This has to be ensured by a future SLFP Government, he said.

The presence of former Speaker, Chamal Rajapaksa, the eldest of the Rajapaksa Clan at the Exco meeting came as surprise to most party members. As one SLFP minister declared, “he has acknowledged President Sirisena as the party leader. This is a good beginning.” He added that his presence also showed that he (Chamal) had no truck with the “dissident” group. Whether that was wishful thinking, or a strategy of the Rajapaksa Clan remained in issue. Sirisena said that the party would hold a “much bigger” May Day rally than the one that was held in Galle last year. The venue for the rally has not yet been determined.

This month will be one of foreign travel for Sirisena. He leaves tomorrow for Indonesia to attend the heads of state meeting of the Indian Ocean Zone. He is due to return on March 9. He is to be chief guest at an International Women’s day event in Colombo. On March 22, he will pay a state visit to Russia at the invitation of President Vladimir Putin. From Moscow, he will fly direct to the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka to be chief guest at that country’s Independence Day celebrations.
SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake read out a list of names to say that the party has set up 145 branch organisations out of a total of 168. It was decided to arrange for a meeting of the party’s youth leagues ahead of the May Day rally.

Moves for a special ministerial meeting ahead of Sirisena’s departure to Indonesia did not materialise. This was to approve the Concession Agreement for the Hambantota Port with China Merchants Ports Holding Company. A Government source said negotiations have been finalised with an offer of 1200 acres of land to the company.

This week, a Cabinet minister wrote to the Attorney General complaining of the delays on his part in finalising the agreement. The Concession Agreement is now due to come up before the Cabinet of Ministers on March 14. This week’s developments show that relations between the two partners in the Government, the SLFP and the UNP, have taken an adversarial turn. Acts of corruption and misuse of official positions at the highest level are surfacing but no action is being taken.  Thus, for some, the carnival goes on as others watch in muttering resignation.

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