By Laksiri Fernando –
Excessive reliance on another is not good for a person or a country. This is exactly what is happening today in Sri Lanka. The repercussions of such a policy will be disastrous for democracy and also the economy. Already the consequences are visible in both spheres.
‘Like getting chillies by giving ginger’ (inguru dila miris gaththa wagai) is a common saying in the country. Origins of the proverb goes back to early 17th century when King Rajasinghe II invited the Dutch to defeat the Portuguese and then at the end the Dutch colonised the country. This is also what happened when the British came.
Of course the Western powers (Portuguese, the Dutch and the British) used force to seek alliances and colonise the country. That was a few centuries ago. It was somewhat in desperation that the Kings or the Nobles sided with ‘one against the other.’ The colonisation was largely unintentional on the part of the locals (kings or the nobles).
However today, the submission for virtual colonisation is willingly done, and voluntary on the part of the political leaders. The reasons are so seemingly obvious; money and power. The ordinary people are mere victims of this process. It is a mind boggling question how an Eastern colonisation (Chinese) is better than a Western colonisation (British or American). This is the twenty first century and not the sixteenth or the nineteenth century. Colonisation of all forms and from all quarters are inimical to any country’s independence and wellbeing.
Sri Lanka China relations have a long history. The famous Chinese monk Fa Xian came to the country in the 5th century to study Theravada Buddhism. It was a spiritual venture. There have been further contacts between the two countries, although not very prominent, as Sri Lanka was on the sea lanes of the ‘silk-road.’ Most prominent among these contacts was Admiral Zheng He’s adventures and confrontations with the Kotte kingdom in early 15th century.
China those days was looking beyond the usual trade or commerce with other countries perhaps like today. It was the second phase under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was akin to an initial form of colonisation effort or at least a strategy of ‘string of pearls’ like today. Zheng He had several voyages via Ceylon and wanted port facilities in Galle and Colombo. The exact history of the confrontation is not clear. However, when Alakeshvara, who was first a military commander/minister and then the real Kotte ruler broke his promises to the Chinese, he and his entourage/family were taken prisoner to Nanjing in 1411. According to the Collected Works of Yong Rong (1515), the following was what happened in brief.
“Straight-away, their dens and hideouts we ravaged,
And made captive that entire country,
Bringing back to our august capital,
Their women, children, families and retainers, leaving not one,
Cleaning out in a single sweep those noxious pests, as if winnowing chaff from grain…
These insignificant worms, deserving to die ten thousand times over, trembling in fear…
Did not even merit the punishment of Heaven.
Thus the august emperor spared their lives,
And they humbly kowtowed, making crude sounds
Praising the sage-like virtue of the imperial Ming ruler.”
Undoubtedly there were exaggerations in the description. However, the conflict as a result of either broken promises to the Chinese or because of Chinese over ambitions in Ceylon is true. It is unclear how the colonial ambitions of the Ming Dynasty died down in Greater and South Asia thereafter. If not, Ceylon could have been a colony of the Chinese even before the Portuguese.
When it comes to colonialism or colonial influence, whether it comes from the West or the East doesn’t make much difference. To overlook this fact might be a terrible mistake in politics.
China Sri Lanka relations have been immensely useful and pleasing after independence. Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to recognize the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) after the revolution in 1949 although formal diplomatic relations started later. The relations became launched with the Rubber-Rice Pact in 1952 in the trading sphere. The relations further bloomed particularly during Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s period.
A Chinese academic once told me that she was one of the small girls who welcomed Mrs. Bandaranaike with bouquet of flowers in 1972. They undoubtedly had a good impression of her and the country. These also were the days of the Non-Align Movement (NAM). The BMICH in 1975 and the Exhibition and Convention Hall next door to the BMICH in 1998 were outright gifts of the Chinese.
The times have now undoubtedly changed. China today is more for business than for generosity or mutual relations. There is no question about that, if Sri Lanka is careful enough in these business dealings. It is not directly the Chinese government that deals with Sri Lanka today but some of the major companies and banks, of course under the patronage of the Chinese government.
Even on Sri Lanka’s part, those who deal with the Chinese companies or governmental corporations are allegedly not the properly appointed government officials or the business leaders, but the political cronies or the intermediaries of the ruling Rajapaksa family. Most damaging has been the bypassing of tender and evaluation procedures. It is equally despicable to hear how some of the ministers (SBD for example) openly defend these deals on the basis of ‘quick decision making’ or actually ‘making quick bucks.’
This writer does not intend to go into the details of these allegedly dubious business deals. Some of them are already exposed in Parliament and in writings of other authors. The purpose of this article is only to highlight the dangers of these business deals in terms of foreign policy (externally) and good governance (internally). However, two of the examples are as follows.
- Port City. A major investor in the so-called Colombo Port City project is the notoriously corrupt China Communications Construction Company (CCCC). The whole venture has been agreed upon without any consideration for the environmental damage to the coastline of the Western Province. The project will not benefit the ordinary people, but the big business tycoons and China’s desire for a ‘string of pearls.’
- Railway Highway Costs. Costs for the railway lines or road constructions speak loudly for the underlying corruption. Beliatte-Matara Rs. 1,430 million. Peliyagoda-Katunayake Rs. 1,890 million. Pinnaduwa-Matara Rs. 2,700 million and Kadawatha-Kerawalapitiya Rs. 7,560 million. One may think this is for the whole construction. Alas, No. This is only for one kilo meter! Look at the discrepancies of the costs.
I am here not even talking about the well-known projects like Mattala Airport. The operational loss last year was a staggering Rs. 2,750 million. It is possible that the presidential election was called in advance before these mega deals would become completely exposed.
Sri Lanka undoubtedly is located at a strategic place where East and West meet in some measure at least at sea lanes. This was something emphasized by Professor A. J. Wilson in his ‘Politics in Sri Lanka’ (Macmillan 1974). This was acknowledged even in ancient times. With the East fast developing today, the strategic importance of Sri Lanka is undoubtedly enlarged. That is the reason for the notion of ‘Hubs.’
However, it is not only one country that Sri Lanka should be concerned about in this equation from the East. India is the closest country to Sri Lanka both geographically and culturally. Japan has been a traditional friend of Sri Lanka like China. Apart from South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia is a fast developing country in Southeast Asia. Australia is also an important partner in the Indian Ocean region and now an integral part of Asia.
On the Western side, beyond the Middle East, we do have our proper Western partners. We also should not ignore the interests of the countries in the African continent. Whatever the frictions at present or in the past, Sri Lanka’s interests dictate us to deal with the Western countries in an amicable and a diplomatic manner. That has been the major orientation of our admired non-aligned policy in the past. Sri Lanka should not conduct its external or international relations like a ‘bull in a china shop.’
Chinese President Xi Jinping stated during his visit to Sri Lanka recently that the two countries can set “a good example of how countries of different sizes can live in amity and cooperate with each other for mutual benefit.” That is true. However, China’s recent relations with some small countries in its immediate perimeters are not so good. Vietnam is one example. China is no longer the socialist country that many of us in Sri Lanka admired during our young days. During my last sabbatical in Japan (2005-2006), a Chinese Professor, who is now working in Japan told me that ‘China is now more capitalist than Japan.’ He was referring not only to the welfare system, but also the way the business ventures are being conducted.
China of course has been defending Sri Lanka or rather the regime against the accusations on human rights violations by the Western countries in international fora – some reasonable and others excessive or exaggerated. However, China’s human rights record itself is abysmal.
The price given for the ‘defence of the regime’ should not be total submission to a single country in international relations. Of course it is described as ‘defence of the country.’ It is possible that China is not directly asking for a price. It is more of a case of our present leaders offering the submission even without asking. Another obvious inducement for this submission appears to be the ‘commissions’ that the family and cronies accrue through the business deals.
Even from the West, there have been strings attached to aid, loans or even trade. But nothing reported as giving commissions. The regime’s present mood is against the West, at least in rhetoric. However, Sri Lanka should not go back to the traditional predicament of what happened when you ‘exchange chillies for ginger.’
Another major China repercussion is on governance. China is a one party state and not democratic. Human rights record is appalling. Principles of ‘rule of law’ – if you can call such – or ‘division of functions’ between institutions (what we call ‘independence’ in our parlance) are at least different. Even if there are few positive changes in terms of governance or democracy, it is a long way to go. It is a distant dream. Under the circumstances, it is completely foolish for Sri Lanka to emulate China in any manner in terms of governance, citing efficiency or development.
The emulation of China (or more closely North Korea) is a major reason for the present regime’s clear deviation from good governance, democracy and human rights. Not that those principles were perfect in the past, but the deviations or violations are considerable and endemic at present.