GOVT DECLARES UNOFFICIAL LOCKDOWN AS HUNT FOR FUEL CONTINUES

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While the entire country is crippled by the fuel shortage, the Government is trying to secure fuel shipments from other countries, including India. The worsening fuel crisis forced the Government to declare an ‘unofficial lockdown’ until 15 July, as the remaining fuel stocks in the country are running out.

Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera said two representatives are scheduled to fly to Russia to look into the possibility of obtaining fuel from there. Education Minister Susil Premajayantha, who is currently in Paris to attend a summit of Education Ministers, is expected to visit Russia with former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia Saman Weerasinghe.

Wijesekara and Environmental Minister Naseer Ahmed left for Qatar on 27 June to mainly discuss about obtaining fuel and Sri Lankan migrant workers.

Curious case of ‘Qatar Charity’

In the backdrop of Sri Lanka trying to secure fuel shipments from Qatar, the Government has decided to revoke the ban imposed on the ‘Qatar Charity’ organisation.

The Sri Lankan Government listed ‘Qatar Charity’ as a terrorist organisation in connection with the 2019 Easter Sunday terror attacks and the CID froze the accounts of the organisation in Sri Lanka.

Then Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara claimed in Parliament that the Easter Sunday suicide bomber Zahran Hashim had conducted lectures at an organisation maintained by Attorney-at-Law Hejaaz Hizbullah. The organisation, named ‘Pearl of Unity’ and its local branch was funded by Qatar Charity. Hizbullah was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and detained for 22 months. 

The Government’s decision to lift the ban on Qatar Charity was tweeted by Minister Kanchana Wijesekera, who held discussions with several officials in Qatar.

Wijesekera met Qatari Minister of Commerce and Industry, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Qassim Al-Abdullah Al-Thani, on investment opportunities in power, energy, and other sectors. He shared experiences on Qatar development and possibilities of bilateral trade.

“During the visit to Qatar, led the delegation to meet Dr. Ali bin Saeed bin Smaikh Al Marri – Minister of Labour with the Chairman of Foreign Employment Bureau. Discussed new job opportunities for Sri Lankans, jobs during the World Cup and visa process issues with the Qatar Visa Centre,” Minister Wijesekera added.

The Minister also met officials of the Qatar Charity and informed the organisation that the Defence Ministry has decided to lift the ban on the fund, which was imposed in 2019. Wijesekera said they discussed the Charity’s work in Sri Lanka and worldwide.

In response to the Government’s move to lift the ban on Qatar Charity, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa slammed the Government asking how Qatar suddenly became good.

“When I was the Housing Minister back then, I participated in a Foundation Stone laying ceremony for a branch of Qatar Charity. At that time, those who are in the incumbent Government launched massive mudslinging campaigns against me using racism. Now, the same groups have gone to Qatar to get fuel,” he stressed.

Premadasa said, because of the opportunistic nature of this Government, many friendly nations like Qatar burned their bridges with Sri Lanka.

“Now the citizens are paying for that. How come Qatar suddenly became good for the Government?” he queried.

Former royal astrologer Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena’s 70th birthday fell last Tuesday. Not only his birthday, his 40th wedding anniversary, also had fallen on the same date.

A group of wealthy businessmen, who had known him, had suggested that they should organise a small event to mark the special day for their friend.

Though Abeygunawardena was not that keen over the holding of such an event, he finally gave into their demand and organised milk rice for them in the morning. As a result the event was held at the Grand Monarch Hotel.

He had invited only his closest friends. Several, including politicians, irrespective of their party affiliations, who had known the astrologer, were present at this event. Among them were Minister Manusha Nanayakkara, former Ministers Rajitha Senaratne, Tissa Attanayake, former Chief Minister Shan Wijeyalal de Silva, MP Weerasumana Weerasinghe and former Minister Piyasena Gamage.

Head of the PM’s Office Sagala Ratnayake was also slated to participate in the event but he was unable to attend due to being summoned by his boss for an urgent meeting. However, he did not forget to call Abeygunawardena over the phone and convey his greetings to him.

But, what was noticeable at the event was that no member from the Rajapaksa clan was present. In fact Abeygunawardena had taken care not to invite any member of the controversial clan to his event. But, some who were present at the event had inquired about it.

Abeygunawardena said that some had gone before the media and uttered untruths, as they had known what the truth was. He said he was not prepared to wash dirty linen in public and maintained that he has no dealings with such people.

Then, Minister Nanayakkara said that Abeygunawardena had not robbed even a cent and stressed that if that had been the case he would not be able to be in his position today.

MP Attanayake then agreed with the remarks made by the Minister and noted that even when they were in the Opposition they had not been able to level any charges against Abeygunawardena because the latter had not tainted his image.

Rajitha Senaratne was present with his spouse Dr. Sujatha Senaratne. Abeygunawardena had also delayed cutting the birthday cake till the arrival of the former Health Minister. Abeygunawardena then recalled the decision taken by Senaratne on behalf of the country on 28 January, 2007.

He said that Senaratne had always placed the needs of his country before himself and he also recalled the close connection between their two families. In the meantime those attending the event also talked about the political decisions taken by Minister Nanayakkara.

The Minister said that when taking political decisions he has been in the habit of contacting Abeygunawardena, but this time had taken it without consulting the noted astrologer. He then requested Abeygunawardena to draft an auspicious time for his swearing in ceremony.

Afterwards, MP Weerasumana Weerasinghe arrived at the event he too recalled the close nexus between their two families.

Actor Sanath Gunathileke was also present at the birthday bash and spoke of the country’s political situation. He urged the Minister to popularise picturesque locations of the country via the medium of cinema and formulate a programme whereby the country could earn vital foreign exchange through it.

Manusha Nanayakkara advised Gunathileke to use his clout in the film industry to carry forward his ideas and Nanayakkara promised to give all assistance to him through the Government.    

Sajith’s meeting with GotaGoHome protesters

A historic meeting had taken place between Opposition Party Leaders in Parliament with representatives of those currently engaged in the GotaGoHome protests.

This particular meeting, between those presently engaged in the GotaGoHome protests and those representing leading Opposition parties in Parliament, had taken place with the concerted aim of reaching consensus on the burning issues of the country

The Opposition party representatives had been coordinated by SJB MPs Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and Buddhika Pathirana.

The first such meeting between the two factions took place at Janaki Hotel in Narahenpita on 29 June.

At the outset they had discussed crucial issues plaguing the country such as the toppling of the present regime headed by the current President and the creation of a common platform for them to undertake that task.

Afterwards, the two factions had decided to hold talks with groups such as the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), the JVP and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP).

Among Opposition party MPs present were Independent MP Patali Ranawaka, TNA M.P. M.A. Sumanthiran, SJB MPs Tissa Attanayake, Mano Ganesan, Rishad Bathiudeen, Palani Digambaram, V. Radakrishnan, SLPP MPs Anura Yapa, Chandima Weerakkody and Priyankara Jayaratne.

However, SJB MP and SLMC leader Rauff Hakim was absent at the meeting as he was overseas. but he had wished it success.

PM meets News Editors

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe met editors and news directors of national newspapers and television stations last week.

He briefed the Media on the current economic situation in the country, including the emergency measures being taken to address the fuel crisis.

Implying that it is unlikely to get a petrol shipment before 22 July, Wickremesinghe said discussions have been initiated with India to get a fuel shipment prior to that.

He said the closest day to get the next petrol shipment is 22 July.

According to Wickeremesinghe, Sri Lanka has only 11,000 MT of diesel, 7,000 MT of petrol and 30,000 MT of furnace oil.

Although the country has enough funds to get a diesel shipment, it is difficult to find ships owing to the Russia – Ukraine war, he noted.

Meanwhile, the PM’s Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayake said it is estimated that a diesel shipment would arrive in the second week of July as an order has been placed. He said an order has been placed for 33,000 MT of gas and the stock would arrived in July.

Ratnayake stated that a confirmed petrol shipment was due on 22 July. He noted that the government is also attempting to secure fuel shipments at an early date, however, has explained that until those were confirmed, the details would not be released

Senior Economic Advisor to the Prime Minister Dr. R.H. Samaratunga, also briefed the Media on the economic situation and how the economy has reached this precarious position.

Wickremesinghe said Sri Lankans are currently experiencing the most difficult three weeks he had mentioned earlier and expressed hope that the coming period would gradually get better.

The Premier said the printing of money should be stopped from the beginning of next year to manage the rising inflation. He said the revenue from the VAT revision is expected in August.

However, he noted that the income of Government institutions is less than the income of media institutions.

The Prime Minister said he expects to present an amended Budget by the end of next month.

Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe said the Government should work together with both the SJB and the JVP to cultivate the country (Waga Sangramaya) to face the predicted food crisis.

The United States has agreed to provide technical assistance for fiscal management in Sri Lanka.

Kelly Keiderling, Deputy Secretary of State for South and Central Asia at the US State Department, who arrived in Sri Lanka, held a discussion with Wickremesinghe on 27 June.

The US Diplomatic Group also stated its support for the ongoing talks between the Government of Sri Lanka and the International Monetary Fund.

Robert Kaproth, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Asia in the United States and Julie Chung, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, also participated in the discussion held at the Prime Minister’s Office.

22nd Amendment to the Constitution gazetted

The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution Bill gazetted on Wednesday (29 June) proposes a Constitutional Council (CC) made up of the Prime Minister, the Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives, one Member of Parliament chosen by the President and five additional individuals also chosen by the President.

The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was presented to the Cabinet by Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. The Cabinet approved the Bill last week.

However, the Executive Presidency has not been abolished by the Amendment. The CC, which would suggest appointments to all Independent Commissions, has been reinstated.

The Amendment says the Speaker shall be the Chairman of the Council and the Council reflects the pluralistic character of Sri Lankan society, including professional and social diversity and that every member of the Council appointed shall hold office for a period of three years from the date of appointment unless the member resigns their office in writing, addressed to the President or is removed from office by the President on a resolution passed by the majority of the Members of Parliament.

The President would appoint the Chairmen and the members of the Commissions as specified within 14 days of receiving the recommendations of the Council for such appointments.

All the Commissions such as the Election Commission, the Public Service Commission, The National Police Commission, the Audit Service Commission, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, the Finance Commission, the Delimitation Commission, the National Procurement Commission other than the Election Commission, shall be responsible and answerable to Parliament.

In the discharge of its function relating to the appointment of Judges of the Supreme Court and the President and Judges of the Court of Appeal, the Council shall obtain the views of the Chief Justice.

The 22nd Amendment also states that all matters relating to the appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal of members of the Sri Lanka State Audit Service and pending before the Public Service Commission on the day preceding the date on which this Act comes into operation, shall, with effect from that date, stand transferred to the Audit Service Commission established by Article 153A and shall be determined by the Audit Service Commission accordingly.

Also, the Amendment says that the Parliament shall by law provide for the establishment of a Commission to investigate allegations of bribery or corruption but the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption Act, No. 19 of 1994 shall apply, subject to the modification that it shall be lawful for the Commission, appointed under that Act, to inquire into, or investigate an allegation of bribery or corruption, whether on its own motion or on a written complaint made to it.

‘Let’s end the Gota-Ranil curse’

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led a protest with the slogan ‘Let’s end the Gota-Ranil curse,’ on Thursday (30 June).

A large number of political leaders, civil and professional activists, civil activists, trade unionists, and members of the public participated in the protest march towards the Presidential Secretariat, against what they called “the corrupt regime that has dragged the country into the present collapse.”

The protest was held in defiance of a Court order against protests and demonstrations that obstruct the public and vehicles. Traffic movement along Olcott Mawatha in Pettah up to Lotus Junction was disrupted.

The protest was led by Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and was attended by a large number of SJB MPs, party representatives, and members.

Mervyn Silva’s new journey

Former Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva became a member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on Friday (1).

Silva was presented with his membership by former President and SLFP Chairman Maithripala Sirisena, at Sirisena’s official residence in Colombo.

While having contested under the United National Party (UNP) in his last election, Silva also previously represented the SLFP and United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

He later criticised the Rajapaksa regime, and withdrew from active politics.

IMF delegation concludes Sri Lankan visit

Sri Lanka is in for an IMF loan, provided at least two conditions are met, as indicated by an IMF statement released on Friday (30 June) and going by what Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe recently said, that is, tax rates should be on par with what was there when they were in power in 2019.

To qualify for an IMF loan, known technically as an ‘Extended Fund Facility’ (EFF), Sri Lanka will have to ‘further’ raise the present 12 per cent VAT rate to 15 per cent as that which prevailed in 2019, while a new conditionality will be to liberalise electricity rates, similar to the present adoption of a pricing formula to determine the pricing of fuel at the pump, an increase which the local authorities have already committed themselves to.

These hikes may lead to what is known as a staff-level agreement with the IMF, followed by IMF Board approval, where the whole process may take another two months (August). The IMF also indicated that interest rates need to be raised further to counterbalance high inflation.

An IMF team co-headed by Senior Mission Chief for Sri Lanka Peter Breuer and Mission Chief for Sri Lanka Masahiro Nozaki, which concluded a 10-day visit to the island on Friday (30), issuing a statement said, ”The IMF team had constructive and productive discussions with the authorities on economic policies and reforms to be supported by an IMF EFF arrangement.”

Significant progress was made and discussions will continue virtually towards reaching a staff-level agreement on the EFF arrangement in the near term.

The objectives of the new IMF-supported programme would be to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting the poor and vulnerable, safeguarding financial stability, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock Sri Lanka’s growth potential.

The IMF staff team and the Sri Lankan authorities made significant progress on defining a macroeconomic and structural policy package. The discussions will continue virtually with a view to reaching a staff-level agreement on the EFF arrangement in the near term. In this context, discussions focused on designing a comprehensive economic programme to correct macroeconomic imbalances, restore public debt sustainability, and realise Sri Lanka’s growth potential.

Discussions advanced substantially during the mission, including on the need to reduce the elevated fiscal deficit, while ensuring adequate protection for the poor and vulnerable. Given the low level of revenues, far-reaching tax reforms are urgently needed to achieve these objectives. Other challenges that need addressing include containing rising levels of inflation, addressing severe balance of payments pressures, reducing corruption vulnerabilities, and embarking on growth-enhancing reforms. “Authorities have made considerable progress in formulating their economic reform programme and we are looking forward to continuing the dialogue with them,” the statement also said.

The IMF team held meetings with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister and Finance Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Central Bank Governor Dr. P. Nandalal Weerasinghe, Secretary to the Treasury K.M. Mahinda Siriwardana, and other senior government and CBSL officials. It also met parliamentarians, representatives from the private sector, civil society organisations, and development partners, the statement concluded.