The Sunday Leader

China’s shadow looms large in Sri Lanka local election

By Munza Mushtaq, Contributing writer


On Feb.10, Sri Lankans will go to the polls to vote for their local representatives. But the outcome of these village elections will have much wider repercussions as they will ultimately determine if China will play a bigger role in Sri Lanka’s development.

The battle for Sri Lanka’s heartlands is being fought out by the country’s twice defeated pro-China former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and the incumbent pro-India coalition government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The local council election is the coalition government’s first test since it came to power in January 2015, and will also determine Rajapaksa’s political future. Rajapaksa is looking at making a comeback with his new party, Sri Lanka People’s Front. More commonly known in Sinhala as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the party is attempting to take control of local authorities including municipal councils.

Sri Lanka’s relationship with China had deteriorated after Rajapaksa lost to the coalition, which had focused on strengthening ties with the West and mending links with India that had soured as Rajapaksa cozied up to Beijing.

In the event Rajapaksa’s SLPP wins the majority of local authorities, it will mean that his party will have control of finances for those councils. This in turn means that he may once again beckon his favorite lender and builder, China, to kickstart the development of infrastructure, waste facilities and even housing in these villages.

Although Rajapaksa was successful in changing Colombo’s skyline and for initiating a sizeable number of mega infrastructure projects backed by China, many of them were plagued by allegations of corruption. The opposition then had claimed that Rajapaksa and his immediate family received large payoffs by giving fast-track approval of the Chinese-funded projects that included highways, ports, airports and even an offshore city close to Colombo.

Addressing the media in Colombo last week, Sirisena continued to level such accusations on Rajapaksa. Sirisena said that some nine trillion rupees ($58 billion) worth of foreign loans that the country had received during the decade-long rule of Rajapaksa was unaccounted for.

“We know that 10 trillion rupees came into Sri Lanka during the regime of Rajapaksa, but the finance ministry can only account for one trillion rupees. We do not know what happened to the remaining money,” Sirisena told a breakfast meeting attended by editors of local media.

But parliamentarian Keheliya Rambukwella, who was the official spokesperson of the Rajapaksa government, pointed to the country’s developments as a defense. “They are saying there was corruption, but it is obvious to anyone that every loan that was taken by the former president was utilized for development projects,” Rambukwella told Nikkei Asian Review.

“If you look around the country you can see the results of the development and where the monies went. This government [referring to the coalition] has only been taking loans but we see nothing in terms of physical development for the past three years,” he said.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe came to power promising large-scale foreign investments in the country, but turned their backs on Chinese-funded projects. The most significant of those was their suspension of the offshore city that commenced work during Rajapaksa’s tenure.  Yet, they were unable to secure any notable foreign investments from other sources.

Early last year, the government was also embarrassed when both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe laid what they claimed was the foundation stone for a Volkswagen vehicle assembly plant in Sri Lanka, only to have the German automaker issue a rebuttal denying it had anything to do with the factory. The only significant development in Colombo since their election was a recently completed 533m-long flyover in a suburb. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party has repeatedly pointed to this achievement so far in the election campaign.

Despite the coalition’s allegations against Rajapaksa, they had not been able to prove any of it. Just months after Sirisena won the 2015 presidential election, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera claimed that Rajapaksa and his immediate family had siphoned off some $18 billion in offshore accounts in Dubai and Seychelles. Even though the government in 2015 sought assistance from those authorities, there was no breakthrough in the investigations.

Rambukwella said of the coalition: “They came to power promising to catch the culprits who were involved in corruption, but three years later nothing has happened. So, either this government is really inefficient or their allegations have turned out to be baseless.”

Three years is a long time in politics and with the dying down of these allegations, Rajapaksa has a real chance of regaining power. During one of his campaigns this month, Rajapaksa said to voters: “Now is the time to correct the mistake made in 2015 by voting for the flower bud symbol [referring to the party emblem]. I am sure we will be able to gain power of the local authorities including municipal councils in the country.”

The February vote will elect 8,293 members to local authorities including 24 municipal councils and 41 urban councils. A total of 15.8 million Sri Lankans are eligible to vote. (Courtesy Nikkei Asian Review)


2 Comments for “China’s shadow looms large in Sri Lanka local election”

  1. mr Rajapaska has taken loan from china for billion has put in his foreign banks,mr Rajapaska is supported by present government ,ministry of justice unable to do legal action, srilankan was sold for china for next one hundred years ,until settle there loan

  2. Lima



    The media has revealed that the stolen funds currently in the custody of the US were stashed away in the United Kingdom (USD 1.6m and 21.7m Pounds), France (USD 145m) and Jersey (USD 299m) respectively.

    Govt. in overdrive with US assistance
    Search for ‘stolen funds’
    December 22, 2017, 12:11 pm

    By Shamindra Ferdinando

    A US official is in Colombo to coordinate high profile ongoing asset recovery operations undertaken by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.

    Director General of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) President’s Counsel Sarath Jayamanne yesterday said the US official coordinated training programmes involving his outfit and related work. PC Jayamanne said so when The Island inquired from him about the recent US State Department announcement that Sri Lanka would receive US assistance in this regard.

    PC Jayamanne succeeded Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe in late Oct. 2016 following her sudden resignation after an incident where President Maithripala Sirisena took the CIABOC to task.

    The State Department Spokesperson on Dec.5 declared that since 2016, the US government had assisted in Sri Lanka’s anti-corruption efforts to improve the functioning of the legal system and civil society and to enhance good governance. The spokesperson said programmes included the provision of a Resident Legal Advisor to provide anti-corruption and asset recovery training, and support to the CIABOC.

    PC Jayamanne said that on the basis of the State Department statement Sri Lanka had been erroneously categorised as one of the four most corrupt countries by a section of the media. The DG, CIABOC said that the US had offered assistance consequent to Sri Lanka’s request last year. Ukraine, Tunisia and Nigeria had been named as other recipients of US assistance, he said.

    The US official works with the Attorney General’s Department as well as Presidential Task Force engaged in anti-corruption work.

    The Island sought an explanation from the Public Affairs Section of the US embassy in Colombo on Dec. 11 regarding State Department categorising Sri Lanka among a group of countries selected to receive US assistance to combat corruption. In spite of repeated reminders, the following questions went unanswered:

    (a) Has the State Department examined treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016 before offering special assistance to Sri Lanka, including provision of Resident Legal Advisor, Colombo?

    (b) As the State Department has revealed allocation of USD 115 mn annually for global anti-corruption activities, could the embassy reveal the allocation for Sri Lanka?

    (c) What is the status of Rs 1.92 bn (USD 13 mn) USAID project meant to strengthen accountability and democratic governance in Sri Lanka against the backdrop of the country being named as one of the four countries which required US assistance to tackle corruption?

    Although the proposal didn’t materialize, the UK, too, in mid-2016 offered to station some personnel in Colombo in support of CIABOC.

    PC Jayamanne explained how Nigeria had benefited from US-led assistance to recover stolen funds. Nigeria and Sri Lanka had been at the recently concluded inaugural Global Forum on Asset recovery (GFAR) co-hosted by the US and the UK in Washington. Jayamanne said that initially Nigeria would receive USD 300 mn from Switzerland. PC Jayamanne was on Sri Lanka’s delegation along with other senior Attorney General’s Department officers.

    Following GFAR, international news agencies quoted Nigerian Attorney General and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami as having said at the Chatham House, London, that he had signed two agreements, on behalf of Nigeria, with Switzerland and the United States of America, respectively, for the return of USD 621 million in looted funds.

    According to agencies, former head of state, late General Sani Abacha and the former Bayelsa State Governor, late Diepreye Alamieyeisegha were responsible for illegal transfers.

    Jayamanne stressed that Sri Lanka’s desire to secure international assistance in asset recovery operations shouldn’t be construed as a failure of the domestic mechanisms. “Some investigations do require international assistance and expertise,” he said.

    The media has revealed that the stolen funds currently in the custody of the US were stashed away in the United Kingdom (USD 1.6m and 21.7m Pounds), France (USD 145m) and Jersey (USD 299m) respectively.

    Jayamanne said the World Bank, too, had been involved in the initiative. Referring to an international conference in Austria he had participated several months ago, Jayamanne explained the stand taken by some that recovered money should be utilized subjected to strict international scrutiny.

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