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.”
Hemasiri begins to unload against Sirisena
By Rathindra Kuruwita
Former President Maithripala Sirisena, on April 24, 2019, had told former IGP Pujith Jayasundara that if the latter took the blame for the Easter Sunday bombings he would be given his pension and posted to any country of his choice as an ambassador, former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando yesterday told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) investigating the Easter Sunday attacks.
Fernando said that Jayasundara had come to him for advice on the matter soon after Sirisena had made the offer. Fernando refused to advise him, given the sensitive nature of the proposal. “I told him that he should talk to his family members,” Fernando said.
Sirisena had also told Jayasundara that the Commission he appointed to investigate the attacks, headed by Supreme Court Judge Vijith Malalgoda, would clear the former IGP. Jayasundara only had to accept the responsibility and resign, Fernando said.
The witness also said that around 25 and 30 decisions taken by him as the Defence Secretary had not been implemented due to President Maithripala Sirisena’s interference.
“On one occasion, former IGP Jayasundara and I prepared the documents needed to transfer some police officers. The following day, Sirisena called me, scolded and asked me to cancel the list. He said he was the Defence Minister and that IGP and I had no authority to do such things. Although I tried to explain that there was no political motive behind our attempts, he was not ready to accept it.”
Now, UK concerned about detention of lawyer allegedly involved in Easter Sunday carnage
Dinesh G. says matter before SC
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Many an eyebrow has been raised over the UK condemning the arrest of 2019 Easter Sunday attack suspect, lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council.
The Cabinet on Wednesday (16) discussed the British government criticism of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the 30/1 accountability resolution and current human rights situation in Sri Lanka et al.
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena briefed the cabinet of ministers of strong criticism directed by the UK at the onset of the ongoing UNHRC sessions.
The UK’s International Ambassador for Human Rights, Rita French, in a statement delivered on behalf of Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Montenegro and the UK alleged that civil society and human rights groups in Sri Lanka experienced an increasingly difficult operating environment.
A British statement quoted Ambassador French as having said: “Instances of intimidation, harassment and surveillance continue, including threats to families of disappeared persons. Individuals are detained indefinitely without appearance before court, such as lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah.”
Declaring Sri Lanka’s dynamic and diverse civil society lies at the heart of its vibrant democracy, the Core Group expressed its strong solidarity with Sri Lanka’s civil society, and human rights defenders while requesting the government to take all steps necessary to allow them to operate freely.
Cabinet spokesman and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella Thursday (17) told post-cabinet media briefing of Sri Lanka’s response to Core Group’s latest criticism. The Core Group also made reference to the proposed now controversial 20th Amendment to the Constitution as well as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa government quitting the Geneva process.
The UK statement further quoted Ambassador French as having said: “”It (Sri Lanka Government) has suggested that a new domestic process will take the Geneva agenda forward. While we appreciate this continued commitment, previous such processes have, regrettably, proved insufficient to tackle impunity and deliver real reconciliation. This Council will want to pay particular attention to how the new approach, will differ from these previous attempts and put the victims of conflict at its heart. The future of the Independent Commissions including the Office for Missing Persons and Office for Reparations will be particularly important.”
Responding to several questions regarding attacks on Sri Lanka over human rights and accountability issues at the post-cabinet media briefing, Minister Rambukwella pointed out that Lord Naseby had quite efficiently countered the very basis of the 30/1 accountability resolution. The minister recalled how Lord Naseby in Oct 2017 in the House of Lords set the record straight. Kandy District lawmaker pointed out that Ambassador French’s statement was nothing but an extension of accusations propagated on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. The Media Minister was flanked by co-cabinet spokesperson Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana and Director General of Information Department Nalaka Kaluwewa.
Minister Rambukwella said that Sri Lanka wouldn’t succumb to international pressure.
Responding to The Island queries regarding the Core Group’s criticism, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said that Geneva statement had been conveniently silent on why lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah was taken in by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
The police took him into custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in April this year over his alleged involvement in the Easter attacks nearly a year before.
Noting that Hizbullah had moved the Supreme Court against his arrest, Minister Gunawardena pointed out that British nationals were among about 40 foreigners killed in near simultaneous suicide attacks in Colombo, Batticaloa and Katuwapitiya. Nearly 270 killed and over 400 wounded in Easter Sunday attacks.
Minister Gunawardena said that those who had been critical of certain aspects of the ongoing investigation into Easter attacks should go through the submissions made by the Attorney General‘ s
Department in respect of Hizbullah arrest before the court. The minister said that the AG compared the suspect with the late Anton Balasingham, UK based theoretician of the LTTE.
Responding to another query, the Minister said that the government would certainly inquire into UK claim that civil society and human rights groups were operating in an increasingly difficult environment.
Perhaps, they should reveal specific incidents in case the civil society and human rights groups brought them to the attention of UK the High Commission or other members of the Core Group.
Minister Gunawardena said that civil society groups worked overtime against the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) during 2019 presidential and 2020 general elections. Their high profile projects went awry, the minister said, adding that the SLPP did nothing other than to rout the political opposition at two national elections.
The Foreign Minister alleged that various interested parties were making a desperate effort to sustain anti-Sri Lanka campaign though the then government restored peace over a decade ago. Colombo based embassies couldn’t be unaware of the ground situation, Minister Gunawardena said that incident-free presidential and parliamentary polls highlighted the peaceful environment. There was absolutely no basis for accusations that civil society and human rights groups faced threats whatsoever, the MEP leader said.
Minister Gunawardena acknowledged that the government would have to set the record straight as regards war crimes accusations reiterated by some lawmakers from the North at the inauguration of the 9th parliament.
SJB General Secretary condemns 20A
By Saman Indrajith
SJB General Secretary MP Ranjith Maddumabandara yesterday said that the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution had started with all signs of dictatorial regime and any one who cherished democratic values should abhor it.
Addressing the media at the Opposition Leader’s Office in Colombo, MP Madduma Bandara said that only a very few members of the Cabinet of Ministers had seen the content of the draft bill of the proposed amendment. “Not even the Prime Minister has seen it.
Many ministers do not know what it was about. But they have been forced to pass it. Those are signs of a dictatorship being created. If this is the way the Prime Minister and the ministers of the cabinet are being treated before the 20th Amendment becoming law, we can imagine the way it will be once the amendment becomes the law,” he said.
“The MPs who vote for this bill will do so to prune down their powers themselves. Parliament has the supreme power over public finances. But as per the new laws proposed by the draft bill the parliament will lose those powers and they will be vested with the executive presidency. This bill is an attempt the undermine the powers of the legislature. So the MPs will lose their power. We hope that those in the government ranks will have clear understanding of the repercussions of this bill,” he said.
Kegalle District SJB MP Sujith Sanjaya Perera said: “The SLPP government was formed on a promise of bringing down the cost of living and provide relief to the people. They promised to produce the food needed for the country within this land. Now there is a shortage of fertilizer. Farmers complain of the collapse of their cultivations because of lack of fertilizers. Planters too complain of the fertilizer shortage. Nearly 50 per cent of tea industry has faced the problem. There would be food scarcity very soon. Farmers have no means to work for the next Maha season.”
Gampaha District SJB Member Harshana Rajakaruna displaying a coconut at the press conference said: A coconut is now priced at 100 rupees. A kilo of sugar is 150 rupees, a kilo of rice is sold at Rs 120 and the potato price has increased to 180 rupees a kilo. The cost of living is skyrocketing. Where is the relief package promised to people. That was promised at the presidential election campaign. It is nowhere to be seen.
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