Sarath de Alwis
“When words lose their meaning and their capacity to bind those who use them, neither democracy nor the rule of law can long survive.” ― Jurisprudence scholar Austin Sarat
This essay is about the exposure in the New York Times and the two responses from former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Political Leaders claim the power and the prerogative to alter reality to fit their purpose and serve their interests. Their public pronouncements are marked by their contempt for facts as such, and facts depend in their opinion , entirely on the power of the person who fabricates it.
This essential bit of wisdom is borrowed from Hannah Arndt’s seminal work“Origins of Totalitarianism” .
Oxford Dictionaries are the global leaders in the business of language usage. The editors of this respected repository of English usage observe the convention of deciding on what they call “The Word of the Year’. It is a word or expression that has attracted the greatest interest over the preceding 12 months.
When taken in the context of events in Sri Lanka, it seems, the distinguished editors of the Oxford Dictionaries are extremely percipient and accurate.
In 2015, the editors of the Oxford dictionaries announced something unique and quite controversial. Instead of a plain word the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was an emoji or a pictograph: that was called the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji. The editors of the respected lexicon announced that the emoji – face with tears of joy reflected the ethos, mood, and the overarching preoccupations of 2015.
Year 2015 was the year we voted in President Maithripala Sirisena and voted out President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was a great year in which millions of Sri Lankan Faces with tears of joy yearned for years of ‘yahapalanaya’ – transparent accountable governance. That was not the way events unfolded.
In the following year, 2016, the editors of the Oxford Dictionaries, found that the usage of the term ‘post -truth’ had increased by around 2000 % over the year 2015. Post-truth – reconstructed versions ofindividual truths was declared the word of the Year 2016. Post truth in our public discourse became a near perpetual process. Crony bonds outmanoeuvred the bonds of trust that underpinned the rainbow coalition that installed the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition.
The wisdom of the editors of Oxford Dictionaries seems to be eminently and decidedly beyond all reasonable doubt.
The Oxford Dictionary describes ‘post-truth’ as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
The former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are both indisputable exponents in the art of fashioning post truths.
Let us examine the two responses by the former President and the Prime Minister on the New York Times story of China Harbour Engineering Company doling out 7.5 million dollars just before the last presidential election.
The former President has bluntly asserted “No contribution was made by China Harbour Co. to my 2015 presidential election campaign.”
He has alleged that the New York Times has been “intentionally vague about who had given this money and who had received it.”
He then arrives at a conclusive determination. “The Prime Minister himself has gone on record, describing the Colombo Port City as the premier project on which his Government has placed its hopes. If any election campaign contributions had been made to me by China Harbour Co., the Port City contract would not have been restored to them, and neither would they have been allowed to bid for the lease of the Hambantota Harbour.”
The former President is emphatic that the China Habour Co made no contribution to his election campaign. The New York Times story is intentionally vague about who had given the money and who had received the money.
Since his statement, the JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has revealed in Parliament on who received the cheques from China Habour Co and where it ended up.
That said, the former President relies on some convoluted logic. “If any election campaign contributions had been made to me by China Harbour Co., the Port City contract would not have been restored to them, and neither would they have been allowed to bid for the lease of the Hambantota Harbour”.
How true and how irrefutable is the logic. It is a magnificent piece of post truth. A rearrangement of seemingly objective facts to reshape public opinion, by appealing to emotions and beliefs.
Can we entertain the absurd idea of our ‘Dutugamuunu’ incarnate exchanging the nation’s sovereignty for a piddling sum of 7.5 million dollars? No, indeed we cannot.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had no alternative but to continue with China Habour Co. His own earlier rhetoric on the debt trap was now haunting him. Besides, he had other problems unravelling in the year 2016, that required him to venture into post truth explanations on the subject of sovereign bonds, private placements and auctions.
The former president knows jolly well that the new government could not jettison China Habour Company even if it wanted to.
Mahinda Rajapaksa in his 10 years in power, has redrawn the contours of competitive party politics. With his unparalleled supply of charm, charisma and élan he has demonstrated that elected governments can and do possess private interests. That, once elected, they are entitled to devise instruments to extract rents and impose costs on us citizens.
The ‘yahapalanaya’ government has not succeeded in reducing the size of its Cabinet. It has also discovered the merits of monitoring MPs. The practice of mobilizing support and loyalty of party ranks with perks of office continues. Wide expressways are under construction. Yet, parliamentarians must have four-wheel drives and SUVs to visit their remote inaccessible constituencies.
In politics, believability is an indispensable ingredient. In the last three years, the ruling dispensation has proven that believability is the one single asset that they do not possess.
Was there a feasible alternative to the Hambanthota [Magampura] Port deal that has been concluded with China? The answer is obvious. There was no alternative. Had he won, Mahinda would have had to arrive at the same discovery. That is why he called for an early election in 2015.
We do not know how fast or when the Magampura Port city and the economic zone will take off.
The Chinese have the resources, the patience and the strategic compulsions to make it work in their favour.
China is already in the Port of Colombo. The former President knows it. The Colombo International Container terminal more than doubled its throughput to 1.6 million after China Merchants Holdings International invested USD 500 million in the Colombo Port.
According to Drewry Maritime Research, Chinese shipping lines deliver more containers than any other country. The five top Chinese carriers together controlled more than 18% of all container shipping handled by the world’s top 20 companies in 2015. It easily surpassed its nearest competitor Denmark the home of Maersk Line, the world’s biggest container shipping group.
The Chinese know where to invest and when. In 2016, the Chinese entered into a deal to invest in three mega berths in the Port of Singapore. China has invested in a vast network of ports that include Darwin in Australia, Maday island in Myanmar, Gwadar in Pakistan, Djibouti in the Red Sea and Piraeus in Greece.
Its shipping companies carry more cargo than any other nation. China is home to the top 10 container ports of the world in addition to the historical maritime focal point in Hongkong.
So, when Mahinda Rajapaksa, our liberator claims that Ranil Wickremesinghe would not have decided to deal with China if he knew that China Harbour Co offered some boodle to a political opponent, he qualifies to the title of a heavy weight champion in post truth jousting.
Let us face it. China has embarked on a transnational economic initiative on which it has decided to invest more than a few trillion dollars. The task has been assigned to China’s state-controlled companies. They have deep pockets and are backed by deeper coffers of the Chinese state.
The Chinese state has injected massive funds to its financial institutions- the Chinese Development Bank(CDB) and the Export Import Bank of China (EXIM) . They are equipped to lend at low cost to Chinese State-Owned companies such as, the China Harbour Engineering Company engaged in BRI projects.
They are well equipped to persuade leaders and policy makers of the lands that fall within the belt and road initiative. If it involves greasing of a few palms, it is just too bad. Our Mahanayake theros and Anunayake theros do not read the New York Times.
The Prime Minister has assured us that China has not pressurized the Government to hand over the Hambantota Port. He has also assured us that no high official of the Central Bank has ordered to halt the investigation into the payments alleged to have been made by the China Harbour Engineering Company.
The statement of the Prime Minister is also a classic post truth puzzle. Who else would want to operate the Hambantota Port and repay its debt?
We were told that the Hambantota was a Port without ships. We were assured in pre-election rhetoric that the Port in Hambantota will be filled with ships and the Airport at Mattala will be full of planes. Then the new government converted the airport into a paddy storage. What goes around comes around.
The statements of the Former President and the current Prime Minister on the New York Times story has made them Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee practising the fine art of peddling post truths.
China Harbour Engineering Company has paid out some funds. Somebody received those funds. What is the purpose of the investigation? If the money did not go to the election campaign, where did it go? What is the alleged offence?
We the people must take a stand. We must tell both dear Mahinda and dear Ranil that we are not the type called Kondey Bandapu Cheennu.
Walter Benjamin the German Jewish Philosopher famously quipped “opinions are a private matter. The public has an interest only in judgments.”