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Saturday December 10th, 2022

South Asia’s smaller countries have a principled stand on Ukraine war

ECONOMYNEXT – It’s nearly a hundred days since Russia invaded Ukraine and escalated a simmering conflict limited to the Eastern part of the country into a full-scale war that involves nearly two hundred thousand Russian troops.
The conflict has impacted Europe and the West deeply, sending oil prices and subsequently the cost of other commodities soaring and fears that the world order itself will be deeply affected.

South Asia’s response to the war is also being discussed widely and on May 31, a webinar organized by the Friedrich Neumann Foundation for Freedom brought representatives from the smaller nations on the subcontinent to express their views.

Entitled Ukraine Crisis: Assessing South Asia’s response, the discussion was moderated by Pramit Pal Chaudhuri Senior Adviser at the Rhodium Group and Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times.

Joining the discussion as panellists were Dr Abdul Hannan Waheed, Editor and Writer, Maldives Business Standard, Gopilal Acharya, Journalist and founder of the “Journalist” in Bhutan and Major General (Retd) Binoj Basnyat, a Strategic Analyst of Nepal.

Addressing participants at the beginning of the webinar, Dr. Marcus Faber, a member of the German Federal Parliament (Bundestag) who also sits on the Parliament’s Defense Committee, emphasized it was important for Asian nations to be engaged in the issue.

“We should do everything to stop Russia and do everything to protect the democracy that is under attack here because the result of the conflict will affect the rest of the world. If the attack is successful against democracy, then there will be other dictatorships willing to attack other democracies,” Dr. Faber said.

He called on Asian nations to join the condemnation of Russia because “we need the rule of law to prevail. Otherwise, this kind of action can happen in Asia”.

The South Asian region remains divided on the Ukraine issue.

These divisions came out into the open in the United Nations General Assembly on March 2 when all the smaller nations in the region except for Sri Lanka, supported the resolution condemning Russia for invading Ukraine while the bigger countries abstained.

Afghanistan took a neutral position but voted in favor of the resolution condemning Russia. The reason, as Chaudhuri explained was that the neutral position was adopted by the Taliban government in Kabul and the vote condemning Russia came from the pro-Western Islamic Republic, the government in exile.

Bangladesh took a neutral position and also abstained from voting. Bhutan and Nepal criticized Russia and voted in favour of the resolution. The Maldives took a neutral position but voted in favor of condemning the invasion.

Like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka was neutral and abstained from voting. This was the same position that India took, but New Delhi issued a statement saying it supports the sovereignty and integrity of countries without mentioning Ukraine.

Pakistan also abstained from voting, according to the United Nations website.
Moderator Chaudhuri commented that it appeared the smaller countries “voted on principle while the bigger countries voted on interests.”

In a previous FNF webinar on Asia’s engagement in the Russian –Ukrainian conflict, panellists from India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka pointed to their close historical ties with the former Soviet Union as reasons why they could not condemn Moscow. Both India and Bangladesh have close ties to Russia and the Soviets helped India and Bangladesh during the latter’s war of liberation in 1971.

India continues to have military cooperation with Russia. Sri Lanka too is constrained in condemning Russia, as the latter is one of the biggest buyers of Sri Lanka Tea and also attracts a significant number of tourists from that country.

Acharya, a Bhutanese journalist, agreed that the Russian invasion of Ukraine does pose a threat to the rest of the world. “Ukraine is a democracy, and this is unacceptable to the rest of the world.”

He also said that the political parties in Bhutan all agreed that their country should condemn the invasion.

“We are one of the smallest countries in the region and have to live next to China and India,” he pointed out.

Nepal is also in a similar situation. Though more populated than Sri Lanka, Nepal has also to deal with the two giant neighbours. Its position was the same as Bhutan with Maj. Gen.

Basnyat said Nepal had to consider “various disputations” between India and China and the “annexation of Tibet and Sikkim.” He also said that with regards to border issues and relationships with the neighbours the political parties in Parliament have reached a consensus and supported the anti-Russia vote.

In the case of the Maldives, the government had realized that even to be neutral and abstain from voting would be supporting the invasion. Dr Hannan explained that there was a consensus to condemn the invasion.

“Maldives is trying to balance the relationships. Although the two main political parties differ in their international stands, for instance, the current government sways in the direction of India and democracy, and the Opposition PPM leans towards China and therefore Russia.”

The Maldives is heavily dependent on Russian tourists and there are mixed sentiments about the war on Ukraine, says Dr Hannan. “This year the highest number of tourists, some 15.5 percent were from Russia.” At the time of the invasion, there were 8,000 Russian tourists and over 800 Ukrainians in the Maldives.

Maldivians, he says have a good opinion of Russians, adding that those who visit the Maldives on vacation are not politically involved.

Because the Russian state-run English language TV channel RT is broadcast in the Maldives there are many Maldivians who believe in the justification of the invasion Dr Hannan observed. “They have believed all the conspiracy theories,” presented on RT he said.

Acharya adds that the issues of small states living among the “rising giants of Asia, India and China is a challenge. The vulnerability of what Ukraine is facing is something we understand.

We are developing ‘Gross National Happiness’ as soft power, as a thought-leader despite its small size. But the main issue we talk about in Bhutan is the vulnerability of small states because nothing seems to be sure. You have an assurance today but that is thrown out the window tomorrow.”

He also pointed out that Bhutan does not have relationships with the big five Security Council members. Bhutan’s main relationship is with India. “This time we broke ranks with India and voted for the resolution. But as long as India can look after our interests, we should be ok.”

Chaudhuri also directed the conversation toward the behaviour of social media with regard to the conflict. Noting that Russia and Ukraine as well as the West were utilizing social media for their propaganda campaigns, he stated that Ukraine’s efforts, in particular, have been impactful.

“The number of videos it has laid out and the way their soldiers have been interviewed is impressive.”
Asked what the reaction in Bhutan is to social media around the conflict, Acharya said that it is “providing many different perspectives.”

He warned that people should be conscious when consuming social media.

“Ukraine has been very successful at projecting itself as a victim of an unnecessary invasion and seeking out humanitarian and military assistance.” He also noted that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appears to be using social media very well.

Maj Gen Bisnyat echoed the sentiments of the smaller nations, pointing out that the larger countries in the region had failed to seek common ground on the issue, through regional bodies such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

He would like to see these Organisations put to good use, in helping nations in the region to negotiate with each other for the free flow of commodities and other supplies that may be impacted by the conflict in Europe. “Why don’t we act as South Asians and address common problems and get common answers,” he asked.

However, other panellists were of the opinion that SAARC was an ineffectual organisation with little consensus on major issues, with Acharya saying that he does not see the regional body taking a common stand. “SAARC is a weak organisation and has not taken a courageous stand since its inception,” he said. Unfortunately, South Asia will remain divided.

Panelists were agreed that South Asian regions will suffer severe food shortages if the European conflict drags on.
Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of food and fertilizer. Fuel shortages and thereby rising fuel prices globally will impact these smaller and relatively poorer countries. The consensus was that the faster the war is brought to an end the better it will be for this region. (Colombo/Jun08/2022)

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Sri Lanka opposition MP sees racist agenda behind behind pro-China demonstration

TNA MP Shanakiya Rasamanickam – Image credit: Facebook

ECONOMYNEXT – A protest held outside the Chinese embassy in Colombo against opposition legislator Shanakiyan Rasamanickam was likely the work of a paid group with little knowledge of Sri Lanka’s crisis and pushing someone else’s racist agenda, the MP said.

Rasamanickam told EconomyNext on Saturday December 10 that the protestors were peddling a familiar narrative of racism.

“These people are clearly on a racist agenda. We know how this agenda plays out and we know who is behind it from before, so it’s not anything new. People can connect the dots and figure out who might be behind this protest,” he said.

The hurriedly put together demonstration seemed to be against Rasamanickam’s controversial warnings of anti-China protests in Sri Lanka over Beijing’s purported reluctance to restructure the crisis-hit island nation’s debt.

A small group of protestors including a number of Buddhist monks had gathered outside the embassy premises on Friday December 09 condemning Rasamanickam’s statement in parliament that people will take to the streets against China in a “go home, China” wave of protests similar to the “go home, Gota” protests that unseated Sri Lanka’s powerful former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“I was actually very happy to see a protest happening against me in Colombo. This is the first time there was a protest held against me,” said Rasamanickam.

I”f you look at the group that were protesting, they are quite unaware of the current economic situation in the island,” he added.

One banner displayed by the pro-China protestors contained the words “let us strongly condemn the ‘Go home China’ statement by separatist Rasamanickam” in Sinhala, though the organisers had been careful to omit the word ‘separatist’ in the English translation of the slogan.

It is unclear at present who was behind the protest, but a placard carried by one of the protestors read “is this going from anti-Gota to anti-China”, indicating the possible involvement of pro-Rajapaksa elements.

“It looked like a paid  group of people who came with no knowledge of the country’s situation and was completely under the agenda of somebody else,” said the MP.

The Batticaloa district lawmaker claimed that some people had offered to organise a counter-protest against the pro-China demonstrators but he declined the offer.

“I refused it because the citizens aren’t silly. They are aware of their surroundings and what is going on, so we need not protest in that way,” he said.

A commotion also ensued at the demonstration when a woman started recording it on her mobile phone, prompting some of the protestors to demand that she leave. Words were exchanged, with the visibly agitated woman yelling at the protestors that they were conspiring to sell Sri Lanka to China.

What triggered the protest was an explosive remark by MP Rasamanickam on December 02 that if China were a true friend of Sri Lanka’s, it would agree to either write off the island nation’s 7.4 billion dollar debt or at least help restructure it.

Nearly a fifth of Sri Lanka’s public external debt is held by China, according to one calculation.

“If China, who has nearly 20,000 billion dollars, is truly Sri Lanka’s friend… offering 9 million litres of diesel or half a million kilos of rice isn’t real help,” said Rasamanickam, speaking in Sinhala.

“I say to China and the Chinese embassy that, as 22 million Sri Lankans irrespective of ethnic or religious differences got together to say ‘Go home, Gota’, don’t push us to a place where we will be saying ‘China, go home’,” he said.

Whatever the agenda behind Friday’s protestors, they are not alone in their opposition to Rasamanickam’s strong words against China. Main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Harsha de Silva was strongly critical of the statement, insisting that Sri Lanka cooperate with all countries.

Rasamanickam told EconomyNext that his words were misrepresented.

“What I said was ex President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t listen to the voices of the people and people ended up saying ‘Gota Go Home’ and if the Chinese fail to address the issues and act in the interest of the Sri Lankan community, naturally people will start opposing them also. If that happens, I simply said that I will support them because for us our country and our people are the priority,” he said, adding that his speech had raised awareness among the public of the situation.

The MP has been raising his voice in parliament and elsewhere in recent days over what he claims is a hesitance on the part of China to assist in Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring efforts. The 2.9 billion dollar extended fund facility (EFF) that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has offered to extend to the island nation is contingent upon the successful restructure of this outstanding in addition some stringent reforms that experts say are long overdue.

Colombo has been vague at best on the status of ongoing restructure talks with Sri Lanka’s creditors, and opposition lawmakers and others have expressed concern over what seems to be a worrying delay. Rasamanickam and others have claimed that China, Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral creditor, is the reason for the apparent standstill.

Meanwhile, IMF Chief Kristalina Georgieva has called on China to speed up restructuring of debt in Sri Lanka and Zambia following a meeting with the leaders of the country.

“We had a very fruitful exchange, both on the G20 Common Framework and on some specific cases,” she said in a statement after the meeting.

“We need to build on the momentum of the agreement on Chad’s debt treatment and accelerate and finalize the debt treatments for Zambia and Sri Lanka, which would allow for disbursements from the IMF and multilateral development banks,” she said. (Colombo/Dec10/2022)

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IMF chief calls on China to speed up Sri Lanka, Zambia debt overhaul

ECONOMYYNEXT- International Monetary Fund Chief Kristalina Georgieva has called on China to speed up restructuring of debt in Sri Lanka and Zambia following a meeting with the leaders of the country.

“We had a very fruitful exchange, both on the G20 Common Framework and on some specific cases,” she said in a statement after the meeting.

“We need to build on the momentum of the agreement on Chad’s debt treatment and accelerate and finalize the debt treatments for Zambia and Sri Lanka, which would allow for disbursements from the IMF and multilateral development banks.”

Sri Lanka is discussions with the Export Import Bank of China as the lead lender to the island, State Minister Shehan Semasinghe told parliament.

China has informed Sri Lanka that they will also hold bilateral discussions with the IMF and World Bank he said.

China has been asking questions from Sri Lanka and lenders were trying to assess the impact on credits to other countries as well as the domestic economy, he said.

China is a top lender to Sri Lanka along with Japan, the Asian Development Bank and Japan.

Some of China’s infrastructure loans have also been questioned for lack of proper feasibility, though a coal plant is generally acknowledged to be best investment the country has made since the 1980s and is enough to cover many since.

But China gave several so-called ‘cover up loans’ to Sri Lanka which was not linked to infrastructure or economic reforms when the country ran into forex shortages under ‘flexible inflation targeting/output gap targeting’ compounding borrowings from sovereign bond investors.

Sri Lanka calls such monetary instability linked borrowings ‘bridging finance’.

The World Bank and Asian Development Bank or Japan does not give such ‘bridging finance’ or budget support loans without reforms to expand economic activities.

Sri Lanka central government net debt (after deducting foreign reserves) which was 17 billion US dollars after almost 65 years of foreign borrowings shot up to 32 billion US dollars over 7 years of extreme monetary instability. Meanwhile foreign reserves became negative.

Resorting foreign borrowings to meet foreign repayments comes from a Mercantilist fallacy known as the ‘transfer problem’, analysts have said.

Related

Sri Lanka debt crisis trapped in spurious Keynesian ‘transfer problem’ and MMT: Bellwether

Policy makers believe that a current account surplus is magically required to make foreign repayments and not higher interest rates to curtail domestic investments and consumption which make resources available to meet such payments which will in turn reduce the imports and any current account deficit. (Colombo/Dec10/2022)

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Sri Lanka has excess rice amid malnutrition: President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is to harvest a good rice harvest in the upcoming main (Maha) cultivation season but paddy stocks from two previous seasons are still with farmers and collectors, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said.

“I see now that we will get a good harvest in the Maha season,” President Ranil Wickremesinghe told parliament.

“That is also a problem, because we have some leftover rice stocks from the recent Yala (minor) season and the previous Maha season.”

“Now there can be situation of excess rice, we have to protect the farmers. On the other had we will have food to reduce malnutrition.”

Sri Lanka’s rice farmers do not grow and internationally traded grade of rice and bumper harvests do not lead to export booms but calls for trade restrictions on the hungry and helpless to ‘protect’ their incomes.

Rough rice (paddy) prices have fallen to around 80 rupees a kilogram, from over 120 rupees at the height of the crisis earlier in the year when large volumes of money was injected to the banking system to sterilize interventions and pay state workers.

Food Price Crisis

Though supplies are coming back to normal, because soft-pegging macro-economists destroyed the rupee from 200 to 360 to the US dollar by printing money for two years to keep interest rates down, prices are double before from the liquidity injections or ‘stimulus’ started.

The malnutrition is coming from monetary instability involving the collapse of the anchor-conflicting ‘flexible exchange rate and not a problem in the real economy as excess food supplies show.

Related Impoverished Sri Lankans are selling assets, eating less: WFP

Sri Lanka’s chicken farmers are also looking for export opportunities.

Related Sri Lanka chicken farmers eye exports as domestic prices drop

Sri Lanka is now in the worst the worst currency crisis triggered it the history of its intermediate regime (flexible exchange rate) central bank.

With salaries not keeping pace, incomes many sectors, mostly salaried workers including daily wage earners are too low to afford food whether or not they are plentiful, leading to malnutrition especially of the children of poor families.

The phenomenon has a been a recurring problem in the country after the soft-pegged central bank was set up 72 years ago.

Before 1980, when depreciation became fashionable in Washington policy making circles (now called a flexible exchange rate and BBC policy at that time), import controls were the main threat to food supplies, not soaring prices and lagging wages.

Food Trade Controls

In the 2022 currency crisis soft-pegging macro-economist in a mistaken strategy then banned ‘open account imports’ threatening food supplies ranging from lentils to onions and sugar to wheat that usually come from South Asia and Dubai, driving up prices.

But Wickremesinghe then opened account imports, preventing a real food crisis from taking place, allowing money flowing through traditional gross settlement systems (Undiyal/Hawala) to be easily prioritized for food.

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Sri Lanka can trigger food shortages as in medicines with new trade controls

Sri Lanka food importers seek exemption from open account trade ban

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Food imports in Sri Lanka are only around 100 to 150 million dollars a month which is about third of monthly worker remittances and about 10 percent of total exports.

However the central bank under Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe took the required action to liberalize rates allowing credit to slow and stabilize the external sector.

The government also raised energy prices to keep in line with flexible exchange rate collapse (also a recurring phenomenon) and raised taxes to reduce domestic credit (also recurring action).

President Wickremesinghe and his advisors focused their efforts on getting loans from foreign lenders to buy fertilizer for farmers after he took over as Prime Minister and later President.

Fertilizer supplies are important in a currency crisis not just to produce food as normal but the construction sector usually has to be smashed to stop balance of payments deficits and to stop the rupee from falling further.

When rural workers engaged in construction return home to farming areas availability of fertilizer will help them keep in employment.

Open Market Injections

Construction and other sectors undergo an artificial boom when a soft-pegging central bank suppresses rates with its open market operations and sells downs reserves when the currency peg comes under pressure.

Selling reserves and printing money through open market operations to stop rates going up – an action called ‘sterilized intervention’ – effectively injects what classical economists called ‘fictitious capital’ into banks and artificially pushing up credit and imports further by effectively re-financing private sector activities with central bank credit.

The new money to sterilize interventions over-extending a credit cycle and encourages more imports.

In the current crisis Sri Lanka’s Consumer Affairs Authority, by imposing price controls, disrupted sectors like poultry sector and created black markets.

President Wickremesinghe has so far not taken any actions to abolish the CAA or its price controlling powers which goes against his ‘social market economy’ strategy. (Colombo/Dec09/2022)

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