Opinion and Editorial

Oil magic and Sri Lanka’s quest for black gold

Ameen Izzadeen
Filed on October 5, 2005

IN SRI Lanka’s age-old tradition, oil is considered both a bane and a blessing. Even today, people go to the kattadiya, a man who claims he has special relationship with deities, to get charmed oil, which, they believe, has the capability to heal any sickness, cause the downfall of an adversary or even bring a person under a spell.

Former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, his opponents say, had got down a kattadiya from Kerala, India, and got him to chant some mantras on a bottle of oil. The oil was applied on the seats of the legislature in the belief that parliamentarians who were trying to impeach him would not succeed.

Whether or not it was the charmed oil, which did the trick, no body knows. However, the oil used in the rituals is not petroleum based. It is often coconut oil, gingili oil or special type of oil made from certain herbs on the instruction of the kattadiya.

But so far not a single kattadiya or his mantra power has enabled the country to find the type of oil, which has the power to eliminate most of its economic ills.

I am talking about petroleum —the type of oil which has become a major cause for world conflicts and political crises in many countries. Like the kattadiya’s charmed oil, crude oil also appears to carry the power to bring blessings upon a country or more troubles in the form of big-power intervention as in the case of Iraq and Venezuela.

The news of Sri Lanka discovering oil in the seas off its western and southern coast has created not only happiness but also scepticism and apprehensions.

When President Chandrika Kumaratunga recently disclosed that a massive oil deposit had been detected in the Sri Lankan territorial waters, there was a mixed reaction to the revelation. The President said the work on drilling oil fields would begin soon and expressed hope that this rare resource would take the country and its people to prosperity.

Was the president serious or was it mere political rhetoric? Her mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister, also said Sri Lanka had struck oil when she was heading the government at a time when world oil prices had reached unimaginable heights in the 1970s. We were elated then that the discovery of oil would end all our problems. Alas! Our happiness was short-lived. It soon turned out to be a damp squib. The mountain of scrap iron on the coast of Mannar, a town dominated by Tamil Tigers, even today bears testimony to Sri Lanka’s abortive bid to find black gold. So when Chandrika Kumaratunga announced Sri Lanka —which consumes more than 30 million barrels of oil a year and spends more than US$ 1.2 billion on fuel imports —had found oil deposits, there was elation as well as scepticism. To add credence to the claim, Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama told the Joint Annual Discussions of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund last month in Washington DC that the findings of a seismic survey conducted recently in the Gulf of Mannar had revealed the presence of a world class petroleum system offshore.

"There are signs of good fortune for Sri Lanka," he said adding that international licensing for exploitation would begin in the first quarter of next year.

So, it appears, this time around, the discovery of oil in Sri Lanka, where a litre of petrol is sold at Rs. 80 (80 US cents) is no hoax. But most people would believe the news only when the real oil flows from the offshore wells.

Oil has been identified as a factor that has the power to make or break governments in Sri Lanka. With the world crude oil prices being directly linked to the cost of living and standards of life, the governments is fighting a losing battle to keep prices down and its popularity high.

The present government came to power in April 2004 with a promise that it would bring down the cost of living. The ruling party’s presidential candidate, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, now points a finger at the world crude oil prices for the government’s failure to bring down the cost of living and promises to use the income from the newly discovered oil sources to develop the whole country, including the war-ravaged parts of the country.

Obviously it is an attempt to grease the palm of voters in a bid to win a tight presidential race. But Sri Lankans also fear that if the country becomes an oil-producing nation, it would attract unhealthy attention of predator big powers.

Some Sri Lankans believe that the involvement of Norway, a country which is building up its wealth from offshore oil wells, and big powers like the United States and Japan in the country’s peace process is linked to their interest in oil and other resources which remain untapped in Sri Lanka.

Ameen Izzadeen is a senior journalist based in Colombo

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