Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera today defended two controversial defence agreements – one proposed, one already entered into – with the United States Government, as well as a US-funded monetary aid package that have come under heavy criticism from sections of the Opposition.
Speaking to journalists in Colombo today (27), Samaraweera said the Joint Opposition, spearheaded by MP and National Freedom Front (NFF) Leader Wimal Weerawansa, was engaged in scaremongering tactics in an attempt to drum up anti-American sentiment in the country for petty political gain.
The Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA), first signed in 2007 and renewed in 2017, and the proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) have drawn some criticism over the past few weeks both in the media and political circles, with increasingly alarmist allegations that provisions in the two agreements could potentially compromise Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
According to Samaraweera, however, there isn’t a “single word” in either agreement about bringing in foreign troops or setting up foreign military camps on Sri Lankan soil. ACSA, he said, was first entered into in 2007, signed by then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with the same objective of bilateral military cooperation.
“ACSA was signed by [the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)’s] next presidential candidate during the tenure of Former US Ambassador Robert Blake. Wimal Weerawansa didn’t say a word in protest back then. What is the difference between that version and this?” said Samaraweera, adding that the firebrand Opposition MP was insinuating that the new version was dangerous on the grounds that it contains more pages with some addendums he didn’t understand.
Media reports, however, have highlighted a provision in the draft SOFA document pertaining to legal immunity provided to foreign servicemen on Sri Lankan soil, while the 2017 version of the ACSA, according to a report in The Sunday Times, allows the use of Sri Lankan ports and airports under “unforeseen circumstances”, as opposed to the 2007 agreement which only permits US military vessels to anchor in Sri Lankan ports on a “one-off” basis.
The same newspaper reported that Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana had raised these concerns with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit to Washington DC last month.
Minister Samaraweera, however, declined to comment on this, simply telling RepublicNext that his colleague had not raised the matter with the Cabinet of Ministers.
The Opposition’s anti-American hysteria, he told the press conference, would only serve to hurt Sri Lanka.
“The irony is that Australian, Swiss and even American passport holders are engaged in a misinformation campaign against these agreements, not realising that it’s the people of this country that they’re hurting,” he said.
“There certainly is a conspiracy against this country. That much is true. But that conspiracy is not from without; it’s form within. Specifically from the Opposition,” he added.
The aid agreement with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), as US government foreign aid agency, which has also come under criticism for reportedly problematic conditions imposed on Sri Lanka also figured in the press briefing.
Stressing that the USD 480 million in aid that was to be received was not a loan – a rarity for middle-income countries such as Sri Lanka – the Finance Minister said the funds will be utilised to develop roads and highways and other infrastructure that will benefit all Sri Lankans including the underprivileged.
The aid package has been a long time coming, he said, since first discussed with former US President George W. Bush in 2003 to be released in 2006, but was postponed or cancelled due to the culture of abductions that was developing in that year, and then subsequently due to the October 2018 coup.
“Those who didn’t say a word when the Rajapaksa government was getting loans at high interest are now making up stories about these funds,” he said.
However, President Maithripala Sirisena has reportedly expressed his displeasure at the conditions imposed on Sri Lanka by the MCC, and a meeting is to be held on Monday (1 July) to go over each condition in detail.
Returning to the topic of defence cooperation, the Minister noted that many countries including India, Singapore and Malaysia have entered into similar agreements with the US, Samaraweera, and insisted that neither ACSA nor SOFA posed a danger to Sri Lanka.
The MCC package too will only prove beneficial to the country, he said.
“There is no point being the biggest frog in a small well,” he added.