Food for thought and surviving the new GSP+

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It was Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman who once said there is nothing called a free lunch. He should know. Critics claim that his free-enterprise philosophy and abjuring state intervention in business left many without any lunch.

Friedman’s policies, absorbed by international bodies such as the IMF, which itself is supposedly backed by American big business, have left several countries that fell at the IMF’s feet after its leaders robbed or otherwise ruined their countries, in deep trouble.

What happens to other countries now at the mercy of this half of the Washington twins we shall probably see in the months and years to come.

But unprecedented in this universe is what occurred some days back when Sri Lanka’s elite storm troopers suddenly descended on the city of Colombo and elsewhere, blocking streets and guarding state buildings and probably the residences of the country’s high and mighty and not so mighty too.

Tourists — and they are worshipped and venerated even more now by state officials and the tourism industry — arriving here might well have wondered whether they landed, by error, in junta-run Myanmar which bombs and strafes villages willy-nilly killing hundreds of its citizens. Or may it was Sudan or Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

I mean where would you find finely-tuned troops armed to the teeth patrolling the country’s capital city and suburbs if nothing is happening or in anticipation of some dark deed. There were no signs the Chinese were coming or the Russians have landed or even India despatching peace keeping forces.

So what then prompted this sudden, huge armed encirclement, as it were. Rumours circulated fast as they surely would at this unexpected military presence. Some said that Mahinda Rajapaksa was to be elevated to prime ministership, the same position he quit in May last year.

That raised new questions. Would he need such a mighty military presence to safeguard his re-entry to the cabinet having fallen from grace in the public eye ? But it was another rumour like many others in quick circulation.

Nothing so politically sensitive as another one that said a mass exodus was expected to cross the bridge in support of President Wickremesinghe as though crossing and double crossing (and even treble crossing) was anything new in Sri Lankan politics.

The old story that some MPs wake up in the morning not knowing on which side they are is no longer a joke, some wags say, but a truism. It is said they know which side their bread is buttered. Why does that matter. Surely they eat both sides and much more.

It was nothing so mundane that brought our fighting forces to their allocated tasks in full gear. Oh no!

It was simply some 1,500 packets of lunch ordered by somebody apparently in the Colombo University from some canteen for an event which is still not very clear to me. That amount of food is certainly a mountain of grub not mere bird seed.

Some passing sleuth who apparently heard of the large order and wanted to scoop the rest of the assorted sneaks and spies, conveyed it to our intelligence which the Supreme Court did not find very intelligent or lazy to act on information and chastised them to the point of millions of rupees each.

Not wanting to be faulted once more by the judiciary or the people, the phones in the various intelligence offices would have buzzed, red lights flashing on all sides and alarm signals sounding the alert.

The intelligence and security top brass and others made of a different mettle (or metal) would have gone into an immediate huddle, putting their heads together and generating hundreds of kilowatts of sheer power, ordering our missile silos to be readied for launch.

Simultaneously our ground forces despatched to stop the 1500 or so hungry souls from causing devastation after they filled their stomachs and flexed their muscles and missiles in a dummy manoeuvre to test the ‘enemy’ deployment ahead of the next aragalaya.

After all was said and undone and couple of buth packet filled ‘intruders’ were rounded for obstructing the police in the performance of their duties, it all ended like a cross pollination between Dad’s Army and the Keystone Cops according to old generation movie buffs.

If security sources had again misread the information and rushed in where angels would have tip-toed, there were others who made a hash of the same information. One year ago the vast majority of people were struggling to survive with food shortages that led to starvation in some areas and slashing of daily meals in other households.

But now it was possible for quick orders for 1500 meal packs without any hesitation. Has not the situation changed perceptibly. When it should have been a feather in President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s cap the president’s spin doctors and minders missed a glorious occasion to turn it into a public relations boost, never mind whether it was a free lunch courtesy of the American Embassy (a la Weerawansa) or not.

Whatever the citizenry thought of all this—an unnecessary nuisance, another security faux pas or a comic interlude—the international community that is keeping its collective eyes peeled on the goings on is hardly likely to treat this deployment lightly.

From its standpoint the use of the police and military against peaceful protesters who are exercising their constitutional rights and the drafting of new anti-terrorism laws with broad definitions of terms that far exceed the limits in international covenants on human rights and conventions on labour laws must surely concern the European Union which must decide whether to extend to Sri Lanka the new 10-year GSP+ facility.

Besides the core human rights and labour conventions already in place the new proposals are said to extend the number of international conventions that should be complied with including one on governance on transnational organised crime.

With the EU already raising awkward questions concerning the Anti-Terrorism Bill, the government’s cavalier use of security forces to deal with demonstrations and protests by civil society and trade unions is hardly likely to pass muster at the EU and especially the European Parliament.

Sri Lanka is one of the six countries that need to apply for the renewal of the trade benefits. If Sri Lanka forfeits that facility with its imprudent governance that has drawn international criticism, the EU concession will be in jeopardy. We know what that will mean.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)

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