15 November, 2018

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Chinese Roulette In Paradise Isle

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”~ Xi Jinping, President of China 

Donald Trump first became a household name in the US for a book he claimed as his own but didn’t write – The Art of the Deal. Recently he learnt a real life lesson in the art of the deal from a consummate master of the art of the deal – the Chinese. Last month Mr. Trump’s administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese technology giant, the ZTE, banning it from using American technology in making its phones. The Chinese government responded by agreeing to loan $500 million to a company with business links to the Trump family which is building a theme park in Indonesia. Days later Mr. Trump announced removing the sanctions against the ZTE.

The US, for all its faults, is a democracy. Mr. Trump might be the most powerful man in the world, but in his own country there are laws and institutions he cannot override. The House Appropriations Committee has negated Mr. Trump’s order. Mr. Trump might rave and rant, but he will not be able to do much more than that.

What happens in countries where such checks and balances are absent or too weak to be able to withstand political pressure and financial blandishments?

 The Chinese, having used Sri Lanka’s debt woes, to gain control over the Hambantota Port on a 99 year lease, are now claiming ownership of the artificial island built off the port during Rajapaksa time. The 110 hectare island was built at the cost of $50 million. The Chinese are reportedly refusing to pay the next instalment of the lease money until the island too is given to them. The government is said to have knuckled down to Chinese pressure but the Southern provincial council has not. How long that resistance would last is anybody’s guess.

With friends like these, does Sri Lanka need any enemies?

A recent report by the Centre for Global Development, a leading think-tank based in Washington, placed Sri Lanka among 25 countries highly vulnerable to Chinese debt distress. The Rajapaksas went more than halfway in turning Sri Lanka into a Chinese pearl. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration promised to right the imbalance. An effort was made initially, and then abandoned. A segment of the UNP became as blindly enthusiastic about the Chinese connection as the Rajapaksas. Instead of trying to get out of the Chinese debt trap, the government has made it worse. 

As The Economist pointed out, “The Hambantota schemes were vanity projects for the then-president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. His closeness to China was one reason for his surprise defeat in elections in 2015. A rising interest bill forced the government of his successor, Maithripala Sirisena, to agree on a debt-for-equity swap that gives China a 99-year lease on the port.” The government is being forced to shift a wind farm in Hambantota because the port’s new overlords are demanding rent payments – naturally. Unconfirmed media reports claim that the Chinese have banned visitors from the Hambantota port from December last year and that a group of school students from Colombo were prevented from visiting the port in March this year.

As a part of the Port deal, the Chinese demanded 15,000 acres of land for an exclusive investment zone. The government succumbed, even though the political, social and environmental consequences of the decision were obvious. Once the clearing of the jungle begins, the direct effects on the neighbouring communities will become apparent, from the drying up of scarce water sources to the exacerbation of elephant-human conflicts. 

Imagine if any other country behaved like this towards us? There would have been countless exposes and protests, speeches and posters, petitions and meetings. But when China makes impossible demands and tightens screws, behaves as if Sri Lanka is already a vassal state, there is a hardly a sound. 

The 500 million dollar question is why the silence? 

That Debutante Ball in Shangri-La

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa held his political coming out ball held fittingly at Shangri-La. The hotel has been built in the land which housed the army headquarters for decades. According to a media report, the land was sold by Mr. Rajapaksa because he wanted to build a Pentagon-style behemoth in Akuregoda to house all three forces! Tells something about the man he is and the president he will be, if we, Lankans, in our insane inanity, make that happen. 

Far more interesting than the ball is what Mr. Rajapaksa did just before it. According to the pro-Rajapaksas website Lanka c news, he went to China on March 30th to undertake a month’s course on economic management and governance. (‘Gotabhaya summoned to china—leaves today itself—taught a secret course on governance and economic, proclaimed the caption). Governance and economics is what is contained in Mr. Rajapaksa’s weekly column in Lankadeepa (the column, titled Manpetha, is probably his as much as The Art of the Deal was Donald Trump’s book). Mr. Rajapaksa is intent on reinventing himself as an intellectual-technocrat, clearly with some Chinese help.

Chinese political activist Hu Jia calls China not a police state but a police empire. And the expansion of Chinese power and influence will encourage anti-democratic ideas and choices, especially in those third world countries caught in the Chinese debt trap. Though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has become quite amenable to Chinese demands, the dissemination of Chinese influence will be naturally advantageous not to the government but to the Rajapaksa project.

Empires set trends which become traditions and laws. In the run up to this year’s Commonwealth Summit, British PM Teresa May apologised to the people of the Commonwealth for one of the historical legacies of British Empire – anti-gay laws. A recent Vanity Fair article revealed that brides rarely wore white until Queen Victoria’s choice to wear white for her wedding turned it into the new bridal-normal in Britain, the British Empire and beyond. Imperial trends are not just sartorial. They are also economic and political. The British gave us democracy, universal adult franchise and a constitution which guaranteed basic rights.  

A recent article analysed how China uses the Belt and Road project to extend its technical standards beyond its shores. Given China’s status as nascent global power, it will make a conscious effort to transmit, regionally and globally, its own set of political and economic standards as well.

Take for instance China’s new Social Credit System which is supposed to come into effect nationally this year (versions are being implemented in parts of the country). If you are good the state will reward you (a visa to Singapore, for instance); it you are bad, the state will punish you (no airline or even train tickets). The System will rank the entire Chinese populace according to a number of criteria ranging from how they do their school work to their political activities. The state will be the arbiter of everything in a person’s life. 

Democracies with strong traditions, enduring institutions and an aware public can survive anti-democratic leaders. Donald Trump might admire tyrants; he might wish he can be one. But he cannot in the US. Countries like Sri Lanka are quite another matter. Here, democracy can be undermined and negated from within, as we discovered during the Rajapaksa years. It can happen again, and in a far more terminal way, if Gotabhaya Rajapaksa wins the presidency.

One can just imagine a Rajapaksa regime, headed by a President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, imposing a Social Credit System in Sri Lanka. One can imagine Beijing helping Colombo to set up such a system. One can imagine this Orwellian nightmare being billed as the answer to all Lankan problems, from the crime wave to anarchy on the roads. 

The government is probably hoping that sibling-rivalry will torpedo the Gotabhaya project. That is engaging in wishful thinking of the suicidal variety. The Rajapaksas have internal differences but at crucial moments the family will work as a family to the greater glory of the family. If the JVP’s attempt to introduce the 20th Amendment fails, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is likely to be the presidential candidate of the SLPP. And unless a miracle happens, he is likely to emerge, if not the outright winner, at least the highest vote getter.

To a world that is becoming disillusioned with democracy’s inability to live up to its promises China’s way of doing things might hold a perverse attraction. For many especially in the third world, the idea of a paternalistic state willing to walk the talk might seem a better alternative, even if it involves losing those basic freedoms which marks the difference between citizen and servant. That bargain has been made before in history. Democratic people often have this secret yearning for a bit of useful/functional tyranny. Tyranny cannot be compartmentalised and enjoyed in digestible bits, but by the time a free people understands that reality, they are no longer free to unmake their choice.

Hurtling towards Suicide

The fate of the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration is written in the political firmament. If living costs are not tamed and if the government don’t contest as a unity, it will lose all upcoming elections. 

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government entered into an Extended Debt Facility agreement with the IMF in 2016. About half of the money is yet to be released and gaining access to the next tranche would have depended on fulfilling at least some of IMF conditionalities. That these conditionalities included aligning national oil prices with global prices is no secret. The 130% hike in oil prices is thus – at least in part – an outcome of the IMF’s insistence on its pound of flesh before releasing the next tranche of its loan. A price increase was inevitable given the sudden hike in global crude oil prices. But this could have been done in stages to minimise the direct and indirect effects on the more vulnerable segments of the populace. 

If the government had wanted to see the deleterious effects of a massive oil price hike, it could have studied the Rajapaksa experience of 2012. The Rajapaksa regime implemented a massive oil price hike in February 2012, causing an across-the-board increase in the prices of consumer essentials. Fishermen carried out protests against the steep increase in kerosene oil prices. On February 14th, 2012, the police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Negambo, killing Anthony Fernando, a young fisherman. 

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has announced its intention of ‘adjusting’ oil prices every two months, in accordance with global crude prices. Thanks to the trumpian policies of President Donald Trump, global oil prices are likely to go up in the coming months. Taking the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, shifting American embassy to Jerusalem and giving Israel and Saudi Arabia carte blanche do deal with their politico-religious enemies cannot but further destabilise an already volatile region. The electoral outcomes in Iran and Lebanon, the undeclared war in Yemen and the massacre of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators by Israel forces in Gaza will be fodder to the political and sectarian fires consuming the Middle East (some commentators are even talking about the possibility of a shooting war between Iran and Israel). Given this context, global crude prices are likely to increase rather than decrease in the foreseeable future. 

Given this context, the future is not hard to imagine. The UNP and the SLFP will lose, and lose badly, at the provincial council election. The victorious SLPP will launch a political campaign, demanding an immediate general election. The anti-Maithripala forces in the SLFP and the anti-Ranil forces in the UNP will gain a new lease of life. A powerful section of the SLFP will demand that the president ditches the alliance with the UNP and forms a pact with the Rajapaksas. A powerful section of the UNP will clamour for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s immediate ouster from the party leadership. As the crisis escalates, the SLFP will experience one or more schisms – and so might the UNP. The political crisis will worsen economic conditions. The crisis in the government will become transformed into a governance crisis.  Even if the government survives, it will be mortally wounded and dependent on artificial respiration to defer death until the presidential election.

The IMF – unlike China – cannot be accused of having a preference for Rajapaksa rule. But wittingly or unwittingly, its inability to understand that an economy does not exist in a vacuum and its resultant insistence on politico-electorally devastating economic policies will open the door even wider for a Rajapaksa return. When the obituary of Lankan democracy is being written, the IMF and its decision to push a democratic administration to the wall should deserve special mention.

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Latest comments

  • 5
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    “When the obituary of Lankan democracy is being written, the IMF and its decision to push a democratic administration to the wall should deserve special mention.”. This obituary notice appeared many years ago.

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      Right on S! US citizen Gotabaya Rajapaksa is protected by his country – the declining superpower which drafts Ranil Wickramasinghe’s policies. His bank accounts are in LA – no harm will come to him. Ranil has been given instructions from Washington DC – all in the name of FAKE RECONCILIATION in an ear of Fake news and post facts.

      Gotabaya is protected by the US embassy in Lanka whose game in Lanka and elsewhere is “heads I win, tails you loses” .
      Ranil is their man, of course, but if he loses US citizen Gota who privatized the SL Navy’s most lucrative marine security in the Indian Ocean operation to Avant Guard which is a global security and surveillance company – a national security scam – on the behest of his US handlers tell us a story about the Fake Reconciliation Industry that is really a bi-partisan UNP-SLFP corruption racket operated by Fake foreign reconciliation advisers .ad on St US citizen Gotabaya Rajapaksa is protected by his country – the declining superpower which drafts Ranil Wickramasinghe’s policies. His bank accounts are in LA – no harm will come to him. Ranil has been given instructions from Washington DC – all in the name of FAKE RECONCILIATION in an ear of Fake news and post facts.

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        Madam T: thanks but there a small problem here: the Fake narrative of US propaganda mill in the Cold war with China and Russia.

        US may be a democracy, but it promotes Dictators who support it in other countries! Check out Latin America. Gota is a US citizen!

        China is only doing what the fake Dev. aid industry run by west has done since colonialism. You must know that: Development Aid was and is “Colonialism by other means”.
        Today US Corp. General electric Corp. is selling obsolete Train engines for billions to Bondscam Ranil after the right wing Millennium Challenge Corp. did the Deep dives and fake research and analysis of the Transport sector in Lanka. MCC is drafting Ranil’s neo libral economic policy and Washington DC which runs IMF is doing more harm than China in Lanka, in the long run..
        Fake experts and narratives are the big weapon of mass destruction that the ex-superpower has today!

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          Dinuk

          How can the Citizen of another country be allowed to be the number one citizen in our country?
          This does not make sense to me. The fact that people are even considering this is a Joke.
          Remember Geetha was ousted from a much smaller post on the basis of her dual nationality!
          How can straight thinking Sri Lankans even consider such a blatent blunder, perticularly as we are speculating what USA will accomplish in Sri Lanka through is Citizen. They can resort to any means necessary including blackmail to achieve their targets.
          For instance they can implicate Gota in a crime in the US and ask him to face a court there, what will happen?
          If you speculate the positive side then be so smart and think about the negative side as well.

          Lasith

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    The writer’s pathological hatred of the Lankan Sinhalese culture and heritage is well documented by the many vitriolic articles she has written over the years. Yet, one must admit that she has enough sense to see the inevitable rise of the Gotabya and the equally inevitable decline and demise of the charlatans such as Sirisena and Wickremasingh. The innocent Sinhalese must applaud the rise of Gotabya, who will make a strong leader who commands admiration from a large sector of the American establishment who are focused on South Asia as well as the Chinese leadership. I strongly believe he will be able to handle both the Chinese and American interests as well as the Indians. Gotabya will also act decisively to crush the Jihadi and Madrasa influences in the country. Indeed, Lanka may see a golden age under his leadership.

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      ” …. the rise of Gotabya, who will make a strong leader who commands admiration from a large sector of the American establishment …… Indeed, Lanka may see a golden age under his leadership…”

      Wishful thinking, dream on mate.

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      What makes you think Gotabhaya will command the admiration of American establishment?

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    After the end of civil war in 2009, Sri lanka is now moving in a dangerous direction. It was the result of a calculated effort from two different opposing international forces USA & China. Most Srilankans think that LTTE was the main threat to the security of this country. We try to hide the role of India in creating LTTE (similar to Russia for creating JVP in 1971) and stopping LTTE from further escalation of war and to bring the peace process in 2002, During this time Ranil and India jointly dragged the peace process, creating drift between LLTE leader and Kauna (Eastern LTTE leader) and LTTE ban by European Union in 2006 which contributed to the weakening of LTTE military power. Further between 2006 and 2009, it is the USA provided all information about locating the arm supply ships to Srilanka military and we all until last date Indian UN envoy Nambiar was in Colombo and the powerful Indian military was in Srilanka. In the Other hand China developed strong relationship with Mahinda and supplied them with the chemical weapons and cluster bombs which killed more than 50000 Tamils. Mahinda was a schemer and he chose China instead of USA (India). China took advantage of Mahinda’s greediness of power and took advantage of taking control Srilankan economy.

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      “…similar to Russia for creating JVP in 1971”
      Ajith, are you serious?
      You badly need to get out of your ‘Cold war’ mindset.

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    The author ignores the background to how the Hambantota, Noraicholai and other projects were offered to China.
    China has grown into a real challenge to the interests of US imperialism and its allies in many countries, largely because of the conduct of US imperialism and its agencies.
    *
    The death of democracy anywhere has had most to do with US imperialism, which is still busy subverting public verdict in Latin America.
    There is much speculation about what China might do, ignoring what is happening across the globe.
    *
    The US has been acting most unjustly against target countries like Iran, Korea and Venezuela among others and using bullying tactics against countries that trade with them in order to achieve a regime change to its liking.
    The ZTE issue has many sides that cannot be superficially interpreted in terms of US defence interests.
    The increasingly protective US trade policy is an admission that its scheme of globalization has failed miserably.
    *
    Capitalist China will be an imperialist power one day unless socialism intervenes. But right now the enemy of the people of the world is US imperialism as well as its allies and global agencies.
    *
    It cannot be very honest to single out a potential threat while making excuses for real threats.

  • 1
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    The professionalism of ‘Professionals for a Better Future’ is evident from the way the word ‘professionals’ is written in Tamil. There is no such word in any Tamil dictionary.

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      Estate Labourer what would be the closest equivalent or what would replace the word professional in the Tamil language. And why do you that it does not exist?

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      EL
      Try a good glossary or a dictionary like the University of Madras Dictionary.

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 2
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    great article.Great analysis.Hope it won’t be prophetic.Everyone on this blog wanted fonseka appointed as law and order minister.That was not done.Everyone wanted a leadership change in the UNP.That was not done.everyone wanted mahendran arrested and jailed.Not done.Enter gotabhaya.
    Enter the dragon,but we don;t have a bruce Lee here to fight the dragon.

  • 6
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    TG, I assume the number of lower middle class or poor rural Sri Lankans you can count as friends or relatives is less than fingers on your right hand, so for unce I would give you some slack and say that your thoughts are based on your experiences or the lack there of. For a person trying to support a family on less than SLR 10,000 a month your flag waving about British born democracy is worth zit, zero, naught, nothing. Even if you go up the economic ladder up to SLR 30,000 it will stay the same. Reason, whoever is on the throne or the hot seat the problems of the poor remain the same: they are not able to educate their children in a superior school, or afford private medical care, have living space of 500sq ft per person, or even a bicycle for transport.
    Unless economy picks up all the rights for all the information wont worth a loaf of bread for the poor and the disenfranchised.

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    Don’t trust the Chinese and their Government.

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

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    About a week back, the former New York Mayor Mchael Bloomberg told Rice University graduates ~ “……The greatest threat to American democracy isn’t communism, jihadism, or any other external force or foreign power. It’s our own willingness to tolerate dishonesty in service of party, and in pursuit of power.”.
    In Lanka ‘New-Terrorism (NT)’ has got established. (NT realm corruption/nepotism/impunity are legitimised)
    .

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    TG: “Imagine if any other country behaved like this towards us? There would have been countless exposes and protests, speeches and posters, petitions and meetings. But when China makes impossible demands and tightens screws, behaves as if Sri Lanka is already a vassal state, there is a hardly a sound”.

    My comment: Oh Gosh. Where are the GMOA brigades who often get galvanised as ‘Saviours of the Nation’, and pontificate to everyone as the “Oracles of the Resplendent Land”? Busy doing their part-time job of treating the sick for money, I suppose.

    TG: Coming out ball held fittingly at Shangri-La.

    My commnet: The bill at the Shangri La must have been huge. Who paid? A local ‘Michael Cohen’? There must be several, funnelling money from foreign sources – foreign governments who have no accountability in their finances – into these campaigns.

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    IT is PRotestant Struggle for the domination. Ranil a clean man a PhD Holder who completed grade nine definitely in a Colombo school for elite, they teach people even Bhajan, a well known MAfia LEader who worship the west is the best leader. gotabhaya Rajapakse is bad becuse he is not Protestant.

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    Tisaranee,

    Rather than make peace with the Tamils and let the already weakened LTTE die a natural death, the Rajapaskas went out on a spending spree for more arms for a lop-sided overkill and a war of excess in the Vanni. What is more, MR wanted to keep his support base happy, went on massive boondoggles and mortgaged the country to China.

    The result is what SL faces now– deeply indebted to China with no easy way out. The segments of society that gloated over “winning” of the war against the country’s own citizens, now have to face this hidden loss of sovereignty to China. The country’s citizens will inevitably face loss of democratic freedoms, even if some of them may rejoice in the karmic force of this visited against those who were gloating over the ‘successes’ of the Rajapaksa regime.

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    TG appears to imply that IMF is better than Chinese. On what basis? TG also seems to pally with IMF to suggest them to go slow on her governing pals…………..

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    There are so mny Aritcles about IMF and MCC in the web. I heard Mahinda Rajapakse saying this democratic struggle of Protestants was active evenin 1948.

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    According to what XI Jinpen said, IMF is well discredited. But TG says Avada ayubo to IMF, if you know the meaning of of that word

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    YOu say, USA is a democracy. Ask Chaves, fidel Castro, ghadhaffi, Saddam Hussein, Assad, Putin. YOU will find. There were dare devil journalsits in the world. Trump gave one promise to the voters Now, he is strugglign within his DEEP state to prove something and dumb voters think he is for us. In Sri lanka journalists come and lie if TRUMP were here, he would say FAKE NEWS.

  • 0
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    TG
    Your writing is spot on as usual with solid facts and reasons to back up your lines of thought, always a pleasure to read.
    What I find in the comments section though is a bit disturbing, most people seem not to use their logic faculties of their brains, most arguments are based on emotions and feelings rather than reason.
    It is only too clear that China has played Sri Lanka just as they have with countless countries and territories around the world. It is their policy to invest excess money they make out side china.
    They invest in things that are of interest to them in the long term which is mostly land for resources or for strategic reasons. They are also spreading their population and haveing them positioned in their areas of interest. This is not rocket science.
    Sadly they have done the same with us thanks to our cheap scate Mara and his lousy family. Mara won the battle against LTTE, but he has lost the war as all advantage has gone china’s way.
    Now who is the deshadrohiya?
    We can not afford to have people with personal agendas or interest of other countries in their harts sitting in power in our small island. We need genuine people who are willing to make sacrifices for the people of Sri Lanka and not the other way around.
    Most of all we need the people of Sri Lanka start to reason in this way so future leaders will gear up towards that.
    Lasith

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    Dinuk

    How can the Citizen of another country be allowed to be the number one citizen in our country?
    This does not make sense to me. The fact that people are even considering this is a Joke.
    Remember Geetha was ousted from a much smaller post on the basis of her dual nationality!
    How can straight thinking Sri Lankans even consider such a blatent blunder, perticularly as we are speculating what USA will accomplish in Sri Lanka through is Citizen. They can resort to any means necessary including blackmail to achieve their targets.
    For instance they can implicate Gota in a crime in the US and ask him to face a court there, what will happen?
    If you speculate the positive side then be so smart and think about the negative side as well.

    Lasith

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