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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AG not bound by its recommendations, yet to receive report
PCoI on Easter Sunday attacks:
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC is not bound by recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) into the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, or presidential directives in that regard, according to authoritative sources.
They said that the AG couldn’t under any circumstances initiate legal proceedings until he had received the full PCoI report.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa received the PCoI report on Feb 1. The President’s Office delivered a set of PCoI reports to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena on Feb 23, a day after the report was presented to the cabinet of ministers. The Island raised the matter with relevant authorities in the wake of a section of the media reporting the PCoI recommending punitive measures against former President Maithripala Sirisena, Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, IGP Pujitha Jayasundera, Chief of State Intelligence Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardena, Chief of National Intelligence retired DIG Sisira Mendis and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader and Samagi Jana Balavegaya MP Rishad Bathiudeen et al over the Easter Sunday carnage.
Sources pointed out that due to the inordinate delay in sharing the PCoI report with the AG, the department hadn’t been able to take preliminary measures required to initiate the proceedings. Sources said that a team of officers would take at least six weeks or more to examine the report before tangible measures could be taken.
With the AG scheduled to retire on May 24, 2021, even if the AG Department received the P CoI it would be quite a tough task to initiate proceedings ahead of retirement, sources said. However, in terms of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution enacted in last October, both the AG and the IGP could receive extensions beyond 60 at the President’s discretion.
Dappula de Livera received an Acting appointment as the AG a week after the Easter Sunday carnage whereas his predecessor Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, was elevated to Chief Justice.
Responding to another query, sources said that the Attorney General two weeks ago requested Secretary to the President for a copy of the P CoI. However, the AG was yet to receive one, sources said. In spite of the AG not receiving a P CoI copy, the AG had instructed the IGP to obtain a copy of the report when he requested the police to complete investigations into the Easter Sunday carnage. The AG issued specific instructions after having examined police files pertaining to the investigations.
The IGP, too, hadn’t received a copy so far though some sections of the report were in the public domain.
Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage displayed at a live political programme on Derana a copy of the P CoI report he received at the cabinet meeting earlier in the day.
Sources said that the Attorney General’s Department couldn’t decide on a course of action in respect of the Easter carnage on the basis of a section of the report. In terms of the Commission of Inquiry Act (Section 24), the AG enjoyed significant powers/authority in respect of investigations; sources said adding that the Department urgently required both the P CoI report and police investigations report. The Attorney General’s Department has raised the delay in receiving a P CoI report amidst the Catholic Church attacking the government over the same issue.
Sources said that ministerial committee appointed to study the P CoI report couldn’t decide on how to proceed with the recommendations and the matter was entirely in the hands of the AG. Sources pointed out that the delay on the part of the government to release the report had received the attention of sections of the international media, including the New York Times. Public Security Minister retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera having met Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith at the Bishop’s House on Dec 8, 2020 said that the AG would get a copy of the P CoI report once the President received it. Minister Weerasekera said that the CID had handed over the relevant files after having completed investigations into eight blasts. Referring to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) report on the Easter Sunday carnage, the former Navy Chief of Staff said that all such documents would have to be brought to one place and considered before initiating legal proceedings. Acknowledging that there could be delays, lawmaker Weerasekera said that on the instructions of the Attorney General a 12-member team of lawyers was working on the case. The minister vowed to expose the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday attacks. Investigations continued while some of those wanted were overseas, the minister said.
The minister acknowledged that the Attorney General couldn’t proceed without the P CoI report. Minister Weerasekera reiterated that once the President received the P CoI report, it would be sent to the Attorney General. The minister said that there were documents two to three feet high that needed scrutiny. The minister assured comprehensive investigation. The minister said that investigations pertaining to eight blasts had been completed and the reports handed over to the AG. However, the Attorney General had found shortcomings in those investigations.
JVP picks holes in PCoI report
By Saman Indrajith
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday bombings had failed to identify the mastermind of , the JVP said yesterday.
Addressing the media at the party headquarters in Pelawatte, JVP Propaganda Secretary MP Vijitha Herath said that the PCoI report had levelled accusations against former President Maithripala Sirisena, former IGP and head of intelligence for their dereliction of duty, shirking of responsibilities and not taking action to prevent the attacks and negligence. There were reference to the causes of the terror attacks and actions to be taken to avoid such attacks and the influence of extremist organisations. “However, there is no mention of the mastermind of the attacks, the handlers of the attackers and those whose interests the carnage served. It is also not mentioned whether there has been any foreign or local organisation behind those attacks. As per the PCoI report the attack took place as a result of culmination of extremism.
“According to the PCoI the extremist activities were a result of the prevailing political situation then. The entire nation was waiting to see who was responsible and who masterminded those attacks. The PCoI has failed to identify the true culprits responsible for the terror attacks. The report says that the leader of the suicide cadres killed himself in the attacks and it was a puzzle. That means those who are actually responsible for the attacks are still at large. The report does not provide exact details of the sources of the attacks. The PCoI had sittings for one year and five months. It summoned various persons and got their statements but it has failed to shed any light on the terror attacks. Everybody knows that the top leaders of the government and heads of security and intelligence establishments failed in their duties. Ranil Wickremesinghe was the second in command and he too is bound by the responsibility but the PCoI report fails to identify him as one of the persons against whom legal action should be instituted. The PCoI has treated Wickremesinghe and former President Maithripala Sirisena differently. We are not telling that this report is a total failure but we cannot accept this as a complete report. The PCoI handed over its report to the President on Feb 1. After 23 days it was sent to Parliament. Now, a copy of the report is there in the parliamentary library for the perusal of MPs.”
Herath said that the PCoI did not have powers to take punitive action. “It only has powers to name those responsible and recommend action to be taken against those named.