President, PM keen to continue Yahapalanaya | Daily News

President, PM keen to continue Yahapalanaya

Dr. Neville Fernando welcoming President Maithripala Sirisena on his arrival to attend the agreement signing ceremony to transfer the ownership of the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital to the government held on  Monday.  Picture by Nirosh Batepola
Dr. Neville Fernando welcoming President Maithripala Sirisena on his arrival to attend the agreement signing ceremony to transfer the ownership of the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital to the government held on Monday. Picture by Nirosh Batepola

Lanka to rely more on trade and FTAs:

NFTH handed over to Government:

IMF, Oxford Business Group laud Sri Lanka:

High-profile arrests testimony to HR commitment:

The formation of the National Unity/Good Governance (Yahapalana) Government in January 2015 or to be more precise, August 2015, was a watershed moment in local political history. Except for a brief period of cohabitation almost 15 years ago (President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was in power when the UNP won the election in 2001), the two parties have not formally ruled the country together. The catalyst for this transformation was the defection of the then Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena to become the Common Presidential candidate in January 2015 against UPFA’s Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then incumbent President. The election ended in a victory for Sirisena, who became President.

Both the President and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe were under no illusion that a marriage between the UNP and the SLFP would be easy. The two parties hold disparate views on many issues, but the two leaders were firm in their conviction that the coalition should work to ensure the uplift of the nation. One problem was that while some of the SLFP immediately expressed their allegiance to President Sirisena, another group remained in the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp. They eventually morphed into what they called the Joint Opposition, though they were not officially recognised in Parliament. The Rajapaksa camp also formed a separate political party named Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna under the Flower Bud symbol. The former President, though officially not the leader of this party, is the prime mover behind it. Moreover, he has made no secret of the fact that he wants to regain power in some form since the 19th Amendment has again restricted Presidential term limits to two.

While some SLFPers in the National Unity Government were actually happy to see the back of the Rajapaksas, there were others who were always on the fence, with a foot in the JO camp. The differences between the UNP and SLFP camps have gradually widened, partly due to the machinations of the JO but also due to inherent differences between the two parties on certain issues, mainly economic ones.

A senior SLFP minister told this columnist on the condition of anonymity that most ministers and MPs in the President Maithripala Sirisena camp were not pleased about the UNP’s handling of the economy, among other things. However, he noted that there was no immediate danger of a mass exodus to the JO side, though he did not rule out some defections. There is speculation that 18 SLFP MPs in the Government plan to cross over to the Opposition.

Consensual governance

The President has requested the SLFP group in the Government to hold on until December 31, which would be close to the third anniversary of his Presidential Election victory, with the idea that outstanding issues could be resolved within that period. Just like the President, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too is a passionate advocate of the national unity/ Yahapalana Government. Maintaining a national government in power is a difficult endeavour, but every effort should be taken to keep it going for the sake of the immense benefits which will accrue to the people, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told a gathering in Pannipitiya. At a private function held later, the PM told his confidantes that the Good Governance Government must go on to realise the aspirations of the masses who voted them into power, despite consensual governance being a totally new experience. Many backbenchers in the UNP and several from other parties have assured fullest support to maintain the Government.

Both the SLFP and the UNP are gearing up for the Local Government polls which are now likely to be held towards the end of the year or in the first quarter of 2018. The Bill on the Local Government (LG) Elections would be presented in Parliament next week since all the affairs of the government with regard to the election have been completed, President Maithripala Sirisena said last week. He also said that although various politicians and sections of the media level allegations that the government is not holding the elections, what really has happened is that the Bill which was drafted on the election of members to the Local Government institutions previously had many flaws.

Despite the reservations of certain Government and Opposition MPs on the current state of the economy, Sri Lanka has earned a vote of confidence from the International Monetary Fund and the prestigious Oxford Business Group. The IMF Executive Board recently completed the second review of Sri Lanka’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF) arrangement, which enables the disbursement of about US$ 167.2 million. This will bring total disbursements under the arrangement to the equivalent of Special Drawing Rights (SDR) 359.682 million (about US$ 501.5 million). Sri Lanka’s three-year extended arrangement was approved on June 3, 2016, to the amount of SDR 1.1 billion (US$1.45 billion, or 185 percent of quota in the IMF at that time of approval of the arrangement. The government’s reform programme, supported by the IMF, aims to reduce the fiscal deficit, rebuild foreign exchange reserves, and introduce a simpler, more equitable tax system to restore macro-economic stability and promote inclusive growth, the IMF added. Continued international reserves accumulation and enhanced exchange rate flexibility, to which the authorities are committed, would reduce Sri Lanka’s external vulnerabilities, it noted.

Economic potential

Earlier in the week, Sri Lanka and the World Bank signed a S$100 million credit agreement to support its higher education sector. The objective of this initiative is to increase enrollment in priority disciplines, improve the quality of degree programmes, and promote research and innovation in the higher education sector. The Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development (AHEAD) operation is the first in Sri Lanka to use the World Bank Programme for Results lending instrument.

The Oxford Business Group in its 2017 Report on Sri Lanka noted that a raft of new trade deals is set to unlock the island’s economic potential. “Structural and political issues have held back foreign investment in Sri Lanka in the past, but with new FTAs in the pipeline and a Government committed to attracting global investors to drive economic growth, the outlook is improving,” the report said. The report gives a few key highlights, such as industrial exports increasing by 8.1'% year-on-year in October 2016 to US$ 655 million. Exports to India alone grew by 877% in just 13 years.

“There is renewed momentum behind Sri Lanka's efforts to achieve its potential as a regional trading centre and an attractive place for investors from around the world. A strong emphasis on sectors in which it is particularly well-placed to grow such as logistics, garment manufacturing and tourism – are now starting to bear fruit,” the Report said.

As the Oxford Group Report mentioned, Sri Lanka plans to sign several FTAs this year. The latest country to join this club is Bangladesh. (India was the first). This was announced during President Maithripala Sirisena’s successful state visit to Bangladesh. (The President was accompanied by a business delegation). Although the Bangladesh economy is bigger than that of Sri Lanka, the balance of trade is currently in favour of Sri Lanka. The FTA will create a more level playing field and benefit both countries to raise their bilateral trade from the current US$ 100 million. More than 10 other agreements were signed by the two countries during the President’s landmark visit.

However, a recent expose by the Daily News highlighted the pitfalls of falling for grandiose investment projects proposed by unknown and dubious companies. Headlined ‘Tall Tale’, it detailed a murky deal on a US$ 2 billion agreement signed with the Board of Investment (BoI) to build a 101-storey building complex in Colombo. ( Our sister newspaper The Sunday Observer exposed another such project called the Horton Square, a purported 75-storey complex in Colombo.

Planning permission granted to Horton Square, branded as another mega estate project, launched with much fanfare in April this year, was rescinded last week by the Government, the newspaper disclosed. The decision to cancel the permission for the purported 75-storey project, in the former Asha Central land at Horton Place, Colombo 7, came in the wake of the World Commercial Centre fiasco where the Board of Investments (BOI) entered into an agreement with an entity whose credentials were not checked before the agreement was signed and no proper due diligence was carried out. BoI Chairman Upul Jayasuriya has resigned, citing personal reasons.

Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital (NFTH)

One of the biggest local investment projects ever undertaken in the country is now in Government hands after Dr Neville Fernando agreed to hand over the hospital named after him to the Government. President Maithripala Sirisena witnessed the signing of the historic agreement in Malabe. This will now become a Government owned teaching hospital, with completely free care for the patients. A Government takeover of the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital (NFTH) was one of the demands of the anti-SAITM lobby, though the Government has stressed that the core structure of SAITM itself will see no major change. The Government Medical Officers' Association (GMOA) has apparently given up the idea of striking willy-nilly after discussions with the Prime Minister and the Health Minister and also an open appeal by Prof. Carlo Fonseka not to make him a scapegoat for strikes. The Government has mostly kept its word, now the GMOA must be sporty enough to let the status quo prevail.

Many criticised the GMOA for striking during the dengue outbreak, which shows no sign of abating with nearly 90,000 patients reported. This week, our sister newspaper The Sunday Observer reported that the health authorities are planning to trial Rupatadine as a new drug to combat the deadly disease. Meanwhile, it was reported that Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, slated to visit Sri Lanka this week, will announce Australian assistance to combat dengue fever in Sri Lanka. “President Sirisena and I will announce Australian assistance to combat dengue fever in Sri Lanka and discuss progress on the implementation of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process, which is critical to its long-term security and prosperity,” Bishop said in a statement published by the Australian Foreign Ministry website, without elaborating on the kind of assistance that Australia plans to provide.

Garbage has often been mentioned in connection with dengue and the dogs that forage on the garbage have also been mentioned. Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka sometime back stressed the importance of controlling the City’s stray dog population, but some individuals seem to have interpreted this as a carte blanche to kill dogs and even feral cats. One such incident was reported from the University of Moratuwa, where an unknown party (the university authorities have blamed a private contractor) had poisoned the dogs and cats who called the university their home. The students, who took care of the dogs and cats were heartbroken and posted pictures of the innocent animals on Facebook. An investigation is underway on the incident.

A similar incident occurred sometime back at the University of Sri Jayawardhanapura. The President has made it clear local authorities or any other establishment should not kill stray dogs and cats, but alternative methods should be found to control their numbers in view of rabies fears.

Amidst all the hullabaloo of politics and even the grim news concerning dengue, Sri Lankans love to turn to their one passion – cricket. The sport is on a sticky wicket in Sri Lanka after the one-day series loss to Zimbabwe. Although Sri Lanka managed to win the one-off Test by four wickets after a flip-flop performance, the one-day series loss was rather rattling, because it had the potential to rob the team of automatic qualification to the 2019 ten-team World Cup. Many sport and political commentators have lamented the politicisation of cricket especially during the previous regime for the start of the rot. Although many politicians have headed Sri Lanka Cricket in previous decades, there was no interference as such. It was during the late Minister Gamini Dissanayake’s tenure that Sri Lanka gained Test status in 1981. Meanwhile, Minister and 1996 World Cup winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga’s comments on the 2011 World Cup Final (which India won) have stirred a hornet’s nest in both India and Sri Lanka, not to mention the controversies over Cricket Manager Charlie Austin.

High-profile arrests

Two recent high-profile arrests have reaffirmed the Government’s commitment towards protecting human rights. Former Navy Spokesman D.K.P. Dassanayake was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in connection with the disappearance of 11 youths who had been abducted in Colombo and surrounding areas in 2008 and 2009. It had been revealed that the former Navy Commander Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda has wanted him investigated over the same issue. In the other case, Senior Deputy Inspector General Lalith Jayasinghe (last attached to the Central Province) has been arrested for allegedly helping a suspect (Mahalingham Sasikumar alias Swiss Kumar) in the rape and murder of schoolgirl Sivaloganathan Vithya evade arrest in Jaffna. Jayasinghe was SSP Jaffna when the incident took place. Jayasinghe is the highest ranking serving police officer to be arrested, even though retired DIGs have been arrested previously, most notably Anura Senanayake.

Three experienced Tamil-speaking judges have been chosen by the Chief Justice to preside over a special trial-at-bar for the rape and murder of Pungudutivu student Sivaloganathan Vithya. The trial is being held at the Jaffna High Court, with Vavuniya High Court Judge Balasingam Sasi Mahenthiran leading alongside Jaffna High Court Judge Manikkavasagam Ilancheliyan and Trincomalee High Court Judge Annalingam Premashankar. This is the first such Trial-at-Bar in Jaffna, which witnessed civil unrest following the fleeing of Swiss Kumar. The Jaffna residents also protested against alleged moves to transfer the hearing of the case to Colombo.

Another case, this time heard in Colombo, is also making legal history. The Colombo High Court has re-summoned President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to appear in court on December 4, 2017, to give evidence in a case filed against Tissa Attanayake on charges of forgery. This is the first time that both the President and the Prime Minister have been so notified by a Court. This is the case where Attanayake is charged with displaying and reading from a fraudulent document at a propaganda meeting during last year’s presidential election in support of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Attanayake, the then UNP General Secretary crossed over to the Rajapaksa camp at the last minute, citing the said document as one of the reasons for his decision to leave the UNP. His decision turned out to be tragically wrong for his political career and ambitions since Rajapaksa lost the election.


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