A calculated & subtle switch from Ports to Petroleum
Posted on May 29th, 2017

BY SHIVANTHI RANASINGHE Courtesy Ceylon Today

The recent Cabinet reshuffle was a joke, is the general public opinion. Ravi Karunanayaka and Mangala Samaraweera swapping places was nothing more than changing the pillow to cure the headache. While everyone was ridiculing the remedy, almost none paid attention to the changes in Arjuna Ranatunga’s portfolio. When he was stripped from the Ministry of Ports and Shipping, everyone knew it was because of his opposition to the Magampura Port being leased to the Chinese. Then, is it not curious such a thorn to the government is appointed as the Minister of Petroleum Resources Development?

True, removing him from Ports and Shipping will free the path for the government to go ahead with leasing the Magampura Port to the Chinese. However, installing him to be in charge of the Trincomalee Oil Wells that the Indians are salivating over will create a fresh problem for the government. Ranatunga replaces Chandima Weerakkody, who has been such a good and quiet boy, not giving any grief to the government. By all accounts then, the government should have kept him. What possible logic drove the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo to get rid of a passive man and install strong-willed Ranatunga?

The only possible explanation is, this government does not want to give the Oil Wells to the Indians. Interestingly, the fact they installed a liberal thinker like Mahinda Samarasinghe to be in charge of the Magampura Port means, this government no longer has the same reservations against the Chinese that they once did, but obviously now have with India.

Once again, India has no one to blame but their own stupid foreign policy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. They are so pumped up with their ability to flex their power and coerce us into submission; they always fail to read the small nuances that have proven to be the most crucial details. The fact that their latest ploy to destabilize us has resulted in the current government too leaning towards China, and more importantly away from India, should have some heads rolling for fresh thinkers to strategize Indian foreign policy.

Hats off to Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo for they are playing their cards well in this regard. As experienced politicians, they know that India’s weakness is its insufferable arrogance. With Modi’s second visit to Sri Lanka – before, during and after – a number of curious events took place that tweaked political analysts’ attention. These were however so minuscule against the largeness of Modi’s visit, it got lost in the centre stage drama.

The first question was, why would Wickremesinghe run to India to meet Modi, if Modi is coming almost immediately afterwards.

The speculation rested however what he will sign and agree to whilst in India. Wickremesinghe is known to sign agreements detrimental to Sri Lanka’s interests without consultation or informing country or Cabinet. Thus, his quick run to India had everyone nervous. It even prompted the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation to initiate trade union action to force Wickremesinghe to give a written pledge that he will do no such thing.

People were still talking of the MoUs he had signed when Modi landed in Sri Lanka. Modi walked about, oozing with the assurance that he was having his way, all the way. At Norwood, it was he who grabbed and raised Sirisena’s and Wickremesinghe’s hands, signifying that he was the leader. Whatever faults the MoUs may have, it was obvious that Wickremesinghe had done a good job massaging Modi’s ego. Modi totally forgot that he was a State guest and behaved with scant regard to Sirisena or Wickremesinghe.

He just did not care that after he goes, these two will have to face the public, the voter.

The Chinese request

The second curious occurrence was the Chinese request to dock one of its submarines in the Colombo Harbour while Modi was still in Sri Lanka. Submarines do not take to the sea as one would run to the supermarket to buy a carton of milk. Their routes are carefully pre-planned with the necessary requests made weeks ahead of time. Yet, suddenly one wanted to pop over for a visit, just when Modi was visiting.

It certainly presented more than an awkward situation for us. Three years ago, India went berserk just because we failed to inform India that Chinese submarines were popping over for a visit. Apparently, that was one reason Indians to be an engineer in the regime change.

Timing of this whole affair is curious. The submarine comes when the One Belt, One Road conference was just about to kick off.

Chinese have been going out of their way to impress on the world that their intention is a mission of mutual economic partnership.

They have repeatedly assured in numerous ways that they will not interfere with another country’s internal politics, nor are they interested in seeking a dominant role in regional affairs, nor do they desire to create a sphere of influence.

In that context, the sudden appearance of the submarine was very curious indeed. It is as if China did not care for India’s sensitivities. Yet, China was trying to convince India to join the conference. Though both knew it was a futile attempt, it is highly unlikely that China would have wanted to tease India.

The request put Sri Lanka into the most awkward situation, where Sri Lanka had to choose between the two powers. On the whole, it was very bad diplomacy on the part of the Chinese, which is contrary to Chinese foreign policy. Sri Lanka’s refusal was portrayed in media as an act of solidarity with India, than as a safeguard from India’s wrath. Rather than acknowledging that the incumbent government did not want the same fate that befell their predecessor, what was articulated was that unlike the previous administration, this government took India’s concerns seriously. When Sri Lanka refused, China apparently diverted the submarine to Karachi, almost as if they knew beforehand that Sri Lanka would refuse.

Raising eyebrows, soon after Modi took off, Wickremesinghe hopped on to the next plane and went straight to China and joined the OBOR Conference. India, who frowns when neighbours try to be friendly with other powers, did not have time to react. Sarath Amunugama almost immediately sympathized with India’s inability to be flexible with regard to the USD 50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as it goes through the “heart of Indian interests”. Thus, we communicated our loyalty to India.

Upon assuming his new responsibilities, Ranatunga lost no time communicating where he stands on the matter. He categorically stated that the oil tanks would be leased and not sold. DailyFT reports that he noted “a framework is needed to develop State assets through private investments while securing the country’s ownership of those assets. In order to modernize the CPC oil refinery, investors would have to be invited; but while that investor is earning revenue, the property should remain under the ownership of the people.

“I was also at the forefront of protecting our harbours. The people of this country elected us to develop the country. I agree that investors are necessary but I’m not for investors having their way and robbing this country’s resources.”

When Ranatunga opposed the Magampura Port being leased to the Chinese, he did so as a matter of principle. However, when he throws his weight to stop India from getting their hands on the oil wells, it will be personal as well.

It is widely believed that India was behind Ranatunga getting sacked from the Sri Lanka’s cricket board. Ranatunga strongly opposed the lucrative Indian Premier League, which is organized by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. As the head of the SLC, Ranatunga wanted the team to play a Test series in England.

However, the dates clashed with the 2009 IPL edition. Though the then Minister Gamini Lokuge asked Ranatunga to arrange the English Test series on days that does not clash with the IPL, which the SLC had already approved for the Sri Lankan players to take part in, Ranatunga was adamant that the team play in the Test series. Finally, the minister had to order Ranatunga to let the players honour their commitment to the IPL.

Soon after, the Sports Ministry Secretary had a meeting with IPL officials along with representatives of the players in Bangkok.

Though Lokuge insisted that the IPL was not behind Ranatunga losing the SLC top post, no one believed him. Soon after, Ranatunga switched his political alliance and to date remains bitter with the then administration. If even after this government legally persecuted his own brother, Ranatunga had not changed his mind. There is no way India will find any quarters from Ranatunga.

It looks as if Modi is getting cuckolded in a very big way.

What went wrong for India?

India made the cardinal error of seriously embarrassing Sirisena and especially Wickremesinghe. Before 2015, Wickremesinghe was perceived as an economic genius. Those who voted for the rainbow coalition seriously thought that under Wickremesinghe the country’s economy will grow in leaps and bounds.

Out of political necessity, Wickremesinghe decided to honour election pledges. When he increased government expenditure unprecedentedly whilst reducing government revenue to capture the southern voter for 2015 general elections, he was confident that India will come to the rescue with investments.

Apart from some currency swaps to meet expenses until the IMF loan is approved, India did not help Sri Lanka. The country thus has still not recovered from the economic crunch resulting from honouring these election pledges. According to the international rating agency Moody’s, as quoted in a local daily, “Sri Lanka’s debt to GDP which was gradually falling from over 100pc ten years ago hit a low of 71pc in 2014, but rose to 76pc a year after. At 76pc of GDP, government debt was high compared with similarly rated sovereigns.”

Today, the perception the voter had of Wickremesinghe’s economic management is totally shattered. Furthermore, India did not help the Sri Lankan Government to manage the Geneva Resolution despite being a direct beneficiary of the war’s victory. Still thinking India will help, this administration capitulated and co-signed the resolution without garnering support from China and Russia to fight it. Instrumental in bringing this administration to power, India instead treated Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo as their subordinates and publicly humiliated them in front of their own voters. The mammoth rallies that the Joint Opposition has pulled off shows just how much the country is angry with the incumbent leaders.

India’s mistake is not to see beyond Sirisena’s and Wickremesinghe’s frail physiques. When Sirisena could not get appointed as the PM, he reacted slowly, coldly and decisively. Mahinda Rajapaksa did not know what hit him until he was ousted from office. When Sarath Fonseka committed the same error as Modi and treated Wickremesinghe as his gofer, he ended losing his rank, benefits and liberty. Though Mahinda Rajapaksa carries the blame for throwing Fonseka behind bars, not many realize how the then opposition instigated Fonseka to cut his own path to jail.

However, with people like Dr. Shashi Tharoor and Modi playing with Indian relations for personal political gains, will India be able to understand the problem much less see the solution? Tharoor who is now a political threat to Rahul Gandhi is not in Sonia’s good books. Aiming to be Congress’s 2019 PM candidate, he must now impress his supporters. Lecturing to Sri Lankan powers on Indian interests was simply to impress the typical Indian ego. Modi too quickly comes to Sri Lanka to deliver a speech to outdo Tharoor.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe listen to these speeches patiently, but obviously not with agreement.

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One Response to “A calculated & subtle switch from Ports to Petroleum”

  1. Vaisrawana Says:

    Thanks, Shivanthi for this article. But the two biggest traitors that independent Sri Lanka has yet seen do not deserve the recognition you are extending to them. They exemplify the three personality traits that psychology students focus on in the subject known as the Dark Triad: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Their behaviour is not determined by anything other than egoism. To implicitly attribute statesmanlike qualities to them is a disgrace to the few honest politicians we have.

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