Former Customs Director General P.S.M. Charles has been removed from her position after she ordered probes on 143 suspicious containers, Colombo Telegraph can now reveal.
Some of these containers had direct links to Thusitha Halloluwa, a Coordinating Secretary of Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, the subject minister of the Customs Department. Halloluwa had exerted pressure on Charles to appoint his ‘associates’ at the Customs Department to probe the suspicious containers and transfer the officers who are currently handling the issue.
Charles has been removed from office after she flatly turned down their orders. Colombo Telegraph can also reveal that the forthright state official, the first woman to head the Customs Department, has also run into several confrontations with Finance Ministry Secretary Dr. R.H.S. Samaratunga over the same matter.
After Charles’ removal, Samaraweera sought Cabinet approval to appoint retired Navy officer, Rear Admiral Shemal Fernando as the Director General of Customs. The move sparked a fierce trade union action by customs unions who protested the appointment of a retired military officer as the Director General of Customs.
Samaraweera then made another move by appointing Finance Ministry Additional Secretary H.G. Sumanasinghe as the Acting Director General of the Department, in a desperate attempt to end the trade union action.
The Customs unions, however, demanded the reinstatement of Charles, saying she was transferred out due to the influence of smugglers who were at the heart of several controversial deals.
Addressing a press conference in Colombo yesterday, Sudath de Silva, a spokesman of the Customs union said several senior officials including Finance Ministry Secretary Dr. R.H.S. Samaratuga and several top-notch political figures of the current government maintained close ties with the smugglers.
The discussions between Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and the union turned hostile last evening and the union representatives stormed out of the meeting room as the minister remained adamant about the removal of Charles.
The Minister said the new Director General was appointed according to a Cabinet decision and the unions had no say in the matter. The union representatives told the Minister that they would not back down until the reinstatement of Charles.
As the discussions with the Minister failed, the Customs officers at the Colombo Port continued their work-to-rule campaign. They have not allowed the Acting Director General of the department to assume duties.
Presenting the Finance Minister’s version of the story, a spokesman close to him told Colombo Telegraph, it was Samaraweera who appointed Charles to the Director General’s position initially, along with four other females as heads of institutions under the purview of his Ministry.
“The Minister has a weekly review meeting every Thursday for heads of institutions overlooking sectors that generate revenue for the government. Over the past few months, there was a noticable decrease in the revenue generated by the Cumstoms Department. That was one main reason for the replacement of the former Director General,” the spokesman said.
“The Minister also came to the realization that smuggling was becoming a serious issue for the economy. It has been revealed that Velvetithurai in the Northern province is a major entry point for smuggled goods. Therefore, it was important to have a Customs chief who is conversant with military operations to tackle the issue. This is why a former Navy officer was selected as the Director General of Customs.”
“To this date, the former Director General has not told the minister that she had come under pressure from members of the minister’s staff. Today, there was a meeting between the, minister and the former DG and that the meeting she told Samaraweera that she was under the assumption that the minister was aware of the conduct of his associates. There was a clear communication gap,” the spokesman explained.
He said today’s meeting between the minister and the former DG was positive and Samaraweera offered her a senior position in the Finance Ministry.
Meanwhile, it is also learnt that President Maithripala Sirisena is working behind the scenes to stir up the issue as part of his plans to create problems in the government from within. In his observations to Samaraweera’s Cabinet paper last week, Sirisena said any move to appoint retired persons outside the administrative service to key government positions would set a bad precedence. Sirisena recommended to appoint a person from the same service as the Director General of Customs.
Sirisena’s observation was shot down by Samaraweera who said appointing any suitable person for the position was well within the rights of the minister.
Former President and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa also issued a statement on the current crisis saying over the past four years, the Department of Customs had seen four Director Generals. Rajapaksa whose ten-year administration was marred with allegations of large-scale smuggling said the government should be held responsible for any impact the ongoing trade union action would cause on cost of living.