Penthouse to Port:The Power-Money-Idiocy Nexus

“Fools do not feel disgrace.”
Erasmus (Praise of Folly)

Gajabinna is a Sinhala word for lies of elephantine proportions. A book named Gajabinnalankaraya (roughly translatable as In Praise of Mammoth-lies) did exist, according to the late DF Kariyakarawana. The book was in the form of a dialogue between two fictional characters and referred to a universe of impossibilities – horned-horses, furred-tortoises, wearable clouds and mirages in which one could bathe.

Ravi Karunanayake’s repeated assertions, that he didn’t know who was paying his rent and his family didn’t know about the Central Bank bond scam, can be true only in such a universe of utter impossibilities; or ‘alternative facts,’ as Donald Trump’s Counsellor, Kellyann Conway put it.

Mr. Karunanayake should have resigned days ago; but as in the case of many – perhaps most – politicians, a sense of shame seems to be something alien to him. When he at last did, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration was left with barely a stitch to cover itself. This emperor is not yet as naked as the previous one. Ravi Karunanayake would not have had to resign, had he been Mahinda Rajapaksa’s minister. Nor would he have been summoned before a presidential commission and grilled for hours. So there is a difference, but it is rapidly eroding.

The government’s slow response to the moral crisis caused by the Penthouse issue demonstrates that power not just corrupts but also stupefies; the power-money nexus transforms even intelligent men and women into navel-gazing fools incapable of seeing their own peril.

Mr. Karunanayake’s champions get one thing right – he is not the only corkscrew-man in politics; such men abound in both government and the opposition ranks. But there is something particularly sordid in the Penthouse-story while Mr. Karunanayake’s attempts to justify the unjustifiable amount to unalloyed grotesquery.

Penthouse saga is a looking glass into the workings of corrupt politicians and the ramifications of politicised corruption. It reveals that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s promise of good-governance has metastasized into something resembling its opposite. It also reveals how the nexus between money and power plays in real time.

The equation has two parts. Power corrupts; power and corruption idiotise, to coin a term. That equation helps unravel many puzzles, resolve many enigmas.

Such as why the government signed that disastrous Hambantota Port deal.

Hambantota through the Monarch Penthouse Looking Glass

Captain AT Mahan is not well known today, the way his admirer Theodore Roosevelt is. But in the last decade of the 19th Century, Captain Mahan’s fame spread beyond the shores of his native United States to Europe and Japan, and he was courted by presidents, queens and Kaisers. His national and international renown started with a book, The Influence of Sea Power on History. His argument was simple: America must build up its navy if it wants an imperial future, because those who control the sea control the situation.

China today is where America was in the 1890’s. But it doesn’t need a new book to understand the importance of controlling the seas. All it has to do is to turn to its own history. Its Captain Mahan was an admiral and a eunuch. Zheng He, the son of a Muslim family, became the confidant of the third emperor of the Ming dynasty (the Yongle – Perpetual Happiness – Emperor). The emperor entrusted Zheng He with the task of achieving Chinese domination of the Indian Ocean. The Admiral’s state-of-the-art fleet undertook seven separate journeys (known as Treasure Voyages) and turned China into the preeminent maritime power of early 15th century. But China’s stint as the greatest ocean power was short lived. A new emperor ended the maritime policy and turned the country inwards.

When China talks about One-Belt-One-Road, it is harking back to its own past, its self-aborted attempt to turn itself into a global power by dominating the world’s oceans. Chinese leaders obviously regard the time to be apposite for the reactivation of that 600-year-old ambition. America, the current global hegemon, is on its way out. It would be natural for China to want to fill the vacuum.

It would be equally natural for India, and, at one point, the US to resist China’s sea-power ambitions.

This is the context in which the importance of Hambantota can be understood.

Rajapaksa acolytes claim that building a port in Hambantota was initially proposed by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s father. Perhaps. It certainly figured in Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Regaining Sri Lanka. The idea was abandoned when a feasibility study concluded the project unfeasible. It was resurfaced a couple of years later by the new PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa, but didn’t fly because the then Minister of Ports Mangala Samaraweera rejected it.

Facts are opinions in the Rajapaksa universe. There, expert warnings are ‘negative reactions,’ things to be rejected rather than heeded. As president Mr. Rajapaksa resurrected the Hambantota Port project (just as he did the disastrous Uma Oya scheme). “Sri Lanka made an open request for funding. China was the first to respond. During the President’s tour to China, the Hambantota Harbour was one of the three main loan proposals requested by Sri Lanka.”i The Chinese agreed. If they regarded this proposal as manna from heaven, they would have been right.

So the port was built and was a commercial failure. The debt piled up, not least because the Chinese increased the initially reasonable interest rates to unreasonable levels (from 1.3% to 6.3% in 2013; the Rajapaksas acceded to the unilateral increase.) The new government made an effort in its first year to shift the country back to a non-aligned path, but abandoned that sensible course in the second year. Cleary the Chinese learnt that managing this lot was no different than managing the previous lot. Suddenly, Beijing had no better friends than the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. And a plan was born, to lease Hambantota to the Chinese for 99 years. Since the port on its own was not economically viable, the Chinese would be given an exclusive industrial zone of 15.000 acres.

The ‘Monarch Penthouse looking glass’ is the best way to comprehend this volte face. All powers have deep pockets. The Chinese don’t have to bother with accountability or transparency either, even a shard of it. The government succumbed like nine pins. The Rajapaksa opposition’s opposition to Hambantota deal too was just a show. On the day the parliamentary debate on the deal was to be held, JO members invaded the chamber and turned it into an unfunny Comedy Central. The debate was cancelled. Two days later, the government signed the deal, handing over Hambantota to China for 99 years. The arch defenders of Lankan independence and sovereignty, the lay and ordained ultra-patriots, were conspicuously silent and inactive.

The government says that the provisions of the deal can be changed anytime. The claim would have been comic had it not been tragic. We have become a key cog in China’s plan to become the next sea power. We will not be able to escape that deadly trap, just as Cuba could never shake off the shackle that is Guantanamo.

It is perhaps time to think of a place most of us have never heard of, and none of us will ever see. Doklam, a plateau and a valley belonging to little Bhutan, but claimed by China. Currently Indian and Chinese armies stare at each other in this remote spot. China tried to build a road there, and Indians intervened to stop it, perhaps at Bhutan’s request, perhaps not. Thanks to Mahinda Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka has taken the all important step of becoming the Bhutan of the Indian Ocean, China’s Cuba. Hambantota has now the potential to be a kind of Doklam.

It is a terrifying prospect. The naval confrontation between India and China – as predicted by some analysts, might – or might not – happen. But there is a cold war in the Indian Ocean, which can only get worse in the coming years. And thanks to the deadly Hambantota deal, little Sri Lanka will be a key theatre in that political-confrontation.

From Past to Future

Admiral Zheng He’s treasure voyages brought him to Lanka, at least twice. The first time, he got a less than cordial reception from the de facto ruler of the Kotte kingdom, Veera Alakeshwara. The admiral retreated and returned, attacked the Kotte kingdom, took Alakeshwara prisoner. This was how a laudatory article in the official Chinese paper, Peoples’ Daily put it. “In Ceylon (Sri Lanka), his men took an insubordinate ruler and replaced him with the legitimate malleable one.”ii The limited historical records available call it the Ming-Kotte War. The date is said to be 1410 or 1411.

Zheng He’s present day successors did way better. They turned a bunch of insubordinate rulers into paragons of malleability without firing a shot.

The external problems are not the only disasters awaiting Sri Lanka thanks to the Port deal, thanks to the 15,000 acre Chinese industrial zone.

China has a particularly noxious record in using its monetary power to promote environmental degradation in other countries. The best case in point is the fate of Yasuni Biosphere Reverse in the Ecuadorean Amazon. “Some of the $17.4 billion provided by China to Ecuador since 2010 has gone to oil-for-loan deals, meaning they must be paid through the sale of oil or fuel – and nearly all of Ecuador’s reserves are in the Amazon rain forest.”iii The deal will therefore directly result in the destruction of the already threatened and depleted Amazon, including the supremely bio-diverse Yasuni.

China’s blasé or high handed attitude to environment factors, labour and human rights and the concerns of local communities serve to create socio-political flash points. Two recent examples are the planned interoceanic-canal in Nicaragua and copper mining in Peru. A Chinese company won a 50 year concession – extendable for another 50 years – to build the canal; the project was stalled thanks in part to protests by affected farmers and residents.iv In Peru, the copper mining has gone ahead, even though anti-mining protests claimed three Peruvian lives. v Unlike in Nicaragua, in Peru, the Chinese company is a state-owned one, a key difference which has a relevant to us as well.

When America inaugurated its imperial futures with wars in Venezuela and the Philippines, a section of American polity, society and media strenuously opposed these actions. The Anti-Imperialist League had a membership of half a million. They lost the policy battle, but throughout the subsequent history their heirs helped victims of American aggression, from Vietnam to Cuba. These countervailing forces did much to mitigate some of the worst excesses of American imperialism. British imperialists too had to contend with their own anti-imperialists. Even in autocratic Spain, a small segment of the Catholic Church opposed imperial abuses in the New World. No such countervailing forces are present in China. What debate there is would happen behind closed doors. China’s victims will have to wage their battles, without any help from within Chinese polity and society. That would make the battles harder to sustain and more difficult to win.

Charles Elliot Norton, Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard and a cultural arbiter of the times was one of those who publicly opposed America first imperial ventures in the 1890’s. He lamented that “…America is beginning a long course of error and wrong and is likely to become more and more a power for disturbance and barbarism.”vi That warning was, is and will be apt for any fledgling power with an imperial agenda. The Hambantota deal might make Sri Lanka one of the first victims of the ‘disturbance and barbarism’ resulting from China’s imperial drive.

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