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Mahinda Rajapaksa’s opponents win control of key panel in Sri Lankan Parliament

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Sri Lanka

Colombo | Ousted Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickeremesinghe’s alliance on Friday won control of a powerful panel in Parliament, dealing a major blow to President Maithripala Sirisena and his prime ministerial appointee Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sirisena’s party members walked out of Parliament, which resumed its session on Friday after being adjourned on Monday, protesting against Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s move to appoint five members of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which is led by the President.

The Speaker named five members from the United National Front (UNF) of Wickeremesinghe, and one each from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). This is in continuation of the political unrest plaguing the country since October 26.

Both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa claim to be the prime ministers. Wickremesinghe says his dismissal is invalid because he still holds a majority in the 225-member Parliament.

Jayasuriya, at the start of the session, announced that following a meeting of all party leaders which ended without an agreement over the composition of the committee, he had decided to grant five members each to the UPFA and the UNF. The committee would comprise 12 members, he said.

Senior UPFA member Dinesh Gunawardena slammed the speaker’s conduct as biased. “I urge you to recognise us as the government and give us the majority in the select committee. “We have precedents that even during the minority governments in the past the government had been given majority in the select committee,” he said.

Lakshman Kiriella on behalf of the ousted government said that Jayasuriya has declared the members based on two previous votes that there was no government and the purported government does not exist. Wimal Weerawansa, another Sirisena backer, said that if Jayasuriya was not recognising the government, they would not recognise Jayasuriya as the Speaker. “We will leave the chamber allowing you to conduct a meeting of the United National Party,” Weerawansa said and led Sirisena’s side out of the chamber.

Jayasuriya then proceeded to take a vote on his decision on the select committee composition after a vote was moved by JVP’s Vijitha Herath. The proposal was adopted with 121 votes for and nothing against. The members of the UNF, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the Tamil National Alliance voted in favour.

Sri Lanka is witnessing a political crisis since President Sirisena abruptly sacked Wickremesinghe on October 26. Sirisena later dissolved Parliament, almost 20 months before its term was to end, and ordered snap election. The Supreme Court overturned Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament and halted the preparations for snap polls.

Speaker Jayasuriya then ordered a floor test in the 225-member assembly to end the ongoing political crisis, a move which invited the wrath of the government of Rajapaksa.

The UNF has already moved two motions of no trust against Rajapaksa and they are to move a third vote again, perhaps Friday. Rajapaksa, however, has refused to step down.

On Wednesday, Wickremesinghe’s party handed Parliament another motion, demanding suspension of funds of all ministry secretaries whom they claim had been illegally appointed since October 26.

International

China’s top trade negotiator to visit US January 30-31

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China

Beijing | China’s top trade negotiator will travel to the United States to resume talks later this month ahead of a March deadline to avoid bruising tariff hikes, the commerce ministry said on Thursday.

Vice Premier Liu He will visit Washington on January 30-31 for the negotiations, the ministry said, following up on talks by lower-level officials in Beijing earlier this month.

US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to a three-month trade war truce in December, suspending US plans to increase tariffs on billions of dollars in Chinese goods to give negotiators space to find a solution.

Liu and US officials will “hold negotiations on economic and trade issues and work together to push forward and implement the consensus” reached by Xi and Trump, ministry spokesman Gao Feng told reporters.

China’s senior negotiator will travel at the invitation of US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Gao said. Without a resolution, punitive US duty rates on USD 200 billion in Chinese goods are due to rise to 25 per cent from 10 per cent on March 2.

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Indian-American Raja Krishnamoorthi 1st South Asian to serve on powerful committee on intelligence

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Raja Krishnamoorthi

Washington | Indian-American Democratic lawmaker Raja Krishnamoorthy has been appointed as a member of a Congressional committee on intelligence, becoming the first South Asian to serve in the powerful body tasked to strengthen America’s national security.

Krishnamoorthy, 45, who represents Illinois’s 8th congressional district in the House, was chosen along with Congresswoman Val Demings of Florida, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York and Peter Welch of Vermont as the four new Democratic members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) for the 116th Congress.

The HPSCI is tasked with overseeing the activities and budget of the 17 intelligence agencies of the US. Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi appointed Krishnamoorthi Wednesday.

Pelosi said, “Our new members of the Intelligence Committee bring exceptional judgment, expertise and determination to our mission to honour that oath and, guided by the strong, principled leadership of Chairman Adam Schiff, will restore the long tradition of bipartisanship and integrity of this critical committee. “We look forward to the many contributions these new members will bring to Democrats’ work to strengthen America’s national security and defend our democracy”.

Krishnamoorthi, after Pelosi announced his appointment, said: “It is very humbling to be chosen to serve on the Intelligence Committee in this Congress, and I am ready to join with my colleagues in preserving the safety and security of our nation”.

“The intelligence challenges and international threats facing our country today are vast, ranging from terrorism to cyberwarfare to investigating Russia’s previous and continuing attempts to sabotage our democracy.

“I am honoured that the Speaker and Caucus have placed their trust in me and the contributions I’ll make to the Committee. When I took the oath of office, I swore to protect and defend the Constitution from all threats, foreign and domestic, and I know that the work we do under the leadership of Chairman Adam Schiff will fulfil that solemn duty,” Krishnamoorthi said.

Born into a Tamil-speaking family in New Delhi, his family moved to Buffalo, New York when he was three months old. Krishnamoorthi attended Princeton University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He also attended Harvard Law School.

Early this week, Pelosi appointed Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal to the House Education and Labour Committee.

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US tells Taliban it must talk to Afghan government

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Aghan Taliban

Kabul | The US envoy in Afghanistan has said on Wednesday that a peaceful end to the 17-year conflict requires the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government, which they have consistently refused.

Zalmay Khalilzad spoke to reporters in Kabul on his latest visit to the war-torn country, where he is at the centre of a flurry of diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict which began with the US invasion of 2001.

“The road to peace will require Taliban to sit with other Afghans, including the government,” Khalilzad said.

“There is a consensus among all regional partners on this point,” he added, according to quotes sent to the US embassy in Kabul.

The insurgents have long refused to hold direct talks with the Kabul government, which they dismiss as a puppet of Washington.

Taliban representatives have met several times with US officials in recent months, but earlier this week threatened to suspend the fledgling peace efforts, accusing the US of changing the agenda of the talks and “unilaterally” adding new subjects.

“If the Talibs want to talk, we can talk, if they want to fight we can fight. We hope that the Talibs want to make peace,” Khalilzad said in response to the threat.

The envoy arrived in Kabul on late Tuesday, where he met with the country’s political leaders. On his third tour of the region since his appointment in September, he had previously travelled to India, the United Arab Emirates and China. He is expected next in Pakistan.

His tour comes shortly after US officials said in December that President Donald Trump intends to withdraw as many as half of the 14,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad Wednesday said that if the Taliban choose to continue fighting, “The United States will stand with the Afghan government and the Afghan people and support them”.

He dismissed reports the US wanted to maintain military bases in the country.

“We have never said we want permanent military bases in Afghanistan,” he said.

“What we want is to see this conflict end through negotiation, and to continue our partnership with Afghanistan, and to ensure no terrorist threatens either of us.” In the long run, the US is seeking a military, diplomatic and economic relationship with Afghanistan, he added.

Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, said he hopes for fresh talks with the Taliban “very soon”.

The US is not the only country dancing around talks with the militants. Russia and Iran have held meetings with the Taliban in recent months, while China has also made overtures. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan are all participating in the US efforts.

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