Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • January 2021
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MCC finally pulls plug on 480-mn-dollar grant

Posted by harimpeiris on January 7, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 21st December 2020)

Generally the post budget period of mid to late December is always a slack time in terms of politics and policy making as December marks that rare convergence of Parliament, Court and school vacations. However, in a continuation of the extraordinary year, which 2020 has been, that norm too has changed as significant political events occurred during this time. Firstly, a few days ago, the US Embassy announced that the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Board had decided to cancel its near half-a-billion-dollar grant to Sri Lanka, for what it termed “lack of partner country engagement”. Just prior to that the former President, current ruling party leader and Speaker of the Maldives Parliament, jumped into Sri Lanka’s ongoing debate on refusing to bury Covid-19 positive people of the Muslim faith, by offering them burial in the Maldives, in accordance with Muslim rites. Closely related to that, Attorney at Law Hejaaz Hizbullah, Sri Lanka’s best-known PTA detainee and prisoner of conscience, needed to have lawyers on his behalf, go to the Court of Appeal, to get access to their client in government detention. It should strike even a layman that something is very amiss with our draconian PTA law and its application, when Appellate Court jurisdiction has to be invoked by those detained without charges for months, to get access to legal counsel. On a singularly more positive note, signaling a significant foreign direct investment into our infrastructure, media reports indicated that the Government had approved Indian investment into Colombo’s East Container Terminal. These developments signaled some significant political events of the past week or two.

The MCC pulls the plug, while India commits to invest

Losing the MCC grant, was a loss for Sri Lanka, both from the standpoint of an investment of a half a billion-dollars, injected into our economy over the next three years but also from the standpoint of investor confidence especially for American and western investors. The Rajapaksa administrations, both the current and especially the previous one, demonstrated an attraction for expensive Chinese debt, while inexplicably grant funds, or money you don’t need to pay back was looked at with a jaundiced eye. The objection to the MCC grant was ostensibly over the legal reforms over land laws, but that reform process is not only long overdue, to move away from an archaic colonial era legal framework, but would have been strictly a domestic Sri Lankan administrative reform process, that we controlled. The paranoia was unjustified but has now resulted in its logical end. The cancellation of the grant. This from a country which has just seen its sovereign credit ratings cut to junk bond status from B to C by all rating agencies. When one examined where the initial hostility to the MCC grant came from and recognized its sources as from the JVP and its breakaway the National Freedom Front (NFF), respectively in the opposition and government quarters and recognized their long standing political affinity, fraternity and relationship with the Communist Party of China, it is not difficult to connect the dots and identify the inspiration and origin of that opposition.

On a positive note, there was media publicity to the effect that the Government had approved Indian foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Colombo Port’s, East Container Terminal. Good news because FDI is literally worth its weight in gold, but also because the lack of investment, stymies the volume growth opportunities for the Colombo port. Sri Lanka’s other experience of a port development, in Hambantota was with expensive Chinese debt, which finally required the previous government to negotiate a debt for equity swap with the Chinese. The current potential deal with the Indians, based on equity investment, rather than debt funded, is beneficial to our balance of payments and foreign reserves. Besides being a large investment into crucial infrastructure.

Burying Sri Lankans in the Maldives

The issue of burial rights for Covid-19 positive deceased, has become the latest political issue, with the Maldives joining in the debate through their offer to bury our dead, with the said offer being fairly speedily declined by the Muslim political leadership in Sri Lanka, both of the SLMC and the SJB. Interestingly, MPs from the Tamil political parties have been at the forefront of the legal and political battle for Muslim burial rights, even as the Muslim parties and MPs recover from their support for the Government’s 20th Amendment to the Constitution. TNA stalwart MA Sumanthiran was a key counsel for petitioners who went before the Supreme Court, seeking redress on the basis of fundamental rights, while that Party’s young and rising star from Batticaloa, Shannikiyan Rasamanikkam made an impassioned speech in Parliament for respect for Muslim religious burial rights, which consequently prompted the ACTC’s Gajen Ponnambalam to follow suit, in that August assembly, raising it as a matter of national importance.

The fact of the matter is that the World Health Organization and its technical medical guidelines for Covid-19 prevention and spread control, declares that either burial or cremation is safe and permissible. Accordingly, Sri Lanka’s position flies against science and the international norm and global standard. We have further compounded it by not giving any reasons for the refusal to bury, except for a supposed threat of contaminating the ground water, which theory should fall into the same category as our untested and unproven native treatments for Covid-19 prevention and cure. One hopes in the new year 2021, grater sanity would prevail.

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