Featured image by Raisa Wickrematunge
“Allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”[i]
Xi Jinping, President of China
Donald Trump first became a household name in the US for a book he claimed as his own but didn’t write – The Art of the Deal. Recently he learned a real life lesson in the art of the deal from a consummate master of the art of the deal – the Chinese. Last month Mr. Trump’s administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese technology giant, the ZTE, banning it from using American technology in making its phones. The Chinese government responded by agreeing to loan USD 500 million to a company with business links to the Trump family which is building a theme park in Indonesia. Days later Mr. Trump announced removing the sanctions against the ZTE[ii].
The US, for all its faults, is a democracy. Mr. Trump might be the most powerful man in the world, but in his own country there are laws and institutions he cannot override. The House Appropriations Committee has negated Mr. Trump’s order[iii]. Mr. Trump might rave and rant, but he will not be able to do much more than that.
What happens in countries where such checks and balances are absent or too weak to be able to withstand political pressure and financial blandishments?
The Chinese, having used Sri Lanka’s debt woes, to gain control over the Hambantota Port on a 99 year lease, are now claiming ownership of the artificial island built off the port during Rajapaksa time. The 110 hectare island was built at the cost of $50 million. The Chinese are reportedly refusing to pay the next instalment of the lease money until the island too is given to them[iv]. The government is said to have knuckled down to Chinese pressure but the Southern provincial council has not. How long that resistance would last is anybody’s guess.
With friends like these, does Sri Lanka need any enemies?
A recent report by the Centre for Global Development, a leading think-tank based in Washington, placed Sri Lanka among 25 countries highly vulnerable to Chinese debt distress. The Rajapaksas went more than halfway in turning Sri Lanka into a Chinese pearl. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration promised to right the imbalance. An effort was made initially, and then abandoned. A segment of the UNP became as blindly enthusiastic about the Chinese connection as the Rajapaksas. Instead of trying to get out of the Chinese debt trap, the government has made it worse.
As The Economist pointed out, “The Hambantota schemes were vanity projects for the then-president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. His closeness to China was one reason for his surprise defeat in elections in 2015. A rising interest bill forced the government of his successor, Maithripala Sirisena, to agree on a debt-for-equity swap that gives China a 99-year lease on the port.”[v] The government is being forced to shift a wind farm in Hambantota because the port’s new overlords are demanding rent payments – naturally. Unconfirmed media reports claim that the Chinese have banned visitors from the Hambantota port from December last year and that a group of school students from Colombo were prevented from visiting the port in March this year.
As a part of the Port deal, the Chinese demanded 15,000 acres of land for an exclusive investment zone. The government succumbed, even though the political, social and environmental consequences of the decision were obvious. Once the clearing of the jungle begins, the direct effects on the neighbouring communities will become apparent, from the drying up of scarce water sources to the exacerbation of elephant-human conflicts.
Imagine if any other country behaved like this towards us? There would have been countless exposes and protests, speeches and posters, petitions and meetings. But when China makes impossible demands and tightens screws, behaves as if Sri Lanka is already a vassal state, there is a hardly a sound.
The 500 million dollar question is why the silence?
That Debutante Ball in Shangri La
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa held his political coming out ball held fittingly at Shangri La. The hotel has been built in the land which housed the army headquarters for decades. According to a media report, the land was sold by Mr. Rajapaksa because he wanted to build a Pentagon-style behemoth in Akuregoda to house all three forces.[vi] Tells something about the man he is and the president he will be, if we, Lankans, in our inanity, make that happen.
Far more interesting than the ball is what Mr. Rajapaksa did just before it. According to the pro-Rajapaksas website Lankacnews, he went to China on March 30th to undertake a month’s course on economic management and governance. (‘Gotabhaya summoned to China-leaves today itself-taught a secret course on governance and economics, proclaimed the caption).[vii] Governance and economics is what is contained in Mr. Rajapaksa’s weekly column in Lankadeepa (the column, titled Manpetha, is probably his as much as The Art of the Deal was Donald Trump’s book). Mr. Rajapaksa is intent on reinventing himself as an intellectual-technocrat, clearly with some Chinese help.
Chinese political activist Hu Jia calls China not a police state but a police empire[viii]. And the expansion of Chinese power and influence will encourage anti-democratic ideas and choices, especially in those third world countries caught in the Chinese debt trap. Though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has become quite amenable to Chinese demands, the dissemination of Chinese influence will be naturally advantageous not to the government but to the Rajapaksa project.
Empires set trends which become traditions and laws. In the run up to this year’s Commonwealth Summit, British PM Teresa May apologised to the people of the Commonwealth for one of the historical legacies of British Empire – laws targeting the LGBTIQ community.[ix] A recent Vanity Fair article revealed that brides rarely wore white until Queen Victoria’s choice to wear white for her wedding turned it into the new bridal-normal in Britain, the British Empire and beyond[x]. Imperial trends are not just sartorial. They are also economic and political. The British gave us democracy, universal adult franchise and a constitution which guaranteed basic rights.
A recent article analysed how China uses the Belt and Road project to extend its technical standards beyond its shores[xi]. Given China’s status as nascent global power, it will make a conscious effort to transmit, regionally and globally, its own set of political and economic standards as well.
Take for instance China’s new Social Credit System which is supposed to come into effect nationally this year (versions are being implemented in parts of the country). If you are good the state will reward you (a visa to Singapore, for instance); it you are bad, the state will punish you (no airline or even train tickets). The System will rank the entire Chinese populace according to a number of criteria ranging from how they do their school work to their political activities. The state will be the arbiter of everything in a person’s life.
Democracies with strong traditions, enduring institutions and an aware public can survive anti-democratic leaders. Donald Trump might admire tyrants; he might wish he can be one. But he cannot in the US. Countries like Sri Lanka are quite another matter. Here, democracy can be undermined and negated from within, as we discovered during the Rajapaksa years. It can happen again, and in a far more terminal way, if Gotabhaya Rajapaksa wins the presidency.
One can just imagine a Rajapaksa regime, headed by a President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, imposing a Social Credit System in Sri Lanka. One can imagine Beijing helping Colombo to set up such a system. One can imagine this Orwellian nightmare being billed as the answer to all Lankan problems, from the crime wave to anarchy on the roads.
The government is probably hoping that sibling-rivalry will torpedo the Gotabhaya project. That is engaging in wishful thinking of the suicidal variety. The Rajapaksas have internal differences but at crucial moments the family will work as a family to the greater glory of the family. If the JVP’s attempt to introduce the 20th Amendment fails, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is likely to be the presidential candidate of the SLPP. And unless a miracle happens, he is likely to emerge, if not the outright winner, at least the highest vote getter.
To a world that is becoming disillusioned with democracy’s inability to live up to its promises China’s way of doing things might hold a perverse attraction. For many especially in the third world, the idea of a paternalistic state willing to walk the talk might seem a better alternative, even if it involves losing those basic freedoms which marks the difference between citizen and servant. That bargain has been made before in history. Democratic people often have this secret yearning for a bit of useful/functional tyranny. Tyranny cannot be compartmentalised and enjoyed in digestible bits, but by the time a free people understands that reality, they are no longer free to unmake their choice.
Hurtling towards Suicide
The fate of the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration is written in the political firmament. If living costs are not tamed and if the government doesn’t contest as a unity, it will lose all upcoming elections.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government entered into an Extended Debt Facility agreement with the IMF in 2016. About half of the money is yet to be released and gaining access to the next tranche would have depended on fulfilling at least some of IMF conditionalities. That these conditionalities included aligning national oil prices with global prices is no secret. The 130% hike in oil prices is thus – at least in part – an outcome of the IMF’s insistence on its pound of flesh before releasing the next tranche of its loan. A price increase was inevitable given the sudden hike in global crude oil prices. But this could have been done in stages to minimise the direct and indirect effects on the more vulnerable segments of the populace.
If the government had wanted to see the deleterious effects of a massive oil price hike, it could have studied the Rajapaksa experience of 2012. The Rajapaksa regime implemented a massive oil price hike in February 2012, causing an across-the-board increase in the prices of consumer essentials. Fishermen carried out protests against the steep increase in kerosene oil prices. On February 14th, 2012 the police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Negombo, killing Anthony Fernando, a young fisherman.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has announced its intention of ‘adjusting’ oil prices every two months, in accordance with global crude prices. Thanks to the Trumpian policies of President Donald Trump, global oil prices are likely to go up in the coming months. Taking the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, shifting the American embassy to Jerusalem and giving Israel and Saudi Arabia carte blanche to deal with their politico-religious enemies cannot but further destabilise an already volatile region. The electoral outcomes in Iran and Lebanon, the undeclared war in Yemen and the massacre of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators by Israel forces in Gaza will be fodder to the political and sectarian fires consuming the Middle East (some commentators are even talking about the possibility of a shooting war between Iran and Israel). Given this context, global crude prices are likely to increase rather than decrease in the foreseeable future.
Given this context, the future is not hard to imagine. The UNP and the SLFP will lose, and lose badly, at the Provincial Council elections. The victorious SLPP will launch a political campaign, demanding an immediate general election. The anti-Maithripala forces in the SLFP and the anti-Ranil forces in the UNP will gain a new lease of life. A powerful section of the SLFP will demand that the president ditches the alliance with the UNP and forms a pact with the Rajapaksas. A powerful section of the UNP will clamour for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s immediate ouster from the party leadership. As the crisis escalates, the SLFP will experience one or more schisms – and so might the UNP. The political crisis will worsen economic conditions. The crisis in the government will become transformed into a governance crisis. Even if the government survives, it will be mortally wounded and dependent on artificial respiration to defer death until the presidential election.
The IMF – unlike China – cannot be accused of having a preference for Rajapaksa rule. But wittingly or unwittingly, its inability to understand that an economy does not exist in a vacuum and its resultant insistence on politico-electorally devastating economic policies will open the door even wider for a Rajapaksa return. When the obituary of Lankan democracy is being written, the IMF and its decision to push a democratic administration to the wall should deserve special mention.
Editor’s Note: Also read, “Democracy, Nationalism and the Nation State, with reference to Sri Lanka” and “Reform Resistance in Sri Lankan Politics“