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Lankan PM to present 21st Amendment next week as country decreases limit of foreign currency people can hold

The 21st Amendment is expected to annul the 20A in the Constitution, which gives unfettered powers to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after abolishing the 19th Amendment that will strengthen Parliament.

Published: 19th May 2022 08:23 PM  |   Last Updated: 19th May 2022 08:23 PM   |  A+A-

People queue up to buy kerosene oil for cooking amid cooking gas shortages in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (Photo | AP)

By PTI

COLOMBO: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe plans to present the key 21st Amendment to the Constitution before the Cabinet next week, after holding wide-ranging discussions with the Attorney General and top lawmakers, a media report said on Thursday.

The 21st Amendment is expected to annul the 20A in the Constitution, which gives unfettered powers to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after abolishing the 19th Amendment that will strengthen Parliament.

MPs Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Susil Premajayantha will examine the clauses of the 21st Amendment, and will finalise an updated version of the 19th Amendment before presenting it to the Cabinet next week, online news portal Daily Mirror reported.

Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe held closed-door meetings with members of Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna as well as certain MPs from the main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) over cabinet formation, according to the Daily Mirror.

SJB on Monday said it would offer conditional support to the interim all-party government headed by Wickremesinghe to help tackle the country's crippling economic and political crisis.

Wickremesinghe, 73, the United National Party leader was appointed as Sri Lanka's 26th prime minister earlier this month after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's elder brother and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned after violence erupted following an attack on the anti-government protesters by his supporters.

The powerful Rajapaksa family tightened their grip on power after their massive victory in the general elections in August 2020, which allowed them to amend the Constitution to restore presidential powers and install close family members in key positions.

In his 2019 presidential bid, Gotabaya Rajapaksa won a convincing mandate for a presidency during which he sought full presidential powers over Parliament.

Sri Lanka is grappling with an unprecedented economic turmoil since its independence from Britain in 1948.

A crippling shortage of foreign reserves has led to long queues for fuel, cooking gas and other essentials while power cuts and soaring food prices heaped misery on the people.

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka on Wednesday revealed that it does not have foreign exchange to pay for a vessel of petrol anchored in its waters for nearly two months as it appealed to citizens "not to wait in line" for fuel.

The economic crisis also triggered a political crisis in Sri Lanka and a demand for the resignation of the powerful Rajapaksas.

Sri Lanka's Central Bank on Thursday decided to substantially decrease the limit of foreign currency a person can hold in his possession to USD 10,000 from USD 15,000 as the forex crisis has led to limited imports with no gasoline in filling stations in the country facing the worst economic crisis.

Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said that under the Foreign Exchange Act, there is a limit anyone can hold foreign currency, which used to be a value of maximum USD 15,000, Lanka 1st news website reported.

Stating that the apex bank is looking towards bringing it down to USD 10,000, the CBSL Governor said that even with that USD 10,000, proof of how the person came to possession of the relevant funds must be presented.

Accordingly, a grace period of two weeks will be given to current holders to deposit this money either in their foreign currency accounts in the banking system or surrender that money and convert them to rupees and keep them in rupees, he added.

Sri Lanka, near bankruptcy, has suspended up to USD 7 billion of foreign loan payments due to be repaid this year because of a foreign currency crisis.

The country must repay USD 25 billion as foreign debt by 2026 out of a total USD 51 billion.

It has led to limited imports with no gasoline in filling stations.

Other fuel, cooking gas, medicine and foods are in short supply, forcing people to stay in long lines to buy the limited stocks.

Amid fuel crisis, Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said that posts shared on MPs being given subsidised fuel rates are false.

"No MP from either side or anyone has been given subsidised rates than the current market prices given to the public," he tweeted.

Further, the Minister said he instructed the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation to carry out an investigation on the rates displayed in the dispenser at the police garage and will make a statement in Parliament.

"No one will be extended privileges on fuel stations other than ambulance essential services," he further tweeted.

In his statement to Parliament, the Minister said the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation has never sold fuel to any MPs at a price less than the market rates, on any occasion.

"You (Speaker) has requested the Inspector General of Police over the possibility of providing fuel for MPs to visit Parliament during the days that Parliament convenes," he told Parliament.

He said following the Speaker's request to the Inspector General of Police, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation has made it clear to sell Petrol for Rs.334.19, Auto Diesel for Rs.289.13, upon payment made by cash.

The minister also said that filling stations are only permitted to sell fuel subject to the present conditions, which is a maximum of Rs.8,000, except for vehicles engaged in transportation services.

"The rate of Rs.121 is what existed several years ago," he told Parliament, adding that the said filling station was instructed to stop selling fuel upon payment by cash.

Further, Energy Minister Wijesekera said an investigation will be carried out for not updating the said gasoline pump or the dispenser.

Sri Lankan authorities have decided to suspend the issuing of fuel from the Narahenpita Police Transport Division for selected vehicles following public outcry.

The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation on Thursday said that it stopped selling fuel to parliamentarians from the Narahenpita Police Transport Division's filling station after reports emerged that fuel was being sold at subsidised rates.

"We do not allow to sell fuel at subsidised rates at any filling station. We cannot imagine selling fuel at a loss," said Attorney-at-Law Sumith Wijesinghe, the Chairman of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation adding that the supply of fuel from the filling station was suspended.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana had requested the Inspector General of Police to sell fuel from the Narahenpita Police Transport Division to parliamentarians on Wednesday.

SJB MP Thalatha Athukorala speaking in Parliament on Wednesday also noted that the Inspector General of Police had been instructed by the government to provide fuel to all the Members of Parliament.

"This decision has put us in danger," she pointed out, noting that it is unfair for MPs to be given special treatment for fuel while the people in the country are forced to wait in line for hours for fuel.

Sri Lanka Police in a statement on Thursday morning said that instructions were given to provide fuel upon payment of cash for the vehicles that belong to Members of Parliament that enter the Narahenpita Police Transport Division for fuel.

Sri Lanka Police tightened security at the premises as authorities took measures to rectify the dispenser, as the Energy Minister revealed in Parliament that the said dispenser was not updated in years.

Sri Lankans have been protesting for more than a month demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, holding him responsible for the country's worst economic crisis in recent memory.

Sri Lanka won't be able to pay back its debts until it restructures them, Central Bank governor P Nandalal Weerasinghe said on Thursday as he called for the early appointment of financial advisers and lawyers for the debt restructuring process.

Speaking to the media here, Weerasinghe said that there is an urgent need for the new leaders of the country to bring the economic situation to stability.

The Opposition said in Parliament on Wednesday that the country for the first time in its history was defaulting on an international sovereign bond payment at the end of a 30-day grace period which fell yesterday.

They claimed it was a hard default.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also on Wednesday said the country has missed a payment to the Asian Development Bank, blocking fresh funds amid warnings that the currency crisis-hit country could be locked out of multilateral funding in a new blow.

Sri Lanka has already suspended repayments for international sovereign bonds, commercial bank loans, Exim bank loans, and bilateral loans.

However, multilateral lenders and senior creditors were excluded.

Sri Lanka is now negotiating a loan with the IMF.

The country had to pay USD 106.34 million this year but only managed to pay USD 12.4 million by April.

The Prime Minister then said the debt-ridden country could not even pay a million dollars.

Weerasinghe said that the nation has announced a pre-emptive default.

"What we have announced is a pre-emptive default, we have announced that we are not going to pay," he said.

Weerasinghe said "you can technically term it a hard default based on the agreements".

He said on April 12 that Sri Lanka had announced its suspension of debt payments as it couldn't pay.

"We had already announced that we will not be able to pay until we restructure the debt".

Weerasinghe said that the appointment of financial advisers and lawyers for debt restructuring could be done soon.

He threatened to resign two weeks ago unless action was taken to bring in political stability.

"Now there is a prime minister and a cabinet, decision making is now possible compared to when I said that," Weerasinghe said.

He said he had met the new prime minister Wickremesinghe and hoped that work on economic stability could now make progress.

Wickremesinghe told Parliament he would be presenting a report on the debt default soon as most of the information required were missing.

Having announced the debt default Sri Lanka initiated talks with the IMF for a possible bail out.

The IMF has however termed Sri Lanka's current debt as unsustainable and invited the government attention to tackle the issue.

Wickremesinghe told Parliament on Thursday that no shoot-on-sight orders were issued to the Defence Ministry amidst violent anti-government protests in the island nation.

On May 10, Sri Lanka's Ministry of Defence ordered the Army, the Air Force and the Navy personnel to open fire on anyone looting public property or causing harm to others amidst violent protests in the island nation over the unprecedented economic and political crisis.

The order came after mobs had gone on the rampage attacking properties linked to the Rajapaksa family and those close to them.

The attack on the properties linked to people close to former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa occurred after his supporters attacked anti-government protesters in Colombo.

Wickremesinghe said that no such order has been issued in writing, the Colombo Gazette news portal reported.

The Prime Minister said that the Police can use their discretion and open fire if there is a need to do so but there are procedures to follow.

He said that while properties belonging to some members of Parliaments had been attacked last week, a shoot-on-sight order was not issued.

The Ministry of Defence had, however, announced last week that shoot-on-sight orders were issued to prevent further violence.

The Police and military had been deployed in Colombo and other parts of the country after violence spread following an attack on peaceful protesters at Galle Face, where the Presidential Secretariat is located.

Over eight persons were killed in the unprecedented violence that erupted after supporters of the then prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa attacked anti-government protesters here.

Over 250 people have been injured in the violence in Colombo and other parts of the country.

Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1948.

The crisis is caused in part by a lack of foreign currency, which has meant that the country cannot afford to pay for imports of staple foods and fuel, leading to acute shortages and very high prices.



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