President Ranil Wickremesinghe was able to enter his name in the books of British history as he attended the Royal funeral, of Queen Elizabeth II, on an invitation from the British Government last week. He was one of those VIPs of whose parents attended the Coronation of the Queen, that took place seven decades ago.

Along with him, First Lady Prof. Maithree Wickremesinghe, President’s Private Secretary Sandra Perera, President’s Director of International Affairs Dinouk Colombage, two security officers and the official medical officer accompanied him to London. Interestingly, air travel expenses of the First Lady were borne by her. A special dinner for the President and his delegation was hosted at the Sri Lankan High Commission in London by Neranjan Devaditya, Special Presidential Envoy for Western Europe.

President Wickremesinghe accompanied his wife to pay his last respects to the Queen and Saroja Sirisena, the High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to the United Kingdom, was also present.

Attendees at the Royal funeral were divided into several zones when allocating seats. Front row was allocated for the Royal family, then for the Europeans, third for the Asians and fourth for the other kingdoms. The Indian President was sitting on one side next to President Ranil. The King of Malaysia was sitting on one side of the President while Indian President was seated on the other side and the President of Maldives was sitting behind him. American President Joe Biden and other State leaders were sitting behind that group.

After paying his last respects to the remains of the Queen, President Wickremesinghe also had the opportunity to join the dinner, hosted by King Charles III, that evening to welcome the guests. Wickremesinghe was also able to meet and talk with King Charles III and King Charles inquired about the current situation in Sri Lanka. Congratulating him on his accession to the throne, the President did not forget to recall Charles’ visit to Sri Lanka as the Prince of Wales.

“You came for the 50th Independence Day as the Prince of Wales. We invite the new Prince of Wales to our 75th Independence Day celebration,” President Wickremesinghe informed the King with a smile.

“As the new Prince of Wales, he has a big responsibility and a challenge about how to act as the new Prince. I believe that he has the ability to face this challenge skilfully.” That was King Charles’ response.

When Wickremesinghe was bidding his farewell, after a brief friendly exchange, King Charles said that he would provide the necessary support to rescue Sri Lanka from the situation it is in.

Meeting Diaspora

President Wickremesinghe also attended the reception organised by the British Foreign Secretary. The American President, the French President, and many other State leaders were also present. The Indian President and the Chinese Vice President were present in the section where President Ranil was and he interacted with them as well as other State leaders.

Here, the group held discussions about weather and climate change as well as the future existence of the Commonwealth countries. Then, ideas and proposals were exchanged regarding the global economic crisis.

President Wickremesinghe later met Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland the day after the Royal funeral. It was a friendly discussion between the two. The President did not forget to brief her about the economic situation as well as the political situation and the natural beauty of Sri Lanka.

Before concluding the discussion, he invited her to come to Sri Lanka to attend the 75th Independence Day celebrations.

Later, the President met members of the Diaspora community. This was organised by the SL mission in London.

President Ranil and his team arrived in Sri Lanka on the morning of the 21st and all of them resumed their duties on the same day. The President arrived at the Presidential Secretariat office and looked into the current conditions.

Senior Adviser Akila Viraj Kariyawasam was also present there along with Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayake, Presidential Secretary Saman Ekanayake and other officials. Another group of ministers also came to discuss the current situation.

“Monks have taken to the streets about the electricity bill. They are threatening to keep temples in dark on the coming Poya Day. Something has to be done about this,” Akila pointed out.

“Only about 3,000 temples have this problem. No other temple has experienced the electricity bill going up by Rs 100,000 or above.  The electricity bill which was at Rs 1,500 has now become Rs 3,000. Minister Kanchana also replied.

“We will give relief to install solar panels in places where there are problems. After that, relief can be given from the President’s Fund to places like the Dalada Maligawa, Sripadaya, Atamasthana, Kataragama-Kirivehera, Nallur Hindu Temple and Madhu Church. However, in the Dhammapada it says to be a light to the self,” the President said.

Funeral in Japan

Seeking to revitalise Sri Lanka’s economy, whilst paying homage to the slain former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Ranil Wickremesinghe will attend his State Funeral on 27 September in Tokyo.

Late Prime Minister Abe was a close friend of Sri Lanka and undertook a visit to this country in 2014, where he extended grant aid, offered concessionary ODA loans for infrastructure projects and development cooperation assistance for inclusive growth. 

President Wickremesinghe’s visit takes place at a felicitous juncture, as this year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and Japan. These bilateral ties have been built upon the legacy of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, where former President late J.R. Jayewardene, as the Finance Minister of the then Ceylon, advocated a free and equal Japan, and voluntarily waived the right to receive war reparations from that country, premised on the Teachings of the Buddha that “hatred ceases not by hatred but by love”.  This hand of friendship and trust has flourished into the two countries being strongly bound on shared religious and cultural values.

However strong relationships maybe, there are instances these bonds need to be reinvigorated. President Wickremesinghe, during his visit to Tokyo, envisages to further strengthen the bilateral relations, to the high point his uncle, late President Jayewardene, initially established. In this context amongst others, he will meet Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, relevant Cabinet Ministers, President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and representatives of the private sector.

Further, ways and means will be explored by the President, to narrow the balance of trade which is in Japan’s favour, and seek to attract Japanese FDIs to Sri Lanka, which in the past has been lagging at approximately 2% of this country’s total foreign investments. President Wickremesinghe will also examine the possibility of resurrecting the Light Railway Transit project which was suddenly shelved by Sri Lanka early last year. In the same manner, stock would be taken on the Colombo Port West Container Terminal development and the LNG power plant projects, which have faced some challenges in their implementation. In addition, 12 JICA projects have been suspended until the IMF Road Map is put in place.

Japan being an important development partner, accounting for approximately 14% of total multilateral and bilateral aid flows and also a major international creditor to Sri Lanka, President Wickremesinghe will have discussions on Sri Lanka’s pursuit of the IMF process, and especially on Tokyo’s initiative to coordinate the convening of the Conference of this segment of countries. It is noteworthy that for this year alone, Japan has magnanimously accorded emergency humanitarian grant aid in two phases, for food nutrition, health and sanitation amounting to U$ 6.5 million, which is being disbursed through the WFP, UNICEF and International Federation of Red Cross.

This visit will also afford President Wickremesinghe the opportunity of meeting other world leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who would be attending the State Funeral in Tokyo.

Subsequently, President Wickremesinghe who is also the Minister of Finance, is scheduled to travel to Manila, Philippines, to Chair the 55th ADB Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors on 29 September 2022. This year’s meeting is being held at a time of geopolitical uncertainty and new Covid outbreaks, requiring innovative ideas and thinking, in addressing the related matters. For this purpose, there will be discussions on a range of burning issues including sustainable green growth, managing Asian energy transition, re-imagining tourism, gender equality in green transition, climate change and sustainable development goals, climate finance and the role of the private sector in the region’s recovery. Discussions on these issues will take place at seminars and related events during the Annual Meeting. President Wickremesinghe is scheduled to have discussions with the President of the ADB regarding further assistance to Sri Lanka in addressing the current unprecedented economic downturn in the country.  

This visit to Manila will also afford President Wickremesinghe the occasion to meet President Bongbong Marcos of the Philippines for discussions on issues of bilateral interests. President Marcos was elected to this highest office in June this year.  The Philippines being a member of the UN Human Rights Council has been assisting Sri Lanka in Geneva.

House heats up on food issue

A heated argument broke out in Parliament on Thursday (22) over the food crisis among schoolchildren.

The Opposition stressed that while schoolchildren are facing a severe food crisis and malnutrition, the Government has not been able to do anything to provide a balanced meal for the children so far.

MP K.P.S. Kumarasiri said, at least 20 children in three schools in Vilachchiya, Anuradhapura had fainted during school hours due to starvation.

“It was reported on Wednesday (21) that a child in Minuwangoda had brought coconut kernel for lunch. This is a pathetic situation,” Kumarasiri said.

In response, Minister of Health Keheliya Rambukwella said, there have been several isolated incidents in that regard. However, some persons, together with media have given unnecessary attention to those isolated incidents. They are trying to generalise the issue, he added.

“It is true that there is an issue. I accept that. But certain persons try to generalise such isolated incidents. We spoke to the Principal of that Minuwangoda School and other authorities. The reports about a child brining coconut kernel for lunch are not true. However, I will look into the incidents Kumarasiri mentioned,” he said.

This is not the first time. Once, a doctor in Hambantota claimed that malnutrition was observed among 80 per cent of the schoolchildren in Hambantota. That claim too was found to be baseless and inaccurate. The health officers in the area reported that only five per cent of children in Hambantota District are suffering from malnutrition, Rambukwella added.

Joining in the conversation, SJB MP Harshana Rajakaruna told the Minister to admit to the ground situation and find solutions without accusing officials, who are the messengers.

“You should not shoot the messengers. Instead, you have to look into the reality in this country. This will be a long-term issue, if we fail to address in now. Children should be fed, before spending money on Cabinet and State Ministers,” Rajakaruna said.

MP Dullas Alahapperuma said about 1.1 million schoolchildren have been affected over the past two years after the programme to provide free meals to schoolchildren was stopped.