Covid-19, 20th Amendment, And The Shadow Of Chinese Dominion – Tisaranee Gunasekara / Colombo Telegraph

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In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph and self-abasement…. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.” ~ Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-fours)

On October 7th, Sri Lanka officially informed the United Nations that the government of Gotabaya Rajapaksas has successfully contained Covid-19.

On October 7th, 519 Covid-19 patients were identified in Sri Lanka.

The new Brandix cluster became revealed on October 4th. On October 5th, Dr. Jayaruwan Bandara, Director MRI, told Derana, “From January to now this virus has been present in the community somehow… How else could we have found a patient now?” (Economy Next – 5.10.2020). He was immediately demoted to the post of Deputy Director. 75 new patients were identified on that day, and 262 new patients the next day. 

By October 7th, parts of Gamhapa district were under a police curfew and the government had re-launched the Humanitarian Operation against Covid-19. The army was conducting military style operations, rounding up Brandix workers and their contacts (mostly women, some pregnant mothers or mothers with children), as if they were the new terrorists.

Given the reality of a virulent new cluster of unknown provenance, the government should have dropped the reference to successfully curbing Covid-19 from its statement to UN Third Committee. It had time to do so, but didn’t. Instead, the Gotabaya-Mahinda regime knowingly lied to the UN about an issue of national and global importance.  

The incident is emblematic of how the Rajapaksas rule. They excel at bending the reality to suit their needs. The Siblings have been dealing with ‘Alternative Facts’ long before Trump-enabler Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase. Alternative facts occupied centre stage during the Final Eelam War. The myth of Zero-civilian Casualties was maintained by turning every war-dead, from the aged to babies, into Tigers. In that war, only Tigers could die. If you were killed, you became a Tiger by definition – unless you were killed by the Tigers (and the Tigers did kill plenty of Tamils). 

An eerily similar approach was adopted towards the pandemic, almost from the beginning. The virus became the new Tiger. Most infected people (especially the minorities and the Sinhala poor) were regarded not as victims deserving of kindness and compassion, but as carriers, a kind of health-terrorist. They were degraded and condemned.

Since winning the war against the virus was a politico-electoral imperative, the Rajapaksas created the myth of Zero-Community Transmission. Beating Covid-19 became a major theme in the SLPP’s parliamentary election campaign. Testing remained low and no mass scale random community testing was conducted. 

According to the WHO, “Community transmission is evidenced by the inability to relate confirmed cases through trains of transmission for a large number of cases…”. Going by this definition, the Minuwangoda/Brandix cluster is clear proof of community transmission as its origin is yet to be discovered. But the government continues to insist on the Zero-Community Transmission myth. Medical officials go along, probably fearing the fate of Dr. Jayaruwan Bandara. 

So ‘Alternative Facts’ pervade. There is no community transmission, and no need to impose travel and other restrictions in an orderly manner. Certainly not until the 20th Amendment is through. For the sake of the 20th Amendment, the Rajapaksas are placing the health of the nation in peril. 

Saved by China?

The Rajapaksas keep things in the family. No surprise, therefore, in PM Mahinda Rajapaksa appointing his second son as his chief of staff.

The appointment might have been commonplace. But the manner in which it came to light was staggeringly novel – via the official twitter account of the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka: “On 13th October, Charge de Affaires Hu Wei congratulated Yoshitha Rajapaksa @YoshithaR for assuming office as new Chief of Staff to Hon Prime Minister.” 

Obviously, one of the first official duties of the new Chief of Staff was to pay obeisance to the country’s paymasters. 

On September 28th Moody’s downgraded Sri Lanka’s sovereign credit rating by two notches, from B2 (high credit risk) to Caa1 (very high credit risk). On October 8th a high level Chinese delegation arrived in Sri Lanka, and was allowed into the country without even PCR testing (let alone quarantining). 

On October 11th, China announced it was bestowing $90 million grant on Sri Lanka. 

On October 13th, the Lankan cabinet approved the awarding of a $20.96 million contract to a Chinese joint venture to construct a waste water treatment plant in Wellawatte. 

During his meeting with the Chinese delegation, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa requested help in reducing Lanka’s massive trade deficit with China ($3.8 billion in 2019). In response, the Chinese seemed to have placed the old idea of Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on the agenda. 

Perhaps someone should inform the President that a FTA with China in this juncture is likely to increase our trade deficit to stratospheric levels. Given our dependent status, any free trade pact will be written in Beijing and confer most comparative advantages on China. 

Perhaps someone should tell the President about the fate of our other all-weather-friend, Pakistan, a key beneficiary of the kind of Chinese munificence he hankers after.

The FTA between China and Pakistan was signed in November 2006 and came into effect in July 2007. By 2018 China accounted for around 46% of Pakistan’s trade deficit. By 2020, Pakistan’s exports to China amounted to only 20% of its imports from China – exports to China $2 billion, imports from China to $10 billion; trade deficit $8 billion. 

Free trade agreements can be mutually beneficial when they involve markets which are supporting and complementary, meaning each participant exports goods the other/s don’t or can’t produce. The 2020 FTA between Vietnam and EU is said to be an example of such compatibility.  

Much depends on how a trade deal is approached, negotiated and structured. For example, in 2019, Pakistan renegotiated the FTA with China, correcting some of the more deleterious provisions in the original deal. “All sensitive sectors have been protected and are not subject to duty reduction… The government also Strengthened Safeguard Mechanism to protect domestic products against surge in Chinese products” (The Nation – 16.8.2019). 

China had been pushing Colombo for a FTA since before 2015. The deal would have been signed had Mahinda Rajapaksa won his third presidential term. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration actually negotiated, instead of just signing on the dotted line. One of the sticking points was the Lankan side’s demand for a review of the deal after 10 years. The Chinese refused. Incidentally, the credit for this prudence probably belongs to Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera. 

These are different times. With Sri Lanka caught in an unprecedented fiscal noose, created in part by President Gotabaya’s imprudent tax cuts, our chances of negotiating on a deal are nil. The Rajapaksas have anyway decided to become a satellite of China, a decision that is likely to become further cemented if Biden-Harris ticket is victorious at American Presidential election, as is likely. 

Given this economic and political dependence, any FTA will be highly skewed in China’s favour. It is instructive in this regard that Sri Lanka’s new ambassador to China, Palitha Kohona, was, until recently, the head of the Lankan chapter of a Chinese company, Hairong Investments Group. In any negotiation, whose interests will our own ambassador actually represent?

Giving the Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease, together with a 50-square km industrial zone, was one of the deadliest deeds of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. With the Rajapaksas back in saddle, this Chinese footprint is likely to grow, and expand into multiple areas. Once again, Pakistan provides an example – the Long Term Master Plan for China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). According to Pakistan newspaper Dawn, the 231-page plan was prepared by China Development Bank and the National Development Reform Commission of the People’s Republic of China. “…thousands of acres of agricultural land will be leased out to Chinese enterprises to set up “demonstration projects” in areas ranging from seed varieties to irrigation technology. A full system of monitoring and surveillance will be built in cities from Peshawar to Karachi, with 24 hour video recordings on roads and busy marketplaces for law and order. A national fibreoptic backbone will be built for the country not only for internet traffic, but also terrestrial distribution of broadcast TV, which will cooperate with Chinese media in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.” …But the main thrust of the plan actually lies in agriculture… From provision of seeds and other inputs, like fertiliser, credit and pesticides, Chinese enterprises will also operate their own farms, processing facilities for fruits and vegetables and grain. Logistics companies will operate a large storage and transportation system for agrarian produce”.

If free trade deals with China and massive Chinese investments deliver countries from poverty, Pakistan should be a paradise now. Instead, the country teeters from one financial crisis to the next. Pakistan’s dire present might presage Sri Lanka’s coming future.

Intimations of the coming future

So here we are, caught between three disasters: Covid-19 pandemic, 20th Amendment, and growing Chinese domination. 

According to media reports, people under police curfew in Minuwangoda, Veyangoda, Divulapitiya are experiencing severe food shortages. The rapidity with which curfew was imposed left them with no time to stock provisions. Many lacked the financial means to do so. The government is too busy with the 20th Amendment related matters, such as trying to sow dissension within the Amarapura and Ramangnga Nikayas for their principled opposition to the 20th. The PS secretary for the area is reduced to asking the public for parcels of dry rations (Gossip Lanka – 17.10.2020).

This week alone, two suspects were killed in police custody – a 21-year-old man in Pugoda and a 51-year-old woman in Hikkaduwa. Such deaths are becoming as much of a new normal as burning down of forests. This week Mamduwa forest in Vavuniya was burnt for the third time. So far no culprits have been arrested. In the meantime, the CID has another new director, the third under Gotabaya-Mahinda rule. Having lost its battles with the rice-milling mafia, the government has removed all price controls. 

No constitutional amendment can remedy Inefficiency and Inanity genes.

What the 20th Amendment will do is to legalise abuse and enthrone impunity. For example, when the cabinet decided to do away with transport permits for sand, gravel and soil, the judiciary struck down the decision. If the 20th is in place, judges who make decisions unpalatable to political authority might find themselves subjected to lightening transfers and other punitive measures. After all, the Rajapaksas did impeach a chief justice, illegally, for going against their wishes. 

In Pakistan, the Imran Khan government appointed a committee to study CPEC deals. The report accused Chinese companies of ‘malpractices’ such as inflating costs. For instance, two coal fired plants overcharged by 3 billion dollars. Once the 20th Amendment weakens the oversight-powers of the Auditor General, the chances of any such irregularities coming to light in Sri Lanka would be less than zero.

A number of pro-Rajapaksa monks have come out against the 20th Amendment. They should remember what befell the Asgiriya and Malwatte Mahanayakes when they wrote to Mahinda Rajapaksa seeking the cancellation of night races in Kandy in 2014. The request was ignored and the races went ahead.

For the Rajapaksas, the monks, like the military, are just a means to their own end, familial power and dynastic succession. 

“Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are,” goes a Spanish proverb. The Rajapaksas walk with each other. Even their closest supporters don’t walk with them, but walk behind.

Other than the family, everyone else is curry leaves, including Ape Hamuduruwos.

Already, Rajapaksa enablers from Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe to Wimal Weerawansa, are getting a crash course in the true nature of familial rule. Mr. Rajapaksa’s security has been slashed, while Mr. Weerawansa is being told by Basil Rajapaksa supports to leave, if he doesn’t like the way things are. 

Once the 20th is through, the Rajapaksa acolytes will become completely expendable. Not only will they not have their way; they will not be able have their say either. 

If the non-Rajapaksa SLPP and the SLFP say yes to the 20th Amendment, they will become enablers of their own enslaving. To avoid that future, they need not stand up and shout a resounding no to the 20th Amendment. All they have to do is to stay at home. Because they have a cough. 

Even pandemics can have their uses. 

Colombo Telegraph