President Gotabaya Caught Between Economic Prosperity and Patriotism

By Gagani Weerakoon | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 17 2021
Ceylon Politics President Gotabaya Caught Between Economic Prosperity and Patriotism
By Gagani Weerakoon

As Sinhalese and Tamils of the country were busy preparing to welcome the dawn of New Year and Muslims getting ready for their Ramadan fasting month that incidentally fell on the same day, it almost went unnoticed that the Government tabled in Parliament the Port City Economic Commission Bill.

The very next day, US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz, speaking to selected journalists at a virtual Media roundtable called on policymakers to be vigilant of the economic impact of the proposed Port City legislation, given its sweeping tax concessions and warned it could have unintended consequences such as money laundering, unless proper safeguards are put in place.

In the meantime, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka appointed a technical committee to study the Bill. By Thursday (15), the Supreme Court was inundated with petitions from political parties and professional bodies and civil society organisations. 

Five-Judge Bench

Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya will head a five-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court that will take up the 20 odd petitions challenging the Port City Economic Commission Bill.

The Bench will include Justices Buwaneka P. Aluwihare, Priyantha Jayawardena, Murdu N.B. Fernando and Janak de Silva. The petitions are to be heard tomorrow, 19 April.

President of the Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITF), Engineer Kapila Renuka Perera filed a petition challenging the Bill, claiming that it was a threat to National Security and the economy.

Perera prayed the Supreme Court to issue an order requiring it to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and at a referendum.

The UNP filed two petitions challenging the Bill. According to the Party Spokesperson, the petitions have been filed on behalf of UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena and UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara. The Attorney General is named as the respondent. 

UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has instructed the Party’s legal division to take all possible legal action against the Bill, which would hurt Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. 

The UNP questioned why such an important Bill was being rushed through Parliament with little transparency. The petitions stated the Bill being presented to Parliament on the eve of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year restricts the ability to analyse it effectively. 

The UNP alleged that large tax concessions to entrepreneurs starting businesses in the Port City, implementation of tax free salaries, offshore finance centres, financing of money laundering, tax exemptions up to 40 years and the establishment of a separate administrative structure outside the country are a few examples of the contents of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill.

Furthermore, the UNP claimed that the Bill was inconsistent with the Constitution and is in violation of Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution in regard to the Legislative, Judicial and Executive powers of the citizens of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. 

Listing these facts, and noting that this Bill would drastically affect the sovereignty of the country, the UNP are planning further legal action in Court. 

Meanwhile, on behalf of General Secretary of Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Ranjith Maddumabandara, Attorney Varuna Mallawaarachchi, also filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Bill, asking for a declaration that the Bill should be referred and approved by the Provincial Councils, passed in Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved at a referendum. 

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) also challenged the Bill yesterday (15).

The BASL, in a statement, said its Executive Committee directed the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, President’s Counsel Saliya Pieris and Secretary Rajeev Amarasuriya to challenge the Bill under Article 120 of the Constitution. The petitioners are represented by Attorney-at-Law G.G. Arulpragasam.

After the Bill was gazetted the BASL appointed a Committee to study the provisions of the Bill and to make recommendations on 31 March. The Committee headed by Past President of the BASL President’s Counsel Ikram Mohamed comprised President’s Counsel Uditha Egalahewa, President’s Counsel Chandaka Jayasundera, Eraj de Silva, Manjuka Fernandopulle and Dhanya Gunewardena, while Shivan Cooray and Yoshani Demuni served as the Co-Convenors of the Committee.

In the statement, the BASL noted that they were extremely concerned about the limited time given for scrutiny and discussion of this important Bill, as well as the timing of placing the Bill on the Order Paper of Parliament, which was after the suspension of sittings of the Supreme Court, a time when many members of the legal profession are unavailable. 

“Furthermore, the period of one week within which such a Bill could be challenged before the Supreme Court to determine its constitutionality, included not only the weekend, but also three public holidays. Thus, the members of the public have been deprived of a meaningful opportunity to scrutinise the Bill and to discuss its merits.”

The committee appointed to study the Bill has pointed out that although the Bill is of national importance and has the potential to generate significant economic benefits to the country, there is a lack of consultative process, transparency and sufficient time granted to stakeholders to examine the Bill.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives, a leading public policy research and advocacy think tank in Sri Lanka, also filed a petition challenging the Bill on the same day. 

Another petition was filed by Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), highlighting three key corruption concerns. 

TISL urged that the Bill is in violation of several key Articles of the Constitution and that it creates pathways for corruption, by facilitating or enabling illicit financial flows, and money laundering.

Rata Rakina Jana Handa organisation filed a petition against the Bill, claiming that the Bill violates certain Provisions of the Constitution. 

The Port City Economic Commission Bill, which was published in the Government Gazette on 24 March, was presented to Parliament on 8 April by Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena. 

It would provide for the establishment of a Special Economic Zone; to establish a Commission empowered to grant registrations, licences, authorisations and other approvals to carry on businesses and other activities in and from such Zone. 

It will also provide for the identification of a Single Window Investment facilitator for the promotion of ease of doing business within such Zone; to determine and grant incentives and other exemptions for the promotion of businesses of strategic importance within such Zone; to enter into transactions as provided, of Government marketable land and project company marketable land and premises and condominium parcels standing thereon within such Zone. 

Furthermore, the Bill will promote and facilitate international trade, shipping logistic operations, offshore banking and financial services, information technology and business process outsourcing, corporate headquarters operations, regional distribution operations, tourism, and other ancillary services within such Zone; to establish an international Dispute Resolution Centre within such Zone; to promote urban amenity operations and the settlement of a residential community within such Zone. 

Operation Abhayarama

The opposition for the Bill was not only raised by Opposition groups but was rising within factions those once considered as pro Rajapaksas. Ven. Muruttettuwe Ananda Thera who claims the lion’s share of credit for setting the foundation to bring Rajapaksas back into power not only convened a Media briefing to criticise the proposed Bill but launched a scathing attack on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

The Nayaka Thera who boasted Abhayarama Temple of being the place of many past political rebellions that saw changes of Governments, called on President Rajapaksa to beware of two-timing advisers but also identified the latter of being a puppet of Basil Rajapaksa. He was flanked by SLPP Colombo District MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe.

The Colombo Port City will not be a part of Sri Lanka once the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill comes into effect and this will immensely affect the Sovereignty of Sri Lanka, Rajapakshe alleged.

He insisted that 1,100 Acres allocated for the Colombo Port City is not a part of the Colombo District and is not under the control of the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). Also, it could also be adduced by the contents of the Bill that it is not considered a part of Sri Lanka.

 “The control of this portion of land has been removed from every entity it is ought to be governed by and is being vested under the Colombo Port City Economic Commission, according to this Bill. The decisions with regard to the Colombo Port City will be taken according to the needs of the investors who are the Chinese company, making this a Chinese Colony,” Rajapakshe said.

He added that the Inland Revenue Act and 14 other Acts applicable for the collection of tax will be inapplicable in the Colombo Port City due to which no tax income could be made from this portion of land.

Rajapakshe added the rules in relation to the operations within the Colombo Port City will only be gazetted and will not be brought to Parliament. The salaries paid within the Port City will not be paid in Sri Lankan rupees and will only be paid in Chinese Yuan.

He added that the Colombo Port City could be considered a separate State for the purposes of the ‘Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States’ according to which the requisites to be considered a State is that it should have a permanent population, a defined territory, a Government and the capacity to enter into relations with other States which are all applicable to the Colombo Port City.

Rajapakshe stated that there has been an extension of land and reduction of the sea and if this portion of land should be added as a part of the country, there has to be an amendment made to the Schedule to the Constitution which interprets the Sri Lankan map.

He elaborated that the Bill was made in secrecy and produced before the Parliament on 8 April stating while the former Government sold the Hambantota Port to China he was against it. He added that the results of such sale are clearly visible including that of the complete wipe out of the UNP.

Rajapakshe said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not take any decisions on his own; he is only acting as a puppet while decisions are made by SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa.

“He came to power saying he will protect State property and is instead selling State property and committing robbery together with Basil Rajapaksa while both their children are citizens of the US due to which they are least concerned about affairs of this country,” he added.

“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was only elected President due to the faith people have in Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and PM Rajapaksa is now being made powerless,” he added.

Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera, speaking at the Media briefing, stated that although their organisation worked to bring the incumbent Government to power, such sale of State property is unacceptable adding that there are currently 15 Petitions against this Bill.

Ven. Ananda Thera also said that getting elected as President by a two-thirds majority does not give President Rajapaksa the right to ignore steps that needs to be taken to develop a prosperous nation adding that Rajapaksa should not rule in ignorance to two-timing advisers.

He added that the ‘Rata Rakina Jana Handa’ organisation, which he is a part of, played an immense role in bringing the incumbent Government into power adding that however the Government is now involved in the sale of State property affecting the sovereignty of the country.

He further added that the foundation for Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna was set at the Abhayarama Temple and that this Government was chosen to rebuild the country and uphold its sovereignty and not to sell State property.

He added that the ‘Rata Rakina Jana Handa’ was against the sale of State property by the Yahapalana Government adding that the organisation is not against the incumbent Government because being against this Government will result in the previous Government coming into power but rather steps should be taken to ensure that decisions such as that of making the Colombo Port City a Chinese Colony should not be taken.

Ranjan or Ranil?

Sports and Youth affairs Minister Namal Rajapaksa on Friday (16) visited former MP Ranjan Ramanayake who is currently imprisoned at the Angunukolapelessa Prison.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa also visited the former MP in prison a few days ago and vowed to do his best to secure the release of Ranjan Ramanayake

Ramanayake is once again making headlines with speculations of entering Parliament as a national List MP.  There were talks that some UNP young blood has suggested Ramanayake to be appointed to the sole national list slot the Party acquired in the last General Election. 

This was despite party Chairman Vajira Abeywardena insisting on sending Party Leader Ranil Wickremesighe back to the House.

UNP Leader Wickremesinghe will enter Parliament on the party’s sole National List slot, within one month, Abeywardena told a meeting on 14 April. 

Even representatives of other parties are of the opinion that Wickremesinghe should occupy the only parliamentary seat won by UNP at the last General Election, he mentioned.

When inquired, UNP Vice President Akila Viraj Kariyawasam confirmed that the Party has unanimously decided that Wickremesinghe should take the seat.

The UNP was able to secure one seat in Parliament and that too from the National List as the party received a total of 249,435 votes island wide at the General Election 2020. However, that seat has been left vacant up to date.

Party Leader Wickremesinghe has not shown any interest openly, in accepting the offer so far.

Meanwhile, SJB National List MP Harin Fernando also said that he will soon announce a major political decision in Parliament. Even though he was not specific about what this ‘major’ decision would be, the majority speculated that Fernando is likely to give up his Parliamentary seat to make sure Ramanayake could return. This is however, not the first time Fernando resigned from his Parliament seat. He resigned from Parliament when UNP was struggling with not having a proper chief ministerial candidate to place at Uva Provincial Council election. 

Ranil celebrates Ronnie’s birthday 

UNP Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe celebrated Sinhala and Tamil New Year away from Colombo as many politicians and as many of those in Colombo did. Before leaving Colombo he along with his wife took part in a few other important events that they had planned beforehand. 

Both Wickremesinghe and his spouse Prof. Maithree Wickramasinghe visited Matale and Beragala areas before taking part in the New Year rituals at one of their friend’s residences in Nuwara Eliya. 

Although he was on a vacation, Wickeremsinghe’s mobile phone kept ringing incessantly. Wickeremesinge was busy on the phone proffering advice and instructions to party members regarding the future activities. 

Former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel’s 96th birthday fell on 11 April. He held the ministerial portfolio during former President J.R. Jayewardene’s tenure. A small birthday celebration was organised at his residence in Colombo and Wickremesighe too was invited for it as he was also a member of the Cabinet of the 1977 Government. The event was held on the morning of 11 April and the UNP Leader attended the celebration to wish his colleague. 

When Wickremesinghe was about to leave, De Mel requested him to stay for a short period as he had prepared a speech for the UNP Leader. 

They both then exchanged views regarding colourful incidents that had taken place during the period of the 1977 Government as well as the current political situation in the country. De Mel who had been a seasoned politician in his own right then made a request to Wickeremesinghe. 

He said that he had known the UNP Leader since UNP regime took office in 1977 and maintained that the latter has to be in the present Parliament. He said the political revolution that was promised to the country by the UNP back in 1977 has still not been initiated and urged the UNP Leader to think seriously about it. 

He described Ranil Wickeremsinghe as an astute politician and mentioned that after Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, the UNP Leader had been the most skilled politician produced by the UNP. 

After cutting the birthday cake, the website of the former Finance Minister was declared open by Wickeremesinghe. During his short speech the UNP Leader did not forget to mention the political impact of the onetime Finance Minister. The event which was not open for the Media lasted for about 60 minutes. However, Wickeremesinghe had stayed at  De Mel’s residence for more than that.

Afterwards, he departed to meet a group of lawyers connected to the party. He was joined by Vajira Abeywardena, Palitha Range Bandara and Ruwan Wijewardene. 

They discussed about the controversial Port City Economic Commission Bill that has been mooted by the Government at length. Vajira Abeywardena charged that if the proposed Bill is ratified it would create a separate State within the country and warned that it will pave the way for untold problems and issues to the public. 

Range Bandara too alleged that the Government had been secretly formulating plans to turn the Colombo Port City into a Chinese Colony. 

The lawyers then explained to the UNP Leader in detail that if the proposed Bill is ratified in Parliament it will seriously infringe the provisions of the Constitution while violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Finally the lawyers and the UNP big wigs decided to file petitions at the Supreme Court against the contents of the Bill. 

The UNP leader urged them to assemble an experienced set of lawyers ahead of filing petitions against the Bill. He also requested Vajira Abeywardene and Range Bandara to represent the UNP in the petitions. He also urged the lawyers to file a petition to safeguard the Sinharaja Forest Reserve under Ruwan Wijewardene’s name. 

He aimed to depart Colombo to spend his New Year vacation on 12 April. However, in the morning of the day, a few party members had visited his residence. They had a discussion with Wickeremesinghe regarding the current political situation in the country.

Sandith Samarasinghe said that general public was struggling to celebrate the New Year as they did not have enough money to buy goods with extremely high prices. He said that the cost of living in the country had seen a steep rise. Printing of money should be dispensed with by the Government forthwith as they had received a loan from China, he added. 

Vajira Abeywardene noted that Sri Lanka had sought loans not only from China but from the Middle East and Bangladesh as well. He charged that the Government was continuing to ruin the economy. 

Range Bandara said that instead of holding the firms that had imported coconut oil containing carcinogens accountable for their actions, the Government had only imposed a modest fine on them ordering them to re-export the stocks in question. 

He said if an ordinary citizen had been found guilty of such an offence that person would have been duly prosecuted. 

Vajira Abeywardena said that only hours after Dilum Amunugama had made a remark that the President should usher in a rule similar to that of former Nazi German dictator Adolph Hitler the German envoy here had released a Twitter message saying that it should not even be contemplated by Sri Lanka. 

Wickeremsinghe then advised them to commence the reorganisation of the party at grass roots level after the end of the festive period. He promised to meet them after the New Year season. While he was away from Colombo, the lawyers attached to the party filed two cases in the SC against the Port City Economic Commission Bill, on 15 April. 

By Gagani Weerakoon | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 17 2021

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