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Make Sri Lanka great again?


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37THE GREAT DIVIDES – While the powers that be plod the ‘Rubber tyres from Marangoni’ route, a more plebeian opposition is still shouting subversive slogans in the ears of folks for whom ‘Rice from the Moon’ is not too far-fetched. When it comes to Making Sri Lanka Great Again, the mindset gap might be a chasm that propaganda about a Prosperity Gospel of Growth, Development, Progress, can’t cross – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

In the West, the last Trump has sounded. In the east, in a certain resplendent isle, critical voices echo in a sound chamber: “What an idiot!”, “What a moron!” On social media, where everyone’s a wit, and one can’t tell the difference between wisdom and wisecracking, words and ideas combine in a hilarious mix of humour and hysteria: “Trumpachchi is coming to town…”, “Super Callous Fragile Ego, Trump You Are Atrocious”, etc.; and even the notoriously laconic CIA has ventured to critique its chief executive for his vainglorious self-aggrandisement.

So: cometh the hour, cometh the man. In the limit, The Donald is a temporary solution to America’s pressing problems – whether perceived, manufactured, or real… No matter which way the analysts crack it, the kernel in the nut confirms the tendency of polities tired with the trite status quo to opt for an untried contender: the challenger of clichés and platitudes that mainstream politicians spout as regularly as a half-litre bladder. The Democrats who failed to read the writing on the wall can thank themselves (as much as the Republicans who’re determined to ride out their tyro candidate’s apprenticeship as the most powerful man on our increasingly precariously placed planet) for the piss up that’s brewing.

The POTUS’ inauguration speech leaves little hope, little wiggle room for the US on the world stage, and lots of room for President Trump (I almost can’t append the prefix to his preposterousness) to stomp about with his, um, ego at full cock. That the imagery and symbolism of building and construction could showcase even an emotional despot’s ethos should come as no surprise – Even effete democrats in island republics depend on tangible edifices such as expressways and port cities to prove their credentials and suitability for the hot seats and top slots. 

Maybe the irony that the, er, much-trumped up Mexican Wall is missing from the building plan of the egregious promise-maker Stateside would suffice to clue in watching wannabes and would-be wonder-workers worldwide that, in some instances, to over-promise and under-deliver is a blessing in disguise. A stratagem on the campaign trail to win the people’s hearts doesn’t necessarily have to translate into a strategy for tactical construction to soothe the nation’s sorrows. It’s a matter of the mind to most politicians that promises mean as much as verbal contracts value the paper they’re (not) signed on – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

A tale of two constructions

Be that as it may, for governments not high on the global food chain as the US is, building bridges can be a risky business. Being 38caught between hell-gate and heaven-gate, swinging safely between the two has been a growing challenge for us. 

On the one hand there is China’s growing investment portfolio in our little island-nation. It has been reported that Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly indebted to the economic powerhouse in the ascendant. We owe the eastern dragon around $ 8 million in an unforgiving grind of hard and soft loans. In what has been presented by the powers that be as a diplomatic victory – not very often interpreted as terms and conditions of China’s largesse – a new financial district has been mooted for Colombo: a $ 1.5-billion, 270-hectare (think the size of Colpetty, perhaps) project – of which a little less than half will be gifted to the government-owned Chinese construction company’s parent state for 99 years. 

It comes on top of pre-existing projects such as the Colombo South Container Terminal – a 35-year build/operate/transfer project in which a Hong Kong-based Chinese company will design, develop, construct, a state-of-the-art terminal. It is the same company accorded the new Hambantota Port contract, which project’s wake has given China a long-term lease on 15,000 acres of land in the same southern port township for an industrial zone.

On the other hand it seems that our angry northerly neighbour has looked with less than big-brotherly love at little bro’s balancing act. While evidently lacking in enthusiasm for Sri Lanka’s penchant for swimming with the sharks, India hasn’t been exactly lining up to play the investment stakes. Even when it is ostensibly offered the world’s second-largest natural harbour (at 1,630 hectares, with port facilities occupying another 5,200-plus hectares). 

The Indian ambition of hegemony in the eponymous ocean notwithstanding, it seems less than enthusiastic to take on Trincomalee at face value; perhaps seeing it as a placatory gift for a cash-strapped Government that has already given more than 75% of the plum port of Hambantota to China on a platter. Trincomalee may have submarine canyons, making it one of the best deep-water ports in the world; but Hambantota might have Chinese submarines concealed in the fine print, making it a Trojan horse in India’s eyes.

An idiot’s tale

There is little peace being in this unenviable position. China is chuffed (satisfied, pleased, delighted); India is chuffed (annoyed, displeased, disgruntled) – bless me, English is funny that way. The English media is full of encomia for the incumbents, the Sinhala press is not averse to China’s economic investment – unlike India’s perceived interventions, the Tamil newspapers remain impenetrable to this columnist (so no comment). The Joint Opposition is full of hysterical fervour at the outrage it can’t recall was its dearly beloved lately departed leader’s fond hope of doing in the first place and has knotted its knickers in a twist over the facts of the case. 

The folks who voted for the present powers that be don’t know just what to make of it all – whether it is good, bad, or ugly, that progress proceeds apace while peace with justice languishes with the law’s delays and a lagging constitutional-reform process whose fruit may not see the light of day if present trends persist and growth and development are prioritised over social justice and political agendas. 

Civil society slumbers, drugged by the soporific of propaganda chased by the mixer of the prosperity gospel in a soft small convenient capsule. Hoi polloi are happy if prices will soon retard in tandem with the next slew of elections and/or in time for the Fourth of February celebrations or Aluth Avurudda anticipations. Or whatever fat hope comes along with the fatuous expectation that government will grow a pair or import rice from the moons of mayhem and madness we maintain in the international market. 

The tail wagging a dog

If the verbosity of my prose pleases less, perhaps the rhetoric of rice from the moon will feel more substantial in your stomach. If that metaphor doesn’t resonate in your head, there are more inane maxims for the record books: “Zero civilian casualties”, “Zero tolerance for corruption”. If this administration isn’t careful, it will sooner than later be displaced from the people’s hearts.

The reality, of course, is there is no single administration. The battle lines are already being drawn between the erstwhile partners of the coalition. The dilemma is not whether to shanghai China into our GDP aspirations or dilly-dally with Delhi to achieve the same ambition. The division is between the UNP and the two parts of the SLFP.

Never one to miss a trick, the UNP is already using two former presidents’ personal desires – for power/posterity as much as privilege/position – to clear the field ahead of future elections. Just watch what prime ministerial friends and defenders of the technocratic faith are doing on social media and you’ll have a good idea of what realpolitik will do to our sitting president.

The POTUS may or not make a meaningful president, but we’re in for a memorable presidency. Our own chief executive may or not may go down in history as the leader who helped his prime minister’s party to make Sri Lanka great again, and he’ll have himself to blame. There is only one scenario in which the emerging power struggle will not end in tears, and it is for the coalition to continue to muddle through and rough it out together to keep the Huns from Hambantota at bay. That is, unless the president – true to his pledge before prelates of his philosophical faith – harbours no presidential ambitions, and the ostensible rift in the lute between him and the prime minister’s personal agenda is all part of a managed spectacle.

India’s instrumentality in ousting the former regime? Maybe. China’s agency in keeping the Rajapaksa machine soothed and salved? Perhaps. Except that the real power engines behind the GDP-oriented developments and counter-trends in Sri Lanka today – these days all the time – are the whims and wishes of those who pull realpolitik’s strings. Super Callous Fragile Egos, Trumpetings Atrocious!


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