Preparations finalised for May Day show of force; Sirisena says he gave approval for JO rally at Galle Face EU’s GSP Plus concessions may not come this year; failure to meet deadlines and pressure from Tamil Diaspora SLFP ministers oppose PM’s proposed law to set up wide-powered energy supply committee By Our Political Editor President [...]


President upbeat despite setbacks and continuing UNP-SLFP disputes


  • Preparations finalised for May Day show of force; Sirisena says he gave approval for JO rally at Galle Face
  • EU’s GSP Plus concessions may not come this year; failure to meet deadlines and pressure from Tamil Diaspora
  • SLFP ministers oppose PM’s proposed law to set up wide-powered energy supply committee

By Our Political Editor

President Maithripala Sirisena was upbeat last Tuesday night, despite the tragedy at the Meethotamulla garbage dump a few days earlier. Speaking to Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Ministers and Chief Ministers of provinces, he made two significant points in a speech on plans for the party’s May Day rally.

One: He declared that it was he who was responsible for ensuring that Galle Face Green was given to the ‘Joint Opposition’ for its May Day. “I directed that their (‘JO’) request for the venue be allowed,” he said. Those remarks ran counter to claims in the state run-media that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had directed the Police to allow the venue for use by the ‘JO’ and assure security. Wickremesinghe was also reported as directing that relevant ministries should extend their support and the Police to ensure former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s protection.

Two: Sirisena asked the SLFP’s May Day organisers not to prominently display the symbol of the party, the hand, in all places. He said the May Day was an international event for workers and the display of the party symbol all over really did not matter.

President MaithripalaSirisena was optimistic and spoke positively when he addressed media group owners, editors and senior journalists at the Presidential Secretariat.

The pro-Rajapaksa SLFP will also not display the hand symbol. Basil Rajapaksa, one of the key organisers told the Sunday Times the predominant partner in their rally would be the Sri Lanka Podujana Pakshaya (SLPP). “We will display our party flag, like all others.” Besides the SLPP, the new brand name for the SLFPers backing Mahinda Rajapaksa, a number of other political parties are taking part. They include the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) led by ‘JO’ leader Dinesh Gunawardena and the Lanka Sama Samaja Praty (LSSP), the oldest registered political party in Sri Lanka.

Sirisena’s remarks came after a senior Traffic Police officer made a PowerPoint presentation. He said the Police have earmarked three lanes for those who will march in the SLFP procession and have allocated the remaining one for movement of traffic. There will be three different points at which the marchers will converge and move together towards the Municipal playground at Getambe, Kandy.

SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake claimed that 2,000 buses have been booked to bring in crowds from different parts of the country. If he is correct, on the basis of fifty passengers in a bus, the turnout would work out to 100,000 from the outstations alone. Dissanayake said payments had already been made for these buses. The discussion also turned to SLFP organisers in areas where those named were said to be inactive. There was a lengthy discussion on the Puttalam District after both Ministers from the North Western province, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Dayasiri Jayasekera raised issue. It was decided to have two organisers for the District with one being a Muslim.

Among the SLFP Ministers taking part in the meeting were Nimal Siripala de Silva, Sarath Amunugama, Duminda Dissanayake, Mahinda Samarasinghe, S.B. Dissanayake, Susil Premajayantha, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Chandima Weerakkody and State Minister Sudarshani Fernandopulle. The Chief Ministers included Isuru Devapriya (Western Province), Dharmasiri Dissanayake (Wayamba) and Sarath Ekanayake (Central Province).

The morning after he had spoken to the SLFP ministers, President Sirisena met publishers, editors and heads of news divisions of both state and private media at the Presidential Secretariat. Dressed in a pink sherwani, he was equally buoyant and declared that the economy was on a sound footing. He said foreign reserves had risen to US$ 5 billion and the economy was looking up. He charged that economists and analysts opposed to the Government were spreading stories that the economy was in a bad shape. To the contrary it was doing well, he said. Yet, there appeared some confusion over the figure of US$ 5 billion. Was it a higher amount which Sirisena meant to say? Did his economic advisors brief him incorrectly on the position?

According to the latest Monetary Policy Review released by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka on March 23, gross official reserves were estimated at US$ 5.6 billion at end of February 2017. This, compared to US$ 6 billion at the end of 2016, shows a decline in the official reserves. These are the latest available figures. The CB said earlier that gross official reserves as at end December 2016 amounted to US$ 6 billion and was equivalent to 3.7 months of imports. Hence, given the fact that reserves have dropped in February 2017 against end 2016, its corresponding equivalent in months of imports, logically speaking, would have come down. This is going by the Central Bank’s own statistics.

Sirisena touched on a few more issues including the Hambantota Port deal and the Colombo Port City. He declared that “in the next two weeks we will give a new look to Government activities. There may be changes of positions in state institutions.” When he opened the floor for questions, they flowed.

One of the journalists asked: “You mentioned about changes in the positions in Government institutions. What about the changes in the Cabinet?”
Replied President Sirisena: “You can see it happening before the Vesak Poya.”
Question: “You mean the Cabinet will change before the Vesak Poya?”
President Sirisena: “You wait and see the changes.”

This, no doubt, was the focal point of attention among a number of ministers in the Government on Thursday. More so, after President Sirisena had confided to persons close to him, including at least two of his trusted ministers, that he wanted to carry out the ministerial re-shuffle this Sunday (today). He said he expected such a ‘re-shuffled cabinet’ to sit at the weekly meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers on Tuesday (April 25). Now, one more time, that is not to be.

He later told the same sources that the re-shuffle would be effected only after May Day, still within the broad deadline he set for himself to do so before Vesak Poya Day. Sirisena has ignited speculation of a possible re-shuffle since January this year. It was pushed for February and later March, the last deadline on the grounds that a proposed visit by International Monetary Fund (IMF) head Christine Lagarde to Colombo would have to be over. However, she cancelled the visit. The latest postponement, a source close to the Presidency said, was reportedly at the request of the United National Party (UNP) leadership. Whilst one source said there was still resistance among them over the proposed changes, other said they had wanted it carried out after May Day.

Significant enough, President Sirisena has summoned an urgent meeting of the SLFP Central Committee for Sunday (tonight). He is to consult this policy making body of his party on the latest political developments and some issues which are being described as “critical.”

Amidst these issues, Prime Minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe will leave for India on Tuesday on a working visit, level three in protocol for visits by leaders from one country to another. (The first is the “state visit” followed by “official visit.”) Accompanying him are Ministers Malik Samarawickrema and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. Premier Wickremesinghe was on a similar working visit to Japan where during the first two days he met the industrial nation’s leaders and was on holiday for two days thereafter. He then travelled to Vietnam returning a day early on account of the Meethotamulla tragedy.

In India, Wickremesinghe will have a luncheon meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday. They are expected to discuss the contours of the Memorandum of Understanding the two countries will sign for development of the Trincomalee Port and a series of other joint ventures. He is also billed to meet other Union Ministers before travelling to Udaipur in Rajasthan. There, he will attend the wedding of the son of Binod Chaudhary, who races his lineage to of the Royal Nepali family at the Udai Vilas Oberoi in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Chaudhary is a businessman. No Foreign Ministry official is accompanying the premier on this trip. He will, however, be assisted by Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi, Chitranganee Wagiswara. Premier Wickremesinghe is due to return to Colombo on April 29. He will chair the UNP’s May Day rally at Campbell Park.

Amidst the debate on the state of the economy, whether it is on an upward trend or sliding downwards, comes some bad news for the Government. There are strong indications that the European Union may not restore the GSP Plus tariff preferences to Sri Lanka in the current year. The restoration of the GSP Plus is now before the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union for review. The move will mean the Government would have to re-apply. The reason, diplomatic sources said, is the failure to keep to the EU’s deadline of May 14 to fulfil a set of conditions. This includes the repealing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the introduction of a Counter Terrorism Act in keeping with international standards and amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code.

On Thursday, the European Parliament Group (EUG) gave notice of a resolution that is to be included in the plenary agenda. If it is backed by 373 members, the motion is carried, and the GSP Plus concessions would be rejected. Here are highlights of the resolution:

  • Whereas since January 2015 the Government of Sri Lanka has taken some positive steps towards improving human rights. This includes the Government’s decision to co-sponsor Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolution 30/1 in October 2015;
  • Whereas on 11th January 2017 the Commission adopted a delegated act to add Sri Lanka to Annex III of Regulation (EU) No: 978/2012;
  • Whereas the Government’s reform efforts, including those that directly relate to the GSP Plus criteria, have not yet delivered in their purpose to comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention against Torture, and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination;
  • Whereas the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka A/HRC/34/20 of 10 February 2017 concluded that the measures taken by Sri Lanka since October 2015 have been “inadequate to ensure real progress,” and the fulfilment of the commitments has been “worryingly slow”;
  • Whereas the ILO Committee of Experts has identified a number of shortcomings with ILO Convention 87 and 98, including the insufficiencies of the Industrial Disputes Amendment Act 56 of 1999, which is the only existing legislation that relates to ILO Convention 87;
  • Whereas the process of repealing and replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has not yet been accomplished, whereas a new Act replaces the PTA it must not include a broad definition of “terrorism related” offences, and limit the risk of forced confession through torture;
  • Whereas the existing breaches of Human Rights in Sri Lanka raise concerns about the appropriateness of granting GSP + status while there is inadequate real progress according to international bodies;
  • Whereas the Sri Lanka Government is suspected of not adequately tackling the culture of impunity by rewarding military officials accused of human rights violations with Government positions;
  • Whereas a delegated act shall enter into force only if no objection has been expressed by either the European Parliament or the Council within two months of notification of the act; whereas it was agreed to extend that period by two months on 23rd January 2017;
  • Objects to the Commissioner’s delegated resolution (2016) 8996;
  • Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Commission and to notify that the delegated regulation cannot enter into force;
  • Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council and to the governments and Parliaments of the Member States.

The issue of repealing the PTA, a condition of the EU, cannot be carried out within the EU’s May 14 deadline. As revealed last week, an amended final draft of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act has now been circulated among ministers. It will have to go to the Legal Draftsman again thereafter for incorporation of amendments suggested by the Parliamentary Oversight Committee and by a Committee headed by Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake.

Already some provisions in the final draft have generated strong controversy. One is a provision relating to the word “unity,” which was in the original draft. The final draft says “in view of the vagueness caused by using the word ‘unity’ in this section the word ‘unity’ has been omitted in the opening paragraph and sub paragraphs. The text as presently contained includes offences which affect the “territorial integrity, sovereignty of Sri Lanka, or the national security or defence of Sri Lanka, or the security of the people of Sri Lanka.”

Other “substantive amendments” made to the previous version submitted to the Cabinet,” Premier Wickremesinghe has noted, are:

  • Offences – In view of the vagueness of the previous definition of ‘terrorism,’ the definition has been amended, and is now a suitably modified definition of ‘terrorism contained in the Draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
  • Offence of Espionage – This offence has been omitted in view of Sri Lanka presently not having a National Intelligence Act.
  • Curfew – This section has been amended so as to vest the President with the power to impose curfew (as opposed to vesting such power in the Minister).
  • Armed Forces to perform Police functions – This provision has been omitted in view of the fact that the President already enjoys similar powers in terms of the Public Security Ordinance.

One of the elements in the preamble to the final draft of the Counter Terrorism Act says it is also “for the protection of other countries and areas from the scourge of terrorism.” The inclusion, a security source said, would give the new law teeth to deal with Sri Lankans who are involved in terrorist activity in other countries or assisting those fighting in other countries through different means from Sri Lanka. The proposed Act empowers “Any police officer or any member of the armed forces or a coast guard officer,” to arrest any person who commits, or whom he has reasonable ground to believe has committed in his presence an offence in terms of this Act.

It is not practically feasible for the Legal Draftsman’s Department to incorporate new provisions to the final draft of the Counter Terrorism Act and have it ready before May 14, the EU deadline. Thus, a fresh application would mean that the Government would have to go through the process anew.

Other than the Government’s inability to meet the May 14 deadline set by the EU, the Sunday Times learnt that there has also been intense lobbying against Sri Lanka by Tamil diaspora groups and international organisations supporting them. They had intensified their campaign particularly after the Government won a two-year reprieve to further implement the US-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It was co-sponsored by Colombo.

Another condition by the EU was amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure. This is to make provision enshrining the right of a suspect to see a lawyer immediately after arrest. However, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe took up the position then that a lawyer could see the suspect only after his or her statement has been recorded. The amendments were gazetted as a draft Bill. However, it has still not been debated in Parliament.

The imbroglio over the GSP Plus issue comes when ministers of the SLFP, for the second time, are opposed to new laws Premier Wickremesinghe wants to introduce in his capacity as Minister of National Policy and Economic Affairs. At the last meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers (on April 4), Anura Priyadarshana Yapa raised issue. Titled the Energy Supply (Temporary Provisions) Bill, the proposed law seeks to vest in the National Policy and Economic Affairs Minister wide powers in respect of “generation, transmission and distribution of an adequate supply of electrical energy, petroleum and other alternative energy requirements to meet the national demand for the next decade on emergency basis.” The provision of this proposed law is to be valid for two years.

Minister Yapa said there was no doubt an energy crisis was threatening the country. It was his view that the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has not been alive to the seriousness of the issue and has been unable to take appropriate action. A power crisis next year caused by an energy demand may even lead to power cuts. However, the draft legislation presented by Premier Wickremesinghe had some features that disturbed some ministers.

There were two ministers, both SLFP, who were now in charge of the subjects of power and energy. The Minister of Power and Energy is responsible for distribution and supply of electrical energy. Petroleum and other alternative energy requirements come within the purview of the Minister of Petroleum Resources Development.

Yapa said that the draft law sought to not only ignore the role of the two ministers but had also left them out of a proposed Energy Supply Committee. Thus, he pointed out, that this eleven-member official Committee would make decisions and the two ministers in question would be required to carry them out. The eleven Committee members are the Secretary to the Ministry of National Policy and Economic Affairs, the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance (or his nominee), the Secretary to the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy (or his nominee), the Secretary to the Ministry of Development Strategies and International Trade, the Secretary to the Ministry of Petroleum Resources Development, the Chairman of the Ceylon Electricity Board, the Chairman of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, an Energy Regulator (to be appointed under the new law), the Chairman of the Energy Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, the President of the Institution of Engineers and the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority.

SLFP ministers are to raise issue over the new law with President Sirisena. “If this becomes law, the two Cabinet Ministers dealing with petroleum and power will have no role to play,” said one minister. Another pointed out that this was similar to the Development (Special Provisions) Bill which was withdrawn amidst strong protests by them and the opposition. This proposed law sought to vest the powers of a number of ministries in the Ministry of National Policy and Economic Affairs but was later abandoned.

The proposed law delegates five different functions for the proposed Energy Supply Committee. They are:

  • Take all steps to deal with issues of generation, transmission and distribution of electrical energy, petroleum and other energy requirements including sourcing goods and services.
  • Deal in any manner with all forms of renewable energy resources.
  • Purchase or otherwise deal with ancillary equipment such as electricity meters and prepare schemes for the purchase of such equipment by the private sector.
  • Ensure the cost effectiveness of all aspects of the operations of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the Ceylon Electricity Board.
  • Conserve energy and promote other energy resources.
  • To achieve the above purposes, the Committee’s objectives have been defined as:
  • To ensure generation, transmission and distribution of adequate supply of electrical energy, petroleum and other alternative energy requirement to meet the national demand for the next decade;
  • To regulate the provision of electrical energy, the petroleum supply and the utilisation of other energy resources.

Now that President Sirisena has chosen to effect the ministerial re-shuffle after May Day, the suspense over who is getting what will continue. That is amidst worries over the economy and despite several positive statements by Government leaders that the GSP Plus is round the corner. In that backdrop, the tensions between the UNP and the SLFP is bound to exacerbate over the new Energy Supply Committee legislation with loud cries that two of the latter’s ministries are being emasculated. That is the political outlook ahead of May Day.


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