A Committee Studying ECT Memorandum of Cooperation – Keheliya
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella opens up on many issues Sri Lanka is tied up with; focusing on areas of concern including the 13A and giving the East Container Terminal to the Indians.
It has been one year since the Government came to power and with the pandemic it could not execute much of the undertakings other than holding the General Election and enacting the 20A. What is lined up for the rest of the four years by your Government and what serious concerns are there?
A: It’s just one year into the Presidency and we are only four months after the general election was held, to administer everything. It was a skeleton Cabinet before that election. We are more focused on COVID-19 management. To say everything is fine it's not right. The truth is that we are trying to manage local affairs under very difficult times and conditions. For example, during my final year of administration as the Media Minister between 2014 and 2015, the ITN channel had a profit of Rs 700 million. Today, I am obtaining Rs 60 million from the Treasury to pay the salaries. So basically every single area has issues. For the central highway, we laid the foundation in 2014 and expected it to be completed and in operation by 2019, but we are recommencing the whole thing and last week, we decided to give the project to locals on direct labour. Also, we have administered this country even under worst conditions before. in 2005 when then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected, per capita income was Rs 1,030 and our debt was 98 per cent of the GDP and the total GDP of the country was about USD 24 billion. The deficit and unemployment was huge. We also faced the tsunami and the oil prices shot up, and the entire banking sector all over the world including the Goldman Sachs, a renowned name, collapsed. At that time, the country was also divided semi-officially with the LTTE controlled areas completely demarcated and then we had tsunami. Similarly, the current situation is another difficult situation but this is the worst kind. During that time, we could get assistance from outsiders but now, now we are saddled with a situation where we cannot even get help and support from others because they are badly impacted than us with the pandemic.
What do you intended to do if all is well next year on?
A: Priority would be food security which we are working hard on boosting the agricultural sector; Mahaweli development projects, and irrigation system and home-grown products are to be added as additional income. We are trying to get the basics in order. We are also keen to open those factories that have shut down.
What is your concerns on international relations at this moment?
A: With the Rajapaksas in power, they have faced many obstacles right throughout, but we were able to sort it out, however, our policy is non-alignment, to be friendly with everybody and to have no enemies. Of course, there might be some issues if people have different agendas and we cannot synchronise to those agendas.
But the overall picture is that the Government is very much aligned with certain countries, particularly with China that has trapped Sri Lanka in geopolitics?
A: That's an economic spectrum. As far as the economy is a concern, in relation to development, first choice will be India and the first offer was always to India and even the Hambantota Port was offered to them. They gave reasons why they did not want to take it up as a long-term development plan and there was China to support us. So it's not that we bypassed any, but we moved on to another country, which we had to do.
The President assured a constitutional and the electoral reform and also enacted the 20A repealing the 19A, which was considered a 'hindrance'. But with the 20A, the Government has everything under them hence why do we need a new Constitution and what else is left to be enacted other than the 13A?
A: The President wanted the 20A immediately and we were able to pass it. We did not believe in those independent commissions that existed because they weren't free and fair. But we are in the process of getting the new Constitution and have appointed a nine-member committee led by President’s Council Romesh de Silva. They are preparing it and the draft would be ready by March 2021. We have also considered very seriously on the electoral system and around 90 per cent of the people think it’s either obsolete or that it leads to massive corruption and misadministration. Past members and present members are also calling for reforms.
Are there representatives from the minority communities in the drafting of the new Constitution?
A: We are looking at the political scenario, that has been our policy and we are looking broadly at the political scenario but having said that, we are not encouraging separatism or community-base political manoeuvring which some people have been advocating.
Can you explain what it means community-base political manoeuvring?
A: The statement by the Tamil National Alliance which states separate self-determination system.
Do you think people want to separate the country?
A: No, it's not for that purpose. But the TNA is talking about it.
If the TNA says self-determination does it mean a separate State they are asking for?
A: Not really. But what I am saying is that the way these people make statements in the Parliament and to the Media, they call it a 'stepping stone' so what’s in store there?
Have you questioned them on this?
A: Yes. They say that is the stepping stone and they would further develop it. They can come out with something but primarily, the unitary character of the Constitution with Orumiththa naadu etc. and they were complicating everything to the extent that it creates so much of suspicions. When two different languages are interpreted in two or three different ways, it leads to suspicions.
Can the suspicions reflect in the Constitutions and drafted based on that?
A: What I am saying is that suspicion leads us to change and have that distrust which is fostering further. The legitimacy of the whole thing in the draft they brought in was dubious. From time to time, they were changing the draft. And not just that, in the 19A we agreed on, something was brought in the last minute, in the previous night.
Are you going to iron out all these differences before the new Constitution is drafted?
Cabinet Minister Admiral S. Weerasekara says the Provincial Council (PC) system should be done away with but the Prime Minister says we are going to hold PC elections. Why this confusion and who is correct?
A: It's called vibrant democracy and what is right is what matters. Who is right and who is wrong does not matter. What is right has to be identified. Everyone's proposal is in the pool.
So it's an opinion of the Admiral?
A: Yes. Underline that as his opinion. One can argue or disagree. We respect his opinion and at the same time, we don't have to agree with it.
The Admiral also said that the 13A is useless and it was forced on Sri Lanka by India. What is the Government's stance on this?
A: It’s not just Minister Weerasekara is saying that, few other people are also voicing the same. The Minister has the courage to state it openly. I respect him for his views, again, that does not mean I accept it too. It would be open for discussion on this matter. His reasoning out his stance can also be evaluated. We cannot dismiss it saying it was an international treaty. We need justification why we should do away with it.
What's Government stance on the 13A?
A: The 13A 'plus' was added superficially with so many speculations attached to it.
Didn't the then-President state 13A 'plus plus' for the Tamils?
A: No. I was there in New Delhi with Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2011. It was then Union Minister P. Sithambaram who said that. Prof. G.L. Peiris, myself, Lalith Weeratunga were all there. On the 13A Sithambaram said he was contemplating suggesting a Senate-like structure (Upper House) with people representing all nine Provinces of Sri Lanka. Sithambaram then said “then we can call this 13A plus plus.." and I was there when he said it. Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wanted us to get the opposition party's (BJP) opinion and it was late Sushma Swaraj. Dr Manmohan Singh told us to ask her opinon and Swaraj said, “as far as Singh is concerned, we will try to throw him out of power but when it comes to our foreign policy, if Manmohan Singh said something, then we will stand by it". That's was classy diplomacy by her.
It seems that even the incumbent Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has been reminding Sri Lanka of implementing the 13A umpteen times. What exact plan do we have?
A: We will see what the new Constitution firstly needs and how they have drafted it in relation to the 13A. Perhaps the stoniest thing taken for discussion would be the 13A’s draft. I also think it was forced down the throat of J.R. Jayewardene. Nevertheless, it is part of our Constitution. Let’s see what the expert committee comprising of brilliant brains in the country will tell us.
The US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant of USD 480 million was rejected. Many say it is giving a wrong signal to the West. The committee is said to have renegotiated some of the clauses but the Government rejected it without revisiting it. The US Embassy said that there was extensive consultation on the MCC with all parties of the Government, civil society and the private sector. What exactly was the reason for rejecting MCC after asking for it?
A: There are examples where countries have enjoyed this facility and also being complete control over the country. Geopolitically Sri Lanka is very important. Although we don't see it, others see it. The researchers are showing that there is oil and gas in the East. We also have phosphate and countries might target it.
Do these doubts make you not want the MCC grant?
A: On the MCC, we told we are not going to accept it from the beginning. US’s Mike Pompeo said it would be country-specific and the President told him we don't want that grant.
What is happening on awarding the East Container Terminal to India's Adani group?
A: That is under consideration because there is a Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) signed between the former Government and India last July. We need to now diplomatically deal with it. We cannot say we want to cancel it with a stroke of a pen.
Does it mean the Government is going to consider awarding it?
A: We don't want to consider it and would like to run it on our own, but it depends on the MoC that is signed and how strong it is inked and how best we can negotiate to get out of it, is what we are trying.
But the Cabinet memo says why we should be giving it to them and it states some conditions applied to make sure that our profit is mentioned in there?
A: We have come to a Memorandum of Understanding on this. We cannot throw them out. We will see if we should consider it or can run it on our own with their consent.
How do you decide whether running it on our own or giving it to India?
A: I don't know, but we have appointed a committee to look into it. Then we will take the next step.
Government said that they would not want a loan but investments and already we are tilted towards China and how will we overcome not taking more loans and only investments?
A: Our intention is not to take any loans because debt is 94 per cent of the GDP. We are looking at FDIs and PPP ventures.
Have we created the environment for international investors to come in business?
A: With the pandemic there can be impediments on our way. Port City is doing well and two contracts have been signed already. Afterwards we gave the six acres of land to Shangri La in Colombo and many other international hotel chains have invested here. When this brand is present, other hotels don't do much survey on the country because Shangri La brings viability and confidence. This is how we build up investments.
You retracted your latest comment that social media users should be registered. But you later explained that it was due to predatory techniques used online. The Government is considering registering foreign digital operators because digital multinational conglomerates are overwhelmingly alienating our business by data colonisation. What did you mean?
A: For example, Company A is buying B,C,D companies. They are buying all the companies. When you Google “Best boutique hotel in Sri Lanka”, next time you see all the hotels listed on your Facebook. It’s the artificial intelligence doing it. What artificial intelligence means is that a few people are dominating the entire online platform. France enacted a law last month to prevent this. We are fleeced by two or three individuals and the money goes out of the country.
Did you mistakenly say social media users need to be registered?
A: I was coming out from a council meeting and there were so many around me. My thoughts were on the websites which were also not registered in the country, and I mentioned social media instead. I know we cannot register social media users. I am not that stupid, understand that.
But do you think international digital platforms will comply with such a law?
A: No. They will not. But we can bring some legislation for that with the TRCSL and other operators we have. We need to control this as much as possible. Someone is operating here but the payment goes out of the country. I may not be able to be successful on this at all, but we all should know that someone out there is fleecing you. The French Government has controlled it to some extent and I am going to study on that. We need certain registration formats for online companies as well.
The second COVID-19 wave has hit and the Government says to follow basic health guidelines. But when will the vaccine arrive here?
A: Many international banks have asked the Treasury whether we need assistance but there are 20 odd reputed doctors saying not to use that vaccine. I attended the COVID-19 meeting at the President's Secretariat. Our doctors are not in much favour to get the vaccine down and say that every single vaccine has to be tested within a minimum of four years and gone through clinical tests, etc. But the COVID-19 vaccine has been rushed through in less than one year. Many leaders of the world have taken the vaccine because the death rates are high. I personally don’t advocate a vaccine for COVID-19 as the death rate is less than 0.3 and the vaccine is not yet tested and approved. We will be guinea pigs if take it. We will wait for six months to see if the vaccine is really effective in those countries that is using it now and see if infections are reducing.
Don't you think if some wanted it, it should be available in the country besides personal opinions?
A: Correct. The Dhammika Paniya (the honey mix tonic by a local healer) has created such a big issue; We should not promote it but should advocate for the simple health guidelines on this matter.
The Government is encouraging the 'Dhammika paniya' when it is not even tested by the local Ayurveda body. You have said it’s good to be taken as a 'food supplement'. Will the Government take responsibility if something goes wrong? It is alleged that he is having hallucinations that he is Kaali?
We have nothing to do with it nor are we encouraging it. We said honey is not a bad thing.
The ingredient is not only the honey, is it?
A: He says nutmeg too is in there which is a good ingredient used in ayurveda.
This means you are approving the honey-based tonic?
A: Dr. Ramesh Pathirana said that the Ayurveda Council has said that the ingredients are genuine. Then we have the clinical testing which is in progress now. If there is no harm taking it, why not try it? There is no Government sponsorship to this however.
Why did not you wait to make this announcement until the clinical testing is done?
A: We cannot stop people from visiting a veda mahaththaya (ayurdvedic doctor). Dr. Pathirana said the veda mahaththaya's assocation has said it is a food supplement.