Fortnightly Review & Analysis - Neighbourhood Studies (Vol 2 Issue XII)

June 16 - 30, 2017

Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka & Maldives

Pakistan

Panama investigation rattles Sharifs’, Cronies

The pressure of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) constituted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan to investigate the Panama papers scandal is palpable on the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) and its first family. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif presented himself before the JIT – a first in Pakistan's sordid political history where a serving PM was questioned over his and his family’s financial dealings by government officers in a Supreme Court monitored investigation – as did his brother and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. While the latter complained that the Sharif family was being put through the accountability mill for the fifth time in history and compared the attitude of politicians who submitted before the law with the generals who flagrantly violated it, the former spoke of ‘behind the scenes games’ alluding to a conspiracy against his government which he said would be decided before the ‘Supreme Court’ comprising of 200 million people of Pakistan. The JIT has also summoned Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and political heir apparent. Her husband who was also questioned by the JIT, claimed that the investigation was a conspiracy against the two-nation theory and alleged that it was a conspiracy hatched by Imran Khan at the behest of the Jewish and Indian lobby!

Clearly, if the response, reaction and rhetoric of the Sharif family and its cronies is anything to go by, the Panama case seems to be loaded against them. The judges are fuming over the threatening language and insinuations made against them by some of Nawaz Sharif’s close confidants and verbal warriors. Adding to the disquiet in the Sharif camp is the growing feeling that the entire investigation is being directed by ‘hidden hands’ – an allusion to the military establishment and ‘deep state’. On the face of it, despite a representative of the Military Intelligence and the ISI in the JIT, there is little to indicate that the army is actually trying to tilt the investigation against the Sharifs. But there are some tell-tale signs – admission by the JIT about phone tapping and revelations of keeping tabs on the media which far surpasses the capacity of the JIT, all of which was glossed over by the judges who in turn expressed their indignation over the Intelligence Bureau collecting information about JIT members, the conduct of the judges on other reservations expressed by the Sharif camp including the controversial ‘Whats’ App’ call to the Security & Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) Chairman by the Court registrar with names of officials to be nominated to the JIT, the comments and observations of the judges (including calling the Government a Mafia), the alacrity with which the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) investigated charges of tampering of documents by the SECP on behalf of the Sharifs’, and the selective leaks aimed at humiliating the Sharif family – all suggest that there is some substance to the apprehensions and suspicions of the Sharif camp.

The cries of bias from the Sharif camp leave little to imagination that they expect an adverse verdict in the case. The JIT is to submit its report to the Supreme Court bench on July 10. It is not quite clear what happens in the event the JIT report goes against the Sharifs’. Some legal experts are of the view that the next step will be that a reference will be filed against the Sharifs’ in an accountability court. If so, then it means that the Sharifs’ will for all practical purposes be off the hook because the case will drag on endlessly. Other legal luminaries are of the view that the JIT report will be put before the original five judge bench which was hearing the Panama case. Three of the judges of that bench had wanted further investigations into the financial dealings of the Sharifs’ and in the event the JIT report goes against the Sharifs’, then all it will take is one more judge to rule that Nawaz Sharif and his family are liable to be disqualified and it will be curtains for the Sharifs’.

The Sharif camp is however warning that if such an adverse verdict was to come from the courts, then it will not just be them but also their bête noire Imran Khan who will have to be shown the door. There are two very serious cases against Imran Khan – one related to contempt of court before the Election Commission of Pakistan and the other in the Supreme Court on illegal political funding of his party. In both these cases, Imran Khan is using dilatory tactics to avoid giving answers which he clear doesn’t have to defend himself. The courts have so far gone slow on these cases. There has also not been any major progress as yet on the Panama papers case against Imran Khan who also had an undeclared off-shore company which technically makes him liable for disqualification. The Sharif camp believes that they will get Imran Khan’s scalp if they go under. But stranger things are known to have happened in Pakistan. Just as open-and-shut cases against the Sharifs’ were brushed under the carpet by a judiciary that was rampaging against the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the past, it is entirely possible that now the judiciary might treat the new favorite Imran Khan with kid gloves even as they come down on the Sharifs’ like a ton of bricks.

The Party is Virtually Over

As far as the PPP is concerned, it has faced a spate of desertions of senior leaders over the past couple of weeks. At least seven top rung leaders, including former cabinet ministers – all from the battleground state of Punjab – have quit the party and joined Imran Khan. Media reports suggest that many more leaders are sitting on the fence, ready to jump to Imran’s side anytime. The PPP is putting up a brave face but it is quite clear that it has virtually ceased to exist as a potent political force anywhere outside Sindh. Even in Sindh there are rumours of a ‘forward bloc’ being in the offing. For now however because of the focus of all the main political players – PMLN and PTI – on Punjab, and because the military establishment’s attention is on ensuring the demise of MQM in Karachi, the field has been left open for the PPP. But it seems a matter of time before the PPP loses even Sindh because of its terrible performance and scandalous administration.

One Day, Three Attacks in Three Provinces: Terrorists show Lethality, Reach

Islamist terrorists carried out big terror attacks in Pakistan on the eve of Eid. On the same day, a twin suicide bombing in the sectarian hotbed of Parachinar in Kurram agency, a suicide car attack on the office of the provincial police chief in Quetta and targeted gunning down of policemen in Karachi sent shock waves around the country. Over 75 people were killed in the Parachinar attack, most of them Shia tribesmen, more than a dozen were killed in Quetta and four policemen were shot down in Karachi. While the Parachinar attack was claimed by the Jamaatul Ahrar, the Quetta attack was claimed by both the Jamaatul Ahrar and the Islamic State. In Karachi, a new group called Jamaatul Ansar-al-Sharia Pakistan, claimed responsibility. Police officers believe that this new group comprises of militants who have returned from hot spots in the middle-east like Syria and Libya and could have links with the Islamic State or with terror groups like Jabhat Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent.

The terror attacks blew holes in the tall claims made by the military establishment that they had broken the back of the terrorists. Not surprisingly, the army chief reacted predictably by blaming Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies and accusing them of trying to give a sectarian and ethnic colour to acts of terrorism to divide the Pakistani society. In Parachinar, where the mainstream Pakistani media ignored the outrage and gave it perfunctory coverage, locals took to the social media to express their anger. A spontaneous dharna was organised by local people demanding that the army chief come and listen to them. Things became worse after the Frontier Corps fired on protesting civilians. The sense of alienation and resentment peaked after the insensitive Nawaz Sharif government announced a compensation of Rs 3 lakh for the dead in Parachinar and a compensation of Rs 1 crore for those who were killed in a oil tanker accident in Bahawalpur in South Punjab. After more than a week long dharna, the army chief finally visited Parachinar to listen to the people.

Pakistan Fumes after US Declares its Kashmiri Puppet a Global Terrorist

Already concerned over the US policy review on relations with Pakistan and the stream of reports that the Trump administration would harden its approach towards Pakistan, and chafing over reports that US aid might be cut even further with US secretary of state agreeing that allegations of Pakistan's links with terrorists were well-founded, Pakistan was left reeling in the aftermath of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US. As if the Joint Statement in which Pakistan was called upon to “to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries” and “to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot, and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups”, or the formulation on China Pakistan economic Corridor (CPEC) and One Belt One Road (OBOR) in which the US virtually endorsed India’s stand, wasn’t enough, the designation of the chief of the Hizbul Mujhideen terror group, Syed Salahuddin, as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’ by the US State Department, cut Pakistan to the bone.

The Pakistan Foreign Office issued a self-serving statement that warned that the Indo-US Joint Statement would aggravate tensions in the region. The US sale of hi-tech military equipment to India, including Guardian drones, did cause some disquiet in Pakistan. But their real angst was that not only did the US completely ignore Kashmir but worse, they labelled Salahuddin a Global Terrorist. This was a body blow to Pakistan’s ‘beloved Kashmir cause’ and the Foreign Office statement read the writing on the wall when it realised that what Salahuddin’s designation was tantamount to equating the ‘indigenous Kashmiri struggle’ with terrorism. There were clear indications that Pakistan would resort to ‘defiance’ and refuse to give up the use of terrorist proxies like Salahuddin. The near hysterical reactions from the Interior Minister who defended Salahuddin and accused the US of speaking India’s language – his entire family is incidentally US citizens! – and the rhetoric coming from puppet ‘President’ and ‘Prime Minister’ of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir was along fairly expected lines.

Afghanistan

China Plays Umpire in Great Game

With Afghan-Pakistan relations nose-diving in the aftermath of the devastating truck bombing in Kabul, and the US still working on its Afghan strategy, the Chinese stepped into the Great Game with Foreign Minister Wang Yi indulging in some shuttle diplomacy to mediate between Kabul and Islamabad. That the Chinese diplomatic initiative happened on the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US where it was expected (or feared by Islamabad at least) that India and the US will enter into a closer coordination on Afghanistan, suggest that the Chinese were interceding to provide some comfort to their all-weather friend Pakistan.

The Afghans claimed that Wang Yi had assured them that he would ask Pakistan to use their influence and control the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The Chinese however neither confirmed nor denied the Afghan claims. While in Afghanistan, the Chinese foreign minister did raise the issue of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) fighters and sought the assistance of Afghans against what he called a ‘serious threat to China’.

It appears as though Wang Yi did manage to broker a deal of sorts between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The terms of this deal include establishment of a bilateral crisis management mechanism aimed at keeping the communication channels between the two neighbours open during crises and a trilateral foreign ministers’ dialogue forum which will allow China to play mediator. The terms of reference of the bilateral mechanism have still to be worked out by the Afghans and Pakistanis and many analysts wonder if the two sides will actually be able to achieve this. Wang Yi also managed to get the Afghans and Pakistanis to agree on reviving the ‘Quadilateral Process’ as well as revive the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) contact group for renewing the reconciliation process in Afghanistan.

It would be interesting to watch how the Chinese handle the complex dynamics in the Af- Pak region now that they have for the first time thrown their hat in this treacherous ring. The Americans who are still to decide on their policy have said much on the Chinese initiative except for making a statement that they share an interest with China for Afghan stability. What remains to be seen is whether the Chinese are able to force some compellence on the Pakistanis to change their pernicious Afghan policy or will the Chinese acquiesce to Pakistan's obsession with its Afghan policy? If indeed the Chinese are genuinely interested in playing the honest broker and the Pakistanis defy them, then how will the China-Pakistan equation play out in the future?

Nepal

CPN-UML Leads Local Level Election Phase-2

The second phase of local level elections held on June 28 in Provinces 1, 5 and 7, in spite of severe opposition from the Rastriya Janata Party – Nepal (RJP-N) were, unlike the first phase held on May 14, marred by sporadic violence. Extreme monsoon conditions also caused disruption in in a few areas. The Election Commission estimated 70.50% voter turnout, marginally less (71%) less than the previous round of polls. The turnout of voters in the Madhesi dominated areas was, as expected, not very high. Only 2 votes were cast in the province of Nawalparasi. Prime Minister Deuba thanked the people for the successful completion of the 1st level of local polls of his current tenure.

According to trends available so far, surprisingly the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Socialist – (CPN-UML) is leading the polls. In Province 1, CPN-UML is leading in 56 seats In Province 7–Nepali Congress (NC) is leading in 29 seats followed by Maoist Center and Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP). In Province 5, CPN-UML was ahead in 42 seats, followed by NC and Maoist Center in 32 and 16 seats respectively. A section of political class viewsthe significant participation of people in the Tarai as their acceptance of the existing constitutional arrangements. This may be a mistake. Tarai continues to reel under severe discontent. Despite this, they came out to cast votes, it is argued, only to signify their commitment to democratic ideals.

Post elections, the government would have to start thinking of measures to address the demands of the agitating RJP-N and secure ways to accommodate them before the third and last phase of polls scheduled for September 18, 2017. Deployment of army for peaceful voting as done earlier in the 2013 general elections did not go well with the masses and set a bad precedents.

Commenting on the election results, former PM and leader of the Maoist (Center) Dahal has said that Maoist’s victory is a must to safeguard republicanism in the country. He said that the republican system would be pushed into jeopardy if NC and CPN-UML won the local level elections.

Either Prove or Apologize: Upendra Yadav on Bribery Allegation

Upendra Yadav Chairman of Federal Socialist Forum - Nepal (FSF-N) has challenged the RJP-N leader Manish Suman to either prove the charges of allegations of bribery by adducing evidence or else apologize. Yadav countered the charge by alleging that RJP-N had received a huge kick back from the government for betraying the Madhesi cause. Yadav added that the RJP-N leaders resorted to such baseless accusation after thire party lost its direction and significance in the political journey.

Many indigenous and Janjati leaders have also felt betrayed by the RJP-N because they had agreed with Indigenous Communist and Janata Janatis leaders that Madhesi Morcha leaders 11 point demands and the Indigenous Communities 26 points demands would be fought for jointly. Constitution amendment is the key demand of the Madhesis, said politician Bharat Bimal Yadav, who had earlier signed the historic 12 point agreement on behalf of the Madhesis people. He said that the parties have already accepted the Constitution directly or indirectly but its acceptability will be widened if the government amends it. Yadav said that parties should go for polls instead of delaying the scheduled poll time again.

UML Opposes Gopal Parajuli as next Chief Justice

The Constitutional Council failed to recommend appointment of senior justice Gopal Parajuli, as the next Chief Justice. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who chairs the Council, had proposed the name of Parajuli from 6 recommend candidates from the Judicial Council. But CPN-UML chairman K.P. Sharma Oli, who is also a member of the council in his capacity as Leader of Opposition objected to this over the existing discrepancy over his date of birth and educational certificates. Parajuli has been functioning as the Acting Chief Justice since Chief Justice Sushila Karki’s retirement.

Two Former Nepali Police Chiefs Convicted of Corruption, Jailed

Two former Inspector Generals of Nepal Police, Om Bikram Rana and Hem Bahadur Gurung were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in connection with corruption charges in sending consignments to Nepal Police peace keeping troops in Sudan. Earlier, the Supreme Court on April 30 had convicted them along with another Ex. Inspector General of Police Ramesh Chand Thakuri, former Assistant Inspector General of Police Deepak Singh Thangden and former Deputy Inspector General Deepak Shresta in the year old case. The convicts have surrendered to the Apex Court. Yet another convict, Thakuri is yet to be put behind bars.

Nepal –China Joint Mechanism Reviews Bilateral Relations

The 11th meeting of Joint Consultation Mechanism between Nepal and China assessed the progress made in the implantation of agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoU) reached between the two nations. The two sides expressed commitment to further promote cooperation in all the desired areas. Nepali side expressed hope that cross-border connectivity, infrastructure development, diversification of Nepal’s trade, promotion of investment and tourism would receive priority in the implementation of all the MoU on mutual cooperation under the Bell Round Initiative signed by the two sides on May 12, 2017. They also emphasized the requirement for an early resumption of Tapopani Zhangnu border point. Prospects of promotion of Nepal’s tourism initiatives in China as per Chinese government’s announcement of the year 2017 as ‘Nepals Tourism Promotion Year’ in China was also discussed. Foreign Secretary Shanker Das Bairagi led the Nepali delegation while Assistant Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Kong Xuanyou led the Chinese side. The Joint Consultation Mechanism was set up in 1996 as a platform for discussing matters of mutual concerns at senior level between Nepal and China.

Bhutan

India Raises Concern over Road Construction in Doklam Tri-junction

India has expressed its deep concern over the recent Chinese activities in the Doklam area. The Indian government has conveyed to the Chinese side the consequences of the construction of road in Doklam area posing security implications for India. Doklam plateau that overlooks the Chumbi Valley, is one of the four disputed strategic areas between Bhutan and China and India in the western region of Hua and Paro Dzongkaqs. The area involves troop serving with India’s training mission at Ha - formation meant to train Bhutan’s armed forces and the deployed Royal Bhutan Army to patrol the frontier with China. After reports of Chinese activities in the area, Bhutan conveyed to China, both through the diplomatic channels and on ground, that the construction of roads inside Bhutanese territory was in gross violation of the agreements and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between the two countries.

Earlier on June 16, 2017 Chinese Army had started constructing a motorable road from Doka La in the Doklam area towards the Bhutan Army Camp at Zornpelri. Recalling the 2012 agreement over the Doklam tri junction that it will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries, ‘any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points’will be a violation of this undertaking.The press release issued by Bhutan in this regard, mentioned the importance of the consensus reached between India and China through the Special Representatives process. “It is also essential that all parties concerned display utmost restraint and abide by their respective bilateral understandings not to change the status quo unilaterally”. India Army Chief General Rawat visited Sikkim for a first hand review of the situation. Bhutanese Ambassador to India, Vetsop Nangyel has said that Bhutan has issued a demarche to China over the construction of roads towards its Army Camp in Zornperli and requested Beijing to restore the status quo by immediate stay over the road work.

Bangladesh

$ 441 million Highway Widening Project to Commence Shortly

The widening work for the key highway link in Bangladesh will commence shortly. The work will be carried out on the 41 Km. link from Brahmanbaria’s Akhaura logistics center to the river port of Ashuganj. The project cost is excess of US $ 441 million and the work is likely to be completed in 2020. Much of the funds is likely to be provided by India.

Bangladesh’s Trade with BRICS Registers Modest Growth, but Deficit Surges

Bangladesh’s trade with Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) has increased substantially during the last year. Data shows that bilateral trade with BRICS, stood at $ 24.53 billion in 2016 compared to $ 23.42 billion in 2015, marking a growth 4.73 %. However, Bangladesh is facing huge deficits with the BRICS in trade. The ITC data showed that bilateral trade deficit surged to $ 19.70 billion over the period compared to $ 18.78 billion in 2015 and $ 16.99 billion in 2014. China and India, the two countries of the alliance are the leading trading partner of Bangladesh.

China to set up Special Economic Zones in Anwara, Bangladesh

The Chinese are likely to set up Special Economic Zones (SEZ) on 783 acres of land in Chittangong’s, Anwara Upazila. Bangladesh’s Economic Zones Authority (BEZA) Executive Chairman Paban Chowdhury and China’s Harbour Engineering Company Ltd. (CHEC) CFO Shengquan Xiong have signed a shareholder agreement for setting up Chinese Economic and Industrial Zone which is expected to attract US $ 42 billion in investment. This would be the first time a foreign company is going to set up a Special Economic Zones in Bangladesh on government to government basis. The work is expected to commence in December this year. China is likely to set up medical, apparel, agro processing chemical, medical equipment, plastic and information technology industries in the zone. It may be recalled that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the Bangladesh’s Economic Zones Authority (BEZA) and China’s Harbour Engineering Company Ltd. (CHEC) for setting up the Special Economic Zones in Anwara during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visit to China on June 11, 2014.

China seeks to Convert parts of Soft Loans into Commercial Credit

China has asked Bangladesh to convert part of the promised credit during President Xi’s Dhaka visit (Oct 2016), into commercial loans. This will mean that Bangladesh will have to pay high interest for the fund. Bangladesh signed $ 25 billion deals with China for nearly two and a half dozen projects during Xi-Xinping’s Dhaka visit last year. Li Guangjun, the economic and commercial counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Dhaka made the proposal during the recent meeting of the Joint Economic Council. China said it was not promised that all the project signed between the two sides would be implemented on the government to government basis. China offered to give some of the loans on a commercial terms. Chinese diplomats posted in Dhaka believed that Bangladesh could contribute to the project implementation fund along with China. The officials also stated that they would send the Economic Relations Division (ERD) a detailed list outlining how much of the $ 25 billion for 34 projects would be treated as soft loans, commercial credits and further how much to be contributed by the Bangladesh government. ERD categorically told the Chinese delegation that Bangladesh was not ready for any commercial loan. Since the agreements are signed on government to government basis, loans are deemed to be treated soft loans.

Sri Lanka

Draft New Constitution Moving Forward

Even though several deadlines for the drafting of a new constitution for the country have been missed since January 2016, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his recent address to a conference on the new constitution organized by the Constitutional Assembly Secretariat, revealed that the drafting process was nearing a crucial stage where a consensus will be sought to be evolved on various contentious issues. He disclosed that so far, consensus has been reached on issues of devolution of power and the nature of the state. There is also agreement that the state cannot be divided and that sovereignty should rest with the people. To a large extent there is also agreement on a mix of direct past the post and proportional representation. Prime Minister reiterated that there is no provision to take away the prominence given to Buddhism, but the question being debated is how to give members of other religions their right of worship.

There are several important issue on which consensus has not yet been arrived at. There is division of opinion among the chief ministers of the provinces regarding retaining power under the new constitution which has not been agreed upon by the Parliament. Another issue that has not yet been addressed is how the country will function without weakening the powers of the central government for an emergency while strengthening the forms of parliamentary governance. The legal procedures required to be followed as and when a bill would be challenged, is yet to be deliberated upon, and so is the exercise of executive power in relation to 13th amendment.

The Constitution Assembly Steering Committee is set to meet next week to decide on the procedure to be adopted while enacting the new constitution and the extent of inclusion of provisions in the committee report. Meanwhile, The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights while considering the fifth periodic report of Sri Lanka on the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has urged the country to adopt a comprehensive Bill of Rights that fully incorporates economic, social and cultural rights.

Lanka Accuses UN’s Former Special Rapporteur of Falling Pray to NGP Propaganda

Sri Lanka has accused the former UN Special Rapporteur Mónica Pinto on the independence of judges and lawyers of falling prey to Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) when compiling a report on Sri Lanka. Shewas on a mission to Sri Lanka from April 29 to May 7, 2016. Her report was tabled by the current Rapporteur, Diego Garcia-Sayan at the 35th session of the UN Human Rights Council in mid of June this year. The UN report is highly critical of the Sri Lankan justice system. It described the judiciary as partial and politicised.

In the report, Sri Lanka’s Attorney General’s department was described as “rather lethargic” with regards to sensitive cases and the department defends the interest of the government and not the public. This report created ground for many Tamil diaspora groups to push for their demand for inclusion of international judges in Lanka’s transitional justice process. Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe slammed the report and told Parliament on June 20 that Mónica Pinto could not have compiled a full report on Sri Lanka after spending just a few days in the country. He said it was clear she was misled by NGOs and that the report was based on information provided by NGOs and not based on Pinto’s Sri Lanka visit and that the report was harmful to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

It needs to be mentioned that the Minister’s statement was in contrast to the statement made by Sri Lanka as soon as Pinto’s report was submitted in Geneva, where Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Geneva Ravinatha P. Aryasinha thanked Pinto for her report. The Government, after it assumed office in 2015, said that it will not look to take the UN head on but will rather look to work with the UN to address any issue. In this context, Justice Minister’s hard hitting statement has surprised many diplomats and analysts of Sri Lankan affairs.

Justice Minister Threatens a Defender of Minority Rights, Earns Wrath of International NGOs

Developments unfolding in Sri Lanka over the last few weeks look ominously similar to those in 2013-14, when a surge in targeted attacks against minority Muslims and Christians went unchecked by the then Rajapaksa administration. The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, an umbrella organisation for civil society groups, has recorded 25 attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned establishments since April 2017 and the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka has reported over 40 incidents in 2017.

Amid growing concern among civil society and the international community, as well as mounting pressure on the government by Muslim MPs, reassurance came from the highest levels. President Maithripala Sirisena asked the Law and Order Ministry to act against perpetrators without fear or favour, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe vowed tougher laws to address hate crimes.

However, on June 17, 2017, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe threatened to "take necessary steps to remove Mr. Lakshan Dias from the legal profession" unless Dias apologized for remarks on a television program three days earlier about attacks on the Christian community.Dias had cited a report by church groups that there were nearly 200 attacks and other harassment against Christians and their places of worship since 2015. That Mr. Rajapakshe, who is also the Minister for Buddhist Affairs, chose to threaten the lawyer rather than counter his argument with facts, has shocked many. International human rights watchdogs have urged the government to take action against the Minister, whose threat they saw as an attempt to silence critics of the government’s inaction. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the government to immediately reject the Minister's statement.

Govt. Says No to India and Japan Funded Power Plants in Sampur

In a surprising turn of events, the government has decided not to go ahead with the two proposed Indian and Japanese-funded Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) power plants in Sampur. Power and Renewable Energy Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said that instead a 50 MW solar power plant would be constructed at Sampur

The agreement to set up a 500 MW coal based power plant with Indian investment was signed in August 2011 and the construction agreement was finalized in October, 2013 as a joint venture between the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and India's Natural Thermal Power Corporation Ltd. (NTPC). The agreement was later scrapped because of protests from people in Trincomalee, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the anti-coal lobby. Sri Lanka then requested India to convert the coal power plant into an LNG powered power plant to which India agreed. However, under pressure from the engineers union of the CEB, the minister told the media that the CEB would give priority to set up environment-friendly green energy-powered power plants using solar and wind power. He said 20 investors had been selected to set up 60 small-scale solar power plants of one MWs and the CEB would purchase power from them at Rs.12.73 a unit thus reducing the average price of a unit.

Maldives

Majlis Approves Increasing Number of High Court Judges to 11

People’s Majlis approved an amendment to the Courts Act to increase the number of High Court judges to 11.The bill was passed with the vote of 43 MPs present during the voting. 29 MPs voted against the bill. The bill provides for three judges each to be appointed to divisions of High Court established in north and south of the country. The High Court currently has seven judges. The amendment makes it clear that the current judges will not lose their posts despite the increase in number of judges and that the new judges need to be appointed within three months after the amendment is ratified and published in the Government Gazette.