Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was spot on when chided those who are raising a hue and cry about the proposed Economic and Technology Cooperative Agreement (ETCA) with India. His point was simple: how can you object to something that does not exist? Correct. There’s no ETCA. Yet.
That’s the catch. Yet. And it works both ways. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Harsha de Silva responding to those who have expressed various concerns about ETCA has affirmed his Prime Minister’s position. However, he has thought fit to comment on possible content. De Silva chose to focus on the issue of whether or not Indian IT professionals could open up businesses in Sri Lanka and thereby post a threat to local IT professionals. He points out that three of the four modes of the international service trade are already in operation in Sri Lanka but that the fourth, ‘the presence of a natural person’ is not under discussion.
All good. But all beside the point. And this holds for all the lovely 'don't-worry' statements coming from Government spokespersons on matters relating to trade and other relations between India and Sri Lanka.
First of all, if objection, as the Prime Minister correctly points out, is out of order considering the (as yet) non-existence of an agreement, then defense is as silly. Now as the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and one who has told us that the thrust of foreign policy as far as this government is concerned is ‘economic diplomacy,’ De Silva certain should be privy to what’s being discussed. However, if free and fair discussion is important, then you can’t have some people tossing stones from behind a wall at others who are by definition unarmed.
It’s the secrecy of the whole thing that is of immense concern. As of now, it’s all hush-hush. We cannot have a situation where on the one hand the government talks of a democratic climate of discussion and consensus building while it keeps deals with foreign governments under cover. We were told, after all, that the Rajapaksa-past of mega-deals behind closed-doors was buried once and for all. We would love to believe that it was not all empty rhetoric for purposes of securing political power, despite the cynicism that this government has invited due to many acts of omission and commission.
The other problem is the fact that this is an agreement with India. India, a relatively new nation that came into being only in 1858 courtesy the Government of India Act passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom (21 & 22 Vict. C. 106), is essentially a nation-wannabe political entity that poses off as a superpower-wannabe one. India claims to be ‘shining’, but on all counts India is dull. It is a struggling nation. Sri Lanka is certainly not ‘shining’, this is true, but if we are beggarly, it is silly to thrust hand out at a fellow mendicant.
Yes, the option is China, but that’s another story. Related, but different. Suffice to say that for all the anti-Rajapaksa noises made by India, the USA, UK and other ‘big countries’ on account of the previous regime’s alleged China-leanings, some of them would sink if not for China. India’s debt is not owned by China, unlike the debts of the USA and UK, but India is not doing great either.
And there’s history. A history of India meddling in the affairs of Sri Lanka. There’s the whole story of supporting terrorism with arms, money and training (before the idea backfired). Then there’s the Indo-Lanka Agreement. That’s important and relevant because it was thrust down Sri Lanka’s throat. No discussion. No entertainment of query. The then government submitted meekly. The people had to pay a heavy price.
Ranil Wickremesinghe's involvement in that hush-hush affair was damning. He presented the bill in part to Parliament. His preference for the hush-hush was more openly demonstrated on February 22, 2002, when he signed the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the terrorist leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. It is amusing that some people still argue that the CFA was the catalyst for the split in the LTTE (Karuna-Faction breaking away) and on the basis of this claim that Ranil paved the way for the defeat of the LTTE. Only the half-blind and diehard loyalist would indulge in that kind of reductionism. What ensued was not amusing. The LTTE regrouped, recruited, re-trained and re-armed. The people had to pay for Ranil's 'innocence' (let's be kind here).
But what is so wrong (and so relevant in these ETCA-talking times) is the hush-hush nature in which the CFA was signed. Ranil's cabinet hadn't seen the document. The then President hadn't seen it. It was not 'up for discussion'. Its constitutionality was not raised. It was hush-hush.
ETCA is not an agreement like the Indo-Lanka Accord or the CFA of course, but the secrecy of the affair does nothing to alleviate doubts about claims about benefits to Sri Lanka. What we know is that India hasn’t been Sri Lanka’s best friend. We saw India’s ‘friendship’ in the eighties. We saw India’s ‘friendship’ at the UNHRC sessions. India offers aid, but it has always come with a price tag. And it’s paltry compared to what the country has received from China and Japan. Of course, bilateral agreements are not about love but about business, this we know. However, when there are conditions that clearly seek to tinker with constitution, it’s even more difficult to digest. India is like that. Give a little, take a lot; build a few kilometers of road, build a few houses, and expect us to go overboard with gratitude. Take China out of the equation, replace with India, and it will take India centuries to help us ‘develop’.
The Prime Minister knows what the last secret deal with India cost us. To be fair, this ETCA thing might do us a whole lot of good, but keeping it hush and worse, getting the likes of De Silva to offer convoluted defense, is bad.
The other pertinent issue is the history of such hush-hush agreements.
Perhaps the Prime Minister could sort it all out by saying something on the following lines.
“Don’t worry. Once the draft is ready, we will put it before the people for scrutiny. Let the criticism be comprehensive. Let the discussions be lengthy. A quick signing will not take place. We will be transparent. We will be patient. We will in thought, word and action, affirm all the principles of good governance. There is no ETCA, but there could be. However, we are open to the possibility that we may err and as such we might never have an ETCA or its equivalent.”
Let us see.
A version of this article was published in the 'Daily Mirror' (February 27, 2016).
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. email@example.com.