The SLFP yesterday threw its weight behind Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema, now under heavy fire over Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (SLSFTA) finalized in January this year.
SLFP Vice President and party spokesman Mahinda Samarasinghe strongly denied Samarawickrema having done anything underhand to facilitate the SLSFTA. Samarasinghe told the media not to propagate lies and single out Cabinet colleague Samarawickrema. The former UNP Chairman signed the agreement on behalf of Sri Lanka during the Singaporean Prime Minister’s state visit eight months ago.
Declaring that the SLSFTA had been approved by both Cabinet of Ministers and the Attorney General, Samarasinghe, who also holds ports and shipping portfolios decried attacks on Samarawickrema.
Samarasinghe said so in response to a series of media queries at a briefing at SLFP office on Darley Road. Samarasinghe insisted the Cabinet of Ministers was collectively responsible for the SLSFTA.
The SLFP spokesman repeatedly insisted that parliamentary approval wasn’t required for SLSFTA. Samarasinghe reiterated the process leading to the finalisation of the SLSFTA didn’t require parliamentary approval. Therefore, there couldn’t be a dispute over the legitimacy of the agreement, Samarasinghe said. The minister said so when The Island sought an explanation as regards the failure on the part of the relevant Sectoral Oversight Committees of parliament to examine SLSFTA. Samarasinghe quoted Samarawickrema as having told him that SLSFTA didn’t require parliamentary approval under any circumstances.
Responding to another query, Samarasinghe insisted that there was provision to introduce amendments to SLSFTA within one year after signing the agreement. The SLFP spokesman said that President Maithripala Sirisena had recently established a five-member committee headed by Prof. W.D. Lakshman to inquire into agreement.
President Sirisena felt the need to examine SLSFTA in the wake of strong criticism directed at the agreement, Samarasinghe, said vowing that in case the expert committee recognized shortcomings, remedial action would be taken.
Samarasinghe said that if Sri Lanka realised need to seek amendments, the Cabinet of ministers would be consulted again.
The media questioned Samarasinghe President Sirisena’s failure to suspend the SLSFTA pending the inquiry. He said Samarawickrema had assured him that the SLSFTA would be in force throughout this period. He insisted that there was absolutely no need to suspend the agreement.
The media also pointed out that President Sirisena could have intervened much earlier.
Samarasinghe acknowledged that he had not perused the entire SLSFTA though understood its implications. Having briefly explained procedure in enacting a parliamentary act, Samarasinghe insisted that Free Trade Agreement certainly did not require parliamentary approval. The minister declined to comment on the status of the bilateral Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA) with India.
Claiming that President Sirisena always acted in the best interests of the country, Samarasinghe explained the circumstances under which President Sirisena had established the Commission of Inquiry to probe 2015 treasury bond scam. He compared the appointment of the Commission of Inquiry with that of the Committee on SLSFTA to underscore the role played by President Sirisena.
The media pointed out that the Commission of Inquiry hadn’t been able to achieve its primary objectives, namely the recovery of losses caused by treasury bond scams and the arrest of the then Governor of the Central Bank Arjuna Mahendran. Samarasinghe hit back, pointing out that two of those allegedly involved in the racket were in remand custody and there were ongoing efforts to bring Mahendran back. Samarasinghe said that as legal proceedings were continuing it wasn’t fair to blame the government for not recovering money.
(Source: The Island – By Shamindra Ferdinando)