Dissent Within Government Ranks on ECT Deal Mounts

By Gagani Weerakoon | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 30 2021
Ceylon Politics Dissent Within Government Ranks on ECT Deal Mounts
By Gagani Weerakoon

The Duruthu Poya dawned this year with fresh hopes as all was set to welcome the special Air India Flight carrying the consignment of half a million vials of Covishield vaccine.

Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay before departing to the BIA visited Gangarama Temple and offered prayers seeking blessings. He also offered meals (alms) to devotees at the Temple. Incidentally, High Commissioner Baglay who first arrived in Sri Lanka to take up his assignment in the Vesak Week in May 2020 with 12.5 tonnes of medical supplies as a gift from India to Sri Lanka to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, offered prayers at the Gangaramaya Temple for the health and wellbeing of the people of Sri Lanka on the day.

High Commissioner Baglay officially handed over the first consignment of COVID–19 vaccines donated by the Government of India to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA).

Developed by the Oxford University in the UK, the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine was manufactured at Serum Institute in Mumbai. Carrying 500,000 vials, Indian Airline Flight AI 281 landed at BIA at 11:45 a.m.

Measures were taken to administer the Oxford-AstraZeneca, Covishield vaccine to frontline health workers, the Tri-forces and Police in other parts of the country on Saturday (30), following the initial shots given to health staff at the IDH and five other hospitals, the Health Ministry said. 

Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi who is on the mend but currently under surveillance at the IDH, after testing positive for COVID-19, sad that although she was unable to be a part of the vaccination programme due to her condition, the programme itself would only help strengthen the country’s battle against the virus. 

She explained that having discussed with the World Health Organisation (WHO) she had been able to impress upon President Gotabaya Rajapaksa the necessity of the vaccine to battle against the corona virus. 

Wanniarachchi noted that with the Coordinative efforts of the Presidential Committee Appointed Obtain the COVID-19 vaccine for Sri Lanka and the close collaboration between the Government of Sri Lanka and India had finally made it possible for the country to receive the 500,000 phials of the vaccine.  

Meanwhile, State Minister for Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID-19 Disease Control, Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle, inaugurating the vaccination programme from the IDH on Friday (29), said that it had been President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intervention which had enabled them to bring forward the COVID-19 vaccination programme which had been scheduled for mid-February or Early March. The first dose of the vaccine was also administered to health workers at the Colombo National Hospital, Colombo North and Colombo South Teaching Hospitals and, Mulleriyawa and Homagama Base Hospitals.

Consultant Specialist, Dr. Ananda Wijewickrama and Special Grade Nursing Officer Champika Geethani Udugamkorala were the first recipients of the Covishield vaccine at the IDH. 

The State Ministry noted that research had shown that the success rate of the Covishield vaccine is 62 per cent to 90 per cent and that it also had a minimum level of complications which called for hospitalisation of those who received a shot of the vaccine. 

Indian High Commissioner, Gopal Baglay, Senior Advisor to the President, Lalith Weeratunga, WHO Resident Representative, Razia Pendse Secretary to the State Ministry of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control, Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva and Director of the Epidemiology Unit, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera were also present on the occasion.

Mounting political opposition 

In the backdrop of Ports trade unions having declared an indefinite strike until the Government gives a written guarantee that the East Container Terminal (ECT) will not be handed over to India’s Adani Group, Minister of Industries Wimal Weerawansa held a discussion with five political parties in the Government to take a stern decision if a Cabinet Paper is presented on the controversial ECT ‘investment.’ 

Accordingly, Leader of Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) Minister Udaya Gammanpila, General Secretary of Lanka Sama Samaja Party MP Prof. Tissa Vitarana, General Secretary of Sri Lanka Communist Party Dr. G. Weerasinghe, Sri Lanka People’s Party MP Asanka Nawarathna and Leader of United People’s Party MP Tiran Alles participated in the discussion held at Weerawansa’s official residence in Colombo on Saturday (30). 

Furthermore, State Minister of Warehouse Facilities, Container Yards, Port Supply Facilities and Boats and Shipping Industry Development Jayantha Samaraweera said that the Government should keep in mind that the people voted for it to protect the national assets like ECT, not to handover them to foreign countries. 

Samaraweera said that if the Ports trade unions assure that the ECT could be operated 100 per cent under the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, he too believes the same.

“It is the only way to stop the trade union actions at the Port turning into a massive anti-Government movement. The President’s manifesto never said that our assets would be handed over to foreign countries. If the trade unions say that the ECT could operate 100 per cent under the Ports Authority, the Government must pay attention to that,” he pointed out. 

Meanwhile, National Movement to protect the ECT has decided to launch an indefinite strike followed by a day of protest tomorrow (1), General Secretary of the All Ceylon Ports General Employees Union Niroshan Gorakana said. 

He said that the action would be continued until the Government gives a guarantee that the ECT will not be handed over to India. 

The trade unions also started a work-to-rule action from 29 January.

“The Government, through their trade unions, has sent a proposal to five unions including us suggesting to propose handing over West Container Terminal (WCT) to India if we need to keep the ECT 100 per cent under the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. We cannot agree with that and the Government should immediately handover the ECT to the Ports Authority,” he stressed. 

Gorakana said that a token strike also will be launche d Island wide tomorrow (1). 

Chairman of the Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya of Port Prasanna Kalutarage said that they are obtaining legal advices on the possibility to file a case in Court on the matter.

President of the Progressive Workers Union of the Commerce Industry and Services Sanjaya Kumara Weligama said that 267 organisations have collaborated with them against handing over the ECT to India. 

Few days ago, SLFP Minister Mahinda Amaraweera reiterated that there was no Cabinet Paper to hand over a 49 per cent stake in the East Container Terminal  of the Colombo Port, to the Adani Group in India as alleged or speculations on such a Cabinet Memorandum is  ready to be submitted at the next Cabinet meeting to be held on 1 February 2021 was false.

Responding to allegations levelled by Port trade unions and various other parties, he said the Government had not yet taken a final decision on handing over the ECT to an Indian or any other company. 

Fielding a question posed by the Media regarding the Government’s stance on ECT, the Minister said that they were not aware of a Cabinet Paper being presented at a Cabinet meeting which will be held next Monday. 

“I can clearly say that this information is completely false. Even the Maha Sangha asked us about the ETC, at a ceremony held in Abhayaramaya Temple, where the Premier also participated. We clearly said that the Government had not yet taken any decision to handover the ECT to anyone,” he said. 

Pointing out that the President, Prime Minister and the Government will not sell or lease the country to anyone; Amaraweera said as the SLFP, they have discussed this issue on several occasions. “Our stance as the SLFP is that no resource in our country should be sold or leased to a foreign country. That is what SLFP needed since its inception. There is no change in that decision,” he said adding that many civil society organisations including the Maha Sangha supported the Government to come to power.

Amaraweera further said as a Government they were not ready to betray anyone who supported them and no one could make any selfish statement and insist that the ECT would be given to a foreign country. “A decision regarding the ECT will be taken by the Cabinet and not only by the President or the Prime Minister. Decisions of this nature should be submitted to the Cabinet and most of them should be tabled in Parliament too. ECT cannot be arbitrarily handed over to any company based on a single decision,” he said. He added that the Government would seek public opinion in this connection

Never ending UNP reforms 

The newly appointed office-bearers of the United National Party (UNP) met for the first time on 25 January under the patronage of Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and attended by Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene, General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara, Chairman Vajira Abeywardena and other members of the party including Sagala Ratnayake. 

It was discussed in length on how to take the party reform processes to the grassroots level. Also, it was discussed to empower the Youth Front of the party. In addition, there were comments on cases against Local Government representatives who were party members and supported other parties.

“If the party is to reach out to the public, the distance between party members and leaders must be bridged,” Bandara said.

“Yes, that’s a good idea, but according to the present situation the only duty is to battle with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Abeywardena said.    

“We will make it possible for the party members as well as the general public to visit the party headquarters for two days and meet the leaders,” Bandara said.

“That’s good. Then we’ll give the chance to meet party leaders on Tuesday and Wednesday. I can come on those days and so will Wijewardene too,” everyone agreed with what Wickremesinghe said.

Accordingly, it has been decided to conduct public days on every Tuesday and Wednesday at the Sirikotha party headquarters from next month. During the two days, party leaders Wickremesinghe, Wijewardene, Bandara, Abeywardene and all other officials that were at the party headquarters agreed to meet the people on those two days. 

“There was a major reason why we could not win for so long. It was a party of leaders. Everyone wanted to be the leader of the party but no one thought of being a supportive member of the party. This party should be converted as a party of its members,” Wickremesinghe said before departing.

 Everyone seemed to take, what the leader said with a smile, seriously.

He recalled that the presence of young blood like Wijewardene, Akila Viraj Kariyawasm, Sandith Samarasinghe and Nalaka Kolonne around strengthen the party.  Wijewardene also said that they should be prepared for a battle outside Parliament in the current situation. 

The newly appointed office-bearers arrived in Anuradhapura on 26 January to pay homage to the Atamasthana and Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.

On 26 January, Navin Dissanayake had handed over a letter to the party leader’s residence informing that he would no longer be the National Organiser. After handing over the letter, he had also released the letter to the Media which made Wickremesinghe to attend to many calls regarding it. 

Wickremesinghe read the letter and called Dissanayake the next day. The duo talked for a long time and then the conversation ended after agreeing to meet each other.

Meanwhile, Arjuna Ranatunga had also sent a letter to the leader informing him that he would not accept the senior Vice Chairmanship proposed to him. He had also informed that he was staying away from party activities.

Wijewardene assumed duties at his office on 28 January. The party leader was unable to attend because he had to attend a wedding that day. Wickremesinghe and Minister Chamal Rajapaksa attested as witness to the wedding. Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe and Abeywardene had a lengthy discussion on the current political situation.

Before Wickremesinghe left for the ceremony, as usual, party activists visited the leader’s residence on 5th Lane, Colombo.

“The Government imported 500,000 AstraZenica Vaccine to Sri Lanka and the President has gone himself to welcome the vaccine load,” Samarasinghe said as usual with a smile.

“India gave vaccines to almost all the countries in the region, but the leaders of those countries did not go to the airport to receive the vaccine. Not even King Devanampiya Tissa acted in such fear during the reign of Emperor Ashoka. On another side the Government is planning on giving the East Container Terminal at Colombo Port to India which shows the fear towards India,” Bandara also responded.

“Only 250,000 Sri Lankans can be vaccinated from the 500,000 gifted vaccines. In the meantime, China says it will provide 300,000 vaccines in February. It will be around December to receive the 20% free vaccination through Covax, due to improper preparation,” Wickremesinghe explained.

“The Port workers still continue the battling process. There is a problem in the situation where those who worked to bring the Government into power are opposing it now. There will be two groups once the Cabinet Paper is submitted regarding this. It will be the Government’s patriotic group and the anti-treason group,” Wijewardene recalled.

“Is there someone who can invest US$ 50,000 million? The ones who elected the incumbent Government to power said that there are investors who can invest US$ 50, 000,” Abeywardene raised a question.

“However, the workers at Port will not give up the fight. They will bring this onto the streets. We received this as a gift from Japan,” Prof. Ashu Marasinghe said.

“The Government is preparing to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Liechtenstein which is between Switzerland and Australia. Even the Cabinet approval has been received,” Samarasinghe said.

“I have been to that country, too. That is a small country of about 160 square kilometres. It has a very small population. No one is given citizenship or residence. But there is a large number of businesses registered,” Wickremesinghe said with a laugh.

 “That means counterfeit money. Is it possible to deposit as much black money as you want?” Wickremesinghe smiled at Samarasinghe’s question and said nothing.

Then Wickremesinghe left, saying he would make another statement on the COVID-19 pandemic next Sunday.

Meanwhile, former MP Arjuna Ranatunga, who recently turned down the post of Senior Vice Chairman of the UNP joining a Media briefing held jointly with Navin Dissanayake, said it was evident that the UNP has failed to deliver the change the public desired, including the leadership of the party.

He said, there needs to be a complete reform of the party and its policies in a manner that issues of the public could be addressed adding that as his political journey was policy-oriented, he would remain in the UNP until a future decision is made. 

Meanwhile, former MP, Navin Dissanayake said there has to be a common candidate for the next Presidential Election adding that however it is too early to fathom how that would happen. He added that methods to invite the SJB, JVP and other civil society groups under one umbrella to defeat the present Government have to be looked into.

Dissanayake however stated the UNP should remain, as it will be impossible to duplicate the party adding that not even SJB would succeed in doing so.

‘’Over two million UNP voters did not vote during the last General Election, the reason behind these voters not voting for the UNP, while not accepting the SJB either, has to be determined and addressed,’’ he added stating that he could also be held responsible as the former National Organiser of the party for those lost votes.

Dissanayake, who stepped down as the National Organiser of the UNP, said he does not intend to hold this position as there is a vital need to restructure the party that has to go to the root of the party, including that of the leadership.

Dissanayake however added that he would remain as a member of the UNP and the Working Committee, adding that suggestions given by him and certain others to restructure the Party have not been taken into consideration.

He added that although suggestions were made to name the leader of the UNP, Ranil Wickremesinghe for the UNP National list seat, considering his eligibility for such position, there were continuous discussions on a new leadership for the party solely relying on Wickremesinghe’s statement that he would step down from his position as leader.

Dissanayake further added that a future leader for the party could not be solely determined by the 42 Working Committee members and that there needs to be a wider selection process.

By Gagani Weerakoon | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 30 2021

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