By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
The World Economic Forum (WEF) became front page news in Sri Lanka in January when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe decided to become the first Sri Lankan leader to accept an invitation to attend the WEF annual winter sessions in Davos Switzerland.
The Sri Lankan Information Department did some creative repositioning and produced the following factoid on the official government news portal of Sri Lanka – “This is the first time Sri Lanka has been invited to attend the annual meeting of the WEF, which has been held for over 40 years. Invitations are extended only for selected heads of government, heads of states, in addition to other business and industry partners.”
While it is true that WEF excludes states that are considered beyond the pale – North Korea was invited for the first time since 1998 in 2016, only to have the invitation revoked at the last minute due to a nuclear test they carried out– this was never the case for Sri Lanka.
We were invited before
Sri Lanka was invited in the previous years, says Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, the late Ossie Abeyagoonasekera’s son dispelling this little myth when I met him for an initial discussion at his office at the Ministry of Finance where he is an adviser. Courteous and friendly, Asanga explains his role in ensuring Premier Wickremesinghe’s presence at Davos and the previous regime’s apathy regarding all things WEF.
Photo – Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
“Ever since I got appointed as a Young Global Leader in 2012, I have been asking the government for some sort of representation at the WEF. I have been trying my level best, but there were other priorities and they were not keen. They were invited and I have spoken to them. I was adviser to the Foreign Minister at the time. I spoke with him. But for some reason they didn’t want to be part of it. It was a huge opportunity we missed, being part of it and working closely with all these people.
“The only world leaders not in the WEF are the North Korean guy and the Iran guy. In the last 10 years, I don’t know if Chandrika Kumaratunga has been to the WEF. Prof. G.L. Peiris has definitely been, he told me that. He has been to one of the conferences. But this is the first time we have gone as a delegation; the PM, Finance Minister, Trade Minister. I actually carried Prof. Schwab’s invitation to the PM. I gave it to him and he decided to go.”
Davos for political mileage
The new Sri Lankan Prime Minister decided to go in a delegation for the first time and explore opportunities at Davos. This is big. What is even bigger is the fact that the Sri Lankan Premier has tried to squeeze local political mileage out of Davos by creating the inaccurate impression that until his advent, WEF has kept Sri Lanka out of its annual meeting.
According to Asanga, the Davos main event is an inclusive, embracing and encompassing forum which has been severely under-utilized by previous Sri Lankan governments and the business community, social entrepreneurs and media personnel due to apathy and lack of awareness. From Sri Lanka’s private sector only Carson and John Keels have bothered to acquire membership.
The thought flits across my mind that if Carson and John Keels have half the marketing savvy of our PM they should run ad campaigns announcing they are the only Sri Lankan companies to be offered prestigious membership in the exclusive WEF community. It might even goad the rest of the private sector into queuing up for a place at WEF. Once, Asanga suggested WEF to one of the richest private sector entrepreneurs of Sri Lanka only to be asked, “If I spend a thousand, would I get that thousand back?”
It’s 17 February, two days after our meeting at the Ministry of Finance. Asanga is guiding me and my partner to our seats among the South Asian Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum who are gathered at the Board Walk, Waters Edge for a cultural event and dinner hosted by Sri Lanka Tourism as part of the first ever WEF event to be hosted by Sri Lanka.
Actually Asanga is conducting my partner to his seat while allowing me to tag along unacknowledged. Even though the correct protocol applying to two guests attending an event as a couple seems to have escaped him, Young Global Leader Asanga Abeyagoonasekera has spent the best part of his career chartering his course in the protocol infested waters of government service.
From his midlevel executive job in the telecommunications sector as a project manager, Asanga was propelled into the government service stratosphere in 2006 when he was appointed the chairman of the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation by Felix Perera who was the Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic resources as well as Asanga’s father-in-law at the time. In less time than it took the civil society to shout ‘nepotism’, Asanga, 29, and the youngest public sector chairman at the time had transformed ‘his dowry’ into a Grade A Corporation.
According to Asanga, Ceylon Fishery Harbours was a traditional corporation with a bureaucratic mind-set and a weak financial side. He charged in, bustled around being young and dynamic, blasting people out of their comfort zones and being fearlessly unpopular all in the name of awakening Sri Lanka’s fishery harbours which were either sleeping or damaged by the 2004 tsunami.
He introduced out of the box revenue generators such as commercial whale watching, a national dredging unit, built Sri Lankan tuna as a brand, enhanced HR, used IT to streamline operations and brought in Rs. 80 m revenue within a single year to a corporation which was recording up to Rs.60 to 70 m losses.
Back at the Finance Ministry, Asanga was telling me something which takes my breath away. “We went to Davos, the PM met everybody there, communicated to the rest of the world. The former government was moving towards more inward policies and all that. They never opened the door to the rest of the world. That was a serious weakness of the previous government. They were not outward at all; always inward.” “Even in the economy?”
I ask blinking and boggling inside. “Yes. Very clear,” Asanga replies masterfully, “I have said it several times. That’s why they were not involved in many of the global forums.” Asanga is being less than truthful here and I think he knows it.
Collection of essays
In Asanga’s book Towards a Better World Order, (Vijitha Yapa, 2015) a collection of essays that I edited, ‘Maritime Silk Road’ is mentioned on 15 pages while ‘hub’ is mentioned on seven pages. These concepts flowed into Asanga’s vocabulary from the previous government’s policy of opening Sri Lanka to the outer world.
Mahinda Chinthana, the previous regime’s policy document declares; “I am determined to make our country the centre of the Asian silk route once again taking advantage of its unique geographical location. I intend to develop it into a navigation, aviation, trading and commercial centre linking the East and the West.” Page 123 of Asanga’s book informs us that under the Rajapaksa government, Sri Lanka became the first country to back China’s initiative in reviving the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.
On page 129, Asanga asserts, “Whatever criticisms are made of the Maritime Silk Road, according to my view, this is a platform to share the development China has achieved over the past few decades.”
Chinese President’s vision
Whatever he thinks now, Asanga seems to have thought in June 2014 that President Rajapaksa’s vision of opening up Sri Lanka found its exact fit in the Chinese President’s vision of opening up China. Fitting neatly with – “Our President Mahinda Rajapaksa has proposed to make Sri Lanka a maritime hub. A maritime hub is a central location with a strategic importance for international trade and transport” – is the other piece of the jigsaw – “According to President Xi Jingping, the Maritime Silk Road aims to seize the opportunity for further opening up of China and to work with neighbouring countries to speed up the development of Asia”.
Asanga’s words in June 2014 shows a government with a long term and extrovert vision “The present [Rajapaksa] government, exploring the island’s strategic location at the centre of East-West shipping route, has initiated a plan to be completed by 2020 for development, improvement and promotion of the port sector.” According to Asanga, the Sri Lanka Port Authority during the previous regime “was proposing to make Colombo Port and Hambantota Port into free ports as means of attracting additional traffic and encouraging development of intermediary trade to increase opportunities for transaction with neighbouring countries.”
By negating the previous regime’s considerable globalization drive, now that they are no longer in power and just because they didn’t choose to take an active role in the World Economic Forum, Asanga is behaving like a text book illustration of the phenomenon that Noam Chomsky is attributing to WEF, “The dominant propaganda systems have appropriated the term ‘globalization’ to refer to the specific version of international economic integration that they favor,..”
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is heavily involved with the World Economic Forum. He is a Young Global Leader since 2012, the Country Chair in Sri Lanka for Global Dignity and Founding Curator of the Colombo and Kandy Hubs of Global Shapers. Young Global Leaders, Global Dignity and Global Shapers are all forums and initiatives of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Despite his tendency to accept Davos propaganda without discernment, Asanga has done good work in giving Sri Lanka its first ever opportunity of hosting a WEF event. The World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders ‘South Asia Bridge Initiative’ has been an interesting experience all round. Next week we will speak more about the Young Global Leaders who came here, how they interacted with us and the inputs both authentic and inauthentic that they received.
*The writer can be contacted at email@example.com. Her work can be found at http://ratnawalli.com/ and http://ratnawalli.blogspot.com/