Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa- though unable to run for President in 2020- found himself at the centre of an evolving controversy last week as the respected American newspaper the New York Times implied in an article that China has inveigled Sri Lanka into a ‘debt trap’ during Rajapaksa’s Presidency.
The article in question was titled ‘How China got Sri Lanka to cough up a port’ and was written by Maria Abi-Habib, the newspaper’s South Asia correspondent based in New Delhi. The article appeared in the New York Times on June 25 and acknowledges contributions from journalists from Beijing as well as two senior journalists in Sri Lanka.
While the New York Times has an established reputation as a newspaper of integrity, Abi-Habib also has impressive credentials. Among other achievements, in 2012 she investigated atrocities in a military hospital in Kabul in Afghanistan that led to the resignation of an American General.
The article paints a picture of Sri Lanka as a “small country hungry for financing”. It claims that China offered loans to Sri Lanka that could not be sustained to build the port in Hambantota and that, as a result, “under heavy pressure and after months of negotiations with the Chinese the government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years in December”.
The article claims that the port “gave China control of territory just a few hundred miles off the shores of a rival, India, and a strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway” and observes that “the case is one of the most vivid examples of China’s ambitious use of loans and aid to gain influence around the world”.
More damaging for Rajapaksa is the claim that engagement with the Chinese was linked to his election campaign. The article claims that “during the 2015 Sri Lankan elections, large payments from the Chinese port construction fund flowed directly to campaign aides and activities for Mr. Rajapaksa, who had agreed to Chinese terms at every turn and was seen as an important ally in China’s efforts to tilt influence away from India in South Asia”.
The newspaper states that “the payments were confirmed by documents and cash checks detailed in a government investigation seen by The New York Times”. It also notes that “Rajapaksa and his aides did not respond to multiple requests for comment, made over several months, for this article. Officials for China Harbor (the company engaged in the construction of the port) also would not comment”.
The decision of the Rajapaksa government to build a port in Hambantota could be criticised as bad judgment, because the port- like the airport in Mattala- has not been a commercial success. However, of more concern to Rajapaksa, the Joint Opposition (JO) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is the insinuation that this decision was quid pro quo for funding provided to Rajapaksa for his 2015 presidential election campaign.
The article does provide details about this, which, if accurate, would be of concern. “At least US$7.6 million was dispensed from China Harbor’s account at Standard Chartered Bank to affiliates of Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign, according to a document, seen by The Times” the article claims.
“With 10 days to go before polls opened, around US$3.7 million was distributed in checks: US$678,000 to print campaign T-shirts and other promotional material and US$297,000 to buy supporters gifts, including women’s saris. Another US$38,000 was paid to a popular Buddhist monk who was supporting Mr. Rajapaksa’s electoral bid, while two checks totalling US$1.7 million were delivered by volunteers to Temple Trees, his official residence,” the article claims.
This is hardly the kind of publicity that the Rajapaksa camp would wish for, with presidential elections due in eighteen months, even if Mahinda Rajapaksa is himself not a candidate. Predictably, the government- or at least, its United National Party (UNP) faction- has gone on the offensive.
Social Empowerment Deputy Minister Ranjan Ramanayake has lodged a complaint with the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) regarding the allegations made in the New York Times article and State Minister of Power and Renewable Energy, Ajith Perera has challenged Rajapaksa to sue the newspaper if the article was defamatory.
Initially, Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa, eldest son of the former President pooh-poohed the accusations in the article stating that the New York Times was simply recycling old allegations. However, it was clear that the controversy was gathering momentum and Mahinda Rajapaksa did respond.
Rajapaksa denied the allegations and stated that he was in the process of sending a Letter of Demand to the New York Times. He also said that his party would also be doing the same as the article stated that his party’s campaign was funded by China. However, Rajapaksa did not specify which political party that was because he ran as a candidate of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which he is no longer in control of.
Rajapaksa also issued a detailed statement. “No contribution was made by China Harbour Co to my 2015 presidential election campaign. While claiming that my ‘affiliates’ and ‘campaign aides’ had got the money and that ‘volunteers’ had delivered the cheques to Temple Trees, the writer of the New York Times article has been intentionally vague about who had given this money and who had received it. This seems to be a way of carrying out a smear campaign without incurring any liability”, Rajapaksa said in his statement.
Rajapaksa also takes issue with the New York Times for the sources of its information. “The NYT writer has stated that they had obtained some of the details in that article from a Sri Lankan ‘government investigation’. Every Sri Lankan knows that the main preoccupation of this government since it came into power has been to sling mud at the opposition” he says.
Despite this rebuttal, the controversy continues, in part due to the tactics adopted by the Rajapaksa camp. This was after JO parliamentarians held a news conference and claimed that the two senior Sri Lankan journalists who have been acknowledged in the article made their contributions at the behest of the government. A photograph of one of the journalists was also displayed at the briefing.
This was to draw a sharp retort from the New York Times. Michael Slackman, the international editor for The Times, called those claims false. In a statement, he said The Times article was rigorously reported and accurate and criticized the JO’s tactics. “It is unacceptable for journalists to be intimidated in this way,” Slackman said. “This action appears intended to silence critics and curb press freedoms, and ultimately deprive Sri Lankans of information in the public interest.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in Colombo has also now weighed in with its own statement on the issue. The statement from the embassy however does little to clear up the controversy. “The embassy has noticed the New York Times’ article published on June 25, as well as the clarifications and responses by various parties from Sri Lanka, criticizing it full of political prejudice and completely inconsistent with the facts” the statement said. The embassy statement notes that “despite any interference from a third party, China would like to work together with Sri Lanka to actively implement the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries” but is silent on the specific allegations levelled in the article.
It is very likely that, fuelled by political pressures, this issue will linger on for some time. Whether the Rajapaksa camp has the nous to take on the New York Times on this matter is a moot point. That is because, publicity of this kind is something that the Rajapaksa, the JO and the SLPP could best do without with national elections on the horizon. At present however, strategists in that camp don’t seem to view this controversy in that light.