COVID, 20A, Pompeo’s threat, resurgent MCC and SOFA: Planetary alignment not in country’s favour?

Tuesday, 27 October 2020 01:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It is known that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not visiting Sri Lanka to have tea with the President and the Prime Minister; he is coming to reinforce a message


With positive cases exceeding 7,000, and a national daily high of 865 and cases being reported in many parts of the country, what is striking is the sound of silence from health officials. While it is understandable to have one spokesperson, many other countries have generally had a non-health person as the chief spokesperson, at times a president or a prime minister, but in equal standing with the most senior health official of the country. The logic is simple. This is a health matter.

The people of the country have to know how a calm and contained situation in the country became a tsunami. It is time that an independent enquiry, preferably by a senior retired judge/s is conducted without delay to assuage mounting concerns amongst the public, and to restore the confidence people have in the government ability to curb the pandemic spreading like wild fire in the country.

If in this instance Brandix was responsible for the beginning of this second wave, as most seem to believe, it is in their interest to provide all relevant facts to the proposed enquiry so that they can be exonerated if the news spreading in social media is fake news. An assurance from Brandix and the Government is too little too late now, not just to find out how this happened, but also to identify measures that need to be taken to prevent a recurrence. With intense pressure on export oriented industries that employ large numbers of workers to keep their exports moving, the possibility of a recurrence is more than likely.  

No doubt, political and administrative decisions need to be taken, firstly to manage the outbreak and to prevent similar outbreaks in the future. However, the basis for these decisions have to be health policy related. The public needs a greater assurance that this is happening. It is not evident that this is happening and that the public feels assured.

The 20th Amendment

The 20th Amendment will become law as soon as the Speaker signs it. The Presidency assumes supremacy over the Prime Minister and the Parliament. One wonders how this amendment and its reinstated powers in the hands of the previous President or a future President like him would have been viewed.

A fundamental tenant of democracy, checks and balances, have been diluted or eroded by the 20th Amendment. The issue is not about granting powers to a president. It is about mechanisms in place to prevent the misuse of such powers and also to make sure powers are used effectively and efficiently to produce good outcomes for the people. 

The 19th Amendment had flaws. Even some who were engaged in framing it conceded that. However, the answer should not have been the thinking that one had to go back to the 18th Amendment in order to rectify whatever flaws in the 19th Amendment. 

Both amendments, the 19th as well as the 20th, appear to be personality driven and not necessarily what is the country’s best interest. It is no secret that the thrust of the 19th Amendment was to contain the powers of one Presidency and now, the 20th Amendment has been enacted to restore most powers taken away from that Presidency.

The Constitutional Council, the independent committees, COPE and COPA committees, should have been strengthened and given more powers. The contention that the independent commissions were not independent is not a reason to have diluted their independence. 

Mike Pompeo’s visit, MCC and SOFA Agreements

It is known that the US Secretary of State is not visiting Sri Lanka to have tea with the President and the Prime Minister. He is coming to reinforce the message that the US State Department official Dean Thompson announced in advance of Pompeo’s visit that “we encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices. We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long term prosperity.”

What was the immediate consequence of this statement? Reuters (Marc Jones, Asian Currency News, 23 October) reported that Sri Lanka’s dollar dominated 2021 and 2022 bonds dropped 5% or more according to Tradeweb data and dropped below 60 cents on the dollar threshold. This report continued to state: “All the tell tales crisis signs are there: a trembling currency, credit rating downgrades, bonds at half their face value, debt to GDP levels nearing 100%, and almost 70% of Government revenues being spent on interest payments alone.”

So, if Pompeo is visiting Sri Lanka with this news in the background, and the more than a veiled attack on Sri Lanka’s close links with China, he has to be after an outcome that provides the US an unprecedented pro qui pro outcome for some financial support. 

The only such deal on offer as far as known is the MCC Agreement and the $ 480 million over five years it includes. There is another agreement, not an economic one, but a military one, unsigned yet, which is probably what is of more strategic benefit to the US and that is the SOFA Agreement. Under that the US Military could be in Sri Lanka at the “invitation” of the Government of Sri Lanka. What this entails and what would happen like in the camel and the man in the tent story, is all too familiar when one looks at the track record of the US in many countries.

In terms of the financial crises outlined in the Reuters report mentioned above, MCC Agreement money is peanuts. It is US 30 cents per capita per year of the US population of 327 million people over the five-year period. Sri Lankans working overseas remitted more than $ 7 billion per year before COVID struck. If the country is to sell its soul, surely they should sell it for more than 30 pieces of silver?

Sri Lanka should stand tall

It has been reported that Mahinda Rajapaksa, as President, had made himself very clear as to his and the country’s stand when Western countries led by the US, UK, France, etc., had applied pressure on him to allow LTTE cadres to be shipped out of Sri Lanka during the last stages of the war in 2009. Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother Gotabaya who is now the President, and the armed forces of the country, ended the war by defeating the LTTE, while rehabilitating more than 300,000 LTTE cadres thereafter. 

Perhaps it is time Sri Lanka stands with its head high once again and gives a similar message to Pompeo. That message should be that Sri Lanka welcomes US assistance but it cannot be at the expense of China’s friendship and financial assistance. Sri Lanka could assure the US that the country’s land or sea or facilities, ports, airports, etc., will not be given to any country for military purposes, and that all are welcome to invest in Sri Lanka according to the sovereign laws of Sri Lanka.

If Sri Lanka grovels now, the impact will be felt by the future generations, and they will curse the current guardians for selling the country for 30 pieces of silver. If President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had the 20th Amendment passed to reintroduce and reinforce the executive powers of the presidency, this is the time he could demonstrate how he would use such reinstated powers for the benefit of these future generations. 

The US is in the throes of a Presidential Election. Polls are suggesting that there is a strong possibility of the incumbent President being defeated. Besides the unfairness of any pressure being applied on Sri Lanka at this stage to sign agreements, Sri Lanka should take into account the views of a Biden administration should that come to pass on 4 November. Pompeo should respect such a stance. 


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