By Gananath Obeysekere –
Several weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a conference organized by colleagues in the University of Delhi and presided by His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. The conference itself was on how children’s secular education could be transformed in order to bring in values of compassion and caring sorely lacking in contemporary models of education. In my introductory talk I dealt with the significance of Jataka tales in molding the conscience of ordinary Buddhists right through the ages while other colleagues actually dealt with successful models of education using the centrality of compassion in selected places in British Columbia, Bhutan, Mongolia and Vietnam; while yet others dealt with experimental studies of the brain and the positive effects of insight meditation. Right through the proceedings the Dalai Lama commented on the papers and fielded questions from the audience with his rich insight into Buddhist compassion and its relevance to our times. I will add that no one among the speakers or the large audience of students and devotees ever brought in politics into the picture. Further, those who have met him, myself included, were impressed by the sincerity and depth of his understanding of Buddhism and his sense of humility and the personal charisma that he seemed to emanate, not to mention the breath of his knowledge and writing and his textual erudition of Buddhist philosophy. They appear in his popular writing for ordinary Buddhists as well as his more academic writing in, for example,The Universe in a Single Atom: the convergence of science and spirituality that contains among other things a lucid discussion on Paticca Samuppada or “conditioned genesis” first formulated by the Buddha himself. I write this because of my dismay that the Chinese are dogmatically hostile to his visiting Sri Lanka and my fear that like earlier governments the present Sirisena regime that prides itself in wanting to create a more open society might make a similar decision. I have talked to the Dalai Lama just as many educated lay-folk and monks also have done. All he wants is to visit Sri Lanka as a pilgrim and above all worship the Buddha represented in his Tooth Relic in the Maligava. Buddhist pilgrims right through the ages have come and gone without let or hindrance. If so, it seems to me that in denying not just the Dalai Lama but any Buddhist pilgrim to visit the land believed by most Sri Lankan Buddhists to have been hallowed by the presence of the Buddha is to admit that we have lost our autonomy as a nation and have succumbed to political pressure.
This loss of autonomy is clearly evident in the Port City project. We are told that the project is underwritten by a Chinese company with dubious credentials according to some critics. Ultimately, it would seem that the Chinese government or its accredited agents will have full right over a small but significant territory in the port such that for the first time in our twentieth century history we have ceased to have sovereign ownership over part of our own land. Does this mean that Chinese vessels and planes can come unhindered in our Sri Lankan space? In this regard I remind the reader that right through history our kings have considered Sri Lanka’s integrity as a nation and foreign invaders were there on sufferance. That sense of the unity of the nation continued even when we became a British colony. I am appalled that political leaders agreed to sign away our national autonomy when they agreed to the Port City project and wonder whether it was ignorance or some darker motives that prompted them to sacrifice the integrity of the nation.
Critics have pointed out that the Port City project might also have tremendous consequences to the coastal environment and of course the livelihoods of fishermen and I am surprised that the Catholic hierarchy have largely ignored these issues crucial to the future of coastal inhabitants. My own concern is somewhat different and has been expressed by others also, namely, that we have to dig up our land in order to supply rocks, sand and gravel to fill up the sea to make the Port City work. Where is this massive amounts of soil coming from? Even when I witness contemporary highway constructions and ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate house and hotel constructions I am, like other concerned citizens, troubled at the vast amounts of land that have to be dug (along with rocks and stones and trees) without much concern for the environment. How much more damage would incur with the huge unrestrained demands of the Port City project. In this regard I mention an important fact we tend to ignore. Sri Lanka is a very small nation of only 24,000 square miles, roughly the size of West Virginia inhabited by under two million people but our population is close to that of Australia. This smallness of scale and large population means that every inch of our territory should be carefully preserved and huge excavations leading to large scale decimation and loss of soil, rock and debris cannot possibly be tolerated. Large nations such as China, Russian and the US might be better off in this regard but if projects of this sort are envisaged, transfers of soil in large proportions should come from the nations proposing such projects.
One of the disturbing features of our contemporary situation is the demonization of the US by influential politicians and publicized in the media even though that nation had zero influence on the Port City and other major development projects. It is a nice way of putting the blame on an easily available scapegoat. No liberal thinkers will defend American adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere and its horrendous drone programs but one should at least grant that there is considerable freedom of opinion in the US and that even now a very important member of Congress has been indicted for corruption and this happens all the time, although some of the accusations against them seem minor by Sri Lankan standards! It is hard to believe that the former president Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa would endorse this anti-American view because he does visit the US for health reasons and we know that he and his wife have met the US president many times and cordially greeted him. Much more relevant is the fact that three of his brothers are US citizens and I presume that their children are all attending schools in this demonized land. This is course true of many of our so-called patriotic Sri Lankans. Push comes to shove they would prefer to migrate to the US or some other Western nation. Who but the poor would even dream getting their children educated in China in spite of the fact that China has a good educational system? The US still remains a draw for many wealthy Chinese who flock there for their education.
It seems to me that the principle underlying the Port City project or any other project should concern the integrity of Sri Lanka as a small-scale nation with limited territory vulnerable to ecological and other forms of damage whatever the political and monetary costs involved. In this regard consider the massive infrastructure of buildings, hotels, casinos and so forth that are being envisaged as part of the project and supposedly beneficial to the masses of Sri Lankans. This piece of fantasy has yet to be shown to have benefits. How many Sri Lankans will enjoy the benefits of owning those apartment buildings and even patronizing the hotels and other places that will spring up? There is no doubt that many waiters, workers and some managers will benefit but it is doubtful whether the material wealth of the working people will increase from what it is today, namely, around twenty five thousand rupees at the very most. Is this the brave new world envisaged for ordinary Sri Lankans by companies such as John Keells who have invested much and propose to invest more? I want to make it clear that I am not against the importance of the stock market, I am only concerned with the specific case of John Keells and other companies in respect of the Port City project. It seems to me that the simple issue is this: if the projects proposed by such companies are realized how much of that wealth will diffuse to the majority of Sri Lankans and in what form? We know that even in a wealthy nation such as the US, only 10% of citizens own shares in companies but unfortunately I do not know how that wealth component is distributed. Income disparities are everywhere in the so-called developed world and in the US at least half of the population live below the poverty level or in a low income bracket. It therefore seems reasonable that we question how the expected income generated from the anticipated Port City project will benefit Sri Lankans and how much will in reality go to those non-citizens who will own the major shares and become its major players. The fantasy that the nation as a whole will benefit from investments in the Port City project has to be met squarely with the proviso that the interests of the nation as a whole comes first.
That persistent question regarding the interests of the nation must lead us to the treaty with the Chinese and its supposed inviolability. Treaties have never in modern times been treated as sacrosanct but have been constantly negotiated and renegotiated. Sometimes treaties are abrogated or dismissed as pieces of paper and I am sure Chinese history will have plenty of examples of these processes. Any treaty regarding the Port City has been literally shoved under the carpet without proper consultation of the people at large. As some have already mentioned in newspapers a project of this magnitude surely should have been widely debated and put to a referendum. I am not suggesting that we tear up the treaty but surely one must negotiate and revise the unpalatable conditions enshrined in it. This is going to be a long and arduous process and it would be foolish for me to predict an outcome.
A final word. I do not want to create the impression that I as well as others I know are in any way anti-Chinese. We are only critical that a small segment of the Chinese polity that has proper consultation produced a city that is antipathetic to the larger interests of a small and vulnerable nation. I have myself been to China many years ago and lectured there and everywhere I have met with unfailing courtesy and kindness. So is it with Chinese scholars and students I have met in the States. It is some of the political issues of our time in respect of China that I and many of my Sri Lankan colleagues are concerned about and in this regard we must decry those in positions of power among our own countrymen who have betrayed by their actions the independence and integrity of our nation.