Business Times

Geneva and the 'lemon puff' hero

Wimal Weerawansa is at it again. Earlier he undertook a farcical 'hunger strike' opposite the UN office in Colombo against war crimes allegations during which some newspapers said he secretly ate 'lemon puff' biscuits and drank water.

Weerawansa's ego may have been 'puffed' up by this drama but certainly didn't improve the country's image, and now he has gone and behaved like a clown again, adding to the political circus in Geneva.
The once, firebrand politician, who has lost his fire after crossing over to the government from the JVP, wants Sri Lankans to boycott goods and services from the United States of America (US) because of the resolution on Sri Lanka being sponsored by the US. In the first place he doesn't have a clue about what kind of trade - imports and exports - Sri Lanka has with the US. Consider these figures and data (given below) from the Central Bank's annual report for 2010 (2011 figures are yet unavailable) and US trade sources.

The US is Sri Lanka's biggest exporter buying goods worth $1.7 billion in 2010 (which includes 21 % of Sri Lanka's garment exports), up from $1.5 billion in 2009. On the other hand, the value of goods purchased by Sri Lanka from the US is just a fraction of its exports value; $168 million in 2010 with the trade balance hugely in favour of Sri Lanka.

The five largest import categories by the US from Sri Lanka in 2010 were woven apparel ($687 million), knit apparel ($555 million), rubber ($179 million), precious stones (sapphires - $83 million), and spices, coffee & tea (tea and cinnamon - $38 million). Sri Lanka on the other hand purchased mainly machinery ($22 million), electrical machinery ($16 million), optic and medical instruments ($14 million), plastic ($11 million), cereals (wheat -$11 million) and pulses ($8 million).

Worker remittances (to Sri Lanka) from North America (the bulk from the US) totalled $140 million in 2010. In terms of garments exports from Sri Lanka, the US was the highest buyer until it was upstaged by Europe.

US garment buying from here was Rs 169 billion in 2006 but dropped to Rs 153 billion in 2010 mainly due to the recession and the financial crisis while European buying of Sri Lankan apparel rose to Rs 189 billion in 2010 from Rs 120 billion.

These figures clearly show that it's the US that calls the shots and not Sri Lanka and any reversal in trade would have Sri Lanka groping in the dark, not vice versa, a fact that politicians like Weerawansa, who like many others including Mervyn Silva are being used by the political hierarchy to 'hit left, right and centre' and criticize the West and Sri Lanka's 'perceived' enemies, are completely clueless about. Defending the nation is everyone's right but facts are also stubborn, as the saying goes, and Sri Lankan ministers should not look fools in the eyes of the public unless they want to be that by choice.

'Playing to the gallery' in reaching out to the rural masses is no longer an option for politicians because rural folks are not fools or idiots and one should not insult their intelligence to expect them to believe statements like this. Anyway they don't eat or drink KFC or Coca Cola (also a call by Weerawansa) unlike urbanites.

If the US pulls the plug on garment exports from Sri Lanka (which anyway is not going to happen), the local economy will be in tatters in terms of export earnings and jobs lost. Already the share of US garment buying from Sri Lanka has dropped owing to the global financial crisis. Weerawansa has called for a boycott of Google and Gmail but has forgotten Yahoo - all of which is used by millions of people across the world, is a global phenomenon and no longer the domain of the US. In a response, UNP MP Dayasiri Jayasekera said, according to a report in the Daily Mirror Online, that the Minister should set an example first.

"Wimal Weerawansa uses an IPad which is itself an American product. He uses his iPad to find songs to sing through Google at parties I have been present, so how can he ask people to give up American products?" he was quoted as saying.

The Minister, in his trips to the US must surely have brought US goods. He must shed all these and set a 'good' example for others to follow. Another example the Government can follow by heeding Weerawansa's call is to close the Nenasalas in the village all of which use and have access to Google, Gmail and Yahoo. The small BPOs set up in villages like the path-breaking BPO at Mahavillachchiya will face the same fate. This is the kind of rhetoric that will get us nowhere and takes us back to the smart diplomacy carried out by foreign ministers of the calibre of Shaul Hameed and Lakshman Kadirgamar whose 'enemies' were also friends. The government's effort at damage control has been poor for a long time and proven by its usual set of front-line propagandists prone to making foot-in-the-mouth statements.

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