Updated April 25, 2019​ 

Sri Lanka Express

USAID urgently called for $3.4 million to support UNP in 2015 elections

The Island's Shamindra Ferdinando had the following response to this report.  In a column titled Bid to derail ‘One Belt, One Road ’surmounted ,  he wrote:

"Recent sensational revelation made by former Times of Ceylon journalist Hassina Leelarathna, in respect of USAID making available urgently required funds to the tune of US 3.4 mn, to the UNP-led 100-day administration, in the run-up to the August 2015 parliamentary polls, is the latest illustration of US intervention. The funds had been meant to provide, what the USAID called, visible support to the newly elected administration. US made fresh commitments though the USAID in spite of contemplating a lesser role for the agency here a few years ago.

The US-based Leelarathna, who co-edited with her husband Deeptha, the first Sri Lankan newspaper published in the US years ago made the disclosure on the basis of information she had obtained from USIA on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Accordingly, USD 3.4 mn had been released from Complex Crises Funds (CCF) which was meant to make available USD 40 mn in support of governance, rule of law and economic reform in Sri Lanka."

Also checkout Ferdinando's blog:

  By Hassina Leelarathna
The return of the UNP to power in Sri Lanka in both the presidential and general elections in 2015 has been attributed as much to corruption and other missteps of the Rajapaksa regime as to foreign interference. The US with its long history of meddling in Sri Lankan elections in support of the pro-west  UNP is the prime suspect with India coming in a close second. 

The tone and content of a congressional notification (CN) written by the USAID office in Colombo in early 2015, soon after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat and just  before the August general elections, sheds light on just how badly the US wanted to install the UNP in power and how willingly it parted with millions of US taxpayer dollars to ensure that eventuality.  

Dated May 2, 2015, the CN (released to me by USAID in response to a freedom of information (FOIA)  goes on to provide justification for committing $3.4 million in urgent funds  “to provide visible support,” ostensibly, for “the reform agenda of the newly-elected GSL.”   

The funds were being requested from the Complex Crises Fund (CCF) which, according to the memo, was part of a $40 million US funding package “to support governance, rule of law, and economic reform in Sri Lanka.”  
Having defeated Rajapaksa at the January 8 election, Sirisena formed a “100-day government” that was dominated by the UNP which had yet to face the general election later that year to consolidate power.  “One of the first GSL [Govt. of SL] “asks” from the United States was to help them demonstrate in the short-medium term that they can deliver jobs and economic development in conflict-affected areas,” USAID says in the May 2015 document.   U.S. law prohibits the use of tax dollars to influence foreign elections. Boosting the popularity of a regime facing elections with funds to “deliver jobs” is, no doubt, a tried and tested way to get around that law.

 A “now-or-never” sense of urgency runs through the document emphasizing the already “energized” relationship between the two governments since the January 8 election and calling for “renewed US diplomatic engagement.”  Recalling the assurance made by Assistant Secretary of State Nish Biswal in February 2015 that “Sri Lanka can count on the United States to be a partner and friend,” the CN emphasizes that the changed political scene had provided the US government “with an urgent, time-bound, unique and unexpected window of opportunity to implement critical programming in response to the new Government of Sri Lanka’s (GSL) reform agenda.”

In addition to scrambling for additional funding, the opportunity to  enable the Sirisena-UNP coalition consolidate power prompted USAID to even rethink plans for its Colombo office which had been earmarked for downsizing.  “As a result of restructuring, the USAID Mission to Sri Lanka was identified to transition from a full mission to a limited presence office….The sudden and urgent requirement to support the new government’s reform agenda abruptly emerged highlighting the need for immediate maintenance of staffing capacity and new financial resources,” according to the CN.
The US has covertly interfered in dozens of foreign elections, including at least four in Sri Lanka on behalf of the United National Party (UNP).  However, shielded by its stated political altruism of “democracy promotion,” such interventions, no longer seen as CIA-led cloak-and-dagger missions, have become part of the State Department’s brag book.  
 Sec. of State John Kerry
For the US, its success ousting a very popular Asian leader (ranked third most popular in Asia in a Gallup poll, 2012) with no boots on the ground and no drones in the skies is clearly a significant achievement worthy of repeated mention.  That feat is duly cited in several documents and websites as noted below.

USAID’s Asia website (“USAID and Asia-Pacific Rebalance”):

 “In Sri Lanka, with USAID elections support, the people went to the polls twice last year [2015] to demand dramatic political changes in their government.  These elections have completely transformed the US-Sri Lanka relationship, offering an opportunity for a stronger bilateral relationship in the future and leading to greater cooperation on both diplomatic efforts and human development objectives.

USAID’s Sri Lanka-specific website, on its role in the 2015 elections:

“Our work has included training and deploying 15,000 election observers to oversee polls, providing mail-in ballots, establishing counting centers, and conducting workshops on electoral laws, financial management, and how to take security precautions and report elections violence at polls.”

US State Department paper published in November 2016:

In a paper published in November 2016, the department said it had invested $585 million promoting democracy across the globe in the previous year.   In the preface of the report, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed: “in an era of diffuse and networked power, we (the US) are focusing on strengthening partnerships with civil society, citizen movements, faith leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and others to promote democracy and good governance and address gender-based violence.”

Kerry mentioned Sri Lanka as one of three “democracy projects” the US had funded: “we have supported important democratic gains in Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Burma.”

USAID’s 2017 Congressional Budget Justification in relation to adding Complex Crises Fund (CCF) dollars:

“In the past year, CCF funds have provided critical support for programs in Ukraine, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Lebanon. In Sri Lanka and Ukraine, CCF funds bolstered political transitions.”....We have supported the slow and steady work to help countries all over the world build open and responsible institutions that deliver for their citizens, and quickly seized emerging opportunities to support free and fair elections in Burma and Sri Lanka.”

It is noteworthy that the funds allocated by to the CCF in Sri Lanka for fiscal year 2015 was  $13,589,951.

While USAID is the conduit for US foreign policy, its work is delegated to local and international NGOs and nonprofits who in turn sub-contract other groups.  Among groups  that receive direct USAID funding for election-related activities are the International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES) and the Consortium for Elections and Political Processes Strengthening (CEPPS).  IFES is one of three partners of CEPPS, the other 2 are the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).    All of these groups claim to be advancing freedom worldwide by promoting voting rights, developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, good governance and the rule of law.   In addition to receiving funds from USAID, these groups are also grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization that conducts acivities, as the Washington Post put it,  the “CIA used to fund covertly.”

A proper assessment of the USA’s role in the 2015 elections in Sri Lanka will require a close review of the above and other NGOs funded by USAID/NED.  It is hard to believe that there was no trickle-down effect on these grantees from the urgency and excitement that gripped USAID vis-à-vis the opportunity to install the UNP firmly in power.   

It is also hard -- despite their professed claims to being benevolent apostles of unsullied democracy –- to separate these organizations from the baggage they carry by way of their genesis or their activities in other countries.

A case in point is IFES which has received $5.2 million from USAID in Colombo over the past four years to pursue a seemingly apolitical agenda “dedicated to extending democracy" and "providing technical assistance in voter education, election administration, civil society, governance, rule of law and political processes.”

IFES was founded in 1989 by F. Clifton White a longtime Republican strategist who worked with CIA director William Casey on the Reagan administration's pro-contra propaganda network.  Over the years, the non-profit has been led  by  a number of conservative Republicans and others with CIA or military intelligence ties.   

IFES’s current chairman, former Republican Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, is a backer of right-wing fundamentalism and is notorious for his egregious attempts to do just the opposite of what IFES is promoting -- disenfranchising voters in his state.  In the 2004 US election, using his official powers he attempted to prevent thousands of Ohio citizens in Democratic strongholds from voting by changing the eligibility rules for provisional ballots. He was accused of overseeing “massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies “ and 16 lawsuits were filed against him.

IFES has been accused of interference and/or expelled from several countries, most recently Kenya.  In Venezuela it openly supports the opposition led by  Maria Corina Machado against President Maduro.   Its alleged complicity in USAID’s covert campaign in Haiti was exposed by the University of Miami Law School in a report published in 2005. IFES  allegedly received millions of dollars from USAID to organize opposition groups across the country to topple the Aristide government. Among other underhand activities in Haiti, IFES is accused of providing financial grants to a  group called Committee for the Respect of Individual Liberties ( CARLI) to generate phony reports accusing Aristides’ Lavalas Party of violating human rights. “CARLI staff admitted that, under pressure from IFES to produce and disseminate names of Aristide or Lavalas supporters accused of human rights violations, it often published names after a superficial investigation or no investigation at all,” the report said.

Whether IFES dipped into its bag of dirty tricks to help the US bring the UNP to power is an open question.  So is the full list of NGOs/individuals that received funding to further USAID’s goal of “bolstering political transition” in Sri Lanka.  USAID will not reveal this information.  The inevitable irony is that while the US spends millions to promote accountability and transparency in capitals across the globe, its own agencies, notably the DOJ, State Department and USAID, hide in plain sight behind very opaque walls.    Responding to my FOIA request for all documents pertaining to CCF funding for “bolstering political transition” in Sri Lanka, USAID said it had conducted a comprehensive search that produced a total of 27 pages. However, only 3 pages were determined to be releasable to me in their entirety with the rest being withheld “pursuant to Title 5 U.S.C. § 552(b).” There is a total of 9 such FOIA exemptions that provide similar “pursuant to Title 5” excuses for use by federal agencies reluctant to share their spending details with the public, even if, and especially when, US taxpayer dollars are spent halfway across the globe in the purported cause of bolstering democracy and transparency!