A former presidential adviser to Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa government says it is plausible that some senior individuals close to the family-run regime were involved in the people-smuggling trade.
The admission comes two years after Australian intelligence officials told The Australian that a senior government figure close to then president Mahinda Rajapaksa was directly complicit in the 2012 surge of asylum boats to Australia.
Rajiva Wijesinha, the one-time reconciliation adviser to Mr Rajapaksa who last week was appointed Minister of State for Higher Education in the national unity government, told The Australian evidence of corruption among some close to the Rajapaksa clan was emerging following this month’s shock election result.
Professor Wijesinha singled out an individual from the southern port electorate of Hambantota, which received billions of dollars in Chinese infrastructure loans during Mr Rajapaksa’s 10 years in office, as one who was “making money hand over fist”.
The number of asylum boats leaving from Hambantota, the home town of the Rajapaksas, as opposed to the Tamil-dominated east and north coasts, has risen notably in recent years.
“Certainly accusations against individuals (of people-smuggling) as opposed to government sounded plausible,” he told The Australian of widespread rumours, adding that there was no evidence of “institutional involvement”.
“One of the reasons the Australian government was probably the least unhappy with us in the world was that the government did try to put a stop to (asylum boats).”
In July 2012, the former president’s eldest son, Namal Rajapaksa, addressed allegations of involvement in a human smuggling ring transporting asylum-seekers to Australia when he told Ceylon Today newspaper he had been falsely targeted by the Tamil diaspora seeking to bring his country into disrepute.
Five months later, The Australian reported that Australian intelligence agencies believed a “senior Sri Lankan government official” (not Namal) had been directly complicit in a surge in asylum-seeker boats the previous year and that it would be impossible for so many boats to leave the island without that individual’s direct involvement.
Sri Lankan asylum-seeker numbers surged to more than 6500 in 2012 from 211 the previous year, then dropped sharply following then foreign minister Bob Carr’s December 2012 visit to Colombo, which also marked the first wavering of Australian government support for an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes by both sides in the last months of the civil war.
Last year, Australia reversed its support for a UN-backed inquiry.
Sri Lankan opposition party, People’s Liberation Front last week lodged corruption complaints against the former president, his son Namal and brothers Basil and Gotabhaya, who held the economic development and defence portfolios respectively.
While the complaints largely address vastly inflated costs for national infrastructure projects, including a Chinese-built railway costing $US18 million a kilometre and allegedly 12 times the actual price, there is scope to investigate alleged involvement in people-smuggling.
How Australia’s bilateral relationship will fare under the new government is still to be tested.