George Bernard Shaw once quipped that politics is the last resort of the scoundrel. Oscar Wilde was believed to have said that patriotism was the refuge of the scoundrel. Most of this ilk of beings have one thing in common: they seek power to gain access to the huge financial largesse that comes within the [...]

Sunday Times 2

The genesis of political prostitution in Sri Lanka


George Bernard Shaw once quipped that politics is the last resort of the scoundrel. Oscar Wilde was believed to have said that patriotism was the refuge of the scoundrel. Most of this ilk of beings have one thing in common: they seek power to gain access to the huge financial largesse that comes within the grasp of ministers and MPs. Sri Lanka’s political history over the past decade has hence been a ghastly mosaic of scams, graft, and bribery and corruption woven into a canvas of killings, disappearances, cover-ups by a kept judiciary and police force.

In the corridors of business and politics in Colombo we’ve been having a ringside view, over the past four months, of a plethora of that breed of sub-human species giving each other the heave-ho in the lust for power and wealth, quite callous about the plight into which they plunged the country, society, the economy and government into. Never since Great Britain granted the country its independence back in 1948, was the nation plunged under a pall of such hellish gloom, with the fires of anarchy held at bay by the grace of some deity alone. That crisis of imminent destructive anarchy was stanched thanks to subtle, yet strident, international pressure, a judiciary THAT HAD REDISCOVERED ITS DIGNITY AND INDEPENDENCE AND worth its salt, and a massive pro-democracy social groundswell that closed ranks against anti-constitutional forces which not long ago got a mandate to uphold the very democratic constitution that the predecessor in government had so callously crushed under foot in an often bloody reign of killings of pro-democracy and pro-HR elements in society and the media.

The Jury, so to say, is still out on as to whether that aspect of governance was more brutish and bloodier than the manner in which the anti-terrorist campaign was executed in a mere span of four years which saw then President Mahinda Rajapaksa emerge as a hero of unprecedented epic proportions midst countless allegations of mass extra-judicial killings on the road to militarily decimating the terrorists. But the bloodletting and gross human rights violations as well as a myopic anti-western foreign policy stance saw one-time Rajapaksa colleague in the then ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Maithripala Sirisena, who Rajapaksa treated dismissively in his choice of a Prime Minister to work under him, closing ranks with the leader of the pro-west, ultra-democracy United National Party Ranil Wickremesinghe, the mainstream Tamil and Muslim political forces and a large section of the Sinhala-Buddhist extremist forces as their common candidate to rout Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe was seen as the pivotal king maker. President Sirisena acknowledged his obligation to Wickremesinghe for this fact late last week in a verbal barrage against the man he had just sworn in once again as Premier a few minutes before his address to the nation on TV.

Thus, ended the drama of months that ended with the President proving in no uncertain terms that he was unsurpassed when it comes to the fine art of shooting one’s self in the feet.

Rajapaksa, the then mighty President, had an all too brief flirtation as Sri Lanka’s shortest serving Prime Minister with an ignominious resignation that would have been hard to swallow. But that very short duration at the helm in parliament was grabbed to immediately grant China the contract to execute the deep water dredging project immediately outside the Colombo harbor, very close to where during the closing stages of his tenure as President, he secretly allowed upto three Chinese nuclear armed subs to park themselves, leading to a serious diplomatic spat with India.

Then emerged more facets of regional geopolitical dimensions in the explosive political buffoonery in Colombo triggered by Sirisena’s unconstitutional sacking of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and shutting down of parliament, and the appointment of the anti-west, pro-China Rajapaksa. The ink on the papers handing over the dredging project to China had hardly dried when Sirisena quipped he would cancel the controversial Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement despite having personally invited Singapore’s PM  LeeHiseng Wong to witness the signing of the agreement in Colombo along with him as the two chief witnesses, on 23rd,January 2018.

This jerked the international diplomatic, business, banking and investments communities awake to take a closer look at external political ramifications which saw Ranil Wickremesinghe being made a scapegoat for Sirisena’s justification for the sacking that Wickremesinghe was usurping presidential powers and was covering up corruption ( the Central Bank Bond Scams) have begun to look suspiciously like red herrings to divert attention away from the behind-the-scenes pressures which are now believed to have been the real reasons which forged the new rapport between Sirisena and Rajapaksa, led to the sacking of Wickremesinghe unconstitutionally, and the political crisis that rocked the nation and the region for months. It all led to Moody’s downgrading Sri Lanka’s credit rating to near zero …a fact that was enough to drive away the most ardent prospective investor.

Suddenly, the business and diplomatic communities here and abroad were abuzz with speculations about the political affiliations of the powerful lobby in Colombo that raised a hue and cry demanding that the SL-Singapore FTA be scrapped, citing potential dangers to their secure positions as exporters and financiers. Was there more to it? Was some foreign hand behind it?

The first murmurs emanated from no specifically identifiable source with sly suggestions that the Lankan negotiating delegation to finalize the FTA in Singapore included the discredited Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, a Singaporean citizen, cast in the frame of an accomplice of sorts in the infamous Central Bank Bond scam. More grist for the mill against the FTA emerged two years later when Lee Hsieng led a delegation to Colombo to sign the agreement with no less than four top Singaporean Tamils in that delegation. They were T.Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, M.K.Shanmugan ,Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies,Vivian Balakrishnan,Singapore’s Minister of Home Affairs and S.Iswaran, Singapore’s Foreign Minister. All of them were believed to be either friends of or well known to Mahendran, now in hiding in Singapore, with an order issued by a Sri Lankan Court for his attendance at hearings into the Bond scam involving his son-in-law. Coincidentally or otherwise, it’s significant perhaps that all those calling for action from Sirisena on the Bond scam case, happen to be anti-west with known close relations with a major regional power that’s seen as a potential threat by India and the west as well as most EU states. No wonder then that when Wickremesinghe was once again under pressure sworn in as Prime Minister, the US, UN and Commonwealth Secretariat were quick to issue statements applauding the restoration of the rule of law and democratic principles in Sri Lanka. Moody’s, quick to downgrade Sri Lanka in the wake of Wickremesinghe’s sacking weeks before, have naturally not been as swift with a response this time around because it’s premature to say the least.

The FTA is not only comprehensive but gives access to Singaporean IT companies in the Colombo Port Financial City with license to electronically transmit any kind of data out of Colombo. Sitting cheek to jowl as it were with the major Chinese presence in the Port City, it’s a clause that could be strong enough to trigger moves in Colombo to scuttle the FTA or get rid of its author RanilWickremesigheand have it modified or abrogated by an SLFP government. Other major clauses in the FTA provide for massive access in Sri Lanka for Singaporean infrastructure firms and that’s also not likely to sit whelk with China whose predominant interest in Sri Lanka lies in infrastructure development meant to advance the causes of her Belt and Road initiative rather than Sri Lankan development. Other clauses provide for Singaporean firms to invest in Sri Lanka with 15-year duty free concessions on raw material imports from overseas for their production and re-export purposes. Singapore’s major exports include the entire ASEAN bloc of nations. That gives access also for Sri Lankan goods to be exported to those nations via clauses in the FTA. Both India and China are major exporters to the ASEAN group. Was pressure brought to bar on Colombo to scrap the FTA or get rid of Wickremesinghe for this reason too?  Singaporean investors in Sri Lanka are to employ Sri Lankan and transfer technology here. That would cast other investors here in poor light. Yet another reason to get the FTA scrapped?

The FTA would see bilateral trade scaling US$3 to 4 billion in a few years, this creating a healthy reserves position and making Sri Lanka less ‘manageable’ with a better credit rating and ability to meet debt commitments.

To cut a long story short, was the crisis triggered in Colombo the culmination of the apparent protectionist backlash against an FTA that would appreciably enhance Sri Lanka’s economic growth? Was that the rational by those who, simply stated, do not want that economic growth coming to fruition within a free, democratic framework of governance, to have stupidly triggered Sri Lanka’s political crisis in the hope that RanilWickremesignhe would tamely cave in and hand victory to the foreign hands behind this crisis?

RangaChandrarathne has contributed articles on Business, Economics, Finance, Literature, Music, Cinema, Theatre for both National and International publications and holds a MBA.

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