Sri Lanka Perspectives: August 2018
by R Hariharan on 11 Sep 2018 1 Comment

PC election issues


The failure of parliament to ratify the Delimitation Committee Report (DCR) introduced by the government on August 24 illustrates confusion in the ranks of the ruling national unity coalition. In a rare show of unanimity, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Joint Opposition (JO) voted against the report. There was not a single vote in favour of the DCR, which required the support of two-thirds of members present in parliament. Though Local Government Minister, Faiszer Musthapha while presenting the report in parliament was vociferous in saying those who vote against the DCR would be despised as betrayers of the country, he changed his mind and voted against it! 


The episode once again demonstrated the disconnect between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena, who had appointed a five-member committee, chaired by Dr K Thavalingam, to carry out the delimitation of Provincial Councils required for conducting elections by January 2019. According to media commentators, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had spearheaded the opposition to the report. However, SLFP spokesman Mahinda Samarasinghe dismissed such attempts to blame the PM for the vote against the report. He said all political parties were opposed to the report and there was no consensus among them.


The PC elections are to be held under the PC Election Amendment Act No 17 enacted last year. The elections would be held on the new 50:50 mixed voting system, with 50 percent of the members elected under the First-Past-Post (FPP) system and 50 percent on the district level Proportional Representation (PR) system. Though the failure of the DCR to pass muster is explained as part of the ruling coalition’s new political strategy, the real reason is perhaps the new mixed voting system to be used in the PC elections. 


After suffering a severe drubbing in the local government elections held under the mixed system earlier this year, most political parties want the PC elections to be held under the existing PR system. Finance minister Mangala Samaraweera had described their poor performance in LG polls as a “timely wake-up call to Yahapalana [good governance] government to get back on track.” 


Three PCs - Eastern, North Central and Sabaraagamuwa are already under governor’s rule after the expiry of their term last year. The terms of three more PCs – Northern, Northwestern and Central – are ending in October 2018. The Western, Southern and Uva PCs will be completing their terms in 2019. Thus PC elections are expected to act as the performance score card of the unity government. So the unity coalition is probably buying time to shore up its image before going ahead with the PC elections. Civil society organizations have described the delay in conducting the elections as a denial of democratic rights of the people.


The President has repeatedly said the PC elections would be held by January 2019. However, the failure of parliament to ratify the DCR would mean further delay in finalizing the delimitation process and the voting system. In a bid to clear the logjam, the Speaker has appointed a five-member committee of ‘intellectuals’ headed by the Prime Minister for its recommendations on conducting the PC elections. However, the success of the ‘committee strategy’ would only work if and when the SLFP and UNP leadership are ready for it.


Japan’s strategic interest in Sri Lanka 


Japan’s defence minister Itsunori Onedera made his first-ever visit to Sri Lanka from August 20 to 22 as part of Japan’s continuing effort to strengthen strategic cooperation with Sri Lanka. The Japanese minister called upon President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. He visited Trincomalee port, where a Japanese naval ship Ikazuchi was on a friendly visit. According to an NHK television interview with the defence minister after he met with the Sri Lankan president and prime minister, the minister is said to have raised the issue of Hambantota coming under Chinese control. NHK quoted Onedera as saying, “despite the lease [of Hambantota] there was an agreement that the port remains free of military activities.” This would indicate China looming large in Japan’s efforts to build close relations with Sri Lanka.


Japan has been one of Sri Lanka’s main development partners and largest donors. Japan’s interest in building strategic relations with the island nation increased earlier this year with the visit of Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of staff of Japanese Self Defence Forces to Sri Lanka. During President Sirisena’s visit to Japan in March 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to further strengthen cooperation with Sri Lanka as part of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy to counter China’s increasingly muscular assertion in the region. It was welcomed by President Sirisena.


The Japanese strategy aims at enhancing connectivity between Asia and Africa to promote stability and prosperity of the region as a whole. Areas of cooperation include counterterrorism, capacity building of law enforcement authorities and countermeasures against violent extremism. Japan has agreed to help Sri Lanka’s maritime training and capacity building.


By virtue of its location astride the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka occupies an important place in Japan’s Indian Ocean strategy for securing Indian Ocean sea lanes of shipping. India also shares similar concerns. So it was not surprising that Japan invited Sri Lanka to participate as an observer in the joint exercise of coast guards of Japan and India. This would indicate the importance Japan attaches to maritime security in its relationship with Sri Lanka.


The US is also a partner in Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Interestingly, around the same time as the Japanese defence minister’s visit, USS Anchorage, a US amphibious ship was exercising with Sri Lanka Navy ships off Trincomalee. Recently, the US had announced that the US would be funding Sri Lanka to the tune of $14 million as part of more than $100 million that would be allotted to South Asia. The focus of the funding would be on issues like maritime security, humanitarian assistance, disaster response, peace keeping capabilities and countering transnational crime, which were “key for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”


Tailpiece: A Colombo magistrate has directed the police to detain Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, Chief of the Defence Staff, for allegedly helping Chandana Hettiarachchi, a naval intelligence officer accused of leading a hit squad that kidnapped 11 young men between 2008 and 2009 during the Eelam War. According to the criminal investigation department, there was evidence of Admiral’s role in allowing the accused to evade arrest.


Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, South Asia Analysis Group and the International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute, Chennai.

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, September 2018 |  

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