To Gotabaya: Wishes, Warnings and Thoughts from The Sunday Times

The Editor, Sunday Times, 1 December 2019

This is the ‘honeymoon’ period for a newly elected first term President, still riding the wave of popularity from the election victory of November 16. Even the media are expected to give the new President time to settle down, and some leeway to carry out his campaign promises and fulfil the expectations of his new office. This is not, however, to say that no comments ought to be made on the performance of the new administration during this period.

One of the eyebrow-raising issues, however, was the order to transfer a key investigator from the Criminal Investigations Department to ‘Siberia’ as it were, and then to ban 700 CID officers from leaving the country. This is directly related to the investigations of President Rajapaksa himself and others in the then Opposition by the Financial Criminal Investigation Division (FCID) and the CID. The probes had been termed a ‘witch hunt’ and now a crisis has arisen over the departure of a detective to Switzerland seemingly with incriminating documents.

The President has already expressed his frustration at being straitjacketed by the various independent Commissions. He asks why he cannot make his own pick for postings. He knew before he contested that these Commissions exist. They were brought about to rein in authoritative Executive Presidents of yesteryear from turning into dictators, and the people welcomed them.

It was an independent Commission which, after all, ensured his election. And from what it seems, the National Police Commission has rubber-stamped the transfer of the CID sleuth with nary a fuss.

The ban on the CID officers leaving Sri Lanka is to lock the stables after the ‘horse’ (with the documents) has bolted. A diplomatic incident has ensued. But is this a signal that all pending cases on former Opposition front-liners, now in power and place, are going to be dropped on the argument that they were all “arbitrary”.

Proposed laws to exculpate public officials if they acted in “good faith” are going to stretch the interpretation of the phrase. It could also lead to allowing the officials to do as their political masters so please without standing up to them and pointing out wrongdoings.

Hopefully, the diktats to the CID should not be read as a purge of officers, most of whom were just doing their job, like what happened in the Army after the 2010 Presidential election nor an indicator that the allegations of corruption during the pre-2015 period are going to be swept under the carpet. That would mean to demoralise the CID and turn it into a launderette, whitewashing all the corruption of the past.

Taming the dragon

Whether it was meant as a pre-emptive move before leaving for India, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s public announcement that he would like to renegotiate all foreign agreements entered into by the previous Administration, was still a welcome move, particularly the Hambantota Port deal that gave the Chinese an astounding 99-year (now said to have been reduced to 72 years) lease on it.

That was a sell-out. At the time (in our August 6, 2017 issue) we wrote: President Mahinda Rajapaksa nor President Maithripala Sirisena has the right to hand over parts of the country to another for three generations to come. The joint venture gives a Chinese company an over 80 per cent stake and the Sri Lanka Port Authority a minority stake of the balance. The Government of the day gave a convoluted share structure misleading the public and to make out that the Sri Lankan Navy would be in total charge of security within the port; all serious concerns that made India nervous that its underbelly was being compromised.

The 2017 agreement came with public debate conspicuously absent. The Rajapaksa Opposition had only muted criticism because it had gone head-on with the USD 1.2 billion project, which Sri Lanka could not pay back. Only their second string kept siding with local opposition to the project, more for political advantage at home. Losses from the port mounted in 2015 and 2016.

It is still a mystery as to why the Indo-US-Japan axis did not cough up the money to settle the debt and extricate Sri Lanka from the debt trap and doing themselves a favour. All India could do was to establish a Consulate in Hambantota. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official had told Sri Lanka’s then ambassador to Beijing with biting sarcasm, “We can sell the Indians binoculars to spy on us”. All the US could do was to get its think-tanks to write reams about Chinese hegemony in the Indian Ocean.

The Chinese crippled Sri Lanka with the Hambantota deal. First giving a loan at 6.3 percent interest (considered ‘gini poli’ or feverishly high interest); then more and more loans till it drowned the recipient Sri Lanka in debt. The fact that President Xi Jinping, no less, made an overnight visit to Sri Lanka to sign the agreement and 26 other bilateral agreements with former President Rajapaksa underscores how important it was for China.

With ironclad termination clauses, Sri Lanka will face heavy penalties for the abrogation of any provisions. Sri Lanka-China friendship will surely be tested. In 2015, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also suspended all agreements with China but his Government capitulated when it did not have the bargaining power. Efforts to convince the local populace in Hambantota, and the rest of the country that this was a ‘win-win’ Concession Agreement that entailed a debt-to-equity swap did not succeed and though the Chinese worked on the local activists and silenced them, election results show the Sri Lankan Government’s secret deal was not to be trusted.

China will not yield so easily. They showed no charity when Prime Minister Wickremesinghe went to Beijing to renegotiate. In recent times Sri Lanka has lacked the diplomatic skills and the political will to negotiate effectively, or as one critic said, it is not only the skill to negotiate, but also, not being paid by the other side not to think. Good luck to the new President.

***  ****

NOTE

*  “Sri Lanka signs deal on Hambantota port with China,” 29 July 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40761732

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One response to “To Gotabaya: Wishes, Warnings and Thoughts from The Sunday Times

  1. The Sri lankan ‘haal mæssa’ should not be surprised to find itself deep in the belly of the Chinese Snakehead. Barring involuntary regurgitation (an unlikely ‘outcome’) the only other prospect of an exit, alas, is a post-prandial. one.
    Such a tragic and ignominious end befits a sprat who had delusions of parity with a Snakehead, which we all know, is an apex predator.
    While India might have a small incentive to toss a morsel or two towards its small fry neighbour, the US considers Sri lanka not table-ready, or worth including on the bailout menu.
    School for the ‘haal mæsso’ is in session, and forthcoming lessons are likely to end when Nature itself calls the inevitable recess.

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