RW-SLPP ‘honeymoon’ hit by Hobson’s choice as Indo-China clash over Chinese ‘spy’ vessel

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  • China’s missile tracking, satellite controlling Yuan Wang 5 vessel to Hambantota
  • Tensions rise over vessel with India raising objections with Govt.; China undeterred
  • Finance Ministry launches discussions with China’s EXIM Bank on debt restructuring
  • Clifford Chance seeks 30-day extension from US Court on Hamilton Reserve Bank case
  • Cabinet to discuss and decide on new 22A draft bill tomorrow; return to 19A Plus
  • Parliament prorogued; COPE probe on economic crisis and former officials postponed
  • RW allays fears of SLPP MPs on security situation, says all necessary orders given
  • SLPP MPs question previous failure of defence establishment; no orders earlier: Def. Sec.
  • SLPP faces another split led by GL and Dullas; Basil draws plan to restructure SLPP
  • Basil takes over Dhammika’s resignation, asks Dhammika to occupy seat for a while
  • SJB in two minds over joining all-party govt.; MPs split as some push for all-party move
  • SLFP convinces Maithripala to lead formation of all-party govt., meets President

 

The United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) are currently in a ‘honeymoon’ phase, with the UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe occupying the office of Executive President and SLPP MP Dinesh Gunawardena being appointed Prime Minister. However, the path to political stability and economic recovery for this ‘new’ couple is a rocky path full of potholes, creating doubts over the duration of this new match.  

In addition to issues of political and economic stability, the UNP-SLPP Government is faced with another make-or-break crisis – a geopolitical clash between India and China over a Chinese vessel with satellite control and missile tracking capabilities scheduled to call at the Hambantota Port on 11 August.

Given the crisis Sri Lanka is currently facing, the Government is in no position to choose either side between India and China. 

India has provided nearly $ 4 billion in financial assistance to Sri Lanka to tide the country through its crisis so far this year, the single largest assistance provided by India to another country, and discussions are also ongoing to secure a fresh $ 500 million credit line for fuel purchases.

China meanwhile accounts for 10% of Sri Lanka’s debt and has also provided assistance to Sri Lanka amidst the crisis, albeit not at the level that India has provided the first few months this year. However, China plays a key role in Sri Lanka securing its requested financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since the Fund has directed the Sri Lankan authorities to first secure the green light from China in terms of restructuring its debt. After months of negotiations, the Chinese Government recently agreed to discuss the possibility of restructuring its debt while the Sri Lankan Government had also sought fresh financial assistance, including a credit line for the industrial sector.

Now, it is a case of Hobson’s choice for Sri Lanka and the actions of the Wickremesinghe Government will in fact decide not only the fate of the Government, but also that of the nation. The last time a government faced a similar situation was in 2014 during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure, and the entire country witnessed the outcome of the then Rajapaksa Government’s decision.

To make matters worse, medical experts last week warned of an uptick in the number of Covid-19 cases in the country, noting that the Omicron BA.5 subvariant was the most contagious and most immune-evasive coronavirus strain that had been identified since the pandemic gripped the world in 2020. It would be nothing short of an apocalypse if the country is faced with a resurgence of the pandemic amidst one of its worst economic crises.

Nevertheless, the Wickremesinghe Government has given priority to the imposition of Emergency Regulations in the country and cracking down on members of the Aragalaya movement. There were reports of many arrests of Aragalaya leaders carried out by law enforcement officers throughout last week. Despite concerns raised by the international community on the manner in which the crackdown has been enforced, the Government has maintained that action was being taken against those who had violated the law and engaged in violence during the protests carried out during the past few weeks.

Therefore, Parliament met on Wednesday (27) after electing President Wickremesinghe at the previous session on 20 July. Although Wickremesinghe had earlier announced that Parliament would be prorogued for a 24-hour period for a fresh start, it is learnt that he had deferred his decision since the Emergency Regulations that were in place would lapse without Parliament approval. 

However, the vote on Emergency Regulations in Parliament generated much interest following the statement made by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake that it would reveal the secret behind the number of MPs who had voted for Wickremesinghe at the presidential election in the House. “The vote on Emergency Regulations is not a secret vote and the Opposition members who voted for Ranil due to the secret ballot will not be able to do so on Wednesday,” he said.

Meanwhile, the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) in writing informed its parliamentary group to attend the party’s parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday (26) and that attendance in Parliament on Wednesday was compulsory. Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella issued the letters to the SJB MPs, noting that they all needed to be present in the House on Wednesday to vote against the Emergency Regulations imposed by the Government as a method to suppress dissent.

A group of senior SJBers, it is learnt, is closely monitoring the actions of the party’s parliamentarians in order to identify the party members believed to have voted for Wickremesinghe in Parliament. 

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) parliamentary group was also determined to hold on to its parliamentary majority by ensuring that the Emergency Regulations received parliamentary approval. Following the passage of Emergency Regulations in Parliament, the President prorogued the House till Wednesday (3 August). The prorogation has resulted in all matters in the parliamentary Order Book, including the proposed 22nd Amendment to the Constitution and all parliamentary committees, being terminated.

It is learnt that the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) had scheduled daily sittings for the next two weeks to probe the cause for the ongoing economic crisis in the country, with former President’s Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, former Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle, and former Governors of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) Prof. W.D. Lakshman and Ajith Nivard Cabraal, as well as members of the Monetary Board being informed of the planned meetings. However, the prorogation of Parliament has now shelved this probe, at least for the time being. This was further confirmed by former COPE Chairman MP Prof. Charitha Herath in a Twitter post, where he had further noted that the plan would now have to be rescheduled after appointing new COPE members.

Negotiating with China

With the IMF calling on Sri Lanka to kick off its debt restructuring talks with bilateral lender China and the Chinese Government also expressing willingness to discuss a restructuring programme, officials from the Ministry of Finance have opened a dialogue with officials from China’s EXIM Bank last week over the possibility of restructuring existing loans.

Previously, during his tenure as Prime Minister, President Wickremesinghe’s office had obtained the approval of the Chinese to begin initial discussions with their EXIM Bank officials regarding debt restructuring. However, back then the talks were delayed due to hesitancy on the part of the Finance Ministry officials, who claimed that the negotiations should be handled by the international financial and legal advisors appointed by the Sri Lankan Government for debt negotiations.

According to sources within the Finance Ministry, the then Prime Minister’s office had been informed that since independent debt restructuring specialists had been hired, it would be counterproductive for the Ministry to separately engage in talks with China. However, it is learnt that the then Prime Minister has instructed his officials to first open a line of communication between the Sri Lankan Government and China’s EXIM Bank and that once the Chinese were agreeable to commence negotiations, debt restructuring specialists would take over and focus on the technical matters.

The Chinese Government was earlier not pleased with Sri Lanka’s decision to seek IMF assistance and to restructure debt. However, following several rounds of discussions, the Chinese Government has agreed to assist Sri Lanka in its economic recovery programme. 

Meanwhile, Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong during a meeting with Prime Minister Gunawardena last week has expressed China’s support to Sri Lanka at the IMF Board of Directors’ meeting. The envoy had noted that China expected Sri Lanka’s discussions with the IMF would be successful. Zhenhong had further noted that since China was also a member of the IMF, necessary support would be provided to Sri Lanka at the meeting of the IMF Board of Directors. 

US-China clash on SL

However, the US last week made critical comments of Chinese assistance to Sri Lanka when the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power last Wednesday (27) claimed that “opaque” loans for “headline-grabbing” infrastructure projects were among the factors behind the current crisis which had engulfed Sri Lanka. She made this observation while delivering a speech at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi.

Power praised India’s “swift” action in response to the emergency in Sri Lanka and argued that India’s strength, especially in the field of tackling food security threats, had been nurtured over the past seven decades in partnership with the US.

“Indeed, over the past two decades, China became one of Sri Lanka’s biggest creditors, offering often opaque loan deals at higher interest rates than other lenders and financing a raft of headline-grabbing infrastructure projects with often questionable practical use for Sri Lankans,” Power noted.

China, she pointed out, had not answered calls for greater relief to Sri Lanka, and said the “biggest question of all is whether Beijing will restructure debt to the same extent as other bilateral creditors”.

However, the Chinese Government responded to Power’s statement by stating that it had “boosted” Sri Lanka’s economic development, defending its massive infrastructure ventures and investments in the crisis-hit nation.

Speaking at a media briefing in Beijing on Thursday (28) – the day after Power made her statement – Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “The China-Sri Lanka practical cooperation has always been led by Sri Lanka with scientific planning and thorough verification with no strings attached.”

“Chinese projects have boosted Sri Lanka’s economic development and brought tangible benefits to the Sri Lankan people,” he said.

Zhao further noted: “There are multiple components to Sri Lanka’s foreign debt, where China-related debts take far less share than the international capital market and multilateral development banks.”

“Besides, what China provides for Sri Lanka are almost preferential loans with low-interest rates and long terms, which have played a positive part in improving Sri Lanka’s infrastructure and livelihood,” he added.

Chinese vessel controversy

Meanwhile, tension continued to rise between India and China over the Chinese vessel that is expected to dock at the Hambantota Port –the  Yuan Wang 5 research vessel with satellite control and missile tracking capabilities – on 11 August. 

The Chinese had requested the Sri Lankan Government under former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to allow the ship to dock at the port for replenishment of supplies. Approval for the vessel to dock was granted at the time. Despite the Government now maintaining that permission to dock the vessel was granted prior to President Wickremesinghe’s ascension to office, neither the Indian Government nor the Chinese Government have shown interest in the Government’s explanation.

It is learnt that the Indian Government has verbally expressed its displeasure over permission being granted for a high-powered Chinese vessel to call at a Sri Lankan port with the ability to engage in surveillance, thereby causing a threat to Indian security. The Chinese meanwhile have maintained that the Chinese vessel will call at the Hambantota Port as planned and would carry out its documented work and leave without any interference.

It is reliably learnt that the Wickremesinghe Government at present is on overdrive trying to defuse the tension, but is unable to resolve the issue in an impartial manner.

The Indian message is on the lines of “Don’t let the Chinese vessel into a Sri Lankan Port. India has stood by Sri Lanka in times of crisis and is continuing to do so. Remember the last time a Chinese vessel called in a Sri Lankan port?”

 The Chinese message is: “We informed and requested permission and we were granted permission. Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation and not a colony of another country. China has assisted Sri Lanka and will support it at the IMF also.”

Even yesterday (30) the Sri Lankan Government held several rounds of discussions to look at the best way to resolve the brewing crisis without straining relations with either India or China.

The Chinese vessel is due to dock on 11 August, two days after the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises are completed. The RIMPAC exercises also include the Indian Navy. Meanwhile, in June, the Indian armed forces tested two separate nuclear-capable missiles, the Agni 4 ballistic missile, and the Prithvi-II surface-to-surface missile.

New Delhi on Thursday (28) expressed concerns over the Chinese vessel’s visit to Colombo when the Indian Foreign Ministry Spokesman informed a weekly press briefing that the Indian Government was monitoring the planned visit of the Chinese ship, adding that New Delhi would protect its security and economic interests.

According to Reuters, Sri Lankan consulting firm the Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka has stated on its website that the Yuan Wang 5 would be in Hambantota for a week and would “conduct space tracking, satellite control, and research tracking in the north-western part of the Indian Ocean region through August and September”.

The last time tensions grew high between Indian and China over vessels calling at Colombo was in November 2014 when Submarine Changzheng-2 and warship Chang Xing Dao arrived at the Colombo Port on 31 October 2014. Both the submarine and warship were in Colombo for a period of five days. A month-and-a-half prior to these vessels, another Chinese submarine had also called at the same port.

Despite claims by the Sri Lankan authorities that the visits were routine and were part of goodwill visits, the Indian authorities did not accept Colombo’s explanation.

The 2014 visits of two Chinese submarines and a warship to the Colombo Harbour strained relations between Sri Lanka and India, while it is also believed that this situation eventually had an impact on India distancing itself from the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, eventually resulting in a regime change in 2015.

Seeking an extension

Meanwhile, legal advisor for Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring programme Clifford Chance has sought a 30-day extension of the pretrial conference on the case filed against Sri Lanka by Hamilton Reserve Bank in a letter dated 26 July 2022.

The legal advisors have noted that, given that a 60-day period is usually granted for a foreign state to respond, the 30-day extension being sought would give Sri Lanka time till 21 September 2022 to respond to the Complaint. 

The letter by Clifford Chance addressed to US District Judge Denise L. Cote states: “…a 30-day extension of time to respond to the Complaint in this matter; and (2) a comparable adjournment of the Initial Pretrial Conference scheduled for 26 August 2022.”

The letter has noted the latest political developments in the country as well. “As the press has reported, the ongoing political and economic situation in Sri Lanka has intensified in recent weeks, including changes at the highest levels of Government. The former President resigned on or about 14 July 2022, and the new and current President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was elected on 20 July 2022. Over the past week, a new Prime Minister has been appointed and there have continued to be changes in the Cabinet.”

“With the leadership changes, combined with the national focus on the current political crisis, it has not yet been reasonably possible for Sri Lanka to determine its position in this litigation or to adequately discuss the case with counsel. A 30-day extension of time in these proceedings would give new leadership sufficient time to consider the Complaint, to fully consult with counsel about the case, and to more meaningfully participate in an initial pretrial conference,” the letter also notes.

The letter then goes on to state, “Therefore, Sri Lanka requests a 30-extension of time to respond to the Complaint. Assuming service on 23 June 2022, Sri Lanka’s responsive pleading is currently due 22 August  2022. See 28 U.S.C. 1608(d) (providing 60 days for foreign states to serve responsive pleading). With the requested extension, Sri Lanka’s deadline to respond to the Complaint would be 21 September 2022.”

Clifford Chance has also noted: “Sri Lanka also requests an adjournment of the Initial Pretrial Conference currently scheduled for 26 August 2022. We propose adjourning that conference approximately 30 days, to a date and time convenient for the Court,” adding, “This is Sri Lanka’s first request for the relief requested herein. Plaintiff does not oppose the requested extension.”

Worsening crisis

Amidst the country’s ongoing turmoil and the latest geopolitical clashes, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis continues to worsen. 

The shortages of essentials – including fuel – continue, with the Government still unable to provide a solution to address the queues due to the lack of funds to ensure a smooth supply chain.

It is in such a backdrop that the Department of Census and Statistics last Friday announced that Year-on-Year inflation based on the Colombo Consumer Price Index (CCPI) was 60.8% in July, with food inflation being recorded at 90.9% and transport at 143.6% for the same month.

Making matters worse, the World Bank last week stated that until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework was in place, it did not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka. Issuing a statement on Sri Lanka, the World Bank Group said it was deeply concerned about the dire economic situation and its impact on the people of Sri Lanka.

The World Bank said it was repurposing resources under existing loans in its portfolio to help alleviate severe shortages of essential items such as medicines, cooking gas, fertiliser, meals for school children, and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable households. 

“To date, about $ 160 million of these funds has been disbursed to meet urgent needs. In addition, other ongoing projects continue to support basic services, the delivery of medicine and medical supplies, school meals, and tuition waivers.

“We are working closely with implementing agencies to establish robust controls and fiduciary oversight to ensure these resources reach the poorest and most vulnerable. We will continue to monitor this closely. We are also coordinating closely with other development partners to maximise the impact of our support for the people of Sri Lanka.”

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is likely to face yet another issue in its debt obligations, this time with Bangladesh, with the Bangladeshi Government approaching the IMF for assistance as the country’s foreign reserves had dropped below $ 40 billion in July. Bangladeshi news reports stated that its foreign reserves fell to $ 39.67 billion as of 20 July – sufficient for just over five months’ worth of imports – from $ 45.5 billion a year earlier. 

In May this year, Bangladesh extended the tenure of a $ 200 million bilateral currency swap with Sri Lanka by a year due to the country’s foreign reserves crisis. However, it is unlikely that Sri Lanka will get any further extensions given that Bangladesh has now sought an IMF aid package as well.

Bangladesh is now the third South Asian country after Pakistan and Sri Lanka to seek IMF assistance.

Moving 19A Plus

Amidst the worsening economic crisis, the Wickremesinghe Government has decided to proceed with the proposed constitutional amendments in a bid to address the issue of political reforms.

However, the proposed 22nd Amendment to the Constitution that was presented to Parliament by Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has now been terminated with the prorogation of the House. It is learnt that the Government has decided to do away with the draft 22nd Amendment presented to Parliament during President Rajapaksa’s tenure as his ouster from office has paved the way for the re-implementation of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

At the time of finalising the draft of the proposed 22nd Amendment to be presented by the Government, then President Rajapaksa expressed reservations on transferring certain powers vested with him to the Prime Minister, claiming that he had the mandate to serve as the Executive President. Rajapaksa called for several provisos to be included in the draft amendment, ensuring that certain changes to the President’s powers would only be enacted after the term of the current Parliament came to an end. 

However, the Government is to now remove these provisos and re-introduce the 19th Amendment by completely repealing the 20th Amendment. It is also learnt that President Wickremesinghe and Minister Rajapakshe have discussed the possibility of going beyond the 19th Amendment. Rajapakshe has already sent the new draft of the 22nd Amendment to the Cabinet Secretary to include it in the agenda of the Cabinet meeting on Monday (1 August).

The new draft 22nd Amendment will consist of all the features of the 19th Amendment, inclusive of a few more clauses that would provide more powers to Parliament. The proposed new Bill was sent for the observations of the Attorney General and Legal Draftsman last week.

Once the Cabinet discusses and grants approval for the draft Bill on Monday, it will be gazetted and seven days after the gazette, the new 22nd Amendment Bill will be presented to Parliament.

RW leads SLPP group

The SLPP parliamentary group meeting was last week chaired by Wickremesinghe, who is the Leader of the United National Party (UNP), in his capacity as the Head of State and Government. Although the meeting was co-chaired by Prime Minister Gunawardena, it was indeed an uncomfortable moment for some of the hardcore SLPP members to see their nemesis, Wickremesinghe, providing leadership. 

Certain SLPP members have been vociferous critics of Wickremesinghe, with some of them even having demanded Wickremesinghe’s arrest over his alleged involvement in the controversial Central Bank Treasury bond saga in 2015 and 2016. 

However, Wickremesinghe and Gunawardena decided that the complete SLPP parliamentary group should be asked to attend Tuesday’s meetings. Letters were sent to all MPs who had entered Parliament through the SLPP ticket in 2020, including the SLFPers and members of the group of 10 (G-10) SLPP alliance partners. The meeting was scheduled for 3 p.m. at the Finance Ministry auditorium on Tuesday (26).

However, the G-10 leaders decided not to attend the meeting since they are now part of the Opposition. A G-10 leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara said that he had received a telephone call from a lady inviting him for the SLPP group meeting. “I did not reply to the caller since she was just a messenger, but decided to make a public statement saying we will not be attending the Government group meeting since we are in the Opposition,” he told the media.

However, when the parliamentary group finally got underway last Tuesday, Wickremesinghe, Gunawardena, and former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over the meeting. Around 98 Government members had attended the meeting, including MPs Namal and Shasheendra Rajapaksa.

Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne and the Head of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) had also attended the meeting.

The main focus of the meeting had been the latest developments in the country in relation to public security and maintaining law and order.

At the outset of the meeting, Wickremesinghe had explained to the SLPP MPs the security situation in the country and that necessary directives had been given to the armed forces and law enforcement authorities to ensure that the law and order situation in the country was maintained.

The President had noted that it was important that the Emergency Regulations were passed in Parliament the following day – Wednesday – in order to ensure there would not be any form of violence such as on 9 May.

The Defence Secretary had also been asked to address the gathering, and he had explained that the security situation was now under control. The defence and intelligence briefing to the MPs had noted that there were more forces at play under the guise of the Galle Face Aragalaya movement.

Several backbench SLPP MPs had then questioned Gunaratne as to why the security situation was not addressed earlier until violence had reached a peak. MP Madhura Vithanage had said: “Were you not the Defence Secretary during the former President’s tenure? How did you manage to control the Aragalaya now after failing to do so earlier?” The Defence Secretary had responded saying that the defence establishment had not received the relevant orders at the time and that now the required directives had been issued.

MP Mohan Silva had also questioned the Defence Secretary about the failures during the 9 May mayhem, when the houses of many MPs were burnt. Gunaratne had said that he had issued stern directives at the time and had even issued orders to shoot.

Another group of MPs had opined that the violence had been unleashed by the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) together with the JVP. However, Wickremesinghe had explained that the FSP and JVP would never join forces as they held different policies even in the leftist camp.

Towards the end of the meeting, MP Rohitha Abeygunawardena had pointed out that the 134 votes polled by Wickremesinghe during the presidential election in Parliament should be sustained. “Even when some of our group MPs were invited for today’s meeting, some have said they will not be attending the meeting because they are now independent in Parliament. Some others are also trying to announce their independence from the Government group. This cannot be allowed. We need to do something to ensure we hold 134 in Parliament,” the MP had said.

Wickremesinghe’s response to Abeygunawardena’s statement had surprised many: “I’m unable to ensure that since I’m just one MP from one party. The Pohottuwa (SLPP) is another party with its own leaders. I cannot issue directives to members of another political party. That needs to be done by the leaders of that respective party.”

SLPP faces another split

The SLPP, since the people’s protests commenced in April, has faced several splits. The first was when 10 alliance partners of the SLPP decided to sit independently in Parliament. Afterwards, a group of SLPP MPs also announced their decision to sit independently in Parliament.

The latest split is headed by SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris and MP Dullas Alahapperuma. The decision to sit independently was made when Alahapperuma decided to contest for the presidency in Parliament as the SLPP candidate when a group of party seniors, including its General Secretary, announced its support for Wickremesinghe.

However, Peiris and Alahapperuma – together with a group of SLPP MPs – decided to become independent and vote against the Emergency Regulations when the SLPP announced it would vote in favour of the regulations.  

Peiris, together with Alahapperuma, addressed a joint press conference on Thursday attended by MPs Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, Prof. Channa Jayasumana, Dilan Perera, Wasantha Yapabandara, Udayana Kirindigoda, Lalith Ellawala, K.P.S. Kumarasiri, Dr. Upul Galappaththi, and Dr. Thilak Rajapakshe. 

“The Emergency law in this current environment completely goes against the core principles of the SLPP. The serious consequences of this will be that the Fundamental Rights (FR) of the citizens will be seriously harmed. Human rights are protected by the law, but those are overruled by the Emergency Regulations,” Prof. Peiris said at a media briefing. 

“As the Chairman of the SLPP and a legal academic, I cannot justify the Emergency today in any way. That is why I cast my vote against it yesterday in Parliament,” Prof. Peiris added. 

Parliament debated the proclamation of Emergency on Wednesday (27) and it was passed with 120 votes in favour, while 63 Members voted against it. 

Alahapperuma told the media that MPs who supported his candidature at the presidential election in Parliament on 20 July had agreed to vote against the Emergency. However, it is interesting to note that 41 MPs had not participated in Wednesday’s vote.

Meanwhile, it is learnt that SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa is currently mapping out the party’s next course of action. It is learnt that Basil is focused on reforming the SLPP and strategising in order to prepare the party to face a General Election by next March.

In order to strengthen the SLPP’s grip on the party’s parliamentary group, Basil has moved to ensure that his loyalists are appointed as Assistant Government Whips in the House. Accordingly, MPs Jayantha Ketagoda, Tissa Kuttiarachchi, Kokila Gunawardena, and Madhura Vithanage were given appointments.

Meanwhile, Basil has also assigned several party members to lead discussions with some of the SLPP MPs who are now seated independently in Parliament as well as some others who are contemplating becoming independent.

Basil’s directive to his representatives is to personally meet with these independent SLPP MPs and first find out their concerns as well as issues with the party in order to meet with them during a second round with the party’s response.

The fact that Basil continues to hold the SLPP’s power was evident given the manner in which he handled MP Dhammika Perera’s earlier planned resignation. 

It is learnt that Perera had expressed his desire to resign from his parliamentary seat to former President Rajapaksa prior to his resignation. However, after hearing about Perera’s decision, Basil had spoken to him and explained that the party would not accept the resignation at this moment and for Perera to remain in his parliamentary seat.

SJB’s all-party conundrum

The SJB is faced with the conundrum of whether the party should accept the invitation extended by President Wickremesinghe and join in the formation of an all-party government or extend support to the Government from the outside.

However, the SJB alliance is facing a split with at least one of its coalition partners, the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), deciding to consider the possibility of joining Wickremesinghe’s Government. It is learnt that TPA member and SJB MP P. Digambaram has already told several Opposition parliamentarians that Wickremesinghe should be given some time to address the multiple crises faced by the country and that the TPA was looking at extending their support by joining the Wickremesinghe Government.

Digambaram’s comments have come in the backdrop of Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa stating that the SJB would support the Government without joining it and accepting portfolios. “We are prepared to play a role in the Government through committees, but do not intend to accept ministerial portfolios,” Premadasa told a group of trade unionists he met last weekend.

However, pressure continues to mount on Premadasa, with several MPs in the party noting that the SJB has to play a more active role in the Government to address the crisis.

Premadasa on 23 July held a meeting via Zoom with the party’s electoral organisers and explained to them the reason behind the SJB’s decision to support Alahapperuma at the presidential election in Parliament and the way forward. A group of SJB organisers had noted that the SJB should have still fielded its own candidate. However, they had noted that since the event was now over, the party needed to look at the way forward.

Premadasa had then informed them of Wickremesinghe’s invitation to all parties to join the Government and form an all-party mechanism. The organisers had noted that it was best for the SJB to take some time before making a decision in order to get a clear idea on the policies of the Wickremesinghe Government.

The matter of the all-party national government was raised at the SJB Working Committee meeting during the past week. During the meeting, several seniors – including MPs Kabir Hashim, Eran Wickramaratne, and Dr. Harsha de Silva – had all spoken in favour of an all-party government in order to assist the country’s economic recovery. They had presented the argument that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been removed from power, the initial demand of the Aragalaya.

Several other SJB MPs had expressed the view that with a new President in power who was not a SLPP member, the SJB should support the Government and take a proactive role in recovery efforts. 

However, MPs Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Chaminda Wijesiri, Dr. Kavinda Jayawardana, and Kins Nelson had objected to the proposal, stating that the people were against the Government led by Wickremesinghe as well and that the SJB would only give legitimacy to the new President if they were to join him.

SLFP says ready

Meanwhile, several other Opposition parties had expressed concerns over joining the Government following the clash between the military and protesters at Galle Face on 22 July when the Presidential Secretariat that was occupied by some protesters was cleared. 

The SLFP meanwhile also started internal discussions on whether the party should join an all-party government led by Wickremesinghe. A group of SLFP MPs had opined that the party had continuously called for the appointment of an all-party government, and when such a mechanism was in the making, – with the President inviting all parties in Parliament – the SLFP could not turn away.

The SLFP leadership had remained non-committal on the matter so far, by reiterating that the party could extend its support to the Government without joining and accepting portfolios.

However, pressure continues to mount on the SLFP leadership to join the government.

A group of SLFP MPs met with Party Leader Maithripala Sirisena on Wednesday (27) and explained that the party needed to take a stand and take the lead in forming an all-party government. Sirisena had finally agreed and then called Wickremesinghe to set up a meeting to discuss an all-party government with the SLFP. The President had immediately granted an appointment for the following day (Thursday) since Sirisena had to travel overseas from Thursday evening till 3 August. 

The SLFPers had presented a nine-point proposal to Wickremesinghe during Thursday’s meeting.
Among the proposals set out, the SLFP had suggested the establishment of a Crisis Management Cabinet and the inclusion of all Members of Parliament in the attached committees for ministries, as well as the appointment of an Advisory Committee consisting of experts and intellectuals for each ministry. In a release, the party said it also presented its stance about the structure and responsibilities of the National Assembly to be established in the Parliament.

It is in such a backdrop that Wickremesinghe decided to initiate discussions with all parliamentarians to discuss the formation of an all-party government. A letter to this effect was issued by the President on Friday (29). The letter noted that the Government was currently engaged in great efforts to gradually restore normalcy in the face of the political and social unrest created with the economic crisis that the country is facing today.

“It is my opinion, however, that a programme needs to be implemented with the participation of all political parties represented in Parliament, expert groups, civil society organisations, and all related parties in order to successfully overcome the challenges before us,” the letter to the MPs noted.

“It is also the intention of the people at this moment that their representatives in Parliament will act to find solutions to the economic and social crises in the country through a common programme,” it added, concluding: “Accordingly, I propose to initiate a broad dialogue to discuss next steps, including the reintroduction of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and the Parliamentary Oversight Committee System to fulfil this national responsibility, and wish to accordingly request to convey your or your party’s concurrence to me as early as possible.”

Wimal’s letter to RW

In what seems like an olive branch to President Wickremesinghe from one of his main critics, Wimal Weerawansa, the latter sent a 12-point letter to the President on key areas to address when rebuilding the country.

Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF) is a key party in the G-10, and had made several interventions calling for the appointment of an all-party government even during the tenure of President Rajapaksa.

However, with Wickremesinghe extending a call for all Opposition parties to join the Government to resolve the ongoing crises, Weerawansa’s party was one of the first in the dissident SLPP alliance partners to officially send a letter to President Wickremesinghe with proposals to address the crisis. 

As part of the immediate actions to be taken to address urgent economic needs, Weerawansa has proposed that incentive schemes be introduced to push Sri Lankan migrant workers to send their foreign earnings through official financial modes, and for the Sri Lankan Government to immediately develop diplomatic ties with Russia in order to secure the required agreements for purchasing crude oil stocks at cheaper rates. 

He has further noted that in order to increase the capacity of refining crude oil in the country once procurement agreements were reached with Russia, the Government of Sri Lanka could tender for the upgrading of the existing refinery or to develop a new refinery to be carried out as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) project. It has also been proposed that price controls be introduced for essential commodities and a special monitoring mechanism be put in place with the ground level public officials.

The NFF Leader in the letter had reiterated the need to set up an all-party government to help the country through the current crisis. Among the key proposals presented in the letter was to appoint a cabinet of ministers representing all parties that is limited to a maximum of 30 members to implement the common minimum programme agreed by all parties. Weerawansa has proposed that this Cabinet function with minimum perks and on the salaries of MPs while meeting at least twice a week to ensure the smooth implementation of the programme.

He has proposed the setting up of task forces consisting of officials for special issues as part of multiparty consultations in implementing the common minimum programme, with representatives proposed by the citizens’ council serving as observers or monitors of this programme.

The appointment of MPs to parliamentary advisory committees for respective ministries to be carried out in a manner where the respective legislator is provided the liberty to choose the committee of their choice is another proposal among the 12 points. 

Gearing for 9 August

Meanwhile, the Aragalaya movement is engaged in a discussion on the next course of action to take against President Wickremesinghe. 

The Aragalaya leaders had discussed that since the ninth of every month from April has held a lot of significance for the Aragalaya movement, they should plan an event for 9 August demanding Wickremesinghe’s resignation. The leaders had decided that a plan should be drawn up on the protest activation and participation.

One of the key issues discussed had been the changing public perception on how the Aragayala movement should move forward. A civil society member at the meeting had pointed out that the protest campaign needed to go beyond demanding individuals in office to leave.

The civil activists, the leftist activists, and trade unionists engaged in the Aragalaya had also agreed that the movement now required some form of political backing due to the possibility of facing more attacks by the Government and forces. It was therefore unanimously agreed that the movement should meet with the main political parties and request their support to stand against the possible acts of suppression by the Government.

The movement was earlier of the stance that none of the main political parties would be allowed to join the protest campaign. Nevertheless, members of the FSP and the JVP have since managed to enter the movement through the university wing, youth organisations, and trade unions.

Meanwhile, SJB Chairman MP Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka on Wednesday during his speech in Parliament claimed that the SJB would participate in a mass protest together with the Aragalaya youth on 9 August to oust the corrupt politicians – including the current Government leaders – in what he called a final battle in order to set up a new administration comprising non-corrupt MPs from all political parties in the House.

However, the SJB immediately distanced itself from Fonseka’s statement, with SJB MP Mujibur Rahman stating at a press conference last week that the party had not made any official decision to participate in any protest on 9 August, adding that the media should direct any such questions to Field Marshal Fonseka.

On the other hand, members of the Aragalaya movement also slammed Fonseka for making such a statement in Parliament. They claimed that the actions of the people’s protests had been misunderstood by Fonseka.

Meeting the parties

Meanwhile, one of the first meetings of the Aragalaya leaders was held with the SLFP. The meeting was attended by senior SLFP members including Party Leader Maithripala Sirisena.

During the discussion, the Aragalaya members had sought the SLFP’s support to face the Government’s suppression. The SLFP members had agreed to support the Aragalaya movement, stating that the party did not condone the use of force against the protesters.

The programme being planned for 9 August was also taken up at the discussion. After listening to the plan, several SLFP seniors had questioned the Aragalaya leaders as to whom they wanted to be appointed as President after Wickremesinghe. None of the Aragalaya members seemed to have thought that far and had instead said: “Let’s look at it at that time.”

However, the SLFP leaders had noted that such an important decision should not be kept for later since the country could not face anarchy amidst the worsening economic crisis. “You need to have a better plan and formulate a plan to build the system change that we are all talking about. If you want to chase away another President, then you need to have an alternative leader to take over after that. Otherwise the country will be pushed into anarchy and chaos. That will not bode well for anyone,” SLFP MP Duminda Dissanayake had explained.

He had noted that the main Aragalaya should be to bring about a system change by preparing a new structure that would address the ongoing issues.

The meeting between the Aragalaya and SLFP leaders had concluded with both parties agreeing to support the other and the Aragalaya members agreeing to the need to form a proper framework that represented the system change being called for by the public.

Members of the Aragalaya afterwards met with the SJB and the JVP at their respective offices and sought the support of the political parties to face moves of suppression by the authorities against the protesters.

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