President Ranil Wickremesinghe planned to spend the weekend in Kataragama last weekend and against the advice of many for him to go by air, he hopped into his official vehicle, as air travel would only add burden on the public.
President’s Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayake and State Minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa joined President Wickremesinghe in Kataragama.
When the President went to worship the Kiri Vehera, he did not forget to chat with pilgrims.
“Now lots of people seem to going on trips during the holidays, isn’t it?” he asked from a group of pilgrims.
“We only get to see you on TV and we are extremely happy that we got to see you and greet you today,” an elderly woman in the group said.
That evening, he also visited Wadahiti Kanda to seek blessings. On his way back to Colombo, the President stopped at Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena’s house to pay his last respects to the Speaker’s mother who had passed away. When the President went there, State Ministers Thenuka Vidanagamage and Wimalaweera Dissanayake were also present.
After paying their last respects, all the VIPs gathered in a room and were discussing various things, when JVP member Sunil Hadunnetti came to pay his last respects. Hadunnetti was escorted to the room where the VIPs were and made to sit next to the President’s Secretary, Saman Ekanayake.
“Ah, this is one of our friends,” the President said when he saw Handunnetti.
“ I am tired of answering people after you made that remark…” when Handunnetti said that everyone was curious to know as to what he was referring to and it was Thenuka who finally asked what happened.
Then, Handunnetti explained that everyone was curious as to why the President kicked off his budget speech quoting Handunnetti.
“I didn’t tell a lie. Sunil’s policy is our policy. It is true that the State or the Government should not engage in businesses,” the President quipped.
International Punching bag
Addressing the first ever graduation ceremony of the National Defence College in Colombo, President Wickremesinghe said the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean has turned
Sri Lanka into the regional ‘punching bag’.
He pointed out that there are around 17 ports operated by the Chinese in the Indian Ocean and they are all commercial ports, adding that, Hambantota is also a commercial port and not a military port.
Speaking further he said the Indian Ocean region should be open to all to ensure freedom of navigation for commercial viability. He noted that Sri Lanka will not participate in military alliances and does not want the problems of the Pacific coming into the Indian Ocean. In this scenario, he urged regional nations to come together to look at how best to maintain stability.
President Wickremesinghe emphasised, “It is important for commerce to carry on. We have to remember that a bulk of the petroleum supply and energy supply to the world goes through the Indian Ocean. A large amount of shipping goes through the Indian Ocean. We don’t want this to be an area of conflict and an area of war.”
He noted that Sri Lanka does not want to see a big power rivalry in the region which could get reflect everywhere while adding that the country is open to the Navies of all countries, with no discrimination. “If the Navies want to come, we have no problem. They helped in the anti-piracy operations. But we don’t want a level of rivalry which will affect the security and the peace of our area. Whatever it be that we will not join any big power or take sides, we will stay out of it. And, that’s why we want to ensure the big powers and their rivalries don’t lead to conflict in the Indian Ocean. That’s one thing we can’t afford.”
The President pointed out that if there is security significance, it is in the Port of Darwin in Australia where the Chinese ports are operating side by side, where Australian and US forces are training. “We don’t have that. We don’t allow anyone to come and train here, but we do have our southern command of the Navy. We have a divisional headquarters of the Army and we have a detachment of the Air Force. But none of them are involved. They only ensure that this is a commercial port and no less,” he said, adding that it is a commercial port.
“It shows Sri Lanka’s strategic importance and that many people sort of come to conclusions which are unwarranted.” The President also expressed hope that the next agreement Sri Lanka has with China, will not cause such speculation and is only about debt reduction for Sri Lanka.
While highlighting the importance of safeguarding the security of India and other neighbouring countries, President Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka must ensure that nothing adverse happens to the security of India.
“When it comes to the security of Sri Lanka, we are of the view that in looking after the security of Sri Lanka, we must also ensure that nothing adverse happens to the security of India. That, we have been committed to and we will go ahead with it. There will be no movement out of it. That’s why we work with India on the Colombo conclave, on the trilateral security arrangements and many other fields, especially outside the military field of piracy, of human trafficking, of drugs. All those are useful ways in which we cooperate with India and the other island States. Then, we also value our friendship with the Maldives, those small islands, and we know how important the Maldives is,” he said.
He also said that now the terrorism war is over, peace needs to be established in the country and he expects to reach a final settlement with the Tamils and the Northern population of the country within the next few months. In this regard, the President said that he is currently in discussion with the Tamil parliamentarians in order to achieve that goal.
Meanwhile, the President also said that Sri Lanka should not allow any other country to use it to attack third parties. He also said that a proper plan needs to be set to determine the roles of Sri Lanka’s Army, Navy and Air Force in the future battlefield.
State Minister of Defence Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, Secretary, Ministry of Defence General Kamal Gunaratne, Commander of the Army Lieutenant General Vikum Liyanage, Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne, Commander of the Air Force Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana, Inspector General of Police C. D. Wickramaratne, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Defence R. M. P. S. Rathnayake, Commandant of the National Defence College Major General Amal Karunasekara, Director, Department of National Budget W. M. S. K. Weerasekara and Secretary, National Defence College Brigadier Asanga Perera also graced the occasion.
Running out of patience
President Ranil Wickremesinghe said if Parliament fails to reach an agreement on electoral reforms, he will hold a referendum and ask the country which system they prefer.
He said he will convene Parliament to state unequivocally that they must agree on electoral reform, despite the fact that the parties are arguing among themselves.
He made these remarks during a meeting with Samantha Power, Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), who was in Sri Lanka on a two-day official visit.
The President also said they would bring anti-terrorist legislation.
“I am calling the Parliament to declare unequivocally that they must agree on electoral reform. This has been going on for a while. The parties are arguing with one another. I give them a six-month period. If they do not, I will hold a referendum to determine which system the country prefers. Political parties cannot continue to put this off indefinitely. They will have to bite the bullet at some point. So, if they refuse, I will hold a referendum on the major reforms,” he said.
The President also said former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and Victor Ivan developed the grassroots concept of people’s councils.
He added that they are providing them with whatever financial assistance they require, and that officials at the grassroots level have been asked to promote the concepts. “As a result, it will not be done by us. Even with the Galle Face movement, people at the village level must be allowed to express their opinions. So, in the 14,000 basic units, there will be 14,000 people’s councils,” he explained.
He also said discussions have taken place with Tamils regarding detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. “We have agreed on a formula that will set off the period in detention against the judgement, and since they have all had more than ten years, no judgement will be more than ten years,” he said.
He also emphasised the novel idea of including youth representation in committees, where their ideas will be given due consideration.
“In addition to the Members of Parliament, there will be five youth representatives, all of whom are under the age of 35. They may ask questions through the Chairman, but they may not contribute to the main report. However, we are providing them with an addendum so that they can say whatever they want on the report. It will then be published. This is the first time it has happened in the world, and we must choose five members. We have a Youth Parliament that will legislate and bring it under the law,” Wickremesinghe said.
The President also emphasised the need for anti-corruption legislation, which was recently approved, and the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus has been asked to draft the Women’s Equality and Empowerment Bill. “I believe that is the first, and the first for the region. A private member’s bill to decriminalise homosexuality has been introduced. And I stated that the Government would not oppose it. We support it, but you must gain the support of individual members. It is a personal matter to them,” he added.
Samantha Power, Administrator, US Agency for International Development (USAID), Julie Chung, United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Sonali Korde, USAID Deputy Chief of Staff, Änjali Kaur, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Asia, Gabriel Grau, USAID Sri Lanka Mission Director, Anamika Chakravorty, Political Officer, US Embassy, State Minister of Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya, Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayake, President’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake, Foreign Ministry Secretary Aruni Wijewardane, Finance Ministry Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana, and Adviser Dr. R.H.S. Samaratunga participated in the meeting.
State Minister runs amok
Channa Wickremesinghe, younger brother of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, hosted a party for State Ministers who recently assumed duties. A majority of the invitees were in attendance.
As the night grew many State Ministers who attended the wine and dine session appeared overly inebriated. A State Minister who hailed from a political family was quite ‘high’ and was seen being very vocal and animated.
Channa Wickremesinghe was in for a shock when the State Minister suddenly pulled out his personal pistol and shot in air bringing down part of the ceiling down. The host was then compelled to rush one of his friends, who were in attendance, to the hospital as he was injured after part of the ceiling fell on him.