While much ink has already been spilled over The New York Times’ recent piece on Chinese bribes allegedly given to the Rajapaksa camp ahead of the 2015 presidential election, some interesting questions remain to be addressed.
Setting aside, for now, the report’s inaccuracies (such as describing the Port City project as a ‘terminal’ in Colombo port, built by China Harbour, which held 50 acres of land over which Sri Lanka had no sovereignty, leaving officials with ‘little real control’ when a Chinese submarine called in 2014), among the questions that need to be asked are: Why China? And why now? What’s the rationale for America’s ‘newspaper of record’ taking the trouble to resurrect, at this point in time, a three-year-old report from Sri Lanka’s state-run Daily News about a corruption investigation that led nowhere?
From a news point of view, there are two main elements in the story that would be grist to the mill of any newspaper. One is the aspect of corruption in high places, and the other is that of meddling in other peoples’ elections. NYT chose to write about alleged Chinese meddling in Sri Lanka’s election while ignoring reports that RAW (Research & Analysis Wing) the spy agency of US’s strategic ally India, allegedly influenced the outcome by facilitating defections from the SLFP so that a former SLFP minister could run as the common candidate in a UNP-led campaign. The strategy succeeded in bringing about regime-change by wresting a sufficient number of Sinhala-majority votes from the SLFP to tilt the numbers, in combination with the traditionally UNP-friendly minority vote. The UNP-led campaign was peppered with anti-China rhetoric.
The strategic nexus between the US and India has been growing apace in recent years. Former US president Barack Obama in his speech as chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebration on 26th January 2015 – just weeks after Sri Lanka concluded its 8th January election – said the US “welcomes a greater role for India in the Asia Pacific” and went on to mention Sri Lanka: “India can play a role in helping countries forge a better future, from Burma to Sri Lanka, where today there’s new hope for democracy. With your experience in elections you can help other countries with theirs.”
China meanwhile has been identified by the US as the reason for its heightened interest in the Indian Ocean and its pursuit of stronger defence ties with India. The US position was clearly spelt out by former US Secretary of Defence Rex Tillerson in a speech at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies last October. Sri Lanka is currently caught up in a tug-of-war between US and China in their fight for dominance in the Indian Ocean region on account of its strategic location, straddling important sea lanes connecting Asia with the Middle East and Africa. It’s not hard to see how targeting alleged Chinese corruption in relation to a strategic asset like Hambantota port would serve US strategic interests. The allegation that former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign benefited from it, kills two birds with one stone by discrediting both China and a political leader seen as being too-China-friendly, at the same time.
When Western powers’ strategic interests are at stake, Western mainstream media typically tend to align with their respective government’s positions in reporting an issue. This could be seen in their reporting on Iraq, Ukraine and Syria for example. With the US’s strategic focus shifting to the Pacific and Indian oceans the NYT report on Sri Lanka illustrates how US mainstream media serve their government’s interests in this region.
But the election is over, and MR lost. So this brings us to the second question: why now?
February’s landslide victory at the local government elections by Rajapaksa’s new political formation, with a presidential election and general election set to take place in 2019 and 2020, may help explain the timing. The local poll results shook up the US-friendly yahapalana government by showing where popular support now lies. Given the high stakes in the big powers’ games of one-upmanship in the Indian Ocean, it would not be surprising to see more ‘news’ of this type reaching Sri Lankan shores in the months ahead.
The timing of this story is also interesting in the way it effectively deflected media attention from a much bigger corruption scandal involving prominent government figures. Though corruption is a main focus of the NYT piece, it chose to focus on an alleged Chinese bribe of US$ 7.6 million in a past election, when all eyes were currently on the ‘bond scam.’ It involves the much bigger sum of US$ 69 million (Rs.11 billion) that former Central Bank governor Arjuna Mahendran is accused of embezzling, with the main beneficiary being his son-in-law Arjun Aloysius’s company Perpetual Treasuries Ltd. (PTL).
So far, it has been revealed that two ministers and an MP received cheques from Aloysius or PTL-affiliated companies, which they said they used in their campaign for the August 2015 parliamentary election. The first bond scam had already been exposed in February 2015, and their claims that they ‘didn’t know’ where the money came from, rang hollow. The fact that two of them offered to refund the money suggests they were not comfortable with it. The media naturally had a field day with this abundant supply of headline-making news. But after the NYT story broke, reporters have stopped button-holing various MPs and sticking microphones in front of them to ask “Did you take PTL money?”
An issue that Sri Lanka really needs to be concerned about as an outcome of recent exposures and allegations of election campaign-related corruption, is the urgent need for laws to regulate election campaign financing. The politicians who benefited from PTL’s largesse have made remarks to the effect that accepting donations was ‘ok,’ that it is ‘normal’ for businessmen to support election campaigns, that ‘no one spends their own money’ etc. If it is ‘not ok’ to take money from a tainted company, is it ‘ok’ to take from a reputable company? Who’s to know about the reputation of donors if there is no account of the funds, where they came from or what they were used for? If no limit is set on the amount, does the party with richer friends and more donations have an unfair advantage? And what about foreign funding?
It would seem that Sri Lankan politicians of all stripes and from both the mainstream parties are content to continue with the present unregulated system when it comes to election campaign financing. This could be one reason why no party is eager to pursue its opponent over this particular issue. The Rajapaksa administration was accused of high-level corruption and was unseated on an anti-corruption platform in 2015. Where the UNP is concerned, apart from the bond scam exposures there is at least one election-finance related petition submitted for investigation by the bribery commission (CIABOC), alleging Rs. 60 million given to a high ranking UNPer by a businessman in 2001. The petitioner, former state minister Rajiva Wijesinha says he believes the money was used to bribe MPs “to cross over so as to bring down the government which president Kumaratunga had constituted following the 2000 election.”
With foreign powers showing heightened interest in Sri Lanka, and the possibility of election-related bribes of a much higher order being offered in exchange for influence, the need for campaign-finance laws becomes all the more urgent. In this new context their absence leaves a gaping hole that threatens not only the integrity of elections, but now, the national interest as well.