Let us now discuss the US role here against the backdrop of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit this week, close on the heels of former Chinese Foreign Minister and the current Communist Party Politburo Member Yang Jiechi meeting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Yahapalana President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe hadn’t been able to reach a consensus on almost all major issues – ranging from economic policy to making available tabs to undergraduates. In spite of forming an administration, on the basis of the 19th Amendment, enacted in early 2015, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe didn’t see eye to eye on many matters. On many occasions, the former President publicly criticized Wickremesinghe’s approach to the Treasury bond scam,s allegedly perpetrated by the then Central Bank Governor, Arjuna Majendran, handpicked by the then PM, being the primary bone of contention.
|Sec. State Mike Pompeo arriving Colombo – October 27, 2020|
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Austin Fernando, who had been Secretary to Sirisena (July 2017-July 2018), quite rightly pointed out that the unprecedented Treasury bond scams caused a major rift between the yahapalana leaders. Fernando endorsed the appointment of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) to probe the Treasury bond scams. What the one-time Defence Secretary Fernando didn’t say was that the appointment of the P CoI took place in January 2017- nine months after the second Treasury bond scam, and 22 months after the first.
Saman Ekanayake, who had served as Secretary to Wickremesinghe, in another interview, also published in the Oct 18, 2020 edition of the ST, asserted that the Treasury bond scams hadn’t been the major cause of the conflict between the yahapalana leaders.
Fernando and Ekanayake discussed a range of issues, and controversies, that led to the collapse of the much-touted yahapalana arrangement. As a result, the UNP ended up with one National List seat, whereas the SLFP managed to secure 13 seats on the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) ticket, and one on its own, at the last General Election.
The UNP parliamentary group consisted of 106 lawmakers, in the last parliament (2015-2020). In addition to the 106-member group, there was one elected on the SLMC ticket. The SLFP led UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) commanded 95 lawmakers. The UPFA is no longer represented in parliament.
Fernando and Ekanayake, who enjoyed a ringside view, deliberated the yahapalana downfall. The discussions were quite useful and essential to understand the circumstances leading to Sirisena sacking Wickremesinghe, on Oct 26, 2018. Sirisena made his move, having failed to convince Wickremesinghe to give up the premiership, close on the heels of the debilitating setback the UNP and the SLFP suffered at the Feb 10, 2018 Local Government polls. However, the former officials failed to discuss the crucial and weighty US intervention here that facilitated Maithripala Sirisena’s emergence as the common candidate, at the 2015 presidential poll. The US intervention, both overt and covert, by way of the unpalatable Geneva accountability resolution, also contributed to the ultimate downfall of the yahapalana arrangement. Interestingly, there hadn’t been any reference to the Geneva resolution at all.
Pompeo here in the wake of Jiechi
Let us now discuss the US role here against the backdrop of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit this week, close on the heels of former Chinese Foreign Minister and the current Communist Party Politburo Member Yang Jiechi meeting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Earlier, Pompeo was scheduled to arrive in Colombo on June 27, 2019, on a short visit, during the yahapalana administration. Although the cancellation took place, amidst the SLPP and nationalist groups protesting against the finalization of SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) agreements, the US Embassy in Colombo, however, gave this excuse: “Due to unavoidable scheduling conflicts during his upcoming visit to the Indo-Pacific region that includes accompanying President Donald J. Trump to the G20 Summit in Japan, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo is unable to visit Sri Lanka as previously announced.”
Ahead of Pompeo’s arrival, the US threatened Sri Lanka, struggling to cope up with the deadly coronavirus, over its close relationship with China. “We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity,” attributed to Dean Thompson, the top diplomat in charge of South Asia, is nothing but a threat. The message is clear.
Obviously, in spite of the change of government, in Nov 2019, the US expects Sri Lanka to remain committed to a hidden agenda, reached with the previous yahapalana administration. With China quite stubbornly pursuing its strategies, at both regional, as well as global level, the US seems hell-bent on subverting Sri Lanka, now experiencing the worst ever financial crisis, since independence.
The US warning reminds us of the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s demand, during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term, that Sri Lanka terminate/take back all major Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, including the Colombo port city, as well as the Hambantota port. The US-India-Japan coalition is determined to thwart China’s growing strength, at both regional and global level.
Australia joining India, the US and Japan, in the Malabar naval exercises, in the Indian Ocean, in Nov 2020, should be examined in the context of the US-led confrontation with China.
Carried out annually, since 1992, the strategic manoeuvres have grown in size, and complexity, in recent years, to meet what the US Navy has termed as a “variety of shared threats to maritime security in the Indo-Asia Pacific.”
The participation of Australia means that all four members of the Quad aka Quadrilateral Security Dialogue will be participating in the exercises, amidst growing Indo-China and China-US tensions.
Pompeo is the second US Secretary of State to visit Colombo. in 50 years. John Kerry was here in the first week of May 2015. amidst the deepening turmoil over the first Treasury bond scam. Having called on Sirisena, at the Presidential Secretariat, Kerry held bilateral talks with the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among those on Samaraweera’s team, at the talks, were the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake (embroiled in the first Treasury bond scam), Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, who was later sacked by Sirisena, at the behest of Wickremesinghe, and then Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington Prasad Kariyawasam, who, years later, turned up at the Parliament as Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s advisor, paid by the USAID. Kariyawasam served as the Foreign Secretary before taking up the USAID paid controversial appointment. Wickremesinghe hosted Kerry for lunch at Temple Trees.
Five years later, Pompeo’s visit takes place against the backdrop of the political setup here undergoing an unprecedented change. The UNP is irrelevant in today’s political context with its leader Wickremesinghe failing, at least to regain his Colombo seat. Samaraweera and Karunanayake are no longer members of parliament either, with the latter under investigation by the CID over the Treasury bond scams. Sirisena and Wijeyadasa Rajapakse represent the SLPP and one-time US citizen, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. With the passage of the 20th Amendment, the way is now cleared for the President to assume duties as the Minister of Defence, properly.
US interventions in 2010 et al
In the wake of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE in May 2009, the US feared the Rajapaksas forging closer ties with Beijing. The US pushed one-time LTTE mouthpiece, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to throw its weight behind the then common candidate, the war-winning Army Chief, General Sarath Fonseka, at the January 2010 presidential election. The Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK)-led TNA had been reluctant to participate in the high profile political project and was really embarrassed by what it was asked to do. But, the US insisted on the TNA participation. The US had no qualms in backing Fonseka, despite having accused him and his Army of war crimes.
Thanks to Wikileaks revelations, the US role in the formation of the UNP-led coalition, to back Sarath Fonseka, is in the public domain. A confidential cable from the US Embassy, in Colombo, dated January 1, 2010, leaked by Wikileaks, revealed how Samapanthan provided a copy of an agreement signed by Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the UNP leader and the common candidate Fonseka to implement, what the then US Ambassador here Patricia A. Butenis called, a genuine power sharing agreement acceptable to all communities. The JVP, as well as the SLMC, backed Sarath Foneka’s candidature. In spite of winning all predominantly Tamil and Muslim districts, in the Northern and Easter Provinces, comfortably, Fonseka suffered a humiliating defeat as a result of the majority Sinhala community rejecting him. The war hero lost by a staggering 1.8 mn votes.
Five years later, a very much similar US clandestine project, with the active participation of India, succeeded here. The same coalition successfully backed Sirisena’s candidature, at the 2015 presidential election. Having installed Sirisena, as the Executive President, the UNP implemented its programme. Former top aides to Sirisena and Wickremesinghe explained how Wickremesinghe pursued his objectives, though the Geneva issue didn’t receive attention at all.
In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, the UNP-led coalition repeatedly warned that Sri Lanka faced international sanctions if Mahinda Rajapaksa secured a third term. The yahapalana coalition repeated, like a mantra, that Western powers would impose crippling sanctions over war crimes accusations, unless Sirisena’s victory paved the way for a negotiated settlement with the Tamil community. In the wake of Sirisena’s victory, the UNP moved swiftly and decisively to reach consensus with the US over accountability issues.
As a result of negotiations, Sri Lanka, on Oct 1, 2015, co-sponsored the despicable Geneva resolution against one’s own country, sponsored by the US and its pliant allies. The war-winning Rajapaksa government, in no uncertain terms, declined to co-sponsor a resolution against its own armed forces, regardless of the consequences. The yahapalana government finalized the Geneva resolution, just over a week after Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha strongly advised against the move at the first informal talks on the draft proposal in Geneva. The UNP dismissed his objections
Less than a year later, TNA heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran revealed the existence of an understanding among Sri Lanka, the TNA and the US as regards the Geneva resolution, inclusive of foreign judges and other experts in a proposed war crimes court. The revelation was made in Washington, with the then Sri Lanka’s Ambassador there, Prasad Kariyawasam, by his side. Although the Sri Lankan mission, and the Foreign Ministry here, conveniently refrained from making any reference to Sumanthiran’s shocking disclosure, in their media statements, the TNA released the MP’s full speech.
A government appointed Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanism (CTFRM), too, recommended the participation of foreign judges in war crimes courts, to be established in accordance with the 30/1 Geneva Resolution, adopted in Oct 2015. The CTFRM, headed by Manouri Muttetuwegama ,comprised Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu (its Secretary), Gamini Viyangoda, Visaka Dharmadasa, Shantha Abhimanasingham PC, Prof Sitralega Maunaguru, K.W. Janaranjana, Prof. Daya Somasundaram, Dr. Farzana Haniffa, Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe and Mirak Raheem.
Sirisena saves UNP
In spite of the bad blood, between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, over the first Treasury bond scam, blamed on the latter’s choice as Governor of the Central Bank (Arjuna Mahendran), the President went out of his way to save Wickremesinghe, and the UNP. Wickremesinghe quite easily forgot how Sirisena ensured the support of the UPFA parliamentary group, sans that of Sarath Weerasekera, for the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Wickremesinghe was able to secure over 200 votes for the 19th Amendment, though the UNP had less than 50 members in parliament at that time. This was in spite of the perpetration of the first Treasury bond scam, several weeks before the vote on the 19th Amendment.
The UPFA backed the UNP initiative, though, by then, on Sirisena’s directive, the SLFP had lodged a complaint regarding the first Treasury bond scam with the CIABOC (Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption). Sirisena dissolved parliament on the night of June 26, 2015 to deprive COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Dew Gunasekera of an opportunity to present its devastating report on the first Treasury bond scam, though some blamed the President for not dissolving the parliament on the third week of April 2015 on the completion of the 100-day programme.
If not for the hasty dissolution, the COPE report would have been presented to parliament, ahead of the general election. Had that happened, the UNP would have suffered a major setback. Sirisena not only saved the UNP from an extremely difficult situation, but also delivered a stunning blow to his own party, the SLFP, a couple of weeks before the election. Sirisena declared that even if the SLFP-led UPFA won the general election, Mahinda Rajapaksa wouldn’t be appointed the Prime Minister, under any circumstances.
There had never been such a treacherous statement by a leader of a political party, in the post-independence era, though treachery and duplicity were all part of the game. But Sirisena did just that!
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe ensured that the 19th Amendment provided constitutional foundation for the UNP-SLFP coalition. They exploited the very law meant to restrict the number of ministers and non-cabinet ministers to 30 and 40, respectively, to authorize the expansion of the cabinet as well as non-cabinet positions. Member of the UNP-led coalition, R. Sampanthan, who had betrayed democracy by recognizing the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils, in late 2001, was chosen as the Opposition Leader, and accommodated on the Constitutional Council.
The US and its allies, who shout so much about transparency, conveniently turned a blind eye to what was happening in parliament. They wanted a situation in parliament, conducive for the implementation of their overall sinister strategy. By Sept 2016, the US had reached an agreement worth Rs 1.93 bn (USD 13 mn) to influence the decision-making process here, whereas Wickremesinghe pursued a new constitution making process as part of that strategy.
Parliament owed the public an explanation as to how the US-funded project was implemented and the benefits received by Sri Lanka. It would be pertinent to mention the UPFA Joint Opposition Group (now SLPP), too, cooperated with the UNP in the constitution making process. The National Freedom Front (NFF) quit the process, in mid-2017. However, its efforts to persuade the rest of the JO to discontinue its participation failed.
Having formed the government, with Sirisena’s help, following the August 2017 general election, the UNP perpetrated the second much bigger bond scam, in late March 2016. Still, the UNP pushed hard for the extension of term for the Singaporean as the Central Bank Governor, who was under heavy fire over the Treasury bond scams. At the time of the fraudulent transactions, the Central Bank was under the purview of UNP leader Wickremesinghe, who held the policy planning and economic affairs portfolios. Within two weeks, after the January 8, 2015 presidential election, Wickremesinghe, by way of a gazette, brought the Central Bank and the Securities and Exchange Commission under him. They had been under the Ministry of Finance, a portfolio held by UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake at the time Wickremesinghe stepped in. The Public Utilities Commission, too, was brought under Wickremesinghe.
If not for the Treasury bond scams, perhaps Wickremesinghe could have succeeded in bringing the Geneva-backed constitution making process to a successful conclusion. Contrary to some disagreements, the yahapalana leaders basically agreed with the script written by the US.
Sirisena quietly allowed the finalization of the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) in early August 2017. The ACSA, first signed by the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during Mahinda Rajapakas’s first tenure as the President, received the President’s approval, though the President subsequently vowed he wouldn’t allow any agreement inimical to Sri Lanka as long as he enjoyed executive powers. This declaration was made at a meeting with editors of national newspapers and senior representatives of both print and electronic media at the Janadhipathi Mandiraya. When the writer sought a clarification regarding the ACSA, Sirisena acknowledged the finalization of the agreement, in the first week of August 2017. The UNP never found fault with Sirisena for giving the go ahead for the ACSA finalization. As far as the yahapalana policy, vis-à-vis the US, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe took one stand though sometimes, Sirisena tried to distance himself from Wickremesinghe’s Geneva policy.
Don’t ever forget, the yahapalana government never took tangible measures to use Lord Nasby’s disclosure, in Oct 2017, in the House of Lords, to save the country from the Geneva trap. Sri Lanka did nothing even after the US, in June 2018, quit the Geneva body, alleging it was nothing but a cesspool of political bias. For some unknown reason, the SLPP administration, too, is yet to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure properly to clear its name. Now that Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has alleged that Army Chief Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva was black listed by the US, as a result of the Geneva resolution, the government should take appropriate measures to have the country cleared of war crimes. Lt. Gen. Silva cannot get out of the US listing as long as Sri Lanka didn’t successfully challenge the Geneva resolution, based on unsubstantiated allegations.
The incumbent government is yet to adopt comprehensive measures to deal with the Geneva resolution. In spite of various declarations, made by the government, the Geneva resolution remains active, with the UK in charge of the project. The US, though being out of the Geneva body, continues to back the Geneva process to pressure Sri Lanka to accept its combative proposals. The recent US State Department statement is a case in point. Pompeo’s visit further amplifies the danger Sri Lanka is in as already the economy is in a tailspin, due to the rampaging coronavirus. The possibility of those eyeing Sri Lanka, exploiting weaker economic conditions and creating further complexities, cannot be ruled out. It would be important to keep in mind how the yahapalana government made an attempt to cut off China, by halting the Port City project, in 2015, but ended up not only rescinding that directive but handing over the Hambantota port, on a 99-year-old lease, to Beijing.
The writer is the news editor of The Island, a Colombo based daily newspaper, where this piece first appeared.