The groundswell of nerve wracking fear swept across the land and held the nation in its grip when, in a pre-poll ‘breaking news’ flash, the SLPP’s tom-tom beaters Weerawansa and Gammanpila tub thumped their startling message that the ruling UNP was on the verge of selling Lanka’s sovereignty down the river to Uncle Sam for [...]


Suddenly, the big bad wolf at Lanka’s door is a huggable, kissable teddy bear


GAMMANPILA: ‘70% now okay’

The groundswell of nerve wracking fear swept across the land and held the nation in its grip when, in a pre-poll ‘breaking news’ flash, the SLPP’s tom-tom beaters Weerawansa and Gammanpila tub thumped their startling message that the ruling UNP was on the verge of selling Lanka’s sovereignty down the river to Uncle Sam for a mere 480 million dollars.

Joining the duo, there were others who painted a racy picture of the island’s virginal lair being brutally violated by American GIs, of the country’s highways streaming with gun totting American soldiers who could rob, rape and kill anyone they pleased with impunity and immunity from all local laws, answerable only to the laws of their own land. Whilst they provided a graphic account of the frightening scenario that would unfold once the UNP had signed away Lanka’s sovereignty, they kept mum when the invasion would begin or what conflict would trigger it.

They did not have to. The collage they put together was damning enough and no political party thereafter wanted to be even seen dead holding a copy of the agreement of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, without running the risk of being branded a traitorous outfit.

But the repeated rhetoric and the throbbing boom of the jingoistic drum made the island’s long dormant though simmering patriotic volcano blow its top and spew its ash to cover and bury Sajith Premadasa’s much vaunted hopes of winning the presidency; and on its passionate flow of red hot molten lava to carry on its crest the roaring ambitions of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the uplands of presidential power.

But are the American-hosted Millennium Challenge Corporation and its 480 million dollar freebie to Lanka really the bogeyman the tom-tom beating duo Weerawansa and Gammanpila made it out to be in the run-up to the election?

As the Sunday Punch commenting on the Millennium Challenge Corporation on November 10th this year asked; “So, why is Uncle Sam spreading a cool 480 million dollars or 86.4 billion local bucks on a grand luncheon buffet for the Lankans to feast upon gratis? And even more surprisingly, why are the Lankans, who would queue for a cold if given free, en masse refusing it? And, sending their regrets even before the Americans have sent their invites?”

“Why are they giving the thumbs down to an 86 billion buck cash gift, saying a rude no to this manna from heaven to develop this country and slamming the door to opportunity which never knocks twice, why do they fight shy of not daring to take the mega billion challenge offered by America’s Millennium Challenge Corporation?”

“The Greeks are famed for not looking a gift horse in the mouth. Is it that the Lankans have looked at this 86 billion buck gift even before it has been given and found it wanting to fund their castles in the air and thus reject it? Or is it that they have not even looked at it or looked at it and not understood it and spurn it out of hand?”

So, exactly what is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)?  To put it simply, the MCC was created by the US Congress as an independent foreign assistance agency with the aim of fighting against global poverty. Already, it has donated 13 billion dollars to 29 countries.  Top recipients of American benevolence had been Indonesia which had received 600 million dollars, Mongolia with two grants of 284 million in 2007 plus another grant of 350 million dollars, Nepal has received 500 million dollars and the Philippines 433 million dollars.  The strategic importance of Lanka to the Americans can be measured by the size of the grant she is offered which is 480 million dollars.

But this gift is not summa money. It comes with strings attached. As it does with other countries it gives money to, the MCC decides the areas money should be spent on.

The MCC grant to Lanka will focus on two projects. One is the land project with a budget of $67 million; it will focus on five activities.

First is to create a map that shows the boundaries and ownership of land parcels and a complete inventory of state land. The information will be fed into the Government’s e-State Lands Information Management System (eSLIMS), where the information will be available at one’s fingertips. The budget for this is $ 23 million.

The second is to improve the valuation of all lands in Lanka by improving data collection in support of a computerised mass appraisal system. The budget is $6.5 million.

The third is to build on the Government’s e-Land Registry initiative and to improve the Deeds Registry by digitizing existing records. The budget for this is $11. 4 million.

The fourth is to improve tenure security for all land holders. This would be done by moving properties from the Deeds system to the Title Registration system, expanding the Government’s Bim Saviya programme. The budget is $19.3 million.

WEERAWANSA: ‘No need to get excited’

The fifth activity of the land project is the funding of research in support of measures to improve land administration policies. The budget is $6.7 million.

The other project of the Millennium Challenge Corporation is transport. The cost of this project is $350 million. Its aims are to improve urban and rural mobility in the Western, Central, Sabaragamuwa and Uva provinces. First it will focus on easing traffic congestion and improve public transportation in Colombo metropolitan region. Secondly, the project will seek to improve connectivity between the Central parts of the country with the ports and markets in the Western Province. For this, $160 million dollars will be spent on Advanced Traffic Management System for the Colombo municipal region.

A sum of $140 million has been earmarked to upgrade approximately 131 km of interprovincial roads in the Central Ring Road Network connecting the Central, Sabaragamuwa, and Uva Provinces with ports and markets in the Western Province. Thus then is the basic two-pronged plan, one dealing with land and the other dealing with transport at a total cost of $480 million that the MCC of the US Government has approved for Lanka at a meeting held on April 26th this year in Washington D.C.

The five-year grant, it says, is to assist the Sri Lanka Government in addressing two of the country’s binding constraints to economic growth: (1) inadequate transport logistics infrastructure and planning; and (2) lack of access to land for agriculture, the services sector, and industrial investors.

So the goal of the land project, it says, is to increase the availability of information on private land and underutilised state lands. It’ll be a map of the land, the government is lawfully entitled to and which may be disposed of by the government.

The transport project’s goal will be to increase the relative efficiency and capacity of the road network and bus system in the Colombo region and to reduce the cost of transporting passengers and goods.

And all with love from the United States of America.

Wimal Weerawansa and Gammanpila raised a ruckus over this seemingly above board nearly half a billion dollar gift. A gift to develop the infrastructure of Lanka could ill afford to refuse. Did the seers Weerawansa and Gammanpila see something sinister in this American gesture that other mortal eyes couldn’t see?

While Weerawansa has since end July been repeatedly referring to an economic corridor that will be built from Trincomalee to the Colombo port under the MCC agreement, it has been disputed on the basis that no reference to an economic corridor can be found in the 83 page MCC report.

And as far as Udaya Gammanpila is concerned he seemed to have found ogres turning up on almost every page in the 83 page MCC report. So much so that he warned the nation on November 2 of the inherent dangers lurking in the footnotes of the MCC agreement that would snare the unwary traveller.

He says, “The MCC is a very dangerous agreement to the country. The CIA has found that Premadasa is going to lose the Presidential election. That is the reason the US Government was trying to get the agreement signed hurriedly before the election. We will not accept such agreements signed. Gotabaya Rajapaksa will tear the agreement when he comes to power”.

And furthermore, as an added precaution, he adds a note of caution of the futility of depending on the UNP — the then government — to safeguard the nation from the immense dangers that wait to imperil it. He declares:  “The Government’s life span is very short now. During that short period, they are trying to sign the MCC agreement which is damaging to the country. In the event the Agreement is signed we will have to dance to the tune of the Americans”.

The SLPP’s then presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, however, did not adopt the inane stance struck by his two acolytes who refused to accept anything from America without first yelling “It’s a sellout” and who advocated that all Lankan governments to throw the baby with the bathwater.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s position seemed to be that should he be elected, international agreements would be reviewed and if it was found to be detrimental to the interests of this country it would not be signed.

But even after the election Weerawansa remained adamant in his opposition to the MCC agreement. Assuming his duties as minister on November 25th he told journalists “We do not expect the MCC agreement to be signed by our government.”

But, come December, the position was different. Perhaps sensing the change in the air the two found a need to dilute their vehement opposition to the MCC agreement. Two weeks before the election their bottled opposition had been hundred percent concentrate. Now it came with a lesser strength, seventy percent diluted.

On December 8, Gammanpila held a media conference to announce his U-turn. “I am no hypocrite”, he declared. “I am not stupid either to oppose everything that comes from the United States.” He then stressed that the MCC project was not bad at all as he had thought it to be. Now, despite his scaremongering, he found the MCC to be seventy percent good. He was all for the transportation project for which seventy percent of the grants were allocated. He only had misgivings about the land project which constitute thirty percent of the MCC agreement. He was only against that.

Weerawansa, on the other hand, came before the TV cameras and appeared to be crestfallen. He said that Lakshman Yapa had said that my opposition to the MCC agreement was my personal opinion and did not reflect the government’s. But I have expressed my opposition to the MCC agreement on the same stage as the president and he had not told me to refrain from expressing my opinion.

I brought this up at the cabinet meeting; but I was told by the President that he had appointed a committee comprising of illustrious people to review this agreement and to forward a report to the cabinet. Because there are illustrious people in this committee I need not get excited. But I will not say that the government is for the MCC.

On December 19, Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena said, the proposed Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) agreement was suspended while a four-member committee was appointed to review the MCC and submit recommendations to the Cabinet.

The chances are that it will be unsporty, unwise and unrealistic not to take America’s Millennium Challenge; and America’s offer of 480 million dollars to develop Lanka’s infrastructure will prove far too good an offer to spurn. Especially on the double speak of a double act talking double dutch at the double, and who are nothing but double trouble.

The Nowhere People: Plight of 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees in IndiaIt is certainly not the best of all possible times in this best of all possible worlds for a most unfortunate group of Lankan refugees trapped in a quagmire of endless misery the worst of all possible circumstances once cast them into thirty six years ago.

L GANESAN: ‘Go Home’ message to Lankan Tamil refugees

They are the people whom time forgot. Lankan citizens from the Tamil minority community who lived in the North and fled the island shores shortly after the outbreak of the terrorist war in 1984. They fled to India, to the closest state of Tamil Nadu. Here they were sent to refugee camps located in the state’s remote areas. Here they have remained ever since with neither India nor Sri Lanka showing any undue haste to resolve their plight.

FLEEING UNDER LANKAN FLAG: Lankan refugees travelling to the Katchativu islands in 2004

When they first came in the 1980s in four refugee waves, it fell upon the government of Tamil Nadu to act as their hesitant host. The Indian Government preferred the Tamil refugees to be in Tamil Nadu refugee camps because here there were no language barriers. There are nearly 80,000 refugees in 132 camps in Tamil Nadu. There is a ban on Non-Governmental Organisations visiting them. All these camps are registered and this enables the refugees to claim government assistance, namely, cash, shelter, healthcare, clothing and provision for essential items, but their movements are strictly restricted. Generally speaking, they are regarded as third class citizens.

Now they are also not eligible for citizenship in India under the new Citizenship Act.

India’s Citizenship Amendment Act aims to fast-track citizenship for persecuted Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians who arrived in India before December 31, 2014, from Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

They may have suffered the fear of persecution when they first fled the island’s shores but since they arrived from Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka, India’s newly brought Citizenship Act will not apply to them and thus they are outside the pale of the Act. Joining them will also be the descendants of the plantation Tamils whom the British brought to Ceylon as indented labourers.

This week, the hapless refugees received a message for Christmas delivered through the news media. It was from L. Ganesan, a senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. His carol was terse and did not contain Christian generosity or charity. Instead it was a ‘Go Home’ message.

‘The best solution’, he said, ‘on the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu would be for them to return to their motherland. We do not act in a stealthy manner. There is no hidden agenda on the issue. It was there in our election manifesto also. The opposition is trying to just mislead the public.’

‘Their votes in Sri Lanka mattered very much for the welfare of the Tamils in Sri Lanka’, he added condescendingly as if all that mattered to the 100,000 Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu refugee camps and all that they had missed in the last 30 odd years of their miserable lives and all that they wanted to do was to vote at a general election in Sri Lanka.

REFUGEE LIFE: A Sri Lankan Tamil refugee takes water from a hand pump outside a common toilet in a refugee camp at Thuraimangalam in Tamil Nadu's Perambalur district

‘I am not against citizenship being given to Sri Lankan Tamils but they do not want it. That would be the best solution for them.’

But according to Indian newspaper reports, “A lot of people in the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camps hoped that they would get Indian citizenship. The younger generation have grown up here. They don’t know Sri Lanka. They do not want to go to Sri Lanka. This is their home”.

The Sri Lankan government should take note of the plight that has befallen a section of its citizens. They should make every effort to bring them home and make provision for their resettlement.

If the refugees, however, since they have stayed so long in India and consider themselves to be Indians in spirit and do not want to return to Lanka, then it behoves the Sri Lankan government to raise the issue with the Indian government and enable those refugees who wish to remain on Indian soil to find their place under an Indian sun.



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