Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Sri Lanka

A WEEE Problem that Is Getting Bigger

This article was published in Ceylon Today on October 28 2020

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/a-weee-problem-that-is-getting-bigger

I was pleased to receive a message on my (second-hand) smart phone inviting me to bring my e-waste to the local post office. I had up to October 10 to do this and just about met the deadline.  This seemed to be a very welcome initiative by the CEA (Central Environmental Authority). Mahinda Amaraweera, Minister for the Environment, said the programme was organised with the objective of minimising the harm caused to human beings, animals, and the environment by improper e-waste disposal. He said that all government agencies are bound by international development agreements to implement the UN SDGs (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals).

The acronym WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. 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.  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.

E-waste represents 2% of America’s garbage in landfills, but it equals 70% of overall toxic waste. The US generates 3.4 million tons of WEEE a year only 11% of which is recycled. Only 15% of Indian WEEE is recycled, while the remaining was mixed with normal waste.

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. I have never been an early adopter. I have never been a great fan of phones of any kind and I have only recently been forced to use a smart phone. In those dark days when I had to work for a living, The Management was always trying to force gadgets on us; there were little hand-held computers called Organisers which one had to go on courses to learn how to operate. I never used mine at all and was chastised for creating this redundant e-waste. I found it much easier to jot things down in my diary – and I don’t mean Filofax. I tread lightly on the earth. I had an amplifier that served me well for over 30 years and speakers that lasted 20 years.

Even a Luddite like myself manages to accumulate a lot of redundant electronic rubbish. Some of it is a result of well-meant but misplaced charity, or recycling by friends and family. Some of it is stuff like my trusty old amplifier which reaches the end of its natural life and crawls away to die. It is difficult know what to do with this redundant equipment.

Electronic waste is sometimes recycled in a bad way, finding its way into counterfeit parts. 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.

The only answer seems to be to send e-waste to another country and cause a problem elsewhere. 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.

Creative capitalists have developed markets in WEEE. There are 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. 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.

How did the recent Sri Lankan initiative work out? I sent my e-waste to the post office and wondered what would happen to it. Would it be dumped in a land-fill? What happened to it was that it boomeranged back to me (as do some of the letters I deposit at the post office). They only seemed to be interested in phones and computers that they could find an immediate use for thmselves.

I have looked at a number of academic studies on the subject and am filled with despair. No-one seems to have a solution and the problem just keeps growing. One study of the Sri Lankan situation says: “Currently all the E-waste collected within the country is being exported because of the unavailability of a recycling facility for electronic waste. Hence it is an urgent requirement to establish an environmentally sound E-waste recycling facility to cater E-waste generated within the country.” That does not get us very far.

It would be interesting if Minister Mahinda Amaraweera could clarify what criteria were given for deciding which items of e-waste would be accepted at post offices. The only guidance I could find was a statement that only domestic e-waste and not industrial-grade machinery would be accepted. I certainly have never had any industrial-grade machinery. What are we to do with the items that we are still stuck with? It would also be interesting to learn what was done with the items that were accepted at post offices.

Death, Democracy and Lexical Ambiguity

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on May 9 2020.

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/56551

 

 

On a mission in Augsburg, in 1604, Sir Henry Wotton said: “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” A novel concept is an ambassador going abroad and accusing his president of lying. Is our ambassador to Russia more loyal to the president of Russia than he is to the president of Sri Lanka?

Democracy has not been doing too well lately. Trump is busy wrecking the USA and its reputation and causing unnecessary deaths after winning three million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the UK, Boris Johnson struggled to “get Brexit done” with a majority of minus 43 and now struggles to cope with a pandemic with a secure majority of 80. The authority of the Irish Cabinet is diminished by the fact that three of its members were voted out of the Dáil (parliament) in the general election on February 8 but remain in Government. The Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar is getting good world press for the way he is handling the crisis (and working one day a week as doctor – medical, not political science) but his party was defeated in the election. The Dáil hardly exists at present and its committees are in abeyance. The most influential body in the management of the crisis, is the NPHET (National Public Health Emergency Team). Neither elected representatives nor the media have access to its meetings.

In Russia, Putin was re-elected in 2018 with nearly 80 percent of the vote and faces no serious threats to his power. He has not been having a good pandemic. According to Andrew Higgins in the New York Times, “the pandemic has only highlighted what has always been Mr Putin’s biggest vulnerability: a pronounced lack of interest or success in tackling intractable domestic problems like dilapidated hospitals, pockets of entrenched poverty and years of falling real incomes.”  Putin has been sheltering at his country villa and has not been pictured in public for nearly a month. Higgins described his Orthodox Easter message to the nation as “what, me worry?” Russia has had 1,537 deaths out of a population of 144.5 million.

Sri Lanka tackles the current pandemic well compared to the UK and the US and does so without a parliament. I understand the need to get back to normal for the economy as a whole and for individuals who are suffering grievously. I appreciate the risks to democracy of government by task force. I also appreciate the danger of going back to ‘normal’ too soon. Remember how ‘normal’ coped with the Easter bombings.

Dayan Jayatilleke PhD, former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the Russian Federation now has time on his hands  to impart some wisdom on the domestic situation in the homeland. He published an article in the Daily FT on April 23. I advise you to try to read it.

http://www.ft.lk/columns/20-June-Why-any-election-is-better-than-none/4-699112

Grasping the Main Thrust

I had to read the article several times before I could get anywhere close to grasping the main thrust. One problem is the usual epic name-dropping: “My old friend and fellow doctoral student of Immanuel Wallerstein, Prof. Jan Nederveen Pieterse of the University of California, Santa Barbara” (two name-drops for the price of one, there folks!). “My late father Mervyn de Silva, who edited the Daily News, the Times of Ceylon and the Lanka Guardian, would certainly have asked…” “I must admit that the College hosts an Annual Oration in memory of my paternal uncle Dr. A.V.K.V. de Silva, Univ of Edinburgh gold medalist, top epidemiologist and WHO program coordinator on AIDS.” What has any of this got to do with the price of fish? How many readers know or care about these names?

I have noticed a tendency with Sri Lankan columnists (and academics) to favour style  over substance. Rather than laying out a clear narrative line to help the long-suffering reader to establish what the writer wants him/her to take away from the article, he (it’s usually a he) prefers to launch a piece with rhetorical flourishes and move on with curlicues and rococo grace notes rather than setting out the Gradgrindian hard facts.

Dayan posits the case for a general election on June 20 against the arguments of “liberal critics”.  I am not sure what “liberal” means in 2020 – the word seems to have been fatally flawed by lexical ambiguity. I note that on his much-muted Facebook page, Dayan describes himself as a liberal and a Catholic rather than a Marxist. He describes himself as a politician rather than a political scientist or diplomat. He brings in “neo-liberal” at one point too. Anyway, let us judge these liberals by their arguments, which are “legalistic-constitutionalist points”. Unfortunately, he does not specify these arguments but describes them as “prissy proceduralism and legalistic literalism”.

Sinister Scenarios, Unnamed Plotters

Let’s recap. Those who are opposing an election are “legalistic”. Dayan concedes that their arguments may be true but they are irrelevant “because the real-world question is what if the Executive ignores all the ‘simply can’t do’ points they make and simply does them?” Simply can’t do what? Simply does what?

“Clearly the PM does not place himself among the ‘many [who] opine that there is no need for elections AT ALL’ (my emphasis – DJ)”. ‘Opine ‘is a favourite of Sri Lankan columnists and is rarely used anywhere else. Mahinda Rajapaksa does not want to ditch democracy, apparently. Neither does his brother. “It is not that President Gotabaya has a zero-election project or extra-constitutional preference”. Let us work up a panic anyway and create a froth of hypotheticals involving sinister scenarios created by unnamed figures from “the postwar Far Right ranks”.

Dayan graciously gives the government a (dimmed) gold star for the way it has handled the Covid19 crisis so far. This faint praise is effectively withdrawn when he compares Sri Lanka (to its detriment) with Israel and South Korea. He concedes, “There are few citizens who are not thankful that it is this administration rather than the previous one, in charge at this time. The armed forces and personnel of the State machinery as a whole are going flat out, motivated and functioning as they never would have been under the decrepit, languid, lackadaisical Ranilist UNP governmental sub-culture. “

Shifting Enthusiasms

It is difficult to keep up with Dayan’s political philosophy and allegiances. He worked with Tamil separatists and the UNP. He often describes himself as a progressive (but resists defining the term) and endlessly cites men of the left like Gramsci and Castro. To my face he praised Trump’s fascist adviser, Steve Bannon and, in writing, defended Jeremy Corbyn’s Stalinist apparatchik, Seamus Milne. He has expressed his admiration for Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn as well as the grand old mass murderers, Stalin and Mao. In the Daily FT article itself he offers the apartheid state of Israel as an exemplar (is this because Mahinda Rajapaksa has long been a supporter of the Palestinian cause?) Now I hear that he is working for his former boss’s son, Sajith Premadasa.

Sri Lanka Coping Well

How does he think Trump and Johnson are coping with Covid? What would Corbyn have done? Dayan thinks Brexit is good for Britain. He writes, “What are the ethics, values and morals of those who would put hundreds of thousands of people in harm’s way, by fudging or embellishing evidence in a severe epidemic which has dealt suffering, death and bereavement to so many around the world? “He seems to be saying that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is lying.  His heroes Trump and Johnson are widely acknowledged to be serial liars. This is a very serious charge for a fomer  ambassador to level at the government that paid  him.

I have no wish to make unwarranted boasts about the way Sri Lanka is dealing with the crisis. However, I do find it odd to see the western media saying this country or that country is doing better than Britain. True, Britain is among the worst for total incompetence and mendacity. At the time of writing, Britain’s official death toll was over 30,000, and climbing.  Ireland is held up as a good example. The population of the Republic of Ireland is 4.94 million. As of 7 May, the Irish Department of Health has confirmed 1,429 deaths. Sri Lanka’s population is 21.4 million and there have been nine deaths. There is of course the danger of complacency but let’s give ourselves a little encouragement in these dark days.

In the hope of establishing what the point of Dayan’s article was, I went to the last paragraph. The very last words were a bit of pointless name-dropping. Before that, this: “It is not that there is no political motivation as well, but that isn’t a simplistic one of pushing for a premature general election. It is a more complex two-pronged tactic, or more to the point, an ambush, a trap. The two prongs are on one flank, a snap election on unfavourable terrain for the Opposition and at a dangerous moment for the voter, and on the other, the project of zero-elections and open-ended rule by the President plus a “power cartel” “

Where does that leave us? I would advise readers to check out an article by DBS Jeyaraj who covers similar ground in simple prose without obfuscation.

http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Politics-of-Postponing-Parliamentary-Elections-Amid-a-Pandemic/172-187187

 

 

 

 

Miliband Still Has Nothing to Teach Sri Lanka

A version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on April 28 2020. As there was some hiatus between drafting and publication, I have updated some figures.

I have been thinking about two different themes and the two have miraculously coalesced  thanks to the appearance of an article in the New Statesman by David Miliband. David Miliband is currently the president of the International Rescue Committee. He was UK foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010. The article is called “The four contests that will shape the post-Covid-19 world”.

Miliband writes: “Here the free world needs to make its stand – in the name of morality, but also efficiency. The point is not just that democratic government is not worth trading off for state capacity to handle crisis. It is that democratic government can help state capacity rather than reduce it. There are democracies that are handling the crisis well – South Korea and Germany come to mind – and democracies handling it badly, led by the US. And there are authoritarian states handling it poorly – Iran, for example – and less than fully democratic states coping well (Singapore).”

That then, is one of the themes I have been thinking about. It is helpful to have the benefit of Miliband’s wisdom on the current pandemic.

The other theme in which I have been interested is the reaction of the “international community” to Sri Lanka’s quite astounding success in defeating the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in May 2009. Historian Michael Roberts is still, eleven years on, doggedly trying to get a fair hearing for his motherland. Every day, he disseminates material that he has found, and engages in debate with a huge variety of people. He seems undaunted by the, sometimes vile, abuse his writings attract on Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph. In order to assist myself in finding a clear narrative thread through this mass of material, I consulted a book by a British military historian, Professor Paul Moorcraft, Director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis who has also worked for the British defence establishment. His book on the Sri Lankan conflict, Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers, was published by Pen and Sword in 2013. Moorcraft visited Sri Lanka and interviewed Prabhakaran, KP, Karuna, members of the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Rajapaksas.

David Miliband makes an appearance in Moorcraft’s book. Much of what Moorcraft writes supports Michael Roberts’s argument that the Tigers’ desperate strategy was to sacrifice their own people in order to persuade the “international community” to force a cease-fire and rescue the LTTE leadership to fight another day. The Rajapaksas were having none of this. The war had dragged on for nearly 30 years wrecking the economy and wasting countless lives. Government forces had often been on the verge of victory only to be stymied by foreign interference. Western governments could not grasp that the LTTE did not do compromise and negotiation. The only solution was a military one.

David Miliband made a one-day visit to Sri Lanka in April 2009 and demanded that the fighting stop. He ruffled some feathers by acting like a colonial governor. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, came as well but was more civil than Miliband. Moorcraft writes: “Gotabaya Rajapaksa was blunt in his meeting with them: he said the fighting would go on until Prabhakaran was dead or captured. The Defence Secretary explained that over 200,000 civilians had been freed from LTTE captivity. The Sri Lankans found Miliband ‘rude and aggressive’, especially when he complained that army shelling was killing civilians. Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the British minister that he should not believe Tamil propaganda. According to the Sri Lankans present, Kouchner tried to cool tempers and calm down his more volatile British companion.”

The rest is history. The Tigers were defeated and they have not been a problem for eleven years. The army that Gotabaya Rajapaksa created is, essentially, still with us although the personnel has changed. The current Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff played a crucial role in the ultimate victory. Although Sri Lanka has no external enemies (to fight by force, anyway), the Tri-Forces have proved their worth in peacetime. Before the Rajapaksas decided to take on the Tigers militarily, Sri Lanka had an essentially ceremonial army of only 11,000, partly because civilian governments feared a repetition of the aborted coup of 1962. In a fairly short time, Gotabaya Rajapaksa turned a shambolic outfit into an effective and reliable force for wartime or peacetime. This would not be the case if Sri Lanka had done Miliband’s bidding in 2009.

Today, Sri Lanka seems to be making a success of dealing with the pandemic. The president mobilised the medical services and enlisted the armed forces to make a major contribution. The president has recognised that the media have a role to play in keeping the public informed. The previous Rajapaksa regime did not always have a happy relationship with the media and wasted a lot of money on useless PR firms.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa  won a convincing majority in the presidential election last November but is now ruling without a parliament. The opposition is in disarray. This is the first time that we have a president who actually had a proper job outside politics. It is a long time since the UK had any leaders who had done a proper job. Some people in Sri Lanka are concerned about democracy. Democracy seems to be ineffective in the USA and the UK.

The Insight team of the London Sunday Times (normally a paper that supports Conservative governments) published an astonishingly damning report showing how the UK government has been totally incompetent at dealing with the pandemic. In pursuit of Brexit, Boris Johnson had cleared out all the senior politicians who had experience and capability and replaced them with nonentities and air-heads. The prime minister himself did not present an impression of consistency and competence and was absent much of the time. An anonymous adviser said: “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there. And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.” He missed five of the COBRA meetings which are vital in a crisis like this. He seemed to be distracted by events in his private life – his wife was divorcing him; his girlfriend was pregnant.

Miliband writes: “The holes in national and global safety nets are integral to the devastation of the disease.” Successive UK governments, including Labour, have undermined the safety nets. An incompetent government is reaping the rewards of public spending cuts, Brexit, privatisation, outsourcing, selling assets to foreigners, deregulation of finance.  The latest death figures for the UK are  21,092. Sri Lanka’s figure is still seven. Eleven years on, David Miliband still has nothing to teach us.

 

Foxy Liam

According to a website called vipfaq, (“the latest news, scandals, facts and gossip on your favourite celebrities!”) they did not have any facts about Liam Fox’s sexual orientation, but claimed to have done a poll in which 0 per cent thought he was straight. Fox’s voting record in Parliament is generally against gay rights, and he voted against same-sex marriage. Vipfaq says: “Supposedly, Liam Fox has been having a busy year in 2018. However, we do not have any detailed information on what Liam Fox is doing these days. Maybe you know more. Feel free to add the latest news and gossip. According to our best knowledge, Liam Fox is still alive. We are not aware of any death rumours.”

Vipfaq is probably a spoof, but many people are indeed wondering what Liam Fox is doing these days, as Britain teeters towards Brexit. He has been cruelly called the “most pointless minister in the Government.” He is supposed to be Secretary of State for International Trade in charge of finding trading partners for the UK post-EU. He does not seem to have found any so far.

Marina Hyde described Fox as “an expert in the self-inflicted wound.” In the 2009 expenses scandal, Fox was the Shadow Cabinet Minister found to have the largest over-claim on expenses and was forced to repay the most money.

In 2010, he resigned as Defence Secretary, over allegations that he had given a close friend, lobbyist Adam Werritty, inappropriate access to the Ministry of Defence, and allowed him to join official trips overseas.  Fox and Werritty lived together in a flat near Tower Bridge, before Fox married Jesme Baird in 2005.

Fox has long been a friend of Sri Lanka, as has Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party. Paisley was suspended from Parliament and the DUP for taking bribes from the Rajapaksa Government. Fox seems to have got away with similar crimes, although he is no stranger to controversy. Fox had first arrived in Sri Lanka in 1995, as a Junior Foreign Office Minister.

In Singapore in 2007, Fox, by then Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, had a chance meeting with Rajapaksa’s Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama. Towards the end of the war with the LTTE, Fox, who was seen in the capital Colombo as a possible future Tory leader, became an influential messenger boy, even for Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Fox behaved recklessly, by taking Werritty with him to countless Ministry of Defence meetings, and allowing his friend to hand out business cards, describing himself as a special adviser to the ministry. Ursula Brennan (who I remember as a formidable person), Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, chastised Fox for this. Fox was forced to resign in 2011, after it emerged that he and Werritty, had been given free holidays in Sri Lanka, in return for saying nice things about the Rajapaksa Government. Fox and Werritty stayed in five-star hotels and enjoyed first-class travel.


Back in government

Fox is back in government with a leading role in implementing Brexit, as Secretary of State for International Trade. This has resulted in him being taken less seriously than ever. No wonder Brexit is a mess.

On 9 March 2018, Arab News reported that “British Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox said that Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 can build strongly on what is already a strong alliance with Britain. UK and KSA have agreed landmark ambition for around £ 65 billion of mutual trade and investment opportunities. Both kingdoms are transforming their economic prospects and roles in the world.”

This was before Saudi Arabia revealed how it was transforming its role in the world, by bombing school buses in Yemen with British arms, and chopping up a Washington Post journalist.

On 18 April 2018, Fox told Sri Lanka’s President Sirisena that steps would be taken to include new investment opportunities in Sri Lanka on the website of the UK’s Ministry of International Trade. Joy was unconfined. It is such an honour to be on Liam’s website.

In June 2018, Open Democracy reported that Fox was again having difficulty seeing the line that should be drawn between adviser and privately-backed lobbyist. Shanker Singham is a member of Fox’s ‘committee of experts.’

Singham is also a Director of the International Trade and Competition Unit at the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), a position he took after he left the controversial think tank Legatum earlier this year. Tamasin Cave from Spinwatch, which monitors the lobbying industry, said: “Singham is simultaneously advising Liam Fox, and has unrivalled access to many other ministers, while at the same time working for a firm that is paid to influence the decisions of ministers. That’s a glaring conflict of interest.”

Scottish National Party MP Neil Gray said: “There has been an effective sub-contracting of the hard thinking normally undertaken by government to a series of ‘think tanks,’ who refuse to reveal where their funding comes from and whose proposals seem coincidentally to reflect the narrow interests of a small group of private companies.

Marina Hyde again: “Brexit has performed a questionable alchemy, allowing various of the politically undead to lumber out of the where-are-they-now files, all the way back into key operational positions.” Britain is paying the price for their resurrection.

Sri Lanka and Oil

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 19 2018.

 

In his treatise Petroleo y Dependencia, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, principle architect of OPEC, wrote: “Oil will bring us ruin. It’s the devil’s excrement. We are drowning in the devil’s excrement.”

Groundhog Day

Oh no! Here we go again!

Sri Lanka is once again toying with the idea of exploring for oil. Apparently, an “interested investor” has made a proposal which has led the Sri Lankan government to believe that it can award exploration rights to at least two shallow water blocks off the north east coast. The two blocks, identified as C1 and M1 are in the Mannar Basin to the West, and the Cauvery Basin surrounding the Jaffna peninsula. A competitive bidding round for exploration of a deep-water block where gas has already been found will begin in May.

One can see why the Sri Lankan Government would like to have its own oil. Each year, Sri Lanka imports nearly 30 million barrels of oil at a cost of US$ 2.2 billion, Oil is used to generate electricity as well as for transport. One can add to this the cost of subsidies, and the knock-on effect of transport and electricity costs on the price of everything. Back in 2015, I reported in these pages that the minister for power and energy, Patali Champika Ranawaka, had announced that Sri Lanka will stop importing fuel by 2020. Way back in August 2007, the then Petroleum Resources Development Minister AHM Fowzie met a slew of representatives of oil companies on a junket to Baku. According to Mr Fowzie, Sri Lanka was going to produce oil by 2010. Still waiting.

 

Muddy Waters

The current government (specifically Ranil Wickremesinghe) has hit on a spiffing wheeze (or cunning plan, as Baldrick might call it) called “Swiss Challenge”. This wheeze has been tried out in the Philippines, some African countries and India. The idea is to formalize unsolicited proposals from prospective investors by allowing others to bid on the proposal and then ask the original proposer to match the best bid. If the original proposer does not match the best bid, it is awarded to the best bid. It has been reported that there is growing concern in the Sri Lankan business community about this new policy. This is another of those dirty tricks associated with public /private finance scams that I have written about so often. Swiss Challenge, according to the Sri Lankan government, “allows for an innovative unsolicited proposal by a company to the government to be made public, to allow other competitors a chance to match it.” The Vijay Kelkar committee was set up to evaluate public-private partnership (PPP) models in India. The committee’s report said that Swiss Challenge proposals must be “actively discouraged” as “they bring information asymmetries in the procurement process and result in lack of transparency and in the fair and equal treatment of potential bidders in the procurement process”.

The Trouble with Oil

The trouble with oil is that it encourages corruption. The trouble with PPP is that it encourages corruption. When you put oil and PPP together you get a lot of trouble. As long ago as 2004, Transparency International estimated that billions of dollars were lost to bribery in public purchasing and oil seemed to absolutely guarantee corruption. Saudi Arabia, Angola, Azerbaijan, Chad, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela and Yemen were highly corrupt.

Mr Fowzie’s friend, the president of Azerbaijan, long ago promised to cut poverty and create 200,000 jobs, but about half of Azerbaijan’s population still lives below the poverty line. A ruling dynasty has been established and oil-rich families from the clan networks of Nakhichevan retain their power base by resorting to arrests, torture and media suppression. Do we want a despotic ruling dynasty in Sri Lanka?

Oil generates US$ 17 billion each year for Nigeria. If that were shared it would provide 15 years of wages for every man, woman and child in the country. The proportion of Nigerians living in poverty rose to 66 per cent by 1996. Nigeria has emphatically shown that oil can bring poverty, corruption, environmental damage, conflict, foreign exploitation, and erosion of human rights

New Zealand

The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, recently announced that her government will ban new permits for offshore oil exploration to “protect future generations from climate change”.

 

 

 

Atonement and Redemption

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday September 2017

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=29362

 

Sean O’Callaghan was once a killer for the Provisional IRA. He died on 23 August 2017. His death was not a violent one. He died in a swimming pool in Jamaica, probably of a heart attack, while visiting his daughter, Tara. For many years, O’Callaghan himself had been expecting a violent death because, after becoming disillusioned with the IRA, he turned informer and was a fierce critic of his former comrades. He put his chances of dying a natural death at less than 20%. He wrote: “As the years went on, I came to believe that the Provisional IRA was the greatest enemy of democracy and decency in Ireland”.

Early Life

He was born in Tralee, County Kerry in 1954 and was part of a family with a long tradition of nationalist rebellion. In his teens, he gave up Catholicism and became an atheist and a student of Marxism. He saw the unfolding events in Northern Ireland as an indictment of British Imperialism and joined the Provisional IRA in 1969 at the age of 17. He went to prison after accidentally detonating a bomb he was making and completed his sentence.

Murders

He claimed to have been responsible for two murders in 1974:  in May, a “Greenfinch” Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, Private Eva Martin aged 28, the first female from the security forces to die in the Troubles, was killed in a mortar attack on the British Army’s base at Clogher in County Tyrone; in August 1974 O’Callaghan murdered Detective Inspector Peter Flanagan, an Ulster Catholic officer of the RUC Special Branch, by shooting him repeatedly with a handgun in a public house in the town of Omagh in County Tyrone. On more than one occasion O’Callaghan confessed to killing John Corcoran, another informer whose body was found in a sleeping bag by the side of a road in Ballincollig, County Cork in March 1985. No-one ever stood trial for that murder and there has been speculation that the state colluded in the murder and did not want its dirty linen to be displayed in court.

Taking Responsibility

When he was 21 in 1976, O’Callaghan left the IRA, and moved to London where he established a successful cleaning business.  In May 1978, he married a Scottish woman of Protestant unionist descent. However, he could not settle: “In truth there seemed to be no escaping from Ireland. At the strangest of times I would find myself reliving the events of my years in the IRA.” In 1979, the IRA contacted him and he decided to work against the organisation from within. He claimed this was his chance for atonement and redemption. He did not see himself as a traitor. “I had been brought up to believe that you had to take responsibility for your own actions. If you did something wrong then you made amends. I came to believe that individuals taking responsibility for their own actions is the basis for civilisation, without that safety net we have nothing”.

Charles and Diana Assassination

Although he wanted to subvert the IRA, he still did not want to work with the British government. He returned to Tralee in 1979 and offered his services to Detective Sergeant Seán O’Connell of the special branch of the police of the Irish Republic, the Garda Síochána. He met Kerry IRA leader Martin Ferris and participated in a number of attempted robberies. O’Callaghan claims to have foiled these attempts “by a whole series of random stratagems”. In 1984, after a tip-off from O’Callaghan, the Irish Navy and the Garda Síochána intercepted an arms shipment from Boston to the IRA. O’Callaghan claims that he foiled the assassination of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1983 by alerting the authorities to a bomb planted in the Dominion Theatre before a Duran Duran concert.

Surrender

On 29 November 1988, O’Callaghan walked into a police station in Tunbridge Wells and confessed to the murders of Eva Martin and Peter Flanagan. He served his sentence in prisons in Ulster and England, during which time he foiled several planned escapes by IRA prisoners. He was released as part of a Prerogative of Mercy by Queen Elizabeth II in 1996. In 1999, he published an account of his experiences entitled The Informer: The True-Life Story of One Man’s War on Terrorism. After his release, he lived openly in the UK after repeatedly refusing offers of witness protection and a new identity.

Doubters

It is not surprising that Sinn Féin questioned his account; The Sinn Féin paper An Phoblacht concluded an article about O’Callaghan: “No-one likes informers. They tell lies.” An Phoblacht said: “During almost eighteen months in Crumlin Road Sean O’Callaghan’s mental health was a cause of concern to the prison authorities. He tried to commit suicide on at least two occasions and he was taking regular medication”.  The paper dismisses the claim that O’Callaghan gave himself up out of remorse. “An Phoblacht has learned that throughout 1988 O’Callaghan was drinking heavily and becoming increasingly depressed at the turn his life had taken…  MI5 had cut him loose. … He realised he had outlived his usefulness for his British handlers – that was why he did not offer his super grass strategy to MI5 – and he could not return to Ireland”.

O’Callaghan’s former IRA colleague, Martin Ferris, is now a member of parliament in the Irish Republic. He is derisive about O’Callaghan: ““His many attempts at self-aggrandisement were highly fanciful and despite the attempted lionisation of Sean by some, his obvious fabrication of the truth is clear for anyone that has delved into his claims and counterclaims.”

Others with less of an axe to grind have doubts. Some said the reason for O’Callaghan’s release was so that he could express the views of Conservative politicians who opposed the peace negotiations that led up to the Good Friday Agreement. Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe interviewed O’Callaghan during the time of peace negotiations and he insisted that Sinn Féin was not serious about peace: “His cynicism about the process was badly misplaced.” Nevertheless, Dean Godson, the biographer of David Trimble the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who fought hard to push the peace process through found O’Callaghan’s counsel helpful: “O’Callaghan’s advice was particularly important to Trimble, giving the latter extra confidence to join the first power-sharing Executive between Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein in 1999”.

Supporters

Historian Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote in the Belfast Telegraph: “One of the many reasons that despite coming from a Dublin Catholic nationalist background I came to form great friendships with Ulster Protestants was their astonishing ability to forgive.” O’Callaghan told the Los Angeles Times in 1997: “The IRA wasn’t really after the British,” “It was the guy down the road who had the better land that his ancestors had taken from the Catholics. The bitterness was there all the time, rooted and deep. What they really wanted to do was to murder their neighbours. It was tribalism.”

Ruth got to know O’Callaghan well when he worked with her to seek justice for victims of the Omagh bombing in 1998. I wrote about that in these pages. https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/omagh-part-one-the-road-of-tears/

Those who seek to question O’Callaghan’s account and his motives often cite him as being under the influence of those who seek to question the mythologies of Irish nationalism. Ruth Dudley Edwards is one of those people as is Conor Cruise O’Brien and Eoghan Harris. I myself have been greatly influenced by Ruth’s writings and those of Professor Liam Kennedy, who coined the acronym MOPE about the Irish “Most Oppressed People Ever”.

I sought to apply what I had learnt from them to the Sri Lankan situation and encountered a great deal of abuse as a result. http://groundviews.org/2012/03/17/martyrology-martyrdom-rebellion-terrorism/ As Michael Clifford wrote about O’Callaghan in the Irish Examiner: “His testimonies of the sectarianism, the wanton criminality, the expedient killing, all gave lie to the bright shining image of selfless freedom fighters protecting their families.”

When someone has committed terrible crimes is it possible to put that behind us as we move to the future? Many who did terrible things for the LTTE still walk free. Eoghan Harris wrote on hearing the news of O’Callaghan’s death: “O’Callaghan committed terrible crimes. But, unlike other republicans, he showed remorse and sought to make restitution by laying his life on the line. His moral rigour forbade him to seek forgiveness either in counselling or in Christianity. He sought absolution by risking a dreadful death, as an unpaid agent inside the IRA. To meet Sean, or even see him on TV, was to be struck by the simple truth of his testimony.”

 

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal. May his soul be on the right hand of God.

More on Orientalism and Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 27 2017.

 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=19829

 

In previous articles, I have noted that much of what is written by foreigners about Sri Lanka conforms to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism. Said wrote in that book about “middle-brow journalists, all of them re-cycling the same unverifiable fictions and vast generalizations so as to stir up ‘America’ against the foreign devil.” Said’s book contains many telling phrases: “Orientalism has not allowed ideas to violate its profound serenity.”

Fantasies of Virtue

 

In an article in The Atlantic dated 1 July 2009 entitled To Catch a Tiger, Robert D Kaplan acknowledged the success of the Sri Lankan government in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Kaplan asks if the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s success but answers: “These are methods the U.S. should never use.” That is outrageous. The methods Sri Lanka used to defend itself from brutal terrorists within its sovereign boundaries seem benign compared to what the US has done to achieve and maintain world dominance.

 

The US is the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons. They dropped atomic bombs on civilians. 90,000 (this is the low estimate) died immediately at Hiroshima. The estimate for Nagasaki is 20,000. During the Vietnam War, up to 5 million civilians (including citizens of Laos and Cambodia) lost their lives. Obama killed wedding guests by remote control. Trump drops huge bombs on caves.

 

America is today an imperial power with military bases instead of colonies. George Orwell commented in 1943, “It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory.” Citizens of many nations today get that same feeling. Those populations hosting US bases are expected to be grateful that the bases are contributing to democracy and freedom, but instead feel exploited because the bases are used to control trade, resources, local supplies of cheap labour, and the political, economic, and social life of host countries. They also force them to support American imperialism, including foreign wars, despite harmful fallout to local populations.

There are 38 U.S. military facilities on Okinawa. They account for 78 percent of the bases in Japan and use up 30 percent of the land mass of the island. The U.S. military bases on Okinawa also cover over 40 percent of the arable soil, once some of the best agricultural land in Japan.

Figures up to 1998, show that since 1972, 4,905 crimes were committed against Japanese people by U.S. military personnel, their dependents and U.S. civilian contractors and employees. More than ten percent of these crimes involved serious crimes of murder, robbery or rape. In most cases, the Japanese authorities were not allowed to arrest or question the alleged perpetrators.

Perfect Fright

On a somewhat lighter note we have Peter Grimsdale’s unexciting “thriller” Perfect Night which illustrates Said’s comment: “The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description.” Said quotes V G Kiernan’ phrase “Europe’s collective day-dream of the Orient.”

Grimsdale’s  narrator Nick Roker(who surely must be the hunky babe-magnet that Grimsdale would like to be) first arrives in Sri Lanka to be met by the beautiful Tamil, Anita Jeyarajah. Her job is to educate him about the country but this irritates him. In this he could be the epitome of many western journalists. “Over the next two days she delivered a continuous monologue on the marvels of the island and her faith in the peace process as we criss-crossed Colombo by tuk-tuk. After the sixth meeting, I called a halt. I grabbed her clipboard and drew a line through all the other appointments. ‘No more old farts. I can’t make a film about peacemakers if I can’t see the war’ “.

Do you see how representative this is? Like many western journalists, he is not interested in the positive aspects of Sri Lanka that enthuse a Sri Lankan. He wants the glamour of war, not boring peace. Incidentally, Roker’s previous experience was making holiday programmes. This nicely underlines the link between the fantasy world of tourism and the delusions of “serious” journalism”.

Here is Said on travel guides: “many writers of travel books or guidebooks compose them in order to say that a country is like this, or better, that it is colourful, expensive, interesting, and so forth. The idea in either case is that people, places, and experiences can always be described by a book, so much so that the book (or text) acquires a greater authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes.”

Grimsdale presents an “actuality” that is full of misconceptions and factual errors about Sri Lanka. I understand that HRF Keating wrote most of his Inspector Ghote books, with the aid of a Bombay street map and telephone directories, without actually visiting India. I do not doubt that Grimsdale did visit Sri Lanka, but it is not the Sri Lanka I know. He might have benefited had he consulted a street map and a telephone directory.

Perfect Night is just fiction, just entertainment. I have no objection to a writer trying to make a few bob writing about Sri Lanka. I am concerned about the infantilising nature of delusion generally in the media, both in fiction and “reportage”. It gives me a queasy feeling when real and tragic events are served up as entertainment and little effort is made to get beyond simplistic stereotypes or to bother with accuracy. In his acknowledgements Grimsdale thanks Chantal Krishnadasan and Shirani Sabaratnam for vetting “all the Sri Lankan and Tamil material”. They have failed you badly Mr Grimsdale.

Here are some examples of Grimsdale’s faux Sri Lanka:

  • There are references to the “British Consulate” in Colombo. Was it not the High Commission in 1995? It was when my father-in-law was working there alongside Anton Balasingham in the 60s. It is the High commission today.
  • A boatman charges 50 rupees to take Nick and the journalist Greer (Marie Colvin? Frances Harrison?) out to a cruiser almost in open sea. Nick was “in too much of a hurry to haggle”. Some foreigners are notoriously stingy in their transactions with “the locals” but in 1995 50 rupees was worth half a British pound.
  • There is a reference to the “Northern Territory”. Isn’t that in Australia?
  • Dr Sivalingam smokes a “bindi”. In Indian restaurants bindi  is “lady’s finger” or okra. An odd choice of smoking material but I have seen people trying to get high smoking bananas! Bidis are smoked by Tamil estate labourers but it is unlikely that a Tamil doctor would smoke them.
  • There is a photographic business whose address is “Witjerwarra Chemist. 310 Galle Road Colombo 7.” Galle Road is very long but none of it goes near Colombo 7. According to Arjuna’s Street Guide the postal address is Colombo 3.I have never encountered a Sri Lankan called Witjerwarra.
  • Greer and Nick are having dinner and wine at a hotel populated by cliché annoying European tourists (you know, not adventurous types like our hero or our author).  A small girl appears at table the selling ball points. I have encountered this on the trekking trails of Nepal but not in a Colombo hotel catering to Europeans.
  • Greer has what seems to be meant a harrowing journey from the hill country to Colombo because her “driver was detained at a roadblock near Kandy”. Would that have been harrowing even in 1995?
  • I always sense that a writer is hovering between ignorance and condescension about the land of Johnny Foreigner when I read references to “tuk-tuks”and “the locals”.

There’s more of this kind of stuff but I don’t want to bore you. The general effect is the familiar one of parachute dilettantes exploiting our country for local colour for their own fantasies. Tamil terrorism is not seriously addressed. It is just a sideshow. People are dropping like flies (pardon the cliché) all around Nick but neither the Tigers nor the GOSL seem to be to blame –  I can’t tell you why they are dying.

Final Word

I leave the final word with Edward Said: “Knowledge no longer requires application to reality; knowledge is what gets passed on silently, without comment, from one text to another. Ideas are propagated and disseminated anonymously, they are repeated without attribution; they have literally become idées reçues: what matters is that they are there, to be repeated.”

Thomas Meaney on Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 13 2017 under the title “Crawling with Errors”.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=19109

I recently moved closer to the fleshpots of Colombo after spending nearly fifteen years enduring the privations of life in a remote location in Uva province. I have written about that life in Uva province here:

https://staionarytraveller.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/living-in-uva/

The move meant that I have got rather behind with my reading and have only just got around to reading the issue of the London Review of Books dated February 2 2017. That issue contains an article on Sri Lanka by one Thomas Meaney. Because of my tardiness, two people have already beaten me to the punch and taken Mr Meaney to task for errors in his essay. Michael Roberts and Jonathan Spencer are both academic anthropologists with a knowledge of Sri Lanka that is deep and wide.

Thomas Mallory Meaney

 

Others have challenged Mr Meaney’s contention that the country passively gave itself up to foreign conquerors and was in 1948 handed independence on a plate without having to fight for it. Nobody died, he claimed. We Irish (and I suspect Mr Meaney has Irish antecedents) have long memories and are likely to bring up the massacres of Cromwell at the slightest excuse. Uva Province still bears the scars of what happened in 1818. In retribution for an uprising, the entire able bodied male population above the age of 18 was killed and homes throughout the region were also destroyed. The British also destroyed the irrigation systems, poisoned the wells, killed all cattle and other domesticated animals, and burnt all cultivated fields

I have seen a copy of Mr Meaney’s CV and am confident that he is a very knowledgeable young man. However, leaving false modesty aside, I do not think that Thomas Meaney knows as much as I do about Sri Lanka.  Nevertheless, the prestigious organ has allowed him over 7,000 words to inform readers about the country I have chosen as my home. Unfortunately, he makes many egregious errors.

I am not concerned so much about value judgements like this one: “The Rajapaksa years now look like the most ignominious period in the country’s post-independence history.” Mr Meaney is, of course, entitled to hold that opinion. I was myself (as I wrote in these pages https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/partisan-people-and-fissiparous-parties/) happy that Rajapaksa was ousted, but I do not think that history will judge MR as harshly as Mr Meaney contends. After all, he ended 30 years of fear and improved the infrastructure of the country beyond recognition. Sri Lanka also made it into the “high” category of the Human Development Index during Rajapaksa’s rule. It is ten years since I last left Sri Lanka and I have experienced the warp and woof of daily life here. I certainly felt a huge improvement in the quality of life in Sri Lanka even in the backwater in which we lived. I listen to ordinary people like a couple who sell vegetables on Badulla market. We have known them for 13 years; they used to be prosperous but now they are desperate; they wish Rajapaksa had not been ousted. Meaney writes dismissively about Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s transforming of “Colombo into a city of antiseptic beauty” but many of the affluent are worried about the effluent that is returning to the city because of the laxity of the current government. Many are nostalgic about Gota’s can-do spirit.

Rather than disputing Mr Meaney’s judgements, I am more concerned about factual errors that any decent copy-editor should have spotted and questioned with the author. Jonathan Spencer drew some of these to the attention of the LRB in a letter and the editors allowed Meaney a response. He was oddly offhand: “I thank Jonathan Spencer for clearing up errors for which I have only myself to blame. But some of his objections are unnecessary.” Who else could be to blame for his errors? What is that “but” doing there?

 

Jonathan Spencer has carried out fieldwork in Sri Lanka since the early 1980s, concentrating at first on rural change and local politics, but writing more recently on ethnic conflict, political violence and political non-violence. His current research looks at the fraught boundary between the religious and the political in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Professor Spencer had pointed out that Mr Meaney’s claim that the British “converted Ceylon’s inhabitants on a much larger scale than the Portuguese and Dutch had” was nonsense because there were four times as many Catholics as Protestants in the population in 1948. Spencer also said that it was plain wrong to describe SWRD Bandaranaike as a member of the ‘burgher class’ when he was a man from the highest caste in Sinhala society. Spencer also questions Meaney’s account of the JVP uprising: “The ‘fifty thousand youths’ who ‘descended on Colombo’ in 1971 are new to me, and I imagine to all other scholars of modern Sri Lankan politics.”

 

There are many more ludicrous errors. Mr Meaney says that Mahinda Rajapaksa was from Matara. According to Wikipedia, he was born in Weeraketiya in the southern rural district of Hambantota. In his opening paragraph Meaney writes: “Solomon Ridgeway Bandaranaike, the anti-colonial head of state who took power in 1956…” Later he writes that “Bandaranaike’s wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became head of the SLFP and the world’s first female elected head of state…. “  In fact,  both Bandaranaikes held the office of prime minister. The head of state was Queen Elizabeth II. Also in the first paragraph, Meaney writes: “After independence in 1948, Ceylon alone among the former colonies not only retained but promoted the monarchy”. Did no-one at LRB notice the contradiction?

More confusion about office here: “Prabhakaran participated in the assassination of the governor of Jaffna”.  On 25 April 1978, the LTTE issued an open letter, which was published in the Virakesari, claiming responsibility for the assassination of eleven people including Alfred Thangarajah Duraiappah in 1975. Duraiappah was the mayor of Jaffna (elected by the people) and a member of parliament (elected by the people), not the governor. Jaffna does not have a governor. The Northern Province has a governor who is appointed, not elected. Prabhakaran, of course, was never elected by anybody. Another avoidable blunder was getting the Army Commander’s name wrong. Meaney calls him “Sarnath” Fonseka instead of Sarath.

As Michael Roberts writes: “Thomas Meaney speaks with a certainty that brooks no doubt: ‘At the Nanthikadal lagoon, in the far north-east, Prabhakaran was captured and killed. Photos of his execution and a gruesome video were widely disseminated.’ Since no documentation is deployed in these types of powerful media outlets, we have no means of checking Meaney’s conclusions.” After citing the views of David Blacker who had served in the Sri Lankan Army, Roberts comments: “Alas, the Western world is dominated by journalists and intellectuals who have no experience in jungle warfare (or any form of warfare).” Roberts uses Blacker’s expertise to quash DBS Jeyaraj’s contention that the LTTE leader shot himself and questions the view that he was captured and summarily executed. HL Mahindapala wrote: “Nobody knows who fired the fatal bullet. It seems to be a gun shot fired within a range of about 10 metres.” Roberts surmises: most soldiers will tell you: more often than not, one sprays a round at vague figures of the enemy way in front of you. … a frontline soldier has the luxury of identifying an officer or X and Y to target only on a few occasions”. I have no way of knowing how Prabhakaran died, but then, neither does Mr Meaney.

 

I am disappointed that LRB has seen fit to publish this error-strewn essay rather than giving the job of reviewing books on Sri Lanka to people who have knowledge and expertise in the subject. I am sure that Michael Roberts or Jonathan Spencer would have made a better fist of it. There is insufficient space here to deal with all the dubious statements in the article. I may return to the subject later. Malinda Seneviratne commented: “there seems to be an over-indulgence in off-the-cuff remarks.” As political scientist and former ambassador Dr Dayan Jayatilleka wrote to me: “The usual, wry well-written Orientalism, just like all the LRB pieces on SL through the years. You can’t really pick at this ball of wool, can you?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

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.

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