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A Future Bathetic?

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“There is no tomorrow in this desert”.
Mahmoud Darwish (A rhyme for the odes)

( October 23, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is another first – full-page, full-colour advertisements in daily papers, by the Ministry of Finance and Planning. Titled, ‘The Five Pillars that Uplift the Nation. Unstoppable Sri Lanka’ the ads laud Mahinda Chinthanaya and the upcoming budget.

The now ubiquitous thugs attacked a group of UNP parliamentarians during a fact-finding mission to the Ports Authority. (The same week another group of thugs attacked fishermen engaged in a peaceful protest in Colombo). The parliamentarians wanted to discover whether state resources are being used for presidential election propaganda work. As the unprecedented ads by Ministry of Finance and Planning demonstrate, state resources are being used, blatantly and openly, to sell the increasingly lustreless Rajapaksa rule to the masses.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa does not have to say, ‘I am the state’. He and his family act as if they are. 

Tom Paine warned, “When it is laid down as a maxim, that a king can do no wrong, it places him in a place of similar security with that of idiots and persons insane, and responsibility is our of the question with respect to himself” . The 1982 Constitution made the original error by placing the president above the law. With the 18th Amendment, the Rajapaksas turned the state into the permanent-fief of this omnipotent president. 

Idiotic and insane governance is resulting.

The Bandaranaikes named the Katunayake airport after themselves. The Rajapaksas too wanted their own international airport, in their native-district. No other consideration mattered, apart from this familial whim. The end result is a largely unused airport which is benefiting neither the surrounding community nor the country. And increasingly farcical sleights-of-hand are being used to conceal this preposterous reality.

Cheap and unlimited duty-free shopping is reportedly the most recent ruse used by the authorities to provide a bustling veneer for Mattala. At Mattala Duty Free, goods, especially liquor, are cheaper than at Katunayake. There are also no official limits on what you can buy. Nor does shopping at Mattala prevent you from shopping at Katunayake. Since most Lankan-owned flights make an obligatory stop at Mattala (irrespective of whether anyone is embarking or disembarking), some Lankan passengers get two boarding passes, disembark at Mattala, do some cheap duty-free shopping and re-embark on to the same waiting plane. “Having passengers go in and out of the airport will clearly count as traffic and be reflected in performance figures for 2014.”

This is the risible condition of a country where the whims of the rulers become policy and practice, at the expense of the nation.

The story of the Hambantota port is no different.

Once again the Rajapaksas wanted their own Port, and in their own home-base. No other consideration mattered. The result is another hugely expensive facility with little economic or financial justification – and a load of debt. So the Chinese lender is being given a controlling stake in the Port, in the hope of obtaining concessionary repayment conditions.

As Shino Ship News (self-described as ‘The authoritative source on Chinese shipping’) pointed out, “Chinese state owned companies will operate four new berths at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port once they are completed next year…. The Sri Lankan government had agreed to such an arrangement with the Hambantota Port’s Chinese lenders as far back as 2010…. In exchange for berth operating rights…Chinese consented to ease loan conditions which could possibly comprise concessions in repayment terms or the time granted for repayment.”

And when the Agreement on Key Terms for Supply, Operate and Transfer (signed during the recent visit by Chinese President) comes into operation, China Merchants Holding International and China Harbour Engineering “will hold operating rights in both of Sri Lanka’s main ports. China Merchants Holding International (CMHI) already operates the new Colombo South Container Terminal. Additionally, Chinese interests will have effective control of 108 hectares in Colombo Port City” .

In her 1974 book, The Debt Trap, Cheryl Payer described how the IMF used aid and credit to undermine the sovereignty of third world nations and influence their internal policies. As the emerging Global Hegemon, China seems to be following a similar path. And Sri Lanka is rapidly becoming a text-book case of how the new superpower is using this age-old ploy of to create a string of vassal states.

Of the 27 agreements signed before Lankan and Chinese Presidents during the latter’s visit to Sri Lanka, one deal was unique. Two Chinese nationals signed that agreement, one on behalf of China and the other on behalf of Sri Lanka. According to The Sunday Times, “Number 21 was the Term Sheet Agreement of the Colombo Port City Development Project Phase I. It plainly said, ‘Signed for Sri Lanka: Mr. Mo Wenhe, Chairman of China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd.’ and ‘Signed for China: Mr. Hu Huaibang, Chairman, Executive Director, China Development Bank’” . Ports Authority Chief has claimed that it was merely a financial agreement between two Chinese nationals. But if one Chinese national has signed on behalf of Sri Lanka, and the deal is included in the list of bilateral agreements between China and Sri Lanka, it is a deal which binds Sri Lanka.

A Chinese national signing an international agreement on behalf of Sri Lanka – can anything be more evocative of our ultimate destination under continued Rajapaksa rule?

Curiouser and Curiouser

The mushrooming of world-class billionaires is becoming another miraculous product of Rajapaksa rule. In fact Rajapaksa rule might produce several Lankan nominees for the Forbes’ richest lists.

The latest example seems to be Nandana Lokuwitharana who burst into fame as the owner of the Marriot Al Jaddaf Hotel in Dubai. He has also purchased the Oruwala Steel Corporation. Now this gentleman is venturing into a new arena – “the mineral sands deposit of Pulmoddai in Northeast Sri Lanka, known as the ‘black gold of Sri Lanka’….. Mr. Lokuwitharana….has already pledged US$40 million to the Treasury for this project as an initial investment…. The project involves producing Titanium dioxide through Titanium….a strategic metal….ideal for high performance military aircraft and rockets, space capsules, armour plate, aircraft firewalls, jet engine components, landing gears, submarines and engine parts.” Just the sort of stuff a superpower, especially a rising one with a rapidly expanding military, will do anything for.

This week Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi informed the parliament that Norochcholai has broken down 24 times since inception, costing the nation a whopping 18 billion rupees .

According to officially-unconfirmed reports, China is to be given the tender for the modernisation of the Sapugaskanda refinery, even though the Chinese bid was rejected during the first round of tender procedure .

When everything is subsumed into familial power, idiotic and insane become the rule.

This year’s Economics Nobel went to French economist Jean Tirole for his work on curbing the dominance of powerful companies. The Nobel-citation mentions his efforts “to understand and regulate industries with a few powerful firms”. 

Our challenge is to find ways to dislodge or at least impede the powerful politico-economic conglomerate which is seeking to control every aspect of Lankan existence, directly and through various proxies – and is selling Lanka’s external-sovereignty to the emerging Global Hegemon in the process.