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SOFA not so good; who or what will drive the MCC Sri Lanka Compact?


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 6 July 2019 00:00


The Hambantota Port. The sea route is the lifeline for China and their progress towards a super power status rests on this as all their resources will be carried via this route. The US has to have a counter to this free flow of resources if they are to at least share the super power status of China in say 20 years’ time

 

 The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Sri Lanka Compact on its own would not have raised many eyebrows, except for its open  promotion of private enterprise and the reduction of the role of the State, particularly in the area of land management policy. The danger to Sri Lanka would potentially come from the combined operation of the three agreements – MCC Sri Lanka Compact, the SOFA and the ACSA. If this were to happen, there will be no turning back. In the longer term, Sri Lanka could be akin to one of the territories of the USA, if not its 51st State

The long-term intentions of the USA in Sri Lanka are very clear unless we are all like the three monkeys – blind, deaf and mute. The US is laying the foundation for a long term and strategic foothold in Sri Lanka.

From the point of view of their self-interest, and not ours, it is understandable. China, their arch rival, has already got a foothold in one part of the country to secure their Maritime Silk Route and unless they developed a counter to that to manage the US/China relationship from a position of strength, the power of the US and their long-term interests would be compromised.  

The sea route is the lifeline for China and their progress towards a super power status rests on this as all their resources will be carried via this route. The US has to have a counter to this free flow of resources if they are to at least share the super power status of China in say 20 years’ time.

China, India, Sri Lanka

India’s position and their future in this real compact, the US/China compact, is not clear. They are no doubt closer to the US than to China although they are very strong nationalists. India may not have been comfortable with a sole Chinese foothold in their backyard and may welcome a balance brought about with a China/USA compact.

In hindsight, Sri Lanka and India are probably responsible for the evolution of this compact. Had India not supported the LTTE during the early stages, Sri Lanka would not have got this close to China. As has been reported, had India taken up the offer Sri Lanka made for them to develop the Hambantota Port, they would have had a strategic negotiation chip when it came to super power rivalry. The use of the Hambantota Port would have been on more or less Indian terms. Had the previous regime not launched the Port City project with Chinese participation, US suspicion about Sri Lanka would have been at a lower keel.

Of course Sri Lanka needed China when our chips were down. We needed China to support us in UN bodies when the US and India abandoned us. We needed China to support our economy when others failed to do so. China had the money and others didn’t. A simple fact. 

While the US pretended they were dancing for fifty rupees, having drunk only for five rupees (a pithy Sinhala quotation, pahakata beela, panahakata natanawa), China on the other hand drank for fifty rupees but danced as if they had drunk only for five. Basically, one country was big on talk but small in actual action. 

Sri Lankan leaders had to think of their citizens and their future and the integrity and sovereignty of their country when terrorists ruled not only parts of the country but the hearts and minds of other influential countries. We are where we are now and the clock cannot be wound back. We can and must think of the future. 

The MCC Sri Lanka Compact on its own would not have raised many eyebrows except for its open promotion of private enterprise and the reduction of the role of the State, particularly in the area of land policy. The danger to Sri Lanka would potentially come from the combined operation of these three agreements. If this were to happen, there will be no turning back. In the longer term, Sri Lanka could be akin to one of the territories of the USA, if not its 51st State

 

We are on the threshold of a long-term US plan to establish their foothold in Sri Lanka. Unlike the strategic intentions of China which they pursue through commercial interests, the US appear to couple commercial interests with military interests. The Millennium Challenge Corporation Sri Lanka Compact and the SOFA and Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreements point out these modus operandi.

Key points to ponder

If readers have not read the political column of the Sunday Times of 30 June, they must read it (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190630/columns/sri-lankas-sovereignty-and-the-us-355926.ht). Based on citations from the agreement itself, it points out to the endless possibilities if not certainties, for a US military presence in Sri Lanka. It clearly points out the things that the eyes cannot see now but which would be realities over time. Some relevant information noted in the above article are noted here:

nUnited States personnel (troops, contractors, etc.) be accorded the privileges, exemptions and immunities equivalent to those accorded to the administrative and technical staff of the US Embassy. They may enter and leave Sri Lanka with US identification individually or collectively. (Note: This means they could enter Sri Lanka without passports or visas.)

  • Disciplinary control by US Armed Forces authorities over US personnel and, therefore, the Government of the United States to exercise criminal jurisdiction over US personnel whilst in Sri Lanka. (Note: This clearly means Sri Lankan laws do not apply to them.)
  • Vessels and vehicles operated by or, at the time, exclusively for the US Department of Defence may either, exit and move freely within the territory of Sri Lanka. Such vehicles shall be exempt from payment of overland transit tolls. Vessels and aircraft owned or operated by or, at the time, exclusively for the US Department of Defence shall not be subject to payment of navigation, overflight, terminal or similar charges when in the territory of Sri Lanka. The US shall pay reasonable rates for services requested and received at no less favourable than those paid by the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka. Aircraft and vessels of the US Government shall be free from boarding and inspection. (Note: This is a blatant infringement of the sovereign right of a nation.)
  • The US Department of Defence may contract for any material, supplies, equipment and services (including construction) to be furnished or undertaken and shall not be subject to any local taxes. (Note: Makes clear that construction work would be required in Sri Lanka. What do they propose to construct?)
  • US contractors will not be liable to pay any tax or similar charges. Property, equipment, supplies, material, technology training, or services in the fulfilment of contracts with the Department of Defence and use shall be exempt from any licence, or other restrictions, customs duties, taxes or any other charges assessed within Sri Lanka. (Note: This again is a blatant infringement of the sovereign right of a nation to impose taxes and ensure their rules are followed.)
  • The Government of Sri Lanka recognises that it may be necessary for the US Armed Forces to use the radio spectrum. The Department of Defence shall be allowed to operate its own telecommunication systems. This shall include the right to utilise such means and services as required to ensure full ability to operate telecommunication systems. Use of the radio spectrum shall be free of cost to the US Government. (Note: This simply means they will have their own radio communications network parallel to those used by the Army, Navy, Police and the Coast Guard)
  • Waive any claims (other than contractual claims) against each other – and damage or loss shall be resolved by the US Government in accordance with US laws and regulations. (Note: This is also an infringement of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Sri Lanka’s laws will not apply to US troops and those associated with them. For the troops and others, it would be just as good as moving around in any part of the United States.)

If these, and other clauses and annexures in the agreement are not pointers to a future military presence, what other conclusions could one come to?

No free lunch

On the face of it, and based on information that is available on the website, the MCC Sri Lanka Compact looks a gift that should not be frowned upon or taken as something that has ulterior motives. Then of course there is the old saying that there is nothing called a free lunch! So one has to be wise and not be fooled by those bearing gifts. 

Unlike some countries that have given gifts to Sri Lanka without any strings attached or expectations, the US has not given any gift to Sri Lanka without their self-interest at heart. This statement should not be taken with any negative connotations as none are intended. China, India and Saudi Arabia are amongst other countries that have given gifts (and loans) with their self-interest in mind. The statement is only a statement of fact.

Reasons for suspicion

The MCC Sri Lanka Compact document states that “the proposed Compact will seek to assist Sri Lanka in addressing two major constraints to economic growth: (1) inadequate transport logistics infrastructure and planning and (2) lack of access to land for agriculture, service sector, and industrial investors. It is planned that the Compact will address these constraints through two projects, the Transport Project and the Land Project.”

The Land Project is what has aroused some suspicion in the minds of many Sri Lankans. Amongst the reasons, the fact that none of these agreements, MCC Sri Lanka Compact, the SOFA and the ACSA have been tabled in Parliament, and the fact that what had been presented of SOFA and the ACSA agreements to the Cabinet had apparently been minus their annexures, have been reason enough to arouse such suspicions. 

Sri Lanka does need investments but it needs its sovereignty, its culture, its natural fauna and flora, and its natural beauty even more. True, we are not as materially endowed as the USA, but chances are that many Sri Lankans are content with what they have and would prefer economic prosperity to occur at our own pace without compromising who we are. Besides this, Sri Lanka cannot become a battleground for warring super powers and we should not provide the stage for them to act out their play and leave us in ruins

 

These agreements all contain provisions for far-reaching changes to what Sri Lankans have not been accustomed to in agreements with other countries. The agreements, particularly SOFA and ACSA reportedly do not require periodic renewals as previous agreements had been subject to. This means that they are there for perpetuity. If this is correct, and the public has no way of knowing whether these assertions are correct or incorrect, as they are not publicly available agreements, the present generation and the many to come would be bound by what is in these agreements.

It is the land project in the MCC Sri Lanka Compact that has caused concern to many analysts, and in particular the mention of a Colombo-Trincomalee economic corridor and the granting of absolute land grants, the setting up of a State Land Bank Commission, privatisation of some State land where such land does not yield a profitable return to the country. These are some of the inclusions in the agreement which are suspicious primarily because of the paucity of information.

Land Project

The MCC document states “Land Project: The Government has recently prepared two draft legislative acts that seek to convert permits and grants to state land to absolute land grants given for the use of households to marketable and bankable titles and to establish an authority that gathers information on state lands and facilitates investment in underutilised state land. MCC believes that the acts, as written, will not achieve these objectives and suggests revisions before the acts are sent to Parliament. The substance of these suggested revisions centre on decentralising authority for the approval of absolute land grants, simplifying procedures, and ensuring gender equality in the issuance of absolute land grants, among other factors. MCC will also include two conditions precedent to the disbursement of compact funds to address legislative gaps that will inhibit the success and sustainability of the Registration of Land Grants and Deeds Conversion Activity.”

Some politicians have sounded warnings about the land project and have gone to the extent of saying some tracts of State land will be given to foreigners as absolute grants for them to set up industries in the Colombo-Trincomalee economic corridor. If this were true, and there is an intention to allocate land to non Sri Lankans, and the nature of such industries is not defined, a gateway could be opened for any kind of industry including Military industries. 

The MCC Sri Lanka Compact is essentially a commercially-oriented document that is intended to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of Sri Lanka’s economy. Investments will naturally have to come from overseas as Sri Lankans do not have such investment resources to justify a return for the $ 480 Million that the MCC Sri Lanka Compact will invest in Sri Lanka as a grant. 

The safety and security of such overseas investments and the investors will have to assured and protected, and this is potentially where the SOFA and ACSA Agreements come in. As they say, the devil is in the detail, and these two agreements reportedly are in substantial detail with several annexures in addition to what is in the body of the documents. These details are not known to the public.

The danger to Sri Lanka 

Sri Lanka does need investments but it needs its sovereignty, its culture, its natural fauna and flora, and its natural beauty even more. The USA has a history of just over 200 years compared to our history of more than 2,600 years according to some accounts and even longer by other accounts. True, we are not as materially endowed as the USA, but chances are that many Sri Lankans are content with what they have and would prefer economic prosperity to occur at our own pace without compromising who we are. 

Besides this, Sri Lanka cannot become a battleground for warring super powers and we should not provide the stage for them to act out their play and leave us in ruins. 

The MCC Sri Lanka Compact on its own would not have raised many eyebrows except for its open promotion of private enterprise and the reduction of the role of the State, particularly in the area of land policy. 

The danger to Sri Lanka would potentially come from the combined operation of these three agreements. If this were to happen, there will be no turning back. In the longer term, Sri Lanka could be akin to one of the territories of the USA, if not its 51st State.


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