Has Sri Lanka’s pussyfooting with its foreign policy for long years with its Non-Alignment and now ‘neutral’ policy hit a blank wall? Last week the United States imposed sanctions on 24 Chinese companies, including China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), the parent company of the China Harbour Engineering Company, which is building the Colombo Port City [...]

Sunday Times 2

Lanka between the devil and the deep blue sea

By Gamini Weerakoon

Has Sri Lanka’s pussyfooting with its foreign policy for long years with its Non-Alignment and now ‘neutral’ policy hit a blank wall?

Last week the United States imposed sanctions on 24 Chinese companies, including China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), the parent company of the China Harbour Engineering Company, which is building the Colombo Port City and also constructed the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport.

The United States conducting military exercises in Indo-Pacific waters with allies Australia, India and Japan in July. Pic courtesy Asia Pacific Defense Forum

The sanctions are said to target companies and those involved in construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea which are a part of the US$ 4 trillion One-Belt-One-Road Initiative of China. How they will impact on Chinese projects being built by the China Harbour Engineering Company here is not known but obviously there will be a fallout on the Colombo Port City, on which great hopes are placed for the much anticipated take off into the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ envisaged in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election mandate.

US sanctions have a devastating and far reaching bite and this is evident in such sanctions imposed on Iran. Many countries have ceased having business deals with Iran because of the fear of the fallout of these sanctions on them. An example is Sri Lanka halting oil imports from Iran. The US is this country’s biggest export market and the consequences of a boycott or change in the status in terms of trade with Sri Lanka need no elaboration.

There is bound to be an impact of this new development on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy–the hemming and hawing on Non-Alignment and now neutrality with the two power blocs — China and the Quadrilateral Alliance of US, India, Japan and Australia — competing for dominance in the Asian-Pacific region.

If sanctions on the Chinese company impact drastically on Sri Lanka, would this country have to drop its neutrality and choose one power bloc or the other?

Rajapaksa governments have had very close relations with China and should be greatly indebted to China for the assistance given in the terrorist war by way of providing armaments. Two such other nations were Pakistan and Israel, while Western nations refused to sell arms following allegations of human rights violations by Sri Lanka. After ‘The War’ China provided vast loans at high interest rates that resulted in Lanka’s massive debt burden for which China cannot be held responsible. It was reckless financial profligacy of the then Rajapaksa government.

Today, President Rajapaksa is strapped for finances and the only country that can provide that is China. Some economists predict that the option for Rajapaksa is to jump start the economy with short-term borrowings from China till Covid 19 abates around the globe and tourism picks up.

However, the new Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage is on record saying that while Sri Lanka would be a neutral country and does not want to be caught up in a power game where strategic security is concerned, it will always have an ‘India-first approach’. This is interpreted to mean that Sri Lanka will not do anything harmful to India’s strategic security interests.

But the question that should also be asked is: What should India do to protect Sri Lanka’s strategic interests? The history of India’s role in this respect, the continuation of a near 30- year terrorist conflict and the landing of Indian troops in Lanka are too well known to be repeated here.

Strangely the Rajapaksas’ memory, particularly of the older brother Mahinda, seems to be slipping. After the defeat of his government in 2015 when Maithripala Sirisena, a senior minister and party secretary staged the ‘Egg Hopper Coup’—dining with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and soon after joining the UNP-led rebel group of good Governance. Mahinda Rajapaksa accused the Indian Intelligence Agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of staging a coup and ousting him from power.

But all that—War and RAW—is now put behind the sake of good neighbourly relations. However, India has the gumption of calling upon the Rajapaksa government to implement the 13th Amendment in full, the legislation which Sri Lanka was forced to enact when a peace keeping force landed here uninvited.

We certainly agree that Lanka should not be a security threat to India but India should also refrain from making proposals that could endanger the security of Lanka. Any attempt to implement the 13th Amendment in full—amalgamation of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and granting police powers to these provincial councils—will not only knock down the Sinhala-Buddhist pillars that prop up the Rajapaksa government but rouse communal tensions as it happened in1956.

On Sunday, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper spoke to President Rajapaksa over the phone. Many subjects were discussed, the media press release said but though sanctions imposed on the Chinese construction company were not mentioned in press reports, it would have obviously been given priority. The US has also evinced keen interests on the implementation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement together with the two military treatises hanging in the air—the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) and the Status of Forces Agreement(SOFA). Pohottuwa, the pro Rajapaksa party, while strongly opposing these agreements during the hustings, has been shilly-shallying on it after being elected.

The US has shown strong support for the return of the Rajapaksas to power even before elections. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s right to contest the presidency was being challenged because of his dual citizenship, the US Embassy in Colombo conveyed the impression that giving up American citizenship was an easily done thing even though there were cases pending against him in US courts for violation of human rights.

Many in the Rajapaksa family have dual citizenship in America and this family nexus may be helpful to the Rajapaksa government vis-à-vis the American administration, is the speculation in political circles.

Nonetheless, the US-led quadrilateral alliance appears to consider Sri Lanka to be the backyard of India and has granted India the de facto status of a regional power over Sri Lanka.

Lotus eating Sri Lankans dreamed dreams that Sri Lanka’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean in this era of ‘Looking East’ will make it a hub for regional economic growth—another Singapore! But Lanka right now appears to be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

(Gamini Weerakoon is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and Consulting Editor of the Sunday Leader)


A lesson in democracy

The new Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena struck a great blow for Sri Lankan democracy recently when he rejected fiery calls from government benches demanding the expurgation of some statements made by Jaffna District MP C.V. Wigneswaran in Parliament, from the Hansard.

Wigneswaran, a President’s Counsel and a retired judge of the Supreme Court, had claimed that the Dravidian language was the oldest language in the world and that Tamils were the first inhabitants of the island of Lanka.

He was not the first Tamil to express such opinion and many, perhaps thousands before him had done so and would continue to do so in the future.

The Speaker, rejecting the strident and super charged demands of some government MPs held: Every MP in government or opposition is entitled to their opinion. If you are not in agreement you can contradict it and express your own stand.

Speaker Abeywardene was not making a new ruling but upholding a practice that had been in existence from the beginning of the 72- year-old legislature. But what is commendable about his decision is that he went against a trend that was building up in the new parliament. MPs of the ruling PPP (Pohottuwa party of the Rajapaksas) appeared to be under the delusion that they could bulldose their way over accepted parliamentary norms and traditions after the 52 percent victory in their presidential and 59 percent in the parliamentary election. The two thirds majority bestowed on their party it appeared had led to the delusion that they were world conquerors.

In attacking Wigneswaran these MPs, some of them of ministerial rank and others newcomers, assumed the mantle of ultra-nationalists and self-appointed guardians of Sinhala-Buddhism. It was like the days after the second presidential victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa where it was spelt out: If you’re not with us, you’re against us and are thereby a traitor.

Pohottuwa leaders stood aloof as this disgraceful exhibition of boorish racism continued for days instead of guiding them on correct parliamentary decorum till the Speaker poured ice-cold water on the hotheads.

We are not supporters of Wigneswaran’s contentions. But we go along with the views expressed by the 18th Century French philosopher, Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to death your right to say it’.

Such fine principles of democracy built over two centuries and practised in modern democracies appear to have bypassed most of our legislators and the hope that recent elections will bring in fresh crop of more ‘educated’ legislators do not seem to have materialised. As for senior legislators, most of them taste the ‘same old arrack in new plastic bottles’ as predicted in this column a few weeks before the general election.



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