Sri Lankan sovereignty, non-negotiable!


by Tamara Kunanayakam

Economist, Chairperson – UN Working Group on the Right to Development (2011 – 2015), and former Ambassador/Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN at Geneva

(Based on a Public Lecture at the University of Colombo, adapted for The Island)

Sri Lankan sovereignty – its supremacy in domestic policy and its independence in foreign policy – is under a two-pronged attack.

In Sri Lanka, the neoliberals seek physical appropriation of territory and all that it contains, targeting the very substance of sovereignty and independence – the inalienable right of the people to full and permanent sovereignty, including possession, use and disposal, over all their wealth, natural resources and economic activities. Without permanent sovereignty, there can be no independent domestic or foreign policy; without it, independence and sovereignty are but empty shells.

At the UN Human Rights Council, their ideological counterpart, the US neoconservatives lead the attack. US-led resolution co-signed by the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe Government legitimises unilateral intervention in its internal affairs and permits instrumentalisation of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to draft laws that facilitate appropriation and provide a long-term guarantee.

The larger objective is gaining control over the strategically located island to maintain US global hegemony by combatting the reemergence of a potential rival identified in the 2018 US National Defense Strategy as the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by China and Russia, not terrorism.

Sri Lanka is fast losing its economic sovereignty. Policy choices are being ceded to the US Administration, IMF/World Bank, Western aid agencies, corporate-backed think tanks, transnational corporations, and a small clique of legal and financial consultancy firms in the multimillion-dollar privatisation business, giving advice, then profiting from that advice. People and nation have become dispensable commodities; their labour, wealth, natural resources, economic activities are on auction with foreign bidders determining their worth.

Sri Lanka is meekly following Washington further down the destructive path of neoliberalism, which, four decades later, has failed to bring about the promised wellbeing for all. According to the 2018 World Inequality Report, global inequality has grown since 1980 with the top 1% increasing their annual income by 205% and the top 0.001% by 636%, whereas average annual wage of the bottom 50% has stagnated. A 2017 Oxfam index ranks Sri Lanka 138th out of 152 countries in terms of relative commitment to reducing inequality, worse than Haiti.

Even ardent promoters of neoliberalism admit it has failed. On the 2008 financial collapse, David Rothkopf, a former senior US Commerce department official said, "This is a watershed. This is the end of 25 years of Reagan-Thatcherism, 'leave it to the market, less government is better government'. That is over - period." Martin Wolf, economic guru of Financial Times, called the day Bear Stearns collapsed "the day the dream of global free-market capitalism died." French President Sarkozy agreed, "(The) idea of an all powerful market without any rules and any political intervention is mad. Self-regulation is finished. Laisser faire is finished. The all-powerful market which is always right is finished." 

The myth of the private sector being more efficient than the public sector has also exploded. The most important study on the efficiency of all European State enterprises privatized between 1980-2009 revealed they performed worse than those that remained public. A 2015 UNDP study found no model of ownership (public, private, or mixed) intrinsically more efficient than the other. iA telling case is British Metronet Rail, a Public Private Partnership (PPP), which became insolvent before the 5-year deal ended and was brought under court administration, costing the public over £400 million.

The role played by the Yahapalana partners in this onslaught is not a matter of bad management, bad governance, incompetence, incapacity, or an absence of vision. They have been placed in the positions they occupy precisely because of a shared vision.

The neoliberal project

The neoliberal project, a revival of 19th century laisser faire ideology, has its origins in the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), a secretive organization founded in 1947 by Friedrich von Hayek of the Austrian School of Economics, with Milton Friedman of the Chicago School, later Economic Adviser to US President Reagan, Allan Walters, who became Chief Economic Adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, other neoliberals, members of the US oligarchy and European aristocracy.

Its project is Hayek’s globalist vision – an end to the constitutional nation-State and the global expansion of the oligarchy’s interests unhampered by State sovereignty. A supranational world government, as expressed in the International Paneuropean Union, would replace the nation State, a vision shared by the Nazis. Deregulation and liberalization will render impossible any State action on behalf of nation and people, giving free rein over the national economy to global corporate interests. It will no longer have control over the value of what the nation produces, its wealth, natural resources, economic activities, workforce, currency, or even be able to fulfill its international human rights and labour obligations.

The State will be transformed radically from an entity in which popular sovereignty is vested and duty-bound to protect the interests of people and nation into one that serves the interests of a small oligarchy, becoming more not less authoritarian. Its role will be to deregulate all legal and administrative controls that interfere with their operations, and then re-regulate to protect them from popular anger. The most discussed solution is imposing constitutional limits to popular power as best guarantee. The terms "rule of law" and "good governance" in HRC Resolution 30/1 and in IMF/World Bank/Western conditionalities refer to this new system of law and government. In Sri Lanka, it is known as Yahapalanaya.

Civilising mission

The project is advanced as a civilizing concept, associating Western civilization with progress and development, equating "big government" with totalitarianism. Today, in the human rights language, this civilising mission is translated as Responsibility to Protect. Legitimising their worldview as "common sense," neoliberals have imposed the meaning of terms such as productive, progressive, scientific, modern, independent, freedom, etc. from the point of view of the key actors in global markets.

Infiltrating Government

MPS shapes economic policies by infiltrating and controlling governments through a powerful elite-led global policy-planning network of over 500 think tanks and numerous business schools, corporate-backed Foundations, media, and University economics departments transformed into ideological centres of neoliberal strategy. Funded mainly by US corporates and North American Governments, they produce neoliberal ideas and language under cover of supposedly impartial hubs of expertise propagating them through the mass media; training of business, political and social leaders, economists, journalists, and other professionals; drafting laws for parliamentarians, ministers, and heads of State; preparing publications for conferences and seminars; and introducing speakers for meetings and social encounters.

Transfer of power from public institutions to global corporates

Past decades have seen a massive transfer of wealth, resources, and power from public institutions to foreign corporates. Studies show the most significant shift has not been from public to private, nor State to market, but from local and national political agencies to global concentrations of economic power. In 2016, the 10 largest TNCs earned more than all countries in the world, their total worth US 285 billion equivalent to the wealth of 180 countries;ii and, 737 global banks, insurance companies and industrial groups controlled 80% of the value of all the world’s companies.iii

Corporate influence especially over countries of the South manifests itself through its sheer economic power; its ability to manipulate transfer prices through intra-company trade, inflating import prices and underpricing exports also to avoid taxation or circumvent limits to profit repatriation; its ability to wield influence in the political affairs of sovereign States – directly or indirectly, and when necessary, even obtain Western intervention to further or protect their interests. As a result, States’ ability to protect and promote the public interest has been significantly undermined, and citizens’ authority usurped.

MPS influence in Sri Lanka

An eminent Sri Lankan MPS member is Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, under whose influence it held a Special Meeting in Kandalama in 2004, when he was Prime Minister.iHis influence over policy needs no comment.

The two most visible MPS linked think tanks in Sri Lanka masquerading under the guise of impartiality, providing cover for the political establishment and profoundly influencing policy changes and far- reaching reforms – including Constitutional – are the Institute for Policy Studies and Advocata Institute. They illustrate how Western governments, corporates and their think-tanks function together to hijack State sovereignty; how foreign-funded, foreign-controlled entities unaccountable to people and State penetrate Government and work from within – without any impediment – to implement an alien agenda. They highlight the importance of knowing the sponsors and donors of reports from alleged think tanks that advocate sale of the country, and the lobbying connections of its authors.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...