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Editorial

Any port in a storm

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Tuesday 13th October, 2020

The US and its allies are weeping buckets for Sri Lanka, which, they say, is losing its sovereignty owing to its heavy dependence on Chinese loans. They want Sri Lanka to break free from what they call the Chinese debt trap. They are proffering loads of advice, but will not loosen their purse strings to help ‘the victim’. What Sri Lanka needs most at this juncture is financial assistance, and certainly not advice. Will Washington grant Colombo a soft loan without asking for land, a port or permission for its troops to be stationed here in return? Or, will any of the US allies do so?

No other nation is responsible for Sri Lanka’s predicament. Its economy had been in bad shape even before being hit by COVID-19 owing to its mismanagement over the years. Now, the situation has taken a turn for the worse, due to the global health emergency. Left with a choice between China and the IMF to raise funds, Sri Lanka has turned to China, which sent a special delegation here, the other day, and pledged assistance.

It is being argued in some quarters that an IMF programme would have placed Sri Lanka on a debt-sustainable path, from which some credibility would have accrued by way of creditworthiness vis-à-vis the country’s downgraded ratings. Tenable as such assertions may sound, a deal of that nature could open the door to interference by the West and its Asian lackeys in the affairs of this country.

One may argue that Sri Lanka can opt for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant, but there is no such thing as a free lunch anent the US aid as well. On the other hand, the funds on offer are not sufficient, given Sri Lanka’s financial needs, and the MCC compact, too, will have a corrosive effect on the country’s sovereignty; instead of the Chinese, there will be Americans here in their numbers in the event of the compact being inked, as the opponents of the proposed controversial deal argue.

Do those who are urging Sri Lanka to avoid further ‘Chinese debt traps’ and safeguard its sovereignty really feel for it? One may recall that the US-led Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Conference on Reconstruction and Development of Sri Lanka, in the early noughties, lured this country into an aid trap of sorts, endangering its national security and territorial integrity; they had the then UNP-led government give in to the LTTE to the point of compromising the country’s national security and territorial integrity. They did so by tying an aid pledge (USD 4.5 billion) to progress to be made in talks between the government and the LTTE, which was abusing a fragile truce to prepare for the next phase of its war. The Sri Lankan government’s yen for dollars enabled the LTTE to make the most of the flawed ceasefire to take delivery of weapons, regroup, consolidate its power in the North and the East, infiltrate the other areas, and, most of all, move its heavy guns to places from where it could target the Trincomalee Harbour and the Palaly airstrip and cut off sea and air supplies to the troops based in the North. In fact, the LTTE carried out its plan, in 2006, when hostilities resumed, and succeeded in pounding both strategic locations, but luckily precautions had been taken by that time. But for the change of government, in 2004, and the defeat of UNP presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2005, perhaps, the LTTE would have achieved its goal, and the Trincomalee harbour would have been under it, thanks to those who say China has got Sri Lanka to cough up the Hambantota Port.

It has been a case of any port in a storm for Sri Lanka, which is desperate for funds to service its debt and keep its economy afloat. Unfortunately, the focus of the incumbent government is on the political front. It is apparently labouring under the delusion that securing the passage of 20th Amendment to the Constitution is half the battle in resolving the ever worsening economic crisis.



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Editorial

Heroes and villains

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Tuesday 16th August, 2022

The government has delisted some expatriate Tamil groups considered sympathetic to the LTTE’s cause, and drawn heavy flak from a section of the ruling SLPP and the nationalistic organisations that backed it to the hilt at the past several elections. The SLPP leadership has chosen to remain silent on the issue, and it will be interesting to know its stance on the delisting of the Tamil groups that it once demonised. It made Ranil Wickremesinghe the President to do its bidding. Is the tail now wagging the dog?

Why were the aforesaid Tamil organisations banned? Have the factors that led to their proscription ceased to be, over the past few years, for them to be delisted under the present dispensation, which is an extension of the Rajapaksa rule in all but name? If not, what has prompted the government to delist them, and doesn’t its action amount to an admission that those outfits were wrongfully proscribed, or it has acted out of expediency rather than principle or any concern for the national interest, which it claims to protect?

It was the Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2005-2015) that initiated action to proscribe some expatriate Tamil groups, claiming that they posed a threat to national security. The SLPP led by the Rajapaksas campaigned on a national security platform at the presidential election (2019) and the parliamentary polls (2020) and secured huge popular mandates to govern the country in keeping with its national security strategy among other things. Does the SLPP think the delisting of the Tamil groups at issue is consistent with its mandates, on the basis of which it continues to rule the country?

The SLPP, which elected President Wickremesinghe, with whose blessings the delisting in question has been effected, owes an explanation to the public.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who represents the nationalistic forces that made the SLPP’s victory possible and are full of praise for President Wickremesinghe for having got tough with the Galle Face protesters and stood up to the Colombo-based western diplomats, to the government’s volte-face on the proscription of the pro-Eelam groups.

Needless to say, when a government does exactly the opposite of what it promises in its election manifesto, for which it obtains popular support, its mandate becomes delegitimised. The key pledges in SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy programme presented to the people and what the government is doing at present are like chalk and cheese, to say the least. One is reminded of a ruse in days of yore; some men, on their wedding days, much to their surprise, found that their brides were the elder sisters of the pretty women they had agreed to marry! Something similar has happened to the Sri Lankans who voted for Gotabaya; they have got Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President courtesy of the SLPP!

The leaders and members of the Tamil expatriate groups that have been delisted will now be able to visit this country. But war-time Defence Secretary Gotabaya, who became the President, has fled the country and is in self-exile. President Wickremesinghe has gone on record saying that he does not think the time is opportune for Gotabaya to return home. Speculation is rife that some former LTTE members in detention will be released as part of a political deal the government has cut with the TNA. If the government carries out its pledge to the TNA, those ex-Tigers will walk free. Is it that Gotabaya, as the President, did something far worse than unleashing or supporting terrorism? All the SLPP politicians who were also responsible for bankrupting the country are still in the incumbent government, and some of them are Cabinet ministers although most of them should be behind bars. So much for the change the Aragalaya has brought about!

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Editorial

To dock or not to dock

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Monday 15th August, 2022

Sri Lanka is like a storm-tossed bark struggling to remain afloat in an ocean of economic trouble; it is lucky to have avoided a head-on collision with a massive Chinese vessel, Yuan Wang 5 (YW-5), a ballistic missile and satellite-tracking ship, which is on its way to Hambantota. Colombo has finally stopped dillydallying and decided to allow the vessel to make a port call. India and the US have softened their collective stance on the Chinese ship’s visit. It was thought that the YW-5 issue would lead to a bitter diplomatic row with India, and if what was feared had come to pass with New Delhi cranking up pressure on Colombo to deny YW-5 permission to dock, it would have been a double whammy for Sri Lanka, which is dependent on the restructuring of Chinese debt to secure the much-needed IMF bailout package, and cannot afford to antagonise India, which is propping up its economy. All’s well that ends well.

There are lessons to be learnt from the ship controversy. Colombo was initially all at sea. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government seemed divided on the issue with vital information one needed to figure out the provenance of the issue being suppressed. So, the arguments and counterarguments anent the issue were based on surmises, hunches, assumptions, hearsay, etc. Thankfully, the Foreign Ministry has put the record straight albeit belatedly.

It behoves Sri Lanka to be mindful of India’s security concerns in handling maritime affairs. Perhaps, it is not the scheduled arrival of YW-5 as such that New Delhi was concerned about but the possibility of China continuing to use the Hambantota Port to berth more such vessels in the future. (China would not have secured a port in a strategic location in the Indian Ocean for nothing!) It is only natural that India and its QUAD allies think China is testing the water.

It is the voice of the QUAD that one has heard through the critics of the YW-5 voyage. There is reason to believe that they are promoting a US-led drive to isolate China internationally. YW-5 embarked on its current voyage amidst a Chinese naval exercise near Taiwan in response to US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent controversial visit to Taipei notwithstanding objections from Beijing.

Colombo has acted tactfully by reportedly asking India and the US to specify the reasons for their misgivings about the Chinese vessel’s port call. However, it defies comprehension why Colombo requested Beijing to defer the arrival of YW-5 at Hambantota for replenishment, after granting permission.

Meanwhile, the argument that China is sending its survey vessel all the way to Hambantota to spy on South India does not sound tenable. In fact, it reflects naivety on the part of those who make that claim, for China is equipped to spy on its rivals without taking the trouble of deploying its ships and drawing international attention to such missions unnecessarily. In this day and age, technology is so advanced that information about even what lies at the edge of the universe, as it were, could be gathered without any craft ever getting anywhere near it.

Sri Lanka is already battered and bruised enough economically and certainly does not want any diplomatic rows to contend with. It has to get its foreign policy right. It had better take steps to avoid issues like the docking of YW-5 in the future lest it should become a victim of the big-power rivalry, which is intensifying; it ought to decide what types of ships will be allowed to berth at its ports, formulate a policy to that effect and make it known to the rest of the word so that unnecessary controversies could be averted, and hegemonic nations bent on projecting their power on a global scale will not be able to flex their naval muscles at the expense of Colombo.

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Editorial

Unarmed but not peaceful

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We run on this page today an article written by a retired Major General of the Sri Lanka Army who argues forcefully that the Aragalaya protesters were NOT repeat NOT peaceful. Over the weeks and months of the protest, which now appears to be fizzling out, although contrary claims that it will continue persist, the Aragalaya was described by the media, human rights activists, politicians, diplomats and many more as a “peaceful protest.” That label stuck. A protest it was, and an unarmed protest to boot, but nobody can claim that it was “peaceful” especially during its concluding stages when barricades protecting President’s House and the Presidential Secretariat at the old Parliament building were repeatedly stormed.

The whole country was privy to these all or nothing charges, where large groups akin to human battering rams, unrelentingly and repeatedly stormed the barriers surrounding the seats of government. They did so with the clear knowledge that there would be no shooting. These scenes were beamed over national television news bulletins widely viewed countrywide. Police and troops manning the barriers used tear gas and water cannons and on a few occasions fired into the air. Fortunately, thanks be to whoever was responsible (some say that outgoing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa so ordered before he fled the country), no live bullets were fired. Thus no lives were lost. All to the good. The retired military officer, Major General Lalin Fernando, who has titled his contribution “Peaceful and Unlawful Assembly” has, to our mind, by quoting sections of the Criminal Procedure Code conclusively established that the assemblies under reference were totally unlawful. There is no second word about that. Unarmed yes, but peaceful no.

Another curious and coincidental occurrence regarding the Rajapaksas’ departure and what many believe to be the end of the Aragalaya has occurred within exact one month intervals over a three-month period beginning May 9 this year. On that day Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa responded to the “Go Home Mynah” demand. Exactly a month later, on June 9, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa went home although there was no “Basil Go Gama.” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa eventually caved into the “Gota Go Home” demand and fled the country like a thief in the night, flying first to the Maldives, then to Singapore and now to Thailand. And last week on August 9, the Aragalaya which pushed all the Rajapaksas out of office also seems to have ended. Those who thought that the country has seen the back of the Rajapaksas when GR swore a cabinet minus all of them except his aiya who installed him on the throne, was forced to call for MR’s resignation, and thereafter to resign himself, will have to think again. The Pohottuwa still calls the shots in parliament as clearly demonstrated by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as prime minister, then as acting president and finally his comfortable election by parliament as president to serve out the rest of GR’s term.

Remember Mahinda Sulanga after MR who had engineered a constitutional coup ending the two term limit on the presidency suffered a stunning loss to Maithripala Sirisena, the former general secretary of MR’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, while seeking a third term. A combination of forces led by the UNP and including former President Chandrika Kumaratunga ensured Rajapaksa’s defeat. But he did not lie down and die. Within days and weeks of what seemed an unbelievable end to a remarkable political career, Mahinda Rajapaksa was being feted and greeted by tens of thousands of his supporters at his Tangalle home. Before long, with the help of his brother Basil and the founding of his Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) best known by its Pohottuwa election symbol he was able to demonstrate that he was no spent force at the local government elections of February 2018. This was the biggest ever election in the country and his new party was able to gather 40 percent of the popular vote. The UNP and SLFP ran a poor second and third.

But reckless, ill- managed government, rampant corruption and sheer incompetence led to the Rajapaksa nemesis and Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy. Never has Sri Lanka, ranked a middle income country, reached the depths to which it has plunged today. The majority of the people, mostly the poor, are facing untold hardship. Food prices have galloped through the roof. The latest World Food Program (WFP) assessment reveals that 86 percent of Lankan families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and in some cases skipping meals altogether. Before the economic crisis and the pandemic, malnutrition rates across the country were already high. There is no need to labour over the cascading effects of the fuel crisis and the kilometers long queues for diesel and petrol. The present improvements can last only as long as we can borrow the dollars to continue supplies.

There is no signal from the president or the government that a serious effort at course correction will be made at least on the political front. The attempted All Party Government is certainly not going to be lean. Abject failures and suspect personalities are back in office and the country fears there will be more of it. Those within the incumbent parliament, judged by the knowledgeable as competent, are unwilling to take political office. President Wickremesinghe is doing his best, but will that be enough?

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