Sri Lanka’s foreign policy dilemma
Bankrupt Sri Lanka is caught up in a China-US battle. The situation has been further complicated by India, Japan and Australia becoming part of the US-led military alliance meant to counter China. The US-led grouping is hell-bent on enhancing its influence in Colombo as both parties woo lawmakers. Recent declaration by the ruling party that the USD 2.9 bn IMF loan facility would be in jeopardy unless Parliament enacted the 21st Amendment to the Constitution is nothing but a severe warning to Parliament. Should Constitutional Amendments be subjected to foreign interference?
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Previous Canadian High Commissioner in Colombo, David McKinnon, in May this year, ridiculed the political party system here. Obviously referring to the rapidly developing political crisis in the wake of the unprecedented eruption of public anger at the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 31,
McKinnon tweeted: “Every day I am reminded that #SriLanka sets the gold standard for political humour. Maybe there’s a way to monetize this as an export? @TheDailyShow.” The Canadian sarcastically used the tag of the popular US political comedy “The Daily Show.”
McKinnon took over the Canadian mission here, in late Oct 2017, a couple of weeks after Ravi Karunanayake was forced to give up the Foreign Ministry portfolio, following shocking disclosures like him claiming that he didn’t know who was paying for the luxury penthouse he and his family were occupying, during the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed into Arjuna Mahendran affair (Central Bank Treasury Bond scams). McKinnon’s five-year term here ended in early Oct. this year. At the time McKinnon presented credentials on Oct. 23, 2017, Maithripala Sirisena served as the President.
We wonder what the Canadian would have to say about finding remains of native children in more than 2000 unmarked graves on the grounds of Church-run schools, in Canada, where they had been forcefully taken from their homes to learn white man’s “civilised” behaviour. Perhaps, some of those children would have been molested/raped by sex maniacs who were their state appointed guardians and killed to prevent the truth coming out. Canada/UNHRC where are the independent probes by international judges into such crimes committed.
Five years later, Sirisena returned to Parliament as an ordinary member whereas Ranil Wickremesinghe, who served as the Prime Minister at the time McKinnon arrived in Colombo, received the outgoing envoy at the Presidential Secretariat late last month.
It would be pertinent to mention that McKinnon chided political party system here three days after UNP National List MP Wickremesinghe received the appointment as the Premier. Beleaguered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had no option but to invite Wickremesinghe in the wake of Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa turning down the invitation.
There had not been a previous instance of a foreign envoy making such derisive remarks publicly . As a member of the UK-led Sri Lanka Core Group at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Canada played quite an active role against Sri Lanka.
However, there is no point in finding fault with Canada for Sri Lanka’s continuing failure to set the record straight. The Foreign Ministry cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for Sri Lanka’s pathetic response to war crimes accusations. At the recently concluded 51 Geneva sessions, a section of the international community expanded the ‘charge sheet’ to include economic crimes.
Where are the modern day equivalents of the likes of Shirley Amarasinghe, Chris Pinto, Vernon Mendis, Izeth Hussain or even non-career, but highly talented longtime ambassador Neville Kanakaratne, to name a few, who could stand up to defend Lanka’s interests, being second to none in the world when called upon to do so. Minister Sabry serving as a one-man defence team, won’t do, unless the Foreign Service was fully geared to take up that task. We are certain there are very capable officers in our Foreign Service, even among those who got in with influence, and Minister Sabry must make it a point to nurture such talented officers and protect them from the cabal that calls the shots at the Ministry.
Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, had to respond to the latest diatribe against the country and he rightly questioned the legitimacy of Geneva’s approach. Perhaps Sabry, hadn’t taken into consideration his own criticism of the government set up that caused the economic fallout. In June, this year, Sabry explained how those who had been responsible for overseeing the country’s finances ruined the national economy. The Minister identified them by positions held at that time (Dr. PBJ, Secretary to the President and longtime monetary honcho, Prof. W.D. Lakshman, Governor, Central Bank and economic guru, Ajith Nivaard Cabraal, Governor, Central Bank and S.R. Attygalle, Secretary to the Treasury.)
The economy has deteriorated to such an extent and the country trapped in a deepening political-economic-social crisis, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government seems in a catch-22 situation. Former MP and one-time Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Tehran, M.M. Zuhair, PC, recently discussed the ongoing crises against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s readiness to accept foreign help to probe the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage and continuing refusal to allow foreign investigations into alleged war crimes claimed to have been committed when the security forces crushed the hitherto considered invincible LTTE in the battle field against the advice of the West. The former Senior State Counsel addressed these issues taking into consideration the stand taken by Muslim majority nations at the UNHRC this year. Zuhair pointed out those Muslim majority nations refrained from supporting Sri Lanka for the first time at the UNHRC 51st sessions, Zuhair also warned that these countries were likely to vote against Sri Lanka at the next opportunity.
Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute (BIDTI) recently held its 24th Convocation with the participation of Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who held the Foreign Affairs portfolio, under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and incumbent Foreign Minister Sabry, an SLPP National List MP. State Minister for Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya and Foreign Secretary Aruni Yasodha Wijewardena were among the invitees.
There had been two groups of students (2019/2020) and (2020/2021) at the 24th Convocation as the previous one was held in the second week of August 2019, in the run-up to the presidential election. The then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had been the Chief Guest while Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, and Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinghe joined the UNP leader in presenting awards and certificates. the Foreign Minister is the Chairman of the Board of Management of the BIDTI.
Between the 23rd and 24th BIDTI Convocations, an utterly corrupt political party system has bankrupted the country. The economic crisis should be examined taking into consideration the political chaos caused by the disintegration of the recognized political party system. The parliamentary politics is now in such a confused and pathetic state, lawmakers, representing 15 political parties therein, are pulling in different directions. Of the 225-member Parliament, President Wickremesinghe’s UNP is represented by one
National List MP (Vajira Abeywardena) whereas Premier Gunawardena’s MEP group consists of three MPs (PM, Sisira Jayakody and PM’s son, Yadamini). Yadamini Gunawardena represents the SLPP National List. MEP contested the last general election on the SLPP ticket.
Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP has been reduced to 14 MPs, and half of them have switched their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe.
Perhaps, the top management of the BIDTI should have invited the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, to educate those who received recognition at the 24th Convocation. The intrepid banker could have briefed them of the ground situation the way he told the Parliament, on August 31, how the political party system ruined the country.
If Sri Lanka is genuinely interested in developing a skilled Foreign Service, unwarranted political interferences must also be stopped forthwith. Political parties, represented in Parliament, should end the despicable practice of approving heads of missions. The High Posts Committee, headed by the Speaker, has become just a rubber stamp with those near and dear to the powers that be receiving ambassadorial posts as by birth right. The whole process, in spite of criticism by sections of the media, continued unabated over the years, with tacit understanding of the government and the Opposition.
The Foreign Service lacked the required strength to stand up to political machinations. There cannot be a better example than when Tamil National Alliance (TNA) heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran declared, in Washington, a tripartite agreement among the US, Sri Lanka and the TNA regarding hybrid war crimes court in the presence of Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington Prasad Kariyawasam.
That was in 2016. The top career diplomat returned to Colombo, the following year, to receive appointment as the Foreign Secretary. Following his retirement, Kariyawasam moved to Parliament as an Advisor to the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Kariyawasam paid for by the USAID! The endowment shouldn’t have surprised anyone against the backdrop of Kariyawasam’s role in approving ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement) in early August 2017. The USAID enhanced its role here during the Yahapalana administration with the launch of a Rs 1.92 bn partnership (USD 13 mn) meant to strengthen accountability and democratic governance. It should be stressed that during the Yahapalana administration, Sri Lanka secured ISBs (International Sovereign Bonds) amounting to approximately USD 12.5 bn, one of the major causes of thr current economic crisis. As to what they did with that money is anybody’ s guess as they hardly undertook any major development projects, unlike the Rajapaksas’, whose hallmark was grandiose projects. May be future generations will judge Rajapaksas, particularly Mahinda and Gotabaya, differently like us now appreciating our ancestors for building the great tank civilization and cities like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa or even Sigiriya.
Even achievements of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who can be easily called the type of general who only appears once in a couple of thousand years, as someone has said, have got negated because of his short fuse and short sighted politics.
The SJB has been largely silent on the issue at hand for obvious reasons. The JVP has repeatedly pointed out how the UNP-led Yahapalana government pursued an extremely risky economic strategy at that time. The UNP and its breakaway faction, now registered as SJB, definitely owed an explanation.
A daunting challenge
Sri Lanka should undertake a comprehensive study on the 2015 Geneva accountability resolution. The BIDTI can be part of the group assigned to embark on the study as Geneva steps up the offensive. Dinesh Gunawardena, in his capacity as the Foreign Minister, at the March 2020 Geneva sessions famously announced Sri Lanka’s decision to withdraw from the Geneva process.
Unfortunately, though much was expected from Prof G.L. Peiris, as the successor Foreign Minister, with his photographic memory, but hardly anything has changed at that Ministry during his tenure to clear up the mess there.
Sri Lanka’s Geneva statement was made a month after the US declared a travel ban on General Shavendra Silva, the then Commander of the Army and Acting Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).
Unfortunately, the Foreign Ministry, under different political leaderships, never sought to set the record straight. Instead, it allowed the further deterioration of the situation. On the basis of failing to challenge the unsubstantiated war crime allegations, yet to be verified in a court of law, Western powers have taken punitive measures against selected retired and serving officers, who are the true living heroes of this country. War-winning Army Chief Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka is among them. When the writer raised this issue with Foreign Minister Sabry, at a media briefing ahead of the Geneva sessions, the President’s Counsel stressed that the entire fighting Divisions have been categorized.
Tangible actions are necessary to have the accusations countered and the war-winning armed forces cleared of wrongdoing. Instead, successive governments quite conveniently allowed the situation to deteriorate. The British steadfastly refused to accept their own independent version of the Vanni military action, despite Lord Naseby disclosing in the House of Lords in Oct. 2017 the existence of such official records that effectively debunked war crimes allegations.
Sri Lanka never really pushed the British on this matter as the latter pursued a hostile campaign against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. The UK’s rejection of their own diplomatic cables should be examined, taking into consideration similar US refusal to accept Colombo-based Defence Advisor Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith’s public declaration in June 2011 that the Sri Lanka military didn’t perpetrate war crimes during the last phase of the offensive, to defeat the LTTE. In fact, the Foreign Ministry never really wanted to counter accusations in a systematic way. The Foreign and Defence Ministries never acted in unison as those responsible pursued their own agendas, much to the disappointment of the armed forces.
The case of Imaad Shah Zuberi, 50, revealed how the war-winning government outsourced Foreign Ministry responsibilities, possibly due to its known ineptness, to an American venture capitalist and political fundraiser who was sentenced on Feb 18, 2021 to 144 months in federal prison. U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips found him guilty for fabricating records to conceal his work as a foreign agent while lobbying high-level U.S. government officials, evading the payment of millions of dollars in taxes, making illegal campaign contributions, and obstructing a federal investigation into the source of donations to a presidential inauguration committee.
Zuberi of Arcadia, California, was also ordered to pay $15,705,080 in restitution and a criminal fine of $1.75 million.
This criminal waste of funds took place during the tail end of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term. The payments were made by the Central Bank. Sri Lanka never bothered to examine this case. Who authorized the hiring of Zuberi?
Let me reproduce a relevant section of a statement issued by the US Department of Justice on Feb 18, 2021, that dealt with Zuberi’s case. It was titled ‘Political Donor Sentenced to 12 Years in Prison for Lobbying and Campaign Contribution Crimes, Tax Evasion, and Obstruction of Justice.’ The following is the section that dealt with Sri Lanka: “In addition, the government of Sri Lanka hired Zuberi in 2014 to rehabilitate the country’s image in the United States, which had suffered because of allegations that its minority Tamil population had been persecuted. Zuberi promised to make substantial expenditures on lobbying efforts, legal expenses, and media buys, which prompted Sri Lanka to agree to pay Zuberi a total of $8.5 million over the course of six months in 2014. Days after Sri Lanka made an initial payment of $3.5 million, Zuberi transferred $1.6 million into his personal brokerage accounts and used another $1.5 million to purchase real estate.
In total, Sri Lanka wired $6.5 million pursuant to the contract, and Zuberi used more than $5.65 million of that money to the benefit of himself and his wife. Zuberi paid less than $850,000 to lobbyists, public relations firms and law firms, and refused to pay certain subcontractors based on false claims that Sri Lanka had not provided sufficient funds to pay invoices.
Relatedly, Zuberi failed to report on his 2014 tax return millions of dollars in income he received from the Sri Lankan government. While his 2014 federal income tax return claimed income of $558,233, Zuberi failed to report more than $5.65 million he received in relation to the Sri Lanka lobbying effort. Zuberi’s tax evasion over the course of four years – 2012 through 2015 – caused tax losses ranging from $3.5 million to as much as $9.5 million.”
In a sense Mahinda Rajapaksa was like a drowning man facing the might of the West, led by the US and the UK, so they literally clutched at proverbial straws to escape drowning. They also trusted the wrong people, like Namal foolishly spending on a ‘nil balakaya’ thinking that would be his rallying force.
In the following year, at the behest of the US, the Yahapalana regime betrayed its armed forces at the UNHRC. The Geneva process is apparently still on track though Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration declared in 2020 that it withdrew from the 2015 UNHRC resolution.
The Rajapaksa administration never accepted responsibility for this criminal waste of money on foolish lobbying efforts. The then Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal denied his responsibility. The Parliament should have inquired into this matter. Alas, Parliament has pathetically failed not only in its primary responsibilities-ensuring financial discipline and enactment of laws but overall supervision of key sectors, including foreign affairs.
Against the backdrop of the US court verdict on Zuberi, Sri Lanka suffered another humiliation when a US court in July this year sentenced Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to Washington and Rajapalsa kinsman to a US$5,000 fine and two years’ probation.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cousin Jaliya Chitran Wickramasuriya pleaded guilty to diverting and attempting to embezzle US$332,027 from the government of Sri Lanka, as it purchased a new embassy building in Washington in 2013.
“Even though this was not millions of dollars, it represents a serious theft from the people, and by a person that they entrusted to represent their interests in the capital of the most powerful country in the world,” said Judge Tanya S. Chutkan. “What you have done is a serious betrayal.”
Udayanga Weeratunga, another cousin of the ex-President, served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Moscow from 2006 to 2015. Standard restrictions that applied to other heads of missions didn’t apply to Wickramasuriya and Weeratunga because of their relationship with the Rajapaksas. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan style in handling foreign affairs, whoever is in power hasn’t changed. The country has paid a huge price for hurting Japan and Russia over the abrupt cancellation of the Light Train Transit (LRT) Project in Sept. 2020 and detention of Aeroflot flight in June this year. The Yahapalana government (2015-2019) caused a major crisis by antagonizing China when it halted the Colombo Port City project and making unsubstantiated allegations pertaining to Chinese loans. The recent furore over Sri Lanka suddenly denying Chinese research vessel access to Hanbantota port after having earlier okayed it, controversy over Chinese organic fertiliser shipment that had to be settled by paying China USD 6.7 mn and official ‘interference’ in Indian liquid fertiliser purchases underscored the fragility in the systems in place.