Blaming foreign conspiracies engineered by the CIA, RAW and MI6 is commonplace in local politics. The nationalists in the Sinhala and Tamil camps invoke this trite trick when they find themselves with something of a hot potato. On the 22nd of February, former SLPP mouthpiece and leader of the National Freedom Front, Wimal Weerawansa, hollered in parliament that the government was planning to place the State Intelligence Service’s decision–making responsibility under CIA command. He argued that it was déjà vu: the same operation was carried out when the Wickremesinghe Administration came to power in 2001.[i]
On the 4th of March, General Secretary of the unpopular Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL), Dr. G. Weerasinghe echoed this and urged the government must reveal the fact whom the CIA Director met and what had been discussed.[ii] Days later, Udaya Gammanpila, Wimal Weerawansa’s echo chamber, outcried that the Wickremesinghe – Rajapaksa government and the U.S. embassy in Colombo should come clean on CIA Director William Joseph Burns’ visit to Colombo and challenged the U.S. Embassy to contradict him if they could.[iii]
This is not the first time that politicians like Wimal and Gammanpila have spoken about interference by foreign intelligence agencies. In October 2018, the then President Maithripala Sirisena attempted a coup d’état by appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister before formally dismissing the incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe. As the political outcome was being decided, Gammanpila justified the coup by claiming that this fight was not against Speaker Karu Jayasuriya or even Ranil Wickremesinghe but a fight against foreign secret services such as America’s CIA and Britain’s MI6.[iv]
According to media reports, a high-level U.S. delegation led by U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs (PDASD) Jedidiah P Royal, visited Colombo on February 14.
As I noted at the beginning of the article, talking about the CIA, RAW and MI6 is a usual practice in Sri Lanka. After the electoral defeat in 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa proclaimed that India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) conspired with Western Agencies, such as the CIA and MI6, to rally the opposition led by President Maithripala Sirisena against his presidency.[v]
In 2017, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defence secretary, said in an interview, “India decided to work against the M.R. government. They can do a lot. The Tamil National Alliance listens to India. The Indian-origin Tamil community is there. India has control over them. They can do a lot of things. It is a factor[vi].”
Gotabaya Rajapaksa won by securing 52 per cent of the votes in 2019. Subsequently, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLLP) secured a two–third supermajority and appointed the defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. In 2015, if there was a CIA-RAW-MI6 coalition, then which intelligence allied with the Rajapaksas to ensure victory in 2019? Was it China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS)?
There is no evidence of the CIA chief William Burns visiting Colombo. Foreign Minister Ali Sabry even denied this. The question arises as to why Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila show much interest in this matter. There is no doubt that Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila continue to play China’s favorites. After all, such wedge politics create opportunities for parties out of power since the public deems it to be astute and sensible.
Amid the deep security concerns originating from India and the U.S. and the raging controversy about its implications for the Indo-Pacific, the Chinese spy ship, the Yuan Wang 5, docked at the Chinese-built Hambantota Port in August 2022. Wimal and Gammanpila, who screech about CIA intervention, were among the Chinese as guests in the welcome ceremony for the ship.
At the event, Wimal Weerawansa stated that it was a communications and technology vessel, not a spy ship. He argued for it to be docked at the Hambantota Port and stated that although it is the land that is Sri Lanka, it is the sky and the ocean that connects us to the world. Part of that sky and ocean belongs to us and is our sovereign right, he inferred.[vii]
Such politicians, who grumble about sovereignty, have no qualms about the entry of Chinese and Pakistani security personnel into Sri Lankan soil. This indicates what the force driving them is.
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has received attention among analysts in Indian and the West. Sri Lanka is now perceived as a model for China’s debt-trap diplomacy. Against this backdrop, the CIA chief William Burns blamed Sri Lanka’s ‘dumb bets’ on China as a factor in its economic collapse, noting it should serve as a warning to other nations. Burns said at the Aspen Security Forum that ‘the Chinese have much weight to throw around, and they can make a very appealing case for their investments.’ But nations should look at ‘a place like Sri Lanka today — heavily indebted to China — which has made some dumb bets about their economic future and are suffering pretty catastrophic, both economic and political, consequences as a result.[viii]’
Similarly, in an interview with BBC, Richard Moore, chief of the British Foreign Intelligence agency MI6, claimed that China uses debt-trap leverage over other countries. He added that China lends money to other countries, which must cede control of key assets such as ports if they cannot meet their debt repayments.[ix] No doubt, Moore specified Hambantota port.
China has penetrated the political and economic domain in Sri Lanka. Recently China has shown much interest in the North and East of Sri Lanka, where ethnic Tamils with historical ties to India are a majority. China is trying to deepen relations with the south by resisting U.S. lead western pressure on human rights issues; on the other hand, it is instituting relations with Tamils based on providing relief to the vulnerable and seeking opportunities to establish relations with civil society, journalists and intellectuals. It will not be surprising if Tamil politicians begin speaking like Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila in the future.
In this context, China will definitely influence local politics. Against this backdrop, the pro-Chinese political elite in Sri Lanka are inevitable. If one analyses Wimal and Gammanpila’s drama, one could understand their political positions about taking on a CIA line. Prof. Patrick Mendis’s observation of ‘Xi’s art of war in Sri Lanka’ against India and the U.S is perfectly apt here. He put it that ‘President Xi’s New Era of national rejuvenation; Sri Lanka has now discreetly become a strategic colony of battleships with massive projects to advance Chinese interests against India and the United States in the Indian Ocean’[x]
In this context, unquestionably, local soldiers must heed to Xi’s war in Sri Lanka. In another way we can argue that it is an influence of China’s ‘Magic Weapons’ In September 2014 Xi Jinping gave a speech on the importance of united front work— political influence activities—calling it one of the CCP’s ‘magic weapons.’ David Shambaugh wrote in his Foreign Affairs article, ‘China’s Soft-Power Push’: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi Jinping has put enormous resources into influence abroad, estimated at $10 billion a year.[xi]
If we look back at the Sri Lankan political episode, China’s economic engagement began in 2005 after Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed the presidency. Colombo moved from traditional ties with India. Mahinda Rajapaksa won by a narrow margin, secured little over 50 per cent of the total votes against the main rival Ranil Wickremesinghe. If Ranil had won the presidential race in 2005, China would have faced severe setbacks in its advancement on Sri Lanka. China took an opportunity to establish the link with the Mahinda Rajapaksa clan. India refused to support Rajapaksa’s military solution agenda. India encouraged negotiations and a meaningful political settlement based on the 13th amendment. In the gap, China offered carte blanche military, economic and political support to the Sri Lankan government to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). After the end of the war, China took full advantage of Rajapaksa’s war-mongering populism and lust for their approach nation as a family business enterprise. This is what China needed to formulate its penetrating strategy into small nations.
Since the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka has become an illiberal democracy. Following Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015, the political order somewhat changed. The Maithiri – Ranil Administration’s response to a rising China, with its wolf-warrior diplomacy, was to adopt a middle position that is best described as hedging, or perhaps ‘dominance denial.’ However, following the victory of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in the local government election in 2018, the political position was disrupted again. After Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential race in 2019, the country was again moved towards illiberal tendencies. Even though Gotabaya Rajapaksa government declared an ‘India First Approach’ to foreign policy to protect Indian interests, any avowed adoption of liberalism was not in the heart of the Rajapaksas. Indeed, it was more a case of balancing and bandwagoning with China.
However, after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was overthrown by a popular uprising in 2022, the country’s political stance changed. The president born in crisis, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been tinkering to put the country in a safe zone, possibly going back to his earlier stance of hedging and dominance denial. But it is not clear how he will overcome the challenges. Against this backdrop, the question remains as to the foreign policy that will be doubled-downed by Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa, or Anura Kumara Dissanayake, or whoever comes to power at some point to exit from Sri Lanka’s ‘dumb bets on China.