A busy week ahead for President, Government | Daily News

A busy week ahead for President, Government

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prof. Maithri Wickremasinghe met King Charles lll at a ceremony held for world leaders at Buckingham Palace ahead of Queen Elizabeth's Stae Funeral on Monday. Picture courtesy President's Media Division
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prof. Maithri Wickremasinghe met King Charles lll at a ceremony held for world leaders at Buckingham Palace ahead of Queen Elizabeth's Stae Funeral on Monday. Picture courtesy President's Media Division

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II dominated world headlines last week and while Sri Lanka condoled by declaring Monday, the day of the funeral, a public holiday, President Ranil Wickremesinghe accompanied by Prof. Maithree Wickremasinghe represented the Nation at the ceremonies held in London.

This was President Wickremesinghe’s first overseas visit as Head of State and was undertaken to honour the Queen who was the country’s Head of State for a period of 20 years, from 1952 when she became Queen until 1972 when Ceylon became a republic under the new constitution.

Queen Elizabeth has visited Sri Lanka twice, first in 1953, just five months after her Coronation when Sir John Kotelawela was Prime Minister and again in 1981, to attend the celebrations marking 50 years of universal adult franchise in the country when J. R. Jayewardene was the President.

King Charles III who succeeded the Queen too has visited Sri Lanka twice, for the 50th anniversary of Independence from Britain in 1998 when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was President and in 2013 to open the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President.

President Wickremesinghe appointed State Ministers to act for him in his absence, including Geetha Kumarasinghe (Child and Women Empowerment), Ranjith Siyambalapitiya (Finance), Kanaka Herath (Technology Development), Dilum Amunugama (Investment Promotion) and Pramitha Tennekoon (Defence).

President Wickremesinghe made use of the opportunity of his brief time in Britain to meet the Sri Lankan Diaspora (Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim) there. The meeting was organised by the Sri Lankan High Commission (SLHC) in London under the direction of the High Commissioner to Britain, Saroja Sirisena.

At this meeting attended by businessmen, investors and professionals, the President invited Sri Lankans living in Britain to contribute to the opportunities being created in Sri Lanka. He also outlined the plans of his Government, explaining various new investment prospects that will arise.

“It is not a secret that we are ‘bankrupt’ as a country. We have had discussions with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A staff level agreement was reached. We have to negotiate with India, China, Japan and with other creditors. We have to repay what we have borrowed,” the President said.

President’s visit to Britain

The President’s visit to Britain came at a time when Sri Lanka especially needs to be on the offensive on the issue of foreign affairs. This is in the context of the ongoing sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) conducted in Geneva, Switzerland.

Previously, the Government had been dealing with Resolution 46/1. The Government has clearly stated that it is opposed to this Resolution. The Government’s stance had been noted by Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, who said a major factor was invoking International Jurisdiction for alleged human rights abuses.

“We are compelled to categorically reject follow-up measures to the Resolution,” he has said, as the UNHRC proposed an alternative ‘Resolution 51/1’. Discussions on the follow-up Resolution are ongoing in Geneva. A vote on the new Resolution has been scheduled for Friday, October 7.

A key feature of the new Resolution, analysts have noted, is the inclusion of several clauses related to the current economic crisis in the country. The Government in Colombo has strongly queried as to how economic policy decisions and their outcomes can be classed as Human Rights issues.

Economic issues however continue to remain in sharp focus for the Government in Colombo. That was after unofficial reports appeared in the media claiming that India, which has provided generous loans to Sri Lanka in recent months, was not keen to make further grants to Sri Lanka.

The Indian High Commission responded to these claims. “We have seen the relevant media reports. We emphasise that India has extended unprecedented bilateral assistance amounting close to US$ 4 billion this year for ameliorating the difficulties faced by Sri Lanka,” the High Commission said.

“We have also noted the conclusion of a Staff-Level Agreement between IMF and the Government of Sri Lanka. Its further approval within IMF is contingent upon, inter alia, on Sri Lanka’s debt sustainability,” the statement issued by the Indian High Commission in Colombo said.

The High Commission reiterated that India will continue to be supportive of Sri Lanka in all possible ways, in particular by promoting long-term investments from India in key economic sectors in Sri Lanka for its early economic recovery and growth noting that bilateral projects are ongoing.

Increase in electricity rates

Among the consequences of the economic situation in the country was a decision by the Government to increase electricity rates drastically. The rate increases have affected most consumers but have been deemed necessary by economic experts. They have also affected places of worship including temples.

Several prominent Buddhist monks and Catholic priests have spoken out against the rate hike being imposed on places of worship and have launched a campaign against it. However, Government officials contend that places of worship are already the recipients of generous concessions in determining their electricity tariff.

Answering a question in Parliament, Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera said that only about 12,000 religious places of worship are getting electricity bills over Rs. 3,990 out of the total of 48,682 such institutions. It is not accurate to say most places of worship are affected, he said.

“A total number of 48,682 religious places have been provided with connections so far. About 36,000 such places are getting a maximum bill of Rs. 3,990 even after the tariff revision. A total of 15,195 religious places are using less than 30 units and getting a monthly bill of Rs. 330,” he explained.

“Some 11,151 religious places have to pay Rs. 1,260 as a monthly bill now,” Minister Wijesekera said. He noted that a project has been initiated to introduce a solar power project to the 12, 586 religious places using higher amounts of electricity, using the US$ 100 million Indian Credit Line.

However, the issue about the higher tariffs for places of religious worship is likely to linger after the Most Ven. Mahanayake Theras of the four main Chapters wrote to President Ranil Wickremesinghe this week, urging a review of the decision to repeal some of the concessions accorded to such institutions.

The letter to the President noted that an extremely difficult situation has arisen due to the new revision of electricity tariffs, which the Most Ven. Mahanayake Theras say has underestimated the social service provided by religious shrines and treats them “at the level of factories generating financial profit”.

The letter is signed by the four Most. Ven. Mahanayake Theras, Thibbatuwawe Sri Sumangala (Malwaththe Chapter), Dr. Warakagoda Gnanarathana (Asgiriya Chapter), Dodampahala Chandrasiri (Amarapura Maha Nikaya) and Makulewe Wimala (Rammana Maha Nikaya).

As much as this matter needs to be dealt with by President Ranil Wickremesinghe on his return, another issue that awaits his attention is the appointment of a full Cabinet of Ministers. The President recently appointed 38 State Ministers, mostly from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), with a few from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

The Cabinet now consists of Ministers originally appointed by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with the exception of the Foreign Affairs portfolio where Ali Sabry, PC, replaced Prof. G.L. Peiris who fell out of favour after nominating renegade SLPP MP Dullas Alahapperuma to run for the Presidency at the vote in Parliament.

The current Cabinet consists of 18 Ministers. The Constitution provides for the appointment of 30 Ministers. President Wickremesinghe has been keen to form an ‘All-Party Government (APG)’. He has repeatedly invited Opposition political parties to join in this task but their response has been lukewarm.

Now, the SLPP which retains a majority in Parliament has requested President Ranil Wickremesinghe to consider its District Leaders and those who served in the previous Cabinet for Cabinet ranks, Minister of Urban Development and Housing and Chief Government Whip Prasanna Ranatunga said.

For the remaining 12 vacancies in the Cabinet, there is speculation that a minister each will also be appointed from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), the latter being the party’s sole representative in Parliament, former Minister Vajira Abeywardena.

Despite recent political events that led to the resignations of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the SLPP is keen to establish itself as the dominant party in the Government under President Wickremesinghe. Minister Ranatunga’s request is a result of this aspiration.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe will therefore be busy this week dealing with economic issues, domestic political issues and events in the UNHRC before he undertakes his next overseas visit to Japan to attend another funeral, that of assassinated former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.



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