Pound of flesh?
Posted on June 10th, 2018

Editorial Courtesy The Island

Monday 11th June, 2018

The UNP, during the last government, condemned the Hambantota Port as a white elephant and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe keeps calling it the world’s biggest swimming pool. Some UNP notables said the Rajapaksas were waiting on the Hambantota beach and waving at passing ships in a bid to get them to call at the deserted inland port.

Today, it looks as if the yahapalana leaders were waiting, near the Chinese embassy in Colombo, for the release of the next tranche of more than half a billion US dollars for the lease of the Hambantota Port. The desperation of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government knows no bounds. It has to shore up the dwindling foreign reserves.

The rupee has hit a record low against the US dollar. The government has pinned its hopes on the Chinese funds to stabilise the falling rupee. But the signs are that it will not get the money soon due to its failure to fulfil some obligations in the port lease agreement.

The yahapalana leaders may have thought they had succeeded in taking the Chinese for a ride by leasing out the Hambantota ‘swimming pool’. But, it has turned out to be the other way around. The China Merchants Port Holdings Company Ltd. is reported to have called for sorting out some issues pertaining to an artificial entertainment zone, agreed upon in the port deal, expeditiously for the next tranche to be released. Entertainment is a broad term, which can mean virtually anything, and casinos are expected to be set up in the case of the port agreement being fully implemented. Nobody knows what else will be there in that zone. The Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) has reportedly said the existing laws do not provide for the use of port land for entertainment related activities.

The government finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It is willing to do anything to get the Chinese funds, but it cannot allow an entertainment zone to be set up without amending the SLPA law. The yahapalana leaders have overcome some legal barriers previously by steamrollering bills through Parliament. They are likely to make a similar effort once again to please the Chinese. However, it will be interesting to see the reaction of the self-proclaimed moralists within the yahapalana ranks to the setting up of casinos.

Most of the allies of the current administration resisted, tooth and nail, a move by the Rajapaksa government to bring in gaming mogul, James Packer, who undertook to build a USD 350 million luxury resort, which was to include a casino. They let out howls of protest and the Rajapaksa government got cold feet. When Packer announced his decision to abandon the project after the 2015 regime change, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe demanded to know who had asked him to come. The PM said that Sri Lanka, under the new dispensation, wanted only good investors and did not want an economy which relied on casinos. Among other vociferous critics of casinos were the JHU.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has earned notoriety for policy U-turns. In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, its leaders vowed to scrap the Colombo Port City project, first thing, after forming a government. They considered it an environmental disaster. But, today, it has become the jewel of their Megapolis crown. China has tamed the yahapalana leaders over the years and the latter are now ready to do anything to humour the Chinese; they are even promoting the Belt and Road initiative much to the chagrin of their western well-wishers.

At this rate the yahapalana leaders might have to swallow their pride and perform some political pole dancing in Parliament to entertain the Chinese in a bid to get the much-needed USD 585 million.

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