Election meddling and corruption in Sri Lanka: how NYT’s selective focus on China serves Washington’s agenda

In a recent investigative report titled ‘How China got Sri Lanka to cough up a port’ the New York Times alleged the Chinese bribed former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa with a US$ 7.6 million contribution to his 2015 election campaign. Rajapaksa’s government was defeated in 2015 on an anti-corruption platform. While graft has long been a problem in Sri Lankan politics, the charge that elections were targeted with foreign bribes raises controversy to a new level.


Setting aside for now the report’s inaccuracies (such as describing the Chinese-funded Port City project as one of Colombo port’s ‘terminals,’ built by the same company that bribed Rajapaksa, and which held 50 acres of land that Sri Lanka had ‘no sovereignty on’ when a Chinese submarine called in 2014), questions arise from the NYT’s selective focus on alleged Chinese meddling. Why China? And why now? For the record, the land transaction mentioned by NYT related to the Port City project, not Colombo port. And the terms, though they originally included a freehold component, were re-negotiated in 2016 on a lease basis. In 2014 a Chinese submarine docked in Colombo port (which comes under the Sri Lanka Ports Authority), not at the Port City- which is not a port, and is not yet built. The bribe allegation however relates to the Chinese-funded Hambantota port on the southern coast.


NYT’s corruption story was originally published, with some differences in detail, in Sri Lanka’s state-run Daily News in July 2015.  By all accounts the investigation led nowhere. The government now denies the probe was stalled, as local media reports suggest. So what’s the rationale for America’s ‘newspaper of record’ taking the trouble to resurrect this story three years later?


From a news point of view, there are two elements in the Times piece that would be grist to the mill of any newspaper.  One is corruption in high places, the other is the issue of meddling in other peoples’ elections. NYT chose to write about alleged Chinese meddling in Sri Lanka’s election while ignoring reports that RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) – the spy agency of US’s strategic ally India, allegedly influenced the outcome by facilitating defections from Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) so that a former SLFP minister could run as the common candidate in a United National Party (UNP) led campaign. The strategy succeeded in bringing about regime-change, by wresting a sufficient number of Sinhala-majority votes from the SLFP to tilt the numbers in combination with the traditionally UNP-friendly minority vote. The UNP-led campaign was peppered with anti-China rhetoric.


The strategic nexus between the US and India has been growing apace in recent years. Former US president Barack Obama in his speech as chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebration in January 2015 – just weeks after Sri Lanka’s January 8 presidential election – said the US “welcomes a greater role for India in the Asia Pacific” and went on to mention Sri Lanka: “India can play a role in helping countries forge a better future, from Burma to Sri Lanka, where today there’s new hope for democracy. With your experience in elections you can help other countries with theirs.”


China meanwhile has been identified by Washington as the reason for its heightened interest in the Indian Ocean and its pursuit of stronger defense ties with India. The US position was clearly spelt out by former US Secretary of Defense Rex Tillerson in a speech at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies last October.


Sri Lanka is currently caught up in a tug-of-war between the US and China in their fight for dominance in the Indian Ocean on account of its strategic location, near important sea lanes connecting Asia with the Middle East and Africa.  It’s not hard to see how targeting alleged Chinese corruption in relation to an asset like Hambantota port would serve US strategic interests. The charge that Rajapaksa’s campaign benefited from it kills two birds with one stone by discrediting both China, and a political leader seen as being too-China-friendly, at the same time. 


When Western powers’ strategic interests are at stake, Western mainstream media typically tend to align with their respective government’s positions – as reporting on Iraq, Ukraine, Syria and many other conflicts would show. With Washington’s focus shifting to the Indian and Pacific oceans (the ‘Indo-Pacific’ in America’s new terminology) the NYT report on Sri Lanka illustrates how US mainstream media serve their government’s interests in this region.


This could be seen as part of what journalist Jonathan Cook termed the ‘Great Western Narrative’ that divides the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ Right now, especially in this part of the world, China is the ‘bad guy’ that needs to be demonized in order to save the developing world from its evil designs. Washington’s thinking was revealed by Congressman Chris Smith at a congressional hearing in June on ‘Human Rights Concerns in Sri Lanka,’ where he showed where today’s ‘white man’s burden’ lay:


“Sri Lanka’s stability is of critical importance to the United States national interests. Strategically located in the sea-lanes linking the Persian Gulf to East Asia, this island-nation has seen a spike in recent activity by the Chinese. China’s strategy globally is one of indebting countries and binding them in servitude so it can extract resources, so it is safe to say that Beijing’s initiatives will not emphasize ethnic reconciliation and/or human rights. This presents the United States with an opportunity to stand up for justice and the rule of law and to oppose China’s malign influence.              


But the election is over, and Rajapaksa lost. So this brings us to the second question: why now?


The decisive victory by Rajapaksa’s new political formation at the February local government elections, with a presidential election and general election set to take place in 2019 and 2020, may help explain the timing. The local poll results shook up Sri Lanka’s US-friendly government by showing where popular support now lies.  


The timing of this story is also notable in the way it effectively deflected media attention away from a much bigger corruption scandal involving prominent government figures. Though corruption is a main focus of the NYT piece, it chose to dwell on an alleged Chinese bribe of US$ 7.6 million in a past election, when all eyes are currently on what local media have dubbed the ‘bond scam.’ This involves a much bigger sum of Rs. 11 billion (US$ 69 million) siphoned off through insider trading activity involving former Central Bank governor Arjuna Mahendran, who is accused of intervening in bond auctions to benefit his son-in-law Arjun Aloysius’s company Perpetual Treasuries Ltd. (PTL).


So far, it has been revealed that two ministers and a member of parliament (MP) received cheques from Aloysius or PTL-affiliated companies, which they said they used in their campaign for the August 2015 parliamentary election. The bond scam had already made the news by then, and their claims that they ‘didn’t know’ where the money came from rang hollow. The media naturally had a field day with this abundant supply of headline-making news. But after the NYT story broke, reporters have stopped button-holing various MPs and sticking microphones in front of them to ask “Did you take PTL money?”


The issue that Sri Lankans really need to worry about following the recent exposures and allegations, is the urgent need for laws to regulate election campaign financing. The politicians who benefited from PTL’s largesse have made remarks to the effect that accepting donations is ‘ok,’ that it is ‘normal’ for businessmen to support election campaigns, that ‘no one spends their own money’ etc. Neither the issue of local influence peddling nor the risk of foreign meddling in an unregulated landscape, have been addressed.


Part of the problem is that Sri Lankan politicians of all stripes and from both the mainstream parties are content to carry on with the prevailing unregulated landscape when it comes to campaign financing. This could be one reason why no party is eager to pursue its opponent over this particular issue. Apart from the bond scam exposures, which are before court, there is at least one election-finance related petition submitted to the bribery commission for investigation. It refers to Rs 60 million (US$ 376,000) given to a top UNP politician by a businessman in 2001. The petitioner, former state minister Rajiva Wijesinha says he believes the money was used to bribe MPs “to cross over so as to bring down the government which president Kumaratunga had constituted following the 2000 election.”


Given the high stakes involved in the big powers’ contest for influence in the region, election-related bribes of a much higher order may be on offer in years ahead.  The gaping hole created by the absence of required laws threatens not only the integrity of Sri Lanka’s elections but now, its national interest as well.  Meanwhile as elections draw nearer, we may expect more Western corporate media reports on how Sri Lanka ‘coughs up’ for China.



A version of this article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Colombo.

Source: Investig’Action


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