East or West, which is best?
That is the question that must be on the minds of Sri Lankans after the events of last week following the controversy over the proposed sale of the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port to Indian interests.
To put issues in context, the previous government led by then President Maithripala Sirisena and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had entered into a tripartite agreement with India and Japan to develop the ECT. Wickremesinghe says Sri Lanka was to retain a controlling share of the project and the details were being worked out when the government changed.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who played the nationalist card in the lead up to the presidential election campaign had pledged ‘not to sell the assets of the country’. A huge hue and cry was made, for instance, regarding the proposed agreement with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) which did not go ahead.
Now in power and place, Rajapaksa was faced with the prospect of proceeding with the ECT agreement. India sent its External Affairs Minister SubrahmanyamJaishankar to Colombo to impress upon Sri Lankan leaders the importance attached to this project, for it was aware that that there was domestic unrest over the deal.
A week after Jaishankar left Sri Lanka’s shores, the Presidential secretariat, no less, issued a statement stating that Rajapaksa had confirmed during talks with twenty-three trade unions at the Colombo Port that the ECT would be developed with Indian assistance but that Sri Lanka would hold a ‘controlling’ 51 per cent stake. The statement was at pains to explain that the ECT would not be ‘sold’ or ‘leased’; it was merely being developed.
That is when the protests escalated. Interestingly, it was not the main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) or the almost defunct United National Party (UNP) that was leading the rally against the ‘sale’ of the ECT. They confined themselves to clarifying what they did when in government and debunked the ‘the deal had already been done’ argument trotted out by some in the government.
Mainstream and social media erupted with anger and disbelief. Workers at the port began a work to rule campaign. Most of the protests came from within. Buddhist monks, such as Medagoda Abhayatissa thero, who were at the forefront of Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign were openly questioning his commitment to the ‘cause’ and his integrity. If Ranil Wickremesinghesold the ECT, that was understandable and perhaps even expected but Gotabaya, how dare he do that, they asked.
We are not privy to what the conversation must have been over the Rajapaksa dinner table and whether elder brother Mahinda taught younger brother Gotabaya a thing or two about feeling the pulse of the people and acting accordingly but it appears that politics prevailed over Gotabaya’s image as the ‘enforcer’- the man who took on the impossible and made it possible.
To soften the blow, it was Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who issued the statement outlining Colombo’s latest stance. The ECT will neither be sold to any country nor handed over to any country for administration, he said.
The Indian High Commission in Colombo could hardly conceal its anger. In a terse statement, it said that ‘Indian expects’ Sri Lanka to stick to the original agreement entered into in May 2019. In diplomatic parlance it meant, ‘you have gone back on your word, you shouldn’t have done that’.
Now comes the twist in the tale. Shortly afterwards, Colombo announced that while the ECT was not on offer, the government was prepared to develop the Colombo Port’s West Container Terminal (WCT), again with Indian and Japanese collaboration. The decision was taken by Cabinet and announced by the Cabinet spokesman.
The details are still sketchy about the WCT but the cabinet spokesman did say it would be a public-private partnership which, at the end of 35 years would revert to Sri Lanka. Already, Indian media reports have said that India will be offered an 85% stake in the WCT compared top the 49% stake in the WCT, but these reports are yet to be confirmed.
There is definitely something on offer, though. That is why both President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Rajapaksa met with Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Gopal Baglay to convey Sri Lanka’s sacrificial offering to appease the powers that be in New Delhi.
So, has Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary who did not blink in the face of the threat from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and recently boasted about dragging the dead VelupillaiPrabhakaran from the Nanthikadal lagoon, blinked twice in two weeks?
Did President Rajapaksa give in the first time when he yielded to pressure from politicians, the clergy and trade unions and scrap the ECT deal with India? Is he now blinking again, trying to appease our giant neighbour who only the other day sent us half a million corona virus vaccines which would save the President’s blushes regarding his poor handling of the pandemic?
Quite possibly, he did. Life would be much more difficult for President Rajapaksa if he had a hostile India to deal with. India has already made it known that it expects Sri Lanka to offer more devolution than what was offered with provincial councils, when Rajapaksa’s nationalist acolytes want even the provincial councils scrapped. Colombo would also need India’s support to ward off the backlash that is certain to emerge during the upcoming sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The more important issue though is finding out what exactly is the offer with the WCT. Also, how would it be any different to the deal regarding the ECT? If the ECT project was so inimical to Sri Lanka’s interests, how would a WCT project be any safer? Or, is the government hoping that the collective opposition to the ECT project would have exhausted itself by now and will not be in a position to mount another challenge?
The coming weeks will tell. What the past few weeks told us however was that ‘Gota’s not for turning’ is a myth. He turns- and quickly too. He has also learnt that if you turn twice, you often end in the same place.