By Neville Fernando –
While everybody is focused and preoccupied with the nuances of the presidential elections it is easy not to see the how Sri Lanka is gradually getting squeezed by foreign powers. Of course we proudly brag about the Independence granted by the British, without even clamoring for it, in 1948.
But during the last couple of decades we have seen a steady and stealthy erosion of our sovereignty. Let us look at some ‘developments’ to illustrate this:
1. Mattala Airport
2. Hambantota Port
3. Hambantota International conference hall, and Cricket Stadium
4. Southern expressway
5. Army headquarters site on prime Gale face zone in the capital city, Colombo given over to the Chinese owned Shangri-La Hotel
6. Port city reclamation. Part of the reclaimed land will be given over for outright Chinese use.
7. Chinese Management of sections of the lucrative Colombo harbor.
8. Norochcholai coal power plant .
9. Lotus performance center.
10. Lotus Tower, South Asia’s tallest.
Many of these projects were made possible by the ‘courtesy’ of high- interest un-payable, debt–trap loans from the Chinese. As much as 15,000 acres of additional land as well as 70 percent of the ownership of the port have been handed over to China as payback on such loans. No wonder there is now a proverbial saying that the Chinese own part of the Southern Sri Lanka.
In all these projects, exclusive Chinese planning and technology has been used.
At the same time, these projects have empowered the importation of Chinese workers, some of whom have settled down in Southern Sri Lanka and have established permanent mini-China towns.
The situation in Eastern Sri Lanka is nothing short of a debacle. During the last decade and a half, big money from Middle Eastern/Arab countries has been funneled into the country with the purpose of rapid Islamization. A large number of mosques, a sprawling Shariya university and madrassas have come into being. Many Islamic women have been coerced to wear the garb representing fundamental Sharia philosophy. Terrorism was imported and financed, resulting in the terrible multiple bombings on Easter Sunday 2019, which killed 250, and injured another few hundred innocent citizens. Many areas in Eastern Sri Lanka have been transformed into exclusive and impenetrable Muslim enclaves.
USA has identified and earmarked the port of Trincomalee for the use of military related projects, and Sri Lanka has already signed agreements to bring in US forces into the country as necessary. It is engaged in efforts to strengthen and expand on these agreements.
A give away of a 5,000 acre of land in Uva province to private sector Dole Company is well known. But the deforestation of that land for banana cultivation along with attendant impact on the environment and the hardships caused by forced evacuation of villagers need be highlighted.
India has emerged as a top contender to develop the port of Trincomalee. Indian influence in the North of Sri Lanka was highlighted earlier with the developing and upgrading of Kankesanturai port and the repair and reconstruction of 45,000 homes for civilians. India has recently announced the construction of 10,000 houses for estate workers of Indian origin living mostly in the Central parts of the country.
India already enjoys 70 percent of the trans-shipment business in the main port of Colombo and months ago, Sri Lanka signed a deal with India along with Japan to develop a deep-sea container terminal there. The other recent development regarding the North, the construction of an ‘International Airport’ in Palalay (as a reaction and a competitive exercise to the Chinese foot-hold in the South), looks the most ominous.
It has been revealed that the management and running the airport will probably be done by the Northern officials, ably assisted by Indian officials. Is there a mechanism where the Central government will have strict control of the people operating, and coming in and going out of that airport? Can the Sri Lankan Government be confident that sectarian Tamil political interests will not usurp the activities at the airport. As an example can suspected LTTE operatives recently identified in Malaysia, travel freely through this new airport and be a threat to national security?
Did anybody think through these scenarios of potential danger to the country and institute strict safeguards? Can this International Airport be a portal, letting other undesirable elements infiltrate the country? Can the Government handle the potential safety related loopholes introduced by this airport?
It is interesting to note how the government ignored many security warnings regarding the Easter Sunday bombings, but in the aftermath, confidently proclaimed that strict safety measures to prevent future such incidents will be enforced.
However, given the post independence rise of tensions with the Tamils of the North, culminating in the 25-year war with the LTTE, this airport opens a new era of mistrust and suspicion.
Japanese interest in Sri Lanka has been ongoing, highlighted by a steady stream of funding for miscellaneous projects. It is important to note that high-level officials from Japan have visited Sri Lanka to underscore their keen interest in the port of Trincomalee.
Three incidents, which were reported recently (October 21) in the media, are worth mentioning: seven Chinese workers arrested working illegally at Aruwakkalu Landfill, a Syrian family arrested at BIA airport with forged passports, and the Navy arresting five individuals who reached the shores of Talaimannar illegally.
Another report that has been conveniently pushed under the rug is the settling down of many Syrian Nationals without any justification or whetting, in a massive housing scheme. These houses were constructed on illegally deforested land belonging to Wilpattu National Forest.
The list goes on and on. But mention must be made of the Uma Oya Hydropower Complex constructed in Badulla district costing more than 750 Million US Dollars mostly funded by the Government of Iran. Now abandoned, it is identified as one of the worst environmental disasters in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is still a poor country where 40 percent of the people earn less than 400 Rupees a day. It is very tempting for the leaders of such a country to succumb to the temptation of padding up their egos, and sign up for such show-off projects. It is like a hungry animal swallowing carrots thrown at it, unaware of the hooks, which may be embedded.
But often times such projects are designed to be mainly schemes to benefit the donor. The vain political leader can care less. Why? The people, not he, will pay the price. Moreover he will be rewarded ‘handsomely’. Considerations on feasibility, affordability, cost versus benefit, and national security are deemed unnecessary.
Skeptics could counter this by saying all this is paranoia. Others would argue that there is nothing wrong in receiving funding for mega-projects from foreign entities. But it is reasonable to assume that nations are not magnanimous enough to flood money into other countries without any hold and/or strategic benefit for themselves. Hence potential gains should be carefully weighed against long-term political fallouts. Can we be confident that such due diligence is applied to such projects? Potential gains should be carefully weighed against long-term, environmental, financial and political fallouts.
Also it is prudent to pay attention to the basics of national security that no nation ignores. The terror attacks of Easter 2019, and the loss of some 250 human lives that it brought about could have been averted had the security system been adequate and vigilant.
It is difficult to stay silent if you follow the precautionary edict “see something- say something”. This long-suffering small island nation has seen much ethnic tensions and violence. Even the remote possibility of loss of peace and stability in the land stemming from super power competition and clashes within its shores, and control and hegemony of the island, would be hard to bear. We should not wait until it is ‘Paradise Lost’.