Written in the stars: President Mahinda Rajapaksa reacts during final rally as Sri Lanka president
Written in the stars: President Mahinda Rajapaksa reacts during final rally as Sri Lanka presidentReuters

Sri Lanka's new government has outlined plans for a wave of anti-corruption investigations targeting Chinese-funded infrastructure projects developed under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

On 8 January, Rajapaksa conceded defeat to opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who pledged to tackle graft with a special commission targeting corruption in public works after criticising Rajapaksa's government for awarding non-bid contracts and paying inflated prices.

Much of these projects were laid out near Rajapaksa's southern hometown of Medamulana.

One political party, the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), has already called on the Bribery and Corruption Commission to probe Rajapaksa, his family members, and Ajith Nivard Cabraal, the former governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, over allegations linked to the multi-billion projects.

"This morning we lodged a complaint against Mahinda Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa [Majinda's brother], Namal Rajapaksa [Majinda's son] and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa [Majinda's brother] to the bribery commission," Vijitha Herath, a JVP legislator, confirmed on Tuesday 13 January.

The MPs also called upon the commission to suspend the respondents' foreign trips until investigations against them have concluded.

During a decade of rule that critics alleged was marred by nepotism and corruption, Rajapaksa adopted a decidedly pro-China policy, with the latter lending his government $4.8bn in commercial loans between 2005 and 2012.

China's numerous investments

China became the country's largest foreign investor in 2013 by supporting numerous road, port and airport developments, 98% of which investments took the form of soft loans, said Nitin Gokhale, a national security analyst.

The example cited by the opposition was the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port in Hambantota, for which the Chinese provided almost 85% of the total cost of the $307m first stage. But after completion in 2010, the landmark project had only received six ships in 2011 and 18 ships in 2012. The cost of the second stage is now estimated at an additional $1.1bn.

Half an hour away stands the near-empty Mattala Rajapaksa International airport. Built with the help of a $209m Chinese loan, the airport incurred an operational loss of Rs 2,750m during last year alone.

Last year, the opposition sent a fact-finding team to the area, which was threatened and pelted with eggs. The local mayor, Kavinda Fernando, was seen charging them with what he later described as a "only a plastic gun".

Current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is serving his third stint, said the new government would work on making the airport more viable.

Most expensive highway

Another such project is the four-lane Colombo-Katunayake Expressway, which was found to be the most expensive highway ever built in terms of cost of each kilometre, with the government spending Rs 1.8 bn per km on the 26km expressway linking the capital Colombo to the Bandaranaike International Airport.

Comparing it to another Chinese project, a 50km highway in Kenya that had only cost Rs. 972m per km, Mangala Samaraweera, an United National Party (UNP) MP, told reporters: "Clearly someone or other has earned Rs 1bn per km on the Katunayake Expressway".

The $1.4bn Colombo Port City project also came under heavy criticism with regard to alleged financial misappropriations in the deal, after another UNP MP, Harsha De Silva, revealed one of project's major investors – the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) – had been blacklisted by the World Bank due to corruption charges.

A report published in August 2013 by the Government Servants Against Corruption organisation revealed the tender for the South Port project "lacked transparency" and was marred with corruption.

The tender board was under continuous pressure from the Rajapaksas to select a company of his choice for the project, the report also found.

Prime minister Wickremasinghe said the project would be put on hold pending an investigation into its finances and environmental effects.

Financial transparency criticism

Newly elected Sirisena has criticised many of these projects, citing excessive cost and weak financial transparency.

"Some parliamentarians have been allocated more than Rs 600m for projects in their electoral catchment area, which in itself is grossly unjust," explained Rajiva Wijesinha, a MP for the United People's Freedom Alliance, Rajapaksa's party.

"Some mega projects need to be reconsidered," Mangala Samaraweera, a member of Parliament, told the Wall Street Journal.

Samaraweera, who served as Rajapaksa's foreign minister during his first term and is now backing Sirisena, added: "We might need special tribunals to prosecute corruption. It is so vast and massive."

The majority of Sri Lankans believe the debt accumulated during the country's infrastructure-building boom will take years to pay back and say it will prove to be a huge national burden.

"What Sri Lankans believe at the moment is that these reforms and corruption investigations will take time because the heat of such an event hasn't died down yet," explained Abdul Rahman Ifham, a student and human rights activist and rehabilitation counsellor for the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme.

"No one would have imagined such a powerful man to be overthrown from his own throne. And we do hope for the best and everyone responsible for the atrocities and corruption will be dealt with duly."

Rajapaksa and officials in his administration deny corruption allegations.

Elsa Buchanan is a London-based freelance writer, photographer and multimedia producer.You can find out more about her by visiting her website.