Not all that long ago, this newspaper referred to the then Chinese ambassador offering the incumbent Prime Minister what was, in effect, a bribe. He had asked if the PM would like a ‘donation’ to a Foundation of his choice. The PM had responded somewhat philosophically that he had no Foundation of his own and [...]


Foreign donations for elections


Not all that long ago, this newspaper referred to the then Chinese ambassador offering the incumbent Prime Minister what was, in effect, a bribe. He had asked if the PM would like a ‘donation’ to a Foundation of his choice. The PM had responded somewhat philosophically that he had no Foundation of his own and as a Buddhist he was accumulating good karma for his afterlife, but if the envoy so wished, to give any donation towards Buddhist temples that were in need of funds. A similar offer had been made to the then Foreign Minister who had also turned the ‘bribe’ down.

It only goes to show that the then Chinese ambassador was not averse to approaching political leaders – the highest in the land, and making direct offers of financial contributions of a personal nature. That these offers were made right in the midst of delicate negotiations on the stalled Hambantota and Colombo Port City projects cannot be merely coincidental.

There was no fuss about these news reports. Diplomatic immunity prevented the envoy from being hauled up before the FCID or the Bribery Commission. Neither were the reports denied.

In the backdrop of those reports, last week’s New York Times revelations that the Chinese offered the former President of Sri Lanka campaign funds – and that they were accepted, cannot be dismissed lightly. Whether the then President’s campaign team did accept those funds is what is left to be proven – if the present Government is inclined to investigate the matter to a conclusion rather than pay mere lip service to the allegations in the newspaper.

That the Chinese threw money for a public relations exercise during those negotiations from 2015-2017 is a fact. There were their local agents who made approaches with financial inducements to columnists who contributed to this newspaper making critical comments on the environmental and financial impact on the country of the two port projects.

The Communist Party of China has deftly manipulated the free market economy with its monolithic, centralised political apparatus. It’s so-called ‘private sector’ synchronises like a well-oiled machine with its one-party state; the ideal public-private partnership (PPP). They have exploited the World Trade Organisation to the hilt.

The manner in which the present Government overturned its own hotly critical stance on the Colombo and Hambantota port projects shows how the Chinese bided their time, and used the carrot and stick approach. They arm-twisted the incumbents in office with ‘hard-ball’ negotiating tactics on the one hand. That there was no grease applied in the process is hard to believe. The switch of the Ministers of Port just when negotiations were to be concluded remains a mystery todate.

The Joint Opposition limited its comments to saying that it had a better deal for the country in these negotiations under its watch, and its muted protest was limited to asking for permanency for the workers it had recruited to the Hambantota port. The ‘JO’ maintains excellent relations with China and clearly does not want to rub it on the wrong side – for the future.

On the face of it, the NYT report raises the question on the dates of some of the cheques that have been purportedly given to the Mahinda Rajapaksa campaign team seeking his re-election. The dates are so close to the 2015 Presidential election itself. Was this then only a last minute additional imbursement when realisation dawned that the Rajapaksa re-election campaign was in some difficulty. Our Political Editor has more on the matter.
Foreign Governments have been bank-rolling political parties in this country for some time now. India did it – in the plantations in the main and eventually went even beyond that by bank-rolling a separatist movement not long ago. In the olden days of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, money bags were left at Rosmead Place before an election.

In somewhat different circumstances, Japan gave a 1001-bed hospital and a television station among other gifts to Sri Lanka in appreciation of then President J.R. Jayewardene’s famous San Francisco speech soon after WW II. Britain donated the Victoria project as did Germany and Sweden other Mahaweli projects. The Chinese in fact donated the BMICH and the Superior Courts Complex.

Today, however, we see a fundamental shift in foreign assistance. It is more manipulative, more under the radar and more corrupt. The practice of individual Cabinet Ministers writing direct to foreign Governments seeking assistance for their pet projects has not been condemned, but condoned. One of them wrote to the heads of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan during the Rajapaksa Administration and even when the irregularity was highlighted in the media, the former President ignored it. It was the beginning of a new political culture that was encouraged from the top.

This was a new dimension to MPs and State Ministers we find today who seek and accept funding from local entrepreneurs with questionable agendas. These are ‘MPs for hire’. At the foreign Government level it is Cabinet Ministers and even higher – for hire. It is all put on the footing of ‘party funds’ or ‘campaign funds’. It is no secret though, that much of these funds go into private pockets – but the obligations to the giver remain for he who pays the piper calls the tune.

The lack of transparency in funding political parties and legislators is a negative aspect of Sri Lankan democracy and elections. There is still no proper accounting process to determine how innocent voters are taken for suckers in the grand scheme of things. Elections mean spending, but there was a time when there were limits set.

In South Africa where electoral financial malpractices are prevalent, the Supreme Court this very week held that; “… information on private funding of political parties and independent candidates is essential for the effective exercise of the right to make political choices and to participate in elections… that information on private funding of political parties and private candidates must be recorded, preserved and reasonably accessible” (Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng).

It were civil society driven campaigns that got this order from the South African judiciary sitting as the Constitutional Court. In Sri Lanka, the voters have been corrupted with big bad bucks thrown around by competing parties.

Many voters would not see what is behind the lavish spending sprees of these political parties, nor would many of them care as long as they get what they want. But all this money has an IOU tag attached to it after elections. It is so much more dangerous when foreign governments get involved in the process.


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