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Sri Lanka Perspectives: June 2018; By Col. R. Hariharan VSM (Retd.)

Image Courtesy: Colombo Telegraph

Article No. 044/2018

Gotabaya for presidential poll

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) appears to be getting ready for an early presidential poll in 2019, amidst reports that President Maithripala Sirisena might call for an early election though they are due in 2020. There had been a few reports of the SLPP fielding Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Former Defence Secretary and brother of Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as its presidential candidate. Some political leaders have already voiced their support to him for the post.

The issue came up again in the media when the outgoing US Ambassador Atul Keshap made a courtesy call on Mahinda Rajapaksa at his residence in Colombo. The Jaffna Tamil dailyKalaikkathir quoted sources close to the Former President that the ambassador told Rajapaksa that neither the US government nor Western powers would welcome Gotabaya as a presidential candidate. While the US embassy’s was non-committal saying the meeting was a private one, Mahinda Rajapaksa vehemently denied the report.

In a telephone interview to Ceylon Today, Rajapaksa said that in his personal conversation, the US ambassador had not made any mention of his brother Gotabaya or his suitability as a presidential candidate. When he was asked about “an intra-family tussle between his brothers Gotabaya and Basil over the possible presidential candidate, he said it was not true. ‘What Basil had effectively said was that he would support any candidate the SLPP nominates as the Presidential candidate’.”

Gotabaya is the preferred choice of Sinhala nationalist segment and sections of Buddhist clergy for next president. This was evident when Endaruwe Upali Thero, the deputy chief prelate of the Asgiriya chapter, in his sermon (anusasana) on Gotabaya’s 69th birthday at his house, said that he should opt for military rule if that was necessary to build the country. According to a report in Colombo Telegraph the Thero noted that Gotabaya was referred as a Hitler and suggested that if that was the case he should be one and build the nation. “What we need is a leadership that has the blessings of Mahinda Rajapaksa and is linked with Buddhism, the Buddhist Order and the Sinhalese. We can see that the law has completely broken down. We need a leader who shows fidelity to the doctrine,” he added.

All the Rajapaksa brothers and the 16 SLFP MPs, who voted for the no confidence motion against PM Wickremesinghe, were present on the occasion. This would indicate the shape of SLPP presidential campaign strongly supported by the Buddhist clergy and the muscle of Sinhala nationalist segment, when Gotabaya is fielded as the SLPP candidate.

However, Gotabaya, a US citizen holding dual citizenship, will have to renounce his US citizenship to be eligible to contest the presidential election. The 19th amendment to the constitution, expressly forbids dual citizenship holders from contesting elections. On this basis, the Supreme Court had forced Geetha Kumarasinghe, a Swiss citizen holding dual citizenship, had to relinquish her parliamentary seat. However, Gotabaya speaking in another context as early as June 5, 2015 had said that he had already taken measures to cancel his dual nationality. “I have already handed over the relevant documents to the US embassy in this regard,” he added. It is not known whether the process is through.

Chinese financial support in presidential election

Chinese support to Gotabaya’s ascent as president can be expected, if we go by China’s financial support to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign during 2015 presidential election through Chinese companies. Details of these transactions are contained in an investigative article on the controversial Hambantota port project in the New York Times June 25, 2018 issue. The article “How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port” by Maria Habi-Abib lays bare how China not only dictated terms utilizing Sri Lanka’s need for financing the Hambantota port and other development projects not only to benefit Chinese state owned companies, but also to further China’s strategic interests to gain a strategic foothold in Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapaksa played an important role in furthering Chinese strategy.

The report gives details of how China corrupted the electoral process to ensure President Rajapaksa was elected in 2015 election. The internal investigation reports give details of China Harbor’s bank account which “dispensed” at least $7.6 million to affiliates of Rajapaksa. It said ten days before the polls; $3.7 million was distributed in cheques to buy gifts including sarees for supporters, print campaign promotional material, paying $38,000 to a “popular Buddhist monk” and volunteers. The report said most of the payments were made from China Harbor’s sub account named “HPDP Phase 2” acronym for Hambantota Port Development Project.

The NY Times report only confirms what had been appearing in bits and pieces in Sri Lanka media during the last four years. However, much to the embarrassment of the Maithripala-Ranil government, which had promised to bring the corrupt to book, investigations have dragged on while members of Rajapaksa clan continue to be politically powerful entities. This was evident in the reply of Minister Lakshman Kiriella to a media query on the NY Times report. He said the foreign minister had officially “inquired” United Arab Emirates (UAE) whether funds received by Mahinda Rajapaksa from China had been deposited there.

After Rajapaksa’s defeat, when the Maithripala Sirisna government was saddled with the burden of making payments for the debt that kept accumulating as Hambantota port proved unviable. It was left with no option but to negotiate with the Chinese. After months of negotiations, in December 2017, the government handed over the port and 15000 acres of land around it for 99 years to the Chinese set off nearly $1 billion dollars of the loan. However, the debt servicing burden continues to be a drag on the country’s economy. This has provided further opportunities for the Chinese to become favoured lenders.

The transfer of the port has given China a strategic foothold on Sri Lankan coast dominating the critical merchant marine and military sea lanes of Indian Ocean. There is little space for the present Sri Lanka government to get out of the Chinese debt trap, however much it may like to. This has enabled China to further firm in Sri Lanka by gaining lucrative contracts to Chinese companies on its own terms, through opaque process. For instance, the Resettlement ministry has awarded a contract to China Railway Beijing Engineering Group Co Ltd and its representative Yapka Construction Pvt. Ltd. to build 40,000 prefabricated houses in the North East without going through the tender process. According to Sunday Times report India has expressed its concern at the whole process of awarding the contract to a company with no record of construction in the North and East increasing India’s concerns.

The Sirisena government has repeatedly tried to reassure India on its national security concerns. The latest is Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe office clarifying that Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) would be in charge of Hambantota port security. SLN was moving its Southern Command to Hambantota. It added that Sri Lanka had also informed the Chinese that Hambantota cannot be used for military purposes. But in times of strategic necessity, Chinese are unlikely to read such fine print.

India has to recast its foreign relations and security calculus factoring China’s increasing overt and covert influence in Sri Lanka’s politics, economy and security space. With China increasing its hold on Maldives, at the cost of India, Indian dominance of the Indian Ocean region is likely to face bigger challenges in the near future.

[Col. R. Hariharan, a retired Military intelligence officer, is a member of the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute. The views expressed in the article are of the author. 

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