Sri Lanka ends up in near diplomatic disaster with India

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The Cabinet of Ministers, who met last Monday, postponed approving the proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution for the third time in a row.

Co-Cabinet Spokesman Mahinda Amaraweera said, party leaders would be informed about the progress of the 21st Amendment.

He said, the constitutional amendments were not approved at a Cabinet meeting on 13 June, as it was decided that further input was required from party leaders.

Thus, the 21st Amendment is expected to be approved at a Cabinet meeting tomorrow. The 21st Amendment was presented to Cabinet on 23 May initially, following a meeting of the Constitution Amendment Drafting Committee.

Cabinet decided to distribute copies of the amendment to party leaders for their perusal. The amendment was discussed before being sent back to Cabinet for final approval.

After repealing the 19th Amendment, the 21st Amendment is expected to nullify the 20th Amendment, which granted the President unlimited powers.

PM working overtime

After assuming duties as the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe started to introduce himself as ‘crisis PM.’ Even when being interviewed by foreign TV channels, Wickremesinghe used the same introduction.

However, when Wickremesingeh said he is the ‘crisis PM’ to a few foreign dignitaries last week, they told Wickremesinghe he is not a ‘crisis PM’, but the PM who took the burden of rescuing the country.

Last week, the PM primarily focused on how to resolve the country’s worsening fuel and gas crises. He entrusted the task of resolving and coordinating those issues to Sagala Ratnayake. When Ratnayake was asked about the progress of the fuel and gas situation, the PM understood it would be difficult to resolve the cooking gas issue through an acting Chairman. Therefore, he instructed the officials to appoint a new Chairman to the Litro. Muditha Peiris was appointed as the new Litro Chairman following that. Peiris had served as the Managing Director at Litro prior to 2019.

Wickremesinghe also advised Sagala Ratnayake before handing over the appointment letter to brief Peiris of the situation at hand and only give him the job if he is truly willing to serve.

Peiris consented to take over the post as he has an understanding about the situation at hand and the internal procedures at the company.

Upon taking over the post, Muditha Peiris phoned one of its old gas suppliers, Oman Trading Company, and started talks to see if they are willing to reach an agreement with Litro to supply gas to Sri Lanka. He then briefed the PM and the other officials about the situation as well.

At that time, Wickremesinghe had already sought a further USD 500 million loan from India in addition to the previous Credit Lines.  The PM, Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera and Sagala Ratnayake held talks with officials from the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), CBSL, State Banks and several other State institutions to secure sufficient funds to import fuel.

Owing to this turn of events Ratnayake gave instructions to officials to make necessary payments for the unloading of fuel from ships by the weekend. He also expressed hope that if the country receives USD 500 million from India, the government would be able to provide an uninterrupted supply of fuel for four months.

It was after this information that Wickremesinghe made a special video statement on the economic situation last week.

Hinting that long fuel queues will continue for the rest of the year Wickremesinghe said in the statement, only 50 per cent of the total demand for fuel would be distributed for the next five months, after prioritising electricity generation, hospitals, and other essential services.

Wickremesinghe said, at present fuel shipments have been secured for this month and the next month.

“A 40,000 MT shipment of fuel will arrive tomorrow (16). It will be enough for the next two weeks. After obtaining a new US$ 500 million Indian credit line, fuel shipments for the four months after July will be secured. However, the fuel will be distributed for 50 per cent of the total demand. That too would be after providing fuel for electricity generation and other essential services,” the Premier said.

He said when seeking USD to purchase fuel, the Bank of Ceylon (BOC) did not even have enough LKR. “It was after this that I obtained Cabinet approval to print money,” he added.

Speaking about the present domestic gas shortage, Wickremesinghe said a ship carrying 3,500 MT of gas has arrived and it will be distributed, prioritising essential services such as hotels, hospitals, and crematoriums. The next shipments which are due to arrive in July will be enough for four months. However, discussions are underway to possibly secure a gas shipment before July, he said.

Further, the Premier said representatives of heavyweight financial and legal advisers, Lazard and Clifford Chance, arrived in the country on Tuesday (14) to provide advice on the difficult task of debt restructuring.

“We have begun discussions with Japan to fix our broken diplomatic ties following my personal intervention. Our Ambassador in Japan has met the Japanese Foreign Minister and conveyed our desire to fix broken ties between the two nations. Several countries including the USA and China have expressed their willingness to assist us. We hope to initiate discussions with Russia, the European Union, and the United Kingdom. The international community is ready to assist us. We need a proper plan to present them,” Wickremesinghe said.

The US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung met Wickremesinghe for an urgent discussion in the meantime.

Prior to the meeting with Ambassador Chung, the PM had a phone conversation with the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. During this discussion Wickremesinghe elaborated to Blinken the present situation in the country while the latter agreed to provide necessary financial aid to Sri Lanka.

Ambassador Chung conveyed to Wickremesinghe that she will brief Washington with regard to the current situation in Sri Lanka. In the wake of these discussions, the US Embassy in Colombo confirmed that Washington consented to grant financial assistance to the tune of USD 120 million.

On Monday morning Wickremesinghe met a group of IMF officials.

On the same day evening the PM met UNP officials and inquired about the party activities.

Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe met rice mill owners on Wednesday to discuss the issues pertaining to rice and paddy harvesting etc.

Rice mill owners were charged with hiking prices of rice varieties by concealing vital stocks and the PM insisted that the situation has to be resolved forthwith. He maintained that if the mill owners do not conform to the certified price stipulated by the government then he will have no other alternative but to act according to the law.

Wickremesinghe then had a meeting with Party Leaders in Parliament and he remarked that a road map will be submitted to the House shortly, focusing on the many pressing issues faced by the public and how best to tackle those agitations.  

Foot in mouth

Barely two weeks had lapsed following the diplomatic spat between Sri Lanka and Russia, due to a blunder created by certain officials, the country ran into a near diplomatic disaster with India when a top government official put his foot in his mouth when he told the Parliament corruption watchdog committee that Indian Prime Minister pressured the Sri Lankan President to award a renewable energy project to an Indian company.  

Chairman of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) M.C.C. Ferdinando, during a COPE inquiry, at the parliamentary complex on 10 June, claimed that the tender for the wind power plant in Mannar had been given to India’s Adani Group as a result of the pressure exerted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vehemently denied the statement made by the Chairman of the CEB at the COPE in this regard and categorically said that he had not at any time given authorisation to award a wind power project in Mannar to any person or any institution.

Ferdinando, who appeared to have slipped back into his senses following President Rajapaksa’s vehement denial, apologised unconditionally, over the statement he made at the COPE meeting and said he wished to withdraw the statement, which was totally incorrect.

Issuing a statement addressed to COPE Chair Dr. Charitha Herath, the CEB Chairman said that he was compelled without limitation to express the words ‘Indian Prime Minister’ due to unexpected ‘pressure and emotions’ during the discussion.

“In regard to the clarification made by me at the COPE meeting, held on 10 June 2022, in replying to the allegation made against me on the proposed Mannar and Pooneryn Wind and Solar Project with Adani Green Energy Ltd., to generate Renewable Energy of 500 MW, I explained the circumstances behind the issuance of my letter dated 25 November 2021. During this discussion I became so emotional due to pressures and unreasonable allegation levelled against me to issue this official letter of request. Therefore due to unexpected pressure and emotions I was compelled without limitation to express the words ‘India Agamathi balakara bawa Kiwwa’ (said, pressured by the Prime Minister of India) which is totally incorrect. Hence, I wish to withdraw the relevant statement and record my apology unconditionally,” he said.

Meanwhile, CEB trade unions demanded Ferdinando’s immediate resignation from the top post over his making ridiculous statements to COPE.

TU Leader Ranjan Jayalal said, the claim made by Ferdinando to COPE that Indian Prime Minister Modi had pressured the President to hand over the 500MW wind power plant project to the Adani Group was due to stress, was ridiculous.

Jayalal said the Chairman should resign because, “What I said at the COPE meeting was true.”

He claimed that not only the President and Prime Minister of India, but also the President, Ministers, and MPs of this country, had fallen into Adani’s clutches.

“Why is it given to Adani if the country does not have the money or investors to start solar and wind power projects and even if it wants to start with a foreign company?” he queried.

“The recent statement I made at the COPE meeting is true and cannot be dismissed as a lie or misstatement,” he said.

M.C.C. Ferdinando, following his controversial allegation submitted his resignation to the Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera, which was accepted.

“I have accepted the letter of resignation tendered to me by the CEB Chairman M.M.C. Ferdinando,” the Minister tweeted.

Meanwhile, Adani Group said it was “disappointed,” as it reacted to a massive controversy over an energy project in Sri Lanka awarded to the group, after former Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) Chairman M.M.C. Ferdinando claimed that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa acted under pressure from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Our intent in investing in Sri Lanka is to address the needs of a valued neighbour. As a responsible corporate, we see this as a necessary part of the partnership that our two nations have always shared. We are clearly disappointed by the detraction that seems to have come about. The fact is that the issue has already been addressed by and within the Sri Lankan Government,” said a spokesperson of the Adani Group, according to the Indian Media outlet NDTV.

The allegations involve a 500 MW renewable energy project in Sri Lanka’s Mannar District. A video of Ferdinando’s comment at the parliamentary hearing has been widely circulated on Twitter.

The controversy erupted a day after Sri Lanka changed its laws to remove competitive bidding for energy projects. The Adani Group figured in the parliamentary debate on the Electricity Amendment Bill before it was passed, amid Opposition protests. The Opposition accused the Government of ramming the Bill through Parliament to facilitate large renewable energy deals for the Adani Group, which signed an unsolicited government-to-government agreement to build the Mannar Wind Power Plant.

The Adani Group reportedly won contracts to develop two wind power projects, in Mannar and in Pooneryn, in December.

Gautam Adani had visited Sri Lanka in October and had tweeted about his meeting with President Rajapaksa.

In 2021, the Adani Group had signed a US$ 700 million deal with the State-run Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) to develop and run the strategic West Container Terminal of the Colombo Port.

Maithri on working relationships

Former President Maithripala Sirisena on Friday alleged that President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have no real working partnership and there is a clear lack of coordination between them.

He said the two are competing approaches to governance. He said it is similar to his own experience as President with Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister from 2015 to 2019. Similar ambiance prevailed during President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in the short-lived United National Front Government between 2001 and 2004.

“You’ll remember the situation in the country when Ranil Wickremesinghe and I were governing. Today, you have the President summoning ministers and officials for discussions and to issue instructions to them. Then you have the Prime Minister also summoning ministers, appointing committees and issuing instructions to officials. It is clear that there is no partnership between these two,” he pointed out.

The SLFP Leader also said the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe administration was not an All-Party Government. He reiterated the position of his party to form an All-Party Government with 15 Cabinet Ministers for a period of six months or one year, after which a parliamentary election may be held.

“This is a view shared internationally. Today the biggest problem facing the government is that it doesn’t have the approval or confidence of the people. Internationally, world leaders and organsations have no confidence in the government either because of how the government acted over the last three years,” he said.

SJB laments

Main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya lamented that the country does not have professional envoys who can reach out to friendly nations for aid and other support on behalf of Sri Lanka during these trying times.

Speaking during an event in Colombo, MP Dr. Harsha De Silva claimed that this embarrassing scenario came to light when Maldivian Speaker and former President, Mohamed Nasheed was being tasked by the Government to coordinate and secure foreign aid for Sri Lanka.

“The visions and decisions of Presidents who ran the country since the mid-1990s has led the country into its current predicament. Countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam progressed with the support of the international community; Sri Lanka is in isolation at present due to inward looking policies. Even Middle Eastern countries are unwilling to support Sri Lanka at present,” he added.

Dr. De Silva revealed that leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have not been forthcoming in extending their support even during the current crisis because they do not know who the stakeholders are in Sri Lanka’s Government.

MP de Silva also said the Government will struggle to deal with the current issues until the end of this year.

“Sri Lanka will have to wait until the end of this year to obtain a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In order to get money, the IMF board has to approve the loan agreement. It takes a lot of work to do that. That means changes have to be made in fiscal management. Simply put, government revenue has to be increased. We have to reduce the cost. We have to think about subsidies. Above all, we have to move towards a positive programme that restructures those debts”.

However, Nasheed refuted reports that foreign nations have rejected his requests to help Sri Lanka and added that MP de Silva’s comments to the Media are inaccurate.

 “Dr. de Silva is a long-time friend and we often meet. I always enjoy his company. This press story isn’t accurate though. I believe a number of countries are willing to help Sri Lanka, and that assistance will come through,” Nasheed tweeted, in response to Dr. de Silva’s claim.

The SJB MP said, the UAE Ruler has said he will consider the matter, “if Sri Lanka can send a list of things that remain to be sold.”

By Gagani Weerakoon