Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s disingenuity index regarding the Rajapaksa family’s alleged ill-gotten wealth stashed in foreign banks took a sharp upturn a few days ago with the latest tally he presented to the public.
That number is now a whopping, colossal, and downright impossible 18 billion US dollars!
Even for Mr. Samaraweera who has a reputation for making unfounded and outrageous accusations against his political foes this is a new low.
How without a shred of actual evidence to support his accusations has the minister succeeded in making that number grow from the $2 billion just days after the January 8 elections to $2.5 billion to 8 billion and now to 18 billion?
First of all there’s the time tested politician’s MO: smoke and mirrors. It’s kind of Shakespearean, as in Macbeth where the day can be both “foul and fair” and “nothing is but what is not.”
Mr. Samaraweera made the allegation at a press conference May 7 called partly to counter the opposition’s demand for the elimination of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID).
He starts off by prefacing that he’s taking responsibility for his assertions.[uu fïl j.lSfuka lshkafka ] and that it has been “proven” that Mahinda Rajapaksa is the world’s most corrupt leader. “The Rajapaksas – Mahinda Rajapaksa, his wife, his children, his brothers, and his relatives have stolen such massive amounts that we are getting the help of 4 countries [to trace the wealth].” Then he reveals that the intelligence units of some foreign countries have informed him that they “suspect” [iellrkjd] the Rajapaksa family’s wealth [j;alu] is an estimated 18 billion dollars. In the same breath, he says he can’t vouch for the accuracy of the information and the funds are not easy to trace because they have been hidden in various offshore accounts, numerous companies, and under false names. He does not name the banks/repositories or even the host countries. He does not reveal if the 4 countries are working in concert and, if they are not, how the separate entities came up with the sum
total of $18 billion.
But he does give himself plenty of wiggle room with the caveat that although there’s $18 billion out there he doesn’t expect to recover it all. It takes a long time to hunt down the suspected wealth of corrupt world leaders and in many cases only small amounts are found, he says citing the examples of the missing billions of former Libyan leader Gaddafi and the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria.
So with the deft wizardry of an artful politician Samaraweera remains fuzzy on details, puts a specific price tag on the Rajapaksa family’s iniquitous stash, and makes no promise of ever proving his accusations.
All of which is not to say that the Rajapaksa family does not have a stash of undeclared funds in foreign banks somewhere and that Sri Lankan authorities should not be pursuing leads to bring them to book.
But under the guise of pursuing accountability and justice, Mr. Samaraweera is clearly pushing the envelope and abusing his power.
Did he give even a little thought to the implausibility of eighteen billion US dollars in the context of Sri Lanka’s economy with a national budget around $16 billion and annual foreign investments barely touching $2 billion? How does one steal $18 billion out of such an economy and yet keep the country running, building infrastructure, paying salaries, etc.?
There have also been accusations that the Rajapaksas received kickbacks from foreign investors. Again, consider the context. The biggest foreign investment in recent years is the Chinese Colombo Port City Project – US $1.5 billion and the total foreign investment in 2014 was around $ US 2 billion.
The implausibility of the $18 billion number is evident even in the global netherworld of bribery and corruption. In December 2014, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a study of 224 cases of foreign bribes. The study provides valuable data such as that the amount of a kickback equaled 10.9 percent of the total transaction value on average. The highest bribe in a single foreign bribery case was USD 1.4 b and the total amount of bribes paid in all these 224 cases was $3.1
Extrapolating from the study, if the Rajapaksa family’s $18 billion came from investor kickbacks, the actual investment would have had to be at least $180 billion!
Coming back to the question of how without supporting evidence Samaraweera is able to get away with his wild accusations. Easy. In addition to smoke and mirrors, he knows he can depend on his personal Pravda, viz., the local media to hit the ground running with the latest “proof” of Rajapaksa malfeasance. Some mainstream newspapers have become, as they say, even more Catholic than the pope. In fact, in its May 7 report one of the English language dailies bettered Samaraweera with the headline: “The Rajapaksa family deposited 18 Billion USD in foreign banks: Mangala.” The minister made no mention of a “deposit,” but pulling it out of the realm of the passive and giving it a verb, solidifies it, makes it stick even better.
The press conference was partly Mr. Samaraweera’s attempt at justifying the politically motivated FCID. But by picking numbers out of the air and making egregious attacks on his political foes, he only demeaned the high public office he holds. His performance might have brought cheer to the anti Rajapaksa constituency, local and international, but it reinforces the urgency for getting the investigation into financial crimes out of the hands of vengeful politicians.