Sri Lanka shuns West, finds solace in East
By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO - With the European Union's decision to suspend trade preferences for
Sri Lankan exports now in force, the island nation is demonstrating its refusal
to budge on any of the powerful bloc's recommendations on its controversial
On the contrary, Sri Lanka remains adamant about its position against the EU's
proposed measures concerning allegations of human-rights abuses committed
during the three decades-long civil war that ended in May 2009. President
Mahinda Rajapaksa's administration knows that it is not fighting a lone battle
against the EU, having received support from emerging economies like
China and India to withstand pressure from the Western bloc.
On the same day the European body ended Sri Lanka's trade benefits on August
15, Rajapaksa ceremonially released water into a newly built Chinese-funded
harbor at Hambantota, a southern coastal city in Sri Lanka. The port was built
at a cost of US$360 million, about 85% of which came from China.
While the EU and even the United States want Sri Lanka to address human-rights
issues, China has called for more international support for the South Asian
During last month's visit to China by Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini
Peiris, his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, said, "Countries big and small
have their own problems, and it is important to remember that solutions have to
be found to suit the circumstances of each situation in keeping with the wishes
of the country in question without hectoring or pressure from outside."
Last month, Sri Lanka forged an $83 million agreement with India to reconstruct
a section of the northern railway left in tatters by the war that pitted
government troops against the secessionist Tamil Tigers.
The two states had previously signed a similar agreement to rehabilitate
another section of the same track worth over $140 million. The commitments are
part of a larger package worth $800 million India has pledged on concessionary
terms to help rebuild the war-ravaged northern part of Sri Lanka.
"India remains committed to continuing its assistance to Sri Lanka as it
undertakes the important and challenging task of reconstructing the Northern
Province," the Indian Mission in Sri Lanka said when it announced the new
India is also helping reconstruct houses destroyed in the north during the
armed conflict. According to the United Nations, India has pledged to build
50,000 out of an estimated 160,000 new houses.
Indian companies are also exploring prospects for expanding their presence in
Sri Lanka. The Mahindra group, worth over $7 billion, announced last month in
Colombo that it was introducing new vehicle models into the Sri Lankan market
while looking to set up an assembly plant in the country.
"Sri Lanka has been able to stave off pressure brought on by the EU and the
Western bloc because other countries like India and China have supported it,
especially in the UN," analyst Jehan Perera told Inter Press Service (IPS).
The EU has accused Sri Lanka of violating international human-rights
conventions that made the continuation of the trade concessions problematic. It
has recommended certain measures to the Sri Lankan government to facilitate the
reinstatement of the concessions under the Generalized System of Preference
Plus (GSP+), a tariff reduction regime unilaterally granted by the EU.
In 2008, GSP+ was worth around $100 million, based on EU data. Expected to be
hardest hit by the removal of the concession will be the 270,000-strong apparel
sector, the country's biggest foreign exchange earner. Garment exports were
worth more than $3 billion in 2009.
Government spokesperson Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told IPS that the
conditions imposed by the EU on GSP+ renewal were an insult to the country. "It
is nothing short of that," the minister declared soon after the EU
recommendations were made public this year.
Just four days before the GSP+ suspension came into effect, the US released a
critical report on actions taken by the Sri Lankan government on possible
violations of human rights during the final phase of the bloody civil conflict.
"The principal measures the government of Sri Lanka has taken to investigate
incidents of alleged violations of international law have been the appointment
of two commissions, the Group of Eminent Persons and the Commission on Lessons
Learnt and Reconciliation (LLRC)," the US State Department noted.
"The Department of State concludes that the Group of Eminent Persons was
ineffective. The LLRC is less than halfway through its six-month term [it was
established May 14, 2010]. Initial actions taken by the government of Sri
Lanka, including aspects of the naming of commissioners and publication of
terms of reference detailed in this report, have raised concerns regarding the
LLRC's mandate and its independence," it said.
The government has assured the public that no jobs would be lost as a result of
the EU's suspension of the GSP+ concessions. In fact, said Rambukwella, the
government expected to increase foreign reserves to $7.5 billion by the end of
this month. A strong currency and reserves on top of increased earnings from
other sectors like tourism and foreign remittances would cushion any fallout
from the GSP+ loss, he said.
Yet such assurances have not assuaged the fears of the workers in the apparel
sector, said Achila Mapalagama, who heads Stand-up, a workers' rights campaign
in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone just north of the capital Colombo.
"No one has a clear idea what will happen now that the concessions are gone. We
will see within the next six months. For now there is a lot of fear," she said.