By Gagani Weerakoon
President Maithripala Srisena arrived at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Thursday (15) afternoon kicking-off his three-day State visit to Malaysia.
Upon being warmly received on arrival by Malaysian Human Resource Development Minister Dato Sri Richard Riot Anak Jaem and senior officials in the presence of the staff members of the Sri Lanka High Commission, President Sirisena was received with State honours that included a guard of honour at the Airport.
During his visit, the President signed several bilateral Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with the Government of Malaysia.
These included, MoUs on cooperation in tourism, training, research, and public administration, between the Sri Lanka Agricultural Research Policy Council and Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute, between the Ministry of Plantation Industries in Sri Lanka and the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities in Malaysia, and for cooperation in culture, arts and heritage and youth development.
On the same day, a special Food & Culture Festival to mark the 60th anniversary of Sri Lanka – Malaysia Diplomatic relations was also held in Kuala Lumpur.
President Sirisena participated in this event as a Special Guest and the Malaysian Minister of Human Resources, Dato Anak Jaem warmly welcomed the President at the venue.
This Food & Culture Festival was organized to promote food between the two countries and comprised of delicious cuisines of Sri Lanka by Lankan chefs including Master Chef Pubilis Silva.
When the President met Malaysian Prime Minister Abdul Razak he expressed his country’s willingness to explore new investment opportunities in Sri Lanka.
A colourful ceremony was organized at the premises of the Prime Minister’s Office to welcome the President and was given a Guard of Honour by the Armed Forces.
After a warm welcome by the Malaysian Prime Minister, the President was taken to the Prime Minister’s Office on the red carpet. Both sides of that route were also decorated with the national flags of both countries sinifying the longstanding friendship between Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
Later, both leaders held bilateral discussions. Five agreements were signed between the two leaders, covering areas such as foreign employment, youth development, tourism, culture and agriculture.
Expressing his views the President said that his prime expectations are to build reconciliation in the country and to create a stable and economically developed Sri Lanka.
He further said, the government is committed to strengthen the reconciliation process in the country and that the government is taking the assistance of friendly countries in the world to ensure stable economic development.
He also said, the new agreements signed will pave the way to create new relations between the two countries in the fields of tourism, education, foreign employment and agriculture. The President also suggested to the Malaysian Prime Minister to introduce a new scheme to expand the educational opportunities to Sri Lankan students to study in Malaysia.
The President recalled his previous visit to Malaysia some nine years ago as the Minister of Agriculture and said that during that tour the progress made by Malaysia in the field of Agriculture was witnessed with his own eyes, thus his government expects the technical assistance of Malaysia to develop the Sri Lankan agricultural industry.
The Malaysian Prime Minister stated that the programme for coexistence and reconciliation in Sri Lanka has drawn the attention of the entire world. “It is the objective of Malaysia to enhance the investment and trade opportunities in every sector in Sri Lanka”, he said. He also stated that Malaysia is always ready to assist the investments in the education sector in Sri Lanka.
The Prime Minister pointed out that Malaysia has more opportunities for technical training, thus, Malaysia is ready to help Sri Lanka on the same field.
The two leaders also discussed about enhancing of tourism between the two countries.
The Malaysian Prime Minister thanked President Sirisena for visiting Malaysia by accepting his invitation.
President Sirisena, mentioning that this is a historic occasion as Malaysia made an official invitation to a Sri Lankan leader after 19 years, thanked the Government of Malaysia for its invitation.
The President further stated that Sri Lanka will celebrate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and Malaysia. He also invited the Malaysian Prime Minister to visit Sri Lanka.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera, Deputy Minister of Foreign Employment Manusha Nanayakkara, Deputy Minister of Cultural Affairs Palitha Thevarapperuma and the former Mayor of Colombo A. J. M. Muzammil also were part of the official delegation.
Adding colour to his State visit, King of Malaysia Sultan Muhammad warmly welcomed President Sirisena at his royal palace.
During the discussion, the Malaysian King praised the activities of the new Government of Sri Lanka. He also commended the manner in which the consensual government functions.
The Malaysian King further said that he had directed the Malaysian Government to give every required support to Sri Lanka. He offered the best wishes for the future activities of the Sri Lankan Government.
Before leaving, President Sirisena and his delegation in Malaysia, visited Brickfields Buddhist Temple in Malaysia yesterday (17) and sought the blessings of Chief Incumbent of the temple Ven. Kirinde Sri Dhammarathana Thera.
The Chief Incumbent and the Buddhist monks chanted Pirith and blessed the President.
The Brickfields Theravada Buddhist Temple has been established by the Sinhala Buddhist people who live in Kuala Lumpur. The current Chief Incumbent of the Temple Ven. Kirinde Dhammarathana Thera was offered the post of Chief Sangha Nayake of Malaysia.
At the temple, when the chief prelate inquired about the political situation in Sri Lanka and sought clarifications on certain issues, President Sirisena said that things are not as bad as they are projected in social media and some websites.
He explained that websites are carrying distorted facts and news, and assured that he will never let any step to be taken that would jeopardize national security.
The President also assured that he will not let any military camp be taken away or be shut down in any part of the country (North).
Maithri clears air
During his visit to Malaysia, a dinner was hosted by the incumbent High Commissioner Ibrahim Ansar for the delegation.
While going round the place, President Sirisena found a gem – a photo taken in 2009, at the residence of Ambassador Ansar with his family when the latter served as the Sri Lanka’s Head of mission in Egypt.
The President pointed the photograph where he was wearing a Nehru coat to everyone present and said: “Look at this! Every one said I was copying Modi, and this will prove that I was not.”
During his Presidential Election campaign, many mocked President Sirisena for wearing the Nehru coat over the national dress, saying it shows the Indian influence behind him and he was trying to be like Indian Premier Narendra Modi.
“This shows that Modi had nothing to do with my dress code and back in 2009, at least half of Sri Lanka did not know who Modi was,” he added.
From mayor to HC
Meanwhile, Colombo Mayor A.J.M. Muzammil being in the delegation was queried by journalists from a minister in the delegation and he confirmed that the Colombo Mayor would succeed incumbent High Commissioner in Malaysia, Ansar.
“In fact, this will be his familiarization visit to the country,” the minister confirmed.
High Commissioner Ibrahim Sahib Ansar, who is widely known as pro-Rajapaksa, was assaulted by a group of people at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on 4 September 2016.
Ibrahim was at KLIA to send off Sri Lankan Primary Industries Minister, Daya Gamage, who had attended the International Conference of Asian Political Parties, in Kuala Lumpur.
Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa had also attended the conference and his attendance drew protests and saw demonstrations held.
Interestingly, a group of about 20 persons, believed to be of Indian origin, held a demonstration on Friday in front of the hotel President Sirisena was staying too.
Navy Commander manhandling a provincial correspondent during a protest staged by a section of casual port workers on the International Human Rights Day ignited political arena as well as the field of journalism.
While, a huge public outcry was there against the conduct of the Navy Commander Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, the most decorated official in the Navy at present, an ill-timed statement on the incident issued by Director General of Government Information Department Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya caused all hell to break loose.
Journalists were appalled that the government was trying to find fault with their colleague and while not condemning the attack or the conduct of the Navy Commander.
In fact, this incident provided oxygen for many opponents including former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who said that the military will not act without orders from the Commander-in-Chief, in this case, President Sirisena.
Many, including Rajapaksa, viewed this as a deliberate move to taint the image of the Navy in the public eye.
While, President Sirisena remained silent on the issue, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe revealed that it was him – after discussing with President – who asked the Navy Commander to bring things under control.
He said this at Temple Trees, when Navy Commander Wijegunaratne met him to hand over the report on the Hambantota Port incident.
The Prime Minister, seeing journalists present at the event, sarcastically remarked, “Oh, so you are here! I thought you are holding a demonstration. Didn’t you all go?” The Premier was referring to countrywide protests held on the same day by journalists and civil rights organizations to condemn the behaviour of the Navy Commander.
Meanwhile, some parties also alleged that Navy Commander’s personal involvement in the incident was in view of a service extension. However, according to government sources, the President and the Prime Minister have decided not to give a service extension to Vice Admiral Wijeguneratne, who is to retire on 22 February 2017. Instead, he will be given another top post in the government, sources claimed.
Warning to China?
While workers were staging a sathyagraha and protest demanding they be recruited to the permanent cadre of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, the Joint Opposition and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) warned they will never let lands in Hambantota be given to China.
While the JVP openly challenged they will heat the country with protests and strikes against the move from January, former President Rajapaksa sent a red-light to the Chinese company saying that a future government under Rajapaksas would re-acquire anything given to the Chinese company in Hambanota.
Meanwhile, the government pointed a finger at Nil Balakaya led by MP Namal Rajapaksa for being behind the demonstrations and charged that this was an attempt to tarnish the image of the Hambantota Harbour and prevent any chance for it to be revived as a profit-making institution from being a white elephant.
The election dilemma
Meanwhile, the government is currently facing an increased demand to hold Local Government Elections. This is amidst a move to hold a referendum on the proposed new Constitution. However, it was evident that the faith of Sri Lanka Freedom Party ministers and the pro-Sirisena faction in the government on the Constitutional reform process is not so strong. With doubts on what the Constitution is actually going to be, many have started discussing the matter with President, and amongst themselves.
Meanwhile, Jathika Hele Urumaya General Secretary and Minister of Megapolis, Champika Ranawaka also voiced his party’s reservations about the referendum. “If we conduct a referendum at this moment, Chief Minister of Northern Province C. V. Wigneswaran could use it for his separatist political campaign as well as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his corrupt clan can use it to boost their bankrupt campaign,” he said.
Ranawaka said Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and President J. R. Jayewardene had introduced new Constitutions by using their majorities in Parliament without referenda.
However, with these developments and pressure building within the government and its one time supporters against its failure to combat corruption taking place under the current administration, it was learnt that former President Rajapaksa has informed his fellow members in the Joint Opposition of it. “At this rate, they will dig their own grave and now you take a rest and enjoy the season,” he had informed.
With several ministers complaining that the money allocated to their respective ministries from the Budget 2017 is inadequate, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake reiterated the need to set up a centralized unit under his ministry to review the overheads of different government ministries.
The minister pointed out that setting up the centralized unit under the Ministry of Finance is more pragmatic. Minister Karunanayake stated this during a meeting which was held last week with the participation of Secretaries of all government ministries at the Ministry of Finance. The discussion was centred on how to implement the proposals made by Budget 2017.
The Minister asked all Ministry Secretaries to collect allocations for proposed capital projects and start relevant projects immediately. He further said respective funds will be released with effect from 1 January 2017. Meanwhile, a report on the expenses of each Ministry should be submitted to the Cabinet after every three months and, instructions were given to Ministry Secretaries to take necessary steps to find the most suitable action to solve problems, if any.
Year 2017 has been identified as the entry point towards building a strong economy thereby eradicating poverty from this country. Therefore, the professional skills of public servants will be taken into serious consideration in this effort to make the government development scheme a success, Minister Karunanayake pointed out.
All ministries should maintain transparency when they implement respective development projects under the National Planning Policy. In the meantime, Finance Minister Karunanayake reiterated that additional funds will be granted under supplementary estimates for only disaster situations in 2017.
Ministry Secretaries including Secretary to the President P.B. Abeykoon, Defence Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi and Finance Ministry Secretary Dr. R.H.S. Samaratunga and Adviser to the Prime Minister R. Paskaralingam also participated in the discussion.