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Friday December 8th, 2023

Opposing Sri Lanka Telecom share sale on national security grounds baseless: expert

Prof Rohan Samarajiva – Image credit: LIRNEasia

ECONOMYNEXT – Objections raised by a parliamentary committee to the proposed sale of Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) on national security grounds hold no water and have no basis in historical fact, according to former Director General of Telecommunications Prof Rohan Samarajiva.

Speaking to EconomyNext on Friday June 09, Samarajiva said the concerns raised by the Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security displays an ignorance of the history of Sri Lanka’s telecommunications sector as well as developments in the region.

Government MP Sarath Weerasekara who chairs committee in question told parliament Friday June 09 morning that divestment of the 49.5 percent stake in SLT held by the government could “expose the country’s strategic communication infrastructure and sensitive information to private companies that are motivated by profit, which could pose a threat to national security”.

The claim came despite satellite links and international cables connecting the country being built and managed by foreign conglomerates in which many connected countries are also shareholders. The committee will not recommend a sell down of shares, the MP said, adding that any individual or organisation proscribed or otherwise that “aided terrorists or extremists” must not be allowed to purchase shares or control Sri Lanka’s national assets.

Weerasekara also suggested that the government retain the right to repurchase shares held by the majority shareholder of SLT whose second biggest shareholder is Malaysia-based Usaha Tegas Sdn Bhd with a 44.9 percent stake in the company.

Most of Sri Lanka’s mobile firms were also built and owned not just by private firms but foreign ones. SLT’s own mobile network, Mobitel, was a build-operate-transfer project by Australia’s Telstra.


Sri Lanka Telecom share sale opposed on ‘national security’ grounds

According to Samarajiva, trade unions had made the same arguments in 1989 when the then government mooted privatising SLT, which was a corporation at the time. The unions, he said, even managed to persuade then Minister of National Security Lalith Athulathmudali that selling SLT would pose a national security threat.

By 1997 when the war between government security forces and the separatist Tamil Tigers was raging, the professor said, the ‘national security’ argument no longer had any weight.

“Not only did we privatise the company, but we also gave complete management control to the minority investor,” he said, referring to the 35 percent stake sold to the Tokyo-based Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) group.

The Japanese company would go on to hold management control of SLT for several years.

“This was in the middle of a war and nothing untoward happened. If these fears were true, something bad should’ve happened, but it didn’t,” said Samarajiva, recalling the new connections and parallel developments that were taking place through competition.

He noted that, prior to privatisation, the state-owned corporation had in fact been “extremely neglectful” of national security-related vulnerabilities.

SLT’s entire international gateway at the time had continued to be located on Lotus Road, the site of more than one bomb blast, with no backup nor restoration capabilities. Samarajiva said that upon his directives as Telecommunications DG, the Japanese company was quick to create a backup facility so that, in the event of a security incident, the operations could be quickly resumed from another location.

“Now that is a concrete threat to national security, and we can see how state ownership dealt with it and how private ownership with regulation dealt with it,” he said.

Samarajiva also invited parties concerned about national security purportedly posed by SLT’s proposed privatisation to consider international examples. Australia, which has concerns about Chinese infiltration, for instance, does not have a state-owned provider, while military-run Pakistan has privatised its fixed line operator.

One way to address national security concerns, according to Prof Samarajiva, is to ensure the stringent functioning of SLT’s management and to ensure resource adequacy for investments for backup facilities and the like. Additionally, the Data Protection Act has provisions that could deal with any concerns regarding records purportedly being used by foreign entities.

Appointments to key positions of the company could be not only Sri Lankan citizens but have gone through a strict security clearance process and are party to agreements and mandates that are in line with the country’s national security objectives.

“That is how you do these things,” said Samarajiva.

He added that what exactly constitutes a ‘national security concern’ must be established first.

“A specific example would be the international gateway, which is a software based facility, in a place where there is no backup and no restoration capabilities. That to me is a national security concern,” he said.

The professor said that he would be happy to work with anybody to address national security concerns of that nature. With regard to records, he said, special safeguards can be put in place in addition to protections provided by the new Data Protection Act.

“National security is not a slogan. National security takes specific forms. Most people who talk about national security talk about it as a slogan; but people like me, who have thought about it, will talk about its operationalised forms,” he said. (Colombo/Jun09/2023)

Comments (4)

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  1. Donald Gaminitilake says:

    In other countries fiber is 1000 and also going to 5G. SLT is mute.

  2. Emil van der Poorten says:

    Thank goodness for the likes of Professor Samarajiva!

  3. Shanthilal Nanayakkara says:

    There is a strong likelihood that there is a potential security threat unless otherwise appropriate legislative arrangements for regulatory aspects are put in place.

  4. shanthilal nanayakkara says:

    There is the likelihood of ‘security threats’ unless appropriate legislative arrangements are put in place prior to the sale.

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Comments (4)

Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Donald Gaminitilake says:

    In other countries fiber is 1000 and also going to 5G. SLT is mute.

  2. Emil van der Poorten says:

    Thank goodness for the likes of Professor Samarajiva!

  3. Shanthilal Nanayakkara says:

    There is a strong likelihood that there is a potential security threat unless otherwise appropriate legislative arrangements for regulatory aspects are put in place.

  4. shanthilal nanayakkara says:

    There is the likelihood of ‘security threats’ unless appropriate legislative arrangements are put in place prior to the sale.

SLPP enjoying “great demand” from potential presidential candidates: Namal

FILE PHOTO – President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with nephew Namal at the opening of the last part of the Southern Expressway/PMD

ECONOMYNEXT – The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) enjoys “great demand” from potential presidential candidates, and the party will have to take a call on working with incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe, MP Namal Rajapaksa said.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday December 07, Rajapaksa claimed several names have come up concerning the SLPP’s candidate at next year’s presidential election.

“There is great demand: entrepreneurs, businessmen, politicians, are all there. There are presidents too, ready to come forward with our party,” he said.

“Out of all these people, we will put forward on behalf of our party the candidate that can take the country forward while stabilising the economy,” he added.

Commenting on continued support for President Wickremesinghe, Rajapaksa said the while SLPP at present works with the former in the present government, the party will have to decide whether that relationship continues going forward.

“The matter of whether we work with the United National Party (UNP) in the future – this is not a politics dependent on individuals; the SLPP is a party. We will talk as a party with other parties, but no discussions will be held centred around individuals,” he said.

Rajapaksa noted that Wickremesinghe was the only member of parliament representing the UNP at the time of his election by parliament following the resignation of his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa .

“If we are to collaborate with the UNP in the future, we’ll have to discuss that. Once the party has decided on that, we can get a start on those discussions. Today, we work with the president in the present government,” he said.

Last month, when asked to comment on President Wickremesinghe’s 2024 budget, MP Rajapkasa sounded rather sceptical of the president’s ambitions for turning the crisis-hit economy around.

“We must study the budget. He had presented a lot of these proposals in last year’s budget too. They don’t seem to have been implemented,” Namal Rajapaksa said, speaking to reporters after the budget presentation Monday November 13 afternoon.

Rajapaksa’s father and leader of the SLPP former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, however, spoke in favour of Wickremesinghe’s budget.


Sri Lanka’s “forward-looking” 2024 budget will instill fiscal discipline: MR

While not without its shortcomings, the older Rajapaksa said, the 2024 budget is a forward-looking one that aims to ensure fiscal discipline and put Sri Lanka on the path to recovery. (Colombo/Dec07/2023)

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Sri Lanka ruling party MP contradicts poll to claim his party is overtaking president’s

ECONOMYNEXT – The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is rising from the ashes albeit at a slower than anticipated pace, while President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) still commands only 1-2 percent of the vote, an SLPP legislator said.

MP S B Dissanayake, who is not a member of the cabinet of ministers headed by President Wickremesinghe, told reporters on Thursday December 07 that support for any major political party of the island nation is on a downward trend while the SLPP alone is gaining ground.

An independent poll by the Institute for Health Policy (IHP) however shows that this is decidedly not the case. Polling data for October showed that the leftist National People’s Power (NPP) had enjoyed support from 40 percent of likely voters, having dipped 2 percent from September, while the main opposition the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) stood at 26 percent, increasing four percent from 22 percent in September. President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP’s support decreased marginally to 11 percent in October from September’s 13 percent. The SLPP also saw a decrease to 5 percent from the previous month’s 8 percent.

“You can’t gamble with elections. The election must be held. We always say electrons must be held. The presidential election must be held next year. There is no alternative,” said Dissanayake.

“Parliamentary elections can be called if needed. But that’s not how it is with the presidential election. Nominations for that will have to be called by September, October next year,” he added.

Asked by a reporter if the SLPP is ready for elections, Dissanayake acknowledged that support for his party had eroded, to nothing.

“We crashed to zero. We were turned to ashes. But we will rise from those ashes. We’re not where we thought we were. The 6.9 million [votes received at the 2019 presidential election] no longer applies. We’re at about half of that. But we’re rising, like this,” he said, gesturing upwards.

“As other major parties go in the opposite direction, we’re rising slowly. But the UNP is not. It’s still on the ground, and still at 1 to 2 percent,” he claimed.

“The SLFP is there too. Those who left us are the same. Even together they cannot form 1 percent. But we’re climbing,” he said. (Colombo/Dec07/2023)

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Sri Lanka president appoints main opposition MP advisor

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed MP Vadivel Suresh as a Senior Advisor aimed at “fostering the integration of Hill Country Tamils into Sri Lankan society”, the president’s office said.

A statement from the President’s Media Divison (PMD) said Suresh’s “pivotal role will centre around overseeing the comprehensive integration of Hill Country Tamils, particularly focusing on the districts of Badulla, Nuwara Eliya and Rathnapura”.

“The Senior Advisor will play a key role in coordinating various initiatives related to the welfare of Plantation Companies, the promotion of women, safeguarding children, addressing disparities in Tamil schools and upgrading the delivery of health services,” the statement said.

In May this year, Suresh, who represents the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) in parliament and also serves as the general secretary of the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers’ Union, made headlines when he issued an ultimatum to opposition and SJB leader Sajith Premadasa, demanding an apology for a perceived slight on the Indian-origin Tamil community that Suresh represents. He also spoke favourably of President Wickremesinghe, hinting at a possible cross over.

Sri Lanka’s Indian-origin Tamils, most of whom have historically worked in the plantation sector and live in dire conditions on wages widely considered unacceptably low. Speaking at a May Day rally, the Badulla district MP said Premadasa must apologise to the estate Tamils for allegedly snubbing them at an event in Madulsima that he failed to attend.

“I would like to say to our leader, sir, do not take us for granted,” said Suresh.

“If you need us to stay with you, come right now to Madulsima and apologise to my people and then we shall restart our journey. Otherwise I won’t be part of that journey. There will be no Vadivel Suresh. If you don’t apologise to my people, I won’t be with the SJB,” he said.

Making matters worse, the MP also expressed a willingness to join President Wickremesinghe if he was able to raise the daily wage of plantation workers and resolve their grievances. He also said the president has been successful in containing the disruptions caused by the currency crisis.

“On this May Day, we say to both the opposition leader and the president, I and my people would join hands with a leader that worked to increase [estate workers’] wages and give them [access to the Samurdhi welfare scheme] and include them in national policy,” he said. (Colombo/Dec07/2023)

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