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Sri Lanka lawyers’ collective concerned over commission to propose election reforms

ECONOMYNEXT – A collective of high-profile lawyers in Sri Lanka has expressed “profound concern” about a commission appointed to propose electoral reforms, noting that, while reforms are imperative, there is an “apprehension” that the reforms might be intended to stall elections.

The commission of inquiry appointed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe and gazetted on Monday October 16, is reportedly mandated to examine all existing election laws and regulations. According to the lawyers’ collective, which includes President’s Counsel Saliya Peiris and Jayampathi Wickramaratne, the commission is tasked with making recommendations for the amendment of the existing election laws ostensibly to “suit current needs”.

The commission is chaired by  retired Chief Justice Priyasath Dep PC.

“According to the constitution, the Elections Commission is already mandated to issue guidelines to the media and political parties for the proper conduct of elections. It has also prepared numerous reports on many of the matters outlined in the gazette notification,” the lawyers said in their statement, issued Thursday October 19.

“The notice published in the gazette outlines several objectives, many of which fall within the purview of the Elections Commission, the constitutionally mandated body responsible for ensuring the conduct of free and fair elections,” the statement said.

This has led to concerns about the motives behind the commission’s appointment, the lawyers said.

According to the collective, the objectives of the commission ostensibly include:

  • Formulating an electoral system that blends the first-past-the-post system and the proportional representation system
  • Increasing representation for women and youth
  • Reducing the time between the declaration of an election and the release of results
  • Exploring opportunities for electronic voting
  • Facilitating voting for Sri Lankans overseas
  • Expanding the use of postal voting

The commission is also charged with making recommendations for the formulation of media standards for the appropriate use of media by political parties and independent groups and introducing a code of conduct for political parties, independent groups and their membership in performing political and public affairs, the lawyers’ collective said citing the gazette notification.

The commission is also tasked with suggesting ways to strengthen laws and regulations related to the registration and operations of political parties, ensuring public trust and accountability.

“The Lawyers’ Collective notes with deep concern that the notification specifically calls on the commission to explore the possibility of allowing an individual to contest two elections for the selection of people’s representatives and to hold positions in both institutions simultaneously if elected. The collective is of the view that such a provision completely undermines the electoral process in a democracy,” the statement said.

The lawyers also claimed that the commission was appointed without prior consultation, “even with recognised political parties in parliament”.

“While electoral reforms are indeed imperative, we know that there have been Select Committees and other entities previously appointed to make recommendations to change the system. No action has been taken on these proposals for decades,” the statement said.

“The Lawyers’ Collective is very concerned about the timing of this particular proposal. There is an apprehension that these appointments might be intended to stall the electoral process in the country, especially when, according to the constitution, the presidential election is just 11 months away and is set to be conducted between September and October 2024,” it added.

Prior to the president withholding funds for the local authorities election, the prime minister appointed a purported delimitation committee, ostensibly to reform the electoral process for local authorities, the lawyers noted. Following this and despite a specific order of the Supreme Court preventing the treasury from withholding the funds for the holding of the local elections, , they said, the president and the government continue to withhold funds for the election.

“In light of the above considerations, the Lawyers’ Collective has called on the President not to use this Commission as a pretext to delay constitutionally mandated electoral processes.

“It further calls on the President to ensure that by legal design and for political advantage there is no further interference with elections and democracy at large,” the statement said. (Colombo/Oct19/2023)

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Melco’s Nuwa hotel to open in Sri Lanka in mid-2025

ECONOMYNEXT – A Nuwa branded hotel run by Melco Resorts and Entertainment linked to their gaming operation in Colombo will open in mid 2025, its Sri Lanka partner John Keells Holdings said.

The group’s integrated resort is being re-branded as a ‘City of Dreams’, a brand of Melco.

The resort will have a 687-room Cinnamon Life hotel and the Nuwa hotel described as “ultra-high end”.

“The 113-key exclusive hotel, situated on the top five floors of the integrated resort, will be managed by Melco under its ultra high-end luxury-standard hotel brand ‘Nuwa’, which has presence in Macau and the Philippines,” JKH told shareholders in the annual report.

“Melco’s ultra high-end luxury-standard hotel and casino, together with its global brand and footprint, will strongly complement the MICE, entertainment, shopping, dining and leisure offerings in the ‘City of Dreams Sri Lanka’ integrated resort, establishing it as a one-of-a-kind destination in South Asia and the region.”

Melco is investing 125 million dollars in fitting out its casino.

“The collaboration with Melco, including access to the technical, marketing, branding and loyalty programmes, expertise and governance structures, will be a boost for not only the integrated resort of the Group but a strong show of confidence in the tourism potential of the country,” JKH said.

The Cinnamon Life hotel has already started marketing.

Related Sri Lanka’s Cinnamon Life begins marketing, accepts bookings


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Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.


Sri Lanka state interference in plantation wages escalates into land grab threat

From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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300 out of 1,200 Sri Lanka central bank staff works on EPF: CB Governor

ECONOMYNEXT – About 300 central bank staff out of 1,200 are employed in the Employees Provident Fund and related work, Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said, with the function due to be transferred to a separate agency after a revamp of its governing law.

“When it comes to the EPF there is an obvious conflict of interest. We are very happy to take that function out,” Governor Weerasinghe told a forum organized by Colombo-based Advocata Institute.

“We have about 300 staff out of 1,200 including contract staff, almost 150 of permanent staff is employed to run this huge operation. I don’t think the central bank should be doing this business,”

The EPF had come under fire in the past over questionable investments in stocks and also bonds.

In addition, the central bank also faced a conflict of interest because it had another agency function to sell bonds for the Treasury at the lowest possible price, not to mention its monetary policy functions.

“There has been a lot of allegations on the management of this fund. This is the biggest fund of the private sector; about 2.6 million active, I think about 10 million accounts.

“When it comes to EPF, obviously there’s another thing. We obviously have, in terms of resources, on the Central Bank, that has a clear conflict because we are responsible for the members.

“We have to give them a, as a custodian of the fund, we have to give them a maximum return for the members.

“For us to get the maximum return, on one hand, we determine the interest rates as multi-policy. On the other hand, we are managing public debt as a, raising funds for the government.

“And on the third hand, this EPF is investing 90 percent in government securities. And also, interest rates we determine, and they want to get the maximum interest. That’s a clear conflict, obviously, there’s no question.”

A separate agency is to be set up, he said.

“It’s up to the government or the members to determine to establish a new institution that has a trust and credibility and confidence of the members that this institution will be able to manage and secure an interest and give them a reasonable return, good return for their lifetime savings,” Governor Weerasinghe said.

“The question is that how whether we have whether we can develop that institution, whether we have the strong institution with accountability and the proper governance for this thing.

“I don’t think it should be given completely to a private sector business to run that. Because one is that here we have no regulatory institution. Pension funds are not a regulated business.

“First one is we need to establish, government should establish a regulatory agency to regulate not only the EPF business fund, there are several other similar funds are not properly regulated.

“Once we have proper regulations like we regulate banks, then we can have a can ensure proper practices are basically adopted by all these institutions.

“Then you can develop an institution that we who can run this and can be taken back by the Labour Department. I’m not sure Labour Department has the capacity to do all these things.”

While some EPF managers had come under scrutiny during the bondscam and for questionable stock investments, in recent years, it had earned better returns under the central bank management than some private funds that underwent debt restructuring according to capital market analysts with knowledge of he matter. (Colombo/May24/2024)

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