Sri Lanka Perspectives: November 2017
by R Hariharan on 10 Dec 2017 2 Comments

Sri Lanka PM’s visit to New Delhi

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited New Delhi on November 23-24, 2017. During talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, the speeding up of decisions related to India-Sri Lanka joint venture projects in the island nation to solve “problems that have emerged” topped the agenda. The projects discussed included India developing the Trincomalee harbour, including the Oil Tank farms project as well as the Indian bid to lease and manage the heavily loss making Mattala airport in Hambantota.


In April 2017, India and Sri Lanka had signed the Cooperation in Economic Projects agreement and had set up a Joint Working Group (JWG) to discuss the development of a port, petroleum and other industries in Trincomalee on the eastern seaboard. The Trinco Oil Farm Project under which the Indian Oil Corporation taking over more than 70 storage tanks in possession of Sri Lanka was to be sealed in April, could not be officially announced as the oil company employees went on a flash strike.


Indian aided projects in Sri Lanka have invariably been delayed for a variety of political and bureaucratic reasons. Bureaucracies on both sides of the Palk Strait are rigid and act slowly. Moreover, political corruption and financial priorities bedevil all projects in Sri Lanka as in other South Asian countries.


With environmental priorities and land acquisition issues getting politicised, time delays are often the rule rather than the exception. These are more so if India is involved in them due to hate India-love China lobbies at work. But Prime Minister Modi is in a hurry to show results just as both President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe have political and economic compulsions to get going with the projects to trigger economic activity.


Prime Minister Wickremesinghe during his visit to New Delhi addressed the 5th Global Cyberspace Conference. He said he was against state orchestrated blocks and restrictions on cyberspace and that the national unity government would facilitate unhindered access to the internet. He drew attention to his own experience as an opposition political activist before January 2015 when the government had blocked ISPs to prevent dissident voices from speaking freely online. Now “every segment of society was encouraged to speak freely online. As we understood it was one important way of building inclusivity not only on cyberspace, but also in society at large.”


Politics of local government elections


The local government elections have been delayed for long due to a lot of political, legal and bureaucratic confusion. The delay suited both the shaky ruling national coalition to resolve its internal differences and the faction-ridden Sri Lanka Freedom (SLFP) trying to resolve factional differences to unitedly fight the local government polls. So the Election Commission’s notice announcing the holding of elections for 93 councils triggered hectic political activity across the political spectrum. Talks between the SLFP led by President Maithripala Sirisena and the Joint Opposition group loyal to former President Rajapaksa reached a feverish pitch, without yielding tangible results so far.


Any compromise made by President Sirisena with the Joint Opposition would not only enable former President Rajapaksa to stage a comeback to the national political mainstream, but also threaten the survival of the unity government. The United National Party (UNP) is concerned as the memorandum of understanding Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had signed to work together for the good of the country is due for renewal as it expires in December 2017. This MoU paved the way for the two parties to jointly form the national unity government. The UNP would like to continue with the cohabitation formula for yet another term till 2025.


Civil society fears such a compromise could put an end to the SLFP-UNP government’s efforts to carry out further structural reforms for good governance (Yahapalana). Civil society also feels that if this happens, pro-Rajapaksa elements would further delay the completion of investigations and prosecution of those involved in cases of massive corruption during the Rajapaksa regime.


President Sirisena has assured a delegation of civil society representatives that the efforts to re-unify the SLFP ahead of the local government elections would not be at the cost of the national unity government. He had also assured that the terms set for unity by Rajapaksa were not acceptable to him. In response to their fears about the government not acting against cases of corruption, he assured them that he would establish presidential commissions, similar to the one that inquired into the treasury bond scam, to probe state enterprises such as Sri Lanka Airlines.


Budget proposals


Finance Minister Mangala Samaraveera’s budget proposals for 2018 presented in parliament have generally been welcomed by media analysts. Highlights of the budget include liberalisation of restrictive laws, promotion of exports, expansion of tourism, fiscal consolidation, fostering start-ups and opening up investments to achieve 5% growth in 2018.  The Budget aimed to achieve ambitious medium-term targets such as per capita income of $5000, one million new jobs, FDI inflows of $5 billion and doubling exports to $20 billion, as outlined in Vision 20-25.


The Excise and Customs Ordinance, Rent Act, Paddy Lands Act, Agriculture Lands Act, Shop and Office Employees Act and bankruptcy laws were among the list of laws the Government plans to either repeal or amend. The minister said, “In 2018, we envisage GDP growth of 5%, inflation of around 6%, and we hope to achieve for the first time in almost six decades primary surplus of 1% of GDP and a Budget deficit of 4.5% of GDP.” Proposals for a “Blue-Green” economy include introduction of environmental safeguards and decision to phase out fuel vehicles by 2040.


Courtesy Col R Hariharan

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, November 2017 Issue;

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