Sri Lanka is reportedly embroiled in yet another diplomatic spat with India after she reneged on the tripartite agreement with India and Japan on the development of the Eastern Container Terminal of the Colombo Port.
The government came under severe pressure from the port’s Trade Unions and Buddhist clergy who vowed to fight tooth and nail to protect the country’s national assets.
Quoting from President Gotabaya’s Rajapaksa manifesto “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor” the Trade unions and Buddhist clergy launched a persistent campaign against what they called “the sale of the Eastern Container terminal to India”, stemming from their position that they do not want to sell a strategic national asset. The government on the other hand wants to look at it as an investment opportunity.
The government succumbed to the pressure and was compelled to make an unexpected U turn on their pledge to backtrack on the tripartite agreement.
The matter found its way to the highest levels for discussions and deliberations and the government did its best to make the tripartite agreement work. It assured the Indian government on numerous occasionsabout it readiness to get India involved in the strategic ECT development but alas, akin to the biblical proverb, it fell on stony ground.
The decision of the Rajapaksa administration which came as a bolt from the blue as far as India is concerned created an unpleasant situation for both countries.
The President in his Independence Day message made a declaration in no uncertain terms that he has no intention of selling national assets but said that there should not be misleading interpretations as far as investments are concerned. It clearly showed that the President was annoyed over the impulsive decisiontaken by the Government on account of pressure to reverse the ECT agreement and the stance taken by the Trade Unions and the Buddhist clergy.
India too could not hold back its anger and reiterated its stance on the issue saying Sri Lanka should abide by the tripartite agreement reached in May 2019.
India’s belief was that they clinched the deal especially with the visit of Ajit Doval last year to Sri Lanka. Doval, the National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Modi, is considered one of the most influential among Indian bureaucrats.
According to Indian media National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval has accomplished at least three things during his visit to Sri Lanka on 27 and 28 November. The Presidential Media Division in a statement issued following discussions between President Rajapaksa and Doval said the discussions were “highly fruitful”.
Rajapaksa and Doval agreed that infrastructure development projects with India’s assistance should be expedited.
The Doval visit assumed significance in the wake of concerns being raised over the influence China is wielding in Sri Lanka’s economic decisions.
According to The Citizen website, which quoted informed sources, “ Doval’s Colombo visit will now help India, Sri Lanka and Japan to jointly develop and operate the Eastern Container Terminal in the Colombo Port.”
The ECT had been partially developed and Sri Lanka needs nearly 600 million US$ for further development to allow bigger ships to berth with a depth of more than 14 meters.
In May 2019, the then Yahapalanaya government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickrememsinghe signed a tripartiteMemorandum of Cooperation (MoC) between Sri Lanka, India and japan to develop the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) with a 51 percent majority shareholding to be retained by Sri Lanka. The rest was to be distributed between India and Japan.
The tripartite MoC states that the three Governments share the view that it is of great geo-strategic importance for Japan and India to be stakeholders in the Eastern Container Terminal located in the Colombo South Port.
Considering the longstanding good will and cooperation among the three governments, the GoSL invited concerned Japanese and Indian participants to take a 49percent stake collectively in the Terminal Operations Company (TOC) set up for the exclusive and explicit purpose of providing the equipment and systems necessary for the development of the ECT andto manage the ECT for long periods. The stake of 51 percent of the TOC belongs to the GoSL under Sri Lanka Ports Authority.
The Government of Japan will endeavour to sign the exchange of notes to provide the Yen loan under highly concessional conditions to the GoSL at the earliest possible date to enable faster capacity expansion at ECT through the participation of Japanese companies which could cover payments made by the SLPA prior to the provision of the said loan for quick placement of ship to shore cranes and rubber tired gantry cranes.
The government recognizes that the Colombo Port is almost at full capacity and acknowledges the paramount importance of the early operation of the ECT.
But now, Sri Lanka is prepared to offer the West Container Terminal (WCT) to India which has to be built from scratch. The offer is that an 85 percent stake will go to India as in the case of the adjacent container terminal of which 85 percent of the stake is held byChina. Sri Lanka was happy to be a minority shareholder with only of 15 percent. At the inauguration of the Chinese container terminal during the previous Rajapaksa administration the whole areawas bedecked with Chinese flags with hardly any space for the Lion flag.
Be that as it may now the WCT is on offer and it is time to wait and see India’s reaction. Nevertheless the buzz among business circles is that the Adani group,the Indian nominee for the ECT, is not too hesitant to consider the offer. Adani however has a bad track record in India and elsewhere though they are a bigger conglomerate that India favors and is given top priority.
Meanwhile, India said on Tuesday it expected Sri Lanka to honor its agreement and allow it to operate a major port terminal following Colombo’s decision to pull out of the deal.
The East terminal of Colombo port will be 100% owned and operated by the state-owned Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA), minutes of a cabinet meeting released on Tuesday said.
Sri Lanka had previously said the port would be 49% operated by India and Japan, with its port authority retaining the majority stake.
India and Japan will instead be invited to develop the nearby West terminal on a public-private partnership basis, the minutes said without elaborating.
The decision comes less than a month after a visit by Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar to Colombo to shore up support for the 2019 deal that also involved Japan and India’s Adani Group.
“The commitment of the Government of Sri Lanka … has been conveyed several times in the recent past, including at the leadership level,” a spokesman for India’s embassy in Colombo said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.
“Sri Lanka’s cabinet also took a decision three months ago to implement the project with foreign investors. All sides should continue to abide by the existing understandings and commitment.”
The Indian NSA visited the island nation less than three months after the foreign ministers of the ‘quad countries’ –the USA, India, Australia and Japan – held their second round of consultations in Tokyo to construct a larger Indo-Pacific alliance to arrest the growing influence of China in the region. After the ‘quad meeting’, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited India, Sri Lanka and other countries in the region.
While the US Secretary of State was in the country, SriLankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, tweeted: ‘Engaged in a forward looking & a cordial interaction with @SecPompeo this morning. Appreciate @SecPompeo’s stance on the need 2 strengthen the bilateral relationship & support 4 defence cooperation. Value @SecPompeo’s views on assistance 4 investment & our development needs.’
Immediately after Pompeo’s visit, the Presidenttweeted ‘#Sri Lanka will always maintain a neutral stand in foreign policy and will not get entangled in struggles between power blocs’, presumably in an attempt not to upset China. In the tweet, he tagged Pompeo with a hashtag #USwithSL.
Doval’s visit came hard on the heels of this. While Doval was still in Colombo, Chaminda Wijesiri, a parliamentarian from the opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya, attempted to ask in the Sri Lankan parliament whether Doval’s visit had anything to do with the ongoing discussion on the ECT. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena shot down the attempt by ruling it was not on the agenda of the day’s business in parliament.
It is now time for India and Sri Lanka to reflect, especially at a time Sri Lanka is faced with bigger issues with the United Nations Human Rights Council. (UNHRC). The government’s position is that the Trade Unions are open to develop the West Terminal with foreign investments but some have already expressed their reservations. What the core nationalist groups have failed to absorb is that the only way forward for Sri Lanka is through Foreign Direct investments (FDI)s and that it would be a rather difficult task for the country to keep pace with economic development with rest of the world without exploring innovative methods to stay afloat economically..
At this point of time, Sri Lanka is striving hard to take a clear stand on issues pertaining to Human Rights after withdrawing from resolutin30/1 which by far made the country to cosponsor the resolution against it. The UNHRC in this backdrop has vowed to take a hardline stance on Sri Lanka, with all the lethal salvos aimed at it.
Sri Lanka too is adamant and has taken a tough stand to deny the allegations of human rights abuses unequivocally in a somewhat terse statement drafted by the Ministry of Foreign Relations with the aid of others. The core group on Sri Lanka was expected to meet with foreign ministry officials yesterday or today to explore the possibility of a consensual resolution. Though Sri Lanka knows that if the matter is taken up before the Security Council, Russia and China thatwield veto power will definitely help her overcome a difficult situation, it is still not a comfortable position to be in owing to different reasons. Does that mean that the country is inexorably marching towards a somewhat socialist camp against its wishes to remain neutral as an Island nation in the Indian Ocean?
This is where India’s importance counts as major power base in South East Asia and an active member of the QUAD group of countries comprising, the US, Japan and Australia known as Asia’s NATO. Now with the present diplomatic and political imbroglio with Sri Lanka can anybody expect India to extend a helping hand at the forthcoming but crucial UNHRC session?
India may have committed its support to Sri Lanka as a bargain for ECT but whether India will back down from its original stance is the pertinent question to be answered.
Another significant development involving the government’s political journey is to assert its political project to strengthen their rank and file whileweakening the opposition which is riding high at present, offering constructive criticism against the government. Hence the government’s decision to pursue the Upali Abeyratne Commission report.
The Government moved to appoint yet another commission to implement the recommendations of the Upali Abeyratne Commission against several politicians including former Prime Minister Ranil Wickrememsinghe,TNA Leader R Samapanthan, A Sumanthiran, Rauff Hakeem, Champika Ranawaka, Sarath Fonseka and JVP Leader,Anura Kumara Dissnanayake.
Political observers believe that it is aimed at three major opponents of the government though other names too have been thrown in to make it a more credible one encompassing all the parties concerned. Analysts however believe that the main thrust is against Anura Kumara Dissananyake, Champika Ranawake and Sarath Fonseka, considered virulent critics of the government against which dissent from the society at large appears to be emerging.
While senior government officials and Colombo based diplomats were preparing to attend the independence day event at the Independence Square on 4th February which was preceded by weeks of preparation, Tamil and Muslim political parties and civil society groups defied a police ban and came together for a paada yaatra to demand answers about the fate of those who went missing during the conflict and the issue of Tamil political prisoners. They also want a stop to the military occupation of land in the former conflict areas and alleged moves by the government to change its demography with Sinhala settlements.
The walk which started on the 3rd of February from Pottuvil in the eastern district of Ampara is expected to end in Polikandy in the northern Jaffna district on the 6th of February. Among those taking part are members of the Tamil National Alliance which gave the walk its fullest support, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya and a host of Muslim political parties whose members joined the walk at various points at Kattankudy, Ottamavadi, Ampara and Kinniya. A Tamil legislator told Counterpoint that the support from the Muslim community was huge. The cremation of Muslims who die of COVID 19 will also be a matter for visibility during the walk.
The enduring demands of these parties come at a time when Sri Lanka is on the threshold of the UNHRC sessions which start this month and a reminder by President Gotabaya Rajapakse during his address to the nation on independence day that every person in this country irrespective of his or her ethnic or religious identification has the right to enjoy the freedom as equals under the nation’s legal framework
Meanwhile Mohan Peiris, Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the UN was defending Sri Lanka’s human rights record which has come under the microscope once again with the impending UNHRC sessions. Showcasing how the country had rehabilitated and reunited child soldiers who had been forcibly conscripted by the LTTE he explained to the UN Security Council during its Arria Formula meeting on Children and Armed Conflict last month how Sri Lanka had rehabilitated and reunited 594 child soldiers with their families to become productive citizens of the country. He said one of the priorities of the government had been to rehabilitate these children who had been forced to wear a cyanide capsule round their necks. The government had paid special attention to children whose education had been disrupted and who wanted to continue their formal education by enabling them to sit for national exams including 11 children who took the university entrance exams. Three of them were admitted to university and many others received vocational training and are in meaningful employment now. Former child soldiers had been provided professional counselling and medical attention had been given including to those who had been disabled and they were given national identity cards for a sense of belonging. The government policy was not to prosecute them but to investigate and dispose their cases speedily with the assistance of the UN and other international and civil society organizations.
During his carefully curated speech, Mr. Peiris showed photos of rehabilitated children including one living in the UK without any sanctions and said it was regretted that these success stories had been forgotten by the world including certain sections of the international community and entities of the UN who refuse to acknowledge them.
‘We continue to be hounded for defeating terrorism and misled by the misinformation spread by the remnants of this group and remain hostage to the political benefits accrued with such double standards’, he said and concluded that if we are to be serious about dealing with issues arising out of conflict sustainably, we have to remove the wool over our eyes and work on common ground to make any real progress for humanity.
Some 15 environmental and conservation organisations called an emergency press conference to draw attention to the unprecedented and systematic destruction of the environment caused by illegal land grabs by members of parliament and their political backers. Local communities living in some of the affected areas like Suduwella and Dahiyagala have been unsettled and their livelihoods have been disrupted.
The incident which sparked the latest outcry is the government decision to de gazette the Dahiyagala wildlife sanctuary for chena cultivation. Environmentalists claim this is not true because people from outside areas have been brough to deforest and clear the land, a modus operandi which they are now familiar with. An eye– witness said these outsiders have already carved up parcels of land amounting to about 100 acres and have disrupted the life of the community, especially in the nearby village of Kukulkattuwa. They also point out that according to World Bank and Department of Agriculture data, 62 percent, which is nearly two thirds of the country’s land, is available for use for agriculture and there is no need to use protected lands.
Dahiyagala which sits in the Moneragala district straddles the Uva and Sabaragamuwa provinces. It is a wild elephant corridor for elephants to cross from Bogahapelessa to Udawalawe and then to Lunugamwehera and was gazetted as a wildlife sanctuary on 7 June 2020. The elephant is the key stone species for this area and is important for the sustainability of its ecosystem. Conservationists despair that elephants will start straying into surrounding areas because of the loss of their familiar terrain and it will result in a human elephant conflict. Sri Lanka is already struggling with a high number of human elephant conflict deaths. Last year close to 400 elephants died and so did a number of people. It was the highest in the world.
The livelihoods of about 1200 jeep drivers and their dependents will be affected from the anticipated drop in tourism. Udawalawe is a national park where elephants can be seen all year round.
The Dahiyagala incident comes on the heels of a milieu of other incidents. In the past weeks, there have been protests in Hambantota by farmer organisations, local communities and religious leaders over the appropriation of around 1000 acres of Mahaweli land for a managed elephant reserve. Environmentalists know with certainty the land will eventually fall into the hands of a frontline cabinet MP and his acolytes. Mahaweli Minister Chamal Rajapakse has promised the land will be gazetted. The Ven Anandasagara Thero, one of several speakers at the press conference, said the local people will go on hunger strike to protect the land. Silica sand mining in Suduwella in Madampeby politicians have destroyed the houses of locals and contaminated the water supply. Last week’s decision by the Cabinet to give 2750 acres from Rambaken Oya to grow maize is seen as another inevitable ecological disaster.
These groups claim that since the government of Gotabaya Rajapakse took over the destruction to the environment has been devastating. So far, they have catalogued some 200 incidents of damage to the environment including land grab which has become widespread in the country. The trend had been set in motion after a cabinet decision soon after this government took over, to do away with permits to transport sand which had paved the way for sand miners to carry on with their illegal activities with impunity. They pointed out how measures to protect the environment which had been put in place about forty years ago have been reversed by the present government, more recently through the President’s Gama Samaga Pilisandara program.
These groups say they trusted the President because of his military background. ‘The military is disciplined. They mean what they say. That is why we trusted the president. In his election manifesto ‘Vistas of Splendour’ he pledges to protect the environment and wildlife’.
Sri Lanka is home to some 17, 000 species of plants and 17, 50 species of animals. In 1881, the country’s forest cover was 82 percent but is down to a measly 17 percent now. The years of mismanagement of environmental policies is taking its toll on the country’s flora and fauna.
With all this, the government ended the week fighting a multitude of fires.