New York Times recycling old, unproven allegations

– Namal Rajapaksa


The New York Times article titled "How China got Sri Lanka to cough up a Port" made waves in Sri Lanka the whole of last week, with it being reproduced in the local newspapers and websites and quoted and commented on in all TV news bulletins. This article elicited an infuriated response from the Rajapaksa camp. The first to respond was the former Central Bank Governor under the Rajapaksa government who fired off an email to all media institutions saying that this article was "a gross misrepresentation of facts as well as a piece of journalism which has violated the truth in a shocking manner. This is probably the type of propaganda under the veil of journalism that President Donald Trump has been regularly referring to as Fake news or reports."

 Cabraal said that he had been interviewed by this NYT correspondent Maria Abi- Habib on May 10, 2018, and he had countered almost every one of her string of allegations and pre-conceived notions in an hour long interview, with irrefutable facts and figures; but that this journalist had chosen to ignore all his responses relating to the Chinese loans and projects, as well as Sri Lanka’s debt position under President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Cabraal stated that the attitude of this correspondent undoubtedly confirms she was on a mission to provide a pre-determined and completely one-sided view point which is detrimental to both China and Sri Lanka in general, and Presidents Xi Jingping and Mahinda Rajapaksa, in particular.

  Former President Rajapaksa’s son Namal who is an MP for the Hambantota district had tweeted the New York Times Correspondent stating that he wanted to reply to this article. Consequently, his office had been informed that any response or comment on their article would have to be less than 600 words. The Sirasa TV channel which had contacted the New York Times independently had been told that if anybody was going to respond to their article it would have to be the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself because the allegations related to him. It is not clear whether this was why Namal was given only 600 words to have his say. Speaking to the media on Friday, Namal said that the NYT was recycling old allegations.

 What he meant by that was that three years ago on July 24, 2015 just weeks before the parliamentary election of that year, Reuters had filed a story titled "Rajapaksa comeback bid checked by Sri Lanka bribery probe". The Reuters report went as follows:

 "Sri Lanka is investigating a Chinese firm on suspicion of offering a bribe to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s failed presidential re-election campaign, a source close to the investigation said, weeks before he seeks to pull off a comeback in a general election. Ousted by erstwhile ally Maithripala Sirisena in January, Rajapaksa is now seeking to turn the tables at the Aug. 17 parliamentary polls but continues to be dogged by allegations of sleaze that led to his defeat after two terms as president. At the centre of an investigation by the police and central bank is China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), which under Rajapaksa landed a $1.4 billion deal to build a port city in Colombo that has been suspended by the current government."

"CHEC, a subsidiary of state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), denied as "baseless and false" any suggestion that it bribed Rajapaksa. CHEC calls on all the relevant Sri Lankan officials and parties not to misunderstand their responsible and cooperative partner, and not to send a wrong signal to the investors from China and all other countries," it said in a statement. Rajapaksa was not immediately available for comment."

"The state-run Daily News reported on Wednesday that police were investigating an allegation that CHEC paid 149 million rupees ($1.1 million) to Rajapaksa through various proxies. Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara confirmed to Reuters that the investigation was being conducted by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the central bank’s Finance Intelligence Unit (FIU). He declined to elaborate. A source, with knowledge of the FIU’s investigations, said the investigation had "found a certain amount of money had gone out of the CHEC account". It was investigating whether this payment constituted a bribe."

"Shan Wijetunga, senior manager at Transparency International Sri Lanka said there are no laws barring companies or individuals funding political campaigns. However, if there are any vested interests it can be considered as bribe. Sirisena, after his election on Jan. 8, suspended most of the Chinese-backed infrastructure projects started under Rajapaksa, who denies allegations of corruption and overpricing in contract awards…"

Readers will note that the allegations made in the New York Times article of Monday 25 June 2018 are in fact very similar to those made in the Reuters report three years ago. What the NYT article said with regard to kickbacks from the China Harbour Co were as follows:

"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 payments were confirmed by documents and cash checks detailed in a government investigation seen by The New York Times."

"As the January election inched closer, large payments started to flow toward the president’s circle. At least $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, from an active internal government investigation. The document details China Harbor’s bank account number — ownership of which was verified — and intelligence gleaned from questioning of the people to whom the checks were made out."

"With 10 days to go before polls opened, around $3.7 million was distributed in checks: $678,000 to print campaign T-shirts and other promotional material and $297,000 to buy supporters gifts, including women’s saris. Another $38,000 was paid to a popular Buddhist monk who was supporting Mr. Rajapaksa’s electoral bid, while two checks totaling $1.7 million were delivered by volunteers to Temple Trees, his official residence. Most of the payments were from a subaccount controlled by China Harbor, named "HPDP Phase 2," shorthand for Hambantota Port Development Project."


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