On Wednesday, pro-Rajapaksa Derana TV ran a brief interview with US Embassy Spokesman Nancy Van der Horn. Using an utterly misleading headline, Ada Derana said that the US confirms Gotabaya has lost US citizenship.
However, in the interview, Van der Horn specifically explains to the reporter that under US privacy laws the Embassy cannot comment on individual cases. She goes on to explain the renunciation process, beginning with handing over documentation and giving the oath of renunciation at the Embassy in Colombo, and the documents being sent to Washington DC.
The Derana network owned by Rajapaksa campaign manager Dilith Jayaweera was severely criticized for its distortion of Van der Horn’s interview.
But the interview also provided insight into the process of renunciation and the timeline of events surrounding Rajapaksa’s purported loss of citizenship.
Four days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa handed over his papers to the Embassy (April 17), the Embassy went into lockdown for two weeks after the Easter bombings.
It reopened on May 6, 2019. On Friday, 3rd of May, according to Van Der Horn’s rationale, the documents were approved in Washington DC at the State Department. Bearing in mind the tumult in Sri Lanka with the country still reeling from the Easter Sunday attacks, by all accounts the document had reached Colombo from Washington DC by May 6 – in essence couriered in great haste over a weekend. Because by 7th May, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had handed the document into the Immigration Department as proof that he was no longer a dual citizen, in order to obtain a new passport.
It remains unclear whether the former Defence Secretary’s papers were actually sent to Washington DC at all. Did the US Embassy get special clearance to approve and issue the certificate from Colombo?
Or was a decision made at the highest levels of the US Government to get the documents back to the former Defence Secretary in record time, in order to seal his presidential bid?
Grave questions are being raised in the context of Rajapaksa’s citizenship woes returning to haunt him in the final lap of the presidential election campaign, that the US Embassy may be holding on to leverage with the SLPP candidate.
Observers have raised eyebrows at the US’ position, raising concerns that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s citizenship was being used as leverage to contain Chinese influence on the island.
Early indications of the US strategy was the appointment of Alaina B. Teplitz as Ambassador to Colombo. Teplitz previously served as Ambassador to Nepal, where her effective rear-guard action adroitly placed brakes on the rapid expansion of Chinese influence on Himalayan mountain state. Highly placed sources suggest that Teplitz, cognizant of a likely return of the Rajapaksa family to power, advised the Trump administration that Gotabaya’s citizenship status could be used to strike a deal that would ensure that Sri Lanka didn’t entirely veer towards China under a Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration.
The strategy has two elements. First, ensuring that the US does not comment on Gotabaya’s citizenship status. A comment or even implied statement from the US that Gotabaya remains a US citizen could kill any presidential campaign. Second, Gotabaya must never have to prove his renunciation. As a result, the US never has to process his renunciation and can use it as constant leverage to control Gotabaya. If at any point, he reneges on their deal, they can issue a statement that he has unsuccessfully renounced his citizenship or that the renunciation came into effect after the election – this means the courts could strike down Gotabaya’s presidency as unconstitutional.
However, Teplitz’s plan has come under immense pressure from other US government agencies. Their sources of information and analysis suggested that Sajith Premadasa would prove to be a serious challenge to the Rajapaksa return. They preferred to create administrative delays in the renunciation process to support Premadasa. However, their counsel was over-ruled following the Easter Attacks. The consensus in Washington DC was that a Gotabaya presidency was inevitable, and this was the only way of protecting US interests.
Other signs are rampant that the US Embassy in Colombo tilted in favour of the SLPP candidate. In July 2019, the US Embassy hired Natasha Gooneratne, a former politically appointed diplomatic officer under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Government. Gooneratne has openly championed the SLPP cause and has been an abashed supporter of the Rajapaksa regime on social media. With her entry into the US Embassy, fears rose about the information about journalists, victims and human rights defenders whose lives and families are still under grave threat from Gotabaya Rajapaksa might become vulnerable. During the Rajapaksa regime, the US Embassy became a refuge for rights activists and media personnel who found themselves on the wrong side of the ruthless regime in power. Their files and testimony, probably dispatched as confidential cables to Washington DC will now be available for viewing by Gooneratne and others.
“This is as bad as the Witness Protection Authority being chaired by Suhada Gamlath,” one diplomatic analyst told Colombo Telegraph. “The whole system is compromised. It looks like the US Government’s sole obsession in Sri Lanka is preventing China from gaining too much of a foothold,” the analyst added. (By Catherine Madugalle)