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Tuesday February 7th, 2023

Sri Lanka debt restructuring: opposition MP warns of “China go home” protests

TNA MP Shanakiya Rasamanickam – Image credit: Facebook

ECONOMYNEXT — Sri Lanka opposition legislator Shanakiyan Rasamanickam, who has been on the warpath with Beijing over an apparent lethargy in helping the crisis-hit island nation restructure its debt, has warned of a “China, go home” protest campaign similar to the “Gota, go home” protests that unseated the country’s powerful former president in July.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP told parliament on Friday December 02 that Sri Lanka owes 7.4 billion dollars to China, a nearly 20-trillion dollar economy, and if the latter was was a true friend, it would agree to either write off this debt or at least help restructure it.

Nearly a fifth of Sri Lanka’s public external debt is held by China, according to one calculation.

“If China, who has nearly 20,000 billion dollars, is truly Sri Lanka’s friend… offering 9 million litres of diesel or half a million kilos of rice isn’t real help,” said Rasamanickam, speaking in Sinhala.

“I say to China and the Chinese embassy that, as 22 million Sri Lankans irrespective of ethnic or religious differences got together to say ‘Go home, Gota’, don’t push us to a place where we will be saying ‘China, go home’,” he said.

The Batticaloa district lawmaker has been raising his voice in parliament and elsewhere in recent days over what he claims is a hesitance on the part of China to assist in Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring efforts. The 2.9 billion dollar extended fund facility (EFF) that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has offered to extend to the island nation is contingent upon the successful restructure of this outstanding in addition some stringent reforms that experts say are long overdue.

Colombo has been vague at best on the status of ongoing restructure talks with Sri Lanka’s creditors, and opposition lawmakers and others have expressed concern over what seems to be a worrying delay. Rasamanickam and others have claimed that China, Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral creditor, is the reason for the apparent standstill.

Addressing parliament on Wednesday, the TNA MP said China was not Sri Lanka’s friend but rather a friend of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s. He pointed to the Colombo Lotus Tower and the largely unused convention centre in the southern Rajapaksa stronghold of Hambantota as examples.

“What have the Chinese done in this country? If you look at the [Chinese built] Hambantota Port, China has taken it over. Tell me a single investment that the Chinese have made in this country where Sri Lankan people have been given employment [besides labour]. There’s not a single industry,” he said.

“They have forced  investments down this country thanks to the Rajapaksa family. Investments that are useless,” he added.

If China was a true friend, the MP reiterated, it would help the IMF programme.

“There is no democracy in China, no human rights, Uyghur Muslims are being detained and ‘rehabilitated’. Is such a country trying to turn Sri Lanka into a state like that, a state that doesn’t respect human rights? Is that what China wants?”

The Twitter account the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, known for its sardonic tone, was quick to respond. It said the MP’s understanding of the issue was wrong and incomplete.

“Sorry Mr. MP, your understanding is incorrect and incomplete. China is the biggest supporter to Sri Lanka in fighting COVID=19 and livelihood relief, including in your district Batticaloa. China is also the first responder to Sri Lanka”s financial crisis since its default in April.”

“As a major shareholder of IMF, China has been encouraging IMF and other international financial institutes to promptly support Sri Lanka. China actively participated all the creditors’ meetings of Sri Lanka, and China is not the only or the largest creditor of the island,” the embassy said in a five-tweet long thread.

China also funded the Norochcholai coal plant, the best investment the country has made since Mahaweli projects of the 1980s, according to the Auditor General of Sri Lanka.

However, China gave several monetary instability loans to Sri Lanka from 1980s onward when forex shortages emerged from money printed under flexible inflation targeting, sometime called ‘bridging finance’ in Sri Lanka.

Related:

China on track to bail out Sri Lanka with US$1.25bn in 2018

Sri Lanka signs US$500mn loan with China Development Bank

Sri Lanka inks deal for RMB2.0bn loan from China Development Bank

Such loans are were not tied to growth creating reforms unlike budget support loans given by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

India also gave credit lines to Sri Lanka in 2022 as forex shortages emerged. Analysts say India has stepped up its lending to countries in the South Asian region, in a bid to counter Chinese influence.

The Modi government is now funding a 500 million dollar, 7km bridge linking Malé, the capital of the Maldives, to a number of islands in the archipelago, four years after Chinese engineers built a 2km bridge from Malé to the airport.

India has lent over 32 billion dollars to foreign governments in lines of credit since Modi came to power in 2014, and “development” assistance has doubled to 107 billion dollars from 55 billion dollars in 2014, according to the Financial Times.

Indian companies have also expanded in South Asia over the recent years.

Analysts, however, say that India has a long way to go to catch up with China.

Meanwhile, a Johns Hopkins University research authored by Sri Lanka’s Umesh Moramudali and Thilina Panduwawala noted that Chinese lending at the end of 2021 came to 19.6% of public external debt, much higher than the often-quoted 10-15% figures.

During 2008-2021, the effective interest rate on overall Chinese lending averaged 3.2%, higher than average rates on Japanese,
World Bank, and ADB loans to
Sri Lanka (0.9%-1.6%). But Chinese rates were significantly lower than Eurobonds which averaged
6.9%.
(Colombo/Dec02/2022)

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Sri Lanka Railways to seek PPPs to boost revenue streams

CURFEW RUSH: Commuters scrambling to get home after curfew was declared in Sri Lanka on March 20, 2020.

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka Railway department hopes to expand Public Private Partnerships and earn more non-passenger revenues to offset recurring operational costs, an official said.

“For the past 10 years, except the last few years, the Railway operational income only covers around 50 percent of the operational expense of the Department,” the General Manager of the Railway, D.S. Gunasinghe told EconomyNext.

“Our plan is to increase the non-passenger revenue of the Railway department.

“And we cannot expect and do not hope for money from the government.”

Sri Lanka Railways already has agreements with Prima, a food firm, and Insee Cement, which is bringing in additional income, Gunasinghe said.

“We had agreements for material transportation such as sand in the past, however it was canceled but we hope to start it again” he said.

The department will rent out its storage facilities and circuit bungalows for the tourism sector to create additional revenue streams.

Sri Lanka Railways recorded an operating loss of 10.3 billion rupees during 2021, compared to a loss of 10.1 billion rupees in 2020, the Central Bank 2021 annual report showed.

The total revenue of the SLR stood at 2.7 billion rupees, a 41.3 percent drop from a year ago.

(Colombo/ Feb 06/2023)

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Sri Lanka’s doctors distribute anti-tax hike leaflets to train commuters

ECONOMYNEXT – Doctors representing Sri Lanka’s Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) distributed leaflets outside the Colombo Fort railway station against a progressive tax hike, threatening to address the government in a “language it speaks”.

GMOA Secretary Haritha Aluthge told reporters outside the busy Fort railway station Monday February 06 afternoon that all professional associations have collectively agreed to oppose the personal income tax hike.

“The government is taking a lethargic approach. They cannot keep doing this. They have a responsibility towards the citizens, the country and society,” said Aluthge.

The medical officer claimed that the government was acting arbitrarily (අත්තනෝමතික).

“If it cannot understand the language they’ve been speaking, if the government’s plan is to put all professionals out on the street, if it doesn’t present a solution, all professional unions have decided unanimously to address the government in a language it speaks, ,” he said.

Aluthge and other GMOA members were seen distributing leaflets to commuters leaving the railway station. Doctors in Sri Lanka in general are likely to earn higher salaries than the average train commuter, and a vast majority of Sri Lanka’s population, most of whom take public transport, don’t fall into the government’s new tax bracket. Many doctors, though certainly not all, collect substantial sums of money at the end of every month as doctor’s fees in private consultations.

About two miles away from the doctors, the Ceylon Blank Employees’ Union, too, engaged in a similar distribution leaflet campaign on Monday at the Maradana railway station. A spokesman promised “tough trade union” action if there was no solution offered by next week.

Sri Lanka’s cash-strapped government has imposed a Pay As You Earn (PAYE) tax on all Sri Lankans who earn an income above 100,000 rupees monthly, with the tax rate progressively increasing for higher earners, from 6 percent to 36 percent.

A person who paid a tax of 9,000 rupees on a 400,000 rupee monthly income will now have to pay 70,500 rupees as income tax, the latest data showed. This has triggered a growing wave of anti-government protests mostly organised by public sector trade unions and professional associations.

Even employees of Sri Lanka’s Central Bank recently joined a week-long “black protest” campaign organised by state sector unions against the sharp hike in personal income tax, even as Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said painful measures were needed for the country to recover from its worst currency crisis in decades.

The government, however, defends the tax hike arguing that it is starved for cash as Sri Lanka, still far from a complete recovery, is struggling to make even the most basic payments, to say nothing of the billions needed for public sector salaries.

Economists say Sri Lanka’s bloated public service is a burden for taxpayers in the best of times, and under the present circumstances, it is getting harder and harder to pay salaries and benefits.

Sri Lanka’s new tax regime has both its defenders and detractors. Critics who are opposed to progressive taxation say it serves as a disincentive to industry and capital which can otherwise be invested in growth and employment-generating business ventures. Instead, they call for a flat rate of taxation where everyone is taxed at the same rate, irrespective of income.

Others, however, contend that the new taxes only affect some 10-12 percent of the population and, given the country’s economic situation, is necessary, if not vital, at least for a year or two.

Critics of the protesting workers argue that most of the workers earn high salaries that most ordinary people can only dream of, and, they argue, though there may be some cases where breadwinners could be taxed more equitably, overall, Sri Lanka’s tax rates remain low and are not unfair.  (Colombo/Feb06/2023)

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Sri Lanka bond Yields end steady

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s bond yields closed steady on Monday, dealers said while a guidance peg for interbank transactions remained unchanged.

A bond maturing on 01.07.2025 closed at 32.15/30 percent, steady from Friday’s 32.05/10 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.05.2027 closed at 28.90/29.10, steady from Friday’s 28.90/20.05 percent.

The Central Bank’s guidance peg for interbank US dollar transactions appreciated by one cent to 361.96 rupees against the US dollar.

Commercial banks offered dollars for telegraphic transfers at 370.35 rupees on Monday, data showed. (Colombo/Feb 06/2023)

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