Sri Lanka’s top entrepreneurs and professionals including 15 owners of local firms, lawyers, doctors and engineers got onto the streets on Tuesday protesting against the proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), alleging that it will further liberalize trade and services and provide an undue advantage for India.
CBL chief denied entry at FTA seminar
Chairman of Ceylon Biscuits Limited M.P. Wickramasinghe, was denied entry to the seminar on the 10th anniversary of the Indo-Lanka FTA in Colombo on Tuesday.
He was barred from entering the seminar hall as he was not among the invitees.
Multi Chemi Group Chairman Dr. Samantha Kumarasinghe said that he personally send an e-mail to the organizers requesting them to invite Mr. Wickremasinghe as his presence is essential to discuss CEPA issues. Later he was told that no invitation has been issued to Mr. Wickramasinghe and this was brought to the notice of organizers.
“The organizers have every right to refuse entry for non-invitees but this is a special case where a well-known Sri Lankan businessman who has first hand information of how the FTA failed for him, and in such a situation, he should have been willingly allowed,” said another local businessman.
The case of Ceylon Biscuits buying a well-known Indian brand of biscuits but blocked in going ahead due to bureaucracy rigmarole is a well-known case in India and Sri Lanka.
It was a rare protest by corporate executives and, despite an assurance given by President Mahinda Rajapaksa that he would not enter any pact that was harmful to the island’s economic interests, the demonstrators are vowing to continue their campaign until official negotiations towards signing the CEPA are halted.
Another unusual sight was the President giving a quick audience – just as the protest ended – to the group of businessmen and around 800 to 1000 of their supporters at the heavily-guarded Temple Trees and listening to their grievances. In the past, protestors near Temple Trees have been ‘welcomed’ by baton-charging police, rubber bullets, water cannon and downright abuse. No-one has been able to get near Temple Trees. The Business Times reliably understands that sections of the government provided unofficial backing for the protest. The CEPA, an extension of the Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was finalised almost two years ago but has been delayed due to opposition from Sri Lankan business leaders who fear the island could be flooded by cheaper Indian services.
Multi Chemi Group Chairman Dr. Samantha Kumarasinghe, convenor of the protest, told the Business Times that their struggle is aimed at halting the implementation of CEPA. He said that at least 15 chairmen of companies, professionals and members of the Chamber of Young Lanka Entrepreneurs along with 800 others participated in the protest.
They handed over a petition to the President urging him to halt the negotiations. Dr Kumarasinghe revealed that most of the clauses in the CEPA are a secret and only bits and pieces have been divulged.
Dr. Kumarasinghe said that they organized the protest in Colombo within six hours in a short time, as a response to some remarks made by a senior Indian High Commission official at a Colombo seminar discussing the 10th anniversary of the Indo-Lanka trade accord (FTA) claiming that only a few Sri Lankan companies opposed the CEPA.
It was these comments that triggered the protest which saw more than a dozen Chairmen and Managing Directors including W.K.H. Wegapitiya of Laugfs, M.P. Wickramasinghe of Ceylon Biscuits, Asoka Siriwardane of Bitumix, Ruwan Edirisinghe of R&N Group, Dilith Jayaweera of Triad Advertising, Pubudu Wickrema of Wickrema Printers, Daya Dehigama of EPIC Lanka, Parakrama Perera of Sparklink Travels and Rohith de Silva of IDEC get on the streets. Dr Kumarasinghe said Ariyasheela Wickremanayake of Master Divers and DSI Managing Director Kulathunga Rajapaksa were among those who raise concerns about the CEPA at the seminar.
The Multi Chemi chairman said the agreement will destroy Sri Lanka’s control of trade and services and bring more benefits to Indian business and professionals. Sri Lankan exports to India makes up just 5% of that country’s imports, so what is the use of further liberalizing of trade and services by opening the doors for the giant neighbour to dictate terms to our country, he added.
Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge endorsed the FTA in 1998 under Indian pressure without consulting anyone. The FTA has failed to bring any tangible results for the country, he said. Dr Kumarasinghe quoted the President as saying that he (Rajapaksa) is not like President Kumaratunga and that he will not enter into any pact or agreement that is has an adverse impact here.
Dr Kumarasinghe pointed out that while the FTA limits tariff concessions to goods, the CEPA covers services such as banking and allows greater cooperation between customs administrations. It will also pave the way for Indian professionals to serve in Sri Lanka. “Under this set up any professional even an Indian barber can come with his family to work in Sri Lanka,” he said.