TamilWeek, Oct 30 - Nov 5, 2005
Presidents or puppets, citizens or slaves?

By Malinda Seneviratne

Mahinda Rajapakse and Ranil Wickremesinghe are, true to the tradition of their
breed, very promising candidates. They have both promised heaven and earth and
much else besides, both to the parties and organisations that have pledged them
support and to the general public. In the matter of auctioning off non-existent
resources, neither is second to the other.

What is disturbing is not so much the fact that they feel comfortable in making
sweeping statements as to how prosperity will be ushered in overnight if the people
elect them, but the fact that they have not promised that which is possible. I am talking
about simple things which can be done and which can be expected to radically
improve the lot of the masses. For example, when they say, "Democracy shall reign
supreme," it is an empty promise. On the other hand, they could say, "The flaws in the
17th Amendment shall be rectified and the independent commissions strengthened," it
means something. It means that there will be in place tangible measures that will
insulate people from politicians. Unfortunately, neither of these candidates has made
any such statement.

Far more disconcerting than all this is that they have both remained conspicuously
silent about the position that they would take, if elected, at the Ministerial Meeting of
the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Hong Kong in December. This is perplexing
because if Sri Lanka signs on to the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in
Services), none of the promises as found in manifestos and as articulated in campaign
rallies, will have any meaning. Two conclusions are possible. One, both candidates
(and their advisors) are absolutely ignorant of GATS. Two, they are not interested in
protecting this country, its people, its culture, its history and heritage. I would err on
the latter, given the track records of politicians in this country.

What is GATS and what would GATS do are questions that the general public should
ask and be informed about, whether or not their would-be representatives care.

GATS asks countries such as ours to open sectors to the direct provision of services
by foreign companies and to foreign investment in domestic service providers. If Sri
Lanka opens its service sectors for foreign investment, such investors have the right
to challenge any domestic (and even regional) law or policy at an international tribunal
appointed by the WTO. This tribunal, which is not democratically constituted and
made up of "trade experts" is authorised to make its decision based on a single and
simple criteria, namely, whether or not the particular law or policy inhibits free trade.

What this means is that considerations such as human rights, damage to ecosystems,
equality, democracy, health, education, development strategies, concern for the
preservation of culture, cultural artefacts and archaeological treasures become
secondary to free trade. Any law, regulation, bill, policy, decision, administrative
procedure or "any other activity" can be deemed to be illegal and therefore abrogated
on grounds that it is a hindrance to free trade. The last, i.e., the "other" category is
probably the most insidious, especially since the arbitration body is unethically
constituted and absolutely not answerable to the community of nations. Anything and
everything that even remotely has something to do with trade in services will be
subject to the draconian rules that make up the GATS. As a representative of the
newly constituted WTO Watch put it, all life, from birth to death, will be under the
GATS shadow.

It would be worth remembering that since the inception of the WTO in 1995 almost all
cases that have come before the tribunal have been decided in favour of "free trade".
National laws and policies that sought to protect the environment, were concerned
about cultural norms and practices, aimed at developing local services, and even
national interest, have been time and again dismissed on account of inhibiting free
trade.

India's decision to oppose the patenting of seeds and medicinal plants was overturned
and deemed illegal. When Guatemala sought to prevent the consumers being
hoodwinked regarding standards by milk products distributed by UNICEF-WHO, the
tribunal decided that such intervention was illegal. The European Union sought to
impose a ban on "hormone beef", but was thwarted because this would be "inhibiting
free trade". The EU was chided moreover for being overly protective of the consumer!

Once services are opened under the GATS, we will not be able to limit the number of
suppliers of a given service, cannot have laws regarding value and assets, number of
activities, number of employees or the percentage of foreign capital ownership. In
short, everything will be "up for grabs" and rest assured that the grabbing would take
place. Such laws, regulations or policies that exist, will have to be rescinded or else we
will have to suffer crippling trade sanctions imposed by the tribunal. Once we sign on
the dotted line, it is effectively impossible to withdraw because withdrawal involves
paying massive compensation to all other member countries, now numbering 148, of
the WTO.

Today both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse talk about the nation,
about making sure that the nation will not be divided. Mahinda, more than Ranil, talks
about the "national" interest, but even Ranil talks of election-time iconography. The
weva, the dagoba, the ketha, the temple, the Dalada Maligawa, the Sri Maha Bodhiya,
Parakramabahu and his palace, Sapumal Kumaraya and the need to eksesath the
nation, we've heard it all, seen it all.

After GATS, Sri Lanka will be unrecognisable from what it is now. The following is not a
far-fetched dooms day scenario (how I wish it is!), but a most likely outcome:
Eppawala: Gone. Water resources: Gone. Sinharaja: Gone. Sigiriya frescoes:
obliterated. Clean air: Gone. You name it, it will not be what you remember it to be,
what you expect it to be for your children. It will cease to be a republic, cease to be
democratic in any meaningful sense, cease to be a nation with borders, with a culture,
with a history and a civilisation. All that will remain is nostalgia. Are you ready?

Let us put it in crudely, for the sake of easy comprehension. A floating casino is set up
on the Kandy Lake, in full view of the Dalada Maligawa. Can the Mayor of Kandy
protest? Can the Diyawadana Nilame or the Chief Prelates of the Asgiriya and
Malwatte Chapters? The answer is, "no". Forget casinos. It could be a brothel. And if
Catholics, Hindus and Muslims are wont to say, "none of our business", let them
consider brothels, taverns, casinos and other places where vice is peddled at the
following locations: Madhu Church, St. Anne's Church at Thalawila, St.Anthony's
Church at Kochchikade, St. Jude's Church at Indigolla, Nallur Kovil, Munneswaram
Kovil in Chilaw. Consider putting up a place to slaughter pigs just outside the
Dewatagaha Mosque in Town Hall. Or let's go multi-religious. How about a casino on
top of Sri Pada? Or a brothel in Kataragama. Our Minister of Trade will decide in
December in Hong Kong whether we reserve the right to oppose such things, or if we
let these places and things that define who we are to be desecrated in front of our
eyes.

The point is not that it will be done, the desecration I mean, but that we open
ourselves to that violence against which we agree not to raise a finger in protest. And
it is not just about places of worship or matters religious. It is about all life. Every little
thing that contributes to the matter of living, if it is a tradeable service, will be subject
to GATS. What we would be signing away, if in December we become party to this
barbaric agreement, would be not just our sovereignty but our very lives.

Is all life contained or containable in the sterile and materialistic article called "free
trade"? Surely not! Let us consider a cemetery that contains the remains of your dead
grandfather. Let us suppose someone wants to replace it with a military academy that
provides the service of education. GATS would require us to erase the word
sacrosanct from our vocabulary, would require us to allow the graves of our ancestors
to be vandalised. All in the interest of facilitating free trade. All that will remain is
nostalgia and maybe not even that. Are you ready?

On November 17, 2005 the people of this country will vote for a President. In
December, in Hong Kong, his Minister of Trade will decide whether his President is a
puppet or worse a forsaken soft toy, or a leader worthy of a people who believe that
freedom, history, nation, dignity and indeed their very lives are important. In
December, that Minister of Trade will be subjected to all kinds of direct and indirect
pressures. His moral integrity will be tested to the maximum. His human frailties will be
found out and they will be preyed upon. He will be pitted against his counterparts in
other developing countries. His President will be arm-twisted in much the same way.
We all know what happened in the infamous Green Rooms as the Uruguay Round of
the GATT was arm-twisted to a close in the early nineties.

This time the stakes are higher. This time, the forces of resource extraction, labour
exploitation and cultural erasure are playing for an outright win. We can expect them
to give it their all. Are we ready to give our all to resist them? Do our candidates have
the intellect, the integrity and the patriotism that are absolutely necessary to fight this
fight? These are questions we need to ask.

In December, our country and everything that the word "nation" connotes will fight
what could well be the last fight. Mahinda Rajapakse and Ranil Wickremesinghe have
not uttered one word about GATS. That is their prerogative.

As citizens of this country, as human beings who have lives, livelihoods, aspirations,
memories, ancestry and progeny, as human beings who want to dream about futures,
can you and I afford to remain silent, though? I think not.
[Courtesy: Daily Mirror]
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