16 February 2020

The USA has made a case against SOFA, so there!

US TROOPS: An idiot's choice, absolutely!

The United States of America and her agents in Colombo which include but is not restricted to people in the diplomatic mission did their best to get a highly unpopular government clearly on its way out to sign two controversial agreements: SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact. In the last days of the Yahapalana Government all manner of pressure was put on the then President, Prime Minister and Cabinet to get these matters done. 

Obviously, there are no tangible benefits for Sri Lanka from the first, SOFA. The MCC Compact was pushed using two arguments. They said, ’it’s free bucks machang!’ Well, it is strange isn’t it that it is the giver and not intended receiver that is so anxious about it? They also said, sotto voce, ‘We are your main trading partner, machang. Saying without saying it, ‘sign it or else!’ 

It was supposed to be a Sri Lanka driven exercise. Not true. It was the US that pushed it. And the pushers they pushed operated from Temple Trees. We all know that Mangala Samaraweera, a senior minister of the Yahapalana regime, was in charge of two key subjects, foreign affairs and finance. We know also that he was and probably still is Uncle Sam’s darling.  So, yes, they could say ‘it’s a Sri Lankan baby!’ No one is being fooled though. 

What was even more interesting is that Sri Lanka, by dint of achieving Upper Middle Income Status was on the brink of becoming ineligible for the ‘grant’. If it was intended to help the ‘needy’ and if the formerly ‘needy’ are no longer in want, why on earth was the USA so determined to arm-twist Sri Lanka into signing the agreement? 

The President has appointed a Committee to review the draft agreement (which, by the way, was suspiciously kept under covers for a long, long time). Better to review than not, of course, but given the pernicious nature of the entire process and the absolutely untenable arguments for such an agreement given stated criteria he probably should have said ‘sorry dude, no can do.’ Maybe he was being diplomatic, having just assumed office and not wanting to rub anyone the wrong way from the beginning itself, but then again why waste time and money? 

The Committee has solicited public representations regarding the MCC Compact. Many probably have done so already. Some objections are in the public domain. They include a sharp piece by former Permanent Representative to the UN, Tamara Kunanayagam and a comprehensive and damning review by the Sri Lanka Geo-Political Study Circle.

It is hard to see these arguments being countered. The pro-MCC noises made by the neoliberal nati beholden and servile to US interests are in comparison sophomoric. Anyway, the Lalith Gunaruwan Committee will soon deliver a verdict of a kind. It would be interesting to see what it will be since it might end up defining the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency, one way or another.

SOFA. That’s what this is about. Status of Forces. Military, in other words. It would essentially give immunity from prosecution to US service personnel while on Sri Lankan soil. To put it crudely, they can and will get away with murder and of course lesser crimes. That’s just one part of it. History has shown that the US has never come in peace and has never come without intention to plunder and/or control. Just the other day, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that his country had formally delivered a notice to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement to the United States. That’s the Philippine version of SOFA, by the way. It took them 22 years to reach this decision. We don’t need to wait that long. We don’t have to sign it at all. Period.  

But why not?  Well, Duterte’s decision has been prompted by the US refusing visas to one of its congress members. Peeved, one supposed. Seems frivolous. Perhaps there were more compelling reasons and this refusal was a convenient excuse. Perhaps it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We don’t know. 

But here in Sri Lanka we have the USA wanting to station troops (whose track record for decades has been genocidal, nothing less) even as that country rubbishes Sri Lanka’s Army Commander, refusing to grant him a visa. 

So, in essence, if SOFA is signed, any US military official, from Commander to foot soldier to clerk, can step into Sri Lanka without a by-your-leave, hello brother, how machang and so on, but the most senior officer of the Sri Lankan Army cannot step on US soil.

The United States of America has made it very easy for President Gotabaya Rajapakasa. This decision is too much an insult to be withdrawn as part of a deal (e.g. ‘ok, we will give Shavendra a visa, but you better get on with SOFA and MCC, dude!). The President must decide who he stands with: the Commander of his Army or some two-bit political appointee in the US State Department. 

The US has showed her ugly mug. Hard to respond with a smile, handshake, shrug of shoulders and an inking that would be an absolute act of treachery. Now the US-lovers/slaves in Colombo will no doubt talk about beggars not being able to choose. Sure, we are not rich, but neither are we destitute. Even if we were destitute, there’s pride. And if we’ve survived the wounds and scars of half a millennium of brutal colonial rule, it’s because of that very same pride. Maybe this is another opportunity to stand up rather than lay down and be walked roughshod over. 

The US was wringing hands not too long ago to get the documents signed. Why? Well, they probably believed it would be tougher to get things done their way under a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency. Maybe they even thought it would be impossible. 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This is your moment, sir. The USA has killed SOFA. Do the honors: bury it. Along with the MCC. 

This article was first published in the SUNDAY MORNING [February 16, 2020]


A political reading of the US Ambassador's angst