Sri Lanka’s new government has outlined plans for a wave of anti-corruption investigations targeting Chinese-funded infrastructure projects developed under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
On January 8, Rajapaksa, a strongman who had appeared to settle in for the long term, conceded defeat to opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who pledged to tackle graft with a special commission targeting corruption in public works after criticising Rajapaksa’s government for awarding non-bid contracts and paying inflated prices.
Much of these projects were laid out near Rajapaksa’s southern hometown of Medamulana.
One political party, the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), has already called on the Bribery and Corruption Commission to probe Rajapaksa, his family members, and Ajith Nivard Cabraal, the former governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, over allegations linked to the multi-billion projects.
“This morning we lodged a complaint against Mahinda Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa [Majinda’s brother], Namal Rajapaksa [Majinda’s son] and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa [Majinda’s brother] to the bribery commission,” Vijitha Herath, a JVP legislator, confirmed on Tuesday 13 January.
The MPs also called upon the commission to suspend the respondents’ foreign trips until investigations against them have concluded.
Rajapaksa’s 9-year reign was marred by and eventually ended with allegations of nepotism and corruption. Over 40 top government positions were held by his family and friends – cabinet portfolios to state finance corporations, airlines and sports federations. One of his brothers, Gotabhaya, was his defence secretary, while another, Chamal, was the speaker of the parliament. His youngest brother Basil was the country’s Economic Development Minister. A nephew is chief minister of Uva Province while a brother-in-law was the chairman of the state carrier, Sri Lankan Airlines. His son, Namal, was being groomed as his political heir.
Since the defeat, the family has retreated into a shell.
Rajapaksa during his tenure adopted a decidedly pro-China policy, with the latter lending his government US$4.8bn in commercial loans between 2005 and 2012.
CHINA’S NUMEROUS INVESTMENTS
China became the country’s largest foreign investor in 2013 by supporting numerous road, port and airport developments, 98% of which investments took the form of soft loans, said Nitin Gokhale, a national security analyst.
The example cited by the opposition was the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port in Hambantota, for which the Chinese provided almost 85% of the total cost of the US$307m first stage. But after completion in 2010, the landmark project had only received six ships in 2011 and 18 ships in 2012.
The cost of the second stage is now estimated at an additional US$1.1bn.
Half an hour away stands the near-empty Mattala Rajapaksa International airport. Built with the help of a US$209m Chinese loan, the airport incurred an operational loss of Rs 2,750m during last year alone.
Last year, the opposition sent a fact-finding team to the area, and was threatened and pelted with eggs. The local mayor, Kavinda Fernando, was seen charging them with what he later described as “only a plastic gun”.
Current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is serving his third stint, said the new government would work on making the airport more viable.
MOST EXPENSIVE HIGHWAY
Another such project is the four-lane Colombo-Katunayake Expressway, which was found to be the most expensive highway ever built in terms of cost of each kilometre, with the government spending Rs 1.8 bn per km on the 26km expressway linking the capital Colombo to the Bandaranaike International Airport.
Comparing it to another Chinese project, a 50km highway in Kenya that had only cost Rs. 972m per km, Mangala Samaraweera, a United National Party (UNP) MP, told reporters: “Clearly someone or other has earned Rs 1bn per km on the Katunayake Expressway”.
The $1.4bn Colombo Port City project also came under heavy criticism with regard to alleged financial misappropriations in the deal, after another UNP MP, Harsha De Silva, revealed one of project’s major investors – the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) – had been blacklisted by the World Bank due to corruption charges.
A report published in August 2013 by the Government Servants Against Corruption organisation revealed the tender for the South Port project “lacked transparency” and was marred withcorruption.
The tender board was under continuous pressure from the Rajapaksas to select a company of his choice for the project, the report also found.
Prime Minister Wickremasinghe said the project would be put on hold pending an investigation into its finances and environmental effects.
FINANCIAL TRANSPARENCY CRITICISM
Newly elected Sirisena has criticised many of these projects, citing excessive cost and weak financial transparency.
“Some parliamentarians have been allocated more than Rs 600m for projects in their electoral catchment area, which in itself is grossly unjust,” explained Rajiva Wijesinha, a MP for the United People’s Freedom Alliance, Rajapaksa’s party.
“Some mega projects need to be reconsidered,” Mangala Samaraweera, a Member of Parliament, told the Wall Street Journal.
Samaraweera, who served as Rajapaksa’s foreign Minister during his first term and is now backing Sirisena, added: “We might need special tribunals to prosecute corruption. It is so vast and massive.”
The majority of Sri Lankans believe the debt accumulated during the country’s infrastructure-building boom will take years to pay back and say it will prove to be a huge national burden.
“What Sri Lankans believe at the moment is that these reforms and corruption investigations will take time because the heat of such an event hasn’t died down yet,” explained Abdul Rahman Ifham, a student and human rights activist and rehabilitation counsellor for the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme.
“No one would have imagined such a powerful man to be overthrown from his own throne. And we do hope for the best and everyone responsible for the atrocities and corruption will be dealt with duly.”
Rajapaksa and officials in his administration deny corruption allegations.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s national airline yesterday announced it will stop all flights to the country’s second international airport built and named after Mahinda Rajapaksa, after he was defeated in last week’s presidential elections.
Sri Lankan Airlines said operating flights via the Rajapaksa International Airport in the former president’s home constituency of Hambantota was a huge drain on the already heavily debt-laden carrier.
The state-owned airline – under new management after new President Maithripala Sirisena assumed office last week – has decided to cut back uneconomical flights, including operations via Rajapaksa International.
“This translates to an annual bottom line improvement of approximately US$18 million (S$22.5 million),” the airline said in a statement.
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