Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Prez in quandary over US diktat, defence pacts



A smiling President Sirisena at the recent commissioning of SLNS Gajabahu at the Colombo harbour. Sri Lanka acquired the vessel from the US. Navy Commander Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva and US Ambassador Ms. Alaina B. Teplitz are pictured with the President. The commissioning took place amidst continuing controversy over the proposed finalization of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The UNP and President Sirisena are at loggerheads over SOFA.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Sri Lanka’s Ambassador – designate to the United States of America, Rodney Perera assumed duties in Washington DC on 17th June 2019- two days before President Maithripala Sirisena bitterly complained about a stark US warning received by his government against dealing with selected Russian companies.

On top of being the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as well as the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), President Sirisena is head of the cabinet and the government.

President Sirisena didn’t mince his words when he explained the difficulties caused by what he described as unfair US actions. The embattled President said so at a media briefing at the President’s House.

Career diplomat Perera succeeded Prasad Kariyawasam, nearly two years after the latter was brought back to Colombo as Secretary to the Foreign Ministry. Kariyawasam is now under a cloud over his relationship with the US during his tenure as the Sri Lankan ambassador (July 2014-Aug 2017) and Foreign Secretary (Aug 2017-Oct 2019) and subsequently as an advisor to parliament paid by the US government. The writer dealt with the issue at hand in last week’s Midweek piece titled ‘Why only PK being blamed for facilitating US projects?’

Interestingly, both Kariyawasam and Perera received their previous foreign postings from the last Rajapaksa administration to Washington and the European Union, respectively. Career diplomat Kariyawasam succeeded political appointee Jaliya Wickremasuriya in July 2014 while Perera took over the EU mission in Aug 2014. Perera succeeded another career diplomat P.M. Amza. Amza got into serious trouble subsequent to him being transferred out of the key mission in the wake of the damaging revelation of his emails.

Former UNP Gampaha District MP the late Paul Perera’s son Rodney joined the Foreign service in the 80s. His brother Ronald is the Chairman of the Bank of Ceylon (BoC) and a member of the decision making UNP Working Committee.

Rodney Perera took over the Washington mission at a time the US-Sri Lanka relations are under severe strain with President Sirisena and the UNP administration pulling in different directions. Since the change of government following the last presidential election in August 2015, the foreign ministry portfolio was held by Mangala Samaraweera (January 2015-May 2017), Ravi Karunanayake (May 2017-August 2017), Tilak Marapana, PC (August 2017-Oct 2018), Dr. Sarath Amunugama (Oct/Nov 2018 – Dec 2018) and Tilak Marapana regained the foreign portfolio in Dec 2018. Dr. Amunugama functioned as FM during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s premiership during the unsuccessful President Sirisena led abortive bid to take control of parliament.

In spite of removing Samaraweera for co-sponsoring Geneva Resolution in Oct 2015 – a move that paved the way for foreign judges to hear accountability cases, President Sirisena’s government remained uncommitted to the Geneva process. The US quit Geneva council calling it a cesspit of political bias though the solitary superpower wanted Sri Lanka to subject itself to the same sewage pit.

Last Wednesday, President Sirisena quite unexpectedly revealed about the US warning as regards doing business with Russia at his regular meeting with print and electronic media. The writer was among those present. Colombo based foreign correspondents and local journalists representing foreign news agencies were also invited to the briefing-the second since Easter Sunday attacks.

President Sirisena explained how he raised the US directive with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 15 on the sidelines of the Fifth Summit of Heads of State of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Sri Lanka is certainly not the only country troubled by the controversial Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) introduced in July 2017. CAATSA scared away financial institutions from processing transactions. In line with the tough Federal Law, the US imposed sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia.

President Sirisena, also at the same briefing declared his opposition to the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Bill (ACSA) which he himself presented to the cabinet in mid 2017 and the proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Although no reference was made with regard to the proposed Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) agreement, President Sirisena, has previously expressed serious concern over that pact, too. President Sirisena believes ACSA, SOFA and MCC are inimical to Sri Lanka’s national interests.

The writer sought an explanation from President Sirisena as to who would take the responsibility for signing ACSA against the backdrop of Prasad Kariyawasam being blamed for the finalization of the pact. President Sirisena asserted that someone should accept the responsibility.

Ambassador Perera faces the daunting task of handling SOFA and MCC as well as accountability issues.

Both Turkey and India declined to abandon major defence deals with Russia in spite of the US strongly opposing their decision to procure state-of-the-art defence equipment from Moscow. In terms of the CAATSA, the US can take punitive action against those procuring Russian equipment and services. However, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member Turkey and Asian giant India have ruled out cancellation of strategic defence deals with Moscow. Turkey wants to acquire the S-400 anti-aircraft missile defence system whereas India also intends to procure a range of Russian hardware, including the S-400 system. Russia-India deals seem far bigger than the one between Turkey and Russia, with New Delhi among a range of hardware, planning to take delivery of four frigates and another Russian built nuclear powered attack submarine-its third underwater fighting machine-all of Russian origin.

Sri Lanka, being a small country is certainly not in a position to challenge US sanctions. In spite of rhetoric, Washington is unable to jeopardize its defense-political-economic relations with Turkey and India. The latter is crucial to Washington’s plans to counter aggressive Chinese expansion and domination.

President Sirisena cannot be unaware that current US policy towards Sri Lanka is fashioned jointly with India and Japan. However, President Sirisena, claimed credit for bringing in Japan and India together to develop East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo port though he strongly resisted Premier Wickremesinghe’s bid to finalize agreement on ECT.

The President and the Prime Minister clashed in cabinet over the ECT in the run up to sacking of the latter.

Mangala approves US


Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera called a special media briefing on the following day to counter all those opposed to signing of ACSA and proposed finalization of SOFA and MCC. Addressing the media at his ministry adjoining the old parliament, Samaraweera declared US agreements certainly didn’t pose a threat to the country. Samaraweera dismissed what he called unsubstantiated accusations propagated by the likes of lawmakers Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila hell bent on undermining the government.

President Sirisena’s comments regarding the US didn’t receive sufficient coverage at all. In fact, an influential section of media conveniently ignored it. reported the following under the subhead ‘China’: "The Lankan President spoke warmly about his interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He told Putin about the difficulties in buying defense equipment from Russia due to US sanctions but recalled that the three MIGs given by the Soviets in 1972 to fight an insurgency are still in service in the Lankan air force." The report by Colombo based veteran Indian journalist P.K. Balachandran was headlined ‘Sirisena wants 19th Constitutional amendment scrapped before next presidential poll’.

Those MiGs were discarded before the outbreak of Eelam war in July 1983. Sri Lanka acquired a jet capability with the introduction of Chinese fighters in 1991. Kfirs joined Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) in 1996 followed by MiG 27s from Ukraine and again Chinese jets in 2007/2008.

Samaraweera should be commended for taking up a clear stand on the US issue. The Matara District MP, unlike his cabinet colleagues, had the strength to take a stand publicly regardless of political consequences. Samaraweera backed the Geneva Resolution as well as ACSA and proposed SOFA and MCC though the government struggled to cope up with allegations directed at the current dispensation over military-to-military ties.

One time outspoken SLFPer Samaraweera functioned as Sri Lanka’s Foreign Affairs Minister at the time eelam war IV erupted in 2006. The then President sacked Samaraweera in early 2007 following differences in opinion with the Rajapaksas.

It would be interesting to know whether ACSA, SOFA and MCC had been subjected to discussion at the cabinet as well as at parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committees handling foreign and defence issues.

Samaraweera lashed out at those who opposed ACSA extended by current dispensation while justifying the original agreement signed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in March 2007, in his capacity as the Secretary, Ministry of Defence.

Incompetent political parties

Controversial ACSA, SOFA and MCC designed to facilitate US projects both at regional and global level, should be examined taking into consideration the high profile agreement between the US and Sri Lanka parliament signed in September 2016 in Washington. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and Chairman, House Democracy Partnership of the U.S. House of Representatives J.Roskam signed the agreement on Sept 14, 2016 on behalf of Sri Lanka and the US, respectively.

Controversy also surrounds the high profile US funded project to strengthen Sri Lankan judiciary. Recently Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader MP Udaya Gammanpila and Joint Opposition lawmaker Shehan Semasinghe expressed concern in parliament over the ongoing US project. They alleged that an attempt was being made to influence the judiciary. Many an eyebrow was raised when Justice Minister Thalatha Atukorale, while contradicting Gammanpila’s statement in parliament on May 08, 2019, confirmed that two batches of senior judges had been to the US in August 2018 and April 2019 at the US taxpayers’ expense in addition to a workshop conducted for High Court judges at the Taj Samudra, Colombo in Dec 2018. Minister Atukorale said so in the second week of May 2019. According to her statement, a group of Attorney General’s Department officials, too, is to attend a workshop in the US soon.

Although, some Opposition members of parliament raised some contentious issues such as US training for Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and High Court judges, there had never been a cohesive effort to examine the overall US project. In addition to that, India, Japan and Australia, too, pursue policies via-a- vis Sri Lanka in line with those of the US. It would be interesting to know whether the parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on foreign relations and defence (national security) headed by Mayantha Dissanayake and Malith Jayatilleke, respectively, discussed ACSA, SOFA and MCC or related matters before decisions were made. Jayatilleke’s role as the Chairman of Sectoral Oversight Committee on defence is significant as President Sirisena accommodated him on the UPFA National List.

The US project was essentially meant to enhance good governance and accountability. By the time, Sri Lanka and the US inked the Washington agreement, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka had been robbed twice in late Feb 2015 and late March 2016. The US and its allies never publicly expressed concern over the bond scams though they realized how the government complicity in the massive fraud jeopardized meticulously planned Sri Lanka operation.

However, in spite of continuing battles between President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe since the first treasury bond scam allegedly perpetrated by Singaporean Governor Arjuna Mahendran and rapid deterioration of the situation, the US project seems still on track. In a way, Easter Sunday attacks facilitated the US project here to a certain extent. But overall, those who had backed Maithripala Sirisena’s candidature at 2015 presidential election would never have anticipated Central Bank treasury bond scams twice. President Sirisena dissolved parliament in June 2015 to save the UNP from the first treasury bond scam thereby paved the way for much bigger second fraud in March 2016. President Sirisena waited till January 2017 to appoint a committee. By the time parliament received the report in the following year, Governor Mahendran had been allowed to slip out of the country. The parliament is yet to debate the report. US funded good governance project obviously didn’t have any impact on parliament as far as treasury bond scams were concerned. Wouldn’t it be the responsibility of Prasad Kariyawasam to inquire into this matter if he was paid by US taxpayer to ensure proper implementation of the project?

Although President Sirisena recently squarely blamed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution for the current political crisis, the writer is of the view that mega treasury bond scams ruined the yahapalana arrangement. The 19th Amendment enacted in April 2015 wouldn’t have been an issue if those in power had not raided the Central Bank. Their efforts to manipulate investigations and use parliament for the cover up of the heinous financial crime as well as the delaying the local government polls till Feb 2018 further worsened the situation.

President Sirisena couldn’t have absolved himself of the responsibility for the second treasury bond scam involving disgraced Perpetual Treasuries Limited perpetrated in 2016. President made an abortive bid to overcome the situation by blaming it all on Premier Wickremesinghe in April 2018. The UNP leader convincingly defeated a No Confidence Motion (NCM) moved by the Joint Opposition due to failure on the part of President Sirisena to secure the backing of UNP lawmakers. Wickremesinghe consolidated his position in the wake of key UNPers, namely Karu Jayasuriya, Sajith Premadasa and Ranjith Madduma Bandara declining to accept premiership. President Sirisena, struggling to thwart Wickremesinghe’s moves, sacked the UNPer in late Oct 2018 along with the entire cabinet, dissolved parliament on Nov 09, 2018 and called for early general election on January 05, 2019. Parliament had to be dissolved since twice President Rajapaksa who received the premiership at the expense of Wickremesinghe couldn’t prove required simple majority in parliament.

The judiciary swiftly and decisively ruled against the Sirisena-Rajapaksa constitutional coup.

One-time US Ambassador to the UN (2013-2017) Samantha Jane Power tweeted in early Nov. 2018: "The dangers of #SriLanka constitutional crisis are clear: violence is possible & Rajapaksa’s return to power will likely end the flagging efforts at ethnic reconciliation. Where is US diplomacy? SL must know that suspending aid, and targeted sanctions on the table."

Power tweeted again on Nov. 05, 2018: "Hard to know what will get #SriLanka president’s attention as he defies constitution. But good that US, EU & Japan showing urgent need to restore democracy. $500 million in US aid, trade privileges w/ Europe, Japanese loan of $1.4 billion hang in balance."

Western powers played a crucial role during the battle with diplomatic representatives visiting parliament during sessions and openly pledging support to the government. The international community cannot be blamed the failure on the part of President Sirisena and Premier Rajapaksa to engineer crossovers in sufficient numbers. President Sirisena declared that the project failed due to some lawmakers demanding as much as Rs 500 mn. Transparency International Sri Lanka lodged a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) regarding UPFA bid to bribe UNP Puttalam District lawmaker Palitha Range Bandara. CIABOC is powerless to inquire into lawmakers. Former lawmaker Prof. Rajiva Wijesinhe told the writer how the CIABOC sat on his complaint regarding a large scale operation to bribe People’s Alliance lawmakers during Mrs Kumaratunga’s presidency. It would be pertinent to mention that the CIABOC, too, received substantial US funding under the countrywide project in addition to British support.

The US seems to be funding all types of clandestine operations. The US funding of Sirisena campaign in 2014/2015 is not a secret though identities of recipients remained confidential.

No less a person than former US Secretary of State John Kerry is on record as having said a massive USD 585 mn was spent in Nigeria, Myanmar and Sri Lanka to restore democracy.

Forthcoming 2019 presidential poll will not be an exception. But the independent US media is endlessly griping about alleged meddling by Russians in the last US presidential election, while it completely ignored Washington’s meddling in internal affairs of other countries like nobody’s business.