Beijing backs politicians and influential Buddhist leaders, expert says
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.”
About Rs 3 bn paid as OT during past few months
Overtime gravy train for CPC refinery workers:
By Saman Indrajith
About Rs. 3,000 million had been paid as overtime for the employees of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation oil refinery, during the past few months, Parliament was told yesterday.
Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said that he had asked for a detailed report as to whom and on what grounds the overtime payments had been made and it would be submitted to Parliament.
Fielding a question asked by Chief Opposition Whip, Kandy District SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella, Minister Wijesekera said instructions had been issued to regulate overtime.
MP Kiriella demanded to know why overtime had been paid to employees of an institution that had been shut down. “There are reports that over Rs 4,000 million has been paid as overtime to the workers of the refinery that was not functioning owing to the non-availability of crude oil. This is a crime,” Kiriella said.
Minister Wijesekera: “I made inquiries after I saw newspaper reports on payment of overtime to refinery workers. I inquired from the Finance Manager of the CPC. I was told that a sum between Rs 2.5 billion to Rs 3 billion had been paid as overtime. The refinery was not closed during the months of March and April. It was closed only during the last month. They had issued refined fuel on all seven days of the week continuously. When an institution operates full time in such a manner the employees would have to be paid for their overtime work. However, I admit that could have been done with some level of management in the payment process,” the Minister said.
Wigneswaran claims RW accepted all his demands
Head of the Thamil Makkal Thesiya Kuttani (TMTK), C. V. Wigneswaran told the media recently that President Ranil Wickremesinghe had agreed to all demands he had made, including the release of Tamil ‘political prisoners’, to secure his vote during last month’s Parliament election, to elect a President.
He made this statement following a meeting with the President in Colombo to discuss the establishment of an all-party government.
“We have made several requests and if the President is ready to comply with them, we will consider taking part in the all party government,” he said.
“We met him when he was Prime Minister. Before the parliamentary vote to elect the President, I made these demands and he agreed to them. That is why I voted for him. Now, it is for him to keep his promises. I am here to remind him of this,” Wigenswaran said.
Wickremesinghe, as the Prime Minister in the yahapalana government, vehemently denied that there were Tamil ‘political prisoners’ in the country. (RK)
MPs are not immune from country’s laws – SJB
By Saman Indrajith
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa told Parliament yesterday that the MPs were not immune from the Penal Code despite the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act.
Premadasa said Cabinet Spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardane had claimed that incidents in Parliament could not be dealt with under the regular law.
“This claim sends the wrong message to people. Aren’t the provisions of the Penal Code or the Offences against Public Property Act applicable to the MPs? There were incidents in this Chamber during the 52-day coup conspiracy; some MPs damaged public property. There were investigations by the CID and also by Parliament.
The Secretary General announced the cost of the damage. When the process was on to prosecute those MPs responsible for the damage, political influence was exerted on the CID not to file cases against the culprits. It is against this background that Minister Gunawardane, in his position as the Cabinet spokesman, makes this false claim. His statement is sending a message saying that there is one law inside the Parliament and another outside it.
“He also claims that the Speaker decides whether these laws are applicable to Parliament or not,” Premadasa said.
Colombo District SJB MP Mujibur Rahuman said that people were already against the MPs and this new wrong message would further exacerbate their anger against elected members. “The Cabinet Spokesman says that the MPs have a different set of laws while the people are dealt with by the country’s laws. That is wrong. We are also liable for criminal offences that we commit,” Rahuman said.
“The CID conducted an investigation and was prepared to file cases, but that was prevented through political influence. The Cabinet Spokesman’s statement is fueling public hatred towards the MPs. Please, request the Cabinet Spokesman to refrain from making such statements,” he said.
Minister Gunawardane said that he was only responding to a question raised by a journalist and the question was about fairness of cracking down on protesters for destroying public property, during anti-government protests, when MPs, who damaged Parliament, property under the former government, are yet to be apprehended.
Minister Gunawardane said as a public representative in Parliament for the last 33 years he had only explained that the law would be implemented against those engaged in violent activities during peaceful protests.
“I said MPs had Parliament privileges and the Parliament law. I also explained that MPs attending Parliament cannot be arrested as they are engaged in legislative activities,” he said.
Chief Opposition Whip, Kandy District MP Lakshman Kiriella, said that the MPs had no such legal immunity. and Parliament privileges only cover MPs from being arrested while they are on their way to attend and when they leave Parliament. “Therefore, there is no law that says they are exempt from other laws of the country,” Kiriella said.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, agreeing with Chief Opposition Whip Kiriella, said that all other laws in the country applied to the MPs.
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