Sri Lanka’s premier business chamber, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC), this week was at the receiving end of prime ministerial anger over the apex organisation’s recent statement regarding the Millennium Corporation Challenge (MCC) and Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a political hot potato in the current context.
On July 3, the CCC issuing a statement called for enhanced transparency regarding the two agreements and sought out more details from the government about their potential consequences and the current status of their negotiations between the Sri Lankan and United States governments.
The statement seemed to have touched a nerve as a letter sent in response to CCC Chairman Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office—which was released to the media last Sunday—was a harshly-worded one, accusing the well-respected business leader of politicising the good chamber.
The letter, which contained several annexes, stated the CCC and its membership were privy to the negotiations of the MCC agreement from the very initial stages and were aware of the development projects proposed by the Government of Sri Lanka under it.
The letter also stressed that there was no SOFA between the Sri Lankan and US governments, as no proposal to that effect was forwarded by the Defence Ministry to the Cabinet of Ministers for approval.
Further, the letter expressed surprise over the claim of ignorance by the CCC of the MCC agreement, as they were a stakeholder participating in the whole process, which he thought questions the chamber’s credibility, as similar claims are being made by the opposition political parties to gain advantage at the upcoming elections.
All in all, the letter made it clear that questions regarding the MCC and SOFA were not welcome and gave the impression that the CCC and Hans Wijayasuriya had behaved like naughty children. But given the controversy surrounding the agreements and America’s eagerness to get a foothold in South Asia, warrant such questions and the CCC as a leading private sector voice has all the right to call for more transparency from the authorities.
It was bizarre why Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s office was quick to accuse Wijayasuriya of politicising the CCC, when what the trade chamber had done was to express a legitimate concern their membership had.
Since there had been no official communication from the government other than the claims by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera that the opposition political parties were simply fearmongering and the agreements were harmless, asking for more transparency and details about the agreements does not warrant such a strong-worded letter accusing the CCC and its leadership of playing politics.
In fact, a draft copy of the proposed SOFA agreement obtained by our sister paper The Sunday Times shows that certain demands by the US, under the agreement, clearly impinge on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Neither the government nor the United States embassy in Colombo so far has refuted The Sunday Times news reports.
It is the utmost responsibility of the organisations such as the CCC to voice their concerns on issues of national importance and we should applaud them for that. And when they don’t carry out their national duties, we should not hesitate to criticise them.
Mirror Business in 2011 November ran a story headlined ‘Gutless chambers’ criticising the timid stance of the business chambers led by the CCC towards the draconian expropriation bill presented by the then Rajapaksa administration.
The torrent of criticism followed that led the chambers to make an about-turn and issue a new statement asking the government to differ the proposed bill, a stance that was not even insinuated in their earlier statement.
In the case of the SOFA, some were quick to say that the CCC jumped the gun by issuing a statement on an agreement that hasn’t even reached the Cabinet of Ministers. However, The Sunday Times news reports revealed how an Accessing and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the US government in 2017 was smuggled through the Cabinet.
For almost two years, the contents of the ACSA were not been placed before Parliament. A chilling claim contained in The Sunday Times political column was that under the ACSA, there is no barrier for a US aircraft carrier to dock in the Trincomalee deep-water harbour. Mind you, the SOFA is supposed to be an extension to the ACSA.
So, in this backdrop, is it a crime to ask for transparency with regards to crucial agreements that Sri Lanka may enter in future? President Sirisena addressing the media heads in Colombo in June said he was against the agreements such as the SOFA, which the government is considering signing with the US government.
So, should the CCC wait for the SOFA agreement to reach the Cabinet to ask for transparency and the potential consequences of such agreements? Hence, the argument that the CCC acted too soon and was misled by the opposition political parties holds no water. There is no point closing the stable door when the horse has bolted.
Of course, Sri Lanka needs to integrate with the world and should ink deals with other countries to promote its trade and exports. But that should not come at the expense of the country’s sovereignty. The citizens of Sri Lanka would be grateful to the CCC for putting their weight behind issues of national interest and more power to the good chamber to keep on asking the right questions!
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