Sunday Leader Editorial
Sri Lanka which is featured only on rare occasions in international TV news channels after the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran did so following the riot on the roads of Hambantota’s environs last week.
Those reports projected the violence as a peasant revolt against ‘Chinese colonization’ neatly fitting into the current standard format on China in the Indian Ocean: The String of Pearls being placed around countries in the Indian Ocean, to spread Chinese influence, Hambantota being a prized pearl. They were correct in saying that the Hambantota inhabitants were protesting because of their fear – prima facie – of their homes and gardens being absorbed into a Chinese Economic Zone. But were these people on the roads to protest against the Chinese intrusion solely on their own or were they inspired by powerful local political forces?
The demonstrations seem to be very well organised and directed to storm the conference that was taking place between the Sri Lanka government team led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chinese officials led by their Ambassador to Colombo Yi Xianliang on an agreement to form a joint company between the Sri Lankan government and a Chinese company to convert the billion dollars debt owed by Sri Lanka into equity.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa considers Hambantota to be his fiefdom and observers note that very little can happen in Hambantota without him or his family members being aware or involved in the proceedings. Rajapaksa is opposed to the proposed agreement but he was conspicuous by his absence during the mini revolt. So were other family members who are inevitably present even at insignificant events of village funerals or weddings. Local observers kept speculating whether the absence of the Godfather and family was an indication of non-involvement or insidious forces at work.
Foreign correspondents failed to note this conspicuous absence and their omission resulted in the riot being considered by their audiences and other foreign news organisations as being an anti-Chinese riot! Only Al Jazeera gave an in depth analysis in its programme ‘Inside Story’.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is desperate to re-capture power, cannot have amnesia over the billion dollar debts he incurred with the Chinese, which Sri Lanka has to pay back with high rates of interest. May be Rajapaksa has a cavalier attitude towards losing billions of dollars which is indicated by his claim on Thursday that the loss of the GSP [due to the callous attitude of his administration] did not result in the country suffering a loss. The millions or billions that the country would have saved during the years we lost this concession do not seem to be of much concern to this ruler of this country for eight years. Or is it a case of Sour Grapes?
The decision of the National Unity government to backpedal on its China policy is a move in the right direction in the context of the state of the world today. Sri Lanka’s old friend and biggest trading partner, the United States, seems to be undergoing a bout of dementia while Europe is in turmoil with the influx of millions of refugees and in consequence the emergent threat in the rise of far right parties. China, the second biggest economy, has the potential and China’s leaders are willing to help Sri Lanka. China has spoken of a five billion dollar investment over a period in the proposed economic zone of Hambantota. Sri Lanka, struggling to keep its head above water, should grab this opportunity like the proverbial drowning man clutching at a straw.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has a role to play in this rescue effort having got the country into this severe mess. His role is not to rock the boat. He can oppose government policy which is his right but do so in a democratic and legal way. Demonstrations such as the one at Hambantota last week, where Buddhist monks or men dressed in robes of Buddhist monks hurled stones at the police firing water cannon, should be discouraged. As a former president he has to contribute his mite to save democracy.
Rajapaksa should read the farewell speech of Barack Obama last week on democracy. ‘Democracy does not need uniformity. Our founding fathers argued. They quarreled. Eventually they compromised. They expect us to do the same. They knew that democracy needs a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences we are all in this together; that we must rise and fall as one’.
Rajapaksa of course knows all about this. What he needs is refreshment of his politics, so essential for the progress of a democratic Sri Lanka.