SPECIAL REPORT : Part 188October 17, 2017, 8:32 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The US recently twice commented on Sri Lanka-China relations, in an extremely negative way.
There hadn’t been such highly controversial and critical US statements regarding Sri Lanka-China relations during the war, or after the successful conclusion of the conflict, in May 2009.
One statement was made in Washington and the other in Colombo, much to the embarrassment of Sri Lanka, a recipient of substantial Chinese investments and loans, military supplies during the war, as well as critical support at international forums, such as the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
If not for China, Pakistan and Russia, Western powers and India would have had isolated Sri Lanka in Geneva during the Rajapaksa administration. Their support had been special because they also provided military hardware, as well as much required training.
The US-spearheaded a project against Sri Lanka in Geneva, which culminated in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration co-sponsoring Resolution 30/1 inimical to post-war Sri Lanka. There hadn’t been a previous instance, at Geneva, where an elected government co-sponsored a Resolution against its own country. The Resolution has paved the way for contentious constitutional making process meant to devolve powers to the provinces.
Alice Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, in the second week of Sept 2017, declared in Washington, the US was seriously concerned over what she called unsustainable debt burden on Sri Lanka due to non-concessional loans from China.
That statement was made soon after she visited Colombo for the Indian Ocean Conference (IOC), held at Temple Trees and organized by the India Foundation. Minister of Commerce and Industry of India, Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu, heads the India Foundation. The Colombo event was not meant, in anyway, to give China an opportunity to promote its strategies at the expense of the growing US, India and Japan military-political cooperation. The event received much attention due to the participation of President Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe.
In Colombo, Wells joined a candlelight vigil at Vihara Mahadevi Park, on Aug 30, to mark the UN Day of the victims of Enforced Disappearances. She was accompanied by US Ambassador in Colombo Atul Keshap. They joined top representatives of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamils, way back in 2001.
International media quoted Wells as having told a Congressional Sub Committee: "China is providing non-concessional loans that promote unsustainable debt burdens, which I think are increasingly now of concern to the Sri Lankan people in the government."
"In Sri Lanka, we’re the largest grant provider of assistance. China is providing non-concessional loans that promote unsustainable debt burdens, which I think are increasingly, now of concern to the Sri Lankan people in the government. But what we bring to our relationship are multiple tools."
Wells conveniently ignored that China had made substantial investments even during the war, including the Hambantota port agreement. Obviously, China had believed in Sri Lanka’s capability to bring the war to a successful conclusion, though the LTTE behaved as if it was invincible. The China-funded Hambantota port construction commenced in January 2008 at a time the Army was still struggling on the Vanni front.
Those grants are channelled primarily to NGOs working to the US agenda
Against the backdrop of Wells unwarranted statement, the US military delivered unprecedented advice to the government of Sri Lanka at the 8th edition of the Galle Dialogue, a few days ago.
Rear Admiral Donald D. Gabrielson, of the US Navy, declared, in Colombo, that every country should be cautious when working with China for want of transparency in certain engagements. The Rear Admiral was responding to a query regarding Chinese presence in the region, particularly Sri Lanka.
The top US official accused China of trying to rearrange the very system from which they were already receiving benefits. Rear Admiral Gabrielson also expressed concern over Chinese One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.
Had Sri Lanka failed to defeat the LTTE, in May 2009, perhaps India wouldn’t have had felt the desire to hold the Indian Ocean Conference here. Had the Army suffered a reversal on the Vanni east front, the US wouldn’t have seen the requirement for a special relationship with Sri Lanka, under any circumstances. It would be pertinent to mention that wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa authorized the Army and the Navy to organize annual symposiums, with high level foreign participation, ONLY after the conclusion of the war. Bottom line is that the Galle Dialogue wouldn’t have been a reality had the Army failed on the Vanni east front.
Former President Rajapaksa earned the wrath of the US for thwarting a despicable effort to throw a lifeline to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. The US had been prepared to deploy its naval and air assets to evacuate Prabhakaran and other senior cadres, as well as their families. However, Rajapaksa strongly objected to US intervention and ordered the Army to continue with ground operations.
The LTTE was brought to its knees on the morning of May 19, 2009.
Sri Lanka should be always grateful to China for providing arms, ammunition and equipment, as well as critically important diplomatic support, at its hour of need.
Chinese support and interventions prevented Sri Lanka being overwhelmed by Indian sponsored terrorist groups in the 80s and early 90s. The situation gradually changed in the wake of the LTTE assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in May 1991.
LSSP General Secretary, veteran politician Prof. Tissa Vitharana, last week lambasted the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration for giving into US influence. Prof. Vitharana asserted that the current US-Sri Lanka partnership was severely inimical to the latter. However, Rajapaksa loyalist, Prof. Vitharana overlooked the fact that the US provided vital intelligence required by the Navy to hunt down four LTTE floating arsenals, sharply upgraded the firepower of Fast Attack Craft (FACs) at critical stages of Eelam War IV (Aug 2006-May 2009).
The US, at the onset of Eelam War IV, sabotaged the LTTE project to acquire advanced surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles to destroy the country’s precious jet squadrons.
In spite of the US forcing Sri Lanka to accept Geneva Resolution 30/1, prepared on the basis of unproven allegations, Sri Lanka cannot deny the US role in its triumph over the LTTE. Thanks to the US, the best navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda received specific intelligence required to hunt down LTTE ships. That was due to Karannagoda’s diplomatic skills rather than any government initiative. Karannagoda will always be remembered for giving unwavering leadership, under extremely difficult conditions.
Many an eyebrow was raised when Rear Admiral Gabrielson spoke ill of China, in Colombo, against the backdrop of US-China disputes at various theaters, especially South China Sea conflict.
In the aftermath of the change of the government, in January 2015, Sri Lanka adopted an anti-China posture with various spokesmen condemning China. The government acted belligerently as if it could do away with all major Chinese investments. A section of the government apparently believed the US would invest here and the subsequent realization of its folly forced Sri Lanka to seek continued Chinese assistance.
Having declared to do away with China’s flagship Port City Project, in the run up to the presidential poll, in January 2015, the government suspended it. The foolish move caused irreparable damage though the project resumed over a year later.
In Oct 2015, the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake appealed for Chinese help. South China Morning Post quoted Karunanayake as having said: "Chinese loans are a big part of our problem. A bulk of the government expenditure goes into servicing them.
"I urge China to put the acrimony of the past behind us and come and help us by adjusting the terms of the loans to make them more viable. We are serious about putting our relationship on the right path and mending the pathetic finances we have inherited from a corrupt regime."
Karunanayake was asked to quit in Aug 2017 in the wake of shocking revelation made at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P-CoI) regarding the owner of Perpetual Treasuries, Arjun Aloysius, paying the monthly rental of Monarch Residencies’ penthouse, occupied by the Karunanayake family.
In Nov 2016, Karunanayake’s criticism of Chinese loans triggered an angry response from China’s Ambassador Yi Xianliang. The Chinese diplomat lashed out at the then minister publicly inquiring why Sri Lanka sought more loans if terms and conditions were so bad. Xianliang went to the extent of quoting Karunanayake as having told him of how Sri Lanka had obtained USD 50 mn loan from Europe at a higher interest rate.
The most recent controversy between Sri Lanka and China was over the accusation that the latter disrupted the debate on the lease of the Hambantota port in parliament. Close on the heels of that controversy, Parliament received a huge donation of computers from a Chinese state-run company, China National Corporation for Overseas Economic Cooperation. The donation was received by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya from the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo, Yi Xianliang.
Let me mention how Sri Lanka acquired jets from China in spite of Indian and Western pressure. Air Force on January 1, 1991, established No 5 jet squadron comprising F7s, six months after the LTTE launched Eelam War II. Although the Air Force had sought Chinese manufactured A 5s, capable of carrying a higher payload, external pressure compelled China to provide F7s. Subsequently, Air Force pilots had to be sent to Pakistan to receive training in jet ground attack maneuvers as the Chinese weren’t prepared to share experience and knowledge. The writer received a briefing regarding the Chinese role in Air Force build-up by the then Commander Harsha Abeywickrama, first Commanding Officer of Katunayake-based No 5 squadron.
Abeywickrama recalled how the Air Force had acquired four F7 GS jet interceptors on what he called a soft loan, in June 2007, in the wake of the first LTTE air attack, on the Katunayake air base, in March 2007. But the Chinese interceptors hadn’t been available for missions until January 2008.
In Sept 2007, the Air Force acquired Chinese JY 11 three dimensional radar (3D) though India strongly opposed such deployment years ago.
China provided a range of arms, ammunition, equipment, aircraft, as well as artillery, on loan schemes. Chinese manufactured T-56 remains the standard assault rifle in use among armed forces here.
Unfortunately, the LTTE, too, had received a range of armaments of Chinese origin. The situation has been so bad, the previous government requested China to take tangible measures to prevent the LTTE from acquiring weapons with the help of corrupt officials. Alleged North Korean involvement, too, had been mentioned in that regard. Several LTTE ships hunted down had carried weapons and ammunition of Chinese origin.
Perhaps Rear Admiral Gabrielson is not aware of US interventions at two presidential elections, in January 2010, and January 2015 in a bid to defeat war-winning President Rajapaksa.
The US has been so keen to remove Rajapaksa; it played the central role in bringing in the TNA into the UNP-led coalition that included the JVP, on both occasions. The US succeeded in its second attempt. The American project to change the Colombo government should be now examined against the backdrop of shocking revelation that both Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena had contested on the New Democratic Front (NDF) ticket whose leader Shalila Moonasinghe held British citizenship. That wouldn’t have come out if he didn’t receive foreign currency stolen from Taiwan’s Far Eastern International Bank recently.
Former Times of Ceylon journalist Hassina Leelarathna, recently revealed how USAID made available urgently required funds to the tune of US 3.4 mn, to the UNP-led 100-day administration, in the run-up to the August 2015 parliamentary polls. The funds had been meant to provide, what the USAID called, visible support to the newly elected administration. The US made fresh commitments through the USAID in spite of contemplating a lesser role for the agency here a few years ago. The change of US policy is obviously a sign of new post-Rajapaksa era strategy.
US-based Leelarathna, who co-edited with her husband Deeptha, the first Sri Lankan newspaper published in the US, years ago, made the revelation on the basis of information she had obtained from USAID under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). (Former Lankadeepa staffer and the founder editor of Sri Lanka Express Deeptha passed away in late Feb 2006)Accordingly, USD 3.4 mn had been released from Complex Crises Funds (CCF) which was meant to make available USD 40 mn in support of governance, rule of law and economic reform in Sri Lanka.
In addition to USAID funding, it would be interesting to know who had received funds made available by the US under high profile project to promote democracy here. According to State Department financial report for 2016, the US has invested USD 585 mn in 2015 in three countries, including Sri Lanka. Money had been spent by the State Department under the article ‘Democracy, human rights and governance’ – $70 million down from the previous year’sfigure. Although, the report refrained from specifying projects funded by the State Department, former Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in the foreword that "we have supported important democratic gains in Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Burma."
Kerry also stressed that "in an era of diffuse and networked power, we (the US) are focusing on strengthening partnerships with civil society, citizen movements, faith leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and others to promote democracy and good governance and address gender-based violence."
Those who had been demanding transparency, accountability as well as good governance on the part of Sri Lanka should seek clarification from the US Embassy here as regards disbursement of funds for whatever the basis.
The National Election Commission (NEC) shouldn’t turn a blind eye to reports regarding US funding. In fact, the US has funded various projects, including one implemented by Maryland headquartered Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI) meant to reform Sri Lanka’s public sector, in accordance with an agreement between Sri Lanka and the House Democracy Partnership of the US House of Representatives.
Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability Project (SDGAP) worth Rs 1.92 bn (USD 13 mn) is first of its kind implemented in Sri Lanka.
DAI operates in Asia, the Pacific, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, West Asia, North Africa as well as Sub-Saharan Africa.
Such high profile projects carried out at US taxpayers’ expense should be studied against the backdrop of current administration delaying local government polls by over two years, put off Provincial Council polls and the probe of mega Central Bank of Sri Lanka-Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) bond scams.
It would be interesting to know whether those funding/implementing SDGAP project had taken up with Speaker Karu Jayasuriya the inordinate delay in government adopting the National Audit Bill, aimed at curbing corruption. They cannot be unaware of strong demands by Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe and audit trade unions to adopt the National Audit Bill.
They cannot be insensible to members of parliament routinely skipping sessions while receiving a range of perks and privileges. The country was humiliated recently when members skipped special session in spite of Speakers and senior officials from all SAARC countries being invited to attend parliament.
Interesting, nearly 120 members of the current parliament had so far visited China in addition to receiving computers recently. China altogether provided computers for members as well as officials. Speaker Jayasuriya is on record as having said that he requested China to arrange for members to visit the country. Obviously, US funded high profile project has failed, pathetically.
Sri Lanka cannot further delay recognizing its real needs.