By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Undoubtedly the most bizarre of the characters who influenced the President in the period after the election of 2010 was Sajin Vas Gunawardena. He was not a relation, and he did not have the professional or academic credentials of the other characters discussed here. Indeed he had hardly any qualifications but, ever since Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, he occupied positions of trust and responsibility.
It was claimed that the reason for the confidence the President reposed in him was because, while a clerk in the Middle East, he had helped the President with the technology during a presentation that might otherwise have been a disaster. But it is also likely that, after they thus became acquainted, he was able to serve the President in a variety of ways that commanded his affection and his confidence.
The first escapade in which he was involved under a Rajapaksa Presidency was the setting up of a budget airline. Called Mihin Air, in honour of Mahinda, it rapidly lost a lot of money, though Sajin himself became very wealthy during his tenure in office. Before long Mihin Lanka was handed over to Sri Lankan Airlines to be managed, and the losses of both together – the Board of the latter chaired by the President’s brother-in-law Nishantha Wickremesinghe – continued a drain on public funds for many years.
I first came across Sajin when I was appointed to head the Peace Secretariat, and was told that he was the point of liaison between the Secretariat and the President’s Office. In fact he had no interest in or understanding of our work, and I liaised mainly through the President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunge, though in those days I generally had immediate access to the President if this was needed.
I met Sajin early on in my tenure of office, and then hardly ever again, though he came I believe to the opening of the new office which had been built for us in the premises of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall. When we were deciding on the allocation of rooms in that office, my Director of Administration suggested we keep a room there for the use of Sajin. This seemed to me unnecessary, particularly as the room he suggested was the second best in the building. I thought it should go to my Deputy, a retired Tamil ambassador named Poolokasingham, whose stature I thought needed to be established. I told the Director that, since Sajin had not come to the office for a long time, all we needed to do if in fact he wanted a room was to set aside one of the smaller rooms at the end of the main corridor. I heard nothing more after that about that particular suggestion, and I think the Director was secretly relieved, though he had thought it was his duty to keep Sajin happy and thus prevent any recriminations against the Secretariat in general, and me in particular. Whether this contributed to his later animosity against me I do not know, but the experience of our High Commissioner in London, Chris Nonis, indicated that Sajin wanted his importance to be recognized, and resented anyone else who had a direct link to the President.
But way back in 2007, Sajin was more interested in his own political career, and during the next couple of years he was elected to the Southern Province Provincial Council. Then, in 2010, he got nomination for the Galle district for the Parliamentary election, and did reasonably well. In Parliament he was one of the young MPs in the group around Namal Rajapaksa but initially he had no executive responsibilities.
All that changed with the realization that the Ministry of External Affairs was in a mess, and he was appointed to be its Monitoring Member of Parliament. That was the only serious Monitoring MP position, and one heard hardly anything of the few others who had been appointed, until that is Duminda Silva, attached to the Ministry of Defence, was involved in the death of Bharatha Premachandra, another SLFP politician from the Colombo district.
Sajin’s appointment to the Ministry of External Affairs raised eyebrows since it was clear he had no understanding of foreign policy but, as the President once put it when he was asked the purpose, at least now the Ministry sent answers to letters it received. This was not in fact the case, given that the Ministry failed to respond to the queries from holders of Special Mandates under the Human Rights Council in Geneva. And more seriously, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs noted that one contributory factor to the decision to vote against Sri Lanka in Geneva in 2012 was the failure of Sri Lanka to respond to a letter from the Indian Prime Minister about its plans re devolution. But presumably Sajin was able to attend swiftly to many routine matters, that had suffered since the first Secretary to the Ministry under GL had been dying of cancer and unable to fulfil his duties.
Certainly before long he was seen as the virtual decision maker at the Ministry, since GL was not only a hopeless administrator, but was also quite ready to abdicate decision making to someone he knew was very close to both the President and Namal. In any case many appointments had become the prerogative of the President, a practice begun by President Jayewardene who not only made political appointments to ambassadorial posts, a practice that had occurred previously as in many other countries, but also to junior positions in our missions abroad. Under President Rajapaksa this became the norm, and all sorts of individuals were appointed to a host of different positions all over the world. These included relations to vital positions, in Washington and Moscow. The former ambassador, a cousin, was a disaster, allowing relations with the United States to deteriorate to appalling levels, whilst using expensive lobbyists with no apparent understanding of the Sri Lankan situation or any perceptible influence in Washington. As Head of the Peace Secretariat I met a couple of representatives of different groups, all commanding excessive fees, but with no positive impact. They were quite unlike a British firm that was later employed through the influence of the Central Bank Governor, though against this initiative there were public attacks and, after their advice had been ignored, as with for instance the President’s absurd attempt to address the Oxford Union in 2010, they were got rid of.
In 2014 however it became obvious that it was the American lobbyists who should have been the object of greater scrutiny, since it was reported that the ambassador had himself made money on the deals. It was also reported that he had profited from the protracted hospitalization of the Prime Minister in America. All this came on top of the story that he had been paid a commission in buying a house for the embassy in Washington, which had led to the Americans quietly but firmly insisting that he be removed.
The answer of the Ministry of External Affairs had been to transfer him to Canada. This was doubly absurd, since the government had only just received agreement for a new High Commissioner who was a professional and highly respected diplomat. But it was not pointed out to the President how shameful such a move was, and the Ministry, which he claimed was now administratively on an even keel, existed, it seemed, only to satisfy personal predilections as well as building up fortunes. And the double standards involved were quite apparent, in the manner in which Dayan Jayatilleka had been persecuted, when he had been scrupulous in following established procedures, and was never thought in anyone’s wildest dreams to have been interested in, or capable of, making money for himself. But given the domination of the Ministry by operators such as Sajin and Kshenuka Senewiratne, who was able to get an audit query about her conduct suppressed, it is not surprising that anyone who felt inclined thought they had carte blanche to profit from government positions.
In any case the idea of a coherent sustained foreign policy had died with Lakshman Kadirgamar, whose assassination in 2005 was, along with that of President Premadasa in 1993, perhaps the most destructive for Sri Lanka of the many acts of terrorism the Tigers perpetrated. Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed her brother as Foreign Minister for the few months that remained to her of office, and then President Rajapaksa first appointed Mangala Samaraweera, who had been one of his predecessor’s most loyal supporters, but had, unlike her, supported him actively in the 2005 Presidential election. But they soon fell out, and Rohitha Bogollagama was appointed instead, and in essence allowed foreign policy to be decided in various quarters in various ways. The most coherent of these was the work done by Dayan Jayatilleka in Geneva, reporting direct to the President, but with his dismissal the hopes of a constructive engagement with the world, based on the traditional policy of Non-Alignment that had stood the country in good stead under Mrs Bandaranaike, vanished.
Sajin’s advent then saw, not monitoring to ensure that the Ministry was well run, but the entrenchment of decision making on the basis of personal predilection. Kshenuka Senewiratne, whose ability to manipulate people was brilliant, twigged early on to his importance and nailed her colours firmly to his mast. The two of them proceeded to work together, and indeed to giggle together, a common phenomenon in Geneva in March 2012 when the rivalry between GL Peiris and Mahinda Samarasinghe became obvious.
They had seemed there to be more supportive of the latter but, after the crushing defeat in the Council, he was abandoned, and they worked together closely with GL. When I wrote a piece to the papers about what I saw as her pernicious influence, GL complained to the President, who called me up and said I should not criticize public officials who were not able to respond. I told him that, when they were behaving in a manner that could bring the country low, I could not keep quiet. His answer was that I should rather write in confidence to the Minister or the Secretary. I told him that there would certainly be no response, at which point he started laughing. This was the type of attitude which endeared him to many, and one could not get annoyed, but it was certainly no way to run a country.
Predictably, though I wrote at length, there was no answer. I asked the Secretary to the Ministry about this but he told me that, since it was a contentious issue, he had asked the Secretary to the President for advice. Predictably again Lalith Weeratunge ignored the letter, and there was no investigation of the various actions that I believed had contributed to the sad situation in which Sri Lanka found itself in 2012.
Over the next couple of years the incoherence at the Ministry of External Affairs became worse. Our ambassador in Rome, Asitha Perera, was suddenly recalled, and there were allegations in the papers that he had been involved in people smuggling. This was preposterous, for in fact he had tried to stop it, and had worked well together with the Italian Embassy in Colombo to put a halt to visas being given to all and sundry on the request of various officials in the Foreign Ministry. Asitha was deeply depressed, and died shortly after he returned to Sri Lanka.
Just after he was dismissed, he called me from Rome and said I had predicted this. I had forgotten the matter, but indeed soon after Tamara’s dismissal I had written an article in which I predicted that four other very good ambassadors serving in Europe would all suffer her fate.