AJITH PERERA HITS OUT AT ALOYSIUS DURING GROUP MEETING WHILE PM REQUESTS ALL MPS TO ACT RESPONSIBLY | Sunday Observer

AJITH PERERA HITS OUT AT ALOYSIUS DURING GROUP MEETING WHILE PM REQUESTS ALL MPS TO ACT RESPONSIBLY

When the Joint Opposition first entered into negotiations with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to contest the LG elections together, a sizable proportion of SLFPers viewed the move with a modicum of suspicion.

The Joint Opposition, since its inception in early 2015, was hell bent on dividing the SLFP and forming a breakaway party under the leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

There was a reason for the Joint Opposition’s inclination to divide the SLFP, the grand old party formed in 1951 by S.W.R.D Bandaranaike as a social democratic political front.

During the initial stages, the Joint Opposition’s political agenda was mainly driven by four minor party leaders – namely, Wimal Weerawansa, the leader of the National Freedom Front, Udaya Gammanpila, the leader of Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, Dinesh Gunawardena, leader of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna and Vasudewa Nanayakkara, leader of Democratic Left Front.

None of these minor parties had a vote-base to elect their leaders to Parliament at a general election. Therefore, a breakaway party, led by former President Rajapaksa, was a prerequisite for their survival in the political sphere. Had Rajapaksa opted to take a back seat in the SLFP camp and continue as an Advisor, the plight of these minor party leaders would have been miserable.

That was why they persistently pushed Rajapaksa to return to active politics after his defeat at the Presidential Election, in January 2015. When Rajapaksa handed over the party leadership to President Sirisena, he had no grand plans to contest elections and his sole concern was to save himself and the family from bribery and corruption investigations.

It was this group that went to Rajapaksa’s Medamulana residence and brought him back to the political fold. They engineered his famous “political visits” to temples and encouraged a group of SLFP members to rally round him – which they later described as the Joint Opposition.

They also managed to convince the former President that dividing the party and forming a separate alliance was the best way to protect his family members from bribery and corruption investigations.

They were fully aware that the Joint Opposition had no future as a political movement. So, soon after the Parliamentary election was announced, they wanted to contest the election on the UPFA ticket – a coalition led by the SLFP. They used various strong arm tactics to bully the SLFP seniors supporting the party leadership into a temporary pact with the so called Joint Opposition.

One group that reaped various benefits from this ‘pact’ was the minor parties supporting Rajapaksa. For instance, over five members of the National Freedom Front – a party that does not have any support-base on the ground - got elected to Parliament from the UPFA. It strengthened minor parties piggybacking on Rajapaksa at the expense of the SLFP.

After the election however, the SLFP and the Joint Opposition parted ways and the SLFP Central Committee decided to enter into a national unity government by signing an MoU with the UNP. The Joint Opposition aligned itself with the political agenda of the Rajapaksa family.

Conditions

Interestingly, when the Local Government election was announced, the Joint Opposition indicated that it was ready to negotiate with the SLFP to contest the election together.

They also created a fear psychosis among the SLFP rank and file that if the SLFP and the JO contested separately, the election victory would be a cakewalk for the UNP.

Some SLFP seniors in the government were rattled by such remarks and they sought the President’s approval to start negotiations with the JO.

It is important to understand that the Joint Opposition was never serious about negotiations and used it only as a pressure tactic on the SLFP.

While the SLFP appointed three senior leaders to participate in negotiations on behalf of the party, the Joint Opposition assigned the same task to Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Pavithra Wanniarachchi and C.B. Ratnayake, three second tier leaders of the group.

None of them had decision making powers nor did they have much clout in the decision-making process of the Joint Opposition.

Initially, they demanded the SLFP to pull out of the national unity government and join the opposition. This was not acceptable to the SLFP as its party Chairman, President Maithripala Sirisena, was still the leader of the government.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, speaking to a group of journalists in Ahungalla, said, his request to the SLFP was to join the Opposition.

“Ask them to join the Opposition. We are waiting for them,” Rajapaksa said, expressing his eagerness to welcome the SLFP to the Opposition.

Then, a journalist asked what would happen to President Sirisena, the party Chairman, if the SLFP joined the Opposition.

“We will look after our President” (Apey Janadhipathithumaa apibalagannam)Rajapaksa responded.

This remark was laughable to many as President Sirisena, a few months after the election, said, he would have ended “six feet under”, had he lost the Presidential election.

The President also had to spend the election night in a safe house, near Kurunegala, until it was ‘safe enough’ for him to come back to Colombo.

It was in this context that many found Rajapaksa’s remark about President Sirisena, amusing.

Budget

The Joint Opposition had also demanded the SLFP to vote against the Budget at the third reading. This was summarily dismissed by the SLFP as the Budget was prepared in consultation with the President and its second reading was passed in Parliament with a two thirds majority.

Moreover, while the negotiations were underway, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the party formed by the JO group, deposited money for three districts to contest the LG elections.

It irked the SLFP as they thought the JO was playing a disingenuous game when it came to negotiations.

When the SLFP was disinclined to pander to their demands, the JO was ready to go for the election separately. As the SLFP’s patience was wearing thin, the party seniors also made it clear that they were ready to contest alone, if the JO did not want ‘peace’.

“I don’t think they came to the negotiation table with pure intentions,” a senior SLFP Parliamentarian, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

“Had the JO joined the SLFP, it would have been a serious blow to minor parties supporting the Rajapaksas. They are the ones driving the agenda of the group. I don’t think they will allow the JO to contest with the SLFP, under President Sirisena’s leadership,” he explained.

Under the current circumstances, it looks as if the SLFP will contest the election under the symbol ‘hand’ and President Sirisena will lead the party’s election campaign.

The party, according to its top officials, has already embarked on island-wide reforms targeting the election and the process is underway to select its candidates.

The SLFP also believes that the new electoral system will be an added advantage to the party.

The current situation will leave the Rajapaksa group with the option of contesting under the Sri Lanka Podujana Party, as a separate front.

The election may turn out to be a three-cornered fight and in some electorates, there will be tough competition among the top three players.

Group meeting

The UNP Parliamentary group met earlier this week when some believed that the relations between the UNP and the SLFP were strained due to multiple reasons.

What set the background to this meeting was an emotional speech made by President Sirisena stressing the need for unity between the two main parties of the government.

The President, in his address, made it clear that he was prepared to put his job on the line in the interest of ensuring Good Governance and tackling corruption and fraud.

“If there is undue criticism and complaints against decisions taken by me to stop corruption and fraud, I am ready to leave all positions and join the people to continue the struggle,” he said.

Some speculated that the President’s speech was an indirect response to a young UNP Deputy Minister who went on to criticize the President at a press conference over the latter’s move to appoint a Presidential Commission to inquire into the Treasury bonds issue.

Addressing the Parliamentary group meeting at the Parliamentary complex, Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe said in no uncertain terms that the UNP MPs should refrain from criticizing the President.

He also informed the UNP MPs not to make any statement in public which would harm the consensus of the unity government.

The Premier laid special focus on a number of press conferences held by UNP Parliamentarians while he was on an official visit to India. He informed all Parliamentarians of the party not to hold any press conference without his consent, in the future.

The Prime Minister also kept the Parliamentarians informed about his meeting with the President after his return to the country.

He told UNP Parliamentarians that the President has apprised him that he is not in a position to prevent the SLFP from having discussions with the Joint Opposition, and if he blocked such discussions, he would face criticism as a leader responsible for creating divisions in the party. It was also stressed at the UNP group meeting to strive for victory at the future election without making the discussions between the SLFP and the Joint Opposition an issue.

The Prime Minister’s remarks at the group meeting convinced the UNP MPs that the continuity of the unity government would not be affected by any discussion within the SLFP camp.

The UNP Parliamentary group was eventful this week as Deputy Minister Ajith P Perera too made a brief, but emotional statement on the ongoing investigation into the Treasury bonds issue.

Telephone bills

“I don’t have any issue with inquiring into Aloysius. I never thought he was clean. I thought his conduct was crooked then. I think his conduct is crooked now. Nothing has changed,” he said, asserting that there should be a comprehensive investigation into Arjun Aloysius, the controversial businessman and the owner of Perpetual Treasuries, the company at the centre of the bond fiasco.

“But I have a problem about the way the telephone details were presented to the Bond Commission.”

The Deputy Minister told his Parliamentary colleagues that the detailed bills, which he obtained from his mobile service providers, did not indicate any telephone conversation between him and Aloysius, as mentioned in the report presented to the Presidential Commission by the Attorney General’s Department.

“There is a reason for this mismatch. Aloysius may have tried to contact me during the time of the bond investigation and I too may have responded to the missed call by calling back without knowing his identity. That’s how any person would respond to an unknown missed call,” Perera said.

The Deputy Minister maintained that there was no conversation and the mobile service provider affirmed this.

“If the calls were connected, it would have shown on the detailed bill. I can clearly state that I haven’t met, nor have I heard the voice of the person called Arjuna Aloysius” Perera assured.

The Deputy Minister then went on to state that the report presented to the Presidential Commission by the Attorney General’s Department was aimed at slinging mud at a few selected individuals and the document clearly lacked substance.

“Although the report levelled a serious allegation against MPs, it did not provide crucial details pertaining to phone calls. For instance, there was no information on call durations and phone numbers. This tarnishes our reputation and the whole exercise is unfair. At the same time, it also infringes on the privileges of Parliamentarians.”

The Deputy Minister then requested the Prime Minister to look into the matter, urging Premier Wickremesinghe, who was chairing the meeting, to hold an investigation into the matter. Upon his request, the Prime Minister instructed the Deputy Minister to make a submission to the Speaker to inquire into the issue.


People’s Movement Against Port City: Fr. Iddamalgoda responds

In reference to our column on November 19, under the title, ‘Colombo Port City raised at UPR’, Fr. Sarath Iddamalgoda of the People’s Movement Against the Port City has sent the following response:

The Sunday Observer 19th November, in an unsigned article captioned ‘Colombo Port City raised at UPR’ makes some excited and spurious references to the ‘Peoples’ Movement Against the Port City’ (PMAPC), voluntary alliance of fisher trade unions, clergy environmentalists, university dons, scientists, human rights activists and other civil society groups.

It also names and describes me as a ‘renegade’ Catholic priest, without any attempt to speak to me before publication. In fact, I have been ministering for almost four decades, with the poor, the oppressed and the exploited, in their struggles and campaigns following the demands of my Catholic Faith.

The author appears surprised that violations of affected people’s socio-economic and environment rights through the construction of the so-called Colombo International Financial City, should be raised at the recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR - 3rd Cycle) of Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations, in Geneva. Perhaps he is unfamiliar with the scope and purpose of the UPR and the open and invited participation of civil society organisations in its national and international processes?

He also appears to be unaware that ‘mega-development’ projects anywhere have human rights consequences; and that their victims have for decades brought such abuses to the attention of appropriate forums within their own countries as well as in the United Nations.

Nothing in his article disputes our submission at the UPR that this mega-infrastructure project is a violation of fishers’ rights.

Is it not apparent that environment destruction is taking place where sand mining is done in the sea and rock mining is done in the districts of Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara? Is it not foreseeable that environmental hazards would be created by toxic particles spreading around Colombo, during construction over a period of 15 to 20 years and transportation of materials?

Instead of spreading falsehoods on people’s movements and maligning human rights defenders, as was the state media culture of the previous government, the anonymous author is invited to explain how such a project is consistent with sustainable development, which is supposed to be state policy.

In particular, there is no need for any outside agent to ‘entice’ the fishers into opposing the Port City or convince them of the threats it has caused. They already know this from their daily experience: by their loss of income due to reduced fish stocks caused directly by this project. While some fishers who hope to receive monetary compensation have not signed the PMAPC petition during our ongoing signature campaign, hundreds of others have.

Many fishers are convinced from their experience and empirical evidence that the Port City project is destructive of traditional coastal fishing. They also realize that they are the daily providers of fresh cheap dish, an essential protein, for the majority poor of our country. They are now understandably deeply distressed by the destruction of the coast, marine environment and the loss of their occupation and means of livelihood. Are these not human rights violations?

For your clarification, the five-day fast in Negombo against sand mining was not organized by the PMAPC. It was done by a section of the community who are fully aware of the harmful effects of sand mining to fish breeding sites, essential coral reefs and fish stocks. In fact, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report on the Port City mentions that the livelihoods of fishers will be lost for three years due to sand mining.

While Rs. 500 million has been allocated as compensation, the poor fisher-folk who have lost their incomes are yet to receive one cent. Instead of distributing it to the affected, the money was handed out to fisher societies for the purpose of enticing their support to the project.

It was Ranil Wickremesinghe, presumably on the basis of sound scientific advice, who announced the impending destruction of the coast between Kalpitiya and Hikkaduwa by the Port City construction. As Leader of the Opposition, he declared that his government would stop the project in its tracks. The coastal erosion predicted by now Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is already a visible reality; and devastating to the fisher community and coastal tourism.

Fr. Sarath Iddamalgoda
People’s Movement against the Port City


Sunday Politics response:

Whil we comprehend the commitment and handwork Fr. Sarath Iddamalgoda has put in to his community, and there was never a question or doubt in regard to his good work, it is his modus operandi and the outcome in the form of reports that is of concern.

His recent submissions to the UPR in Geneva got only a two paragraph mention in the summary. This is understandable when considering that the submission made by Franciscans International and Dominicans for Justice and Peace in collaboration with the Peoples’ Movement against Port City, were based mostly on opinions in newspapers, rather than factual reports. Such an august body as the UPR need to be presented with hard facts rather than assumptions based on people’s opinions.

His response to the Sunday Observer states that the fishermen “already know from their daily experience that their loss of income due to reduced fish stocks is caused directly by this project.” Is this fact or opinion? If one walks down to the fishing wadiyas in the area and ask the fishermen whether their catch per boat has reduced, it is agreed that the answer would be a resounding yes. But it is necessary to investigate further. If one bothers to ask the second question as to why it has reduced, they will tell that it has been happening from the post tsunami period, when donors from overseas, donated boats far exceeding the ones that were destroyed, therefore they have an abundance of boats.

Apart from that though, there are several reasons why there might be a reduction in fish stocks in the Negombo seas, especially, when it comes to the lagoon where a great deal of spawning is done. The pollution rate from plastics coming down the canals into the Negombo lagoon and clogging it, has reached dangerous proportions. Scientists say, in the geological time scale, the Negombo lagoon is currently at the last stages of a lagoon cycle. The exchange of water is very limited and incoming sediments cannot be pushed out because the channel is very narrow. The result is a wide varying range of salinity which makes it very difficult for biological organisms to survive. Urban, domestic, industrial, solid waste and sewage is directly dumped into the lagoon, resulting in the water quality becoming extremely poor. Due to high sedimentation and turbidity, light penetration decreases and the sea grass beds in the lagoon are destroyed.

These are the facts of the matter, and NGOs can play a crucial role by doing some real work in handling awareness programs as to how fishermen should be handling their lifestyles and livelihoods. The fact that surrounding residences and businesses are pumping their wastewater into the lagoon is a well known fact and these and other matters need to be addressed. This is an area that NGOs can contribute largely, instead of protesting on the streets. Community halls need to be built for social engagement where these matters can be taken up in conducive surroundings. Beacon lights need to be set up in places, for safe harbouring of fishing boats; beach clean ups are a dire necessity. All of this would fall under working with the poor, oppressed and exploited.

He asks “Is it not apparent that environmental destruction is taking place where sand mining is done in the sea and rock mining is done in the districts of Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara? Is it not foreseeable that environmental hazards would be created by toxic particles spreading around Colombo, during construction over a period of 15 to 20 years and transportation of materials?”

There are so many environmental and social questions that would arise with a project of this magnitude. This is why Environmental Impact Assessments are done and the latest one is now out for public viewing and comment. It is this columnist’s advice that anyone commenting on this subject must do his homework.

As for policy, the Government is clear on their stand on this project and you must be aware that the Port City development is a partnership with two other government agencies i.e. the Megapolis Ministry and the UDA. There are also 26 government agencies including NARA (National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency), CCD (Coast Conservation Department) and SLLRDC (Sri Lanka Land Reclamation & Development Corporation) monitoring the project. 

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