Sri Lanka Perspectives: March 2016
by R Hariharan on 08 Apr 2016 1 Comment
Sirisena government’s positive vibes


President Sirisena’s government has taken a few small, but important, actions to show it is sincere in its efforts to fulfill the electoral promises on good governance and reconciliation. The actions include: introduction of the Right to Information (RTI) bill in parliament, vacation of the Sampoor naval base created in 2007 to return the land to the original owners and appointment of a Secretary General for the secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanism created in the prime minister’s office in December 2015.


In March, the RTI Bill was introduced in parliament. The Bill seeks to confer the right to citizens to seek access to information held by the government or any public body. Though the Bill was originally presented in parliament in January, the Northern, the North Central and the Sabaragamuwa provincial councils had suggested amendments before getting parliamentary approval.


To facilitate the implementation of RTI, a five-member RTI commission would be set up and an information officer would be appointed in every public institution. However, the Bill has indicated matters affecting the state’s interest in national security, foreign relations, trade and commerce and finance and fiscal security as well as private information of individuals including medical information are “No Go areas” for RTI.


Sri Lanka Navy has vacated the Sampoor naval training base established in 237 acres of private land in eastern province soon after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2007, for restoring them to the owners. The creation of the base and the navy’s continued occupation of private land even after six years of the end the war was one of the longstanding grievances of Tamils in the province. The Navy handed over 177 acres to the eastern province governor in a ceremony attended by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Sampanthan and other Tamil ministers. President Sirisena has already handed over 60 acres to the owners in a token gesture in August 2015. The navy has established a bigger camp close to the abandoned camp in Sampoor.


In yet another move to show it is serious about acting on its promises, the government has announced that parliament would be convened on April 5 as a constitutional assembly to trigger the constitution making process.


These measures have not gone unnoticed. The US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal had singled out Sri Lanka to praise it for consolidating its democratic gains in the past two elections to put the country on a path of reconciliation. Speaking at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, Ms Biswal added, “Both Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Power visited last year - and I myself  visited [Sri Lanka] four times in 2015 - this year we launched our first-ever Partnership Dialogue.”


Mending relations with China


Sri Lanka seems to have taken some key decisions to mend relations with China before Prime Minister Wickremesinghe visits Beijing in April. Relations between the two countries had developed cracks after Sirisena government rolled back some of the Chinese-aided projects for suspected corruption and absence of due process in finalizing them, soon after coming to power. Obviously, it was trying to correct the skewed pro-Chinese tilt adopted during the Rajapaksa regime which had irked India.


Rishad Bathiudeen, Minister for Industries and Commerce, has announced a high level delegation would be visiting China in April to sign the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The FTA negotiations between the countries had been going on for nearly two years and its finalization is expected to give a boost to not only bilateral trade between the two countries, but also their relations as a whole.  Sri Lanka expects greater inflow of Chinese investment after the signing of the FTA which would give a boost to its flagging economy and generate employment opportunities for the people.


While meeting an official delegation from Yunnan Province which handed over an official invitation for the 24th Kunming Fair to be held in June, the Minister said, “President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are very keen on the FTA.” According to the Minister, Sri Lanka’s trade with China in 2015 was $4 billion. Imports from China accounted for $3.7 billion in bilateral trade. Trade with China grew by 12 per cent since 2014, while Sri Lanka’s exports to China went up by 69 per cent.


The government has also informed the China Harbor Engineering Corporation Port City Colombo Ltd (CHEC), the Chinese developers of the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City project, that they could resume work on the project. The project was suspended in March 2015 to investigate allegations of corruption and aberrations in the finalization of the project, ignoring environmental safeguards.


China has not taken kindly to the suspension of the prestigious project launched on September 17, 2014 by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was to be completed in 39 months. It was well underway when President Sirisena came to power; so its suspension came as a shock to China.


The project aims at reclaiming 233 hectares of land from the sea adjacent to the Galle Face Green, a popular beach front of Colombo, to build offices, hotels and shopping centres. India which is the largest user of Colombo port and has close maritime security relations with Sri Lanka had expressed its concerns at the project as the original agreement envisaged giving China outright ownership to part of the reclaimed land. Sri Lanka has now reduced the land allocated to the Chinese which would now be given on 99 year-lease instead of ownership.


The CHEC is a subsidiary of the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) which is underwriting the project with 30 per cent capital and 70 percent in the form of land.


In fact, even after the announcement the project developers sounded bitter. In a statement, the CHEC regretted “the suspension and the lengthy process taken to resume work have resulted in significant losses to the company and Sri Lanka.” The developers estimate the losses at $380,000 a day. The company claimed the contractual obligations for obtaining the permits for the project were with the Sri Lanka government and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority; and it started the work on the project only after they informed that these contractual obligations have been fulfilled. In an e-mail to The Nation, Colombo, the company said “the Project Company has a legal right for compensation by the Government for losses suffered due to the suspension.”


Moreover, the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management Department in its conditional permit issued to the developers has stipulated very stiff environmental norms to be observed while executing the project.


Perhaps these are some of the reasons why the developers have not yet signed a long term deal with Sri Lanka. The issue is likely to be on the agenda of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s talks with Chinese leadership when he visits Beijing.


Written on March 31, 2016

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, April 2016 issue

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