From ‘Cold War’ to ‘cash war’?

By N Sathiya Moorthy


Not many politicians in Third World nations, including Sri Lanka, are known to do a lot of research or maintain archival information that they can draw from at the proverbial drop of the hat, to attack adversaries ahead of elections, or in Parliament or outside. In Sri Lanka, their numbers are few and far between, and whenever such worthies open their mouth, adversaries prefer character-assassination rather than addressing their queries and charges, squarely.

Anuradhapura District ruling SLFP-UPFA parliamentarian Shehan Semasinghe, otherwise identifying himself with the Rajapaksa-led SLPP-JO at present, is not a face or name that may be known or remembered outside of his electorate and district. At least it has been so, thus far. Now, out of nowhere, it would seem, he has thrown back the mud at the ruling combine, as if following up on the New York Times analysis. As is known, the American newspaper had claimed that Chinese firms linked to the eternally controversial Hambantota Port project had paid up poll funds to incumbent President Mahinda R, ahead of his failed Elections-2015.

In a way, Semasinghe’s conclusions are contrived compared to the New York Times report, which flagged specifics, though without details. Seen from another angle, the MP’s accusations seem more to the point than the American newspaper claims, which do not cite either sources, or documents, for any probe team to make an honest start to a credible start.

Leak re-told, but…

The way the New York Times journalist has claimed that Deputy Minister Ranjan Ratnayake had ‘put words into my mouth’ when they talked on phone after the newspaper ‘expose’, the chances of their cooperating with any Sri Lankan probe is limited. Nor can any media house be expected to ‘reveal’ their sources to a probe team, and continue to claim maintaining the ‘confidentiality’ of their sources.

This is more so in the case of American newspapers, which have made a cult of their ‘First Amendment’ protection. In doing so, they have also set global standards, which other nations and their journalists too have claimed, not always with equal effect and results. However, in this case, the New York Times report may have still provided enough leads — rather repeated what the international news agency Reuters had said as far back as August 2015 or thereabouts — for any local probe to take forward.

In a way, there seems to be enough leads in Sri Lankan investigators’ ‘archives’ (?) that no one has cared to proceed with, after the initial investigations were over. Interestingly, even the incumbent Government out to politically finish off the Rajpaaksas in the parliamentary polls of August 2015 did next to nothing to campaign on the Reuters’ lead. At least some in the camp would have been privy to the information that was obviously ‘leaked’ to the Reuters then, and re-told to the New York Times now.

It may be interesting to see if in the process of the promised probe into allegations of Chinese-funding of the Rajapaksa campaign, the investigators get to the bottom of the ‘leaks’ to the Reuters and the New York Times, and at the Sri Lankan end itself. It is not to haul up foreign news organisations and their journalists, but only to find out why and how leads of the kind were cold-stored for so many months, despite the ruling combine’s to fix.

There was obviously one or more ‘whistle-blower(s)’ in this case, if the ‘leaks’ were not intended, and intended to be that way, to expose the Rajapaksas, the Chinese firms, or both. But if the term ‘whistle-blower’ would be apt under the circumstances too remains to be found out.

A ‘whistle-blower’, by definition, is an official or anyone with the information who is frustrated with deliberate attempts by powers-that-be to bury the evidence and the case with it. The implication is that the powers in control of the probe, politically or otherwise, at the top, were/are conniving with the suspect(s) – and obviously for a price or consideration, in cash, kind or of mutual political advantage, and to the larger detriment of national interests of every kind.

In this case, however, the question remains if the ‘attempts’ at digging out the forgotten investigations itself was deliberate, if only to gain a political-point against the Rajapaksas, or to embarrass and ‘fix’ fellow-politicians or officials or both, who may have been seen as conniving with the Rajapaksas. Barring foreign media expose of the scam, if it is any, a safe conclusion is that the ‘leak’ first and the ‘retelling’ now, both were not aimed at targeting China, per se.

Speculative, less or more…

Against the foreign media expose of the Rajapaksa-China scam, if it could still be dubbed so, the ‘Semasinghe expose’, again, if it is any, is speculative. Whether it is less speculative or more speculative than the ‘China funding’ story is debatable, however. But then, it provides equally good and more dramatic leads for any investigator to follow up – with consequences for overseas Governments, too. Against such a possibility, the political reverberations of the China-funding story could be felt more, nearer home in Sri Lanka, if at all, than overseas.

Quoting from then US Secretary of State John Kerry’s published fiscal report of 2016 for the department, Semasinghe has called for a probe into the former’s claims that “the US had spent $585 m in ‘promoting democracy’ across the globe in 2015, including Sri Lanka”. Conceding readily that the US funds went also to Nigeria and Myanmar, the MP begins speculating even more. He argues that even granting that a third or a fifth of the moneys was spent in Sri Lanka, that way saying – or, spending – a lot.

As may be noted, the ‘US spending’ that Semasinghe has mentioned happened in 2015, the year of the Sri Lankan presidential polls in January, followed by parliamentary elections, eight months down the line, in August. It was also the year and the presidential polls in which China was alleged to have bank-rolled the Rajapaksa campaign to the tune of (only?) $ 7.6 m. “So let there be a probe on both alleged Chinese funding claim and State Department revelation,” the MP is reported to have told a section of the local media.

The news report quoted Semasinghe citing Kerry as having observed in the fiscal report thus: “in an era of diffuse and networked power, we (the US) are focusing on strengthening partnerships with civil society, citizen movements, faith leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and others to promote democracy and good governance and address gender-based violence.”

In context, media reports have quoted the parliamentarian as adding that “we should be grateful to the authors of the State Department report for revealing the truth, unwittingly”. According to him, “whatever the beautiful phrases used by the authors, the bottom line is that the US funded campaign against the then President Rajapaksa”.

In turn, does it mean that any legit Sri Lankan probe into Semasinghe’s speculative submissions should or could summon US State Department officials for information/interrogation? Or, is it that the parliamentarian hints at or wants?

Sweeping statement

It is easier said than done, or so it would seem.  If nothing else, Semasinghe’s is a sweeping statement as against the pointed reference in the New York Times report — to bank name and bank account-holders’ name from which Chinese firms involved in the Hambantota Port project were alleged to have funded the Rajapaksa campaign. If nothing else, the US and a few other western nations are known to have ear-marked open, published and publicised spending for promoting democracy and/or capacity-building of democratic institutions in the country for decades now, before and after Mahinda’s regime too.

Without explaining again, Semasinghe was also quoted as saying that “Gen Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena both contested under the symbol of ‘Swan’ in January 2010 and January 2015, respectively (against incumbent President Rajapaksa). Their candidate received the backing of a coalition comprising the UNP, JVP, TNA and SLMC in addition to influential civil society grouping”.

Semasinghe has readily conceded that the JO had failed to raise the issue even when the Kerry report was out. He may not require to explain what caused the JO silence, if the likes of him were convinced about his current allegation – unless the current one is a diversionary tactic per se, to paint the rulers of the day and their coalition partners with the same brush as the New York Times report has painted the Rajapaksa campaign, but in a more credible and creditable way.

The MP has however demanded that the Election Commission (EC) to probe his allegations, but it is unclear if the EC has the required authority and equipment for the purpose. It also remains to be known why the MP chose to talk to the media, and not raise the issue in Parliament, and demanding a parliamentary committee or a presidential commission to go into his claims and allegations.

The ruling UNP back-benchers have now demanded a presidential commission of inquiry on the lines of the ‘bonds scam probe’ that ended up embarrassing their party and party colleagues. If President Sirisena appoints one on the basis of the New York Times report, then the question also arises if the same or another commission of the kind would be asked to probe Semasinghe’s allegations.

Interesting or inconsequential?

Whether it is interesting or inconsequential, probe teams of the kind could well demand documents out of the bank named by the New York Times, regarding the China funding of the Rajapaksa campaign. The probe cannot but haul up Rajapakasa campaign managers and possibly Mahinda, too, to tender evidence – and possibly invite the Chinese firms too to ‘cooperate’ with the ‘Presidential Commission’, set up under the seal and authority of the President of the Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka.

It would be saying a lot, but then a similar probe into the Semasinghe allegations, if it came to that, could well lead to the summoning of official US documents, and even the officials that prepared it, to explain to the commission what they had meant by the ‘beautiful phrases’ that Semasinghe had referred to, and the Sri Lankan organisations that the US had financed in 2015 in the larger interest of ‘promoting democracy’ in the country – and to what all extent, and how all.

Honey-trap and more

Even if an iota of truth is proved in either charge, or both, it may take Sri Lanka and possibly the rest of the world back to a forgettable past. From the forgotten Russo-American Cold War, that the latter won squarely, the world, starting among others with Sri Lanka, may have moved on to a 21st century Sino-American ‘cash war’. Then there were, and may still be there, honey-traps and ‘managed defections’ of senior officials in host Governments, for which every nation has blames every other, over the past several decades if not earlier.

A whole genre of fiction and non-fiction books sold like hot-cakes during the Cold War era and even afterwards about the rival CIA/KGB plots to recruit Government insiders in rival nations and Third countries, spend huge sums, create new identities and entities for the purpose, and also occasionally try topple ‘unsympathetic governments’ through assassinations, street-protests and violence of whatever kind – including failed ones under each category.

In Sri Lanka itself, ahead of the 2015 presidential polls, there were claims that western Governments and agencies were funding BBS-like organisations, to create a ‘negative image’ about the Rajapaksas in the minds of the nation’s Muslim voters, who were considered a ‘decisive factor’ along with the ‘anti-Mahinda’ Tamils.

For his part in the meantime, Senasinghe would have to first prove that the US money actually flowed into Sri Lankan political parties and civil society organisations opposed to the Rajapaksas when Mahinda was in office, and was aimed only at unseating the latter. Already, in a not-so-common move, the Editors of the New York Times issued a rebuttal to the JO charges, and have also threatened to sue them for defamation. If nothing else, he has to be more responsible than thus far, and move Parliament or court, or both, with his allegations and demanding an impartial probe, to begin with.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

2 Comments for “From ‘Cold War’ to ‘cash war’?”

  1. raj

    in the third world countries, you can commit bribery and corruption without any consequences. Sri Lanka is one of them, where corruption and bribery exist at personal level and institutional level.

  2. Buddhist

    The ball is in President Sirisena’s court. Its time he appoints a Presidential Commission to investigate the matters stated in New York Times article re: bribing Rajapakse election machinery. If the President does not appoint a Presidential Commission then we all know whom he is trying to protect and with whom he has a DEAL!

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