Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Status of US project as country goes to polls


Several days after the last presidential poll on 2019 Nov 16, US Ambassador Aliana Taplitz met President Rajapaksa along with Deputy Chief of Mission Martin Kelly and Head of Political Affairs Anthony Renzulli at the Presidential Secretariat. The UD declared its readiness to work with the new leader, who renounced US citizenship to contest the election (pic courtesy President’s Office)
By Shamindra Ferdinando

UNP leader and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe boldly declared, on Oct 30, 2019, that an agreement on the USD 480 mn MCC grant would be finalized before the presidential poll, on Nov 1, 2019. The then Premier said so in response to a query, posed by the writer, at a media briefing called by Temple Trees. Wickremesinghe met the media; a day after the cabinet approved the implementation of the controversial project in spite of growing protests against it. Surprisingly, UNP Deputy Leader and presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa hadn’t been present at the Temple Trees briefing, though there were several lawmakers, as well as members of a civil society group.

Responding to another query, the UNP leader confidently declared that he would be the PM again (‘Agreement with US on MCC grant will be signed before Prez poll’ - Ranil with strapline ‘I will be PM again’-The Island, Oct 31, 2019). Wickremesinghe was proved wrong.

The then Finance Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, the darling of the US, too, threw his weight behind the MCC project. Both Samaraweera and the US Embassy declared that the programme would go ahead, with the required approvals. They seemed confident in securing parliament approval. They were proved wrong.

Today, Wickremesinghe leads a badly depleted United National Party (UNP). Premadasa is in command of the UNP offshoot, Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), while the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), having comfortably won both the Local Government polls in Feb 2018, and the presidential polls in Nov 2019, stands a much better chance in securing victory, though its repeated boasting on winning a two-thirds may prove to be nothing but rhetoric.

The UNP’s stand on the MCC, as well as two other controversial agreements with the US, namely ACSA (Access and Cross-Servicing Agreement/ formerly known as ‘NATO Mutual Support Act’) and SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement), too, contributed to Sajith Premadasa’s defeat at the last presidential poll. SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Camp exploited the proposed US agreements to the maximum.

AG approved MCC agreements - FM

The day after Wickremesinghe declared his intention to sign the MCC agreement, Minister Samaraweera, in a statement, titled ‘MCC agreement drafted with the consent of AG will be presented in Parliament’, justified the project. Samaraweera emphasized: "The whole process and the final Agreements, were done under the guidance of the Attorney General and well within the legal framework. The Attorney General is in the opinion that the Agreements are in order and there exists no legal impediment to execute same."

The agreements, referred to therein, were the Compact Agreement and the Programme Implementation Agreement. The Constitutional Council appointed tough-talking Dappula de Livera, PC, as Attorney General, on May 7, 2019. Livera, who led the AG’s Department team at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) that probed into the Treasury bond scams, served as the Acting AG, since April 29, 2019. De Livera succeeded Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, who received appointment as the Chief Justice.

According to Samaraweera, negotiations, initiated in 2016, on Sri Lanka’s request, had been finalized in Oct 2018. The agreement followed, what Samaraweera called, a study undertaken by the MCC to identify ‘constraints to economic growth analysis.’ The agreement focused on the land and transport sectors, identified as constraints to growth. Interestingly, Samaraweera, having handed over nominations to contest Matara District, at the Aug 5 parliamentary polls, recently quit the SJB, complaining about the split in the UNP. Although, SJB was certainly guarded about its response to Samaraweera’s move, Field Marshal Fonseka, who is contesting from the Gampaha District on the SJB ticket, welcomed the former minister quitting the battle. If Samarawera remained, he would have said something disparaging about the Maha Sangha to the SJB’s disadvantage, a smiling Fonseka declared.

US stand before 2019 prez poll

Amidst controversy over the project, with those backing Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature stepping up their ‘No to US’ campaign, the US Embassy sought to set the record straight (from their point of view). It would be pertinent to mention that Alaina B. Teplitz was sworn in as Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, on October 22, 2018. Teplitz taking over of the mission coincided with the finalization of talks on the MCC agreement. She served as U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, from 2015-2018, before moving to Colombo. In a statement, issued close on the heels of Wickremesinghe’s vow to finalize the agreement before the presidential poll and Samaraweera’s claim that the AG cleared the agreements (Compact Agreement and the Programme Implementation Agreement), the US said that parliamentary approval could be obtained once Sri Lanka signed the agreement. Wouldn’t it be better if a consensus was reached before the agreement was signed?

The US Embassy, in a statement issued on Nov 1, 2019, stated: "Consistent with the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s worldwide policy, in all partner countries, once the grant assistance agreement is signed, the Government of Sri Lanka will send it to parliament for approval. Inasmuch, Parliament will have ample opportunity to review the grant assistance agreement.

"During that review period, the Government of Sri Lanka will develop plans to implement the grant assistance agreement and design projects to improve transportation and land administration. This grant assistance agreement will directly benefit over 11 million Sri Lankans and meaningfully stimulate economic growth.

"Parliamentary review and approval are required by MCC to ensure the grant assistance agreement has the support of the government and the people."

US congratulates Gotabaya

Soon after the presidential poll, the US congratulated Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who gave up US citizenship to seek the highest office in Sri Lanka. The US could have impeded Gotabaya Rajapaksa though it chose not to do so. In fact, those who opposed the SLPP candidate fervently hoped for a US declaration that one-time Defence Secretary couldn’t renounce his citizenship in time for nominations. In terms of the 19th Amendment, enacted in 2015, with the overwhelming support of parliament, dual citizens were prohibited from contesting parliamentary or presidential polls. Two days after the presidential poll, the US declared its readiness to work with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The US Embassy, in Colombo, issued the following statement on Nov 18, 2019: "The United States congratulates the people of Sri Lanka on their democratic presidential election and looks forward to working with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka has continued to show the strength and resilience of its republic with a free, fair, and transparent presidential election befitting Asia’s oldest democracy. We commend the Elections Commission, civil society and government authorities for promoting a peaceful election. We are ready to continue our work with the new President and with all the people of Sri Lanka in supporting the country’s sovereignty through heightened good governance, expanded economic growth, the advancement of human rights and reconciliation and in fostering an Indo-Pacific region where all countries can prosper."

A warning ahead of prez poll

A couple of months, before the presidential poll, the US warned Sri Lanka of consequences if the latter sought to cancel agreements signed between the two. The US move was obviously meant to influence the electorate, ahead of the crucial polls. The US message was given through a selected group of journalists. A top Colombo based US diplomat told them, representing both privately and state-owned media, the US expected Sri Lanka to remain committed to agreements between the two, regardless of the outcome of the poll. Leaders of our political parties never reacted to the US statement. At the time, the warning was given, two major parties, the SLPP and the UNP were yet to officially announce their respective candidates. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature was endorsed in August 2019, several weeks after the US warning whereas Sajith Premadasa received the UNP’s endorsement much later.

The US emphasized that domestic politics shouldn’t in anyway undermine the overall US policy. The US reference to the Indo-Pacific region, in its Nov 18, 2019, statement, underscored the importance the solitary superpower attached to its global, as well as regional strategies.

US awaits House decision on MCC

US Ambassador Teplitz recently declared that a decision on the MCC agreement would be taken after parliamentary polls on Aug 5, 2020. The US ambassador said so in an online discussion with a group of selected journalists. Ambassador Teplitz acknowledged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s desire to have the MCC agreement reviewed. The top envoy said that the project had been stalled following the Oct 2018 constitutional crisis and a decision could be taken once the Government, now in a transition period, completed the process with the parliamentary election.

MCC grants USS 10 mn

However, according to Ambassador Teplitz, in terms of the MCC, substantial funding had been provided during the previous administration. In an interview with Daily FT, posted on the US Embassy website, on Dec 10, 2018, at the height of the constitutional crisis, Ambassador Teplitz said: "Via the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), we are focusing on how to improve the infrastructure in Sri Lanka. MCC’s initial grant, worth Rs. 1.2 billion ($7.4 million), was provided in July 2016 to support feasibility studies needed to develop a high-quality, evidence- based, and sustainable programme, and in 2017, an agreement was signed to provide an additional Rs. 413 million ($ 2.6 million) grant to finalize compact development. All our assistance is grants, and not loans which have to be repaid. We do this because we want to be a friend and partner, where we share mutual interest. Unfortunately, the MCC has been paused for the moment, until the resolution of the political crisis."

The UNP-SLFP coalition owed the country an explanation as regards the Ambassador’s claim that Sri Lanka had received substantial grants, twice in 2016 and 2017, in terms of the MCC. The Finance Ministry statement that had been issued on Oct 31, 2019, in support of Premier Wickremesinghe declaration, never made reference to the funding received twice, to the tune of USD 10 mn, within two years. Who conducted such expensive feasibility studies? Who finalized ‘compact development’? Did the US or Sri Lanka jointly choose the organization/s responsible for feasibility studies and compact development?

The Finance Ministry declaration that the MCC grants and assistance were provided to countries, what the ministry called having ‘rigorous standard for good governance’ and fighting corruption, should be examined against the backdrop of the then top political leadership overseeing Treasury bond scams  perpetrated by the Central Bank, with the connivance of Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL). The US, or other Western backers of the treacherous yahapalana administration, had never been bothered about waste, corruption and irregularities. Had the US intervened, perhaps the second Treasury bond scam, perpetrated in March 2016 could have been thwarted. In spite of interfering in various domestic matters, the US never bothered to instill financial discipline among lawmakers, pursuing US strategies here.

Overall US projects

Having helped the UNP-led Opposition to bring war-winning twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reign to an end, in 2015 January, the US sought agreement on three projects, ACSA, SOFA and MCC. The US State Department has revealed the funding made available to Nigeria, Myanmar and Sri Lanka to the tune of USD 580 mn, in 2014/2015, to pave the way for political change. The US push for closer political-military – economic ties with Sri Lanka should be discussed, especially taking into consideration heavy US investment here. Sri Lanka Parliament, or the Election Commission (EC), never raised the issue though lawmaker Shehan Semasinghe made a statement, in parliament, on US funding. In spite of the then President Maithripala Sirisena vowing not to allow US agreements, as long as he was in the Office of the President, later it was revealed that in his capacity as the Defence Minister, he authorized ACSA in August 2017.

However, President Sirisena, in June 2019, at a meeting with journalists at Janadhipathi Mandiraya, declared that he was opposed to military agreements with the US.

When the writer asked President Sirisena, who would take the responsibility for ACSA as he was opposed to military agreements with the US, President Sirisena said that someone should accept the responsibility for ACSA. He said the signing of ACSA had taken place in August 2017.

Sri Lanka first entered into ACSA, in March 2007, during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure as Defence Secretary. The US sought agreement on ACSA, way back in 2002, close on the heels of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s election as the Prime Minister. The move coincided with the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) on Feb 21, 2002, between Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. NATO member Norway arranged the CFA. Years later, Norway revealed its operation here had the backing of NATO by way of intelligence provided by the world’s most powerful military alliance (Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka).

The US revealed its desire to secure ACSA on Aug 22, 2002, in Colombo. The then US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, having visited Jaffna earlier in the day, followed by meetings with the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s envoy, Lakshman Kadirgamar and Premier Wickremesinghe, declared the US intention to finalize the agreement.

The announcement was made at Temple Trees. Armitage was the senior most US official to visit Colombo since Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ visit, five decades ago. The Temple Trees announcement was made over a month after Premier Wickremesinghe met US President George W. Bush in Washington. The ACSA was to be finalized in July 2002.

Teplitz reassures Mahanayakes

During the yahapalana administration, the US stepped up its involvement here. The US continuously pushed for both MCC and SOFA. In the wake of the 2019 April Easter Sunday carnage, Ambassador Teplitz assured the Mahanayakes of Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters that SOFA was not meant to take advantage of Sri Lanka. There hadn’t been a previous instance of a US Ambassador, or any other foreign envoy, for that matter, making representations to the Mahanayakes as regards security and political issues.

US-Parliament accord

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat, at the 2015 presidential polls, paved the way for unprecedented US intervention here. Having helped the UNP-led coalition to form the government, the US expeditiously sought closer relationship with Sri Lanka parliament. The revelation, in June 2019, that the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya had an advisor paid by the USAID should be examined against the backdrop of high profile agreement between the US-Sri Lanka Parliament, finalized in 2016. Many an eyebrow was raised over one-time Ambassador in Washington who subsequently served as Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam’s role as the Speaker’s advisor.

Kariyawasam played a significant role in finalizing the ACSA in 2017 August, having received the post of Foreign Secretary, in late July 2017. It would be pertinent to mention that career diplomat Kariyawasam had been Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Washington when the then TNA lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran in June 2016, revealed extraordinary tripartite agreement among yahapalana government, the US and the TNA to establish hybrid war crimes court in line with Geneva accountability resolution of Oct 2015.

Sri Lanka should seriously inquire into three – year ‘Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability Project (SDGAP) worth Rs 1.92 bn (USD 13 mn) launched in 2016 November. The project implemented by Maryland headquartered Development Alternatives, Inc (DAI) was the first of its kind executed in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka and the US finalized the agreement on SDGAP, in Sept 2016. On behalf of Sri Lanka, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who is also the Chairman of the Constitutional Council, signed the agreement whereas Peter J. Roskam, Chairman of the House Democracy Partnership, represented the US. DAI operates in Asia, the Pacific, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, West Asia, North Africa as well as Sub-Saharan Africa.

Jayasuriya’s delegation consisted of Ajith P. Perera, Deputy Minister of Power and Renewable Energy (now with the dissident UNP group ‘ Samagi Jana Balavegaya’, in the 2020 parliamentary polls fray), Karunaratne Paranavithane, Deputy Minister of Parliament Reform and Mass Media (Still with the JHU, in the 2020 parliamentary polls fray on the UNP ticket), Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, State Minister of City Planning and Water Supply (parliamentary polls fray on the SLPP ticket) and Dhammika Dassanayake, Secretary General of Parliament. The delegation was joined by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States of America, Prasad Kariyawasam.

Did Sri Lanka, in anyway benefit from such projects? Don’t forget that the parliament owed the public an explanation how 13.7 mn in US taxpayers’ money was utilized by the yahapalana government. Most importantly, did parliament consult the government as regards the SDGAP? It would be certainly interesting to know how the decision on SDGAP was made. In spite of Sri Lanka’s eternal appreciation of US backing, particularly intelligence support that enabled Sri Lanka to bring the war to a successful conclusion, in May 2009, by eradicating the LTTE sea supply route, the country cannot be ignorant of what is happening. Beginning with direct US intervention, at the 2010 January presidential election, Uncle Sam gradually stepped up its role at subsequent national level elections, pushing and influencing political parties as part of its overall strategy. Ambassador Teplitz’ recent declaration, as regards the 2020 parliament taking up MCC, reflects US confidence in the project.