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Government turns to new directions

President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka besieged from many sides is unfazed. He has taken a bold and independent stance and is shifting away from old benefactors and in important financial partnerships is looking to Asia and West Asia.

He is on the firing line of former colonizers, neo colonialists, media and multilateral bodies, sections of the UN, NGOs and INGOS, donors of aid, human rights watchers, advocates of peace talks, immediate political solutions, good governance, transparency and humanitarian issues.

The Government of Sri Lanka is snowed down by fly-by-night meddlers, busy bodies, pundits, Arbours and Evans's with dubious recipes and land-based dips overstepping protocol with windy sermons. The condemnations and criticisms are a multi-barrelled onslaught. If words could kill there would have been a massacre. Nothing like that has happened.

President Rajapaksa is continuing with his nationalism and his war against terror. He smiles amiably, speaks politely and ignores all these admonitions and is going his own way.

And their weapons are ideologically replacing the old effete manipulative donor aid with heavily pressurized boring, sometimes threatening sermons and a new adjunct R2P [Responsibility to Protect]. Now this new diversion does not befuddle the emboldened and educated Sri Lankans to them it simply means 'Right to Pounce' as in Serbia and Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, East Timor etc.

To the preachers it also means, teaming up with NGOs and INGOs and the Opposition to pull the LTTE and Prabhakaran out of the hole he has got himself into. It is correct that Sri Lanka has a considerable human rights problem and humanitarian issues to be solved.

The Government has set up institutions and is taking measures to remedy this situation. This must be done with a firm hand. The very personages who make the accusations of killings, disappearances, dislocations refugees and breakdown of law and order, do admit that the situation does not amount to genocide nor is it as severe and widespread as in other parts of the world.

In the air are other possibilities like being called names- 'a failed state' or even a basket case. These new weapons are coming into vogue because they know that aid is a blunt weapon gone in the teeth. Cutting off aid means the violation of the very humanitarianism they are advocating and an admission that aid comes with secret agendas and ulterior motives.

Sri Lanka is not a low income country any more. Her per capita income is US dollars 1500 [ however imperfect a measure] and donor aid has amounted to US dollars 800 million last year. From Sri Lankan expatriates working abroad the country has received US dollars 1.4 billion in the same period.

Sri Lanka sorely needs aid from abroad for her developmental and infrastructure building activities which the government says will continue simultaneously with the war against terrorism. That is why Mahinda Rajapaksa is looking elsewhere.

The reality has to be faced. Just as in the fight against terrorism, in the formulation of a political solution, so also in the economic resurgence Sri Lanka has to stand on her own feet and devise her own strategies for survival.

The affable, smiling President Rajapaksa has been going places. For assistance both military and developmental he has turned to old friends with cultural religious and trade ties.

He has sought the hand of friendship from four countries which have one thing in common. They do not have a large and strong Tamil diaspora of clustered communities, influential enough to tilt election results in favour of tame politicians, spread disinformation and pressurize legislators.

Japan has a long history of helping Sri Lanka after the war in massive amounts. Japanese overseas development aid accounts for 60 per cent of bilateral assistance and 40 per cent of total overseas development aid received by Sri Lanka. Japan gifted the modern Rupavahini complex, which is the national TV station.

Japanese aid has gone into telecommunications, ports, airports, highways, water supply schemes, irrigation, schools hospitals, the new Parliamentary complex, the national blood bank, the Uda Walawe development project, help for the uplifting of lagging regions and tsunami aid.

Help is forthcoming from Japan for the four lane southern highway, for the multi-purpose Moragahakande project and Japan will be helping in the building of the Mannar Bridge. The Udawalawe irrigation project will be completed next year with a total investment of nine billion yen. Since last year Japanese aid has exceeded US dollars 40 billion.

With a big highly publicised red carpet welcome, audience with the Emperor and Empress and hospitality usually accorded to VIPs from the world's powerful nations, President Rajapaksa came home with pledges of 2000 million yen. Japan has not gone along with the other donors who threaten to cut aid. Japan takes the view that the poor would suffer as a result.

The finances will be channelled to a Liquefied Nitrogen Gas project, which is eco-friendly and will produce 300 mw of power. Other projects include financial and technical assistance for a coast guard department, a budget hospital for the working class, a modern training school for nurses and assistance towards Eastern development and small and medium enterprises.

There would also be job opportunities in Japan for skilled workers and professionals. Japan has stepped up grants in aid from US dollars 320 million to Us dollars 400 million per year.

There is the saying that nations do not have permanent friends, only national interests. But it is worth remembering that at the 1951/1952 Peace conference in San Francisco after the last war, it was J R Jayewardene, Sri Lanka's Finance Minister who stood up before that august assembly and pleaded for clemency for Japan and urged that Japan should not be punished by the allies.

In the course of a memorable speech he quoted from what the Buddha said about anger and hatred: 'Hatred never ceases through hatred in this world. Through love alone it ceases. This is an eternal law.' And they paid heed to what was said.

More practical is the strategic aspect that for Japan peace and stability in Sri Lanka is of critical importance as the island lies on the vital oil route.

From Iran the President returned with bags full of dollars. Eight MOUs were signed which includes financial and technical support and expertise amounting to US dollars 1.5 billion. This assistance includes the expansion of the Sapugaskakande oil refinery - stepping up its refining capacity from 50,000 barrels a day to 120,000 barrels a day.

Laid down is co-operation in the areas of customs, shipping, tourism, business, trade and commerce. Iran has pledged a US dollars 450 million loan at low interest for the Uma Oya irrigation project and US dollars 1.5 million for the building of 500 houses.

With rising prices Sri Lanka's economy is caught up in the oil crunch. OPEC countries do not usually give concessionary credit. But Iran has given Sri Lanka seven months credit, four of which will not carry interest. Sri Lanka buys US dollars 750 million worth of oil per year from Iran. Although Iran is a big importer of Sri Lankan tea, it leaves Sri Lanka with a deficit.

President Rajapaksa has been a friend of the Palestinians and he has been President of the Sri Lanka-Palestine Friendship Association for many years. He advocates an independent Palestinian state.

With Pakistan Sri Lanka has had a long standing friendship and much military hardware has been sent to Sri Lanka during times of trouble and crisis. This is the other side of the assistance Sri Lanka seeks from friendly nations - military aid, arms and armaments, heavy weapons, tanks, ships planes military expertise and technology to eradicate terrorism.

It was India and Pakistan which came to the aid of Sri Lanka when the first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna [JVP} insurrection broke out in 1971. In 2000 while Jaffna seemed about to fall into the hands of the LTTE, after the fall of Elephant Pass, and India faltered, but Pakistan was the stout friend who rushed the big guns and other military requirements and helped to save Jaffna.

There has been a very long connection with Pakistan in military matters. Between 200-300 security services officers have been trained every year at the National Defence University of Pakistan. There is no doubt that this defence connection displeases India and blunt and arrogant objections have been raised.

Pakistan has pledged greater defence aid. Pakistan has added on a further US dollars 31 million apart from the already pledged US dollars 50 million. Janes Defence Weekly recently published a heavy list of military hardware that Sri Lanka was seeking from Pakistan. According to the magazine the lot would be worth US dollars 60 million and would include anti-tank guided weapons systems, warheads, training simulators and technical assistance.

Pakistan's Foreign Minster Imam Ul Haque has said that his country will not be deterred by limitations imposed by other countries. He has also said that what Pakistan is doing for Sri Lanka is part of the global fight against terrorism and is no longer a bilateral issue. Suicide bombings started in Sri Lanka and has spread to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Sri Lanka a small powerless country has done what it can. During the war for the breakaway of Bangladesh from Pakistan Ms Sirimavo Bandaranaike the Prime Minister risking India's displeasure gave Pakistan whose planes could not over fly India, the right of 'technical' stops in Sri Lanka during their flights to East Pakistan.

More recently, this year at the Commonwealth conference in Kampala Sri Lanka stood up staunchly against the expulsion of Pakistan from the Commonwealth.

All these countries including China have pledged their maximum support for the eradication of terrorism. China has had very long religious ties with Sri Lanka. Going back to the fifth century it is reported that Sri Lankan Bhikkunis [Buddhist nuns] travelled to China in order to restore the higher ordination ceremonies of nuns there. In the 1950s Sri Lanka did something very courageous and signed a rubber for rice deal with China. It angered America which cut off aid to Sri Lanka.

China in recent years has played a significant role in the procurement of arms by Sri Lanka. Several agreements have been signed for the supply of arms and ammunition, mortar shells, artillery shells, mortar bombs, rockets, naval guns, multipurpose machine guns radar etc.

It is also reported that China will be one of the countries which will be entrusted with the exploration of oil in one or two blocks of the Mannar basin in the north west of Sri Lanka.

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