Risking the roulette with Russians, too?

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By N Sathiya Moorthy

Media reports that the Russian Embassy in Colombo has sought clarification/explanation from the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry on Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s utterance that Moscow had funded a special propaganda unit for Namal Rajapaksa, son of former President Mahinda R, should be viewed with concern, in more ways than one. Coming as it did in the midst of the New York Times report on the Chinese lessees of the Hambantota Port project funding Mahinda R’s failed presidential poll campaign of 2015, Minister Samaraweera’s public statement raises more questions and answers.

In his public speech at native Matara, Minister Samaraweera also added, for effect, that he was ‘making the statement with responsibility’. Needless to say that as a former Foreign Minister in the incumbent Government who is not often known to put his foot where his mouth is, it s a lot of ‘responsibility’ in the diplomatic sense of the term. In a way, it is more ‘responsibility on the diplomatic front than on the domestic political arena – though prima facie it seems aimed at altering the course of events nearer home than with overseas partners.

There can be no denying that the New York Times report earlier, and Minister Mangala’s statement since, both are expected to adversely impact the Rajapaksas’ campaign for returning to power, early on. The timing is just right, as other political and even legal missiles fired by the ruling combine, jointly and severally, ever since the Rajapaksas lost power have failed to stall their slow but steady progress back to power – or, so it would seem.

Both statements, against China and Russia, are not direct hits at the Rajapaksas.  In the end, they may not aimed at targeting China or Russia, though the interim intention seems to be for Mangala S to be seen as doing so – for whose benefit, he alone would know.

In between, a Rajapaksa-sympathetic SLPP-JO parliamentarian, Shehan Samarasinghe, also tried to paint the US with a similar brush. He implied that the US had spent massive sums ahead of Elections-2015, claiming on record that it was meant to ‘promote democracy’, but went to defeat incumbent President Mahinda R. But the dark paint in Semasinghe’s brush has failed to stick.

Forgotten probes

In context, the Samaraweera shot seems aimed at reviving all the ‘forgotten probes’ into the funding of the Rajapaksa campaign, first reported in 2015, the very year he lost power. Whatever the intention of the New York Times report, the effect would be to try dig deeper into the newspaper’s claim that Chinese firms involved in the Hambantota Port deal part-funded the Rajapaksa campaign.

The Samaraweera shot now helps keep it contemporary, underlining that ‘foreign’ interest and ‘hopes’ in the Rajapaksas continue even when they are in the political Opposition, facing numerous court cases flowing from their controversial days in office. The implication is that unless the Government is ready to dig into the past and the present alike, on ‘foreign funding’, fix them legally and also embarrass them on their pet themes of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘nationalism’, they could well be unstoppable.

In question it should be asked, if the Hambantota lessees’ actions, if proved, tantamount to Chinese ‘interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign and friendly nation’. If there was prima facie evidence to the effect, the question arises why the incumbent Government, of which the likes of Samaraweerea, kept quiet when the Cabinet cleared the even otherwise controversial ‘equity swap-deal’ two years later, in 2017?

Veto-vote powers

From this flows the next question: Why dig up another, unrelated ‘Russian connection’ before taking the charge against China to its logical conclusion? After all, Sri Lanka is dealing with two ‘veto-vote powers’ in the UN Security Council (UNSC) that have been trusted allies independent of whoever is ruling from Colombo at whatever time. 

SLPP-JO’s G L Peiris from the past has made a pointed reference to this part of the current accusations against China and Russia. As the External Affairs Minister at the time, Prof Peiris should know. After all, throughout the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’, Colombo had counted on China and Russia – along with the Indian neighbour, a non P-5 State — to stall the US-EU led western bid to to haul up the armed forces in the name of ‘human rights violations’ and ‘war-crimes’, through the UNHRC, as at UNSC  they faced the twin-veto.

Anyway, newspaper ‘leaks’ as the New York Times report, and public statements of the Minister Mangala kind are not the way in which a nation conducts either its criminal investigations, or foreign policy – which is what the allegations boil down to. As Finance Minister, and a senior and respected political leader, Minister Samaraweera is well within his rights, responsibility and accountability to initiate such investigations as may be necessary, both inside the country and outside if the Government agencies had a prima facie case to the effect.

After all, at the commencement of the incumbent Government’s term and for months thereof, such other Ministers as Rajitha Senaratne, had repeatedly declared that the Government had information about the Rajapaksas’ hiding massive moneys in foreign banks and countries. They also said that the Government had sought the assistance of nations like the US and India, to locate and bring out those moneys back to Sri Lanka, for spending them for public good.

Once the New York Times report appeared, and the anti-Rajapaksa polity in the country picked it up from there, China denied the allegations. Now, there are reports about Russia seeking an explanation from the Foreign Ministry, on Managala’s public statement.

Being a ‘responsible’ Minister that Mangala says he is, and he is also known to be mostly, it would have done the nation a lot of diplomatic good, if only he had initiated the processes that he may now have in mind through diplomatic channels. As Finance Minister, he may have got at the truth, one way or the other, and then proceeded with the findings, accordingly. As an ex-Foreign Minister, under this Government and earlier under President Rajapaksa for a term, he also knows pretty well, how the diplomatic game is played, and behind the scenes.

That way, on the Hambantota project, maybe, Minister Mangala has better clout with the Chinese than anyone in this Government, to bring out the truth of the New York Times’ claims, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. After all, he was the Ports Minister under President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga (CBK) when the Government initialled the first Hambantota MoU with China.

Mahinda R as the ‘powerless’ Prime Minister was caught in between at the time. Elected President in November 2005, he even signalled cancelling the MoU if only the Indian neighbour would step in, in China’s place. With India showing no interest even at the time, the Rajapaksas were left to re-negotiate the deal with Chinese firms and launch what has turned out to be a controversial project, at best, and at every step. Again, Mangala S was the powerful Foreign Minister of President Rajapaksa, until they fell out and parted company.

Targeting Rajapaksa or….

It’s one thing that Minister Mangala went to town on his Namal-linked allegations against Russia. It is another that even before that happened, a section of the social media had linked his name to the purported ‘leak’ to the New York Times – but with no evidence or even ‘responsibility’, which is also what the social media has been mostly.

If believed, such reports raise the inevitable political question if Mangala, after all, was behind all this? If accepted as true, then flows the even more important question: Who then is he targeting – the common adversary in the Rajapaksas, or someone in his own party and/or Government, who by implication may be stalling the probe processes against the Rajapaksas in this regard?

If there is an iota of truth in such conclusions, then it is even more the ‘responsibility’ of Minister Mangala to ‘expose’ such colleagues in the Government, whoever they are, wherever they are positioned, even more rapidly than unleashing any probe against the Rajapaksas.

Another public pronouncement at native Matara should help.

It also makes logical sense: if the ‘Rajapaksa men’ in this Government is not exposed early on, they could continue to ‘harbour’ the Rajapaksas from the laws, whose proverbial long arms do not seem to be enough to reach them, thus far. Or, that should be the implication flowing from their collective conduct over these three-plus years in Government.

Even otherwise, the political adversaries of the Rajapaksas in this Government are continuing to shoot at the skies when focussing on the ground should have been their instant and only priority. After all, the proven ‘Rajapaksa constituency’ is unconcerned about all these kinds of allegations – which had been levelled against them even when they were in power. They are not going to be impressed at anyone trying to taint the Mahinda image as the greatest of contemporary ‘nationalists’, whether of the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist kind’ or the larger ‘Sri Lankan’ variety.

What is now sought to be aimed, it would seem, is to immobilise the Rajapaksas politically and electorally through court cases, and convictions, denying any or many of the family members from being able to contest Elections-2020. If otherwise their genuine concern is to ‘protect the interests of the nation’, they could still talk to China, for instance, to probe the Hamabantota lessee-companies, and transfer those interests to another Chinese entity, pending such probe. That should be a fair game, for all sides.

The Trump card

By implication and otherwise, it goes without saying that any proven ‘misconduct’ of the kind being alleged in the New York Times report should also mean that Sri Lanka could throw out China from the Hambantota project, at this stage. On a later day, it could become near-impossible, even if Sri Lankan courts had found truth in the allegations – if at all it came to that.

Against the China angle, the irony of the Samaraweera charge, implicating Russia, is even more striking for the global ambience in which he has made it.  The charge comes at a time when the US President Donald Trump is on record that he trusts his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin more than his own security agencies.

At Helsinki, Finland, President Trump told the waiting newsmen that his CIA chief had told him that the Russians interfered with the US presidential polls of 2016, but “I saw no reason to believe it”.  For the Russians and President Putin, it is a ‘trump-card’ that they would play along for long.

It may remain so, despite whatever may happen to President Trump nearer home for what is seen as an unbelievable and preposterous statement by a tenant of the White House – letting down the ‘permanent legatees’ to the larger American State and the larger American cause, as never before.

Against this, here we have Minister Samaraweera implicating Russia on the Namal front, with ‘interference in the internal affairs’ of the island-Republic. Maybe, Samaraweera said what he is reported to have said before Trump said what he did say at Helsinki. But it would not make a difference to Russia, one way or the other!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:sathiym54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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