Speculation rife about a secret CIA mission to Sri Lanka
By Uditha Devapriya
The Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) has demanded that the government clarify whether William Burns, head of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), made a secret visit to the country last month, and if so to explain what was discussed with him. The general secretary of the CPSL, Dr. G. Weerasinghe, alleged at a press conference that Burns’ delegation had arrived in a special aircraft on February 14, and that the flight had not been subject to immigration controls. He added that there were “no records of some people who came in”.
Udaya Gammanpila, a politician formerly affiliated with the ruling party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), and now with the opposition, stated that MPs had been “questioning as to who visited the island,” but that the government and the United States “had been maintaining silence”. Gammanpila alleged that no less than four proposals detrimental to Sri Lanka’s security had been discussed in the meeting. These included the setting up of an Intelligence Analysis Centre, the donation of a biometric immigration control system, the granting of access to submarine telecommunications cables and data, and the review of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
What is controversial about the alleged visit is not so much what was discussed as what preceded it. On February 24, the Indian Express reported that Nepal’s government had “in a rare move” barred Burns from visiting the country. The Nepali government had made it clear that the visit would not be “conducive” given certain developments, including the upcoming presidential election, which has become a subject of political and geopolitical competition.
The Express noted that Burns was due to fly to Nepal on February 15 for an 18-hour stay, departing “from Sri Lanka in a special C-17 Globemaster III.” Nepal’s Nagarik Network revealed more details about the visit: Citing a source from the Prime Minister’s Office, it noted that Burns “had submitted the schedule to land in Kathmandu at 6:30 PM on February 15 and return at 1:15 PM on the 16th”.
The timeline is interesting because of a top-level, top-secret, tight-security US delegation to Sri Lanka that took place on February 16. The delegation was led by Jedidiah Royal, US principal deputy assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs. During his visit, Royal met several government officials, including Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne and State Defence Minister Premitha Bandara Tennakoon. It is unclear whether he met President Ranil Wickremesinghe, although one opposition MP has alleged that he did.
While details about these meetings have been withheld from the press, there has been much speculation, to the extent that Royal had to dismiss rumours about the United States establishing a military base in the country’s strategically important Trincomalee District.
Such official statements have not staved off speculation. Sri Lankans were intrigued by the arrival of two C-17 Globemaster aircraft, neatly coinciding with the delegation, at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) near Colombo. One Twitter user pointed out that since the C-17 can carry more than 100 passengers, it made no sense to bring in two such aircraft for a delegation that included only 20 people.
While the Twitter user speculated that the aircraft may have carried cargo – speculating about the US providing anti-riot gear for the government for use against protesters – there was no official statement from Colombo or Washington regarding the aircraft, and why they were brought in during Royal’s visit at all. When a local English language daily inquired from the US Embassy, a spokesperson replied that they didn’t have any comment. The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, replied that “the issue should be raised with the Presidential Secretariat or the defence ministry.”
We now know, from Nepali and Indian media, that CIA chief Burns had been scheduled to fly to Kathmandu on a C-17 Globemaster III. While this does not necessarily mean that the two aircraft were flown in to escort or whisk away the head of the world’s most powerful spy agency, it is nevertheless questionable why the US government felt the need to organize two top-level delegations to Sri Lanka in a month: Royal’s visit, after all, came barely a fortnight after US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland stopped by Sri Lanka, as part of a week-long tour across South Asia and Qatar.
Of course, the Sri Lankan government, the US Embassy, and the US government are not likely to spill the details on these visits anytime soon. Yet they do raise important questions, particularly about Sri Lanka’s place in an increasingly tense Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific.
According to official reports, Sri Lanka is on the verge of receiving a much needed and much sought after bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The deal, amounting to $2.9 billion, will be released in several tranches over a period of four years. While not in itself enough to salvage Sri Lanka’s debt-soaked economy, analysts argue the bailout will restore investor confidence in a country reeling from a never-ending cascade of external shocks, political shifts, and popular uprisings.
Indeed, the situation has spiralled so much out of control that, as Umesh Moramudali, an economist based in Colombo, put it, the bailout has become “an international issue.” Not surprisingly, negotiations over the bailout have put the island nation at a crossroads between India, China, and the United States. The recent flurry of visits from all three countries, even China, indicates this only too clearly.
The CIA’s interest in South Asia is hardly news. What is interesting, however, is that while the Nepali government was quick to deny entry to Burns, the Sri Lankan government is being accused of opening its doors to him, even at the cost of national security. These visits and delegations have been criticized most vocally by nationalist and left-wing parties. Such parties have been critical of IMF negotiations as well: Speaking at a recent rally, for instance, Sunil Handunhetti, an MP from the Jathika Jana Balawegaya (JJB or National People’s Power), which is the parliamentary wing of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a left-wing party known for its opposition to Indian intervention in the country during the 1980s, accused the government of becoming optimistic “whenever they get money from the World Bank”.
In stark contrast, the main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has been critical of parties opposing IMF reforms, more or less conceding that there is no alternative.
Opposition parties have been more candid about the government’s attempts at linking the country’s fuel and energy sectors with Indian companies, in particular Adani Group. In a recent interview with The Hindu, Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Sabry argued that despite the recent negative disclosures about Adani by Hindenburg Research, he was confident about the group’s potential in the Colombo Port Terminal Project and the Wind Power Project in the island’s Northern Province. Sabry described the deal as “a government-to-government kind project,” thus affirming the initiatives taken by both countries, at the highest levels, to connect the two countries’ power and energy sectors.
Yet while advocates of privatization have been promoting such proposals, they have been bitterly criticized by the people. A recent poll by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a think tank, for instance, shows that more than 50% of those surveyed oppose selling off state-owned enterprises.
All this has been playing out against a highly charged political landscape. For one thing, the government, led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, has become deeply unpopular among working class and middle-class people, in large part due to a spate of tax hikes. This has ramped up calls for elections. While local elections had been scheduled for March 9, however, the government decided to postpone them, on the grounds that it had no money to hold them.
Opposition parties, trade unions, and civil society activists have come out demanding that they be held. On March 5, seven opposition parties signed a letter to the country’s Elections Commission, requesting it to hold the local polls before March 19. The government has promised to finalize a date, though it has not made an explicit pledge.
More worryingly, while the country’s Central Bank has eased the restrictions and regulations it had in place for about a year, and has credited its monetary policy measures for bringing down inflation, these measures have curbed consumption and devastated the lives of ordinary people. Thus, while food inflation is down, food insecurity is up, especially in the country’s southern belt, the centre of a mass left-wing insurgency against the government during the 1980s.
On the other hand, as Rathindra Kuruwita observed, the government has gone out of its way to appease the IMF, to the extent of cutting recruitment to the military and hiking electricity tariffs for lower-end consumers. The result has been that while anti-government protesters were faulting the then-president for not going to the IMF sooner less than a year ago, people are clashing with the government for enforcing IMF-style austerity measures today. The IMF for its part has praised these measures, deeming them painful but necessary. This has pushed economists and think tanks, which once favoured engaging with the IMF, to sound caution on the regime’s reckless austerity drive.
These developments have essentially dovetailed with larger geopolitical developments in South Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the Indo-Pacific. If the head of the CIA did pay a visit to Sri Lanka, as opposition parties allege, it should not come as a surprise. Over the last year or so Sri Lanka has become more important than ever to the United States and to India. That the latter two see eye-to-eye on most issues concerning the Indian Ocean is, of course, hardly news.
On the other hand, Colombo has made it clear that it will do whatever it takes, even enforcing austerity on its own citizens, to secure a bailout from the IMF. There is a consensus here that the IMF is the only answer to Sri Lanka’s financial crisis. Given that, it is natural for the US and India to feel they have a stake in the bailout, to think they can make use of it to pursue their interests in the region.
Yes, all this is mere speculation. But the last few weeks and months strongly suggest that, for better or for worse, Sri Lanka has become a major interest for the United States and India, especially in relation to China.
-Uditha Devapriya, a freelance columnist, is the chief international relations analyst at Factum, an Asia-Pacific focused foreign policy think tank based in Colombo. This article was originally featured on thediplomat.com
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