CEPA support: Unpatriotic or rational?

by FS

(August 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) When Eelam War IV, the 2-3 year- long battle between government troops and the Tigers in the North and the East, was at its peak and in the closing stages in early 2009, anyone critical of the conflict was labelled unpatriotic.

That, in a sense, was how the government viewed strong criticism of the war. Defence correspondents, political analysts and the general public who commented on the conduct of the war including claims of a rising number of human casualties were labelled unpatriotic. To the government in such an instance, either an individual was for (the government) or against and siding the LTTE, even when objective, non-political, comments were made.

Thus any objective and rational look at the war was muted with even opposition comments of the conflict being mild and controlled. Now the same labels are being attached to supporters of the proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which has drawn a lot of flak in recent times and has turned into a political hot potato rather that a debate on economic and trade issues.

In the discourse over the pros and cons of CEPA, both opponents and (some) proponents of the proposed pact have turned vituperative and cast aspersions on professions and individuals.
Doctors have been labelled as ‘money-makers’ and lawyers ineffective with both professions rising in defence. Opponents on the other hand are labelling proponents as Indian agents and even worse, unpatriotic and traitors to the motherland!

But before dealing with this specific problem of ‘name-calling’, an issue that has drawn a lot of attention is the government’s role in pushing ahead with CEPA. Increasingly, there appears to be no clear policy on where the government is heading on the CEPA issue and its statements and actions in recent times indicate a ‘ducks and drakes’ policy of promoting and at the same time, working against its adoption for political convenience – as some of the opponents are said to be funders of the ruling party and also close to the establishment.

At a seminar this week on CEPA organised by COYLE (the Chamber of Young Lankan Entrepreneurs) which is opposed to the proposed deal and openly canvassing against it, several speakers were critical of the agreement with a director on a government agency also joining the chorus of views. “What is going on? Is the government for or against this agreement,” one CEPA supporter asked.
Supporters say the government must come clean and clearly explain its position which is very, very unclear at the moment.

Consider this:

* COYLE organises a street protest against CEPA last month at the Liberty Plaza roundabout in a high security zone and within striking distance of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Temple Trees residence and is not broken up by baton-wielding or tear-gas, canister-armed police. Unusual because every street demonstration near Temple Trees or a high security zone is not allowed but greeted with police force.
* COYLE protestors are not only ‘treated’ with the kindness not extended to any other kind of protest, but also welcomed to Temple Trees where the President gives them a hearing and promises that the pact will not affect the interests of the Sri Lankan public, local industry and services.
* There are claims that the government unofficially helped in the organisation of the street protest which is substantiated (to some extent) by the ‘welcoming’ attitude to the protestors. But COYLE vociferously denies any government involvement
* When the President went on an official visit to India, CEPA was not discussed though it was said to be on the agenda.
* After several years of negotiating with Indian officials and several trips by Sri Lankan government officials to India and those officials coming here, the brakes have been pressed on proceeding further on the deal.
* Government officials are preparing a ‘White Paper’ on CEPA which will be open to the public for discussion, a request that has been made by COYLE and other parties with many saying that one of the problems is that no one is aware of the contents of the agreement.
* Media Minister Keheliya Rambuwella, at a recent media briefing, says that the agreement will be signed later in the year. But then, the Central Bank allows anti-CEPA activists to hold the COYLE seminar at its Rajagiriya auditorium. “In the same spirit of allowing an event there, will the Central Bank allow a seminar on opposition to foreign universities in Sri Lanka or the failure to pay the Rs 2,500 allowance also at its auditorium?” one CEPA proponent asked.

While there are pluses and minuses in the CEPA agreement, the government must come clean on which way it is heading. A clear statement must be made and the proposed White Paper also explained. In the meantime, name-calling should stop from all sides particularly by the opponents who are accusing proponents of being ‘unpatriotic’ or being a ‘traitor. An economic and trade debate should steer clear of politics and nationalism.