Work on B&R projects continues as usual amid political infighting in Sri Lanka

By Hu Bofeng Source:Global Times Published: 2018/11/26 19:18:40

Sri Lanka's government is facing an internal standoff, with two people claiming to be prime minister

Life is going on as usual for normal people, and Chinese construction projects have not been affected

Both sides of the standoff have nuanced views of relations with Beijing, and the public has a good view of China

Construction workers build a shopping mall called The Mall at One Galle Face, which is part of the Chinese managed Shangri-La retail and office complex, on November 20 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: VCG

Sri Lanka's political scene has been paralyzed since October 26 when President Maithripala Sirisena deposed Ranil Wickremesinghe as premier and replaced him with a former rival Mahinda Rajapakse.  

However, Wickremesinghe insists he is still the prime minister. Parliament voted twice earlier this month to reject Rajapakse.

For a couple of weeks, Sri Lanka had two claimants to the premier post. But parliamentary speaker Karu Jayasuriya said that he would recognize neither as premier. As the political disputes in Sri Lanka continue to ferment, the Global Times reporter went there to talk to locals, Indians and Chinese.

A parliamentarian from newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa's government throws a book at opposition parliamentarians who support sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Parliament on November 13 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: VCG

Fill my stomach

Coming out from the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, the reporter for the Global Times took a taxi along the expressway leading downtown. The expressway is one of the two constructed with China's assistance.

Huge posters of Rajapaksa, the country's former president and new prime minister, were hanging on the both sides of the road.

 "Are you Chinese?" the taxi driver asked in fluent English, probably because tourism is an important sector of Sri Lanka's economy. Tourism occupies 20 percent of the country's GDP.

 "Yes, and I heard quite a few Chinese people are working in Sri Lanka," the reporter answered.

"There are probably tens of thousands of Chinese workers here because there are many Chinese enterprises and most of them are construction companies," said the driver. "When we arrive downtown, you will see many tall buildings under construction, and there are Chinese characters on them, but it's too bad I don't understand them."

"Chinese companies are great as they brought Sri Lanka investment and employment," the driver added. "Chinese people are very capable, diligent and efficient."

As the taxi drove downtown, many children were running and playing on the street. People were chatting and sipping the tea in their cups. There was not a single sign that the country is currently undergoing a political chaos.

"I heard that Sri Lanka has two prime ministers now?" the reporter asked, trying to carry on a conversation during a traffic jam.

"Yes, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe," the driver answered.

"What do you think about the current situation?"

"November 15 just had a round of voting, and today another round, and I heard representatives in the congress fought with each other and some people got hurt," said the driver. "However, it has nothing to do with us, ordinary people."

"I will vote for whoever fills my stomach," said the driver.

"Who do you think will protect you from starving?" asked the reporter.

"I think Wickremesinghe is fine and I have no idea about why the president fired him," answered the driver.

On the morning of the second day, when the reporter took a walk around the hotel, which is near the congress, some citizens and tourists were seen wandering along the seaside. Nothing has changed except for the heavier security.

On the same day, the reporter had a conversation with a Sri Lankan senior military official in active service. The official has an attachment to China, as he is one of Sri Lanka's pilots who accepted training from China, and met his wife during the training.

He recalled his training pleasantly. He communicated with Chinese pilots in sign language. China is a synonym for "brother" to him and his colleagues.


Hedging between China, India

Jannat is an Indian scholar visiting Colombo. He sees Rajapaksa as a strongman who, despite his defeat in 2015, is not destined to grow old quietly, and has been hoping to make a comeback.

"This is one of the reasons why he made a special trip to India in September to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There were some signs that he was about to return to politics."

Jannat said that in current situation, President Sirisena and Rajapaksa have military power. The military and other powerful departments are still loyal to the president's orders.

However, Wickramasinghe is more reasonable on the legal level, and a majority in parliament as their supporters.

The "one country, two prime ministers" mess has been going on for almost a month. There are rumors that an early election may be held, but how it will end is still unknown.

Jannat explained that in 2015, Sri Lanka promulgated a new constitution which removed the president's right to dismiss the prime minister, stipulating that the prime minister could only be disqualified from office if he died, resigned, was disqualified from parliament, or his government was dissolved due to the loss of parliamentary support.

For his part, however, the president believes that he has the right, under chapter 42, paragraph 4, of the Constitution, to appoint a prime minister whom he considers to be the most trusted.

The focus of the dispute is on the word "consider," which gives the president a lot of discretion and room for interpretation.

Jannat specifically mentioned the "pro-China" and "pro-India" balance of power. He sees no need to label Sri Lanka's leaders as such. As a relatively small country on the main waterway to the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka's foreign policy is bound to be a "priority of interests" that can be pursued from both directions.

"Can we believe that Sri Lanka is dependent on India for its security and China for its economy?" reporter asked.

Jannat responded, "If Rajapaksa is absolutely pro-China, then why did he go to India instead of China in September? If Wickramasinghe is completely pro-India, why wasn't his recent meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi amicable? And you can see that many China-Sri Lanka cooperative projects have not been terminated by him."

"Hedging is not a bad option for Sri Lanka. But for India, Sri Lanka is not only of strategic significance, but the two countries also have deep ethnic ties, which India will never give up easily," he continued. 

An Indian diplomat, who asked not to be named, told the Global Times that India has been deeply involved in South Asia for decades, especially since the 1980s when it increased economic and strategic efforts in Sri Lanka.

Modi has repeatedly stressed "neighboring countries first" since taking office.

Looking at China's foreign policy, Jannat said, it is not difficult to conclude that China's expansion in South Asia threatens India's interests. The Indian government cannot sit idly by.

Social responsibility

During the visit to Sri Lanka, the reporter learned that despite the political impasse in Colombo, construction operations of Chinese companies have gone on as usual.

"I know China's 'Belt and Road' initiative. It is a great idea, and I appreciate the strategic vision of the Chinese leadership and government. Under its framework, Chinese companies have invested heavily in Sri Lanka," he said.

However, when they reap the benefits, they also impose a huge debt burden on Sri Lanka, he said. And some Chinese companies have neglected the issue of corporate social responsibility, he added.

Today, Colombo's skyscrapers are being built at a pace that other developing countries in South Asia can't keep up with. Many feel that the country has gone too far ahead. But Sri Lanka was not always behind. It was once catching up with Singapore in the 1970s, before it was ravaged by civil war.

Jannat's view of a "debt trap" is not very unique. A local rickshaw driver gave similar thoughts about Chinese investment in Sri Lanka. "I admit, the Chinese bring money that we all like. But they also bring chaos, fraud and a growing number of prostitutes whose main clients are the Chinese, which I don't like," he said.

Zhao Hailong, general manager of the China National Aero-technology International Engineering Corporation (AVIC-ENG) Sri Lanka branch, does not fully agree with some locals. "As one of the Chinese companies investing and doing business in Sri Lanka, AVIC has always been at the forefront of fulfilling its corporate social responsibility. I believe the same is true of other Chinese companies."

Zhao showed several local newspapers, saying that "these newspapers reported on the charity activities carried out by AVIC international in Sri Lanka since it entered the market eight years ago, including building roads and drilling wells for local villagers."

"Especially last May, when the southern region of Sri Lanka was hit by floods, AVIC immediately donated money and goods to the people in the affected areas," Zhao added. "We have indeed taken concrete actions to fulfill our corporate social responsibility, under advocacy of the economic and commercial office of the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka."

"The progress of the 'Belt and Road' initiative in Sri Lanka is obvious, and the local government and business community are still looking forward to it," a Chinese scholar who attended a symposium in Sri Lanka recently said. But he also revealed the challenge of implementing the initiative in Sri Lanka. He suggested that the main problem at present is the weak guidance in public opinion and agenda setting . "Whether it does well or not, its image should be better," he said.



Newspaper headline: Sri Lanka standoff

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

blog comments powered by Disqus