Around 1,500 petroleum workers could cripple fuel distribution in the country through their strike action. This appeared to have rung alarm bells for the Cabinet Ministers regarding the operation of state affairs smoothly. It became apparent at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting when they remarked that a handful of workers should not be allowed to bring the activities of the government to a standstill in this manner. They floated the idea for a committee involving the military to deal with emergency situations as and when they arise.
President Maithripala Sirisena jumped at the idea. He, in fact, mentioned former Army Commander-turned-Government Minister Sarath Fonseka as the ideal choice to handle such situations. He said it would be ideal if Mr. Fonseka who was adorned with the rank of Field Marshall after the new government came in, could become the Army Commander again, relinquishing his ministerial responsibilities. It was not a serious suggestion but a casual remark. However, he sounded serious about the proposal, that mechanisms should be set in place to deal with emergency situations. So he asked Mr. Fonseka to form a committee, including all the stakeholders such as the military and the police to work in this respect.
Protest marches, public demonstrations and trade union action have become daily occurrences. The government politicians in fact championed such rights of people when they were in the opposition. They cherished what they called ‘freedom of assembly’ and right to protest at that time. It now looks as if the very same policies had boomeranged on them in governance.
They are now incensed over the endless strike actions and public protests virtually on a daily basis; that they floated the idea for rigid control so that the government could be run without trouble. It was proposed that military personnel should be trained to be deployed for duty as replacements for workers on strike. Such action will not always be practical. It is not possible for military personnel to be alternatives for doctors on strike.
The crux of the matter here, is that the government has begun to feel that the present trend of anti-government protest will spin out of control at one point unless it is stopped right now. Possibly, it might fear a general strike at a critical moment. The government believes that it will be demeaned in the public eye if the trend climaxed into a general strike.
It is true that the government, since its inception in January, 2015, could not pursue its policies as it wished because of protests from different quarters. In the implementation of the provisions of the UNHRC resolution, it could not proceed in the way it intended. It has been unable to wrap up negotiations on the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India over objections from different quarters.
It has found it difficult to forge ahead with the project to sell off a stake of the Hambantota Port to Chinese Merchants Ports Holding Company. The proposed lease agreement with India for the development of the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm also evoked protest from petroleum workers, eventually compelling Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to assure them that he would not sign the deal during his visit to India.
Being compelled to shelve all its passion projects, the government seems to be running out of patience now and contemplates serious action to get its act together. That would have prompted its leaders to contemplate involvement of the military under the guidance of Mr. Fonseka to contain the trend. If the government actually was to act in this regard, it would go against the grain as it was opposed tooth and nail to such involvement whatsoever at that time in the past. Militarization of the state was a major allegation made against the then government by them.
Over the President’s suggestion in regard to this matter, the Cabinet Ministers exchanged pleasantries coupled with jokes. In fact, Public Administration Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara proposed to appoint Mr. Fonseka as the Minister of Essential Services.
India eyes key projects in Trincomalee
Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting took place against the backdrop of a strike by petroleum workers against the move to hand over the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm for development by India. Naturally, attention was drawn to the matter.
The strike impacted fuel distribution gravely. However, the Cabinet took up for discussion the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with India to execute a number of projects including the Trinco petroleum project. The Cabinet, in fact, approved the MOU just hours before the Prime Minister headed for New Delhi for talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. President Sirisena, at the Cabinet meeting, stressed that the government should not compromise the promise given to petroleum workers.
According to the MOU, India is keen to secure vital projects in Sri Lanka in the projection of its interests in the region. A Liquefied Natural Gas project, a Solar Plant in Sampur where a coal project was proposed in the past, to set up industrial parks, railway upgrading projects and the development of the Dambulla-Trincomalee expressway are among them. All these projects, if executed, will ensure a sizeable Indian presence in and around Trincomalee. Those who are against these projects speak of geopolitical implications involved in such an eventuality. They fear India will have a major clout over the affairs of Sri Lanka if these projects took off the ground, leaving it helpless in decision making.
India has shown interests in Trincomalee for decades now. In fact, the Indian authorities have objected to the offer of projects in the area for other countries in the past. On one occasion, it raised objection to an aircraft maintenance plant proposed to be put up by a Chinese company in Trincomalee.
Former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris once said in Parliament at that time, that his Indian counterpart inquired about it from her. Sri Lanka is in the attention of world superpowers because of its strategic positioning in the Indian Ocean. These powers seem to be competing with each other for a foothold in Sri Lanka by way of economic projects.
The Prime Minister’s visit takes place in such a context. Alongside, Mr. Modi will also arrive in Sri Lanka in view of UN Vesak Day celebrations next month. India has attached greater significance to its relations with Sri Lanka. It is the only country to be visited twice by Mr. Modi among India’s neighbours.
India, along with Japan, has conveyed its displeasure over China getting control over a port in Sri Lanka. The Joint Statement issued at the end of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s visit to Japan, speaks of it in volumes it was undertaken in it that port development would be done in Sri Lanka only under the control of Sri Lanka.
To allay the fears of Japan and India, a tripartite dialogue involving the two countries have been proposed at the moment.
PM to rub shoulders with Chinese leaders
In the meantime, Sri Lanka is under compulsion to balance out its relationship with China. The Prime Minister will leave for China next month to attend the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) summit in Beijing. On the sidelines of the event, he is reportedly planning to rub shoulders with the Chinese leaders including President Xi Jinping.
One Belt, One Route is a concept conceived and bankrolled by China to improve connectivity with the rest of the world in terms of economic and other relations. Sri Lanka is among the very first countries to have recognized and pledged co-operation with this project.
The Hambantota Port project is the key matter to be handled in Sino-Lanka relations. According to diplomatic sources, China is concerned about the absence of policy consistency in Sri Lanka at the moment. It has had some bitter experience at the beginning of this government after the suspension of the port city project.
John Seneviratne proposed Gal Arakku for Kasippu
Labour and Trade Union Relations Minister John Seneviratne is concerned over rising level of brewery and consumption of illicit liquor called Kasippu in the estate sector . He said this had become a social problem in these areas. As a result, at the Ratnapura District Development Committee meeting, he proposed to lower the prices of liquor brand called ‘Extra Special’. It is commonly called ‘Gal Arakku’ in village jargon.
“This is less harmful. Kassippu drinking is a major issue. Nobody is paying attention to it. Estate workers drink alcohol anyhow. If the legal brands are expensive, they will drink illicit ones. Both men and women have taken to alcoholism. We should stop this somehow. The best method is to make ‘Gal Arakku’ available at cheap rates for daily workers,” he told the meeting.
Interestingly, his proposal was approved by the committee including UNP MP A.A. Wijetunga. It will now be communicated to the government for consideration.