SL ONCE AGAIN CAUGHT IN DIPLOMATIC SCUFFLE BETWEEN INDIA AND CHINA

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe left for Kandy on Thursday (11) to witness the final Randoli Esala Perahera of the Sri Dalada Maligawa.

Traditionally, the Head of State, who is the President, is informed that the Perahera has been successfully concluded flowing the final Randoli Perahera and Diya Kapima cermony the following morning.

President Wickremesinghe was provided with an Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) chopper for the journey. However, the President who refused to travel in the chopper told the staff that it will be most unbecoming of him to use SLAF’s choppers when the country is facing an acute fuel crisis  and said he would travel by road.

The President and his staff left for Kandy early in the morning of Thursday (11) in his official vehicle. Wickremesinghe who arrived at the President’s House in Kandy watched the Perahera from the balcony of the Queen’s Hotel in the evening. In the afternoon after the Diya Kapima ceremony the following day the Diyawadana Nilame officially informed the President that the Kandy Esela Perahera 2022 has concluded.

The President set aside much of his time during the past week to discuss the formation of an All-Party Government (APG) with political parties and their representatives.

Among the political parties he met for talks were the SLFP, SJB and the TNA. Among the frontline MPs of the SJB were Kabir Hashim and Dr. Harsha de Silva. However, SJB MP Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka opposed the formation of the APG. MP Hashim stated that both the President and those in the Opposition will be forced to make unpopular decisions if the country is to be put back on track.

The President headed to his office last Saturday (6) and Sunday (7). On Saturday afternoon he met a group of trade union reps and in the afternoon he went to Pannipitiya to pay a courtesy call and receive blessings from Most Ven. Ittepana Dhammalankara Thera; the Chief Prelate of the Kotte Sri Kalyani Samagri Dhamma Sabha of Siyam Maha Nikaya.

The Chief Prelate was flanked by Ven. Prof. Kotapitiye Rahula Thera.

The President recalled that as he had heeded the advice proffered by the Chief Prelate when he was the PM, he had been able to visit the temple as the new President now.

Afterwards Ven. Kotapitiye Rahula Thera requested the President to facilitate the return of his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa and allow the latter to live the rest of his life in peace in Sri Lanka.

On Monday (8) evening, the Cabinet meeting took place following the Government’s parliamentary group meeting.

Minister Prasanna Ranatunga stated that the country’s Provincial Councils have been defunct for some time and there are financial issues in them as well.  Ranatunga requested the President to look into the matter and take necessary actions.

Wickremesinghe then summoned Secretary to the President Saman Ekanayake and urged him to look into the matter raised by Ranatunga. Responding to the Minister’s request the President issued a written order to all Governors last Wednesday (10).

Getting closer to military

Wickremesinghe, who was never known for his fondness of the military and vice versa, has increasingly made surprising behaviour with friendly gestures over the past several weeks. He, as the Commander-in-Chief appears to mend his ties with the military.

He as the President-elect expressed his appreciation to the three Armed Forces and the Police for their service during the last few days. While leaving Parliament after the Presidential election on 20 July he alighted from his vehicle at the roadblock near the Polduwa Junction and met with the Armed Forces personnel who were on duty outside Parliament and expressed his thanks to them.

Similarly, following the swearing-in ceremony at Parliament complex the very next day (July 21) he visited the Defence Ministry at the Defence Headquarters Complex in Akuregoda.

On Tuesday (9) morning the President headed to the Army Headquarters in Akuregoda Pelawatta to attend the National Security Council (NSC) meeting.

After the meeting was concluded the President attended a special felicitation event organised to commend the soldiers who prevented the Parliament Complex from being stormed by protesters during the spate of recent anti-government protests.

The President was joined on this visit by PM Dinesh Gunawardena and Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.

At the end of the proceedings, they were accorded a reception by Army Commander Vikum Liyanage. During the reception the President inquired from the Army Commander with regard to training given to military personnel.

The Army Commander stated that the very best overseas and domestic training are being offered to the soldiers. The President then instructed the Army Commander to submit a report to him in this regard.

Having got wind of this event the Police has also sought a similar event of commendation for Police officers as well  and the President was made aware of this.

This was conveyed to him by Chief of the President’s Staff Sagala Ratnayake. The President then advised Ratnayake to organise a date and time for a similar ceremony to commend the services rendered by the Police.

Wickremesinghe then summoned officials from the Finance Ministry and inquired them with regard to the interim budget to be tabled in the House late this month. The President then advised his staff and Finance Ministry officials, to formulate the budget in a manner where relief could be granted to the public.

Appropriation Bill

The amended Appropriation Bill for 2022 was presented to Parliament Tuesday (9) by Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.

Accordingly, total expenditure for this year has been estimated as Rs. 3.265 trillion and the highest expenditure has been allocated for the Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs Provincial Councils and Local Governments. The allocation for the ministry is Rs 682.7 billion.

The expenditure heads of President, Defence, Education and Health have been increased as well.

The President’s expenditure has been increased to Rs 3 billion from Rs 2.78 billion while the defence allocation has been increased slightly to Rs 375 billion from Rs 373 billion. Allocation for health has been increased to Rs 348 billion from Rs 153.5 billion and allocation for education has been increased to Rs 200 billion from 127.6 billion.

A sum of Rs 212.8 billion has been allocated for the Ministry of Public Security.

All-Party Government

Discussions on forming an APG between the President and various political parties continued last week too.

An APG is the only solution to overcome the current economic and political crisis, Independent MP Mohamad Muzammil said after participating in a discussion held at the Election Commission of Sri Lanka in Rajagiriya.

“The group of independent MPs was the first to propose an All-Party Government. We knew that it would be a good remedy for this ongoing crisis. Therefore, we accepted the invitation of the President. We believe that all parties represented in Parliament must agree to support forming an APG. It will not be possible to overcome this crisis through a segregated process,” he said.

Apart from Muzammil, several other MPs, who joined the discussion, also commented on forming an APG.

Speaking to the media MP Lasantha Alagiyawanna, who represented the SLFP said that they have already had discussions with the President regarding an APG and it will probably work. He also said that it must give its priority to finding a solution to the crisis rather than gaining positions in the Government.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Tamil People’s National Alliance MP C.V. Vigneswaran said that they will support to an APG only if the President give what he promised, including releasing political prisoners.

“We have presented a series of proposals to the President when he was the Prime Minister and he promised to give what we want. It includes the release of political prisoners also. That is why we voted for him in poll in Parliament. We are watching to see if the President will act according to those proposals or not,” he added.

In addition, Independent MP Asanka Navaratne said that they have proposed a procedure to find solutions for this crisis by forming a National Executive Council.

On Wednesday (10), evening, MPs Mano Ganesan, Palani Digambaram, Rauff Hakeem, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and C.V. Vigneswaran met the President at the Presidential Secretariat.

Wickremesinghe told the MPs to submit their proposals to the All-Party Conference that was scheduled to be held. The President then instructed the PM to organise the All-Party Conference under his helm.

Meanwhile, SLFP Chairman Maithripala Sirisena said some MPs are working to prevent an APG from being formed.

He claimed that some people appear to thwart that attempt, adding that it cannot be said with certainty that all discussions with political parties in Parliament, regarding the formation of an APG, have been completed. Sirisena also claimed that talks are taking place with other political parties.

He noted that the SLFP has presented proposals, for the formation of an APG, on numerous occasions and that representatives from all political parties should be called to discuss the proposals and determine whether they can be implemented or not.

“While many Members of Parliament have stated that they support the proposal to form an APG, others have stated that they will not. In that case, it has a better chance of reverting to a traditional government. Since the spread of Covid-19 began, the SLFP has advocated for the formation of an APG to address the resulting economic crises,” he said.

He went on to say that for about a year, the SLFP’s slogan has been ‘form an APG fulfilled its responsibilities.

“Although the responsibility for carrying it out has been assigned to the Government, there are some obstacles on that side. If the Government has a genuine desire to form an APG, it can do so within a month after receiving Cabinet and Parliament approval by appointing a committee and obtaining the necessary instructions from the Attorney General,” he said.

Further, he noted that political stability is critical if we are to receive international assistance in recovering from the current economic crisis and the best way to demonstrate that stability to the world is to form an APG.

Caught between Indo-China

Chinese Ship Yuan Wang 5’ which was scheduled to arrive at Hambantota port on 11 August and stay till 17 August mainly for ‘refuelling and replenishment purposes’ has once again put Sri Lanka in a compromising position due to geopolitics of India and China with New Delhi displaying uneasiness about this highly sophisticated ship.

Following a strong protest by India,
Sri Lanka took measures to block the proposed visit by a Chinese vessel to the Hambantota Port. In an official communication, the Lankan Foreign Ministry asked the Chinese Embassy in Colombo to defer the arrival of the ship “until further consultations.”

The Foreign Ministry communicated to the Chinese Embassy in Colombo on 8 August to postpone the visit of the Chinese research vessel to Hambantota Port. The ship was en route from China and was scheduled to arrive at Hambantota on 11 August.

In this backdrop, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin said, it is “completely unjustified” for certain countries to cite so-called “security concerns” to put pressure on Sri Lanka.

Diplomatic clearance for the Chinese vessel to make a call at the Hambantota Port from 11-17 August for replenishment purposes was conveyed by the Ministry to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Colombo on 12 July, which the Government approved. Subsequently, in light of the need for further consultations, the Ministry has communicated to the Embassy of China in Colombo to defer the visit of the said vessel to the Hambantota Port, the Foreign Ministry said.

The Yuan Wang 5 vessel belongs to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF).

Wenbin, at the media briefing in Shanghai on 8 August, urged the relevant parties to see China’s marine scientific research activities in a rational light and stop disrupting normal exchanges and cooperation between China and Sri Lanka.

He said they have noted relevant reports and stressed on two points. First, he said Sri Lanka is a transportation hub in the Indian Ocean. Scientific research vessels from various countries including China have made port calls in Sri Lanka for replenishment. “China always exercises freedom of the high seas in accordance with law and fully respects coastal countries’ jurisdiction over scientific research activities in waters under their jurisdiction.”

Secondly, he said, Sri Lanka is a sovereign country. “It has the right to develop relations with other countries based on its development interests. To have normal cooperation is the independent choice made by our two countries. It serves the shared interests of both sides and does not target any third party. It is completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called ‘security concerns’ to pressure Sri Lanka. As Sri Lanka grapples with economic and political difficulties, to grossly interfere in Sri Lanka’s normal exchanges and cooperation with other countries is to exploit its vulnerability, which is morally irresponsible and against the basic norms governing international relations.”

The postponement of the vessel entering the Southern port of Hambantota comes amid India making a formal submission to Colombo about an impending security threat to India if such a military platform is allowed to enter the Indian Ocean Region and dock for seven days at the Southern port. 

On 4 August, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met at the bilateral meeting in Cambodia, where Minister Sabry said he had reassured the Chinese Minister of the enduring friendship and excellent relations between Sri Lanka and China which remain on a solid foundation. Minister Sabry referred to Sri Lanka’s firm commitment to the One China policy, which has been a consistent principle in the country’s foreign policy. 

The visit of China’s Yuan Wang 5, a space-tracking ship, to monitor satellite, rocket, and intercontinental ballistic missile launches, that was postponed or differed from arriving at Hambantota Port, will have to be reapproved even if it returns the following time, according to Harbour Master, Captain Nirmal de Silva.

Captain de Silva said even if the Government, through the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic channel, approved the visit of the Chinese vessel, the Harbour Master has to also approve the ship’s docking in any Sri Lankan port.

At present, the vessel has diverted its voyage to the Indian Ocean according to sources.

It had come around 655 nautical miles and then had left and was spotted last in the Indonesian sea, the Harbour Master said.

The Harbour Master further noted that any ship, whether commercial or warship, has to obtain permission to enter any port in Sri Lanka, hence, Hambantota Port that is leased to China cannot have any ship enter there without prior permission from the Government and the Harbour Master.

According to reports, Chinese officials had held another round of talks to obtain clearance, but they were not granted but differed.

The postponement means they can ask for permission again, which will have to be fresh approval from the Government’s diplomatic channel as well as from the Harbour Master, Captain de Silva said.