Three controversial agreements with Sri Lanka – devised by the United States –came under fire from diverse quarters last Friday. If the Acquisition & Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) – inked in August 2017, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) – said to be ‘under negotiation’ since August 2018 and the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant (recently approved by the MCC board) had faced only muted public criticism till now, the only reason could be that these negotiations were carried out in a highly-secretive manner. The draft agreements were never made public, never presented in Parliament and hurried into their final stages, apparently bypassing even the President who is the Defence Minister.
At a discussion on the MCC compact at Pathfinder Foundation last week, it was suggested that criticism of the $480 million grant was akin to ‘looking a gift horse in the mouth.’ This extraordinary assertion coming from Pathfinder’s Chairman, former Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke drew fire from other panelists. Dr. Palitha Kohona, former UN Permanent Representative in New York quipped that this ‘gift horse’ might turn out to have no teeth at all, or decayed teeth, and it would be wise for the recipients to inspect the horse’s mouth since, in the end, they would be burdened with its care. One might add, in the light of information trickling out about the possible purposes of this ‘gift horse,’ it could turn out to be one of the ‘Trojan’ variety!
The MCC compact comprises a land project and a transport project, designed to bring about radical changes in land use and ownership patterns and in the deployment of the country’s resources. It is only now, long after the approval of the MCC grant, that discussions such as Pathfinder Foundation’s event are being held.
In Parliament on that same day, the opposition during an adjournment debate alleged that these three agreements violated the Constitution as they had not been approved by the House. “The whole country is concerned over these agreements. If the Members of Parliament cannot receive information about their contents, who else can?” MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena is reported to have protested.
Even as the parliamentary debate went on, a letter warning of the dangers posed by these three agreements was being handed over by LSSP leader Prof. Tissa Vitharana at the South African High Commission in Rosmead Place, to be presented to the Secretary-General of IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) and circulated among its member states. South Africa is the current chair of IORA whose Working Group on Maritime Safety and Security ended a conference in Colombo that day.
It called for measures to:
- Ensure respect for, promote and safeguard the fundamental principles upon which international cooperation among states must be based;
- Evaluate the adverse consequences of the agreement for regional and international peace and security and communicate the results to the UN in accordance with relevant provisions of the Charter;
- Take appropriate action under Chapter VIII, Article 52 of the UN Charter concerning regional arrangements;
- To implement the UN Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace adopted by the General Assembly Resolution 2832 (XXVI); and to
- Take appropriate action under Chapter VI, Article 35 of the UN Charter which authorises any member of the UN to bring to the attention of the Security Council or of the General Assembly any dispute or situation likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.
The letter was signed by a cross-party group of 21 opposition MPs including Dulles Alahapperuma, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Tissa Vitharana, A.L.M. Athaullah, Udaya Gammanpila, Bandula Gunawardene, Susil Premajayantha, Dayasiri Jayasekera to name a few. MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena and NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa were expected to sign later, among others.
Referring to the ‘top-priority’ status accorded by IORA to Maritime Safety and Security, the letter drew IORA’s attention to “a new situation that has arisen in Sri Lanka that is likely to pose a grave threat to regional and international peace and security, given its geo-strategic location on the maritime route linking East and West.” It warned that the ‘three military or military-related agreements’ between the US and Sri Lanka together “form part of a larger project to transform Sri Lanka into a US strategic military hub in the Indian Ocean, a project that is incompatible with the Purpose and Principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and violates the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.”
Giving a cogent summary of the potentially harmful fallout of the agreements and how they violate the principles of IORA and the UN Charter, the letter appealed to IORA member states to urgently act in conformity with their obligations under the IORA Charter, and the UN Charter.
At a media briefing the same day, Prof. Vitharana elaborated on the international backdrop against which the US was pursuing agreements with Sri Lanka. The US controlled the Indian Ocean region through its military base in Diego Garcia. But with the recent ruling by the International Court of Justice – the UN’s highest court, saying Britain must get out of the Chagos Islands (to which Diego Garcia belongs) and return them to Mauritius, the US will lose its lease-hold on that base. With the imminent loss of Diego Garcia, the Americans are eyeing Sri Lanka as a new launch-pad for military activities, he said. “Never before have we faced this kind of threat, not even under colonial rule,” the veteran Leftist who has been in politics since 1953 declared.
Former Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Tamara Kunanayakam also addressing the media said if it could be demonstrated that these agreements violated fundamentals of the UN Charter, then they were not valid. “Secret treaties are not valid. We need to go into how this process took place,” she said. “If the US were here, it is not for the purpose of defending Sri Lanka. We are not under threat.” The US sees its hegemony challenged by three sets of threats namely, China and Russia, Iran and North Korea and ‘Global Terrorism.’ All of them are in the new region called ‘Indo-Pacific’ that they have created, she pointed out. “These agreements have to be rejected totally.” Kunanayakam also made the point that the ACSA, SOFA and MCC were connected.
While available information shows that the ACSA gives US forces access to the country, and the SOFA gives them privileges and immunities, the manner in which the MCC supports US defence objectives in Sri Lanka may not be immediately clear. MCC is marketed innocuously by both governments as a project to ‘reduce poverty through economic growth.’
An article on ‘US Naval Basing in Sri Lanka’ by David A. Anderson and Anton Wijesekera could help explain how the MCC is linked to the US’ military project in Sri Lanka. Written from the US standpoint, it says: “In establishing a naval base infrastructure is of major importance. Sri Lanka has 13 airfields and four main ports. ... Out of these, the most important are the airfields in Trincomalee and Katunayake due to their proximity to the main shipping ports. … According to the World Port Index, the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee are highly-conducive for naval basing. … However, the availability of infrastructure in these ports is not sufficient to meet the requirements of a fully-fledged naval base.” We need to remember that the SOFA requires that “vessels and vehicles operated by or … for the US Department of Defence may enter, exit, and move freely within the territory of Sri Lanka.” The article, published in smallwarsjournal.com describes the country’s existing road and rail transport system and says that: “Overall, the availability of infrastructure in Sri Lanka demands a great deal of improvement for the establishment of a US naval base.”
Here’s where the transformations under the MCC might come into play. Improved road and rail infrastructure under the MCC’s transport segment, reportedly including an electric railway in a land corridor linking Trincomalee to Colombo, could be vital for speedy movement of military personnel and cargo, including weapons and supplies, between the two key ports and airfields. We may recall that in August 2018, the US tested what it called an ‘air logistics hub’ operation involving these two locations.
The MCC also anticipates transforming land use and ownership patterns in Sri Lanka, increasing the ‘tradability of land.’ In combination with other new land laws (e.g. State Land [Special Provisions] Bill, Land Bank), the MCC land project will help pave the way for foreigners to buy large tracts of land without the checks that prevailed till now. Meanwhile, the SOFA proposes that the US Department of Defence be permitted to ‘contract for services’ INCLUDING CONSTRUCTION. Construction of military related buildings and infrastructure would no doubt require access to land, and the necessary conditions for this would be created under the MCC’s land project.
The embassy’s refrain that the US has ‘no plans for a permanent military base in Sri Lanka’ may be technically correct. But for the purpose of transforming the entirety of Sri Lanka into a ‘military logistics hub’ serving US objectives in the Indian Ocean region, it becomes clear that all three agreements - the ACSA, SOFA and MCC, need to be in place. It follows that all three must be rejected, as parts of a project that gravely threatens the sovereignty, independence and territorial independence of Sri Lanka.