Sri Lankan Opposition legislator Shanakiyan Rasamanickam has threatened to launch a “China go home” campaign, akin to the ‘Gota go home’ movement that ousted the former President in the wake of the island’s painful economic crash.
The popular 32-year-old MP, among the few Sri Lankan politicians comfortably trilingual in English, Tamil, and Sinhala, told the House on Friday: “I was exercising the sovereignty of the people of this country within this House. I am speaking on behalf of the people of Sri Lanka. I am not speaking on behalf of any other Embassy or country…but the Chinese Embassy repeatedly tagging me on twitter is a serious concern about this country’s sovereignty.”
His remarks follow a Twitter spat earlier this week, after the Tamil National Alliance’s Batticaloa district parliamentarian, in a parliamentary address, sought greater cooperation from China in Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring efforts. Sri Lanka’s chances of securing an International Monetary Fund package depend on the government obtaining adequate financing assurances from its creditors, including private lenders and bilateral creditors.
Sri Lanka owes 7.4 billion dollars to China, a nearly 20 trillion dollar-economy, Mr. Rasamanickam’s pointed out, contending: “If China was a true friend, it would agree to either write off this debt or at least help restructure it”. “If the Chinese government and Embassy do not look after the interests of our Lankan people…there will be a China go home [campaign] soon and I will lead it,” he added.
The Chinese Embassy was quick to respond to his tweet. “Sorry Mr. MP, your understanding is incorrect and incomplete,” the mission said, adding that it was Sri Lanka’s “biggest supporter” in fighting COVID-19 and in livelihood relief. “Chinese President & Premier reiterated China’s willingness and readiness to help Sri Lanka in various occasions,” it said.
Colombo, irrespective of who is in power, has maintained close and cordial ties with China, unlike neighbouring Maldives whose current government openly pursues an “India first” foreign policy. However, public perception of China is more divided, as protests against the Chinese-backed Colombo Port City showed last year.
While China provided significant assistance during the pandemic — 80 % of the vaccines and crucial medical supplies — its support during the crisis has been limited, mostly to a $74 million grant, announced in May this year, at the height of the island’s crisis.
India pitched in with nearly $4 billion this year, becoming the main source of emergency assistance for the dollar-strapped island nation. India and Japan have pledged support to the debt restructure process and the IMF programme. Meanwhile, all eyes are on China, as Sri Lanka hopes to expedite its negotiations with creditors, months after the government’s sovereign default.
While the popular narrative of a “Chinese debt trap” in Sri Lanka has been repeatedly exposed as being inaccurate — most of Sri Lanka’s loans originate from International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs) in the international money market — China is still the island’s top bilateral creditor and therefore, an important player. “Chinese lending at the end of 2021 came to 19.6% of public external debt, much higher than the often-quoted 10-15% figures,” a recent paper by Sri Lankan economists Umesh Moramudali and Thilina Panduwawala points out.