Sri Lanka Perspectives: July 2017
by R Hariharan on 07 Aug 2017 1 Comment
China gains control of Hambantota port complex


After months of negotiations, Sri Lanka has signed the $1.1 billion agreement to allow the China state infrastructure company to take control of the Hambantota port. According to the agreement signed on July 29, 2017, Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) agreed to sell 70 percent stake in the port to China Merchant Holdings Co. Ltd. (CMHC); the CMHC would run the port on 99-year lease.


The port described as white elephant had been under used, incurring a loss of over $300 million in the last three years. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe explaining the circumstances leading to the deal, said the national economy was in such a bad shape, the government had to stabilize the situation. The present government had been negotiating hard to sell the strategically important port to China to set off the loan incurred in its construction.  The government plans to sell the port had run into a lot of opposition from the port staff and trade unions. However, the government did not relent.


The Southern Sri Lanka port dominates the shipping lanes of Indian Ocean and Chinese involvement in its construction and management is a matter of strategic concern to India and the US, as it gives a strong toe hold for China’s power projection. Partly addressing their concerns, Sri Lanka has retained authority to manage the security of the port in its hands and prohibited the use of the port for military activities. However, Chinese control of the port gives it a definite strategic advantage due to its geographic location dominating the Indian Ocean sea lanes midway. As the executive vice president of CMHC Hu Jianhua said “Sri Lanka will be well positioned to play a strategic role in the one-belt one-road initiative” of China.  Hambantota port would be a gateway to South Asian nations as well as Africa, where the company had similar operations, he added.


Constitution-making, a three-legged race


The constitution making exercise embarked upon by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government two years ago is still tangled in the web of its own making. People voted for the unity government after the duo promised to carry out constitutional reforms to end executive presidency and improve accountability. However, its success would be determined by minorities getting equitable rights because their vote was an important factor in the victory of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine.


Two years after starting the process, the government seems to be running in the same place with constitution-making, although the time-bound plan announced in the beginning looked fine on paper. Though adequate opportunity was given to receive public representations on the new constitution, there appears to be a determined effort to stymie the effort at constitution making. The pulls and pressures of political and ethnic polemics, objections of conservative Sinhala sections to change, and the government’s inability to gauge public opinion have made it a three-legged race, with each leg pulling in a different direction. As a result, deadlines announced for completion of various stages remain dead. According to the latest statement of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe the draft constitution would be ready by January 2018. But there would be two more stages – parliamentary approval of the draft and referendum – before the new constitution comes into place.


President Maithripala Sirisena had been trying rein in dissenters within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and manage the one-upmanship manoeuvres of the UNP partners, while former president Mahinda Rajapaksa had been stoking nationalist Sinhala elements’ fears of marginalization under the new constitution. The Joint Opposition had been propagating that the new constitution would dismantle the unitary system and introduce federalism (though this has been repeatedly denied by the ruling coalition) and Buddhism was in danger of losing its primacy.


The influential Mahanayake Theros of Buddhist chapters have now joined the fray against drafting a new constitution and the President had to meet and reassure them that they would be consulted when the draft was ready. In this respect, the opposition Tamil National Alliance has been acting more responsibly, giving priority to constitutional reform over other issues, despite internal pressures from the constituents. Despite all subterfuges to stall the process, the president and prime minister appear to be determined to fast track the process; unless they stand fast, constitutional reform could be further delayed.


Tracing the “disappeared people”


During the month, the much-awaited Office of Missing Persons Act (OMP) came into being. This is yet another step in the government’s efforts to improve Sri Lanka’s accountability process as well as fulfill one of the commitments made under the UN Human Rights Council resolution in September 2015.


The constitutional council has to nominate seven eminent persons as members of the OMP secretariat. The secretariat is mandated to create appropriate mechanism to trace missing persons, find out the circumstances of their disappearance, provide assistance to the relatives of missing persons and create a database of those who went missing during the conflict with the LTTE, as well as other cases of missing persons during political and civil unrest including the JVP insurrections. It also has powers to receive complaints and investigate cases of missing armed forces personnel during operations. The Joint Opposition had opposed the OMP in its present form saying it would jeopardise national security, resulting in prosecution of war heroes.


The OMP act is the culmination of a long struggle of families to find their kith and kin who went missing during the country’s Eelam wars and JVP insurrections. In response to public and international demand, President Rajapaksa constituted the Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints regarding Missing Persons under Justice Maxwell Paranagama in August 2013. It had received complaints of 5000 missing service personnel and 16000 civilians.


The process it triggered comes to fruition with enactment of the OMP, which provides an institutional structure to trace such persons as well as provide for redressal of the affected families. This meets a long standing demand of not only Tamil families affected by the Eelam war, but also Sinhala families affected by the war and JVP insurrections. The success of OMP would depend upon how quickly the constitution council nominates the members of the secretariat to produce tangible results. 



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