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Impact of foreign-funded projects on Parliament’s standing as sole sovereign and supreme body

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Members of the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus during their recently-concluded visit to New Zealand (pic courtesy Parliament)

Yahapalana Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s plea for Indian funding to develop Elapathagama in the memory of the late Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera remains a mystery. In terms of an agreement signed on 14 July, 2017, India provided Sri Lankan

Rs 300 mn to develop Elapathagama in the Anuradhapura district. The late Sobitha Thera, a controversial character, spearheaded a high profile campaign that facilitated the UNP-led Opposition strategy meant to thwart Mahinda Rajapaksa securing a third presidential term.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Actress Shalani Tharaka dominated electronic, print and social media recently after the shocking disclosure that Sri Lanka Cricket heavyweight Jayantha Dharmadasa recommended her for an Australian visa among other faux pas committed by the cavalier SLC Executive Committee.

The revelation, based on Auditor General W.P.C. Wickremaratne’s draft report on the country’s disastrous T-20 World Cup tour of Australia late last year, embarrassed the SLC. The SLC is yet to respond to a spate of questionable ‘transactions’ raised by the National Audit Commission in its draft report handed over to Sports Secretary K. Mahesen. That report is evidence that the SLC bosses spent funds at will in spite of being answerable to Parliament.

Then versatile singer Umara Sinhawansa upstaged model Tharaka, who captured the media limelight in 2007 as ‘Sirasa’ Kumariya. Sinhawansa earned the wrath of the nationalists for the way she sang the national anthem at the opening of LPL at the R. Premadasa stadium, Khettarama, on Sunday (30 July). Social media exploded over the issue at hand while the government sought the advice of Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, in this regard.

Would Umara have received such negative coverage if she had not performed live at the invitation of SLC, under heavy fire over squandering of funds? It would be pertinent to ask how much Umara received for her controversial singing of the national anthem. Perhaps the Auditor General would raise that issue later with the SLC. Most probably she put in her sincere best effort, without knowing some of the key words in the national anthem. May be the blame should go to our education system and those at SLC who should have whetted her performance, in advance. The whole issue should be examined against the backdrop of Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe’s claim that SLC didn’t even bother to consult him regarding the LPL tournament. But another issue is how much Umara Sinhawansa’s particpation at the LPL opening cost SLC.

The draft report underscored the failure on the part of Parliament to discipline the richest sports body in the country. In fact, the reports issued by the National Audit Commission, over the past several years, reveal the pathetic failure on the part of our supreme legislative body the Parliament at all levels.

Close on the heels of the continuing controversy over Umara who’s younger sister Umariya received the honour of singing ‘Hanthane Sihine’ with the late maestro W.D. Amaradewa a few years ago.

Meanwhile the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus’ visit to New Zealand also grabbed public attention. So much so, Secretary General of Parliament Kushani Rohanadeera issued a brief statement to explain the position of the Parliament. Rohanadeera insisted that public funds weren’t utilized. The funding was provided by Sri Lanka’s development partners. The initiative, launched two and half years ago, never received public funding and the visit was meant to gain experience from developed countries in the Commonwealth.

The group consisted of Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle (SLPP), Dr. Sitha Arambepola (SLPP), Rohini Kumari Wijeratne (SJB), Pavithradevi Vanniarachchi (SLPP), Geetha Samanmalee Kumarasinghe (SLPP), Thalatha Atukorale (SJB), Kokila Gunawardena (SLPP), Mudita Prishanthi (SLPP), Rajika Wickramasinghe (SLPP), Manjula Dissanayake (SLPP) and. (Dr.) Harini Amarasuriya (JJB). Secretary General of Parliament Kushani Rohanadeera, Assistant Director (Administration) Indira Dissanayake and Media Manager of Parliament Nimmi Hathiyaldeniya accompanied the delegation. Having left the country on 24th July, the group concluded the visit on 3rd August.

The Island

sought an explanation from the Chairperson of the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus Dr. Sudharshini Fernandopulle. The Gampaha District parliamentarian said that the Secretary General would have issued a statement in response to media queries in this regard. The lawmaker added: “New Zealand was selected because they have 50% women’s representation in Parliament, as well as in Cabinet. They also have an electoral system, known as Multi Member Representation, where people have two votes – one for the party and the other for the candidate. This system ensures representation by small parties, too. This high representation has been introduced by reforms within political parties where they have fielded more female candidates.”

A few years ago, the media wouldn’t have raised such a visit. But the conduct of members of Parliament and especially their foreign visits are increasingly coming under public scrutiny against the backdrop of the country being declared bankrupt in April 2022 and unprecedented deterioration of parliamentary standards over a period of time. (During the war various interests sought to influence MPs by arranging foreign tours. They felt public opinion can be manipulated by winning over MPs)

NZ tour courtesy USAID

In a trilingual statement, dated 02 August, the Parliament explained how the required funding for this year’s tour was obtained. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), with the funding provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has organized the tour undertaken by the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus for the advancement of Sri Lankan women at every level.

In addition to the USAID, the NDI works closely with the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Department of State and the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS). The above-mentioned organisations are well known around the world for sponsoring such initiatives, in line with furthering US interests.

During the nearly 10-day visit, Dr. Fernandopulle’s group had an opportunity to meet New Zealand’s first woman Prime Minister Helen Clark as well as Jacinda Ardern who created waves as the Premier from 2017 to 2023. They shared their experience with the visiting MPs, with Ardern focusing on the challenges she faced in the face of the economic and political crises, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, during her tenure.

Political parties, represented in Parliament, should seriously examine whether the country benefited from foreign tours received by its members. Let me stress that such an appraisal shouldn’t be restricted to the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus. Unfortunately, Parliament has never been bothered with such examinations though a section of the media raised the accountability on the part of the House to provide proper audit of foreign grants.

Perhaps Parliament can explain the outcome of the high profile USAID project worth Rs. 1.92 billion (USD 13.7 million), launched in late November 2016, during Karu Jayasuriya’s tenure as the parliamentary Speaker during the Yahapalana government.

The USAID, partnered with the Parliament, and the first project of its kind, was meant to strengthen accountability and democratic governance. Interestingly, USD 3 mn had been released in September 2016 before the official launch of the project.

Parliament announced the USAID project in the wake of Sri Lanka becoming the newest member of the United States’ House Democracy Partnership programme which purports to support peer-to-peer exchanges for partner legislatures around the world.

By then the massive Treasury bond scams had been perpetrated twice in late February 2015 and March 2016 while the fugitive Governor of the Central Bank, Singaporean Arjun Mahendran, later indicted in the High Court of Colombo, had still not fled the country.

Actually, Karu Jayasuriya, the incumbent head of the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ), certainly owes an explanation as to the progress made in terms of the three-year Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability Project (SDGAP) geared to improve strategic planning and communication within government and Parliament, enhance public outreach, develop more effective policy reform and implementation processes, and increase political participation of women and underrepresented groups in Parliament and at local level.

The people have a right to know how the USAID funds were spent and whether stated objectives were achieved, especially in light of former US Secretary of State John Kerry having crowed about how they brought about undemocratic secret regime changes here and elsewhere after spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

Maryland headquartered Development Alternatives, Inc (DAI) implemented the project intended to reform the public sector in accordance with an agreement between Sri Lanka and the House Democracy Partnership of the US House of Representatives.

During the implementation of that USAID project, Speaker Jayasuriya had retained retired controversial career diplomat Prasad Kariyawasam as his advisor. Kariyawasam, who had served as the Foreign Secretary after being Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington, was on the USAID payroll. Kariyawasam earned the wrath of the JO/SLPP and various other parties. They accused him of promoting US interests, both in and outside Parliament. Even as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington, he figured in a rather embarrassing press conference with TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran claiming that there was a triparite agreement on the setting up of hybrid court to investigate accountbaility issues.

Having failed in its bid to elect General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential election, the US played a role in the change of government in January 2015. No less a person than the then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who visited Colombo, in May 2015, is on record as having said that the US-funded restoration of democracy (read clandestine change of governments) in Nigeria, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The State Department referred to USD 585 mn as the cost of those clandestine projects.

May be due to such continuing underhand interventions of the US, Sri Lanka ended up bankrupt and the incumbent Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe had to officially acknowledge the country’s pathetic status in April 2022. The economic fallout should be examined taking into consideration the circumstances the Yahapalana administration (2015- 2019) obtained International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs) to the tune of USD 12.5 bn.

Interestingly, Auditor General W.P.C. Wickramaratne exposed the massive disparity between the above such borrowings and lack of corresponding assets when he addressed a workshop for parliamentarians recently

According to the Auditor General, Sri Lanka has taken project loans, amounting to eight trillion in rupee terms ,since 2015, but the country has corresponding assets worth only two trillion rupees to show, leaving a black hole of six trillion rupees.

According to a report in the Sunday Times BUSINESS of 30 July, Wickramaratne was quoted as having stated that this cannot be acceptable by any accounting standards and that loans are recorded as liabilities on the borrower’s balance sheet.

The explanation given for this disparity by state officials was that they were in the process of assessing the assets, he has revealed, adding that even after eight years the country was unable to identify the corresponding assets.

Like in the case of the CB bond scam we may not see any justice in our life time the way the system works, but even if this was a robbery of six trillion marbles it is certainly no small matter.

The Sunday Times BUSINESS, in a separate report headlined “Loophole for money launderers in Foreign Exchange Act” says a gaping loophole in the six-year-old Foreign Exchange Act (introduced by the Yahapalana government) is damaging the country’s fight against money laundering.

Enacted in 2017 after repealing the 1953 Exchange Control Act, it quotes unnamed experts as stating that the Act does not have provisions to regularise foreign exchange transfers.

Accountability of Parliament

On the request of Yahapalana Speaker Jayasuriya, China arranged familiarisation tours for members of Parliament. Tours began about 10 weeks after the August 2015 General election. Altogether 11 batches of MPs, accompanied by officials, visited China from Oct0ber 2015 to July 2019. Following their return, the then Chinese Ambassador in Colombo Cheng Xueyuan hosted a grand reception for the parliamentarians.

In addition to them, a group of journalists, covering Parliament, too, were included in the deal. Did the country benefit in any way from these junkets?

During the period the groups of lawmakers toured China, the emerging power finalized the controversial deal on the Hambantota port. Then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had been openly critical of Chinese policy here, ended up leasing the port for a period of 99 years. In spite of the government repeatedly claiming that the leasing was meant to raise the funds required to settle loans, taken from China to build the port, subsequently it was revealed USD 1.2 bn received from China was utilized for other purposes. When the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) raised this issue with Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), it didn’t even know how USD 1.2 was spent. The then Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga resigned after having refused to sign the lease agreement. But President Maithripala Sirisena brought in Mahinda Samarasinghe as the Shipping Minister to authorize the deal. Finally, Samarasinghe who entered Parliament on the SLPP ticket, at the last general election, in August 2020, received appointment as our Ambassador in Washington.

Speaker Jayasuriya also obtained laptops for all MPs, courtesy China. China is reported to have spent $293,000 for the supply of nearly 250 laptops.

Regardless of foreign lessons and a range of other facilities received by parliamentarians, the standards have deteriorated over the years with political parties losing control over its members. The absence of MPs at vital votes in Parliament reflects the unprecedented crisis in Parliament today. There cannot be a better example than the vote on the Central Bank of Sri Lanka Bill on 20 July, this year. Parliament passed the Bill with a majority of 42 votes, with amendments. The Bill received 66 votes in favour and 24 voting against it. Both the government and the Opposition owed an explanation why more than half of the total number of lawmakers skipped the vote. Examination of several votes, taken over the past several years, proved that MPs participation was low (Parliament meets only eight days a month) and the absence of quorum in Parliament is not a rarity.

The MPs’ participation in the vote on resolution regarding the Domestic Debt Optimization (restructuring of local debt) on 01 July, this year, was much better, even though the absence of 41 lawmakers cannot be justified, under any circumstances. Altogether 122 MPs voted for the resolution whereas 62 voted against.

The position taken by political parties, and individual members, should be examined, taking into consideration President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s declaration that the Parliament failed to avert the financial crisis. Wickremesinghe, who also holds the Finance portfolio, found fault with the Parliament at a recent awards ceremony held in the House. However, the UNP leader cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the country’s bankruptcy status. Having first entered Parliament, in1977, Wickremesinghe represented the UNP in Parliament, apart from a break of 10 months, from August 2020 to June 2021. That was due the UNP’s humiliating defeat at the last general election when it failed to win a single seat and had to be contented with one National List slot. The UNP couldn’t reach consensus on the National List nominee for nearly a year before Wickremesinghe took oaths on 23 June, 2021, as an MP. Having served as the Premier on six occasions, Wickremesinghe, too, owed an explanation regarding the failure of Parliament to achieve its two primary tasks, namely ensure financial discipline and enactment of laws.

Parliament, as an institution, owed an explanation as to why the Exchange Control Act No 12 of 2017 hadn’t been amended yet to bring enough pressure to bear on those who had parked billions of USD overseas to bring the money back. In spite of some dissident MPs, including Gevindu Cumaratunga, Wimal Weerawansa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara raising this issue, both in and out of Parliament, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government has conveniently turned a blind eye to the urgent need to amend the Exchange Control Act No 12 of 2017. They have estimated the amount of forex stashed overseas at USD 36 bn whereas Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, placed that amount at USD 53 bn (during a period of 12 years). Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, too, has publicly discussed this issue though he never referred to USD 36 bn or USD 53 bn. However, exporters stashing money overseas remains a major problem. Would Justice Minister Rajapakse care to explain what he has done so far to change the laws as promised by him last December.

In spite of the big talk by leaders of political parties and propaganda shows,courtesy the House, the Parliamentary system is in tatters. That is the ugly truth. The UNDP and Parliament should examine whether their current costly projects resulted in tangible improvement to the parliamentary system.

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