Examination of US project in the wake of NYT claim on China backing MR
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 225
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Gampaha District MP Harshana Rajakaruna, on behalf of the United National Party (UNP), recently called for the appointment of a presidential commission to inquire into Chinese funding of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s re-election bid in January 2015.
Rajakaruna said so at a special press briefing at Sirikotha. Rajakaruna was one of the UNP lawmakers exposed by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Central Bank Treasury Bond scams involving tainted primary dealer, Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL). Rajakaruna is one of those lawmakers who had been in touch with PTL owner, Arjuna Aloysius, in spite of being a member of the parliamentary watchdog committee, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). Whatever, his relationship with Aloysius, his right to call for a presidential probe on Chinese funding, at the 2015 presidential polls, cannot be dismissed.
In spite of Rajapaksa categorically denying, last Sunday (July 1), receiving USD 7.6 mn from China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) in support of his re-election bid, the need to examine foreign funding cannot be ruled out.
‘How China got Sri Lanka to cough up a port’ under the byline of New Delhi-based, one of New York Times (NYT) South Asia correspondents Maria Abi-Habib resulted in heavy attacks on former President Rajapaksa. Habib had been a roving Middle East correspondent with the Wall Street Journal before she joined NYT in 2017
Let me reproduce verbatim NYT on Habib: In 2012, she was a finalist for the Daniel Pearl Award for an investigation into atrocities at Kabul’s main military hospital, which led to a Congressional probe into two senior American generals leading NATO’s military efforts in Afghanistan. The investigation resulted in the resignation of three-star U.S. general and sweeping reforms at the hospital. She has also documented the flow of former Guantánamo Bay detainees to the battlefields of Syria, the grooming of child soldiers by Islamic State, and U.S. efforts to counter Hezbollah.
"Ms. Abi-Habib began her journalism career in 2007, covering the Persian Gulf from Dubai, where she also contributed to coverage revealing high-level corruption across several companies linked to senior Emirati officials.
A graduate of Concordia University in Montreal, she grew up shuttling between the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and her father’s ancestral village in the mountains of Beirut."
NYT credited Keith Bradsher and Sui-Lee Wee from Beijing, and Mujib Mashal, Dharisha Bastians and Arthur Wamanan from Sri Lanka contributing to Habib’s piece.
Parliament should examine whether CHEC funding had been utilized by the Rajapaksa Campaign at the 2015 presidential election, in addition to other funding sources at the same election.
There cannot be any dispute over the urgent requirement to investigate Chinese funding of the Rajapaksa Campaign but it should not be restricted only to the Beijing investing in political parties here. In fact, Habib and her team can inquire into US funding and the circumstances under which such financial support was made available at the 2015 presidential election. It would be pertinent to mention that the NYT received government assistance to establish disbursement of CHEC funding to the tune of USD 7.6mn in the run-up to the 2015 presidential poll.
US funding at 2015 prez poll
Having failed to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa at the January 2010 presidential poll, the US sustained a high profile project to thwart him securing a third term. Rajapaksa was determined to secure another term. The war-winning President utilized his overwhelming parliamentary majority to pass the controversial 18th Amendment Bill on September 8, 2010, with 161 Members of Parliament voting for and 17 against the bill. The new law enabled President to seek re-election any number of times. In addition to that, the 18 Amendment resulted in the following: The 10-member Constitutional Council was replaced with a five-member Parliamentary Council; Independent commissions were brought under the authority of the President; It enabled the President to attend Parliament once in three months and entitles him to all the privileges, immunities and powers of a Member of Parliament other than the entitlement to vote. In short, it is all about giving the President absolute power.
In January, 2013, at the behest of President Rajapaksa, parliament impeached the then Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake and she was removed by the President. Among those who voted for Bandaranayake’s removal was the then SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena. Obviously, the US resented the possibility of Rajapaksa extending his rule and worked overtime to change the administration.
The US State Department, in November 2016, revealed it had invested USD 585 mn promoting democracy across the globe in 2015. In the foreword of the State Department report, the then Secretary of State John Kerry declared: "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."
Kerry identified Sri Lanka as one of three ‘democracy projects’ the US had funded: "We have supported important democratic gains in Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Burma."
USAID’s 2017 Congressional Budget Justification in relation to adding Complex Crises Fund (CCF) dollars: "In the past year, CCF funds have provided critical support for programmes in Ukraine, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Lebanon. In Sri Lanka and Ukraine, CCF funds bolstered political transitions."....We have supported the slow and steady work to help countries all over the world build open and responsible institutions that deliver for their citizens, and quickly seized emerging opportunities to support free and fair elections in Burma and Sri Lanka."
Thanks to the US State Department the US role in the 2015 change of government is in the public domain. For some strange reason, former President Rajapaksa, his advisors, the Joint Opposition or Rajapaksa front, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) never raised the issue. In fact even after the NYT report, the Rajapaksa team refrained from taking up the issue. Rajapaksa’s over 1,400-word statement issued on Sunday (July 1) conveniently refrained from at least referring to the US funding in 2015.
In case President Sirisena appoint a Commission of Inquiry to probe campaign finances, it can also inquire into US funding and establish how funds were disbursed and who the recipients were. In fact, the writer, some time back, queried from the US embassy in Colombo as to the amount, out of USD 585, made available to its Sri Lanka project. The US embassy didn’t respond to The Island query.
Sri Lanka elections monitors never responded to the US State Department revelation. The former Election Department, the National Election Commission (NEC), civil society or the media didn’t realize the need to examine the US State Department revelation. They never felt a need to examine foreign funding even after one-time Times of Ceylon journalist Hassina Leelarathna disclosed further US funding made in support of the US project here between two national elections in 2015 - presidential in January and parliamentary in August. The following section was taken from Bid to derail ‘One Belt, One Road’ published in August 9, 2017 issue of The Island: "Recent sensational revelation made by former Times of Ceylon journalist Hassina Leelarathna, in respect of USAID making 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, is the latest illustration of US intervention. The funds had been meant to provide, what the USAID called, visible support to the newly elected administration. US made fresh commitments though the USAID in spite of contemplating a lesser role for the agency here a few years ago.
The US-based Leelarathna, who co-edited with her husband Deeptha, the first Sri Lankan newspaper published in the US years ago, made the disclosure on the basis of information she had obtained from USIA on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 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.
Civil society responsibility
The writer raised the US funding issue with civil society activists on live television programmes and media conferences. The Island took up this issue seriously though the overall reportage of the US funding cannot be considered satisfactory.
Key civil society grouping Purawesi Balaya recently called for an investigation into NYT report. Co-convenors of the outfit, Gamini Viyangoda and Saman Ratnapriya and Ven. Dambara Amila pushed the government to take tangible measures on the NYT report. They addressed the media at the Center for Society and Religion (CSR). The writer raised the foreign funding issue at Purawesi Balaya briefings, twice some time ago. But, Purawesi Balaya never urged the government to probe foreign funding at the 2015 presidential election. However, Purawesi Balaya made an intervention close on the heels of the NYT report.
The civil society owed an explanation why it did not call for a government probe much earlier when the US revealed large scale funding in the run-up to the 2015 presidential poll to bring the UNP to power. If one fifth of the USD 585 mn spent in 2015 for political projects had been allocated for Sri Lanka, recipients here received over USD 125 mn. Compare the US funding received by Sri Lanka with Chinese money amounting to USD 7.6 mn.
During a live debate on Hiru ‘Balaya’ anchored by Sudewa Hettiarachchi with Purawesi Balaya representatives Viyangoda and Ratnapriya, the writer suggested that the civil society should seek an explanation from the US embassy as regards US funding. The writer stressed that those demanding accountability, good governance and transparency couldn’t turn a blind eye to foreign funding.
Obviously, New Delhi played a significant role in the US project. No less a person than US President Obama made reference to New Delhi’s role in the region. Addressing a distinguished gathering at the Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi, on 27 January 2015, Obama declared India could play a "positive" role in the region, from Burma to Sri Lanka, reiterating "that with power comes responsibility. Obama said there was a new hope for democracy in Sri Lanka. Those who installed the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration wouldn’t have believed it would become so unpopular due to treasury bond scams perpetrated in 2015 and 2016, economic mismanagement that caused turmoil in every sector, and a new political party, led by ousted Rajapaksa, sweeping the Local Government polls in Feb. 2018.
Menon on Chinese funding
Former President Rajapaksa, in his lengthy response to the NYT article, referred to former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon’s (January 2010-May 2014), memoirs, titled ‘Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy.’ Selected section of the chapter on Sri Lanka was used to challenge the NYT article. However, vital parts that dealt with New Delhi’s concerns as regards Chinese presence here and Chinese financial backing for the previous administration were ignored.
Former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon (January 2010-May 2014), in his memoirs, titled ‘Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy,’ alleged that the Rajapaksas in May 2014, had violated repeated assurances given in respect that there wouldn’t be a permanent Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka and the country would look to India for most of its military training and intelligence needs. "At no stage was exclusivity sought or promised. And, realistically speaking, it would be unreasonable to expect exclusivity," Menon, who had been India’s High Commissioner, in Colombo, years ago (1997-2000), said.
Having commented on the conduct of former President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Menon accused Sri Lanka of reneging on bilateral understanding with India. Menon directly alleged that the former President received Chinese funds for his political campaigns, and projects. Menon didn’t indicate when the war-winning President first received Chinese funding.
It would better to peruse the relevant section verbatim from the Chapter on Sri Lanka, titled ‘Force works’: "I found that as Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya, had a clear view of Sri Lanka’s interests, one that was compatible with ours. Immediately after the war, he reassured the Indian troika (National Security Advisor M.K. Narayan, Defence Secretary Vijay Singh, and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon) about the nature of Sri Lanka’s defence relationship with China, and helped Indian companies re-enter the reconstruction of Colombo. Security was Gotabhaya’s sole preoccupation, which made him sensitive to India’s concerns, while his brother Mahinda was much more compliant with Chinese demands, having built a political machine on Chinese money. The basic assurances that Gotabhaya and, more reluctantly, Mahinda Rajapaksa gave us were that India’s security interests would be respected and that there would be no surprises in Sri Lanka’s relations with China. In detailed conversations I was assured that there wouldn’t be a permanent Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka and that Sri Lanka would look to India for most of its military training and intelligence needs. These assurances were respected, in practice, by the Sri Lankans, until May 2014. At no stage exclusivity sought or promised. And realistically speaking, it would be unreasonable to expect exclusivity."
Parliamentary Act needed
Sri Lanka should examine funding received by political parties and lawmakers, both from foreign and local sources. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), too, should be scrutinized. Under the Right to Information Act, the public have a right to seek information regarding funds received by NGOs. During the war, major NGOs received staggering amounts of foreign funding with Norway being one of the major contributors. NGOs utilized foreign funds to influence the decision making process as well as the electorate. A Norwegian study, released in late 2011, dealt with Sri Lankan recipients of Oslo funds with the focus on the period Norway facilitated peace talks with the LTTE. The Norwegian funding was meant to support a negotiated settlement with the LTTE even at the expense of Sri Lanka’s unitary status and division of the country on ethnic lines. The recipients of foreign funds have no option but to pursue the policies of the donors or face the consequences. Norway dealt a deadly blow to NGO guru Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe during the previous administration soon after he switched his allegiance to President Rajapaksa at the expense of Norwegian policy. Dr. Rupesinghe was taught a lesson for stepping out of line. Norway set an example. Recipients, whatever their status may be required to follow the policies of donors regardless of consequences. Dr. Rupesinghe’s predicament will be discussed soon.