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  Updated April 11, 2019​ 

Sri Lanka Express

Russians Didn’t Collude at Trump Tower but Americans Meddled at Temple Trees​

Indian HC not far behind

by Hassina Leelarathna​​​​​​

Amb. Jeffrey J. Lunstead
Photo: US Dept. of State Archive
indian High Commissioner Nirupam Sen
Photo: Courtesy The Hindu
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe
Photo: Prime Minister's Office
A summary of the long-awaited findings by special counsel Robert Mueller into allegations that President Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election was released last weekend with the bombshell disclosure that there was no evidence of collusion.  'While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Attorney General William Barr wrote in a letter to leaders on the House and Senate Judiciary committees.   Trump and his allies (always oblivious to nuances) are claiming “vindication” while the Democrats, after gaslighting for almost 2 years with the promise “just wait for the Mueller report,” are pushing for a release of the full report and vowing further scrutiny.

At the heart of the investigation that heard testimony from nearly 500 witnesses and threatened to bring the US presidency down was the Trump Tower meeting that took place on June 9, 2016 in New York City between three senior members of the 2016 Trump campaign and at least five other people, including Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.   

Imagine, then, the fallout had Mueller unearthed evidence the Russian ambassador was among those present at that Trump Tower meeting and that he presented to Trump a photo of Vladimir Putin which the presidential hopeful said he would use to promote his White House bid.

Right, unimaginable.

Yet, it’s about the same scenario that played out just weeks before the April 2004 Sri Lankan parliamentary elections when US Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead paid a visit to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s official residence Temple Trees where the UNP campaign was in full swing.

Several (Wikileaks) cables from Ambassador Lunstead to Washington sent in the months preceding the polls reflect considerable interest on his part in ensuring a win for the UNP.  In that cache is a posting on March 9, 2004 documenting the ambassador’s visit to Temple Trees that same day.

“Ambassador called on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe March 9 [2004]. The PM's residence at Temple Trees was buzzing with campaign activities, with the normally-sleepy waiting room full of workers with folders marked "Campaign" and shouting into cell phones. The PM said that he has been suffering from a sore throat for the past few days, which has curtailed his activities, but that it is improving now. Ambassador presented the PM with photos signed by President Bush from the PM's November visit to the White House. The PM was extremely pleased, and immediately conferred with an aide on how he might use the photos in his campaign.”

(Mr. Wickremasinghe visited President Bush at the White House twice during his 2001-2004 tenure as prime minister, on November 4, 2003 and on July 24, 2002.)































While at Temple Trees, the ambassador briefed Wickremasinghe on “plans for electoral assistance and observation,” revealing that he had been working to get both the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) to participate and that only the NDI had responded and “would be the implementing partner.”

The NDI and NRI claim to be objective election monitoring groups that “promote pluralism and free and fair elections,” but their objectivity is often questioned given that their funding comes partly from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an agency set up by Ronald Reagan in 1984 and commonly regarded as the “legal window of the CIA.”

By way of election monitoring, Ambassador Lunstead also discussed the deployment of embassy staff.   “Ambassador told him [Mr. Wickremasinghe] that we would also be deploying teams of Embassy personnel around the country to observe the elections, and that we would not hesitate to speak up if we saw problems. PM said that was good.”

Other cables from that time bolster evidence that the American ambassador’s presence at Temple Trees was more than a wink and nod to the Wickremasinghe campaign. Lunstead keeps insisting that even though the UPFA was not unfriendly towards the U.S. he favored the pro-capitalist UNP.

“Embassy Colombo has publicly referred to the current [UNP] Government as the most pro-business government in Sri Lanka's history. That description holds as we go to elections. The UNP appears to have a solid handle on market forces and how to get the economy moving again. The UPFA alliance clearly wants to "talk the talk" -- saying the private sector is critical. It is not clear it can "walk-the-walk" -- shown by its calls for the revival of failing state-owned enterprises and more protectionist policies.” (March 19, 2004)

International Issues

Lunstead considered a UNP government the better bet also because it was “responsive” to Washington’s position on international issues:

“With respect to bilateral ties, although we have maintained close links with the President and her key advisers, and she is basically friendly to the U.S., a UPFA government would be more difficult to deal with and less responsive to our positions on international matters compared to the current UNP government. We would expect a UPFA government to continue the policy of trying to reach a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the U.S., however.  Overall, if the UPFA forms the next government, President Kumaratunga would want good relations with the United States and we would likely be able to cooperate on a number of key issues. It would be better for Sri Lanka and better for the bilateral relationship if a UNP government were returned to power, however.”

Post-Election Scenarios

Then, a week later, touching on post-election scenarios where the UNP might consider cobbling a government with the pro- LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) if unable to win a clear majority, the ambassador doubles down on supporting the UNP citing, among other factors, the party’s strong pro-US stance at the UN and WTO.  

“A victory by the UNP on its own (without the TNA) would be the single best result for the U.S. Since coming to power in December 2001, the UNP has been strongly pro-peace process, as well as pro-economic reform and international investment. The UNP has also been careful to tend to the bilateral relationship and to support the U.S. in multilateral fora such as the WTO and the UN (on Iraq), for example. A UNP/TNA combine, meanwhile, would probably also be good for the peace process and economic reform, as well as bilateral ties. As a coalition, it would not be as stable as the UNP ruling on its own, however.”

Ambassador Lunstead’s heavily partisan rooting for the UNP might well be protected as a matter of free speech, but the overall optics add to the existing evidence of decades-long American meddling with the specific aim of supporting this pro-American party. 

Prof. Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon, a leading expert in election interference by both the US and Russia, concluded in a study released in  2017 that the US interfered in at least four elections in Sri Lanka in order to help the United National Party: May 4, 1956, March  1960, July 1960, and 1965. 

In a more recent instance of meddling in Sri Lanka, USAID urgently called on Washington for $3.4m to provide "visible support" to the UNP in the run-up to the August 2015 parliamentary polls.

The cache of pre-2004- elections Wikileaks cables provides irrefutable, "from-the-horse's-mouth," proof of the USA's direct collusion in a Sri Lankan election.  

Indian Meddling

Significantly, it includes evidence from Ambassador Lunstead to support that other long-held suspicion: Indian meddling in Sri Lankan elections.   

On February 24, 2004, the ambassador had lunch with Indian High Commissioner Nirupam Sen in Colombo.  “Sen was quite candid (and sometimes even believable),” writes Lunstead, apparently not a Sen fan. 

He then goes to report that according to Sen “…a CBK victory would be a disaster and the JVP
was awful.  Therefore, India was actively working to help Ranil. India had convinced Ceylon Workers Congress leader Thondaman to cooperate with Ranil, and had done the same with Muslim leader Athaullah.” 

Lunstead adds, with unmistakable sarcasm, that Sen’s “powers of persuasion” were not as powerful as he thought because the next day's papers showed a smiling Athaullah signing a cooperation MOU with CBK.

Honor among thieves but not among meddling ambassadors!



References

Embassy Colombo, “In Meeting With Ambassador, PM Wickremesinghe Optimistic About April 2 Parliamentary Election,” Wikileaks Cable: 2004COLOMBO418_a, dated March 9, 2004,
http://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/04COLOMBO418_a.html


Embassy Colombo, “Promises, Promises: Economic Rhetoric from the Sri Lankan Campaign Trail,” Wikileaks Cable:2004COLOMBO490_a, dated March 19, 2004 , http://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/04COLOMBO490_a.html

​Embassy Colombo, “Sri Lanka: Implications of a Possible Victory by the President's Party and JVP In April 2 Election,” Wikileaks Cable: COLOMBO515_a, dated March 23, 2004,http://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/04COLOMBO567_a.html


Embassy Colombo, "Sri Lanka: Implications for U.S. Policy of Possible Post-Election Scenarios,” Wikileaks Cable: 2004COLOMBO567_a, dated March 31, 2004, http://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/04COLOMBO567_a.html

Embassy Colombo, "Official Informal Number 028,” Wikileaks Cable: 2004COLOMBO291_a, dated February 23, 2004,
http://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/04COLOMBO291_a.html