BY GAGANI WEERAKOON
Unblemished diplomatic relations maintained between Russia and Sri Lanka have reached a threatening juncture, allegedly, due to a beetle which was said to be found in one carton carrying famous Ceylon Tea. President Maithripala Sirisena is said to have contacted Russian President Vladimir Putin requesting to end the temporary ban on Sri Lanka’s tea imports. President Maithripala Sirisena addressing a public rally in Haputale announced his decision to write to President Putin, requesting him to end the temporary ban that resulted following the discovery of a beetle in a consignment of tea that had been imported from Sri Lanka. However, it was noted that the beetle is a pest of grain crops such as rice, and has never been associated with tea.
Minister of Plantations Naveen noted that the Government is taking every possible step to address and resolve this matter.
“This species is normally associated with grain and other similar agricultural products. So, this came as a surprise to many of us. The Ministry and the Tea Board believe that the beetle might have entered the packaging when the vessel that was transporting the tea docked at a foreign port.”
Ceylon Today also learns that several local authorities including the Sri Lanka Tea Board and the Foreign Affairs Ministry have also held discussions with the Russian Ambassador to Sri Lanka regarding the matter.
With this incident, it was highlighted the need to put transnational trade containers under stringent sanitation procedures before being refilled with new stocks. These measures, he said, are yet to be adopted by the authorities.
Meanwhile, there were quick plans to send a Sri Lankan delegation led by Plantation Industries Minister Naveen Dissanayake accompanied by officials from the Tea Research Institute and the Agriculture Ministry to visit Moscow in the coming week to negotiate with Russian authorities.
Russia is currently the biggest buyer of Ceylon Tea. For the first 10 months of this year alone, Russia purchased some 29.5 million kilograms of tea valued at US$ 23 million. This is about 12 per cent of the direct earnings made by the country from this market alone. Sri Lankan tea exports to Russia were 48 million kilograms in 2011 and since then the volumes fell to 36 million kilograms in 2015.
The Cabinet of Ministers who met for the week on Tuesday discussed the matter at length and decided to lift the planned ban on asbestos sheets to be imposed from the dawn of the New Year.
Russia’s ban on Sri Lankan tea exports is believed to have been triggered by Sri Lanka’s ban on Russian asbestos.
Plantation Industries Minister, Naveen Dissanayake addressing the weekly Cabinet media briefing admitted that unofficially they had come to know that the recent ban was due to the Government refusing to lift a ban on asbestos imports.
In 2015, President Sirisena issued a ban on asbestos imported into the country, citing health and environmental reasons. The ban initially was to take effect in government contracts and would come into effect from 1 January 2018, with it finally being phased out until 2024.
But with the recent ban imposed by Russia, on Ceylon Tea, Sri Lanka has chosen to back down on its stance on asbestos for the time being. Russia produces over half of the world’s asbestos supply and is the major exporter of the product into the country.
This is temporary; the Russians have sent us health certifications stating that their asbestos is not harmful.
So, we have to look at that, said Co-Cabinet Spokesperson, Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne at the media briefing.
Minister Susil Premajayantha together with a team from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research went to Russia to look into the reports of the safety of Russian asbestos.
Meanwhile, former Ambassador to Russia Udayanga Weeratunge said the ban imposed by Russia on Sri Lanka’s tea exports is not a development that took place abruptly. Rather it was brought to the Sri Lankan Government’s notice in July this year. However, the Sri Lankan Government had not taken any measures to address the issue with regard to Russian Customs discovering insects in Sri Lankan tea.
“Our exports to Russia didn’t require quarantine certificates. However, four labs at the Russian Customs analyze the agricultural goods that are imported, prior to releasing them. The incumbent Russian Ambassador to Sri Lanka is fluent in Sinhala and considers Sri Lanka his second home. The Government spends about Rs1.5 to 2 billion to maintain the Sri Lankan Embassy in Russia.
However, the Government didn’t utilize these resources to solve the tea related issue. In fact there is also a Sri Lanka Tea Board in Moscow which turned a blind eye to the quality of the tea exports. The ban is being imposed when the need for exports is high. This will adversely impact our economy,” he said.
Weeratunge went on to note that the tea containers, albeit owned by a Sri Lankan company, are registered with the Turkish Government. He added that this is not a coincidence. Elaborating further, he added that the insects were actually in cardboard cartons (used for tea packaging purposes) which had been in the same container. He added that the Russian media has broadcast about the latest development on Sri Lankan tea exports and Russian public opinion is not in favour of Sri Lankan tea.
“Due to this, the negative economic impact Sri Lanka would face is immeasurable. There are 83 containers held by Russian Customs. However, the Sri Lankan Embassy in Russia has not made any request to release these. The Government will have to pay Rs 41.5 million to release these containers,” he said.
Meanwhile, as if to make things worse reports were emerging to the effect that Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Moscow Saman Weerasinghe and his officials were boycotting the official event held to issue a first day cover to mark 60-years of diplomatic relationship between the two countries. The stamp carried the picture of Dambulla Temple and the stamp was priced at 35 Roubles. The event incidentally was held on the same day the Russia announced its ban on Ceylon Tea.
While there are so many speculations as the reason for Russia’s decision to ban Ceylon Tea, Prime Minister Ranil Wickrmesinghe has summoned Foreign Affairs Minister Tilak Marapana, Ministry Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam and another female official to Temple Trees on Tuesday. The summoning follows an alleged intervention made by the said female official to get a statement published in State newspapers contradicting a report which said a Russian who was accused of money laundering and out on bail has escaped with a Russian delegation who came to Sri Lanka recently. According to sources from Prime Minister’s office, the said communiqué was not an official business of the Ministry or was done in consultation with Minister Marapona.
Thirty-one Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) members including four former Parliamentarians had pledged their support to President Sirisena. However, they left the party several years ago when Kumar Gunaratnam broke away from JVP and formed Frontline Socialists Party.
Accordingly, four former JVP MPs, seven Provincial Councillors, two Pradeshiya Sabha members and 18 other JVPers met the President at his residence last night to pledge their support.
The four former MPs who pledged their support were Dimuthu Abeykoon, R. P. A. Ranaweera, S. K. Subasinghe and Anjaan Umma.
Several JVP members also obtained Sri Lanka Freedom Party membership which was personally handed over to them by the President.
Meanwhile, former United National Party Provincial Councillor Palitha Lihiniyakumara and two other members had also pledged their support to President Sirisena.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) responded saying that the Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP) had become so bankrupt as to take in some of the JVP members who were sacked from the party.
JVP MP Vijitha Herath said, President Maithripala Sirisena had misused public property by issuing statements on State letterheads with the State symbol for personal matters.
He said most of the JVP members who were said to have joined the SLFP had been sacked from the party and that they had already joined the SLFP, UNP or the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) recently.
“The SLFP should be ashamed to get such bankrupt and useless people to join the party and hold media shows. Most of them had already joined other parties. Anjan Ummah even contested the general election in 2015 under the UNP ticket. S.K. Subasinghe has been working with the President in the Presidential Task Force, R.P.A. Ranaweera is working with Duminda Dissanayake in the Paddy Marketing Board, Dimuthu Abeykoon is an Adviser to the Ministry of Highways and Anura Dissanayake is a coordinating secretary of Peshala Jayaratne,” Herath said.
He told a news conference that the President had issued a media release on a letterhead with the State symbol saying 31 JVP members had joined the SLFP and added that it was a serious offence to misuse public property for such things.
“He should have released a media statement under the letterhead of the SLFP not of the Presidential Secretariat.We intend to complain to the Elections Commission on this matter,” he said
Meanwhile, the Central Committee of the SLFP which met Friday evening had decided to entrust powers with Party Leader President Sirisena and General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake to take legal action against those who have submitted nominations from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna or any other group.
A senior SLFP Minister said legal action will also be taken on those who support or campaign for any other candidate from a different political party or a group apart from the SLFP or UPFA. However, several senior SLFPers have raised concerns whether to take such legal action before the Local Government election or after it concludes.