PARLIAMENT HEATED OVER BOND CONTROVERSY: MPs EXCHANGE BLOWS IN THE WELL OF THE HOUSE | Sunday Observer

PARLIAMENT HEATED OVER BOND CONTROVERSY: MPs EXCHANGE BLOWS IN THE WELL OF THE HOUSE

The political domain, this week, turned eventful with a number of unexpected developments arising from the Presidential Commission to probe into the bond controversy and the duration of President Maithripala Sirisena’s official term.

While President Maithripala Sirisena sought a clarification from the Supreme Court over the duration of his term, Parliament was convened by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya for a special session over the Presidential Commission’s report on the Bond issue.

It all started when several political parties, including, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Joint Opposition and the Janatha Vimukthi Permauna demanded a Parliamentary debate over the Bond issue.

The JVP also said it would file a Right to Information request to obtain a copy of the Bond Commission report.

They were of the assumption that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the United National Party would not agree to hold a debate over the Bond issue, especially, in the run up to an election.

Much to their surprise, the Prime Minister welcomed a Parliamentary debate on the matter. Addressing a special national assembly of the UNP, the Premier said he requested Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to discuss the Bond Commission report.

He also said, it was he who first referred the COPE report on the Bond issue to the Attorney General.

“Dinesh Gunawardena asked if we could debate the Bond Commission report to which I have said we should. I’ve requested the Speaker to hold a debate soon,” Wickremesinghe told cheering UNP supporters at Campbell Park, last Sunday.

“A sum of Rs.4,000 billion has been defrauded without the approval of the Monetary Board of the Central Bank, while Mahinda Rajapaksa made away with billions that could not be reimbursed.”

“But we have nothing to hide. We are ready to debate the Bond issue in Parliament,” the Prime Minister said.

Parliament

Accordingly, the Speaker took measures to convene Parliament on January 10 to discuss the Bond issue but the lawmakers were not in a position to debate the matter as the report of the Commission was not available.

Presidential Secretary, Austin Fernando said, the report could not be tabled in Parliament due to practical difficulties. He added that two copies of the report had already been handed over to the Central Bank Governor Indrajit Coomaraswamy and Bribery Commission Director General Sarath Jayamanne, for further action.

The Speaker, however, informed the House that the President had promised to table a copy of the report in Parliament on January 17. That means the Bond Commission report will be a public document in a few days.

When Parliament convened on Wednesday, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe made a special statement before the House, explaining the government’s position on the Bond controversy. In his speech, he levelled some serious allegations against the top-brass of the Rajapaksa camp which ran the affairs of the Central Bank from 2005 to 2014.

Wickremesinghe, in his statement, said, he intended to discuss with the Parliamentary Public Finance Committee Chairman about Bond issuances from 2008 to 2014, adding, it was surprising that the COPE Committee had approved Central Bank financial reports during that period.

He noted that the President and he are committed to establishing a new political culture in this country steering it in a democratic and fair path.

Following are excerpts of the Prime Minister’s speech.

“The President made a special statement on January 3. Today, I want to clarify further the Committee on Public Enterprises report or the (COPE) report.The initial dialogue on the Treasury bond issue was initiated in March 2015. As soon as I was informed about this, I appointed a three-member committee comprising Attorney Gamini Pitipana. On March 31, 2015, I informed this council. The Pitipana Committee investigated this issue and reported to me.This commission recommended that further investigations were required. This report was tabled in Parliament on May 19, 2015. On May 21,2015 we debated this issue in Parliament and later it was submitted to COPE.

Thereafter, the COPE Committee headed by MP Sunil Handunnetti, commenced investigations. Through the COPE Committee too, investigations continued into this incident. On October 28, 2016 the COPE Committee report was tabled in Parliament. Subsequently, on January 24, 2017 this was debated in Parliament.

Meanwhile, on October 31, 2016, this report and the special Audit report presented to the COPE Committee by the Auditor General were both forwarded to the Attorney General by me, through the Speaker’s Secretary.

Subsequently, through the Prime Minister’s Secretary, I sought the advice of the Attorney General on whether the Central Bank Officers had committed some fraudulent activity and acted beyond their delegated responsibilities, if the Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran should be held responsible, and if so, what the legal measures are that could be taken against them, based on the recommendations of the COPE Committee.

Accordingly, the AG has appointed a special committee comprising members of the Attorney General’s Department to act in this regard. The Attorney General has notified us in writing in this regard.

Suspicion

Further, the Central Bank Governor notified me that there was suspicion of misappropriation of funds of the EPF. Hence, I notified the Central Bank Governor to seek the advice of the AG and conduct an inquiry. Accordingly, the Central Bank Governor had conducted an investigation and on June 9, 2017, handed over its report to the Auditor General.

In addition, I inquired in writing from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on the Treasury bond issuance mechanism and of the losses incurred by the Central Bank Bond issuance. However, they notified me that they were not aware of an internationally accepted mechanism to determine a previously issued bond auction loss.They said, the losses or gains are determined by the market factors on the particular day that the bond auction was held. I have tabled a copy of the letter sent by the World Bank Sri Lanka Director on December 7, 2016.

Since March 2015, our government has taken appropriate measures regarding this issue. All details have been submitted to Parliament, COPE Committee and the Attorney General’s Office. In addition, the President appointed a special commission, which uncovered further details. Now the report has been submitted to the Attorney General.

Meanwhile, on November 7, 2016, the Monetary Board issued an order limiting the operations of Perpetual Treasures Pvt. Ltd and prevented the company’s funds from being taken out. On July 6, 2017, all their business activities were banned. On January 5, 2018 the ban on Perpetual Treasuries was further extended by six months. Accordingly, Rs. 12 billion of Perpetual Treasuries is being held in the custody of the Central Bank. According to the Presidential Commission report, the loss inflicted on the Central Bank in this transaction is Rs. 11 billion. Now what remains to be done is for the Attorney General to initiate the required legal action in order to recover the losses caused to the government through this transaction. Through this the government too could recover any losses incurred.

First time

This is the first time in Sri Lanka’s history that such an investigation was carried out in a fair, unbiased and expeditious manner. This is a very complex investigation process. This is a special victory for the government we established on January 8, 2015. We were able to once again bring the country’s financial control under the supervision of Parliament, after ten years. During the past, Parliament was unaware of any such transactions. To say the least, not even the relevant Ministers nor the responsible officers were aware of certain transactions.But,fortunately we were able to change that situation.

The President further stated that it was noted in the Presidential Commission report that an investigation was necessary to scrutinize the financial misappropriations of the Treasury bond issuances during 2008 to 2014. I have advised the relevant units to investigate these embezzlements expeditiously and take measures to punish the perpetrators.

The majority of bond issuances during the period 2008 to 2014 were done as direct private placements. There was absolutely no transparency. During this period bonds to the tune of Rs. 5,147,751,210,000 had been issued while of this amount bonds to the tune of Rs. 4,702,232,210,000 had been issued as direct private placements. None of these transactions had received the approval of the Monetary Board.

The Finance Minister at the time should make a statement in Parliament regarding this matter. We the representatives of the people, as well as the general public have the right to know about these transactions.

We continuously worked towards strengthening the financial control of Parliament. We have constantly reported to Parliament on the country’s financial status. Following that same policy, I reported all matters to Parliament.

Political issue

I intend to discuss with the Chairman of the Parliamentary Public Finance Committee regarding the bond issuances during the period 2008 to 2014. It is indeed surprising that the COPE Committee had approved of the Central Bank financial reports during that period.

Today, the Treasury bond issue has become a political issue. This bond issue has become a fine goldmine for the various media, political parties and mudslinging factories. Some claim that due to the Treasury bond issue the country’s interest rates had increased, while others claim that the dollar rate had gone up. But let’s not get misled by all these mudslinging campaigns and seek the truth. By uncovering the truth let’s take the appropriate measures.

As I have reiterated, the President and I are committed to establishing a new political culture in this country. This is a new experience that is complex and hard for those parties who attack each other in political vengeance, to fathom. As the experience is unfamiliar, there could be inadequacies and wrongs that occur, but we must correct them and move forward.”

While the Prime Minister was delivering this statement, Joint Opposition MPs stormed the well of the House, chanting slogans to interrupt his speech.

Clash

In a desperate bid to bring the situation under control, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya suspended the proceedings.According to our sister paper, the Daily News, ugly scenes unfolded in the House after suspension, ending up in bloodshed of MPs and torn up files and documents all over the floor of the main Chamber.

Hit and run games, exchange of fisticuffs and grappling of MPs became the order of the day during the special sitting which also marked the first sitting for this year.

The dramatic scenes started with a demonstration by the JO MPs who held posters on the Bond issue while the PM was on his feet. The posters held by the JO demanded immediate arrest of the “Bond culprits”. They walked towards the Mace carrying the posters and shouting out slogans. The Sergeant-at-Arms Anil Samarasekera and his deputy Kushan Jayaratne held on to the Mace in the bracket when the Opposition MPs tried to grab it.

Several UNP backbenchers, who also gathered in the middle of the well, tangled with the JO MPs, but several MPs of both sides intervened to separate their MPs. Some in the JO were seen throwing paper balls at the Government side benches. JO MPs shouted ‘Ranil Hora’ (Ranil is a thief) while the UNP Members shouted ‘Mahinda Hora’ (Mahinda is a thief).

UNP MP Kavinda Jayawardena who was seen arguing with the JO MPs fainted and fell down in the middle of the well. He was taken to a chair and sprinkled water on the face by fellow UNP members Sujeewa Senasinghe, S.M. Marikkar and Ranjan Ramanayake. After a while, MP Jayawardena was taken out of the chamber.

The JO members and UNP backbenchers clashed head on exchanging blows at each other. The posters, files and documents on the MPs benches were hurled at each other. UNP MP Marrikar punched JO MP Gamini Lokuge in the face and ran out of the chamber, and later on JO MP Prasanna Ranatunga also punched UNP MP Chaminda Wijesiri in the face. MP Johnston Fernando was seen punching UNP MPs Chaminda Wijesiri and Hector Appuhamy.

Live coverage

As the situation intensified, UNP MP Rohini Kaviratne was caught up in the middle of the brawl. As she was dragged and pushed by the other MPs, MPs Hirunika Premachandra and Thusitha Wijemanne hurried to help her get out of the fight.

Fully engulfed in the fistfight, JO MP Prasanna Ranaweera was quite oblivious to the fact that his shirt buttons were ripped open. Ranjith de Soysa was injured during the brawl.

While some MPs were exchanging blows in the well of the House, some did not forget to share the details of the fight on their social media profiles. UPFA MP Kanchana Wijesekera posted a live Facebook coverage of the fight on his social media profile while Policy Planning and Economic Affairs Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva and MP Hirunika Premachandra expressed their dismay in the social media space.Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva said an opposition member threw an object at the Prime Minister while the latter was delivering his speech. He accused Opposition MP Gamini Lokuge of starting the fight. “I am told never in history had there been a brawl in a Sri Lanka chamber like the one just now,” he tweeted.

Parliamentarian Hirunika Premachandra said Lokuge hit Marikkar and that was how the fist fight began. “As a young Parliamentarian, I am ashamed of the behaviour of our MPs,” she lamented.

President’s term

While the legislature was heated over the Bond issue, President Maithripala Sirisena asked the Supreme Court whether he could continue in office for 6 years. The question the President has asked the Supreme Court is as follows - “Whether, in terms of provisions of the Constitution, I, as the person elected and succeeding to the office of President and having assumed such office in terms of Article 32 (1) of the Constitution on 9th January 2015, have any impediment to continue in the office of President for a period of 6 years from 9th January 2015, the date on which the results of my election was declared.”

The incumbent President was elected on January 8, 2015, and had assumed duties in the office of President on January 9, 2015 for a period of six years. However, with the introduction of the 19th Amendment, the term of Presidency was reduced to five years.

Confusion arose when the legal circles presented two different viewpoints on the President’s term. The President’s Media Unit said that was why the President decided to seek a clarification from the Supreme Court.

Many parties, including the Attorney General’s Department, presented their views on the matter. They were taken up before a Supreme Court five-judge-bench comprising Chief Justice Priyasath Dep, Justice Eva Wanasundara, Justice Buwaneka Aluvihare, Justice Sisira de Abrew and Justice K.T. Chitrasiri.

AG

Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya, presenting his opinion, said the President could continue in office for six years, as “there were no provisions in the 19th Amendment to operate same with retrospective effect.”

The AG said the people of the country had exercised their sovereignty through the right of franchise to elect President Maithripala Sirisena to the office of President for a period of six years prior to the operation of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

Meanwhile, President’s Counsel Manohara de Silva, who appeared for Prof G.L Peiris, an intervenient petitioner, informed the Supreme Court that President’s term should be confined to five years in accordance with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

“The President in his website also insisted that he would like to limit his term of office. He agreed to have it for five years,” the President’s Counsel stated. Seven intervenient petitioners filed their papers and made oral submissions regarding the President’s reference. The Supreme Court is due to present its opinion to the President today (14).

It is still not clear whether President Sirisena will publicize the opinion of the Supreme Court’s opinion. Sources close to the President said publicizing the Supreme Court’s opinion was at the sole discretion of the President.

However, President Sirisena has already made it clear that he will honour the Supreme Court’s opinion on the matter. He also said he had no intention to continue in office for long and was prepared to go home “even today.”


‘World economy to have an impact on Port City project’

Last week, officials of the Port City and allied agencies connected to the project sat down at technical sessions to review the comments made in response to the 2017 EIA on Port City.

Only two comments had been received after the thirty-day public viewing of the documents which was specifically for the purpose of development activities and infrastructure facilities covering buildings, utilities, disposal procedures of waste water and solid waste, transport and traffic, landscaping and aesthetic, storm water management within the reclaimed land area of Port City.

The project company and its state agency partners were of the opinion that this response to the EIA was a strong endorsement of the sustainability plans of the project; especially, in comparison, with the 218 concerns raised in connection with the SEIA, which was made public in 2015.

The responses to the EIA were made by Feisal Mansoor representing the People’s Movement Against Port City (PMAC) and the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), considered one of the leading environmental NGOs in the country. The project company has taken the concerns raised into consideration and has placed on record that the suggestions made; especially, by the CEJ were greatly appreciated.

The matter was taken up at the review meeting of the project’s technical evaluation committee held last week at the Coast Conservation & Coastal Resource Management Department, attended by 25 government agencies.Among those present were representatives from the project company, the District Secretary, Director General of the Archeology Department, Director General of the Department of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources and an expert committee of eight specialists in the field of development and infrastructure.

The CEJ had stressed the importance of avoiding waste water mixing with storm water. In response the Port City Colombo’s Environmental Management team has said that the project Master Plan already provides separate systems to treat wastewater and storm water.

They have confirmed that waste water (water generated from kitchens and toilets) will be confined to a one pipe system to undergo treatment and sent to the municipality waste water disposal system post treating. In the case of storm water, they have plans underway for both storm water and drainage management, which would be handled as completely separate systems.

The Environmental Management team also observed that despite their concerns the NGO appeared to be pleased with the waste separation 3R (reduce, reuse, recycle) concept suggested in the EIA. The CEJ had also made a valid suggestion as to how it would be in the project’s best interests to promote onsite composting for use in gardening work.

The agencies and experts also agreed on how sufficient research had been carried out with regard to reef balls, as suggested by the CEJ, which rested the NGO’s concern about the success of artificial reefs replacing natural habitats. The technical committee and the Project Company were in agreement that the the NGO had made good suggestions overall, which they have taken into account.

On the other hand, while appreciating the comment submitted by Feisal Mansoor, the Project Company and partners were of the opinion that since he had quoted an article written by Ms Carmel Corea, which appeared in the Sunday Times, it was no longer valid as Port City Colombo had already responded to the issues raised in that story.

One of the eight specialists present at the committee meeting brought up the issue of vibrations during piling, the project company representatives said that there are various methods of pile driving which are being improved on a regular basis and the EIA suggests using improved methods instead of conventional systems which may cause vibration.

It was also pointed out that pile driving is done through sand which is a loose material that prevents or minimizes vibration.

Overall, the EIA has been a success and the Port City Colombo management is now looking at the project completing on schedule. However, Nihal Fernando, Project Director of Port City, said, the world economy would also have an impact on the project. “If the world economy is booming we will have a lot of investment coming in here. If it slacks down then the investment will stretch out. If it does not boom we are expecting to go on until 2041 to get the entire city built. But if the world economy improves then these targets can be reached much faster.”

Be that as it may, the CCD is set to present the findings of the meeting to the Coast Conservation Advisory Council to get the next stage of the project rolling. If approved, the CCD would grant the necessary permit for the project company to implement their master plan. 

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