The revelations about an alleged power plant deal at the highest echelons of government involving the heads of state of Sri Lanka and India would have sufficed to bring down governments in another continent. Even though in the two countries it has not, it nevertheless embarrassed India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his Congress party rival Rahul Gandhi tweeted that the ‘BJP’s cronyism has now crossed the Palk Straits and moved to Sri Lanka’. Modi is also getting flak from Indian media watchdogs, which see him interfering and pushing for the deal because of his close links with Indian business magnate Gautam Adani.

  1. M. C Ferdinando, who until two weeks ago was the President of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), was the protagonist who set the cat among the pigeons after he spilt the beans about the alleged deal to the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE).

Ferdinando’s testimony to COPE was that on 24th November 2021, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa summoned him and told him that the Indian PM is pressurizing him to hand over a solar and wind power project in the Northern province to the Adani group. He told COPE how he mentioned to the President that the matter did not concern him and the CEB, but the Board of Investment (BOI). Ferdinando said that the President had insisted he looks at it.  He went on to explain to COPE how he sent a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury with what the President had told him and that he should do the needful.  In the letter, Ferdinando pointed out that it was a government-to-government deal that former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had (also) told him to recognise.

President Rajapaksa, aware of the diplomatic falling out with India that an alleged confession could trigger, didn’t waste time issuing his rebuttal in a tweet.  ‘I categorically deny authorizing the award of the project to any specific person or entity he responded.  Meanwhile, the Adani group in a statement while expressing ‘deep distress at the detraction’ following Ferdinando’s confession, put the lid on the affair and concluded the statement with ‘the fact is the issue has already been addressed by the Sri Lanka government’.   A spokesman for the Indian High Commission in Colombo said the same. Ferdinando’s retraction was effectively seen as having resolved the diplomatic faux pas for the two governments.

Although it was a matter of time before Ferdinando would have been shown the door, he took the proactive step of withdrawing his statement to COPE and resigning a few days later.   Before that he told COPE he had been emotional and it was that pressure which drove him to say what he said.  Ferdinando reportedly, is a pro at going before COPE and is unlikely to have tripped up.  The letter he sent to the Treasury Secretary dated 25th November 2021 corroborates what he told COPE. The chances of him being pushed out are high. Needless to say, the incredulity which followed Ferdinando’s explanation for what he told COPE is a palpable one.

Ferdinando reported to COPE again this week for a follow up on the reasons for his withdrawal of his earlier statement to it, but the video of the proceedings was held back. Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa criticized COPE Chairman Charitha Herath for not wanting to release the video because the content, among other reasons given, has implications for national security. Premadasa’s rejoinder was that withholding the video will send out a wrong message that the President and his government have entered into secret agreements with multinational companies.  The vide is now scheduled for release tomorrow (Monday).

The suspected diplomatic fallout from Ferdinando’s gaffe appears to have been warded off for now after the initial hurt. A discussion between Sri Lanka and India scheduled for the 12thof June to secure a further USD 500 mn was deferred and the reason could have been Ferdinando’s remarks. But diplomatic relations appear to be back on track after a high- level delegation from India led by Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra flew in on Thursday for talks with the President and Prime Minister on Sri Lanka’s dire economic crisis and how India can support her neighbour through it.

For the Sri Lankan people the bigger issue which precipitated the whole affair is the amendment to the Sri Lanka Electricity Act which was passed in parliament and which will do away with the requirement for competitive bidding for energy projects. It will effectively remove checks and balances for accountability and transparency, leaving room for unsolicited bids and corruption.  It will also legitimize the MOU for the power plants, signed before the amendment was passed. Samagi Jana Balawegaya MP Harsha De Silva said the amendment is a ‘horrible decision’.

The MOU, drawn up between Adani Green Energy Limited and the Secretaries to the Treasury and the Ministry of Power, the CEB, the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority and the BOI will facilitate the conduct of a feasibility study and associated work for the solar and wind power plants which are planned for in Mannar and Pooneryn as a FDI of USD 442 million.  It is expected to generate 500 MW to the national grid.

The Government witch hunt of its critics has been snowballing.  In the latest incident last week, seven activists who have been closely linked with the peoples’ struggle were arrested and remanded until 1 Julyafter they handed themselves in to the Maradana Police.  They are Jagath Manuwarna, Jehan Appuhamy, Dhammika Munasinghe, Eranga Gunasekera, Rathindu Senaratne who is more popularly known as Ratta, Lahiru Weerasekera and Ven. Jinarathana Thero. They had been charged under the Public Property Act in connection with protests in the Colombo Fort area and in Thalangama on the 9th and 10th of June.  Although Manuwarna, Appuhamy, Munasinghe and Gunasekera were released one day later, they opted to remain in prison until their fellow activists are released.

Meanwhile the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and associationhas tabled a report for consideration at the sessions of the UN Human Rights Council which are going on until 8 July about the Sri Lankan government’s lapses to develop guidance to facilitate the organization of assemblies for both organisations and law enforcement authorities.

In the report, the Special Rapporteur points out that ‘despite recommendations to consider developing clear and accessible guidance based on the laws and regulations regarding the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in order to facilitate the organization of assemblies according to law, both by organizers and law enforcement authorities” it does not appear that such guidance has been developed’.

The report says the authorities have utilized discretionary authority to forbid some assemblies from taking place including those in support of marginalized communities’ rights in particular. ‘Protests seem to be stifled through the use of an executive decision, rather than through engaging with the concerned communities about their dissatisfaction and reasons for protesting’.

The report highlights how the Sri Lankan police frequently appear to respond to protests that are disfavoured for political reasons by arresting their participants, in violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. ‘Police have arrested peaceful protesters calling for accountability in relation to Tamil war victims, for environmental protection, for more equitable socio-economic policies, for better working conditions and for education rights.

The Special Rapporteur observed that Sri Lanka must refrain from using national security legislation, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to criminalize protesters legitimately exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly. ‘Numerous reports have been received of Sri Lanka using its Prevention of Terrorism Act to target and arrest peaceful protesters and human rights defenders.

There is concern expressed in the report that the new Prevention of Terrorism Regulations, disseminated in 2021, would further violate Sri Lanka’s rights obligations. The Special Rapporteur notes that the Supreme Court has positively halted the implementation of these regulations.  He said he wishes to underscore the comments made by his mandate together with other mandates, including the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, while countering terrorism on this issue’.

The Special Rapporteur called on Sri Lanka to ensure that any use of force to disperse assemblies is in accordance with international human rights law, the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, including through the provision of relevant training.

‘Sri Lankan forces have reportedly used excessive force to disperse assemblies on numerous occasions including on the occasion of a Black Lives Matter solidarity protest conducted in June 2020, as well as on the occasion of protests on the occasion of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on 30 August 2020’.


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