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China poised for diplomatic windfall in Sri Lanka elections Beijing backs politicians and influential Buddhist leaders, expert says

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MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Asia regional correspondent, Nikkei Asian Review

 

BANGKOK — China is cultivating a wide swathe of political allies in Sri Lanka ahead of the nation’s general elections on Aug. 5, marking a break from throwing its lot in with one dominant political camp.

 

Foreign policy insiders in the small South Asian nation reckon the strategy fortifies the edge China has over geopolitical adversaries India, Japan and the U.S. when it comes to influencing a country that straddles an increasingly contested stretch of the Indian Ocean.

 

This diplomatic shift, the insiders say, has been marked by quiet, behind-the-scenes meetings between Chinese emissaries and the leading political parties vying for votes ahead of elections that in a little more than two weeks will determine parliament’s 225 lawmakers.

 

The coronavirus’s impact in Sri Lanka provided China with an opening to demonstrate its newly tuned diplomacy. Song Tao, minister of the international department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, in June hosted a video conference with leaders of Sri Lanka’s major political parties to cultivate bipartisan bonds under the guise of fighting COVID-19.

 

The island nation has reported 2,674 infections and 11 deaths. According to Luo Chong, a spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in Colombo, the meeting was a goodwill gesture that has been repeated with other allies in the wake of the pandemic. “The International Department of the Communist Party of China conducted several joint-video conferences with different parties in Sri Lanka, Nepal, [the] Philippines, Indonesia and Arab counties, which is a common practice, especially under the current COVID-19 situation,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

 

The pandemic has boosted China’s influence in Sri Lanka, a veteran Sri Lankan diplomat said, referring to a $500 million loan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa desperately sought from China to help fight COVID-19.

 

“China is the only international player who has the funds to help with such emergencies,” the diplomat said. “Beijing was prompt because it knows which political players it is closer to in Sri Lanka — the Rajapaksas,” referring to the president and his elder brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former president.

 

But seasoned observers of Chinese diplomacy read more into Beijing’s preelection encounters with parties across Sri Lanka’s political spectrum.

 

Patrick Mendis, a visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University, based in Taiwan, said the CCP constantly adjusts its diplomacy based on previous outcomes. “It has remarkable agility to change as China learns from its past mistakes in Sri Lanka,” Mendis said. “Now, it supports not only political parties but influential Buddhist leaders, as China realizes the power of the Buddhist clergy in domestic politics.”

 

In 2015, China was perceived as backing then incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But Mahinda lost his reelection bid in a shock setback for the country’s most politically influential clan, the Rajapaksas, who had displayed signs of dynastic ambitions.

 

That 2015 poll, the second after the Rajapaksas presided over the end of a nearly 30-year Civil War, was marked by allegations that India, the regional power in South Asia, and China were bankrolling competing campaigns.

 

The Rajapaksa camp accused the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s spy agency, of pouring funds into a coalition of anti- Rajapaksa political parties to defeat Mahinda in his run for a third term.

 

Former President Maithripala Sirisena ended up winning, and his camp accused a Chinese company with investments in Sri Lanka of financing the Rajapaksa campaign.

 

Last year, in November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former military lieutenant colonel, won a decisive mandate in the presidential poll, signaling voter appetite for a strongman leader after five years of a divisive and dysfunctional administration under an anti-Rajapaksa coalition.

 

While China burrowed deep into Sri Lankan politics — it has even commissioned local pollsters to gauge voter sentiment — it was also lavishing multibillion-dollar loans on the country for large infrastructure projects ranging from a new harbor and airport to highways. Not surprisingly, China accounts for 10% of Sri Lanka’s ballooning external debt of $55 billion. Compare that number to $88 billion, the size of the island’s economy

 

The China-funded projects have become a hot-button issue during election cycles as some Sri Lankan voters take a dislike to foreign money paying for strategic assets. “This was never the case before,” a senior South Asian diplomat said. “Foreign policy and foreign investment [used to have] bipartisan backing no matter which party won, but that has changed over the last few years, and strategic investments have become campaign fodder.”

 

As for Japan, for decades Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral lender and development partner, it now must deal with the Rajapaksa tilt toward China. Mere months into his first term, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has sent mixed messages to Japan about the fate of two multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects, both of which were championed by the previous coalition government.

 

One is an elevated light railway system through parts of Greater Colombo, the island’s largest commercial city. The new government says the rail will have to be delayed.

 

The other is an expanded container terminal in Colombo Port, which also has Indian and Sri Lankan backers. The tripartite agreement, signed in 2019 by the previous government, is also at the whim of the Rajapaksa government, which wants new terms. Japan appears unmoved for now. “There is no such fact that Japan and Sri Lanka have agreed to revise the plan of the LRT project,” an official at the Japanese Embassy in Colombo told Nikkei, referring to the Light Railway Transit project. “We understand that this project has so far been implemented as planned by the Sri Lankan implementing agency.”

 

But India’s government is fuming over the matter, especially now that the Rajapaksa camp is turning the Colombo Port container terminal project into an anti-India campaign issue.

 

Diplomatic sources in Colombo say India eyed a stake in the Colombo Port as a counterweight to China’s growing dominance in Sri Lanka’s maritime economy.

 

“The Indians don’t trust the Rajapaksas,” said a diplomat from a Western embassy in Sri Lanka’s former capital. “They see them as doubled-tongued. A reversal on the port project would see India returning to the pre-2015 days of distrusting Colombo.”

 

The U.S. faces a similar quandary. A $480 million grant under Washington’s so-called Millennium Challenge Corporation was partially meant to help upgrade Sri Lanka’s transport and logistics infrastructure, but it too has become an electoral football, as it was during the presidential election in November. Rajapaksa has profited from the anti-MCC campaign rhetoric of his ultranationalist constituency among the country’s Sinhala-Buddhist ethnic majority.

 

The U.S. may have to bite this political bullet to achieve its longer-termstrategic vision in the Indian Ocean, which includes Sri Lanka.

 

“Washington’s attention to Sri Lanka appears to be increasingly fueled by geostrategic concerns about China,” said Nilanthi Samaranayake, director for strategy and policy analysis at the Center for Naval Analysis, a Washington-based think tank. “[There is more] attention on Sri Lanka than ever before… [and there willbe] questions [after the elections] about which direction Sri Lankawill move in regarding its policies toward India, the U.S. and China.”

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EC: HC judgment won’t bar Premalal from contesting

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… former, present polls monitors differ

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Election Commission (EC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya yesterday (3) said that the recent Ratnapura High Court ruling, in respect of the 2015 January Kahawatte killing, wouldn’t bar SLPP candidate Premalal Jayasekera from contesting the parliamentary polls on August 5.

 Deshapriya said so when The Island asked for comment on the Ratnapura, High Court sentencing the SLPP candidate, along with two others, to death, over the killing of a person backing the then common candidate Maithripala Sirisena.

At the time of the incident, Jayasekera held the post of Deputy Minister in the SLFP-led UPFA government.

Deshapriya said that there had never been a similar case before though there had been cases of elected lawmakers being unseated after being found guilty by courts.

 “We’ll discuss the issue at hand after the election and decide what to do,” Deshapriya said, adding that there was no change in the status quo as a result of the Ratnapura HC ruling.

The EC consists of Mahinda Deshapriya, Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole and Nalin Abeysekera, PC.

CMEV (Center for Monitoring Election Violence) spokesman Manjula Gajanayake told The Island that the top SLPP leadership should have considered all aspects before accommodating the former lawmaker on the Ratnapura nomination list. The SLPP could have easily avoided what Gajanayake called unnecessary complication by fielding another in place of Jayasekera, Gajanayake said. The polls monitor pointed out that the SLPP was aware that the Kahawatte case had been heard and the ruling was pending.

Responding to another query, Gajanayake said that the EC as well as political parties, especially those represented in parliament would have to address the issue.

Ratnapura District SLPP list comprises Vasudeva Nanayakkara (leader), Pavitradevi Wanniarachchi, Janaka Wakkumbura, John Seneviratne, Premalal Jayasekera, Dunesh Gankanda, Akila Ellawala, Sanee Rohana Kodituwakku,  Ranjith Bandara, Gamini Waleboda, Muditha Prishanthi, Hettiarachchige Lakshman Premaratne, Athula Kumara Rahubadda and Miyuru Bhashitha Liyanage. SLPP’s 14 candidates, include six former lawmakers. Of them, Dunesh Gankanda was elected from the Ratnapura district on the UNP ticket at the last parliamentary polls in August 2015.

 The SLPP should blame itself for the crisis, Gajanayake said.

 On Feb 26, 2019 four suspects who had been charged with killing of an individual in Kahawatta during the 2015 presidential polls campaign were acquitted and released by the High Court of Ratnapura. However, Jayasekera and two others remained as accused.

 Executive Director of PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Election) Rohana Hettiarachchi told The Island that at the time Jayasekera received nomination he hadn’t been found guilty by High Court of Ratnapura. Therefore, there couldn’t be an issue in voters exercising their franchise for Jayasekera tomorrow, Hettiarachchi said. However, the EC would have to seek legal advice before Jayasekera received oaths as a member of parliament. 

 The police arrested Jayasekera in the Beruwela police area while he was hiding after the high profile Kahawatte killing.

 CaFFE (Campaign for Free and Fair Elections) head Ahamed Manas Makeen told The Island that the electorate should exercise their franchise for those who had clean records. Those who abused women and children or encouraged such practices, bribery and corruption and engaged or promoted violence or extremism shouldn’t be encouraged. Makeen said that the CaFFE stand was relevant to all districts not only Ratnapura where a candidate was sentenced to death.

 However Makeen’s predecessor, Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon, in a letter dated Aug 2 addressed to the EC, on behalf of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) said that in terms of the Article 89 of the Constitution a convicted murderer is automatically deprived of the right to exercise his franchise. Therefore, Jayasekera couldn’t vote at tomorrow’s general election, Tennakoon said, pointing out that in terms of Article 91 of the Constitution, a person disqualified to vote at the general election couldn’t contest. Tennakoon urged the EC to advice the Returning Officer of Ratnapura accordingly without delay.

 Keerthi functions as the SJB representative at the EC.

 SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris said that they were watching the situation.

 

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Police initially believed in what Sampayo told them about Negombo Prison

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Image grabbed from video footage of Sampayo speaking to the media on Sunday at Kurunegala

by Norman Palihawadane

The Negombo Police, probing the alleged links between prison officials and inmates serving time there for drug offences, said that there had been numerous complaints about drug cartels operating from the Negombo Prison but former Superintendent (SP) of the Negombo Prison, Anuruddha Sampayo, always told them that there were no such rackets.

SP Sampayo was of the opinion that some elements were spreading such stories to tarnish the good name of officers attached to the Negombo prison.

Sampayo, who was evading arrest after being issued warrants, surrendered, on Sunday

Following directions of the Attorney General, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on July 22 obtained arrest warrants, from the Negombo Magistrate, on Sampayo and three other officials of the Negombo Prison .

Sampayo is the first suspect in the case filed over committing irregularities in the Negombo Prison. The three other suspects in the case – Chief Jailor of the Prison Upali Sarath Bandara, Second Tier Jailer Nishantha Senaratne and Jailer Prasad Kalinga Kaluaggala – surrendered to the police earlier and they were remanded until Aug 04 by the court.

Police Media Spokesman Senior Superintendent of Police Jaliya Senaratne said Sampayo had been handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department after recording a statement.

 

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Expect post-election tax shocks if SLPP wins, warns JVP leader

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JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake flanked by NPP National List candidate Tuan K. Azoor and Kalutara District candidate Dr. Nihal Abeysinghe addressing a press conference held at the party headquarters on Sunday

 

By Saman Indrajith

The government is doing exactly the very obverse of what it had promised to win the presidential election, therefore people should not take the SLPP’s promises seriously, says the JVP.

Addressing the media at the party headquarters, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said, on Sunday: “The SLPP came to power promising one law for all, but some persons are above the law. The SLPP has on its platform some characters who have Interpol red alerts against their names. They broke the quarantine laws at many places including the funeral of Minister Arumugam Thondaman. The law was bent to save the person who demolished an ancient royal pavilion at Kurunegala. That is how they maintain the rule of law.”

Dissanayake said that 6.9 million people had voted for the SLPP candidate at the last presidential polls, believing that he would not divest national assets. “There is still no clear statement that it would do away with the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact with the US. People did not vote for the SLPP to sell off the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port. Trade Unions had to resort to strikes to obtain a promise from the Prime Minister but the problem is far from resolved. There has been a Cabinet paper to demarcate a 10-acre area covering land belonging to the Examinations Department at Malay Street, Police land in the Slave Island

and Air Force premises in adjacent area and to get it under the purview of the Urban Development Authority. We believe that their plan is to sell the entire land off in the near future.”

Dissanayake asked people to brace for massive tax hikes after Aug 5 elections because the SLPP would increase the prices of essential items to raise funds to keep the economy going. “There will be unprecedented price hikes. There will be tax increases. There is a need for a force that could fight against those moves. Only the JVP-led NPP is equal to that task. We’ll have to fight in and outside parliament. We therefore ask the people to cast their votes for the NPP and send as many as NPP members possible to the next parliament.”

NPP National List candidate Tuan K. Azoor and Kalutara District candidate Dr. Nihal Abeysinghe also addressed the press.

 

 

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