By Sanjeewa Jayaweera –
The letter sent by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) Chairman, Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe on July 03, 2019 is not in the public domain.
Nevertheless, the Chamber, in a media release stated it wished to express its concerns about the increasing level of speculation among its membership and society at large. It relates to the consequences arising from the proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Agreement. The media release also requested the government to provide an enhanced level of transparency concerning these agreements and their potential consequences besides clarification to the current position and exact status of the negotiations and /or execution.
The media release further stated, transparency and additional information would also add value. It would provide comfort to relevant stakeholders and the public at large of due process such as legislative approvals being followed when negotiating and executing these agreements.
The Chamber also acknowledged it was inevitable for differences in opinion to arise as to the pros and cons of these agreements. A commitment to transparency by all parties would ensure a fair and balanced discussion.
Responding to the letter, Secretary to Prime Minister, E.M.S.B. Ekanayake stated, the government had adhered to the values of good governance and transparency. The letter claimed, the Chamber and its constituent members had been appraised of ongoing negotiations concerning the MCC. According to Ekanayake’s letter, dates of several such instances going back to April 2016 up to October 2018 had been provided. It also stated that the Chamber had also been informed of the specific projects coming within the MCC and U.S. government would provide USD 490 million as a grant. The Chamber had been a stakeholder participating in the process. Hence the PM had expressed surprise of the Chamber’s now claimed ignorance.
The Secretary’s letter further claimed, there was no SOFA between the Sri Lankan and the U.S. governments.
However, what is most astonishing, disappointing, and reprehensible is the final part of Ekanayaka’s letter. It states, “In his view (Prime Minister’s), this brings up the question of your own motives and credibility in following the line taken by certain political parties with their own agenda for elections. The politicization of this reputable business conglomerate under your recent assumption of leadership is to be much regretted.”
At the outset, I wish to state I do not know Wijayasuriya on a personal level and as such, have no knowledge as to his political affiliations. Presumably, as with many of us, he too must be neither to the right, left or center!
What I do know is that he has been the Director /C.E.O. of the largest mobile communications operator in the country for nearly two decades. Given the success of that organization, his track record as a successful business leader is far superior to that of the Prime Minister besides that of several Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers, and state officials since independence in 1948.
I have never worked for the Chamber nor held any honorary positions. I am not too familiar with its internal governance. Nevertheless, it would be correct to assume the letter signed by Wijayasuriya does not represent his personal views. It would have contained the collective opinions of a majority of the Chamber Board comprising of several senior C.E.O.’s of large corporates in the country or even their unanimous approval.
The Chamber Board would have agreed on the contents of the letter sent. Therefore, to cast aspersions singularly on the political affiliations of Wijesuriya is totally unacceptable and below the dignity of the office of the Prime Minister. While I am no lawyer, I would think that there is enough ground for Wijayasuriya to sue the Prime Minister for slander.
The attempt to cast aspersions on the Chamber Chairman is a clear case of attempting to bully and browbeat a private individual holding a key position in the business community. I say this because for too long has our Private Sector been silent and subservient to the powers that be.
Those who work in the private sector complain bitterly of ineptitude and corruptness of rulers. They do so within the confines of their offices and homes. They nevertheless grin and bear the indignities heaped on them and their organizations by politicians.
The response of many as to why they would not stand up to those in power would be “I cannot jeopardize the interests of the shareholders.”
This country endured a debilitating civil war for nearly 25 years during which time the Private Sector remained mostly silent and passive despite the adverse impact that it had on the various businesses.
In the above context, people of this country need to applaud the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce for taking up an issue causing considerable concern to many of us. Until the Political Editor of a leading Sunday newspaper disclosed details of SOFA, none of us knew about it. Citizens were in the dark and would no doubt have remained so if not for the efforts of the investigative journalists. They alerted the general public of a possible agreement that may have serious implications for this country. In the minds of many, the grant of USD 490 million under the MCC agreement may be linked to SOFA which may or may not be the case.
Under the circumstances, the letter written by the Chamber and signed by its Chairman is perfectly justifiable. It should not have resulted in the Prime Minister publicly casting aspersions on Wijayasuriya. That is not the way things should be done. I hope the rest of the business community and the people at large join me in the outright condemnation of the Prime Minister’s statement communicated through his Secretary.
Finally, it reminds me of the special tax/levy that was imposed as a one-off on many companies after the present government assumed office in 2015. The tax/ levy referred to as the “Super Gains Tax” was justified based on taxing the “ill-gotten gains” during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
I, for one, never understood as to how hundreds of listed companies in this country colluded with the Rajapaksa government to have accrued “ill-gotten gains.”