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“What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out…”

Bertrand Russell (Sceptical Essays)

Emma Lazarus’ poem, The Colossus, became news recently when a poetry website carried it in response to Donald Trump’s immigration policy, and Mr. Trump responded with a characteristic twitter-barrage. Lazarus’ poem, written to raise funds for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, celebrates the birth of a nation which offers a haven to the outcasts of other, older lands. After the pedestal was built, a tablet inscribed with several lines of the poem was placed within it.

If a statue symbolising the Lankan political class is erected outside our parliament, a different version of Emma Lazarus’ immortal words should adorn its pedestal; something along the lines of, “Send me your liars, thieves and fools, the vain, the pompous and the shameless…”

Ravi Karunanayake is not the only bent-man in politics. But there is something particularly sordid in his Penthouse-saga. His attempts to prove the impossible, and justify the unjustifiable are unalloyed grotesquery, as is the loaded-mention of the Buddha and Christ in his resignation speech. But no less preposterous is the cavorting of Joint Opposition parliamentarians in the ill-fitting garments of anti-corruption crusaders. This faux-transformation of the Rajapaksas from arch-corrupters into mealy-mouthed advocates of honesty and probity in public life was enabled by the criminal follies of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.

Power corrupts, that is an old adage. But power does something worse. It idiotises, to coin a word, turning even intelligent men and women into fools with a penchant for self-harm and a lethal inability to see even their own noses, let alone what is beyond those olfactory organs. Forget shame; had Ravi Karunanayake an iota of sense left, he would have retired as soon as the story of his penthouse was exposed. If the government, which came into power promising to end all corruption, possessed even a particle of intelligent self-interest, it would have ensured Mr. Karunanayake’s immediate resignation.

Impunity still exists but it no longer reigns, as it did under Rajapaksa rule. In a testimony which insulted the intelligence of the public with its mendacity, Mr. Karunanayake said one undisputable truth: it is only under this government a powerful minister like him could be summoned before a commission and grilled for hours. The appointment of the commission, its manifest independence and the zeal displayed by the AG’s Department indicate that some components of the Lankan state are functioning as they should.

The day before Mr. Karunanayake tendered his forced-resignation, a group of citizens engaged in a protest against corruption in high places, at the Independence Square. Had the Rajapaksas been in power, those citizens would not have come out and protested. Not would they have been allowed to do so, especially at the Independence Square.

This emperor is not as naked as the previous one, even though the difference between the two is quantitative rather than qualitative. Those who are loath to see the triumphant return of the Rajapaksa juggernaut should redouble their efforts to strengthen and widen this difference. That means ensuring accountability for all wrongs – past and present – and guaranteeing justice for all citizens, from North to South.

Emulating the Rajapaksas in Hambantota

This is a dithering government, a procrastinating government, even when it comes to a matter of its own survival. If it displays any zeal, acts with any speed, it is in doing what should not be done, such as the signing of the Hambantota Port deal.

According to Rajapaksa acolytes, building a port in Hambantota was initially proposed by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s father. Perhaps. It certainly figured in Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Regaining Sri Lanka. The idea was abandoned when a feasibility study concluded the project unfeasible. It was resurfaced a couple of years later by the new PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa, but didn’t fly because the then Minister of Ports Mangala Samaraweera rejected it.

Facts are opinions in the Rajapaksa universe. There, expert warnings are ‘negative reactions,’ things to be rejected rather than heeded. As president Mr. Rajapaksa resurrected the Hambantota Port project (just as he did the disastrous Uma Oya scheme). “Sri Lanka made an open request for funding. China was the first to respond. During the President’s tour to China, the Hambantota Harbour was one of the three main loan proposals requested by Sri Lanka.”[i]

The Chinese agreed. If they regarded this proposal as manna from heaven, they would have been right. Beijing is aspiring to replace the US as the next global power. China’s leaders would know that dominating the seas is a necessary precondition of superpower status. Chinese naval analyst, Zhang Ming, has argued that India can use Andaman and Nicobar islands as a metal chain to block China’s access to the Straits of Malacca.[ii] Beijing couldn’t but have seen the chance of gaining a foothold in Hambantota as a Shangri La-sent opportunity to create a critical dent in India’s ‘iron curtain.’

So the port was built and was a commercial failure. The debt piled up, not least because the Chinese increased the initially reasonable interest rates to unreasonable levels (from 1.3% to 6.3% in 2013; the Rajapaksas acceded to the unilateral increase.) The new government made an effort in its first year to shift the country back to a non-aligned path, but abandoned that sensible course in the second year. Cleary the Chinese learnt that managing this lot was no different than managing the previous lot. All powers have deep pockets. The Chinese don’t have to bother with accountability or transparency either, even a shard of it. Suddenly, Beijing had no better friends than the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. And a plan was born, to lease Hambantota to the Chinese for 99 years. Since the port on its own was not economically viable, the Chinese would be given an exclusive industrial zone of 15.000 acres.

The government which displays a lamentable absence of competence and backbone when it comes to a number of critical issues, from prosecuting the Rajapaksas to enacting democratic and progressive legislation, acted with lightening speed to close the Hambantota deal. The Rajapaksa opposition’s opposition to the deal too was just a show. On the day the parliamentary debate on the deal was to be held, JO members invaded the chamber and turned it into an unfunny Comedy Central. The debate was cancelled. Two days later, the government signed the deal, handing over Hambantota to China for 99 years. The arch defenders of Lankan independence and sovereignty, the lay and ordained ultra-patriots, were conspicuously silent and inactive.

The government says that the provisions of the deal can be changed anytime. The claim would have been comic had it not been tragic. We have become a key cog in China’s plan to become the next sea power. There is a cold war in the Indian Ocean, which can only get worse in the coming years. Thanks to the Hambantota deal, little Sri Lanka will be a key theatre in that political-confrontation.

The external problems are not the only disasters awaiting Sri Lanka thanks to the Port deal, thanks to the 15,000 acre Chinese industrial zone.

China has a particularly noxious record in using its monetary power to promote environmental degradation in other countries. The best case in point is the fate of Yasuni Biosphere Reverse in the Ecuadorean Amazon. “Some of the $17.4 billion provided by China to Ecuador since 2010 has gone to oil-for-loan deals, meaning they must be paid through the sale of oil or fuel – and nearly all of Ecuador’s reserves are in the Amazon rain forest.”[iii] The deal will therefore directly result in the destruction of the already threatened and depleted Amazon, including the supremely bio-diverse Yasuni.

China’s blasé or high handed attitude to environment factors, labour and human rights and the concerns of local communities serve to create socio-political flash points. Two recent examples are the planned interoceanic-canal in Nicaragua and copper mining in Peru. A Chinese company won a 50 year concession – extendable for another 50 years – to build the canal; the project was stalled thanks in part to protests by affected farmers and residents.[iv] In Peru, the copper mining has gone ahead, even though anti-mining protests claimed three Peruvian lives. [v] Unlike in Nicaragua, in Peru, the Chinese company is a state-owned one, a key difference which has a relevance to us as well.

Learning from Forgotten History

China was once, briefly, the world’s preeminent sea power. That was in the first quarter of the 15th Century. The third emperor of the Ming dynasty (the Yongle – Perpetual Happiness – Emperor) wanted China to lead the world and entrusted the task of dominating the Indian Ocean to his confidant, Zheng He, the eunuch-admiral.

Admiral Zheng He oversaw the building of a state-of-the-art fleet. It undertook seven separate journeys (known as Treasure Voyages). “China became the first country to station a naval squadron in the Indian Ocean.”[vi] But China’s stint as the greatest ocean power was short lived. A new emperor ended the maritime policy and turned the country inwards.

Admiral Zheng He’s treasure voyages brought him to Lanka, at least twice. The first time, he got a less than cordial reception from the de facto ruler of the Kotte kingdom, Veera Alakeshwara. The admiral retreated and returned, attacked the Kotte kingdom, took Alakeshwara prisoner. This was how a laudatory article in the official Chinese paper, Peoples’ Daily put it. “In Ceylon (Sri Lanka), his men took an insubordinate ruler and replaced him with the legitimate malleable one.”[vii] The limited historical records available call it the Ming-Kotte War. The date is said to be 1410 or 1411. According to journalist Frank Viviano, “This episode marked the only significant overseas land battle fought by a Chinese imperial army.”[viii]

Zheng He’s present day successors did way better. They turned a bunch of insubordinate rulers into paragons of malleability without firing a shot.

All imperial powers are inimical to other nations. That is an unalterable fact. But the danger is greater when there are no spaces for dissension within the heart of the empire. The presence of countervailing forces did much to mitigate some of the worst excesses of American imperialism, the opposition to the war in Indochina being a case in point. British imperialists too had to contend with their own anti-imperialists. Even in autocratic Spain, a small segment of the Catholic Church opposed imperial abuses in the New World.

No such countervailing forces are present in China. What debate there is would happen behind closed doors. China’s victims will have to wage their battles, without any help from within Chinese polity and society. That would make the battles harder to sustain and more difficult to win, as we will soon discover.

[i] http://portcom.slpa.lk/news_events_220.asp

[ii] http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/chinas-string-of-pearls-vs-indias-iron-curtain/

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/opinion/china-climate-pollution-global-warming.html

[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/24/nicaragua-protests-interoceanic-canal-rivas


[vi] When China Ruled the Seas – Louise Levathes

[vii] http://en.people.cn/90001/98705/100621/7342090.html

[viii] China’s Great Armada