Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa dominated the news cycle in the emerald isle over his opposition to leasing of land to the Chinese in Hambantota and his intention to bring down the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-United National Party (UNP) government this year.
In his weekly column, The Sunday Times’ political editor had the most comprehensive laundry list of the ongoing name-calling between the SLFP and UNP. The verbal fights have become so bitter that UNP ministers have accused President Maithripala Sirisena’s brother of running the “rice mafia”.
With the SLFP spokesperson and ministers raising doubts about the validity of the MoU signed in September, which increased the term of the ruling coalition from two to five years, The Sunday Times‘ political editor wondered, “That begs answer to the question whether he has the blessings of his leadership to make those pronouncements. Many in the pro Sirisena SLFP believe he does. And that begs answer to an even more critical question — can the drift of the two sides from one another be stopped? If not, what happens to the many development programmes and the resuscitation of the country’s economy, an item of high priority?”
Meanwhile, Ceylon Today reported based on “informed sources” that ten ministers will be part of a group of SLFP members who will leave the government on January 8, the second anniversary of Sirisena’s surprise win.
Rajapaksa’s blunt statement to foreign correspondents in Colombo that his new year resolution was to overthrow the government of national unity got the attention of the Lankan media. “Man on Mission to topple government in 2017,” said the main lead of the business paper Daily FT, with similar iterations across all newspapers.
When asked about Rajapaksa’s threat, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said, “Mr. Rajapaksa can do whatever he wants when I go to Switzerland”. He will be travelling soon to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos.
In an oped for the Daily News, Harim Peiris, advisor to the Sri Lankan foreign minister, was predictably dismissive with the likelihood of Rajapaksa getting his wish.
“The first obstacles in a Rajapaksa return is that the fundamental political dynamics that formed the foundation of Rajapaksa defeat, still holds true… If the Rajapaksa political comeback project is to succeed, two key changes need to take place, there must be an honest assessment of the failures of their governance, in all areas including economic, foreign, public sector management and social reconciliation policies and consequently seek to design a policy message and political outreach that is more pluralistic, tolerant and democratic.”
The Island’s editorial also seemed to hedge its bets. “Rajapaksa appears to command a majority of SLFP members of parliament, but even if the Sirisena-faction joins him, they are still short of a handful of MPs to ensure an absolute majority in the 225-majority national legislature…The unity of the fractured SLFP is the biggest threat to Wickremesinghe’s government and its failure to deliver on tackling corruption and prosecute alleged swindlers of the previous regime weighs heavily against it”.
On January 5, Wickremesinghe is set to make a “special statement on the current status of the UNP-SLFP unity Government and its future policies,” according to Ceylon Today.
The Hambantota port deal continues to be the eye of the political storm. The right-wing nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and ruling alliance partner claimed that bribes of $100 million was paid to government politicians to expedite the agreement that will allow for a Chinese firm to get an 80% stake in the port and 15,000 acres to build a SEZ nearby. “We are against the deal as the government has not revealed the lease agreement with China Merchants Port Holdings so far,” JHU’s Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe told The Island.
The Sunday Times reported that the Sri Lankan cabinet planned to examine the final text of the concession agreement, worth $1.2 billion, on January 3 and then sign on the dotted line on January 7. It also revealed that the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka had expressed concern about the allegations made by the JHU during his meeting with Sirisena on December 28.
Meanwhile, the joint opposition announced on Monday, January 2, that a petition has been filed in the Supreme Court against the Hambantota port deal.
In Hambantota, district authorities dropped in unannounced for a survey without prior notification to village residents, who had erected black flags, posters and banners against the land acquisition. “For generations our ancestors have shed blood and sweat to build these farmlands. Our economy and culture are bound to these lands. So we would not move away from these lands under any condition,” said a Hambantota farmer in The Sunday Leader.
This week Lankan political parties prepare the debate on the draft proposals for a new constitution in parliament on January 9-10. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) chief and leader of the opposition R. Sampanthan has convened a special meeting of his party MPs ahead of the debate, with Tamil leaders pushing for a more federal structure to the constitution.
In an interview to Ceylon Today, Jaffna District TNA MP Dharmalingam Sithadthan said that there were “positive signals” that police and land powers could be devolved to the provinces.
Local government elections are expected to be further delayed, after provincial council and local government minister Faiszer Musthapa refused the accept the much-delayed report of the delimitation of local wards. The reason was that two committee members had not signed the report as they wanted to further study its provisions. The Island reports that the minister left in a huff when the chairman of the committee revealed the political affiliations of the two members in an answer to a media query.
An oily mess
There was no clarity on the incident of the alleged “detention” of four Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) by officials of the Sri Lankan subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC), which ended up as a blame game. According to the CPC, four officials were “held captive” for an hour when they went to inspect four of the oil tanks at the tank farm in China Bay, Trincomalee, while the LIOC complained to the local police about an attempt to enter the facility without an authorisation letter.
Petroleum minister Chandima Weerakody said that his government will go ahead with acquiring three oil tanks after talks with India in line with a cabinet decision. “The Cabinet decision was based on a national requirement and we have informed Indian Oil Company (IOC) of this decision in writing. We do not want a dispute with a neighbouring country but a company has no right to interfere with a Cabinet decision,” he said as reported by The Sunday Times.