The curious case of Indian 'plot' to kill Maithripala Sirisena: Spy fiction-like assassination ploys don't change ground reality of Chinese clout

Like Alice said when she stepped through the looking glass, this is getting curiouser and curiouser. The usually reliable newspaper, The Hindu, reported that Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena had alleged during a weekly cabinet meeting, that India's external intelligence agency the Research & Analysis Wing was plotting to assassinate him. Though this in itself probably shocked cabinet members, it gets even better from here. The Lankan president exonerated  Prime Minister Narendra Modi of any charge, saying that he was probably unaware of the plan. Apparently, R&AW is an agency accustomed to wiping off sundry heads of state, without even a nod from the prime minister or his cabinet. All of this occurring a day before Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was to visit New Delhi.

The series of events that led up to this strange accusation are interesting. A certain Namal Kumara, cited rather grandly as Director (Operations) of an Anti Corruption Task Force — which is actually an outfit made up of social activists working against corruption — held a press conference on 15 September, 2018 where he played some recorded conversations indicating a conspiracy against the head of intelligence and various police officers. The tape seemed to indicate that DIG Nalaka de Silva from Sri Lanaka's Terrorism Investigation Division was involved in an attempt to tarnish the reputations of several senior police officers. What also comes out is that the said DIG didn't like the president at all, or those around him.

 The curious case of Indian plot to kill Maithripala Sirisena: Spy fiction-like assassination ploys dont change ground reality of Chinese clout

File photo of Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena. AFP

Next we hear is that this intrepid anti-corruption activist has alleged that the DIG himself was in a plot to assassinate the president, and a former defence secretary Gotbaya Rajpaksa. He reportedly even recorded some conversations with Nalaka which proved this, but erased it later out of fear. Whether a copy of the tape exists yet is unclear.

Media reports thereafter, placed him as a police informant, and something of a loose cannon, railing against drug use and social ills.

But, there’s more to come. In another  reported statement he also alleged that a French citizen has been sending money to the country to carry out terrorist activities, with the knowledge of the DIG.  Thereafter, nothing more is heard except that the case was transferred to the CID.

There was nothing at all about India or the R&AW, until a few days later when an Indian national Marsili Thomas, is arrested (23 September), apparently when he came to "warn" Namal Kumara that he is going to be framed. Two days later, Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera said that Thomas had been detained for not divulging information “pertaining to plans to commit terror” and that he had no association with any assassination plan (which now included the President, as well as former President Rajpaksa and his family members) . In fact Samaraweera clearly stated, "The CID has not, at any time, in either written or verbal submissions to the Magistrate’s Court, made any statement that could lead to the conclusion or inference that an assassination plot has been established or corroborated, whether through Indian national Marceli Thomas or by any other means." Rather reasonably, he urged journalists to read court transcripts which were freely available till the time.

Four days later came another unexpected development. The Indian High Commission was quoted as saying that after due diligence, they had found that Thomas had a history of mental illness since 2000. The statement seemed unnecessary, particularly after Sri Lankan authorities were bending backwards to make sure that the inflammatory news was being damped down. R&AW was still out of the picture.

A flurry of accusations and counter accusations followed. The Sri Lankan Opposition demanded that Nalaka be arrested to allow impartial investigations into a matter of national security. And very properly, the DIG was first transferred out of his post to the IT cell, and as the clamour climbed, sent on compulsory leave pending an investigation. Some accused him of having connections with the LTTE; yet others claimed that there was a counter plot to kill the DIG to prevent the truth from coming out. Meanwhile the investigations continued.Voice samples were initially confirmed as that of the DIG and the tape itself was available in the media. Later it was said, that the tape would be sent to Singapore for forensic investigation

Then came The Hindu report days before the visit of the Sri Lankan prime minister to India. Clearly the source or sources quoted in the report had no particular desire that India and Sri Lanka relations should be amicable. Notably, he or she linked the discussion on the alleged assassination plot, to the development of the Colombo port and Indian involvement in upgrading the East Container Terminal, and President Sirisena’s opposition to it. It is this linking of what are two separate issues into one which is mischievous and shows a clear intent to cause harm.

Since then, statements from various official sources have sought to limit the damage. Cabinet Secretary Abeysinghe denied that the project was even on the agenda, though he remained silent on the assassination issue. The media statement issued by the president’s office, however, says the project was discussed, in which the president "highlighted" the importance of a deep sea port to Sri Lanka. That's two directly opposing statements. Further clarifications by other officials says the Sri Lankan president only referred to secret services of various countries assassinating leaders.  Local media reported a "heated discussion" between the prime minister and the president on Indian involvement in the port project, with the former favouring Indian involvement.

Last year, media reports had noted that a consortium made up of Container Corporation of India (Concor) APM Terminals BV, John Keells Holdings and Maersk Line was bidding for the project valued at approximately $550-600 million. The South Terminal is already owned and operated by state-run China Merchant Holdings (International). Colombo Port ranks among the top 35 ports in the world, and given that about 75 percent of the transshipment is meant for India, the assumption is that the deal would be good for both. But it's not that simple.

With The Hindu standing by its story ( or rather its sources) the question that arises is why the president chose to talk spy stories at a cabinet meeting, building on a series of events which seem to point to thwarted ambitions and unhinged minds rather than any grand design. The second aspect is more specific. The president came to power full of sound and fury against Chinese investment in the island country. Yet in July 2018 while inaugurating a Chinese funded hospital in his home constituency, he announced that China had “gifted” two billion yuan to be used for any project that would delight the president. Surely the president was aware of Sri Lanka’s debt trap estimated at 77 percent of its GDP, and that  Hambantota port had to be given to China in lieu of repayment of loans, for a near free ride for 99 years. Surprisingly, the country continues to turn to Beijing for fresh loans, with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka working with its Chinese counterpart for a $1.25 bn loan aimed at paying off its many creditors.

The Nikkei Asian Review  notes that of the accumulated foreign debt estimated at $55 billion. Chinese lenders hold 10 percent of this total, Japan accounts for 12 percent, the Asian Development Bank 14 percent and the World Bank 11 percent. With the Japanese Defence Minister making a ground-breaking trip to Sri Lanka in August, Tokyo is clearly in play in the island. So is India. All that combined investment has to however compete against China’s two-pronged method of doing business, which is to buy up major political leaders and burying their country in debt. It’s a daunting task. And here’s the thing. As against what spy thrillers advocate, assassinating a leader or two is not going to fundamentally change the reality of Chinese clout. In the larger picture, President Sirisena is simply not important enough.

Updated Date: Oct 20, 2018 17:09:15 IST