Shades of Beddegama in teeming Hong Kong
By GEORGE BRAINE
Even after being closely connected to Hong Kong for 26 years, I am still amazed by the contrasts there. Professionals earn the highest salaries in the world while destitute old women scavenge for cardboard boxes. Tycoons live in the world’s most expensive mansions while the poorest live in tiny subdivided flats. Perhaps the most striking contrast is the crowded urban areas of Central, Kowloon, and Mong Kok, and the deserted villages in the rural parts of the New Territories, where I lived.
Hong Kong is barely 500 square miles, and only half of that is inhabited; the rest is given over to hillsides and country parks. They are seven million tightly packed people. Then, how does one explain deserted villages?
Wong Chuk Yeung
Leonard Woolf’s classic Village in the Jungle, set in colonial Ceylon, narrates the slow decline of a small, isolated village, Beddegama. As the people leave or die out, the jungle gradually covers the crumbling, miserable huts. The last survivor is Punchi Menika. In the final scene, as Punchi Menika lies in her dilapidated hut, a giant wild boar glides in like a mythical devil to gore her. This scene came to mind when, during a hike, I stumbled upon the village of Wong Chuk Yeung. Located about 3 km uphill from the lovely seaside town of Sai Kung, the village lies within a country park, at the end of a narrow, twisting road. On the way up, the road winds through a steep slope on the left and a forest to the right. Uphill, trees press on the road from either side, forming a canopy.
At its first appearance, the village gave the idea of being inhabited, with strands of electricity, street lights, and a functioning water service. The one mailbox overflowed with recently delivered mail, mainly electric and water bills. However, the lichen-covered houses and the trash-strewn, weed-choked alleyways indicated a lack of life. Rice fields and fruit trees long abandoned and overgrown with weeds surrounded the village. Butterflies and dragonflies fluttered. Signs of rooting by wild boars was everywhere, and the fragile barking deer scampered off at my approach. Five-meter long Burmese pythons had been seen nearby. Old graves stood sentinel.
Long ago, the village was occupied by rice and vegetable farmers of the Li clan. They lacked proper roads, schools, electricity, or water service, but this simple life style suited the villagers. Then, imported rice became much cheaper. Rice also became hard to grow because a nearby iron mine caused a drop in the water table. Lacking even public transport, the younger generation preferred the comforts of urban Hong Kong or emigrated to Britain.
The last survivor Since that first encounter, I visited the village, on and off, over a number of years. An elderly man dressed smartly in a jacket and trousers, carrying a rolled-up umbrella, would pass me by on his way to town. I would also see him in town, chatting with people his age or doing a little shopping.
Later, I also noticed a younger man from the village, laboriously pushing his bicycle uphill, laden with plastic shopping bags. He would pause often on the way, squatting on the ground to rest before attempting a further stretch of the steep road. He did not make eye contact or return my greetings.
Then, I stopped seeing the elderly gentleman. He had died. I also learned that his wife used to carry home-made cakes on a shoulder pole for sale in Sai Kung. She had passed away before my time. The younger man, the last survivor of the village, was their son. The family had emigrated to Britain but returned to Hong Kong and to Wong Chuk Yeung for some reason.
As the years went by, the last survivor no longer had his bicycle. Instead, three dogs with matted fur would accompany him all the way to town and back. I would sometimes see him in town, feeding the dogs with scraps of bread, and reading crumpled racing sheets that he may have found in trash cans. At the village, I had noticed a ramshackle house with garbage strewn outside, the dogs loitering at the door barking fiercely at my approach. That’s perhaps where he lived.
Eventually, only one dog was left. For the last survivor, life must have been horrendous. The eerily quiet nights would have been fearsomely lonely, perhaps the ghosts of departed ancestors his only company. Occasionally, a police vehicle would pass me on the way to the village, so they must have been keeping an eye on his safety.
On my way down to Sai Kung town, splendid views of the island-studded bay, a golf course, and of a distant reservoir opened up. Although other hikers appeared on weekends, the road was mainly deserted during weekdays. Domestic helpers walking their employers’ dogs could be seen, but they too become fewer when the heat of summer set in. On some mornings, paragliders would be floating down towards Sai Kung town, adding colour to the clear blue sky.
Driving home from Sai Kung on a blisteringly hot afternoon, I saw the last survivor struggling home and stopped to give him a ride, going out of my way to the village. As my car struggled up the steep climb on first gear, we drove in silence. When he opened the door to get down, I extended my hand and said “George”. He repeated “Georgie” in the Cantonese style that I find so affectionate. Pointing to himself, he said “Li”. He had finally spoken.
The front page banner headline in the South China Morning Post came like a bolt from the blue. Forgotten Wong Chuk Yeung was in the news, with a bang, for illegal deals between developers and villagers domiciled in Britain.
Villagers profit in secret land deals
Indigenous residents sign away small housing rights in exchange for HK$500,000 or a new flat at the site, which helps developers avoid rezoning and premiums
Cheung Chi-faiNov 04, 2011
The article mentioned that the village was 350-years old, and once contained 96 houses. Obviously a substantial village, although I had not seen that many ruins; some crumbling structures may have been covered by weeds, or dissolved into the ground. But, every plot had an owner, and the developers were methodically buying up all the plots.
I had been writing-up my visits to the village on a blogsite, along with photos, and former villagers now in Britain had been reading my entries. In the comments section of the blog, the following message appeared:
Hi George, found your blog and found it fascinating. Great pictures. This is my family’s village, it is a lovely village, though very run down I still like to go and visit it whenever I am in HK – with much sadness all the villagers involved have now signed the papers for the land to be sold off to a development company. Not everyone wanted this but the majority won and it is now in process of exchange. I am extremely sad about this as the land has a lot of history. The buildings, the wildlife (the numerous beautiful butterflies!) in the land all needs to be preserved – Hong Kong needs to preserve old ancestral lands such as Wong Chuk Yeung before it’s too late.
Another villager in Britain, fiercely proud of his heritage, commented that he “will do everything it takes for Wong Chuk Yeung to stay in the Li family name”. He, and the last survivor, Mr. Li, may be what stood between the village and “development” that would erase all traces of a bygone-era.
I stopped visiting the village, but would see Mr. Li in Sai Kung town, sitting at McDonalds, engrossed in a newspaper that appears to have been salvaged from the garbage. He held the paper very close to his face, which probably meant he was nearsighted. That may have also accounted for his shyness and avoidance of people, because he couldn’t see well.
Over the years, his favourite place in town had been the Hong Kong Jockey Club betting centre. Even in the last days I saw him, he would be squatting on the pavement near the betting centre, carefully reading the racing sheet. He had shirtless, shoeless, the bicycle and the dogs long gone. He was become much scrawnier and unkempt over the years. Even when I said “Hello Mr. Li”, he would not look up or return my greeting.
I left Sai Kung in 2015. Recently, I saw that the following message had been left on my blogsite:
I’m sorry to announce that the lone survivor died at the beginning of this year (2015) and within weeks the developers moved in and put up 10 foot high corrugated hoardings fencing off the land from the public access road. This is a major eyesore and even worse is the bulldozing of the trees and wildlife areas (lush green grasslands that covered former paddy fields that were farmed by the villagers in the 50s and 60s).
I wonder about Mr. Li’s last days. Were they as wretched as Punchi Menika’s in Beddegama? Did he die alone, and discovered days later, or did someone find him before it was too late?
As for Wong Chuk Yeung, I have no wish to return. I prefer to remember it from all those years ago.
All praise for Lanka’s saviours!
By Shamindra Ferdinando
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Finance Minister, recently named three persons – all women -whose intervention supposedly brought relief to bankrupt Sri Lanka.
UNP leader Wickremesinghe paid glowing tributes to Indian Finance and Corporate Affairs Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, US Secretary of State Janet Yellen, and IMF Managing Director and Chairman of the Executive Board Kristalina Ivanova Georgieva-Kinova. The IMF Chief is Bulgarian.
Wickremesinghe declared that Sri Lanka would have experienced extreme difficulties if Sitharaman, Yellen and Georgieva-Kinova had not thrown their weight behind Sri Lanka.
The President said so at an event held at the Waters Edge Hotel, Battramulla, on March 08 to mark International Women’s Day.
It would be pertinent to mention that Sitharaman, Yellen and Georgieva-Kinova are all economists. The Indian Minister, and the IMF Chief, received top posts, in 2019, before the economic crisis gripped Sri Lanka, whereas Yellen was sworn in as US Treasury Chief, on January 26, 2021. Yellen is the first person, in American history, to have led the White House Council of Economic Advisors, the Federal Reserve, and the Treasury Department.
Wickremesinghe attended the event, on the invitation of actress turned lawmaker Geetha Kumarasinghe, Minister of Women and Child Affairs. Kumarasinghe successfully contested the Galle District, at the last parliamentary elections, on the SLPP ticket, after she was previously ousted from Parliament on the basis that she was a dual citizen. Kumarasinghe thereafter gave up her foreign citizenship, which she had obtained when she was married to a foreigner.
Wickremesinghe declared that Sitharaman loaned Sri Lanka USD 3 bn in spite of Colombo being declared bankrupt. in April 2022. Wickremesinghe described Sitharaman’s response to the Sri Lanka crisis as very brave. The UNP leader said that there was a need for him to explain the situation on the ground because if India didn’t make available USD 3 bn, within three to four months, our country would have simply collapsed.
US Ambassador, in Colombo, Julie J. Chung, whose interventions in not so ‘mysterious ways’ in support of a high profile protest campaign, that led to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, on July 14, 2022, was among the guests. Wickremesinghe succeeded Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa on May 12, three days after the latter resigned. Wickremesinghe received appointment as the Minister of Finance, Economic Stability and National Policies, on May 25. We will give the benefit of any doubt we now have about New Delhi being aware of the not so mysterious interventions here, by Washington, as we are almost certain that mandarins in New Delhi would be naturally aware how gleefully the West is looking forward to a bust up between China and India as it would be like disposing two their certain successors in the world
The US support for Sri Lanka, at the IMF, seems natural against the backdrop of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Joseph Burns’s recent clandestine visit to Colombo, in the dead of night. The US group flew in two C 17 Globemasters iii, on February 14, around 7-7.45 pm, and departed on the following day, around 3-3.40 pm. But the country is still in the dark as to what was unloaded from those two giant flying Trojan Horses, just as much as the human cargo. Beware when Americans bear gift horses!
The continuing foreign exchange crisis is broadly attributed to flawed policies, such as tax cuts, debt monetization, banning fertiliser and agrochemical imports, real appreciation of the exchange rate, etc. However, the issues at hand can be also characterized as a liquidity trap in the foreign exchange market, enforced by the economic structure and exploitative market structure, in the import and export sector of the economy, in the long run.
Wickremesinghe’s references to Sitharaman, Yellen and Georgieva-Kinova should be examined, taking into consideration early Indian and US support for the USD 2.9 bn IMF bailout package for Sri Lanka. All stakeholders made such a noise, over the IMF facility spread over a period of four years, that some ordinary people may have felt the country was down on its knees, before the Washington-based lender, for the first time.
In fact, we have secured IMF packages on 16 previous occasions and could have avoided the crisis if President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the warning signs seriously and the plotters, surrounding him, had not overwhelmed him with the help of outside evil forces. Unfortunately, the wartime Defence Secretary, who handsomely won the November 2019 presidential election, allowed the deterioration. The sharp drop in tourist arrivals, in the wake of the April 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, and the overall shrinking of the global economy, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, made matters worse for Sri Lanka.
What may have sealed his fate must have been how those conveniently called peaceful protesters, by the likes of Julie Chung, and local NGO quislings, etc., went on the rampage across the country, with meticulous intelligence, from the evening of last May 09, targeting Opposition politicians and their supporters. In fact that afternoon/evening, the US Ambassador even issued a media release, literally ordering the armed forces and the police not to touch those “peaceful protestors”. How convenient?
This also brings us to the question whether our comrades, too, had done a deal with the real devils in Washington. Can anyone imagine how these comrades, who literally burnt down the country, in the wake of the JRJ government, under military pressure from Delhi, signed the Indo-Lanka Accord that brought in the controversial 13th Amendment, are now pretending to be innocent babes and got their proxy Harini to say it is alright to fully implement that piece of legislation, almost in unison with Ranil Wickremesinghe!
And who could have furnished so many foot soldiers to cause so much spontaneous havoc across the country and, especially, against government politicians, many of whom have still not recovered? We do accept the fact that like all politicians in general they were no angels, either, but they had come up playing the available corrupt system through legitimate elections.
Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, one-time Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (July 2016-Dec 2019), blamed the current crisis on the failure on the part of successive governments to manage the expenditure since the country gained Independence. Sri Lanka had been plagued by a toxic combination of populist politics and an entrenched entitlement culture among the people, Dr. Coomaraswamy told the writer, in response to a query posed during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency. Dr. Coomaraswamy added: “Time and again, the electoral calendar has undermined fiscal discipline.”
However, according to critics Dr. Coomaraswamy only told one side of the truth. What he didn’t say was that as the CB Governor, he was also directly responsible for the Yahapalana government borrowing a record USD 12.5 billion from the international bond market, at high interest rates, from private lenders, primarily in the West. So what did that government achieve with such huge borrowings? All that the Yahapalana regime achieved, with all that money, we cannot see, except to lay the foundation for the current debt crisis?
Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, too, delivered a lecture, to the members of Parliament, on the same lines. Dr. Weerasinghe launched a no holds barred attack on the irresponsible political party system, several weeks after Wickremesinghe succeeded Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Pointing out that measures that had been taken by the Yahapalana government (2016-2019), following an agreement with the IMF, were disregarded by those who regained power, in 2019/2020, Dr. Weerasinghe said if the government/Opposition reneged on the latest arrangements, the country would face a similar crisis, in three years. Dr. Weerasinghe issued the warning on August 31, 2022, in the presence of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.
A fraudulent partnership
President Wickremesinghe has now appreciated the role played by three economists in Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. The President should also take tangible measures to investigate political parties, and individuals, responsible for the economic meltdown.
A group, representing trade union and civil society, collective, recently raised quite an important issue that had been largely ignored by successive governments, over the past decades. They called for tangible measures to tackle the well-organized influential public–private sector partnership engaged in ‘over invoicing’ and ‘under invoicing’ of imports/exports, with the blessing of successive governments.
Their invitation for a discussion with the print and electronic media didn’t attract sufficient attention. The briefing, and discussion, at the Centre for Society and Religion, Maradana, Colombo, attracted just a few journalists. However, economic analyst Dhanusha Pathirana, civil society activist Tharindu Uduwaragedara and Attorney-at-Law Lakmali Hemachandra explained how ‘over invoicing’ and ‘under invoicing’ contributed to the economic crisis.
They didn’t mince their words when they discussed the ongoing high profile operation that involved both the private and the public sector.
Pathirana asserted that a sharp reduction of capital, as a result of mispricing by importers, in respect of duty/tax free goods and taxable imports, was far more serious than the parking of funds overseas by exporters.
The group underscored the need to examine capital flows, through four forms of trade mis-invoicing, namely import over-invoicing and under-invoicing and export over-invoicing and under-invoicing.
Responding to queries raised by the writer, they alleged that regulatory mechanisms were not being implemented, regardless of the continuing economic decline. The failure on the part of the government to act on such disclosures is really disturbing. The country is in such a precarious state, those having regulatory powers should go flat out against the culprits, unless they were part of the fraudulent capitals flows.
Pathirana was adamant that absolutely nothing had been done so far to address the issue at hand.
Culpability of Cabinet
The Parliament continues to ignore extremely serious disclosures, pertaining to economic mismanagement. Shocking revelations that had been made before the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) in late May, last year ,hadn’t been investigated at all. Instead, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government has sought to manipulate the parliamentary watchdog, much to the dismay of the public. In fact, the powers that be had no qualms in interfering in all three watchdog committees, especially the Committee on Public Finance.
The COPE, during the courageous leadership of Prof. Charitha Herath was told how the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who also served as the Finance Minister, in spite of receiving warnings in March-April 2020, on the impending financial crisis of unprecedented magnitude, chose to ignore the advice.
Mahinda Rajapaksa held the Finance portfolio till early July 2021. By the time Basil Rajapaksa succeeded, the economy had suffered irreparable damage.
The parliamentary watchdog was told how the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had warned the then Governor of the Central Bank, Prof. W. D. Lakshman, and Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle, of the country’s inability to procure loans, unless the country undertook debt restructuring, immediately.
The COPE members received a briefing, on the circumstances leading to the crisis, when senior officials of the Central Bank appeared before the all-party body. CBSL Governor Dr. Weerasinghe declared that the IMF warning hadn’t been heeded at all.
The COPE received confirmation of what has been widely speculated, hours after Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the new Finance Minister.
Janakantha Silva, Director Legislative Services/Director Communication, Parliament, quoted Dr. Weerasinghe as having told COPE that following technical talks held in terms of the Finance Act, pertaining to the IMF’s stand, recommendations were made to the then Premier and other senior officials. Dr. Weerasinghe has stated that the relevant decisions should have been made by the Premier, in his capacity as the Finance Minister and the entire Cabinet of Ministers.
The IMF has made its position clear after having asserted Sri Lanka lacked debt sustainability.
Asserting the failure on the part of those who managed the economy for causing a massive crisis, Prof. Charitha Herath called it a crime. The first time entrant to Parliament recommended the setting up of a Special Parliamentary Select Committee to probe those who neglected their responsibilities, thereby causing the current debilitating crisis. Prof. Herath blamed those few who managed the economy during that period.
But, absolutely nothing has been done. The disclosures before COPE had been quite conveniently forgotten.
SLPP National List MP Basil Rajapaksa succeeded Mahinda Rajapaksa, in July 2021, as the Finance Minister, whereas President Gotabaya Rajapaksa brought in SLPP National List MP Ajith Nivard Cabraal as the Governor of the Central Bank, in Sept 2021. Cabraal quit in March, 2022 to pave the way for Dr. Weerasinghe, the former Bank Deputy Governor, to return from retirement in Australia, as its new Governor.
Dr. Harsha de Silva has repeatedly pointed out how the then Finance Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa delegated his responsibilities to the then State Finance Minister Cabraal, who refrained from briefing the Parliament as regards the actual situation. Dr. de Silva is on record as having said that the IMF’s declaration of debt sustainability should be examined against the backdrop of the revenue cut imposed on the recommendation of the then Secretary to the President and one time Central Banker and Treasury Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera that deprived the Treasury of Rs 600 mn in taxes.
Dr. de Silva asked who decided on the tax cut in spite of the IMF specifically advising the government not to do so. The top SJB spokesperson has asked who decided on such a reckless course of action.
When the COPE raised a contentious issue of the Central Bank wasting precious funds to prevent depreciation of the Sri Lanka Rupee, Dr. Weerasinghe said this was the responsibility of the Monetary Board, comprising five persons. The then Monetary Board member Dr. Ranee Jayamaha has revealed that the then Governor Prof. W.D. Lakshman, Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle, and nominated member Samantha Kumarasinghe, decided on that course of action in spite of her and Sanjiva Jayawardena, PC, opposing them. They had registered their protest in writing.
However, can Dr. Jayamaha and President’s Counsel Jayawardena absolve themselves of the responsibility? They remain members of the Monetary Board.
The proposed Special Parliamentary Select Committee should have also summoned Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, deposed President’s Secretary. But, the Yahapalana decision to repeal the time-tested Exchange Control Act No 24 of 1953 remains a mystery. A section of the Opposition alleges enactment of Foreign Exchange Act, No. 12 of 2017, during Wickremesinghe tenure as the Prime Minister, facilitated ‘parking’ of export proceeds, overseas, to the tune of billions of USD. Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, is on record as having said that well over USD 50 bn had been stashed overseas. But what has he done to convince the Cabinet-of-Ministers to restore the repealed Act.
Former State Minister Jayantha Samaraweera (National Freedom Front) recently told this writer that Basil Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, rejected their leader Wimal Weerawansa’s proposal to restore the old Act.
The Yahapalana government passed the new Act on July 25, 2017. The Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), as well as the SLFP, voted for the new Act. Altogether 94 voted for the new Law, whereas 18 voted against. Then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya certified the new Act.
Contrary to reports, the new Act was brought in during the late Mangala Samaraweera’s tenure as the Finance Minister. Samaraweea succeeded Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, on May 22, 2017.
Another matter that needed attention is Sri Lanka’s International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs) as of USD 15.5, USD 12.5 had been obtained during the Yahapalana administration (2015-2019) or, in other words, in Wickremesinghe’s tenure as the Prime Minister.
In late January, 2022, the then Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal told US-based CNBC that Sri Lanka had to pay USD 12.5 bn of debt in ISBs’ over the next seven years. Cabraal resigned three months later.
The country is in a catch-22 situation. Caught up in US Indo-Pacific strategy, the political leadership here is struggling to avoid the scheduled Local Government polls for obvious reasons. Contrary to the US call for holding of LG polls, the superpower perhaps may facilitate their overall strategy. A certain defeat at the mini-polls is sure to weaken Wickremesinghe’s hold, hence the decision to sabotage the polls. Regardless of the Opposition efforts to galvanize public protests to pressure the government over the LG polls, the incumbent administration seems confident a gradual turnaround of the economy may facilitate its efforts to keep the situation under control, for the time being.
Restorer of a Priceless Identity
By Lynn Ockersz
It was left to that edifying dramatist,
Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra,
Of ‘Maname’ and ‘Sinhabahu’ fame,
Whose memory is to date cherished;
To give back to the Isle its identity,
Which was trampled underfoot,
Over centuries by invading Jackboots,
By breathing into local folk drama new life,
And rendering it supple enough to carry,
The human’s enduring joys and torments,
Like the lovers’ trills on beholding beauty,
Or the agonizing love of a father for his son,
Crafted in a Sinhala of the ‘Sandeshe Kavya’ kind,
Mellifluous, rhythmic, profound in meaning.
Prez takes Trinco Oil Tank Farm to next level
By Shamindra Ferdinando
A pair of Chinese built F-7 multi-role jet fighters flew over SLAF China Bay parade grounds, within minutes after President Ranil Wickremesinghe arrived there, on March 03, to take the salute, as the Chief Guest, at a Commissioning and Wings parade of the No 65 Officer Cadets’ Intake, comprising a total of 40 officers, belonging to No. 17 Lady Officer Cadets’ Intake, and the No. 35 and No. 37 Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) Intakes.
F7s flew from Katunayake air base, the home to the famed No. 05 Squadron that played a significant role, during the Eelam War IV (August 2006-May 2009).
The Commissioning and Wings parade coincided with the 72nd anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). The F-7 GS’ flew immediately after President Wickremesinghe, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, arrived at the saluting dais.
It would be pertinent to mention that SLAF Chief, Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana, veteran jet pilot, on whose invitation President Wickremesinghe attended the China Bay event, was among the three-member group that recommended the acquisition of Chinese interceptors, in 2007, as the war had entered its final phase, which was undoubtedly a fight to the finish against ‘the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit’, with a formidable fighting force, comprising naval, air, and land capabilities, all of whose signature modus operandi was the suicide attack.
The group consisted of the then Group Captain Priyantha Gunasinghe (retired in the rank of Group Captain), Group Captain Sudarshana Pathirana and Wing Commander Sajeewa Hendawitharane (retired in the rank of Group Captain) asserted that the Chinese interceptors should be acquired to counter immediate LTTE air threat, and the other available aircraft, at that time, MiG 29s, acquired from Ukraine, should be considered as a long-term solution. This decision was made soon after the LTTE carried out its first air attack on the Katunayake air base, in March 2007. F-7 GS were first flown here, in January 2008. The No. 05 Squadron achieved a 5-6 minute reaction time during a scramble and was the Squadron to be on 24-hour stand by, in an interceptor role, since its deployment in early 2008.
By the time the LTTE was brought to its knees, on the Vanni east front, in May 2009, the four Chinese jets had registered altogether 506 missions. During the last phase of the ground offensive, the then Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke, moved a pair of those jets to China Bay, in case the top LTTE leadership made an attempt to escape, by sea. At that height of the war, the SLAF jet Squadrons consisted of Kfirs, MiG 27s and F-7s.
On the day of the China Bay parade, the writer was invited to deliver a lecture at the Naval and Maritime Academy, Trincomalee (32nd JNSC course) on ‘media management’ in armed forces or ‘military and media management.’
Well over a decade after Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the country is in a bind with the government seeking USD 2.9 bn IMF bailout package. No less a person than theGovernor of the Central Bank, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, recently alleged that the government had been hiding Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status before he admitted the reality, a couple of moons ago. In an utterly destabilized environment, every sector seems to be in turmoil, no doubt exacerbated by a combination of events, including the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide attacks, crippling the vibrant tourist trade, the Covid-19 pandemic, something not scene in our living memory, hitting the whole world, the following year, thereby robbing the country’s financial sector of vital worker remittances, running to billions of dollars, by underground money transfer systems.
The armed forces are certainly not exempted. The ongoing controversy, over a three-member committee, comprising Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda (Governor, North Western Province), Air Chief Marshall Roshan Goonatilleke (Governor, Western Province) and ex-Army Commander Daya Ratnayake, finding fault with the then Army Commander, Gen. Shavendra Silva, for his alleged failure to bring the 09 May, 2022, violence swiftly under control. The reportage of the unexpected development is a serious challenge to those responsible for media management in armed forces. This contentious issue cannot be discussed without taking into consideration (i) Gen. Silva, the first General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the famed 58 Division (formerly Task Force 1) is the incumbent Chief of Defence Staff (ii) The role played by those at Temple Trees in instigating a hooligan attack on Galle Face protesters and (iii) the ferocity of counter meticulous attacks, mounted by well-organized groups across the country, against those in power.
The continuing economic-political-social crisis has destabilized the country to such an extent with political parties, represented in Parliament, hell-bent on advancing their own agendas, regardless of the consequences.
Like Gen. Shavendra Silva’s controversial conduct, during the events that led to the forced ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after having been one of the significant frontline ground commanders, who took the fight to the LTTE, resulting in its eventual defeat, similarly while everyone talks about a IMF bailout to no end, day in day out, critics are legitimately asking whether all this financial turmoil was deliberately created by interested parties and even those in the highest echelons of the government have not done anything tangible to get back USD billions from export proceeds that had been parked overseas, by unscrupulous exporters, as that amount alone is enough for us to climb out of the present rut.
New move on Trinco oil tank farm
Having participated at the China Bay parade, President Wickremesinghe, accompanied by National Security Advisor and Chief of Presidential Staff, Sagala Ratnayake, and several others, including Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera, toured the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, consisting originally of 100 tanks, situated in 827 acres of land. The tank No. 91, however, was destroyed in Japanese air attacks, launched by ship-borne bombers, and attack aircraft, during World War 11. President Wickremesinghe is the first head of state to visit the Oil Tank Farm since Sri Lanka handed it over to Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC) during his previous tenure as the Prime Minister. The Oil Tank Farm is situated in China Bay. Managing Director of LIOC, Manoj Gupta, was there to welcome President Wickremesinghe.
In terms of the agreement, finalized on 07 February, 2003, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President, the LIOC took over the 99 oil tanks, each capable of holding 12,300 tonnes (1 tonne =1,000 litres) of fuel. The upper and lower tank farms consist of 85 tanks and 14 tanks, respectively.
On behalf of Sri Lanka, the then Secretary to the Treasury, Jayampathy Charitha Ratwatte ,signed the agreement, operative for a period of 35 years. In fact, the Trincomalee facility is so far covered by three agreements, namely (i) the Indo-Lanka Accord of 29 July, 1987, signed by President JRJ and PM Rajiv Gandhi (ii) the agreement on taking over of possession and related matters of the China Bay installation of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), signed on 07 February, 2003, and (iii) comprehensive agreement on cooperation in economic projects, finalized on 26 April, 2017, by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema.
President Wickemesinghe declared, at China Bay, in no uncertain terms, the urgent need to go ahead with the Oil Tank Farm development project.
In line with the government’s overall strategy, President Wickremesinghe recently brought in one-time Navy Commander, Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne, as the Managing Director of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), and to its Director Board as President’s nominee, and also as Chairman, CPC Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm Development Company. The Director Board consists of eight-four each from Sri Lanka and India. The CPC /LIOC venture is meant to speed up the entire process. National Security Advisor Sagala Ratnayake is working on this project.
Of the 99 tanks, 61 tanks are empty. President Wickremesinghe is keen to restore the unused 61 tanks to working condition. Would it be possible to store here what can be safely called the strategic Indian oil reserves?
Indian response to the 80s threat
On 29 July, 1987, President JRJ and Premier Rajiv Gandhi exchanged letters which dealt with the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm as part of the controversial Indo-Lanka Accord. They essentially addressed security issues, against the backdrop of the then growing Indian concerns that foreign military, and intelligence personnel, posed a serious threat to India. India never acknowledged that Sri Lanka wouldn’t have had to seek foreign military assistance if not for its then Premier Indira Gandhi launching a destabilisation project here by covertly training Sri Lankan Tamil armed groups, as a direct counter to then Sri Lankan President JRJ’s overt pro-Western stand, by even offering Trincomalee as a base to Washington.
India included the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm in the agreement that was meant to bring the situation under control. But, at the end of its direct intervention, India had lost 1,300 officers and men, over double that number wounded, and Rajiv Gandhi himself was blown up, in Tamil Nadu, by a female Tiger suicide bomber. It was the price India paid for interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.
At the time New Delhi’s hand was also forced by covert Western actions to destabilize and, possibly, break up India, by backing various separatist groups there. So, in a way, the Tamil separatist movement here was hijacked by the West to sow discord in India, where there are more than 60 million Tamils. The West, led by the USA and the UK, was all out to finish off India, even using Pakistan as a proxy because it was seen as being too close to the then Soviet Union. But they were halted, in their tracks, because of the solid backing that New Delhi received from Moscow, the then countervailing military power. Later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the late 80s, the West found a new convenient mortal enemy in Islamic terrorists, who were in the first place incubated, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, by Washington, to chase out Russians from the latter, with the backing of wealthy Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia.
So those in Delhi should be aware that if there was no China, India would have been the West’s current number two target, after Russia. These pale faces are essentially and, undoubtedly, evil, especially if one looks at what they have done around the world by plundering and enslaving the weakest, while outwardly professing ‘all men are created equal’. At least the Russians, after their October revolution, helped to free many of the enslaved colonies. All those colonies were given independence, for fear of the spread of Communism, and certainly not because the colonial powers suddenly became enlightened.
Let me reproduce the letter, dated 29 July, 1987, signed by Rajiv Gandhi.
” (1) Conscious of the friendship between our two countries, stretching over two millennia, and more, and recognizing the importance of nurturing this traditional friendship, it is imperative that both Sri Lanka and India reaffirm the decision not to allow our respective territories to be used for activities, prejudicial to each other’s unity, territorial integrity and security.
(2) In this spirit, you had during the course of our discussions, agreed to meet some of India’s concerns as follows: (i) Your Excellency and myself will reach an early understanding about the relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel with a view to ensuring that such presence will not prejudice Indo-Sri Lankan relations; (ii) Trincomalee, or any other ports in Sri Lanka, will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests; (iii) The work of restoring and operating the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm will be undertaken as a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka; (iv) Sri Lanka’s agreement with broadcasting organizations will be reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up by them in Sri Lanka are solely used as public broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes.
(3) In the same spirit India will: (i) Deport all Sri Lankan citizens who are found to be engaging in terrorist activities or advocating separatism or secessionism (ii) provide training facilities and military supplies for Sri Lankan security forces
(4) India and Sri Lanka have agreed to set up a joint consultative mechanism to continuously review matters of common concern in the light of the objectives stated in para 1 and specifically to monitor the implementation of other matters contained in this letter.
(5) Kindly confirm Excellency that the above correctly sets out the agreement reached between us. Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.”
India raised concerns particularly over US and Israeli presence in the 80s. But, today, India is part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), widely known as the Quad, formed to meet what the US, Japan, Australia and India perceived as the growing Chinese challenge. Sri Lanka is caught up in the Quad politics due to heavy Chinese investments here, particularly the leasing of the Hambantota Port, for a period of 99-years, to China, in 2017, by the Yahapalana government. But what is really interesting is that the same government finalized a wide ranging memorandum of understanding for cooperation in economic projects, on 26 April, 2017, with India, that covered the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, eight months before China secured 85 percent of shares in the Hambantota Port for USD 1.12 bn.
Media management in armed forces
While the writer was working on the presentation for JNSC, the US embassy, in Colombo, in a joint press release with Sir John Kotelawela Defence University (KDU), dealt with the launch of a publication, titled ‘A Shared Vision for the Indo-Pacific: Implications for South Asia,” edited by Dr. Harendra Vidanage, at the Cinnamon Grand, one of the hotels targeted by the Easter Sunday bombers.
Vice Chancellor of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University, Major General Milinda Peiris, was among those present, along with US Ambassador here Julie J. Chung.
The joint statement quoted Rear Admiral (ret.) Peter A. Gumataotao, of the USN, as having told the gathering: “What is at stake is our ability to respond to activities that undermine the values and principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Competition is good, but when rules are changed, the process should be transparent and agreed on. The US embassy is busy promoting a shared vision for the Indo-Pacific. It would be pertinent to mention that the US embassy issued statements in Sinhala, Tamil and English. Obviously, the media management is part of their operation. A few days before the Cinnamon Grand event, Ambassador Chung visited Parliament. She was there to welcome the appointment of new office-bearers of the Sri Lanka-US Parliamentary Friendship Association. Rebel SLPP MP Chandima Weerakkody was elected the President of the Association.
Sri Lanka seems to be in a catch 22 situation. Contrary to repeated assurances that Sri Lanka wouldn’t take sides in China vs Quad, Sri Lanka appears to be already tilted towards the US-led grouping. The proposed operationalization of the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm should be examined against the Quad operations. Economic ruination has paved the way for external interventions as Sri Lanka struggled to cope up with growing challenges.
The armed forces and police find the situation tough as media manipulations continue. India is now part of the overall US political-security-economic policy. India actually encourages Sri Lanka to be part of the US-led club but there can be certain concerns. Unfortunately, the Opposition has conveniently missed key factors in the strategic Indo-Pacific project. The status of India-US relations is at its zenith, therefore our giant neighbour wouldn’t mind even if Sri Lanka signed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US. The Americans prefer to call the SOFA Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Sri Lanka entered into the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in August 2017 during Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure as the President. Perhaps those responsible for national security should study the circumstances President Sirisena gave into pressure that was brought to bear on him by Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington at that time, Prasad Kariyawasam, to renew ACSA, in early August 2017. Sri Lanka first signed the ACSA in March 2007. It expired in 2017. The Yahapalana partner obviously had no objection. SOFA was first signed in 1995 during CBK’s presidency. Apparently, the United States asked Sri Lanka for a new pact and sent a draft to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in August 2018. SOFA, however, is on hold.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC) – a project worth USD 480 mn (Rs 89 bn) – was torpedoed by a committee, headed by Prof. Lalithsiri Gunaruwan, in February 2020. The economist didn’t mince his words when he declared ACSA, SOFA and MCC could be part of the US-Indo Lanka strategy.
Political leadership, regardless of the party in power, appears to have continuously failed to examine developments/situations/events properly. For the first time such a report was prepared in Sinhala.
The government media needs to closely study developing situations. With the emergence of social media, in the past decade, as an extremely powerful tool, media management has become a tough task. Situations cannot be tackled by simply issuing statements, or trying to suppress information.
A cohesive system is required to address issues at hand. Perhaps, those handling media will have to work outside official channels to overcome challenges.
Sri Lanka’s growing dependence on foreign powers to meet its needs, ranging from essential items, including medicines, school uniforms and defence requirements, in a way portends long term problems. Sri Lanka should be certainly grateful for international support but also mindful of other factors.
A recent statement, attributed to Deputy Indian High Commissioner, Vinod K. Jacob, underscored the status of Indian assistance. Jacob declared that India offered as many as 1,500 training slots, annually, to Sri Lanka, at an annual cost of USD 7mn. Jacob was addressing a group of Indian Navy trained Sri Lanka Defence Forces personnel, on board INS Sukanya, on February 28.
Referring to India’s much-touted ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, Jacob mentioned a five-point plan to take Indo-Lanka relations to the next level. The Indian HC quoted Jacob as having said: “First is the potential for economic and financial cooperation by building on the Indian support to the people of Sri Lanka, in 2022, to the tune of USD 4 billion. The focus could be laid on areas, such as trade in national currencies, ease of investments and strengthening financial cooperation. Second, the two sides are working towards increasing air, ferry, digital and energy connectivity. Third, a new type of development cooperation partnership building on the existing multi-billion portfolio, with special emphasis on vulnerable communities, is required. Fourth, both sides need to enhance people to people exchanges, particularly in tourist movements. Fifth, it is essential to strengthen the cultural, religious, music, movie and sporting links for mutual benefit.”
Sri Lanka needs to develop a strategy of its own, drawing support from the international community. The current economic-political-social crisis should be addressed, without further delay. The failure to reach a consensus, on Local Government polls, can cause a protracted political conflict that may undermine the overall efforts to restore economic stability.
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