Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: China

China and Sri Lanka Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday February 23 2017.

http://epaper.ceylontoday.lk/TodayEpaper.php?id=2017-02-23

Colman's Column3

It was very entertaining to watch the new Sri Lankan government putting on its big-boy pants to pick a fight with China and then realizing how deep in the doo-doo they were. Eran Wickramaratne, Deputy Minister of State Enterprise Development, tried to put a brave face on the ensuing grovel: “The issue is many of the Chinese contractors were overpaid, for lots of projects. We have been in discussions with them, and almost all of them have been restarted, some under new terms.”

 

Cunning Plan

 

The cunning plan was to turn debts into “investments” and pretend Sri Lanka was doing China a favour. International Trade and Development Strategies Minister Malik Samarawickrama said that Sri Lanka is eager to “reduce the current debt by inviting Chinese companies, Chinese investors, to look at some of the enterprises in Sri Lanka, the state-owned enterprises, with a view to taking at least part of that equity over.” Wickremesinghe himself said in Beijing that Sri Lanka had been “talking with some companies and also the government of China about the possibility of some infrastructure projects becoming public-private partnerships, in which part of the debt will become equity held by the Chinese companies’’.

 

Former ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka commented: “Having spurned and insulted China — as External Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera did in his media conference in Beijing itself — Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s administration now wants China to subsidize Colombo’s ‘pivot’ to the US and India in their joint and separate efforts to compete with and contain China!”
Won’t Get Fooled

 

The Chinese may be endlessly patient and forgiving and they do want to keep a stake in Sri Lanka. However, they are not stupid and they smelt a rat. Zhuang Rui, deputy dean of the Institute of International Economy at the University of International Business and Economics, said that Sri Lanka’s request was, “a kind of move to repudiate a debt”. A commentary in the Global Times warned: “It would be meaningless if China only swaps some bad debts for nonperforming assets in Sri Lanka’s enterprises. The two countries may need to set up mechanisms to ensure China has sufficient bargaining power in negotiations with Sri Lanka to obtain high quality assets’’.

Hu Weijia wrote in Global Times: “As for China, the country not only needs to act prudently to protect its interests from Sri Lanka’s debt woes, but also should treat the economic ties between the two countries from strategic and long-term perspectives…China may need to invest more in local industries which could create stable jobs for local communities to promote regional economic prosperity and social stability, ensuring that the country becomes more capable of repaying the loans offered by China.”

The government in April 2016 did manage to secure some Chinese investment.  Minister of International Trade Malik Samarawickrema announced that Chinese investors were keen on investing in Mattala Airport, Hambantota Economic and Industrial zone and the government was accelerating the implementation of ongoing Chinese projects valued at US$ 6 billion including the Economic Zone, and a ship repair project.  New infrastructure projects discussed included the extension of the Southern Highway, Kandy and Ratnapura Expressways, and potable and waste water projects.

Port City Project

According to former Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, India had warned the Rajapaksa government not to go ahead with the $1.4 billion Chinese-funded Colombo Port City Project, because it would be a security threat to India. The construction of the Port City on 450 acres of land reclaimed from the sea adjoining Colombo Harbour began during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term. The project would have been the biggest single foreign investment in Sri Lanka and would add 233 hectares (575 acres) of real estate in the congested capital. The original project plan included roads, water, electricity, shopping malls, water sports facilities and marinas, a mini golf course, hotels and apartments.

 

President Sirisena suspended the plan shortly after taking power in January 2015, on the grounds that it would adversely affect the environment. A Chinese firm engaged in the project sought $125 million in compensation for delays caused by the new government. Dayan Jayatilleka commented: “The Port City Project was opened by China’s President himself. So the manner in which some elements of Sri Lanka’s new administration and the overarching National Executive Council have behaved has been profoundly insulting to China. This is no way to treat our country’s best friend!” Diplomatic sources said that China had been willing to build many more port Cities around Sri Lanka. “They were agreeable to construct as many as 28 such cities if only we had asked.”

 

The government did a U-turn and recommended that the project be resumed.  Chinese foreign ministry official Xiao Qian told reporters after a meeting between Wickremesinghe and China’s Premier Li Keqiang that both sides agreed to “speed up” the project.

Conclusion

 

 

Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to the PRC, Nihal Rodrigo, prefers to focus on the “rivalry” rather than the “conflict” between China and India: “Sri Lanka is also anxious to ensure that the ‘rivalry’, often also misunderstanding, even confusion twixt India and China, does not adversely impact on national interests of Sri Lanka and China and India.”

Nihal Rodrigo writes: “The naval traditions of what is now popularized by the Chinese as the Silk Road of the Seas extend deep into the past. Now it is very much adapted to be a vital integral part of contemporary Chinese economic, political and cultural policies. Zhen He is said to have been also engaged deeply in SL’s domestic, political, defence and other aspects at the time when SL consisted of three political entities: Kotte, Jaffna and Kandy.”

Beijing needs Sri Lanka because of its geographical location close to the sea lanes that carry supplies essential to the Chinese economy. However, China is unlikely to try to challenge the US and India directly in the Indian Ocean. Jabin T Jacobs, Assistant Director at the Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, believes that China’s strategy is smarter than just establishing a military base in Sri Lanka. China, he says, “is cultivating influence not by overt military presence but by encouraging people-to-people contacts, offering scholarships, sponsoring conference trips, and boosting Chinese tourism in India’s neighboring countries. This softly, softly, approach is more effective and far more difficult for India to counter.”

Dayan Jayatilleka has been criticized in the past for pushing Sri Lanka towards India. Now he believes the government is making a mistake by disrespecting China: “The current Colombo model is one in which China is the preponderant financial contributor but is relegated to a subordinate role and status in the political, diplomatic and strategic spheres. China builds the economic foundation and is accommodated in the basement, while the US and India own the building and occupy the penthouse apartments.”

Although it may have made sense for the Rajapaksa government to seek help from China, contracts were too often granted without going through a normal tendering process. Economist Deshal de Mel accepts the current and future governments will also need China. He writes: “It is up to Sri Lanka to prudently take advantage of the economic opportunities that may arise out of China’s interests in the region, whilst being mindful of China’s strategic and security interests….Working within such a transparent, rules-based framework would enable Sri Lanka to benefit through partnership with China, but also ensure that India and the US are not threatened by its legitimate developmental objectives.”

 

 

China and Sri Lanka Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday February 16 2017

http://epaper.ceylontoday.lk/TodayEpaper.php?id=2017-02-16

 

Colman's Column3

CBK

On April 21-27, 1996, President Kumaratunga made a state visit to China at the invitation of then Chinese President Jiang Zeming. Two agreements were signed to enhance economic cooperation. On August 30 2005, Kumaratunga began a five-day state visit to China at the invitation of then Chinese President Hu Jintao. The two countries signed eight agreements on cultural, economic, financial and tourism cooperation. However, she turned away from China (accounting for only 18%) as a supplier of weapons for the war against the LTTE.

CBK’s recent statements on China aroused the wrath of Dayan Jayatilleka (former Sri Lankan ambassador to Geneva, Paris and UNESCO) for her “shameful description of the Nelum Pokuna as a “commode” (“kakkussi pochchiya”). The building was a gift from China and modelled on the magnificent Lotus Pond of King Parakramabahu’s Polonnaruwa. A greater contrast with the conduct of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who never forgot China’s generosity in gifting the BMICH, cannot be imagined”.

Harim Pieris, a former advisor of Kumaratunga recently recommended that Sri Lanka be to India as Hong Kong is to China, overlooking the fact that Hong Kong is a part of, and belongs to China while Sri Lanka does not belong to India.

War and Reconstruction

 

During the war against the LTTE, Sri Lanka’s traditional arms suppliers imposed restrictions. GOSL had to look elsewhere and China was willing to help. The Chinese arms supplier, Norinco, maintained  a  weapons dump in Colombo.

Following the defeat of the LTTE, the Rajapaksa regime chose to focus on rapid economic revival and development of infrastructure. Most western countries wanted accountability and reconciliation addressed first and imposed conditions on whatever financial assistance they might provide. The US reneged on its commitment to provide $500 million from the Millennium Development Account for road development. There was reluctance among the major Western countries resisted Sri Lanka’s approach to the IMF for a standby loan of $1.5 billion.

GOSL turned to the source that most Western countries themselves, including the US and the EU, rely on for funding. China was not bothered by fripperies like human rights and won contracts for substantial post-war development projects in Sri Lanka’s North and South with ongoing and projects concluded estimated at more than US$ 6.1 billion. The Rajapaksa Doctrine – give the North to India to develop and give the South to China – backfired because India felt slighted that Sri Lanka was giving more projects to China because Chinese companies were bringing the funds.

 

Critics saw Sri Lanka being in danger of becoming a Chinese colony and India was alarmed at China’s military presence in the island. India insisted on opening a consulate in Hambantota, an area which rarely sees an Indian citizen. The suspicion was that the consulate’s real purpose was to spy on the Chinese. Western governments punished Rajapaksa for his alliance with China. The first phase of the Hambantota Port project was inaugurated on August 15 2010. On the same day, the EU rescinded Sri Lanka’s GSP plus facility.

 

Rajapaksa is today critical of the current government’s subservience to China. He contends that by giving 80 percent stake in Hambantota port to a state-owned Chinese company, and making the deal valid for 99 years, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime has handed over a huge national economic and strategic asset to a foreign company.

 

Trade

Sri Lanka has been trading with China for centuries and China is still an important partner. However, there is a trade imbalance. Sri Lankan exports to China are worth less than USD$  million – coconut coir, rubber, tea, apparel, and gems and jewellery while Sri Lankan imports from China now exceed USD$ 3 billion – machinery, fabrics, apparel accessories, cotton and fertilizer. China was  Sri Lanka’s third largest trading partner in 2012, accounting for  17.1% of Sri Lankan imports (the second largest import source after India, which accounts for 19%. Exports to China amounted to 2.3% of Sri Lankan overall exports, making it the fifth largest export destination after the US, the EU, India and Russia. In May 2013, Sri Lanka proposed an FTA, to which China agreed. Sri Lanka does more trade with India than China but India is not happy about cheap Chinese consumer durables undermining its own markets.

 

Loans

Currently Sri Lanka is $8 billion in debt to China. The Rajapaksa government argued that it needed to get on with infrastructure development without delay and the Chinese were prepared to step up and help quickly without conditions. Donor agencies such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank provide soft loans at interest rates ranging from 0.25 %, 2% or 3%. However, these agencies stipulated strict conditions and made irritating demands about human rights. The Rajapaksa government argued that long term borrowing from China at interest rates ranging from 2-3% and 6-7% was the only option available to implement post-war development projects. Total estimated construction cost of Phase 1 of the Hambantota Port project was US $361 million, 85% of which was funded by the Exim Bank of China.

Finance Ministry sources during the Rajapaksa years claimed that financial help provided by China fell into three categories: free cash, interest-free loans and concessionary loans. The first two came from China’s state finances while concessionary loans are provided by the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank). Sri Lanka received several soft loans from China at an interest rate of 2-3% with maturity terms of 20 years, with five years expandable on condition, and 2-5 years grace period. The total now owing suggests that most Chinese help did not come in the form of outright grants but as loans at commercial rates from China’s Exim Bank.  Rajapaksa’s Deputy Economic Development Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said, “While the HSBC, for example, was offering loans with 9% interest rates, China has been offering loans for very low rates, such as 1% or even 0.5%”.

Governments that succeed the Rajapaksa regime will be saddled with these debts. In defence of the regime’s borrowing strategy one should look at the experience of Argentina. China has never pushed a debtor to bankruptcy but those who relied on commercial borrowings from the West, such as Argentina, have had a different experience. Sri Lanka has had a good record of meeting its obligations to its creditors.

RW and China

The Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, tried to undo the damage done to Sri Lanka/China relations during the election campaigns of 2015. The effort to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa seemed to require criticism of all the projects he had undertaken. The accusation that these projects were grandiose follies involving massive corruption also entailed painting the Chinese government as corrupt and with dishonourable intentions towards Sri Lanka. The opposition to Rajapaksa described the Hambantota Port as a future Chinese naval base intended to contribute to the PRC’s string of pearls geostrategy to achieve regional hegemony over India. Mattala Airport was, they accused, built with Chinese aid as a future Chinese military air base.

 

Once in power, the Wickremasinghe/Sirisena government had to pay out for some of the promises they had given to the electorate and this made the country’s financial situation worse. Inevitably they had to grovel to China. During his April visit to China, the prime minister reiterated Sri Lanka’s endorsement of Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road strategy. He issued a statement saying: “Projects such as the Hambantota Port and the Puttalam Coal Power Plant Project have become icons for the two countries’ cooperation in infrastructure construction”. Mahinda Rajapaksa was quoted as saying that he stood vindicated by the Government’s recent actions.

 

 

 

 

China and Sri Lanka Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday February 9 2017.

 

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China and Sri Lanka Part One

By

Padraig Colman

Donald Trump seems to be determined to annoy as many people as he can. He has made a good start on antagonising China.  The appointment of Peter Navarro, who has forged a career out of condemning China, to the newly- created National Trade Council does not bode well.  Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, published a book called: Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action.

navarro

This seems like a good time to examine Sri Lanka’s relationship with the PCR (People’s Republic of China). February 7 was the 60th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between this island nation  and China.

Ancient History

Professor KM de Silva, in his monumental History of Sri Lanka, describes how this island punched above its weight in ancient times. Sri Lanka, despite its diminutive size, belonged to the big league along with the ancient hydraulic civilisations such as China.

prof-k-m-de-silva

The economic potential of the Anuradhapura region was increased by proximity to the Mahaweli River. Mahasena’s Minneriya tank, plus many smaller tanks and irrigation systems built between the fourth and ninth centuries, helped sustain a considerable local population as well as producing a substantial agricultural surplus for export. The port of Gokanna (Trincomalee) played a part in the development of commercial relations with China and South-East Asia which enhanced the economic potential of the region.

Sri Lanka’s strategic position on the sea route between China and the west meant that from the early days of the Christian era there would have been trade between the island and China which would have been bolstered by religious affinity. However, up until the eleventh century the cohesion that comes from strong diplomatic and political ties was lacking.

The Buddhist connection helped to forge links between the two countries. There is evidence that Sinhalese nuns went to China in the fifth century and helped in the ordination of women there. In 411 AD, the famous Chinese Buddhist traveller Fa Hsien visited the island and stayed for two years.

fa-hsien

However, contacts with Chinese Buddhism were occasional and tenuous.

During the Polonnaruva Kingdom, Sri Lanka was a vital link in the great trade routes between east and west. The unity imposed on the Muslim world by the Caliphs and the peace imposed on China during the T’ang and Sung dynasties allowed trade between China and the Persian Gulf to flourish. Sri Lanka’s geographical position helped it to benefit from this.

In the early fifteenth century, under the Ming dynasty, seven powerful fleets from China visited the ports of the Indian Ocean demanding tribute and obedience to the Chinese Emperor. The Muslim explorer Zheng He (often known as Cheng-ho) was a Hui court eunuch and fleet admiral during the early Ming dynasty. On Zheng He’s, first visit to Sri Lanka in 1405, his objective was to take back the tooth relic from Kandy. In 1284, Kublai Khan had sent a similarly unsuccessful mission for the same purpose. Zheng went back to China disappointed but also aggrieved and he returned five years later to capture the Sinhalese king, Vira Alakesvara, his queen and several notables and took them as prisoners to China. The king was eventually released but his humiliation meant that he could not recover his throne. In 1411, the Chinese emperor sent a nominee to the Sinhalese throne but he was swiftly eliminated by Parakramabahu who began a reign of 55 years.

Relations with Communist China

Fast forward to the Communist Revolution – Ceylon was among the first countries to recognize the   PRC. Ceylon and the People’s Republic of China accorded each other diplomatic recognition in January 1950.

In 1952, Dudley Senanayake had just formed a new government when Ceylon faced a world shortage of rice.

dudley

The country entered independence saddled with a colonial plantation economy which was susceptible to fluctuations in world conditions. The country faced a foreign exchange crisis in 1952 caused by a dramatic fall in export prices after the end of the Korean War and the price of natural rubber declined by 36%. The Rubber-Rice Pact of 1952 further consolidated a cordial relationship with China. The agreement gave the newly-independent Ceylon a large market for its rubber in China, and China supplied China with low-cost rice. This agreement was entered into at a time when China was victim of trade embargoes which cut off imports of strategic materials including rubber.

After SWRD Bandaranaike became prime minister in April 1956, the two countries established full diplomatic relations on 7th February 1957 and set up embassies. A number of bi-lateral agreements strengthened political, economic, trade and cultural bonds. Ceylon/Sri Lanka supported the PRC’s “One China” policy, which Trump is now undermining, and efforts to give the UN’s China seat to the PRC. The USA did not establish diplomatic relations with the PRC until 1979; Japan in 1972; UK in 1972 and France in 1964.

z_p-08-bandaranaike-4

Mao Zedong died on September 9 1976. September 18, the day of Mao’s last rites in Peking, was also declared a day of national mourning and a public holiday in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government declared an eight-day period of mourning to coincide with observances in China. A condolence book was opened by the Chinese embassy.

Mrs Bandaranaike and China

 

mrs-b

The premiership of Sirimavo Bandaranaike further consolidated the gratitude of the PRC towards Sri Lanka. Her commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement provided the country with a great deal of international support and respect. She said: “Underlying the policy of non-alignment is the belief that independent nations, although small and militarily weak, have a positive role to play in the world today. This attitude is completely different from that of washing our hands of these matters, which was perhaps the idea behind the classical theory of neutralism. That was non-involvement — remaining in splendid isolation.”

The world’s first woman prime minister fully understood the importance for Sri Lanka of good relations with both India and China. She had close personal friendships in both countries and was distressed when the Sino-Indian war broke out in 1962. The Chinese Government were feeling somewhat victimised and expressed the view that the Colombo Conference countries were functioning as judges rather than mediators. Mrs Bandaranaike’s mediation efforts were helped by her husband’s and her own history of support for the PRC and her close personal friendship with Chou En-lai.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike paid her first official visit to China in 1962, and made further visits in 1972 and 1977. China was isolated at this time and did not regain its UN seat until 1971. The Chinese government appreciated Mrs Bandaranaike’s visits and she forged close personal connections with the Chinese leadership. At her request, relics of the Buddha were brought to Sri Lanka from China on loan.

Chinese aid, which was on more favourable terms than aid from other countries, started during Mrs Bandaranaike’s premiership. She personally supervised the plans and construction of the BMICH (Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall). Built between 1970 and 1973, the convention center was a gift from the PRC in memory of her husband SRWD Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Ceylon from 1956 to 1959.

 

JR and China

Although he led Sri Lanka into a closer relationship with the west, President JR Jayewardene visited China in May 1984. During JR’s rule the USA was Sri Lanka’s main arms supplier and China accounted for only 30%. In the 80s, India strongly objected to Sri Lanka’s evolving relationship with the US, Pakistan, China, as well as Israel. The former Indian Foreign Secretary, JN Dixit, cited JR’s foreign policy as the primary reason for Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987.

jr-jayawardene

Premadasa

ranasinghe-premadasa-1

Premadasa was president of Sri Lanka at the time of India’s disastrous military intervention in 1987. India’s actions, the imposition of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord and the 13th Amendment and the forced merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces as well as the invasion by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force, drove Premadasa towards China. As prime minister, he had visited China in 1979 and received a warm welcome. By the late 1980s China had become Sri Lanka’s main arms supplier, accounting for 58% of all weapons imports, providing warplanes, artillery and tanks. Premadasa invited a senior Chinese political leader to his party-political events and China played a big part in his economic policy.

An Australian Coup Part 2

Colman's Column3

This article was published in Ceylon Today on June 19 2015.

NAAGough

Rule by  Minority

Sri Lanka’s foreign minister voiced doubts about the value of this country’s long-standing commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement. The US Secretary of State is taking a strong interest in moving Sri Lanka away from China and into the US orbit. Perhaps we should remember what happened to Gough Whitlam, who, despite being democratically elected as prime minister of Australia, was deposed by the representative of the Queen of England with the connivance of the US government. Imagine if the Queen decided to sack David Cameron if he failed to get a bill through the House of Lords and replaced him with the leader of the opposition – whoever that might be.

Before Whitlam, the Australian people had been electing the “right people,” namely the Liberal-National Country Party Coalition headed for many years by Robert Menzies. Menzies was always happy to do the bidding of the US and the UK. He once said, “A sick feeling of repugnance grows in me as I near Australia.”

Three months after Whitlam’s election victory in December 1972, Senator Withers, the leader of the Liberals in the Senate warned: “the Senate may well be called upon to protect the national interest by exercising its undoubted constitutional power”. He said that the election mandate was ‘dishonest”, that Whitlam’s election was a “temporary electoral insanity” and that to claim that the Government was following the will of the people “would be a dangerous precedent for a democratic country”

Kerr’s Cur

After he was ousted, Whitlam made a speech: “Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General! The Proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary was countersigned Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s cur. They won’t silence the outskirts of Parliament House, even if the inside has been silenced for a few weeks … Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day”. However, Fraser easily won the election  and remained prime minister.

Murdoch Misinformation

Whitlam wanted an independent, free and democratic government for the people of Australia  and he was elected on that manifesto. Collusion between vested interests and those who believed they were born to rule destroyed his plan. The Murdoch media ran a virulent anti Whitlam campaign because Whitlam would not do as Murdoch ordered.

murdoch

Former CIA deputy director of intelligence, Ray Cline, denies that there was any “formal” CIA covert action programme against the Whitlam government during Cline’s time in office (Cline left the CIA in 1973). The method as outlined by Cline would be for the CIA to supply damaging information which the Australian security services would leak to the media. A US diplomat stationed in Australia at the time tells how CIA station chief in Australia, John Walker would “blow in the ear” of National Country Party members, and not long afterwards, the Whitlam government would be asked embarrassing questions in Parliament. An ASIO officer said he believed that “some of the documents which helped discredit the Labour Government in the last year in office were forgeries planted by the CIA.” In 1981, a CIA contract employee, Joseph Flynn, claimed that he had been paid to forge some documents relating to the loans affair, and also to bug Whitlam’s hotel room.

CIA Involvement

Whitlam at one point complained openly about the CIA meddling in Australian domestic affairs and tried to close Pine Gap, the CIA’s surveillance centre. When Whitlam was re-elected for a second term, in 1974, the White House sent Marshall Green to Canberra as ambassador. Known as “the coupmaster”, he had played a central role in the 1965 coup against President Sukarno in Indonesia – which cost up to a million lives. One of his first speeches in Australia, to the Australian Institute of Directors, was described by an alarmed member of the audience as “an incitement to the country’s business leaders to rise against the government”.

marshallgreen

Victor Marchetti, the CIA officer who had helped set up Pine Gap, told John Pilger, “This threat to close Pine Gap caused apoplexy in the White House … a kind of Chile [coup] was set in motion.”

marchetti

Kerr had longstanding ties to Anglo-American intelligence. He was an enthusiastic member of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, a group exposed in Congress as being founded, funded and generally run by the CIA. The CIA “paid for Kerr’s travel, built his prestige … Kerr continued to go to the CIA for money”.

Pine Gap’s top-secret messages were decoded by a CIA contractor, TRW. One of the decoders was Christopher Boyce, who revealed that the CIA had infiltrated the Australian political and trade union elite and referred to the governor-general of Australia, Sir John Kerr, as “our man Kerr”. In 1977, Boyce was arrested in the US for selling secrets to the Soviet Union. Boyce was disillusioned by the state of America. One day, he discussing the Watergate scandal and the CIA inspired coup in Chile and  said, “You think that’s bad? You should hear what the CIA is doing to the Australians.”

kerr queen

Cline said, “I’m sure we never had a political action programme, although some people around the office were beginning to think we should.” He explains that the US and Australia had a very healthy relationship in the area of intelligence exchange. “But when the Whitlam government came to power, there was a period or turbulence to do with Alice Springs [Pine Gap].” He went on to say, “the whole Whitlam episode was very painful. He had a very hostile attitude.”

Cline outlined a scenario he saw as acceptable CIA behaviour. “You couldn’t possibly throw in a covert action programme to a country like Australia, but the CIA would go so far as to provide information to people who would bring it to the surface in Australia. For example, a Whitlam error “which they were willing to pump into the system so it might be to his damage.” Such actions do not, in Cline’s opinion, amount to a “political operation.”

Security Crisis

On 10 November 1975, Whitlam saw a top-secret telex message sourced to Theodore Shackley, the notorious head of the CIA’s East Asia division, who had helped run the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile two years earlier. The message said that the prime minister of Australia was a security risk in his own country. The day before, Kerr had visited the headquarters of the Defence Signals Directorate, Australia’s NSA, where he was briefed on the “security crisis”.

Also, in 1975, Whitlam discovered that Britain’s MI6, “were actually decoding secret messages coming into my foreign affairs office”. One of his ministers, Clyde Cameron, told Pilger: “We knew MI6 was bugging cabinet meetings for the Americans.” In the 1980s, senior CIA officers revealed that the “Whitlam problem” had been discussed “with urgency” by the CIA’s director, William Colby, and the head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield. A deputy director of the CIA said: “Kerr did what he was told to do.”

Sir John Kerr, the man who sacked Whitlam succumbed to alcohol. After a drunken performance at the 1977 Melbourne Cup winner’s presentation, he was forced by public outrage to relinquish an appointment as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO. He lived in England for some years and died on 7 April 1991. Whitlam did become Ambassador to UNESCO. He died last October at the age of 98.

memorial

Malcolm Fraser became involved in international relief and humanitarian aid issues and, domestically, as a forthright liberal voice for human rights. He resigned from the Liberal Party because he found Tony Abbott too right wing. He died in March 2015 at the age of 84.

 

The Goulash Archipelago

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 2 2014

Colman's Column3

Imagine a country where a populist leader wins a two-thirds majority in parliament and uses it to make radical constitutional changes, which were not in his election manifesto. The opposition is negligible and ineffectual. The popular leader sees his electoral success as a mandate to restructure the justice system and to place his acolytes in important institutional positions. He clamps down on the media, undermines religious organisations and imposes a nationalist viewpoint, citing national sovereignty when subject to international criticism. Checks on executive power are removed. Transparency International condemns widespread corruption. NGOs (including some based in Norway) are intimidated by police raids. Slum clearance is making people homeless. The leader seems to regard himself as a monarch. Where is this country?

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It is not some failed state in Africa or Asia. It is right at the heart of Europe and of the “ethical” project known as the European Union.

Will Hungary become a dictatorship and remain within the EU?

 

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has said that his aim is to build an “illiberal state” on “national foundations,” citing as models China, Russia and Turkey. He denied that these plans conflicted with Hungary’s EU membership.

EU Values

The EU presents itself as a moral model to the world. Any European nation wishing to become a member of the EU must, in theory, respect the values set out in Article I-2 of the Constitution. Turkey has been trying to get into the EU for a long time, but, despite its ongoing electoral success, the Erdoğan government makes the EU uncomfortable. The EU takes steps to ensure that a prospective member state meets certain criteria about democratic practices. This has delayed Turkey’s acceptance. What happens when a state is accepted into the EU, and then reneges?

Although Viktor Orbán has made no secret of his plans to use his popular support to make sweeping constitutional changes, to muzzle the media and reshape Hungarian institutions to suit his own purpose, the European Commission agreed in August 2014 to provide Hungary with nearly 22 billion euros of economic assistance. The money will arrive between 2014 and 2020 to boost competitiveness and growth. Hungary will also get €3.45 billion for rural development and €39m for fisheries.

Collapse of Communism

Hungary was the first Eastern European country to gain some economic freedom under “Goulash Communism”. Communist leader Janos Kádár, through the New Economic Mechanism, reintroduced some elements of a free market. Hungary was “the happiest barrack” in Central and Eastern Europe. However, Kádár had to borrow money and, in 1982, joined the IMF. The resultant debt contributed to the instability of subsequent governments.

In 1989, Hungary allowed thousands of East Germans to escape to the West by opening its border with Austria. Hungary began a programme of privatisation soon after the collapse of communism and within four years privatised half of the country’s economic enterprises. By 1998, nearly half of foreign direct investment in Central Europe was going to Hungary.

Hungary and the EU

In 1988, Hungary was the first among the Central-Eastern European countries to establish diplomatic relations with the European Community and benefited from assistance programmes. Every political party elected to the Hungarian National Assembly after the first free elections of 1990 agreed that accession to the European Community had to be a priority.

At the EU Summit in Dublin on 25-26 June 1990, the twelve then existing members initiated talks with the Central-Eastern European countries to establish a “new type of relationship”. In 1998, the EU began negotiations with Hungary on full membership. In a 2003 national referendum, 85% voted in favour of joining the EU and Hungary became a full member on 1 May 2004.

Credit Crunch

Despite EU membership, a high level of private and state borrowing left Hungary vulnerable to the credit crunch of 2008, and in October of that year, the government was forced to appeal to the IMF and the ECB for huge sums to avoid disaster.

Fidesz

In 1992, Viktor Orbán became leader of the Fidesz party, which was originally founded by young democrats persecuted by the communist party. In 1998, Orbán formed a successful coalition and won that year’s parliamentary elections with 42% of the national vote. Orbán became Prime Minister of Hungary at the age of 35.

Fidesz does not have a coherent ideology, but draws on populist themes, including those espoused by extreme right wing groups- national sovereignty, distrust of foreigners and NGOs (an NGO that trains dogs to help disabled people was recently raided by police). Fidesz narrowly lost the 2002 elections to the Hungarian Socialist Party. Dissatisfaction with the Socialist government’s subsequent handling of the economy from 2002 to 2010 coincided with the rise of the right-wing nationalist party Jobbik. Fidesz moved to the right and won the parliamentary election in 2010. Fidesz scored another comfortable victory in the 2014 election and Jobbik increased its share of the vote from 17% to 20.5%.

New Constitution: Top-Down Coup d’État

The two-thirds parliamentary majority gained by Fidesz in 2010 allowed it to replace the comparatively liberal post-communist constitution. Critics say the new constitution removes essential checks and balances but Fidesz claims that the constitution needed to be changed to expunge vestigial traces of communism. However, deep constitutional change was not part of Fidesz’s electoral programme and it does not have a democratic mandate for the changes it has introduced.

NGOs were raided by the police. This was “completely unacceptable”, complained Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s minister for Europe. News services became centralised monopolies. Employees lost the right to strike. Dozens of religious organisations closed. The government looted private pension funds. Schools were nationalised and all headmasters replaced. The government attacked critical intellectuals. Fidesz loyalists gained long-term powerful posts, including the presidency, the office of the chief prosecutor and the audit court, as well as top jobs in cultural organizations. The Orbán government reduced the powers of the constitutional court and the budget council. Bill Clinton said Orbán was an admirer of “authoritarian capitalism” and never wanted to leave power. “Usually those guys just want to stay forever and make money”.

Corruption has worsened, says Transparency International. A recent report highlights “worryingly negative trends” in Hungary. In the Social Justice Index (SJI) Hungary scored 4.44% in 2014, down from 4.79 in 2011 and 5.07 in 2008. The report showed that 43% of children are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Children are worse off in this respect only in Romania (52.2%) and Bulgaria (52.3%). Hungary ranks second to last with respect to the percentage of children suffering severe material deprivation (35%), with only Bulgaria (51%) behind it. In Miskolc, a slum-clearance programme has made many homeless.

Democracy in Danger?

According to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, Orbán’s politicisation of the constitution poses serious threats to democracy and the rule of law. The opposition had no say in the drafting of the new constitution. Further amendments weakened opportunities for political competition and removed checks on executive power.

In April 2013, the Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly recommended monitoring of Hungary. Hungary would have been the first extant EU member state to have its democracy scrutinized. On June 25th, the European Parliament voted not to subject Hungary to the monitoring procedure but adopted a resolution, stating that according to Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, the situation in Hungary is incompatible with EU values.

The Economy

When in opposition, Orbán accused the government of allowing the Hungarian economy to fall under foreign control. Fidesz bases its political appeal on an image of rescuing the country from an incompetent and corrupt Hungarian Socialist Party. Despite this populist stigmatising of foreign control, Hungary received a bailout of over $25 billion jointly from the EU, the IMF and the World Bank. Orbán was unwilling to make severe cuts in public spending and the IMF declined to provide the requested flexible credit line for Hungary.

Recently rating agency Standard and Poor’s warned that growth could slow to about 1% to 1.5% pointing to a large public sector, political uncertainty, weakness in the banking sector, and a regressive, complex tax system. Nevertheless, GDP rose in the second quarter at an annual rate of 3.9% and industrial output is up 11.3%. Tourism revenue has risen by more than 10% year-on-year.

Because Hungary is not a member of the Eurozone, it has the option of doing what ECB membership denies Greece and Ireland: printing more money and devaluing its currency. This could provide the sort of internal stimulus needed without additional borrowing. Orbán has said he has a duty to protect national sovereignty and preserve Hungary’s independence. Adopting the euro would mean local officials losing control over monetary policy. Hungary is required to introduce the euro eventually under its EU accession obligations. However, analysts believe there is not much chance of Hungary   adopting the euro before 2020.

EU Failure

International organizations like the IMF and the Council of Europe have criticised Hungary’s political direction but nothing practical was done to stop Orbán unpicking the framework of Hungarian democracy. The Council of Europe adopted an ineffectual resolution, which criticised undermining of European democratic standards in Hungary, but merely resolved “to closely follow” the situation in Hungary. The Hungarian government has agreed to a few constitutional changes after the latest Council of Europe Venice Commission report, but did nothing to withdraw measures on political advertising and recognition of religious groups.

Sweden’s EU Affairs Minister, Birgitta Ohlsson, proposed that EU funds – which Orbán distributes to his supporters – should be withheld and that he should be warned that Hungary’s EU voting rights could be suspended. The European Parliament on 15 September rejected a proposal by the liberal group for a plenary debate on Hungary at its session in Strasbourg.

A few years ago, Tibor Navracsics boasted that he faithfully executes all tasks he receives from his superior. Navracsics has been appointed EU commissioner for education, culture, youth and citizenship.

Conclusion

Orbán has moved out of the Hungarian equivalent of the White House into a castle that formerly housed Hungary’s kings. Six million dollars from the exceptional provisions reserve fund will pay for renovation.

If Orbán succeeds in his stated ambition of building an illiberal state within the EU, existing or new members might copy him. Is the success of Fidesz and Jobbik a peculiarly Hungarian phenomenon, or is it an advanced symptom of a broader popular discontent with the “Europe Project”?

If Hungary gets away with using sovereignty as a justification for passing laws that directly contradict important democratic and human rights principles, this could undermine the whole ethos of the EU. As the EU expands to include a more diverse array of countries and cultures with different versions of democracy, it needs to examine its economic, social, and political values. Can the EU’s current mechanisms cope with further expansion?

Privatisation of Punishment for Profit

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on June 30 2014.

I have written before about the American prison system. Those articles were prompted by the irony of American politicians and NGOs criticising Sri Lanka for keeping 350,000 displaced people in camps in 2009. There are more than 2.3 million people in US prisons, more than any other nation on earth, a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the US. America has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. African-Americans account for 12% of the US population, but 40% of the US prison population. In 2005, 8.1% of all black males aged25 to 29 were in prison.

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Americans are locked up for crimes that would not warrant incarceration elsewhere. One is shocked to read in Dickens or Hugo about people being executed or transported to Australia for stealing a loaf of bread. Bill Clinton’s “three strikes” law means that a lengthy sentence can be imposed for stealing a slice of pizza. The law made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One prisoner received three 25-year sentences for stealing a car and two bicycles.

More than 200,000 youths are tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day, 8,500 kids under 18 are confined in adult prisons. Only 34% of those in juvenile detention are there for violent crimes; many are confined for running away from abuse at home. 12.1% of young people questioned in a survey said that they had been sexually abused at their current juvenile detention facility during the preceding year. Rates of HIV/AIDS are several times higher inside US prisons than outside, just as they are much higher among black Americans than white. As rape is a common in US jails, incarceration for trivial offences can amount to an unadjudicated death sentence.

The Prison-Industrial Complex

The US prison system is a multimillion-dollar industry with its own trade exhibitions, conventions and websites. At least 37 states have legalised the contracting of prison labour by private corporations, including Microsoft and IBM, to operate inside state prisons. The number of prisoners in private prisons tripled between 1987 and 2007. By 2007, there were 264 such prison facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult prisoners. Prison bonds provide a lucrative return for capitalist investors such as Merrill-Lynch, American Express and Allstate. Prisoners are traded from one state to another for profit.

The highest-paying private prison company is CCA (Correctional Corporation of America). CCA’s prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for “highly skilled positions”. For any infraction, CCA inmates get 30 days added to their sentence, which means more profits for CCA. Between 1982 and 1994 the prison population of the USA rose 2.7-fold and most of the newly convicted were fit young people, mainly unemployed. Was this coincidence or was the increase in the prison population deliberately engineered to provide a large but very cheap work-force to meet the needs of labour-intensive industries?

There was certainly one example of a judge who was a major shareholder in a private prison who had no compunction about sentencing young men to work in his prison to increase his profits.

Reducing Prison Population

However, things may be changing. In the past few years, politicians from both major parties have begun to turn against mass incarceration. Attorney General Eric Holder has routinely condemned the “inadvisable and unsustainable” policies that have made America’s prison population by far the largest in the world. Even Republican presidential contenders are having a rethink. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has denounced a “failed war on drugs that believes incarceration is the cure of every ill.” In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has redirected two billion dollars from the prison economy toward alternatives like drug treatment. Incarceration rates have slowly declined since 2010; conventional private prisons may no longer be a growth industry.

Offender-Funded Justice

There are still ways to turn a profit. Sarah Stillman, (who once vividly described the plight of Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East) in an excellent article in the New Yorker, recounts the tale of a woman who was arrested and jailed for a string of traffic tickets that she was unable to pay.

(http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/23/get-out-of-jail-inc).

A judge sentenced the woman to two years of probation with Judicial Correction Services, a for-profit company. She would owe JCS the sum of two hundred dollars a month, with forty of it going toward a “supervision” fee. She paid whatever she could, but when she lost her job, she often could not pay. Her total court costs and fines soared from hundreds of dollars incurred by the initial tickets to $4,713, including more than a thousand dollars in private-probation fees.

Federal law in the eighteen-thirties abolished debtors’ prisons. However, people across America are routinely jailed for fees and fines that they are too poor to pay, fines and probation that are supposed to be an alternative to prison.

Many courts allow probation officers to decide whether an offender possesses the financial means to pay their fines and probation fees. When that probation officer is the employee of a private company, this creates a direct conflict of interest. A probation company’s revenues are entirely derived from the fees probationers pay them. Companies’ financial interests are often best served by using the threat of imprisonment to squeeze probationers and their families as hard as possible.

 

Profitable Alternatives to Prison

Private-prison corporations themselves have seen the opportunity for profit in alternatives to prison. The industry aims to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers. Often, this means charging petty offenders for a government service that was once provided free. These probationers are not just paying a court-ordered fine; they are typically paying an ever-growing share of the court’s administrative expenses, as well as a separate fee to the for-profit company that supervises their probation and enforces a payment schedule.

Correctional Healthcare Companies claims that it deals with the “full spectrum” of offenders’ lives: “pre-custody, in custody, and post-custody.” The GEO Group runs private prisons all over the world (including the UK). There have been many deaths in their premises. They are now expanding into “community re-entry services”, treatment programmes and electronic-monitoring. In 2010, Judicial Correction Services made the magazine Inc.’s list of “the fastest growing private companies in America,” for the third year in a row. JCS’s fees included $240 for a course in something called “Moral Reconation Therapy.” CCA bought a California-based enterprise called Correctional Alternatives.

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch recently published a harrowing survey. The report was based largely on more than 75 interviews conducted with people in the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi during the second half of 2013. It describes patterns of abuse and financial hardship inflicted by the “offender-funded” model of privatised probation that prevails in well over 1,000 courts across the US. It shows how some company probation officers behave like abusive debt collectors.

 

http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0214_ForUpload_0.pdf

Blood from a Stone

 

The courts issue thousands of arrest warrants for offenders who fail to make adequate payments towards fines and probation company fees even though the original offence carried no real threat of jail time. In Georgia, Thomas Barrett pleaded guilty to stealing a can of beer and was fined US$200. He was jailed for failing to pay over a thousand dollars in fees to his probation company, even though his entire income—money he earned by selling his own blood plasma—was less than what he was being charged in monthly probation fees.

 

Legal Challenges

Legal challenges to “offender-funded justice” are mounting, amid concerns about abuse, corruption, conflicts of interest and the use of state penalties to collect private profits. In a wide range of cases, “offender-funded justice” may not result in justice at all.

The business of many private probation companies is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in instalments. It is a blatant conflict of interest when the companies making a profit are allowed to determine how much an offender can afford to pay. Financial incentives colour their judgement.

In Alabama, people know the town of Harpersville as a speed trap, a stretch of country highway where the speed limit changes six times in roughly as many miles. Traffic fines were the biggest business in the town of 1,600. In 2005, the court’s revenue was nearly three times the amount that the town received from a sales tax.

In July 2012, Judge Hub Harrington of Shelby County, Alabama halted Judicial Correction Services’ aggressive pursuit of fines owed the Harpersville Municipal Court. He stated:”From a fair reading of the defendant’s testimony, one might ascertain that more apt description of the Harpersville Municipal Court is that of a judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”

E-Waste

The acronym WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. WEEE is the fastest-growing waste stream in the US and in many other countries. The US generated 3.4 million tons of WEEE in 2011. According to the latest EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) figures, US output  of unwanted electronics has reached 47.4 million computers and 141 million mobile devices annually.

The Problem

A 2009 UNEP (UN Environmental Programme) report estimated the world generates 40 million metric tons of WEEE annually. The US EPA estimates that the US recycles a mere 11% of its WEEE.

Why worry?

WEEE contains toxic materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame-retardants and polyvinyl chloride. These substances cause cancer, respiratory and reproductive problems. Even a low level of exposure of children and pregnant women can cause serious neurological damage. Phthalates causes sterility; chlorinated dioxins cause Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In India, Dr S Sundaravadivelu, Special Secretary to Government (Environment), said only 15% of Indian WEEE was being recycled, while the remaining was mixed with normal waste. The government, public and private industrial sectors accounted for 70% of the total. Asif Shuja Khan, director general of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, says unregulated WEEE activities do not only harm those working directly with the materials but also contaminate agricultural lands and livestock and enter the food chain.

A 2011 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee said that the US military supply chain might contain over one million counterfeit parts, including crucial avionics components. Counterfeit Chinese parts have been detected in the instrumentation of C-130J Hercules transport aircraft. Failure of these components would leave pilots with blank instrument panels in mid-flight. Production of these counterfeit parts often begins as electronic waste, shipped from the US to Hong Kong.

Waste Markets

WEEE recycling has become a lucrative business opportunity for companies that extract gold, silver, palladium and base metals such as copper and nickel from circuit boards. Their worth can reach more than $15 per pound. The microprocessors inside circuit boards can sell for more than $30 per pound.

The WEEE recycling revenue potential in India is around US$ 1.5bn in 2013; that could double by 2018. India Electronic Waste Recycle Market Opportunity Analysis gives in-depth analysis on the potential WEEE recycling market in India.

Many investment guides on the internet recommend shares in WEEE companies. The first pure public WEEE operator, E-waste Systems Inc announced results for the quarter ended June 30, 2013. There was more than a 1,000% increase in revenues reported for the first quarter of 2013. Revenue Grew to over $2.7 million in the quarter; Total Assets grew to over $3.5 million; Shareholders Equity improved by over $1.3 million

Who Is Recycling – and Who Is Not?

EWEEE could prove a valuable source of metals in developing countries if the dangerous work processes were to be regulated. All over the world, local communities are taking positive steps to encourage recycling. New York state residents produce more than 300 million pounds of electronic waste each year. New laws make manufacturers responsible for the recycling of their own products and bans disposals of consumer electronics in landfills. A study from the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) shows that retailers are lagging behind consumers in social responsibility. The number of collection sites for electronic scrap has increased by nearly 80% but Walmart, Amazon and Sears do not have a recycling option for the electronics they sell.

Exporting the Problem

You might be salving your conscience by recycling your WEEE. What does the contractor do with it? In direct violation of federal law, Colorado-based firm Executive Recycling falsely claimed they would process waste in the US. Instead, they exported it. The fine was US$4.5 million and the court sentenced CEO, Brandon Richter, to two and a half years in prison.

The EU exported 220,000 tons of WEEE to West Africa in 2009. Some products sent as charitable donations, ostensibly for reuse, are unusable. In Ghana 30% of WEEE imports are unusable. Pakistan receives thousands of tons of WEEE every year from developed countries.

At Guiyu on the South China Sea, poorly trained unprotected workers cook circuit boards to remove microchips and solders, and use dangerous acid baths to remove gold from microchips. Tests found dangerously elevated lead levels in blood of 80% of the children there.

Over 35,000–45,000 child laborers of the age group of 10–14 years in Delhi collect, sort and distribute, WEEE without adequate protection, according to a recent study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM).

Problems into Profit

Capitalism has repeatedly demonstrated its resilience in the face of challenges and has turned them into opportunities. Environmentalists condemned global industrialisation for polluting the atmosphere. Capitalism responded with carbon trading. The communications revolution combined with rampant consumerism has created vast amounts of cyber-clutter, as people feel compelled constantly to upgrade their phones and computers. Creative capitalists have turned this problem into profit by developing markets in WEEE.

Lest We Forget. Should We Forget?

This article was published in the print edition of the Sunday Island in November 2011 but did not appear on the online version of the paper.

Remembering about remembrance

When I was  a stroppy teenager,  the epitome for me of the distastefulness of the whole charade of Remembrance Day was a man called Ralph Reader, who on an annual basis was the Master of Ceremonies of variety shows extolling the greatness of Britain (particularly England). Great prominence was given to sentimental and jingoistic songs such as “There’ll Always Be an England” sung by old troupers like Vera Lynn who had helped to win the Second World War.

Reader got started in show business producing shows for the Boy Scout movement and had some success on Broadway. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Reader was commissioned into the RAF as an intelligence officer and was awarded an MBE in 1943. He got a CBE in 1957 for general services to the nation. Later he was mainly associated with Scout Gang Shows. In the 1970s, he was appointed to the post of Chief Scout’s Commissioner.

Poppies and a Threadbare Empire

Reader was no doubt an admirable  fellow and I was being terribly unfair to detest him. Call it a clash of generations. We baby boomers had a tendency to arrogance because we had a decent education and the ability to see the tawdriness of post-imperial Britain. The Suez crisis of 1956 is often seen as a significant symbol of Britain’s post-imperial decline, and 1956 was also the year when John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger was first produced and spawned a movement of “angry young men” disaffected by the state of the nation.

Britain’s decline probably resulted from the bankrupting effort required to beat Nazi Germany. In spite of that, the Attlee Labour government was able to establish a welfare state that saved many from dire poverty, provided health care free for all and enabled working class oiks like myself to get a university education and access to high culture. Successive British governments, including nominally Labour ones, have worked hard to dismantle Attlee’s noble edifice.

Reader’s shows were already an anachronism in the late 50s and early sixties and unfortunately tainted the real meaning of Remembrance Day. They reeked of fly-blown nationalism and imperialism and seemed to me to glorify militarism and war-mongering. One year, I was forced to watch Reader’s show at the house of a schoolfiriend by his patriotic parents. They were typical of respectable, conservative, working-class people. Theirs was a small house but they owned it. By this time they were surrounded by families from the West Indies. The last time I was in that area, it was full of mosques and burkhas. Even in the 1950s, the Empire had landed on the white working man’s doorstep. Nostalgia for the old Empire became inextricably entwined with racism and resentment, which to me seemed to simmer under Remembrance Day.

Suffering of Ordinary People

I see Remembrance Day differently now. With maturity, I have developed a better understanding of what my parents’ generation endured to make my life comfortable and secure. My mother worked in an aircraft factory helping to build the Gloster Meteor, the RAF’s first operational jet fighter. Her younger sister told me about running home from school during a German bombing raid. The last time I went to England was five years ago. Waiting for my plane at Heathrow, I heard a call for one-minute’s silence in honour of the fallen. Tears rolled down my cheeks as everyone respectfully observed the silence.

However, even today, cynical politicians exploit the poppy and patriotism. David Cameron arrived in Beijing in November 2010 wearing a Remembrance Day poppy in his buttonhole. The right-wing press heaped praise on him for refusing to remove it when the Chinese asked him. The poppy had a different symbolism for the Chinese. It stood for a particularly brutal phase of British imperialism, the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, during which British soldiers killed tens of thousands of Chinese,  pillaged, desecrated  holy sites, shot  prisoners and raped women. All in the interests of Scottish drug-pushers.

This has now been forgotten and not included in Education Secretary Michael Gove’s ‘patriotic’ school history syllabus.

Pioneer Corps

My father’s Irish patriotism did not prevent him volunteering for the Pioneer Corps. Michael Young, in The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these “hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men” was spectacularly increased  “when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with”. In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously smug ruling class and a profoundly demoralized lower class. That is true today as the British working class has lost its identity and has austerity and insecurity forced on it  by rich people who have never done a proper job.

On D-day, 6 June 1944, 13 Pioneer companies landed with the first allied wave and a further ten companies with the second, making a total of about 6,700 men ashore by the end of the day. The first Pioneer party landed 20 minutes after Operation Overlord had started. Some were called upon to provide burial parties, for which they were given special clothing, equipment and transport. The men bivouacked in fields, in unusually bad weather, working extremely long hours with little rest. Owing to the extensive minefields, conditions were dangerous and there were casualties. Over 2,000 British personnel, serving with the Corps, and nearly 6,000 of other nationalities lost their lives.

This was when my father’s sense of smell left him. As well as triggering memories, the sense of smell has served us well as a warning of danger, for example the smell of gas, smoke suggesting that we need to take action to prevent harm by fire. The last thing my father remembered smelling was rotting corpses on the Normandy beaches. My father had no obvious wounds from the war but his anosmia was a real disability. Did Caen teach my father the flimsiness of the flesh, how fine is the mesh that binds muscle to bone, how temporary the breath? Despite his wit and humour, he lived, I now realize, with an unrelenting tinnitus of anxiety until his death. He died of cancer at the age of 56. He had no debts, but only six hundred pounds in the bank. There was insurance to pay for the funeral.

He was not complicit in the malignant forces of ideologies and systems of terror that crushed common people and swept them away. The great tides of history, of isms and empires buffet little people, hurt them, maim them, kill them, uproot them and inflict damage that lasts for years or generations.

As a foreigner living in Sri Lanka I notice how many people have limbs missing. Whatever about the Channel 4 programme or the Darusman report, we all know that ordinary people suffered horribly.

The reconciliation processes in countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Chile and Northern Ireland have been cited as parallels for Sri Lanka. The road to hell is paved with false analogies. Whatever the wrongs suffered by Sri Lankan Tamils there is no genocidal plan to exterminate them. They have not been held in concentration camps. The government was fighting terrorists, not trying to wipe out the Tamil population. Sri Lanka is not an apartheid society like Palestine or the old South Africa. It is not segregated de facto like Louisiana.

As we await the outcome of the LLRC investigations of Sri Lanka’s war horrors, we must contemplate the dangers of forgetting and also the dangers of remembering. Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of the kind of thing France needed to forget in order to be a nation. Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story Funes, the Memorious, describes a young man who, as a result of a riding accident, has lost his ability to forget. Funes has a tremendous memory, but he is so lost in the details of everything he knows that he is unable to convert the information into knowledge and unable, as a result, to grow in wisdom. Stephen Dedalus, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, said that history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake.

There comes a time when truth and reconciliation has to take the place of endlessly rehearsing grievances from centuries back, as the Irish were prone to do. Sectarian killings in Northern Ireland sporadically continued long after the IRA gave up their arms. Belatedly, loyalist paramilitaries announced that they had renounced violence (tell that to the Roma that they terrorised into leaving Ireland). There are still riots as one tribe or another remembers its grievances.

Michael Roberts writes: “historical interpretations relating to the ancient past have provided some inflammatory sparks for the obstinacy and confrontations of contemporary times…The hard realities of the present-day ground situation must assume predominance for pragmatic adjustments and accommodation”. Tamil grievances and the general population’s experience of Tiger atrocities may not be ancient but Ernest Renan’s observation that nation-building requires amnesia as well as invention is apt here.

Julie MacLusky

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