No-faith motion: Game changer or end of the game?

  • President directly enters fray by stripping PM of some of his key subjects
  • UNP frontliners insist Ranil must remain as premier;
  • committee to study party reforms after April 5

President Maithripala Sirisena appears to have joined the fray in his own way as the countdown for the vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is just three days away. He has virtually stripped Wickremesinghe of some powers he enjoyed as both, Prime Minister and National Policies and Economic Affairs Minister preventing him, from dealing with all key aspects of the economy.

It began at last Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting. The first item was the confirmation of the minutes of the previous meeting on March 20. On that day, contrary to our report last week, ministers had decided “(a) to abolish the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) and all Committees, Units and Procedures associated with it; and (b) to refer only the selected Cabinet Memoranda submitted to the Cabinet, which need further review, to a Cabinet Sub-Committee to be chaired by Hon. Prime Minister, to examine the same and submit a Report to the Cabinet, for consideration.”

Inadvertently, due to a mix up, the minutes of the March 20 meeting were quoted last week to say “Streamlining the Economic Management of Sri Lanka” was deferred for the next meeting, at the request of the Hon. Prime Minister.” However, at that meeting, it was decided to shut down the CCEM. The deferment had been sought ahead of Sirisena’s visit to India and Japan.

When the correct minutes on a memorandum submitted by President Sirisena were taken up for discussion, Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema was to make a strong appeal. He urged that two more weeks be given so that the matter could be studied and an arrangement for CCEM to function in some capacity was worked out. The remarks angered Sirisena.

“I am not going to put off a decision even by one day,” he declared and added that “you cannot run the economy from two places.” He said line ministers could now send their proposals to the Cabinet. In the past, some line ministers complained they were unaware of policy matters relating to their ministries coming before the CCEM. He said that voters at the February 10 local polls had delivered a strong message. Hence, such a measure was good both for his party and the Prime Minister’s party. The position Sirisena took up made it unequivocally clear that he was taking charge of managing the economy henceforth.

Though the ministers decided on March 20 to shut down the CCEM, that very afternoon the Committee met in Parliament under the chairmanship of Premier Wickremesinghe. It was pointed out that this was on the basis that the Cabinet decision was yet to be confirmed. In the hope that Minister Samarawickrema’s appeal would be accepted, another CCEM meeting was planned for last Tuesday but called off later. Many of Samarawickrema’s own proposals have been cleared by the CCEM in the past.

Similarly, the Official’s Committee of the CCEM was also scheduled to meet. This is what a message from the Prime Minister’s office said: “Officials Committee on Economic Management Meeting No. 119 – Agenda:

“Attached herewith please find the agenda for the above meeting, scheduled to be held on Thursday, 29th March 2018, 1530 hrs onwards at Prime Minister’s Office, No. 58, Sir Ernest de Silva Mawatha, Colombo 07, which will be chaired by Mr. R Paskaralingam, Advisor, Ministry of National Policies & Economic Affairs. You are kindly invited to be present at this meeting to discuss the matters mentioned in the agenda related to your institution.

If you are unable to attend, please be kind enough to nominate a suitable officer who has the capacity to make decisions, and inform/email (Please note that the emails will be preferred) the name, designation and contact details before 1000 hrs on 29th March 2018…”

A second message on Wednesday said: “As per the instructions of Mr. R. Paskaralingam, Advisor, Ministry of National Policies & Economic Affairs and the Chairman, OCEM, please note that the Officials Committee on Economic Management Meeting No. 119 that was scheduled to be held tomorrow 29th March 2018, has been cancelled due to unavoidable circumstances.”

On Wednesday, Sirisena issued a Gazette notification placing both the Central Bank and the Securities Exchange of Sri Lanka under the Ministry of Finance and Media. Consequently, some of the duties and functions of the National Policies and Economic Affairs Ministry under Wickremesinghe have been removed. They include:

  • Formulation of monetary policies and macro-economic management in coordination with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.
  • Coordination between public and private sectors to facilitate the participation of private sector in economic development.
  • Coordination, direction, monitoring and evaluation of projects at national level and provincial levels.
  • Formulation, monitoring and evaluation of projects and programmes in relation to the subject of youth affairs.
  • Formulation and implementation of attitudinal development programmes that aim to guide the young generation in the right direction.
  • Implementation of unemployed youth-centric skills development programmes.
  • nYouth organisation related work.
  • Formulation of volunteer programmes for youth community.

Among the institutions taken away from the National Policies and Economic Affairs Ministry are the National Operations Room, the Department of Project Management and Monitoring, the Credit Information Bureau, the National Pay Commission, the National Insurance Trust Fund, the Strike, Riot and Civil Commotion and Terrorism Fund, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka, the National Human Resources Development Council, the National Youth Services Council and the National Youth Corps.

With the National Unity Government in total disarray, compounding the political crisis is the no-confidence motion next Wednesday, three of the key players in the drama – President Maithripala Sirisena, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya – are not looking too cheerful in this picture. They came together for a Water’s Edge reception to mark the wedding of Parliamentarian Ameer Ali’s son.

Functions relating to youth have been placed under Sagala Ratnayake who is Youth Affairs Minister. Re-allocation of subjects after the reshuffle of UNP ministers has also been carried out on Wednesday covering the Sustainable Development Ministry, the Industry and Commerce Ministry, the Special Assignments Ministry and the Public Enterprises and Kandy Development Ministry.

The closure of the CCEM is a blow to Premier Wickremesinghe who chaired its weekly meetings. It is here that most of the Government’s economic programmes were discussed and decisions taken. This is notwithstanding complaints, particularly from SLFP ministers, who charged that it was a parallel cabinet. They also complained that decisions were sometimes made without consultation with them or their senior officials – a fact which President Sirisena also emphasised in his Cabinet Memorandum recommending the closure of the CCEM.

A multitude of issues have come up before the CCEM which was established following a Cabinet decision on September 23, 2015. For example, a six-page Economic Development Agenda for Sri Lanka for three years. It was formulated by the Harvard University’s McKinsey Delivery Unit and the World Bank. The task was entrusted to three persons – Harsha de Silva, Indrajit Coomaraswamy (Governor of the Central Bank) and R. Paskaralingam, advisor to Premier Wickremesinghe. This was to formulate a common paper. However, relevant ministries were left out. The Asian Development Bank made a presentation to the CCEM on a National Ports Master Plan. It was only thereafter, the ADB was advised to meet the Minister of Ports and Shipping for detailed discussions.

Other subjects ranged from discussing grievances and offering redress. A vehicle importer had imported 24 used commercial vehicles in December after the budget proposals in November last year. The Customs refused to accept the duty payments. The company suffered heavy demurrage costs. The CCEM decided to recommend to the Cabinet to waive the demurrage. Yet another was how the Ministry of Housing and Construction was asked to submit to the CCEM a draft policy on High Rise Buildings.

That Sirisena has, so to say, clipped the wings of Premier Wickremesinghe ahead of the no-confidence motion is one thing. That it has led to widespread speculation that his role is increasingly becoming a game changer in the light of the no-confidence motion is another. There are two different aspects to this developing situation. One is the likelihood of the no-confidence motion succeeding though it is widely believed that the numbers do not add up. In such an event, Sirisena has made clear to his confidants that he is not averse to another nominee from the UNP to continue with the coalition. Not much thought has been given either by Sirisena’s close advisors or senior SLFP ministers helping him towards this aspect. More so, when the ‘Joint Opposition’ de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa has made it clear the ‘JO’ would not accept any ministerial or other Government positions.

On the other hand, if the motion is defeated in Parliament, in as much as it would strengthen Wickremesinghe, it would also in equal measure weaken Sirisena. In such a scenario, the all-important question would be one of co-habitation. A Prime Minister who has been weakened by his own President would have to continue under an altogether different environment. Some senior SLFPers believe that may trigger the end of the coalition and Wickremesinghe would have to form his own Government after proving he has a majority. That such a situation may occur when senior bureaucrats are hesitant to take decisions, that there is a breakdown in law and order with murders every week and a deteriorating economy does not bode well. There is little doubt that the acrimony between the two sides would reach a peak.

Other than Sirisena joining the fray, that the battle lines between the SLFP and the UNP are also getting defined ahead of the no-confidence motion is increasingly apparent. UNP parliamentarian Ashu Marasinghe told a news conference on Tuesday that the no-confidence motion on the Prime Minister was illegal and was not in accordance with the Constitution. That assertion barely needed a studied rebuttal since he was one of the handful defending the party on whatever grounds possible.

The next day, Ministers Sarath Amunugama and Faiszer Musthapha held a news conference to defend the ‘Joint Opposition’ move and counter Marasinghe’s claim. Amunugama said, “The no-confidence motion has been accepted by the Speaker and placed in Parliament’s Order Paper. It is now listed for debate. When a motion is handed over in Parliament, it is up to the Speaker to decide if he will accept it or not. In this case, it has been accepted and fixed for debate on April 4. Anybody can say anything but as far as Parliament is concerned, it is the Speaker’s decision that is considered important.” Asked for the stance of the SLFP, he replied: “Our Central Committee (CC) will convene before April 4 and we will take a collective decision. Our stance is that we should adopt a unified position and that people should not take decisions based on personal views. I’m speaking about the SLFP faction in Parliament only.”

Earlier, on Tuesday SLFP Minister S.B. Dissanayake told a news conference, “We do not want to topple this government. During the last local government elections we were given a clear message that changes should be made. Attempts have not been successful. What we are suggesting is a new Prime Minster. Four of our members have already signed the motion.” There were more news conferences to back the ‘JO’ move. One was by Ministers Susil Premajayantha with State Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena and Dilan Perera. They seemed to take the view that the premier must quit before the motion is taken up, somewhat betraying a fear that the motion could be defeated and it was better to have the PM go before the vote is taken.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentary group will meet tomorrow (Monday) to discuss the no confidence motion. The meeting, to be presided over by President Sirisena, is to take a formal decision. There was a meeting of the United National Front (UNF), the UNP dominated grouping, at ‘Temple Trees’ on Thursday evening. Premier Wickremesinghe handed over to them copies of a memorandum forwarded by Jathika Hela Urumaya leader Patali Champika Ranawaka for in-house reforms. Among those taking part were Rajitha Senaratne, Mano Ganesan and Palani Digambaram.

Wickremesinghe urged them to form a committee and study Ranawaka’s memorandum. He recommended that Ravi Karunanayake MP who was present be included in that Committee. He said reforms could thus take place after April 5. Ranawaka is learnt to have said that he had understood from the SLFP that they were willing to skip the no-confidence motion if Premier Wickremesinghe steps down and a new UNP Prime Minister is appointed. However, Minister Mangala Samaraweera said this was not possible since the party has decided that the Prime Minister should continue in office.

Adding to the remarks was Minister Malik Samarawickrema who said as far as he was aware the SLFP has not yet decided. Earlier, on Thursday morning the UNP Working Committee, the main policy making body, met and decided that the Premier would be supported on the no-confidence motion. Palitha Range Bandara, Puttalam District MP, raised issue over party reforms. He was told that April 8 and 9 had been set apart for discussions on the matter and decisions would be made.
Tamil politicians expressed different views on the motion though some reports spoke of not supporting it. Here are a few views:

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian and ITAK leader Mawai Senathiraja: “We are in the process of discussing among partners in the TNA regarding our position. The TNA members of Parliament will be meeting in Colombo on Monday and Tuesday and we will discuss the situation and the reactions of the main political parties. We will then decide whether to support the motion or not.”

EPRLF Member Shiva Shakthi Anandan who is a TNA MP, but known to have differences with the TNA: “Though the TNA has supported this Government for the three years unconditionally, the Government has failed to fulfil the aspirations of the Tamils. Our party leader Suresh Premachandran will decide on the position to be taken.”

EPDP leader and Parliamentarian Douglas Devananda: ‘We are maintaining very close relations with President Maithtiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. We do not want to get into a situation of conflict. It will all depend on what the Government has delivered to the minorities in the past and present. If we have conflicts within the government we cannot achieve the aspirations of the people of the North and East. We have not taken a final decision.”
Minister Rajitha Senaratne has told his close ministerial colleagues that he facilitated a meeting at his Colombo residence between President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe. He had claimed it went off cordially. However, senior officials at the Presidential Secretariat strongly denied the claim and said no such meeting took place. They also directed their denials at different websites that had run the story. Some hurriedly pulled out their stories.

The Joint Opposition’s de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times, “We have delivered the signatures of all MPs on our side. It is up to President Sirisena now to carry through the rest. We await this.”

Thus, whether the entry of Sirisena into the no-confidence crisis together with the SLFP will be a game changer or the end of the game is the question in everyone’s lips. There are two days more for the answer.

Weeratunga affair: Like chapters from mystery thriller
When Udayanga Weeratunga, Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to the Russian Federation, evading arrest despite a Red Notice issued by Interpol, walked into what was his apartment in Dubai last Monday, he did not realise there were some people waiting for him.Within moments, the Dubai Police which had mounted a surveillance operation for days swooped down on him. He was arrested and thereafter taken to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He is now being held in detention.When the news was formally conveyed to Senior DIG Ravi Waidyalankara, head of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID), Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera and the new Law and Order Minister, Ranjith Madduma Bandara were promptly informed.Later, the FCID chief held consultations with Additional Solicitor General Yasantha Kodagoda, who has been assigned by President Maithripala Sirisena to coordinate the investigation into the procurement of MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine in 2006. Their immediate task was to lodge with the UAE Embassy in Colombo, through the Foreign Ministry, a formal request from the Government of Sri Lanka for the custody of 54-year-old Weeratunga. Sri Lanka’s envoy in UAE has also already conveyed a similar request in that emirate.Before becoming ambassador in Moscow, Weeratunga, a fluent speaker of the Russian language, operated a restaurant serving Sri Lankan cuisine in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. It was a popular haunt among Sri Lankan students and military teams that went on procurement missions. ‘Club Lanka’ as it was called, was perhaps the only restaurant that served Sri Lankan rice and curry. He was also importing tea and other goods to that country.The Government is not taking any chances, in the light of a previous effort going wrong, after Weeratunga was first taken into custody by the Dubai branch of Interpol when he arrived there on February 4 to board a connecting flight to Florida. The passport he used to enter Dubai, (D3643585) had by then been cancelled by the Controller of Immigration and Emigration. However, there was only an Interpol Blue Notice (or an alert) on him then. On February 12, the FCID obtained an Interpol Red Notice. This notice is an international alert to seek the location and arrest of a wanted person for the purpose of extradition.There is no Extradition Treaty between Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, his handover to Sri Lankan investigators is being sought under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on Terrorism and Organised Crime. The requested State Party, in terms of this convention, (a) Shall provide to the requesting State Party copies of Government records, documents or information in its possession that under its domestic law are available to the general public; (b) May, at its discretion, provide to the requesting State Party in whole, in part or subject to such conditions as it deems appropriate, copies of any government records, documents or information in its possession. Preparation of documents have not been an easy task. The help of translators had to be used to put together Arabic translation of documents.A top level Sri Lanka team will travel to Dubai next week to formally negotiate Sri Lanka’s request and place all relevant material before the Emirati authorities.
The Sunday Times (Political Commentary) revealed exclusively on March 18 the findings of a near three-year-long FCID investigation. A contract signed on July 26, 2006 to procure four MiG 27 aircraft, overhauling three more MiG-27 and one 23 UB trainer has turned out to be fictitious. The fake agreement listed the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) as the buyer and Ukrinmarsh (a subsidiary of Ukrespectsexport) as the seller. Ukrinmarsh has denied selling any MiG-27s to Sri Lanka. Though touted as a Government-to-Government deal, funds had been remitted to Bellimissa Holdings Ltd, an offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands to a secret account. It was through an office that has operated as a front and did not belong to the company in question. Though it was claimed that this company was registered in Britain, there has been no such company there.

Clearly, no one in the Attorney General’s Department drafted the fake July 26, 2006 agreement or perused it. It has come to light it had been done by a retired SLAF officer now residing in Canada. At first, the signature of a then influential top SLAF official, now retired, had been obtained in Colombo. Thereafter, in Moscow, Dmitry Alexandrovich Perugodov, who was then a director of Ukrinmarsh had signed it there. A Counsellor at the Sri Lanka Embassy had endorsed the fake agreement. Usually military procurements are made after both sides sign an agreement at the same time. Immediately thereafter, Perugudov went missing. Ukrainian authorities launched a manhunt and located him at a Paris address. FCID investigations have revealed that Weeratunga together with others including SLAF officers, some now retired, have caused a loss of over US$ 6.83 million to the country.

In late February, Dubai Police was unable to trace the whereabouts of Weeratunga. He had disconnected his mobile phone and left the address he gave as his residence. This prompted them to issue a public notice describing him as a wanted person with other law enforcement agencies, airport and hotels being informed. Weeratunga had in the meanwhile travelled by road from Dubai to Sharjah and explored means of leaving the emirates but had not been successful.
He is said to have left a trail behind using his credit card for sustenance. Dubai, which is known to have one of the world’s best surveillance system, had been tracking him and found him when he returned to his residential address.

The FCID probe centres on the procurement of the third batch of MiG-27s in 2006. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all Soviet armed forces military assets (including a fleet of MiG-27 fighter jets) in Ukraine were taken over by the new Ukraine Republic after its Parliament adopted a resolution on August 24, 1991. The fleet was not utilised by the Ukranian Air Force since the jets were considered obsolete. They used MiG-29s whilst keeping the MiG-27s as surplus stock for sale to several poorer countries at higher price mark ups.

The first batch of four MiG-27 aircraft were purchased by Sri Lanka from Singapore based D.S. Alliance in May 2000 at US$ 1.5 million each. The second batch obtained in October 2000 were two MiG-27 aircraft, also through D.S. Alliance and cost US$ 1.6 million each. However, a MiG 23 UB trainer purchased together at US$ 900,000 cost US$ 1.1 million dollars for an overhaul. Questions over how the third batch from a fleet that lay exposed to sun, rain, snow and dust cost a higher sum have now raised more issues. FCID detectives have not only uncovered the money trail from Colombo but also identified most of the beneficiaries.
Ukrinmarsh and its parent company Ukrspetexport were accused of busting UN and European Union sanctions in 1998 by supplying a variety of military hardware and Mi-17 helicopters to Slobodan Milosevic’s repressive Government in Serbia. Some of the deals, it came to light, had been done through front companies. This transpired during the proceedings of the United Nations Criminal Tribunal in the Hague for former Yugoslavia.

However, Oleh Hulak, Defence, Air and Naval Attaché of the Ukranian Embassy in New Delhi (concurrently accredited to Sri Lanka) said in a statement e-mailed to the Sunday Times (commenting on our exclusive report of last week) that “Since 2014 SF “Ukrinmash” is managed by new CEO and new team. The new management is not responsible or accountable to the businesses, conducted by the previous team, including the one mentioned in the publication.
“Currently, SF “Ukrinmash” engaging in business activities directly Government to Government, without agent/middleman; SF “Ukrinmash” works transparent, accountable, and qualitative manner; SF “Ukrinmash” is always open to assist in given investigation;

“We would like to bring into focus that starting from the changes happened in Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity, our Company pays a crucial attention to compliance with the requirements of International and Ukrainian laws to support further the reputation of reliable and predictable partners in Ukraine and overseas as well”, the Ukraine Defence Attaché told the Sunday Times this week.

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