Colombo Port and the 13A
When Milinda Moragoda was appointed as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi, quite a few eyebrows were raised. It was not because of any concern regarding his competence, but because of serious allegations of corruption against him running into billions of rupees that are still unresolved. Moragoda, like many others of his type, has a free run on Sri Lanka’s political playground without ever being held to account. There is a long list of such characters. A tragedy no doubt, and a high price paid for by the suffering masses.
Moragoda’s real role in Delhi is now coming to light. Of course many astute observers knew it before. But now it is becoming more apparent. Moragoda is there to negotiate 13A and India’s accommodation of Sri Lanka with Modi’s Government. What to trade in return for New Delhi acquiescence to Sri Lanka scrapping 13A or anything like that in a future constitution and to pacify the West over China’s incursion into the island. Negotiating the sale of 49% of a vital part of the Colombo Port to the notorious Indian multinational, Adani, is the first off the rank. That Adani is toxic the world over is not a consideration in these negotiations. Port sale may yet not go ahead due to public protest, but others of similar importance certainly will in the future; by way of real estate, in strategic access, and all of them making deep inroads into Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The very fact that the sale of the Port was negotiated shows government’s intent. Whether the crooked hand of P B Jayasundara, a man barred by the Supreme Court from ever holding public office, is behind such negotiations is suspect.
That Sri Lanka is caught in a trap is obvious to any but the most dense ethnoreligious nationalists. The country is near enough to being declared bankrupt. Debt repayment is becoming impossible. The economy is in shambles. Covid-19 exacerbated the situation and brought it forward. And a government elected on ethnoreligious nationalism and the promise of maintaining Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy with as little concessions as possible to minorities, is now stuck in the hole they themselves dug.
The Rajapaksas fueled ethnonationalism as the primary vehicle for acquiring political power. To deliver on that in a new constitution, any devolution of the kind contained in 13A is a definite no go. It is a red line the Rajapaksas dare not cross. The ethnoreligious nationalists, along with a majority of Buddhist monks, will be up in arms. No amount of jackboots on the streets, rifle-butts cracking skulls and downright shooting would stop it. Such opposition will be unlike any trade union strike or street protests on economic issues. It will be uncontrollable.
The Rajapaksas, in their desire for power, kept nurturing of ethnonationalism as their sole political weapon. It also neutralized all the accusations of corruption, criminal conduct and nepotism. Having won power on such, there is no way of backing down. No amount of ministerial baits delivered to political vultures, even at cabinet level, can buy back the acceptance of any kind of devolution. Thus, devolution, at any level, is a definite no-no.
And Modi, and indeed Delhi more generally, would not play ball without extracting a Shylockian pound of flesh to let Sri Lanka off the hook on 13A. India wants a significant portion of Sri Lanka’s real estate assets as well as access to project its (and America’s) strategic interests in the island as a bulwark against China.
When US withdrew the MCC offer (which was hailed as a nationalist achievement to fool the gullible), America had already subcontracted the job of undermining Sri Lanka’s sovereignty to India. It is happening now, and perhaps at a cheaper price than what US was prepared to pay under MCC.
Milinda Moragoda is the negotiator of these deals. No doubt he’d try for the best deal possible. His credentials as a wheeler and a dealer and his long term association with the US would stand him in good stead to negotiate with New Delhi’s Foreign Office wallahs. And he has contacts at the highest levels of that nebulous Military Industrial Complex and that equally shadowy Deep State, that virtually run the US.
The sad part of all this is that 73 years of communal politics, nurturing ethnoreligious nationalism, has now brought the country to be a vassal state all but in name. It is serving two masters, China on the one hand and US-India alliance on the other. Every opportunity that was there to make Sri Lanka an independent economic miracle was squandered by politicians using the cheapest possible campaigning tool – that deadly ethnoreligious nationalism. Although Sinhala-Buddhists have to share the bulk of the blame, the minorities too played the lethal game in response.
Of the many missteps, the most significant ones are: (a) the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, (b) bungling that led to Black July in ’83, and (c) failure to placate the Tamils after the war ended in 2009.
If all three languages spoken in the island were made official languages of the State in 1956, perhaps, the focus could have been on the economy. Instead, the UNP, SLFP, FP and TC played political football with it. On the second issue, JR failed miserably in containing the violence that led to creating the powerful Tamil Diaspora that now influences the West and the UN to wield the big stick on Sri Lanka. And lastly, failure of Rajapaksa to reap the true benefit of winning the war in 2009.
Machiavelli, in a short pamphlet titled, On the Way to Deal with the Rebel Subjects of the Valdichiana, contrasts the foolishness of Florence with the wisdom of the Ancient Romans. He comments that when dealing with rebellious people, such as in Valdichiana, the ruler must either placate the rebels or eliminate them. Rajapaksa did neither. He neither pacified the Tamils because he was trapped by his ethnoreligious nationalist base nor did he eliminate them because of international consequences.
That the island is heading towards foreign dominance in a significant way has not penetrated through to those self-proclaimed patriots, garbed in ethnoreligious nationalism. It is, in a way, history repeating itself. If one were to read the history of the early Portuguese period or the period when the Kandyan Kingdom was negotiating with other foreign powers to oust the Portuguese or the Hollanders, one sees similarities of the present situation. To be sure, they are not identical. But the fact that foreign powers are once again positioning themselves in the island to enhance their respective interests is obvious.
The new scenario may not ring alarm bells to many. The islanders are quite used to being under the yoke of foreign powers. Since the 16th Century, for around 450 years, there wasn’t a single uprising against the foreign overlords. The wars, such as those that were waged against foreign powers, in the main, were to advance individual leaders’ lot rather than to rid the island of occupiers. Such wars may be characterized by those who documented them as nationalistic projects. But a careful reading of the relevant histories would show that they were nothing but wars in pursuit of personal gain conducted by rulers bent on increasing their territories or power. Only ones that could be characterized as nationalistic, even in a limited sense, were the Kandyan Rebellion of 1818 and the Matale Uprising in 1848.
In the former, it was led by those nobles who found themselves sidelined by the British and the latter, by two adventurers, whose motives were vague. Even the feeble Independence Movement was never a mass movement as in India. Its frontrunners were no different to the rulers of the past whose main aim was acquiring power to themselves.
That historical process is continuing. The aim of political leaders is power at any cost. If the price is letting down the future interests of the country, so be it. The cheapest ploy was to stir up ethnoreligious nationalism. The Eelam War was the culmination of previous stupidities. And that set back the country decades. The current debt crisis too has some of its roots there. Mega investments, with returns less than interest payments, were undertaken to fund political campaigns through the commissions extracted from the deals. The Central Bank was robbed for the same purpose.
With 73 years of ‘Independence’ under the belt, the country’s external revenue is still dependent on tea and other commodity exports, slave labor export to Middle East, sweatshop garment exports, and island’s youth kowtowing to foreign tourists (some engaged in nefarious activities).
Thus, what is happening now is that, unbeknown, the islanders are caught between India-US alliance on one side and China on the other. The foreign influence is creeping in insidiously. Sovereignty is ‘sold’ on a piecemeal basis. People’s assets and sovereignty are being parceled out. Few would protest, but they’ll be ridiculed as ‘those of the three percent’. That the said three percent consists of the best brains in the island compared to some of the 97% who went after Dhammika Paniya or on pilgrimage to Gnane Akka in Anuradhapura. The cry of those in academia, in profession and many among the intellectual community is ignored.
The ongoing tragedy is that the diehard ethnoreligious nationalists don’t get it.