If anyone thinks that America — or China or India for that matter — gives millions of dollars in foreign aid to Lanka out of an abundance of love and concern and without any strings attached that promote their countries own interest, one hasn’t the foggiest what is meant by ‘aint no such thing as [...]


Political circus over US$480m gift with love from Uncle Sam


If anyone thinks that America — or China or India for that matter — gives millions of dollars in foreign aid to Lanka out of an abundance of love and concern and without any strings attached that promote their countries own interest, one hasn’t the foggiest what is meant by ‘aint no such thing as a free lunch’.

The Greeks have a saying: Never look a gift horse in the mouth. So why this political circus over examining every tooth, canal and cavity of this 480 million dollar American stallion Uncle Sam wishes to gift to Lanka with love as it were a Trojan Horse sent to stealthily rob Lanka of her sovereignty at night when there is hardly a vestige of sovereignty left to rob, having been hocked lock, stock and barrel in broad daylight to foreign nations, especially
to China.

First of all, 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 MCC grant to Lanka will focus on two projects. One is the land project with a budget of US$67 million, it will focus on five activities. One is to compile a complete inventory of all state lands. The second is to improve the evaluation system of all lands. The third is to build on the Government’s e-Land Registry initiative and to improve the Deeds Registry by digitising existing records. The fourth is to improve tenure security for all land holders by moving properties from the Deeds system to the Title Registration system. The fifth activity is the funding of research in support of measures to improve land administration policies.

The other project of the Millennium Challenge Corporation is transport. The cost of this project is $350 million. Basically, it is 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.

So why is Lanka in a twist over whether to accept this 480 million dollar gift to develop these two vital sectors of the country’s infrastructure?

The UNP Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam said on Monday that the UNP Government at that time had been all for it but had second thoughts when a wave of public opinion against it had swept through the island. “We did discuss the MCC agreement with the US during our regime and even agreed on some points, but we decided against signing it because the general public went against it”.

All that the public knew at that time about the Millennium Challenge Corporation was its offer of 480 million dollars as a gift to Lanka. There had been no public expert committee appointed to study the pros and cons and even if the UNP government had detailed its own internal study, the public had not been privy to either its goodness or its evil.

THE 480 MILLION DOLLAR REPORT: President Rajapaksa receiving last week the MCC report by the committee he appointed on December 18 last year

So how did the people have access to that warehouse of information vital in a mature democracy to launch a full scale public opinion offensive against Uncle Sam’s offer? The answer maybe that though Lanka did not receive even a dollar of the 480 million dollar gift due to the UNP too refusing to place its thumbprint on the acknowledgement note, the American free offer itself — received as it was by mass opposition based solely upon the emotional tags of nationalism and chauvinism — certainly enabled the SLFP offshoot, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s nominee to be swept into power with a near landslide vote.

Two of the main mouthpieces of the then opposition, the infamous duo Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila — particularly responsible for raising the lion flag and waving it to ward off the imagined phantom on the coastline, crying ‘conspiracy, conspiracy’ and setting in motion the anti-American wave.

Self-appointed conspiracy theorist Udaya Gammanpila speaking as if he had just returned from a one-to-one briefing from the top brass at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia in the USA said, “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”.

His fellow conspiracy theorist Wimal Weerawansa said, “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”.

With all the blooming bluster they could readily muster, they made the outlandish claim that if the US$480m gift was accepted, it would be tantamount to a sellout of Lanka’s sovereignty; and that thereafter a visa issued by the American Embassy would be required to visit the Jayasri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura and a letter by the American Ambassador granting permission needed to lay flowers at the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy.

Well the rhetoric certainly had its effects. And it only took a Buddhist monk engaged in a fast unto the death in protest of the MCC to taint the American 480 million dollar gift with the tar of public opprobrium.

After the desired result had been realised and Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been elected President, the SLPP abandoned its pre-polls rhetoric to tear the MCC without even a cursory peek into what it contained and instead showed it was having second thoughts. After all now that it was in government, 480 million dollars was 480 million dollars and one could not rashly dismiss such a gift out of hand. On December 19, it was announced that the President appointed a committee to inquire into the pros and cons of the MCC gift and deliver their report.

Having got an early whiff of the changing winds, Gammanpila and Weerawansa had a change of heart towards the MCC. What was as black as coal, now suddenly seemed to them both to have fifty two shades of grey.

On December 8, Gammanpila did his U-turn by stressing that the MCC project was not bad at all as he had thought it to be but found the MCC to be 70 percent good, while a crestfallen Weerawansa appeared on national television and said ‘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.’

Evidently, while the committee perused the MCC document with a fine-tooth comb, the controversial issue became a no go area for Weerawansa and Gammanpila and their jingoistic drums fell temporarily silent and the MCC itself was relegated to the backseat.

But now no more. The MCC has been brought back from cold storage to play its polls winning role on the national stage. On February 17, two months after being appointed to probe the American gift, the committee presented its interim report. The final report took a further four months in its making, the committee being delayed perhaps by the covid crisis which also has delayed the 2020 general election now scheduled for August 5.

The final report having been presented to the President on June 25, the Government announced that it would be made available to the public as well. And so it has. Anyone interested can access it online. Furthermore, cabinet ministers have been asked to study the report and give their views within a week. Professor G.L. Peiris said on Monday, “The Cabinet and the government will study the final report before making a decision on the MCC agreement. Anyone can access the final report now since it has been made public. The government hides nothing”.

Good that the government has acted transparently by releasing the report to the public domain. Good too that it will be presented to the cabinet in the coming week and a decision is finally taken. Enough water has passed under the bridge for the government to tarry any longer.

The decision is simple if the president and the cabinet of ministers determine that the Millennium Challenge Compact is or will be inimical to Lanka’s interests then it should be rejected without much ado. However, if the gift of 480 million US dollars will greatly benefit infrastructural development, then it should be accepted. But what must not be done is to use the MCC as the whipping boy and theme song in the forthcoming election.

The MCC issue must not be used to raise jingoistic fervor and chauvinistic breast-beating. It must not be used to knell the dooms day bell as if it were a life and death matter for Lanka and cloud all other issues which really matter to the masses and which take more ingenuity to resolve than a simple yes or no to the MCC. Or else the nation will be squandering the 10 billion bucks it cost to hold this August election by using it as a pseudo referendum on the MCC and not on the formidable task of electing 225 members of caliber to send to Parliament. Not a band of scoundrels draped in the flag of their first refuge: patriotism.


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