SL Caught in a Turbulent Affair With India and China

By Gagani Weerakoon | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 20 2021
Ceylon Politics SL Caught in a Turbulent Affair With India and China
By Gagani Weerakoon

The turbulent affairs between India and Sri Lanka following the failed Colombo East Container Terminal deal took another twist last week with Chief Minister of India’s Tripura State, Biplab Deb, sparking off a controversy over the weekend when he revealed that Indian Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah intended to establish Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Governments in Sri Lanka and Nepal. 

Chief Minister Deb , addressing a political rally recently, claimed Home Affairs Minister Shah intends forming a BJP Government in Sri Lanka, to create an ‘Atmanirbhar South Asia,’ that was allegedly a success in making Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal self-reliant Nations.

“Amit Shah, who was then the BJP National President, had told us that the party was planning to expand its footprint and establish its rule in Nepal and Sri Lanka during a close interaction with several leaders at the State Guesthouse here,” Biplab claimed.

Deb’s reference to Nepal and Sri Lanka drew a sharp response from the Congress which accused the BJP of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.

“This attitude of BJP is anti-national and anti-democratic. We respect our neighbouring countries and there is no justification to interfere in the internal affairs of these countries," Vice-President of Tripura’s Congress Unit Tapas Dey told Hindustan Times.

Under fire over Deb’s comment, the BJP said it has been spreading Indian culture and philosophy in different countries.

BJP spokesperson Nabendu Bhattacharya told Hindustan Times, “Our work to spread our Indian culture and philosophy in different countries apart from India started many days back. Contesting elections is not our prime agenda. We focus on winning the hearts of people of different countries.”

While small groups were found commenting on the matter, Sri Lankan Government was seen carefully treading on the matter by stating it would respond only if the BJP-led Government or Prime Minister Narendra Modi reacts to the remarks, to which New Delhi has not reacted so far.

This comes on the same day Government reiterated that there is no change in the Government’s decision to hand over the three islets in question in the Northern Province to China.

“Cabinet has approved the award of tender to a Chinese company, after a competitive bidding process”, Co-Cabinet Spokesperson, Udaya Gammanpila told reporters during weekly Cabinet Media briefing.

“Minister of Power has not informed the Cabinet that he wants to postpone the decisions or cancel that decision so we think that decision prevails” he further added.

“Removing the Sri Lanka Navy Camp from the Port is out of the question as the President has held discussions with China and has granted Sri Lanka Navy the full control authority,” replying to a question posed by a journalist regarding the removal of the Naval Base in the Hambantota Port, Co-Cabinet Spokesperson, Gammanpila stated.

However, reports also surfaced that the Government has plans to hand over these three projects to India instead of China. 

Meanwhile, the Project Management Unit of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) said the Secretary to the Ministry of Power has not yet officially informed them that the three hybrid wind power projects, worth USD 12 million, were to be handed over to India and not to the Chinese who won the bidding process two weeks ago. 

According to an official at CEB’s Project Management Unit, handing over of the project to the Chinese is on hold and there seems to be issue with the Indian Government over it. The Asian Development Bank, the financial lender, selected China’s Sinosar-Etechwin to construct the wind energy generators on three islets in the Northern Province. 

Inside sources said that the Chinese bidder is in a quandary about the delay in the handover. According to local Tamil Media, Minister of Power Dullas Alahapperuma has said that the Indian Government has extended its support to grant the USD 12 million to Sri Lanka and they would want to do the three wind power projects on three islets namely, Nedunthivu (Delft), Analaithivu and Nainativu in the Northern Province. 

Minister Alahapperuma, who held discussions with the Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Gopal Baglay, last week, told the Tamil Media that the next Cabinet meeting would discuss the handing over of the project to India as it has raised security concerns due to its close proximity to the Tamil Nadu State. 

The Minister said that Sri Lanka would accept the USD 12-million grant and allow India to develop the three projects in the North. “We are happy to offer it to India as they are also granting us funds,” he told one Tamil paper. However, the Minister could not be contacted for a comment.

Already there is opposition growing for these claims and former Northern Provincial Council Member M.K. Sivajilingam said that they will never allow the three islets of the Northern Province to be handed over to the Chinese-funded projects under any circumstance. 

He said that the people of the North would never give their consent to hand over the islets to Chinese firms. He charged that if the islets are allowed to be controlled by the foreign firms notwithstanding the protests of Tamils in the North, then demonstrations will be staged till the Chinese firms decide to leave from the Province. He made these comments addressing a media briefing held in this regard in Jaffna. 

Speaking further he said, “If the Government tries to act against the wishes of the US and India, then it could create a lot of issues for Sri Lanka. The forces of both the US and India could land here and forcibly take over the lands of North-East. Hence we would like to stress to the Government that we will not allow Chinese firms to launch projects in the North. We intend to start a series of massive protests against such moves shortly. This decision of the Government could lead to a crisis situation in the North before long. If India is angered then the consequences of it will be felt first by the Tamils in the North. Therefore, we urge this Government to think twice before handing over these islets to the Chinese firms.”

Meanwhile, SJB General Secretary MP Ranjith Maddumabandara said that his party too was opposed to the decision arrived at by the Government to hand over islets in the North to Chinese firms. 

He mentioned that the islets should be developed or upgraded by the Government in power and not by the foreign powers who dictate terms to the present regime. 

Jathika Jana Balawegaya (JJB) MP Vijitha Herath also said that with the decision taken by the Government to hand over three islets in the Northern Province to Beijing to construct a wind power station, it would be impossible to prevent Colombo from becoming a victim in the raging power struggle between China and India in the region.

He noted that decisions such as these would deal a crippling blow to the economic sovereignty of Sri Lanka both in the long and short term.

The MP said that information had come to light that New Delhi had demanded a contract for the said project at a cost of USD 12 million and charged that the modus operandi of this regime was to lease as many local projects as possible to China.

Govt might leave me

Assuring that he would not leave the Government, Minister of Industries Wimal Weerawansa, on Friday, said that however, he does not know whether the Government will abandon him. 

Speaking to the Media after an event in Colombo, Weerawansa lamented that backbencher MPs of the ruling party, who have launched scathing attacks on him recently, are feeble and he does not blame them for their helpless state. 

He also claimed that whoever has tasked them to launch such verbal attacks on him might have made those MPs helpless and vulnerable. 

 “I have been expressing my opinions to safeguard the country’s national resources, since I joined politics. I’m not planning to leave the Government but I do not know whether the government will abandon me,” responded Weerawansa when reporters inquired whether he will be able to remain in the Government with certain groups who criticised him. 

When queried whether any major changes could be expected in the Government in future, Weerawansa said that it is not necessary to be panicked and come to any conclusion on that matter at the moment. 

Everyone wants this Government which will be led by President Gotobaya Rajapaksa and Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa to move forward, he added.

Party leaders' meeting heats up

The party leaders’ meeting held in Parliament on Thursday, chaired by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, became quite a heated affair as it proceeded.

Ministers Dinesh Gunawardena, Johnston Fernando, Dullas Alahapperuma, Prasanna Ranatunga, Douglas Devananda, Mahinda Amaraweera, Dilan Perera, and MPs Ranjith Maddumabandara, Lakshman Kiriella, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, M.A. Sumanthiran and some others were present at the meeting.

Opposition party leaders called for the immediate release of a copy of the report of Presidential Commission of Inquiry of Political Victimisation of Public Officials and to take it up for a two-day debate in Parliament.

"Copy of the report has not yet been received and will be released as soon as it is received," the Speaker informed.

Maddumabandara told the Speaker that the report was handed over to the President on 15 January and that action should be taken to obtain it. These are things within the Government. There is no need to wait till we say, he said.

Kiriella also said that it was necessary.

“How do you pressurise like this? Have you forgotten how you worked during the ‘Yahapalana’ Government?” Johnston asked aloud.

"Speak decently. There is only a distance of 15 to 20 minutes to the President's Office, call them and have it delivered," Maddumabandara said.

“Did you give us debates at that time? Don’t talk nonsense now,” Johnston said to which Maddumabandara replied that they want to talk about it and a debate is asked for that reason.

Then Johnston asked if they remembered how Karu Jayasuriya acted as the Speaker at that time. You all were silent at that time and are now talking about justice, he said.

Johnston became furious when Maddumabandara asked if the current Government came to power to do what was done then. The former turned to Opposition party leaders and began to lash out.

At that time Maddumabandara again asked to behave in a decent manner. We can also shout, he said.

Gunawardena, Johnston and Prasanna said the report could be debated as soon as it was tabled in Parliament. "Even though the Opposition has asked for two days, we are ready to debate this for three days," Prasanna has said.

Dinesh and Sumanthiran clash

The party leaders' meeting has again heated up with Sumanthiran stating, “President must present this report to Parliament. It is his responsibility." At that time Gunawardena had said that unlike other Commission reports, President would definitely submit this to Parliament.

“Those who took political revenge at that time now seem to know nothing,” said Prasanna.

At that time the Speaker said that he had requested a copy of the report and it is also reported that the Speaker has agreed to a request made by Dissanayake to make that request in writing to the President’s Secretary.

Meanwhile, Gunawardena has informed that several programmes during the visit of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to Sri Lanka tomorrow (22) have been cancelled with the consent of both countries in the face of the situation caused by COVID-19. Accordingly, Imran’s visit to Parliament which was scheduled to happen on 24 February has also been cancelled.

Responding to this, Kiriella has said that the Opposition MPs were eagerly awaiting the visit of the Pakistan Premier to Parliament. Kiriella also said it should be noted that Imran’s Parliament visit was cancelled by the Government and not at the party leaders’ meeting.

Opposition representatives have also pointed out that there was a false propaganda involving the opposition regarding the cancellation of his visit to Parliament.

In response, Gunawardena said that the cancellation of the visit was due to COVID-19 health guidelines. In addition, Gunawardena has announced that several other programmes during Imran’s visit have also been cancelled and that the latter would attend only a few programmes.

Ranil on vaccine 

On Thursday (18) morning, a group of Buddhist monks visited UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at his residence after receiving Oxford-AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine. 

When they asked whether Wickremesinghe received the vaccine he simply said that politicians could get the vaccine after the public including the clergy received it.

While approving what he said, the monks said that it was sad that people decided not to vote for mature politicians like Wickremesinghe at the General Election. They then blessed Wickremesinghe, tied a blessed thread (pirith noola) on his hand and left the house after a long conversation.

Wickremesinghe visited Sirikotha on Monday (15) morning to participate in a discussion organised by party Chairman Vajira Abeywardena. The UNP Leader was accompanied by a group of Trade Union leaders representing the ruling party in both public and private sectors. There were several representatives of the Opposition and independent Trade Unions with them as well.  “The situation in the country is getting worse day by day. The Opposition then and now is very different. Those days the Opposition fought for the economic issues of the people as well as every other issue in the country. We remember that you, as the Leader of the Opposition, came to the streets with your people. But now there is no difference between the Government and the Opposition. It seems to us that whole Parliament is representing the Government today,” said a Trade Union representative.

“The Leader took us to the streets during the people’s issues at that time, carried out campaigns, marched from Kandy to Colombo, marched from Point Dondra to Colombo, came under tear gas and faced thug attacks.  We learned so much from him at that time and those experiences made us mature politicians,” Abeywardene said. 

“I remember when the Janabala Meheyuma reached Colombo, the former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s Government tried to block us. They attacked us in Peliyagoda. It was like a small war in Maradana. Tear gas and shots were fired. When our leader tried to address the people, the Police also fired tear gas at him. I vividly remember how he went invisible amidst tear gas smoke for a moment. How can anyone claim that our Leader does not stand with grassroots level in the society after witnessing these things? ” a party activist recalled the past, comparing the then Opposition led by Wickremesinghe and the present.

The trade union representatives called for recommencement of a people’s movement led by the UNP. They pointed out to Wickremesinghe that their groups could also support it. 

In response, Wickremesinghe urged them to work with the party’s youth leadership. 

He also met UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara and many other party activists at Sirikotha as well. They discussed about UNP future plans at length. 

During the discussion, Wickremesinghe advised that the programme to visit villages should be concluded by 15 March. He also requested for a report on attracting more people to the party by the end of March. 

He then advised Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene to take steps to strengthen the party while requesting Shamal Senarath and Sagala Ratnayake to update the day to day activities of Sirikotha. 

“Do not delay these tasks for so long. Let the new members work towards success. Assign them duties and make them work on the tasks they are given. We do not have much time.” 

Everyone agreed with what Wickremesinghe said.

The new office-bearers of the party visited the Vidyaloka Pirivena in Galle and paid a visit to the Chancellor of the University of Ruhuna, Ven. Dr. Akuretiye Nanda Thera last Sunday (14). 

Vajira Abeywardena, Ruwan Wijewardene, Palitha Range Bandara and several others were present at the occasion. 

They went to Kandy on Wednesday (17) to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic and also visited the Mahanayaka Theras of Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters.

After that, everyone discussed organising the ‘Balamandalaya in Matara’ this weekend. As usual, party members visited Wickremesinghe’s residence on Thursday (18) to discuss the current political situation.

“It is being reported that Wickremesinghe had discussions with people like Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and SJB MP Rajitha Senaratne. Many people are saying that the two parties are in talks to reunite. What is the truth behind this?” Sandith Samarasinghe asked.

Wickremesinghe said that they met to discuss about the report of Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into Political Victimisation from 2015 to 2019. 

“This is a serious problem. The Rajapaksas are trying to strip the civic rights of Opposition politicians using this report. I spoke to our lawyers about this.  We didn’t discuss anything other than that, “he said. 

 “People are living in extreme economic hardship. The Government is running out of money. Now they are trying to borrow USD 1500 million from China and repay the loans of India,” Ruwan Wijewardene noted.

Wickremesinghe said: “As far as I know, China is trying giving this amount in Yuan and taking back the loan in USD. In this case, the Balance Sheet of the Treasury will go up, but we will not receive USD. What we will have to do is importing goods from China. For that, the Government will have to have life restrictions on imports.  Then there will be another problem, because we cannot lift restrictions only for China.”

Joining the discussion Palitha Range Bandara said that the Government is trying to give West Container Terminal (WCT) of Colombo Port to India instead of the East Container Terminal (ECT).  The Government says that India likes to take the WCT. On the other hand Co-Cabinet Spokesman Udaya Gammanpila says that the Indian High Commissioner agreed to return the Trincomalee oil tanks as well.”

Vajira Abeywardena who intervened at this juncture laughed saying, “It is also said that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is preparing to set up a branch in Nepal and Sri Lanka.”

 “I think it is more of a warning than a party formation in Sri Lanka. We have been talking about the Trincomalee Port since the Indo-Lanka Agreement. Letters were exchanged between then Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi and then President J.R. Jayewardene about this too. Sri Lankan Government including Mahinda Rajapaksa’s followed those agreements. Now there are clashes happening between two Governments on them,” Ruwan Wijewardene pointed out. 

Wijewardena’s claim made Wickremesinghe smirk. However, the UNP Leader said nothing.  There was a lengthy exchange of views on the COVID-19 situation, the sugar tax fraud as well as the human rights issues in Sri Lanka.

At the end of the discussion, he reminded again to the party leaders to formulate a programme as soon as possible to win those who are disappointed with the Government’s conduct and those who supported their candidate at the Presidential Election in 2019 but did not vote at the General Election in 2020

By Gagani Weerakoon | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 20 2021

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