Basil throws a spanner in the works of Mahinda loyalists | Sunday Observer

Basil throws a spanner in the works of Mahinda loyalists

The Sri Lankan diplomatic service, once hailed as one of the best in the world, sunk to disastrous proportions when the Rajapaksa family was in power for nearly a decade.

During the second term of Rajapaksa’s presidency, the External Affairs Ministry was run by a Parliamentarian named Sajin Vaas Gunawardena, who was appointed as a Monitoring MP to the ministry.

Prof G.L. Peiris, Rajapaksa’s ineffectual External Affairs Minister, only functioned as a rubber stamp, while Gunawardena and the former first family ran the affairs of the ministry.

Gunawardena, a businessman with a dubious track record, had zero experience in diplomatic affairs and international relations. His only qualification was his unconditional and unwavering obedience and support to the former first family, which controlled every aspect of the country’s state machinery.

Two of the former first family’s close relatives were appointed to the Foreign Service, with top-level diplomatic postings. One of them was Udayanga Weeratunga, a nephew of former President Rajapaksa, who became the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia, one of the most strategically important countries to Sri Lanka in the global political landscape.

At the time the Rajapaksa family fell out of power in January, 2015, Udayanga Weeratunga was Sri Lanka’s longest serving Ambassador to Russia. During his nine-year tenure, Weeratunga, a non-career diplomat, found his way into various controversies and as a result, multiple allegations against him surfaced after the new government came to power.

Weeratunga was not the first politically connected, non-career diplomat who received a high post in a foreign diplomatic mission. But, apart from the relationship he had with the Rajapaksa family, he did not have any professional or educational credentials to justify his appointment.

Weeratunga was essentially a businessman, based in Russia. Soon after his uncle became the President of Sri Lanka, Weeratunga became the head of the Sri Lankan diplomatic mission of the country he lived in. That is why his appointment seemed like an act of nepotism.

However, after a series of investigations into many allegations, the Police have already sought Interpol’s assistance to nab Weeratunga, who is currently in hiding. He is yet to submit his diplomatic passport to the Sri Lankan government.

The other close relative of the Rajapaksa family who received a high profile diplomatic posting was Jaliya Wickramasuriya who became the Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the US, under the Rajapaksa presidency.

Like Weeratunga, Wickramasuriya too was a businessman in the US. He migrated to the US in 1999 and got involved in the tea exports sector. Apart from his business connection, Wickramasuriya did not possess professional or educational qualifications to become the Sri Lanka’s envoy to the world’s most powerful nation.

Jaliya Wickramasuriya

Wickramasuriya is a son of Kamala Wickramasuriya, a cousin of former President Rajapaksa. Kamala Wickramasuriya was a daughter of the late D.M. Rajapaksa who represented the State Council from 1936 to 1945. D.M. Rajapaksa was the elder brother of D.A. Rajapaksa (the former President’s father) who took to politics after his brother’s demise.

Jaliya Wickramasuriya’s brother and sister too played important roles under the previous administration. His brother, Prasanna Wickramasuriya, was the Chairman of Airport and Aviation Limited under the Rajapaksa government and also ran a newspaper company supporting the former regime. A former military officer, Prasanna Wickramasuriya did not have money to run a costly newspaper operation and it could be assumed that he was only a proxy.

His sister, Anoma, was married to Colonel A.F. Laphir, who died in 1996, while desperately trying to hold the Mullaitivu military base against heavy attacks from the LTTE. Anoma Laphir also served as a Coordinating Secretary to the President, under the previous government.

Wickramasuriya first received an appointment as the Sri Lankan Consul General in Los Angeles, California, from 2005 to 2008. He was then promoted as the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States, despite his strong business links with the country.

The Police Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID) conducted a comprehensive investigation into allegations levelled against Wickramasuriya. The FCID received complaints that the former Ambassador had allegedly misappropriated a sum of USD 245,000 while serving in office.

The FCID received complaints that this amount was misappropriated when Wickramasuriya relocated the Sri Lankan Embassy in the US. The embassy was moved to No: 3025, White Haven Street, Washington 20008 in January 2013. The Ambassador’s decision to move the embassy to a 62-year-old building at a high cost raised many an eyebrow, at that point.

The FCID probed into allegations that the former Ambassador had allegedly accepted a commission while awarding a contract to refurbish the embassy building. The former Ambassador was arrested on Thursday night, for allegedly committing offences coming under Public Property and the Prevention of Money Laundering Acts.

There were rumours that Wickramasuriya was planning to leave the country on Wednesday or Thursday to avoid his imminent arrest. The Police, therefore, acted fast to obtain a court order, preventing his exit.

The Police produced him before court on Friday, under heavy security. The former Ambassador was remanded till December 2 by Colombo Fort Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne.

This, however, is only one aspect of the problem. When Wickramasuriya was the Sri Lankan Ambassador in the US, the Rajapaksa administration paid monstrous amounts of money to US PR firms to boost the image of the country and make connection with the country’s lawmakers. This is exactly the job of the Sri Lankan diplomatic mission. In other words, the government had paid a whopping amount of money to outside parties to carry out official duties of the embassy, while the Ambassador was busy with constructions, refurbishment and tea exports.

An article by Foreign Policy alleged, last year, that the Sri Lankan government paid Imaad Zuberi, a venture capitalist, $4.5 million directly over a five month period - plus another $2 million to a company he co-owns - as consulting services which included influencing the U.S. government.

Federal law

“Zuberi’s windfall was not disclosed to the Justice Department, as required under federal law, and the lobbying and public relations firms hired through his company to influence the U.S. government on Sri Lanka’s behalf have all received DOJ subpoenas, according to a senior government official. Justice is seeking public assets allegedly stolen from Sri Lanka. None of the firms is a target of the investigation, which is focused on members of the family of the country’s former president and has not been previously reported.

According to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, paid representatives of foreign governments - even if they outsource the actual lobbying to other organizations - must disclose those relationships to Justice “within ten days” of acquiring a foreign client, according to the statute. WR Group, the company that held the contract with Sri Lanka, never registered with the Justice Department. Zuberi, who billed the government on May 5, 2014, for his services and received his first payment of $3.5 million from Sri Lanka on May 9, 2014, didn’t register as a consultant until Aug. 14 of that year, well beyond the 10-day deadline. Violating the act carries maximum penalties of a $10,000 fine and five years in prison,” the Foreign Policy article said.

While the Police was making preparation to arrest Wickramasuriya, Udayanga Weeratunga filed a Fundamental Rights petition, seeking an Interim Order to recall the warrant issued for his arrest.

The petition was taken up before a three-judge-Bench comprising Acting Chief Justice Eva Wanasundara, Justice Upali Abeyratne and Justice Anil Goonaratne. The bench decided to fix the trail for December 6.

On October 20 this year, the Colombo Fort Magistrate issued a warrant written in English through the Interpol for the arrest of the former diplomat over alleged financial fraud to have taken place in procuring seven MiG-27 ground attack craft for the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF).

Weeratunga filed this petition through his mother-in-law Latha Indrani, the former Ambassador’s Power of Attorney holder.

Sudden appearances

In his petition, Weeratunga stated he was currently residing in Mekhanizatoriv Street Kyiv, Ukraine. There were various questions over Weeratunga’s sudden appearances as he decided to make sudden appearances alongside former President Rajapaksa, during the latter’s recent overseas tours.

The petitioner also sought an Interim Order restraining the Director of the Financial Intelligence Unit of the Central Bank from suspending the petitioner’s bank accounts.

Weeratunga said the seventh respondent, a Chief Inspector of the FCID, had moved Magistrate’s Court for a warrant for the arrest of the petitioner. The petitioner sought a declaration from the Court that the Chief Inspector infringed the petitioner’s Fundamental Rights guaranteed in terms of Articles 11, 12(1) and 13 of the constitution.

The petitioner said the Director of the Financial Intelligence Unit of the Central Bank had infringed on his Fundamental Rights guaranteed in the constitution, with the purported decision to suspend debit transaction of the bank accounts of the petitioner in contravention of the provisions of the Financial Transaction Reporting Act No. 6 of 2006. In his complaint to the FCID, a journalist attached to an English weekly newspaper said he had written several articles regarding the financial irregularities that had taken place in procuring four Mig-27 aircraft at a higher price. Following his complaint, the FCID launched an inquiry into the incident and recorded statements from various parties involved in the matter.

The incidents involving Weeratunga and Wickramasuriya demonstrated how the Sri Lankan Foreign Service sunk to a new low, under the previous administration.

Basil

It was against this context that the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPF), led by former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, prepared for its official launch. The party made news this week when former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the head of former President Rajapaksa’s unsuccessful election campaign in January, last year, became a member of the new party.

By becoming a member of another party, Rajapaksa officially bade adieu to the SLFP of which he was the National Organiser two years ago. Rajapaksa made a re-entry into the SLFP when his brother became its Chairman in 2005.

This, however, is not the first time the former Minister tried his luck outside the SLFP. Although he began his tumultuous political career from the blue camp, he soon defected from the party and supported the UNP.

Under the Jayewardene presidency, the UNP used Basil Rajapaksa as a mouthpiece to attack the SLFP during various political campaigns. Rajapaksa later served as a Coordinating Secretary to the late Gamini Dissanayake who held a ministerial position in the UNP government. After his stint with Dissanayake, Rajapaksa settled in the US with his family.

Basil Rajapaksa, the most nimble-minded man in the Rajapaksa family, is the reason for the rise and fall of his brother. He played a key role in the former President’s first Presidential election in 2005 and ensured his victory. After Rajapaksa became the President, Basil was the official troubleshooter of the government, protecting his brother’s presidency under tough circumstances.

Rajapaksa masterminded many crossovers in Parliament and strengthened the UPFA government during Rajapaksa’s first term, as the party did not have an overwhelming majority in Parliament.

During the former President’s second term, Basil, the Economic Development Minister, was the second in command, running affairs of many ministries and state institutions.

Basil Rajapaksa’s strong presence in the government blocked the upward mobility of many senior SLFPers who served in the party for decades. It created a strong sense of frustration among them towards the end of the former President’s second term. On the other hand, the former Economic Development Minister was at the receiving end of many corruption allegations during Rajapaksa’s second term.

All this played into the hands of President Sirisena when he challenged Rajapaksa’s third term bid, last year.

After the Presidential election, Basil left for the US, accepting responsibility for the failed election campaign and stepping down from all the positions he held in the SLFP. Even the former President’s key allies such as Wimal Weerawansa held Basil Rajapaksa responsible for the downfall of the UPFA government.

Before the Parliamentary election last year, Basil Rajapaksa returned to the country and joined his brother’s election campaign. The former Minister’s efforts, however, did not produce successful results as the former President failed to secure enough seats to form a government.

It is against this backdrop that Basil joined G.L’s party, bringing the former President one step closer to break away from the SLFP.

“When S.W.R.D Bandaranaike and my father D.A. Rajapaksa left the UNP to form the SLFP, people called them political orphans with no future. But later, they went on to create history, building a party that became one of the two main parties of Sri Lanka,” Rajapaksa said, addressing media, after joining the new party.

He said the SLPF was a new tree coming out of the SLFP seed.

“President Rajapaksa will join the party at the right time. He is our vision, he is the leader in our hearts,” the former Minister said, without any clear disclosure on the former President’s future plans.

As we revealed earlier in this column, Rajapaksa himself is not yet in any position to officially launch a new party, as the government is yet to decide the date of the Local Government election. Launching the new party too early will plunge the Rajapaksa group into a disadvantageous position - the group will just have to work hard to maintain the momentum and sustain energy until the official launch of their new political party ahead of the next Local Government election.

It is also important to understand that a sizable proportion of Rajapaksa supporters still stands with the former President, believing the latter will somehow regain control of the SLFP: At the least, they believe that the former President will at some point enter into a peace pact with the incumbent leader of the party. The formation of the new party and Basil’s move shatter their hopes to a great degree.

Peiris’ new party has disappointed this group of supporters as it drives them away from the SLFP: It widens the gap between the faction led by the incumbent President and the coterie supporting the former President. It leaves them with the unenviable task of making a hard choice. It can be assumed that the majority of them will choose to remain with the SLFP as it is the easier and safer option at this juncture. Also, it will strongly divide the SLFP camp, allowing the UNP to be in the driving seat at the next Local Government election.

That is why the SLFP rank and file view Basil Rajapaksa’s involvement in the flower bud party, with a modicum of suspicion. 

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