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Country looks to President to get it out of morass

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by Jehan Perera

The loss of the USD 480 million grant opportunity provided to Sri Lanka by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) was on the cards for some time. The two projects it was meant to implement became too controversial, though on their face they were about promoting economic development. The Transport Project aimed to increase the relative efficiency and capacity of the road network and bus system in the Colombo Metropolitan Region and to reduce the cost of transporting passengers and goods between the central region of the country and ports and markets in the rest of the country. The Land Project was to help the government identify under-utilized state land that might be put to more productive use and maximize rents from lands that the government leases. Both of these projects were interpreted in a negative light to make them a threat to Sri Lanka.

The US government’s decision to withdraw its offer cited its Sri Lankan counterpart’s lack of interest in taking up the offer and therefore the need to shift the funds to other countries. The main problem that was highlighted by opponents of the MCC grant, and by leading government politicians on many occasions, both prior to the elections that they won and after them, was that the MCC grant had linkages to two military cooperation agreements that Sri Lanka has with the United States. These are the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and, Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) which permit the United States to use Sri Lankan facilities for its logistical purposes, including refueling and entry into and exit from Sri Lanka for American military personnel without having to obtain visas. The MCC grant was seen as feeding into the geo-strategic engagements of the United States that would be detrimental to Sri Lankan sovereignty.

The MCC grant provided nationalist politicians and those associated with them the opportunity to fan fear in the minds of the electorate. They predicted the bifurcation of the country by an economic corridor that would stretch from Colombo in the west to Trincomalee in the east. Also that it would make it necessary for Buddhist pilgrims from the south to get visas from the US Embassy to go worship in the ancient capital of Anuradhapura in the north. This was one of the key factors that induced thousands of Buddhist monks to advice their followers about the need to ensure the defeat of the then government to prevent the division of the country. Once nationalism takes a grip on the imagination of a people it becomes very difficult to move them in the opposite direction even if it is in the national interest.

 

FURTHER DETERRENTS

As a result of the US government’s withdrawal of its offer, Sri Lanka will lose two very large economic projects that could have brought in an infusion of foreign exchange and helped the country to modernize two critical sectors of its economy which have lagged in comparison to other developing countries. Unlike Thailand and Malaysia, and a host of other comparable countries, Sri Lanka still does not have a bus system where buses run to regular schedules and where the buses have electronic panels which indicate the location of the bus. Likewise, where land is concerned the tenancy or ownership of much of it has not been registered which makes it difficult to use the land in an economically efficient manner. The MCC grant would have upgraded urban transport, land registration and also built several key rural road links to the main roads.

The Rs 89 billion that that the MCC grant would have made available to Sri Lanka could have been utilized for the welfare of the people by renegotiating the activities set out in the grant. The fact that Sri Lanka had received such a large grant from the US might have also induced foreign investors to put their faith in Sri Lanka as they would have been reassured by the US government’s investment in the country as an indication of its economic viability. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been asserting the need for foreign investment in the country instead of loans. This is an indication of his determination to ensure that there is sustainable growth in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the message that will go out now will be a negative message that the US government has given up on Sri Lanka at a time when it faces a massive debt repayment crisis. This negative image will be worsened by the negative credit ratings that Sri Lanka has been receiving from the most well reputed credit rating agencies whose analyses are watched carefully by international investors.

Adding to the problems likely to be faced by the government is the likelihood that the United States together with EU countries will be contemplating a fresh resolution in the UN Human Rights Council to replace the last one on Sri Lanka, Resolution No 40/1 whose period of implementation ends in March 2021. In February of this year, the government decided to withdraw from the implementation of that resolution and the commitments made by its predecessor government when it co-sponsored Resolution No 30/1 in 2015. There is every reason to believe that the government will strenuously resist any new resolution on it. The government is confident that its allies among other developing countries and in particular its strong relationships with China and Russia will enable it to prevail in such a contest. However, the negative publicity resulting from a battle on Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council will serve to act a further deterrent on foreign investors being willing to invest in Sri Lanka.

 

MORE CHALLENGES

The forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March 2021 will see Sri Lanka having to face down two sets of challenges. The first is the argument that is being made that Sri Lanka should not be permitted to set a precedent for international institutions by its unilateral withdrawal from its co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 of 2015. Those countries that support the UNHRC as an important global institution for the protection of human rights would not wish to set precedents that enable other countries to back out of commitments they have made. Although at the time of its withdrawal in 2020 from the commitments made in 2015, the Sri Lanka government promised to come up with a nationally driven reconciliation mechanism as an alternative, this has not yet materialized.

The government’s hope will be to muster the support of developing countries as well as its superpower allies, China and Russia, to numerically defeat those countries that wish to put it into the dock again on human rights. However, this hope will be endangered by the alienation of Muslim countries. Turkish news agency TRT reported that the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation expressed concern over the issue of Covid cremation and called for Sri Lankan Muslims to be allowed to bury family members in line with their religious beliefs. “Against this practice, forbidden under Islam, the OIC calls for respect to funeral rites in the Islamic faith,” it said in a statement. The international media, especially in Muslim countries, have reported the story of the 20-day-old baby who was cremated without permitting his parents access to the body. TRT further commented that “The image of a sleeping baby Shaykh has become a symbol for what Sri Lanka’s Muslim community as well as moderates consider cruel and inhuman treatment of the Muslim Coronavirus victims.”

In these circumstances getting the support of Muslim countries at the UNHRC to vote against a human rights resolution on Sri Lanka will prove to be an uphill task. The myth of the uniqueness of Sri Lanka and its special place in the world on account of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean has been dented by the US government’s mechanical exclusion of Sri Lanka from the MCC grant. If Sri Lanka is to prosper, it needs to build its relationships with the world beginning with those within the country. Many government leaders spent the past two weeks apparently enthralled by the herbalist who claims to be son of a goddess and produced a herbal tonic to do battle with the Coronavirus. Unless government leaders analyse problems more rationally they will not be able to cope with the enormous problems of getting Sri Lanka out of our morass. With rational thought that comes from long years he spent in the military, hopefully President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has the capacity and power after the passage of the 20th Amendment to lead the country out of the widening morass.

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SLAF on hazardous wall, Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement……

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Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement in response to an article (That hazardous Ratmalana Wall) published on 21 Jan.

It is with regret that I would like to inform you that the newspaper article titled “That Hazardous Ratmalana Wall” published in The “Island” newspaper of 21 January 2021 contains false information which has not been clarified from the Air Force Director Media nor any other official channel of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF).

It should also be highlighted that the Sri Lanka Air Force does not wish to challenge the freedom of reporting information by journalists. However, news articles of this nature published with the use of unsubstantiated information tarnishes the image of Sri Lanka Air Force.

The newspaper article in concern has caught the attention of the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force. As alleged in the article, the Commander has not declared on behalf of the SLAF that there is no objection for the removal of the wall and replacing it with a fence. On the contrary he had in fact stated that a collapsible wall could be put in place of the permanent wall which should have a solid finish obstructing the view from outside due to security reasons.

In addition, to date there has been no incident/accident reported at the Ratmalana Airfield related to the wall along the Galle Road. Further, vehicles such as passenger coach/container etc; travelling on the main road would be taller than the wall in concern and according to the article, the main road would also have to be closed each and every time when an aircraft approaching of taking off from that end of the runway. International runway due to limitations which is also can be considered as hazardous to flight safety, SLAF consider Flight Safety is a paramount important factor as an organization which operates different types of aircraft over the years from this airfield.

It is pertinent to mention the wall in concern was erected by the SLAF before year 2009 with the consent of the Airport and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL) to address the security concerns at that time and maintained to date. The outer perimeter security of the Colombo International Airport at Ratmalana is being provided by the SLAF free of charge over years. As a measure of gratitude, with the consent of AASL and the approval of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), SLAF authorized to erect hoardings along this wall and to utilize the funds generated for welfare measures of airmen.

Further, publishing of an article which has an author with a fictional name will have serious and adverse effects on the newspaper as well as the goodwill which prevails between SLAF and AASL. The goodwill which prevails between the SLAF and your esteemed Organization will also be adversely effected by articles of this nature. SLAF Directorate of Media always provide accurate and precise information to media institutions which has an impact on general public as well as to other organizations. Undersigned is contactable any time of the day through mobile (0772229270) to clarify ambiguities of SLAF related information.

In conclusion, I would like to express our displeasure regarding the newspaper article in concern and the damage which has been done to the good name of the Sri Lanka Air Force and in particular to the Commander of Air Force.

 

WADC WIJESINGHE

Group Captain

DIRECTOR MEDIA

for COMMANDER OF THE AIR FORCEs

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Dog-eat-dog culture

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By Rajitha Ratwatte

There is an old joke that goes around regularly about Sri Lankans’ in hell. How absolutely no guards are needed to keep Lankans in hell because they do a very good job of pulling each other down into hell when anyone even looks like they will escape. When you extrapolate that into real life in the Pearl, the examples are plenty. All of us have personal experiences of neighbours, peers, relations and even our bosses “cutting us” as the popular phrase goes. It is mostly those who either realise and watch out for these pitfalls or those who clearly identify a powerful figure to “bum suck” for want of a better word that display pure unadulterated sycophancy to, that “progress” to propagate these trends in the future. This I believe is something that is triggered by the basest of all human emotions, jealousy, and probably egged on by a sense of insecurity as well.

One would expect that in a nation of devout Buddhists such reprehensible behaviour would be addressed and controlled. Alas it is not to be and looks like it never will be.

It is rather disconcerting to observe that this behaviour is ‘going strong’ among the Lankan community in this the land of the “long White Cloud” as well. The more I live here and mix with the community, the more I hear about people who try to start new projects or give fruition to new and possibly brilliant schemes who have been stymied by fellow citizens born in the Pearl. They indulge in the anonymous letter method (that dates back from time immemorial) made even easier by using false identities, and “one-off” e mail addresses on the web. They inform all government authorities of what they believe are attempts to break the law of their adopted country. If there are bilateral trade agreements, they diligently contact the other parties and try to cast aspersions on the people concerned. They even inform the management of any company that these people with the new ideas may be working at, that their employee may be breaking a sub clause in his contract and thinking of doing some other business while working for them. All triggered by a wonderful sense of self-righteousness from people who don’t think twice about breaking the law when it concerns their own affairs!

As a result, those who have had a measure of success, guard their positions very carefully and a few who have tried to include other Lankans in their operations have learned hard lessons from those who stole their trade secrets and started rival businesses on their own. I daresay this happens in other communities too, but among the Chinese and Indian communities that form similar minorities in Aotearoa, there are official networks formed to help new immigrants. There are schemes and methods in place to help their people do business, especially in the field of imports, to try and reach some sort of equilibrium with regard to the balance of trade between Aotearoa and their home countries. Sri Lanka imports so much milk from New Zealand but almost nothing of our spices, gems and jewellery, tourism products or even our tea that used to have a much larger share of the market, are imported.

In these desperate economic times, shouldn’t the government be looking at ways to improve our export trade? There are so many pockets and communities of Lankans in so many different countries who are doing well enough to be able to afford some luxuries from their home countries but have to pay exorbitant prices or do without. A recent import of ‘sweet meats’ for Sinhala New Year saw such a massive offtake that great plans for expansion were disrupted by Covid-19, before the Lankan rivals could put paid to it. Although such plans were in place!

Something that is rather obvious to those observing the antics in the Pearl from outside is that there seems to be no plan. Innovative thinking, especially in the field of ‘non-traditional’ exports does not exist. We have all seen how fickle tourism is. Using our fertile soil and the artistic skills of our people to build a reputation for quality exports has been totally neglected in recent times. I daresay the relevant ministries and export bodies exist, but it is a well-known fact that they simply serve as JOBS for political catchers, who do nothing except enjoy a foreign junket or two every year on account of the taxpayer.

That brilliant marketing idea of the Ceylon Tea Centers was so far ahead of its time that no one really understood it. We had the best retail locations in some of the greatest cities in Europe and the UK and were building up a great reputation for serving quality tea and promoting our cuisine. It should have been expanded to handle handicraft products on the lines of Laksala and even spices. Of course, promoting our culture, hospitality and tourism would have followed. There are two ways to handle a crisis. We can either put up our shutters and slide deeper and deeper into the mire of debt and economic ruin, or take some bold steps, make innovative investments and take a gamble on products and ideas that are endemic to our country.

 

Even if the latter method fails the end result couldn’t be much worse! Go down fighting I say! Rather than ask expatriates to come back and try to work in a totally corrupt and politician dominated society, approach expatriates with ideas in other countries and back them to promote those ideas if they show real economic benefits to our land. Not everything will work but even a 5% success rate is better than nothing at all.

It is also acknowledged that RANIL has been reappointed as leader of the UNP. Now then, what does this mean? Is it that the Uncle-Nephew party has stuck to tradition or does it mean that at least some people have realized that an experienced politician with world recognition and a certain amount of credibility in the first world, is useful to have around? Search your minds all you critics who blamed absolutely everything on Ranil. Have a dispassionate look at the Muppets in parliament and think for yourself what sort of account they would give of themselves on the world stage. After you do this, place Ranil on the world stage next to those morons and realize for yourself the DIFFERENCE!

 

fromoutsidethepearl@gmail.com

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Lenin comes to town (again)

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By Gwynne Dyer

When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow on Sunday after convalescing in Germany from an attempted poisoning by the FSB domestic spy agency, the regime-friendly media loyally failed to mention his arrival. With one striking exception: Vremya, the flagship news show of Russian state television.

Presumably, somebody there was hoping to win favour with the Kremlin, because they briefly mentioned Navalny three-quarters of the way through Sunday’s two-hour programme. In fact, they compared Navalny’s trip home to Vladimir Lenin’s famous return to Russia in 1917, and suggested that he was as great a danger to Russia as Lenin had been.

As every Russian knows, the Germans plucked Lenin from exile in Switzerland in the middle of the First World War. He was sent across Germany in a ‘sealed train’ (so he wouldn’t spread the infection of Communism there) to St. Petersburg, then in the throes of Russia’s first democratic revolution – and he did just what the Germans had hoped he would.

Lenin overthrew the fumbling democratic ‘Provisional Government’ in a military coup, took Russia out of the First World War – and launched a 73-year totalitarian Communist regime that cost at least 20 million Russian lives in purges, famines and lesser acts of repression. Is Navalny really that great a danger?

The ambitious presenter at Vremya probably won’t get the job he wanted, because President Vladimir Putin really won’t have liked seeing his noisiest critic compared in stature to Lenin, a genuine world-historical figure. Putin himself never mentions Navalny’s name at all.

Russians cannot even put a name to the system they live under, as the poor Vremya presenter’s confusion illustrates. It’s certainly not a democracy, although there are regular elections. It’s definitely not Communist, although most of the regime’s senior figures were Communists before they discovered a better route to power and wealth.

It’s not a monarchy, although Putin has been in power for twenty years and is surrounded by a court of extremely rich allies and cronies. And ‘kleptocracy’ is just a pejorative term used mostly by foreigners, although Navalny does habitually refer to Putin and his cronies as “crooks and thieves”.

In fact, Putin’s regime is not a system at all. Its only ideology is a traditional Russian nationalism that is lightweight compared to blood-and-soil religious and racist movements like Trump’s in the United States and Modi’s in India. It’s a purely personal regime, and it is very unlikely to survive his dethronement or demise.

Putin has been in power for twenty years, and he has just changed the constitution with a referendum that lets him stay in power until 2036. But that seems unlikely, partly because he is already 68 and partly because the younger generation of Russians is getting restless and bored.

Navalny is a brave man who has gone home voluntarily to face a spell in Putin’s jails. (He missed two parole appointments for a suspended sentence on trumped-up embezzlement charges because he was in Germany recovering from the FSB assassination attempt.) But his role in Russian politics so far had been more gadfly than revolutionary.

His supporters do their homework and make clever, witty videos detailing the scandalous financial abuses of the regime (the latest is a virtual tour of Putin’s new $1 billion seaside palace on the Black Sea near Novorossiysk), but he is probably not the man who will finally take Putin down. What he is doing to great effect is mobilising the tech-savvy young.

Since 2018 the average age of protesters at anti-Putin demos, mostly linked to Navalny one way or another, has dropped by a decade, and their boldness has risen in proportion. Moreover, their attitude to the regime now verges on contempt. Rightly so: consider, for example, the last two assassination attempts by regime operatives.

In 2018, the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, sent two agents to England to kill defector Sergei Skripov and his daughter Yulia. The agents made two trips to Salisbury because they couldn’t find the right house, they were tracked by CCTV every step of the way, and in the end, they left too little novichok (nerve poison) on the doorknob to kill the targets.

Equally crude and bumbling was the FSB’s attack on Navalny in Tomsk, where the novichok was put on his underpants. Once again, the target survived, and afterwards the investigative site Bellingcat was able to trace FSB agents tracking Navalny on forty flights over several years before the murder was attempted.

Neither agency is fit for 21st-century service, nor is the regime they both serve. Russians have put up with it for a long time because they were exhausted and shamed by the wild political banditry of the 1990s, but Putin’s credit for having put an end to that has been exhausted. He may still be in power for years, but this is a regime on the skids.

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