Explosive new revelations have surfaced about how Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Relations Ravinatha Aryasinha has authorized monies to the tune of tens of millions of rupees for Ambassador Saroja Sirisena’s luxury abodes in Vienna, Austria.
Sirisena’s eight month term as Ambassador to Austria has cost the Sri Lankan tax payer upwards of Rs 41 million* Colombo Telegraph can reveal through this fresh expose – but this sum could be only the tip of the iceberg because the sums involved have been thrust into the public domain.
Questions are buzzing in Colombo at the Ministry of Foreign Relations about what prompted extraordinarily special treatment for Saroja Sirisena from Secretary Aryasinha on the dime of the tax-payer.
Colombo Telegraph can now reveal another financial fraud, in the very least a criminal wastage of public money in the magnitude of Rs. 42 million orchestrated by Aryasinha to ensure the luxury upkeep of Sirisena during her eight month stay in Vienna.
Aryasinha authorized a multi-million rupee apartment for Sirisena’s use after cancelling the lease on the former ambassadorial residence rented at a much lower cost a few months before she arrived in the Austrian capital. The cost of the residence hand-picked by Sirisena was 11,000 Euro per month. Only two months after moving in she obtained further authorization from Secretary Ariyasinghe to lease an even more expensive residence at a whopping Euro 12,000 per month. Her excuse: The cable connection at the 11,000 Euro apartment was unsatisfactory.
In its last installment of the Ravinatha –Saroja saga Colombo Telegraph hinted that an expose on the apartment scandal was imminent. A few days later Aryasinha had planted a story in The Island with farcical excuses trotted out for these fraudulent transactions highlighted by Colombo Telegraph. Aryasinha through his media plant justifies Saroja Sirisena travelling to the USA at a cost over USD 70,000 (Rs. 12.5 million) to Lankan taxpayers, on the grounds that she would have preferred to have seen an English speaking doctor. The ridiculous excuses by Aryasinha presented through his friendly media contacts along with the obnoxious press release he issued abusing powers as Secretary to the Ministry necessitates a separate response. In the near future, Colombo Telegraph hopes to educate Aryasinha, Sirisena, their mainstream media enablers and any future criminal investigators on the laws, regulations and procedures violated in this case.
Saroja Sirisena was nominated to be Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Israel just before the 2018 political crisis. One of the first actions of President Maithripala Sirisena during his failed constitutional coup in October 2018 was to appoint Ravinatha Aryasinha as the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry. Even before the constitutional coup was defeated by the Supreme Court in December 2018, at a time when the legitimate government of the country was not even clear, Aryasinha went about making several changes to the original list of nominated ambassadors. One of the key changes he made was to move Saroja Sirisena from her earlier nominated post in Tel Aviv, Israel to Vienna, Austria. Aryasinha openly proclaimed that he facilitated this move on ‘humanitarian grounds’ for Saroja Sirisena to be closer to her new husband, a UK citizen living in London.
The Sri Lanka embassy in Vienna had been without an Ambassador since September 2018. In February 2019 the Chargé d’Affaires (Acting Ambassador) in Vienna wrote to the ministry informing that the lease agreement for the apartment/ residency occupied by the Ambassador was ending on 31 March 2019. The embassy recommended extending the lease for a further five years.
For years the Sri Lankan Ambassador’s residence had been located in the prestigious 19th district of Vienna where many diplomatic personnel lived. It had even been equipped with an indoor pool, one of the few diplomatic residences in Vienna with such a facility. Due to the long term relationship with the embassy the residency was leased at the reasonable price of EUR 6,500 per month.
Mysteriously disregarding the Embassy’s recommendation to extend the lease the Foreign Ministry instructed the diplomatic mission that the lease agreement was not to be renewed. Once the lease was cancelled the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a further instruction: The Embassy in Vienna was requested to rent a smaller apartment for the period of one year at the cost of Euro 820 per month [Euro 9840 for the full year] to store the furniture from the ambassador’s residence owned by the Sri Lankan Government. A further cost of Euro 2000 was incurred to move the furniture from the residence into the storage apartment.
The instruction raised eyebrows at the time because the intervention by the Ministry was extraordinary in this case. Things became clearer as the date neared for Saroja Sirisena’s arrival in Vienna.
Colombo Telegraph reveal that the instructions preventing the renewal of the lease was given by Ravinatha Aryasinha on the behest of Saroja Sirisena who wished to move into a new residency of her own choosing upon taking office. Interestingly these instructions from the ministry were sent to Vienna in February 2019, even before Sirisena had cleared the High Posts Committee of Parliament to become the Ambassador to Austria which happened in March 2019.
The financial atrocities on the residence saga did not end there.
Days before Sirisena left for Vienna, by fax dated 27th June 2019, Aryasinha instructed the embassy to secure a luxury apartment suite for EUR 11,000 (Rs 2.3 million) per month for a three month period as ‘temporary’ accommodation for the new Ambassador. In addition to the Euro 33,000 as rent, the luxury “Parking Garden Suite” located at No. 12, 1010 Vienna, also cost a further Euro 1000 deposit also borne by the Sri Lankan Government. The total cost of three months of accommodation for Sirisena in Vienna in rupees is 7.2 million.
Colombo Telegraph can reveal that the EUR 11,000 per month luxury suite was selected by Saroja Sirisena from Sri Lanka. She had pre-selected certain apartments on-line and had instructed the embassy staff to only look into their availability. While the embassy had found suitable accommodation for less than half that price she had insisted on going through a particular website as this agent had been recommended to her by a ‘friend.’
The website www.luxuryestate.com. This agent is not an Austria based company and is generally used by companies which try to rent out for a much higher price to people who are not aware of the real market prices. Ordinarily these apartments are rented out on a daily basis to tourists, so they are authorized to request a higher rent than for normal rental agreements. The local staff at the embassy had pointed out to Ambassador Sirisena that these types of agents are sometimes used for money laundering and it would be wise to obtain the services of a more reputable agent. Sirisena had completely ignored the recommendations of the Embassy.
Shockingly, Aryasinha had instructed the embassy to pay EUR 34,000 (Rs. 7.2 million) to accommodate Sirisena in a luxury suite which she had remotely chosen from Colombo overruling the recommendations of the embassy. In anticipation of this exposé, which Colombo Telegraph announced in its last segment, Aryasinha has planted the following gem in The Island;
“It would appear, some disgruntled and frustrated officers are disseminating factually incorrect information to publications. For instance, the accusation against the Foreign Secretary for approving Euro 11,000 per month for temporary accommodation when Ambassador Sirisena arrived in Vienna in July 2019 is misleading. As stated earlier, July is the height of the summer holidays. Most landlords (and doctors) are away on vacation, and permanent accommodation at competitive prices is not available in markets till September.”
Ridiculous as the above argument maybe to anyone who can Google the price of accommodation in Vienna, or understand that a designated Ambassador is not a tourist who lands in a capital without any preparation, it also conveniently ignores how the embassy had been instructed from Colombo by Sirisena to look into only the availability of luxury suites of her choice and ignored all recommendations from the embassy for cheaper options. More than four months were available to make these arrangements.
Naturally such matters may not occur to a travel agent, but it should have occurred to Aryasinha as the administrative head and chief financial officer of a Ministry. Therefore it is not some slip in administration in his part but a deliberate move to grant a wish to a dear colleague, who wished to live it up on the public dime.
Reading the above quote one would assume that Sirisena moved in to a permanent residence, at a more reasonable cost to the tax payers, by the end of September once the landlords of Vienna returned from their summer vacations. Sadly for the Sri Lankan tax payer, that was not the case.
Even before the end of the three month period at her EUR 11,000 apartment, in the first week of September 2019, Sirisena moved into yet another, more expensive luxury apartment. Again this move was authorized by Ariyasinha with no questions asked.
The new suite was located at the Rilkeplatz in the 4th district of Vienna, and cost a staggering EUR 12,000 or Rs.2.52 million per month to rent.
Colombo Telegraph is reliably informed that Sirisena used the same real estate agent to obtain the newer and more expensive luxury apartment. The main reason for the move had been her dissatisfaction with the cable television options at her EUR 11,000 suite. Sirisena had remained at the EUR 12,000 per month apartment for a further six months until her departure to London at the end of February 2020.
With bated breath the Colombo Telegraph awaits Vienna real-estate experts analysis on ‘competitive prices’ for accommodation from September to February, probably due to the ‘height of winter.’
The total cost for ‘temporary accommodation’ for Sirisena for a period of eight months is a mind numbing EUR 106,000 or Rs. 22.25 million. The government had to incur another medical expense when a staff member of the embassy broke his back lifting furniture during the move into the super luxury suite in September, 2019.
Colombo Telegraph also learns that during this period Sirisena had sought a further EUR 20,000 (Rs. 4.19 million) from the ministry to purchase new furniture. Colombo Telegraph is awaiting confirmation as to whether Secretary Aryasinha obliged this wish of Sirisena as well.
For the benefit of our readers Colombo Telegraph drafted a list of expenses invoiced to the Sri Lanka tax payer and authorized by Secretary Aryasinha for Saroja Sirisena’s 8 month stint as Ambassador of Austria. These numbers do not account for her many allowances, salary and other authorised expenditure that may not yet have been revealed.
Each and every one of the above expenditures required authorisation from Ravinatha Aryasinha. The expenditure pertaining to Sirisena’s ‘temporary’ accommodation, moving and storage costs had to be borne by taxpayers due to Aryasinha’s irrational instructions (behest of Sirisena) not to extend the existing lease of the Ambassador’s residency at the end of March 2019.
The total known costs incurred by Sri Lankan tax payers to upkeep Saroja Sirisena for eight months in Vienna, as per current exchange rates is a staggering USD 226,190 or Rs. 41.875 million. For context, the total amount that was collected by all 65 Sri Lanka missions abroad form all of our nationals living around the world for the government Covid fund is Rs. 29 million. This in a country where three women were crushed to death recently, attempting to collect Rs 1,500 as financial assistance.
After the presidential election in November 2019, Aryasinha moved swiftly to accommodate Sirisena’s wish to move to London to live with her new husband. In order to do so Aryasinha summarily recalled High Commissioner Manisha Gunasekera who had served in London for merely one year and three months at the time of her return. She was recalled without cause or even a courtesy explanation. A ‘gossip’ news was deliberately planted in the same Daily Mirror which has now written an editorial asking ‘why there is a vicious attack on Saroja Sirisena,’ to suggest that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was unhappy with Gunasekera due to some affront during one of his visits to South Korea as a member of the opposition many years ago. Aryasinha attempted to pacify Gunasekera by offering her another diplomatic position in Asia which she rejected and opted to come back to Sri Lanka.
Manisha Gunasekera had previously served with distinction and dedication as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Korea and as Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva. She has an unblemished record as a career diplomat and there are no financial or other stains on her character or integrity. There are no doubts regarding her graduate or post-graduate qualifications either. Aryasinha ordered her to return by 31st January, 2020, intentionally preventing her from hosting the Independence Day celebrations in London on 4th February. Saroja Sirisena, with her British national husband in tow, assumed duties as High Commissioner on 2nd March, 2020.
Both Ravinatha Aryasinha and Saroja Sirisena are self proclaimed patriots. With President Gotabaya Rajapaksa establishing a Task Force to create a ‘virtuous and disciplined society’ it needs to be seen if such exalted ideals apply to those hailing from Beliatta and from Ananda College as well. Even though there has not been an inquiry in to these corruption allegations, the Ministry of Foreign Relations has already concluded through a very peculiar press release on 29th May 2020 that all transactions concerning Saroja Sirisena had been done in a proper manner according to the established procedures and circulars. It is unclear if Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had endorsed this press release.
Prior to this Colombo Telegraph also exposed several irregularities that tantamount to financial fraud committed by Foreign Ministry’s Secretary, Aryasinha and High Commissioner in London, Sirisena while she was the Ambassador in Vienna. Among these irregular transactions is an approval granted by Aryasinha for a non-essential, non-emergency, medical procedure for Sirisena at a cost of USD 66,284.65 (Rs. 12.3 million) where the circumstances of the case did not legally justify her to undertake this procedure in the USA when many other cheaper options were available.
In addition to the approval to undergo the medical procedure in a third country there are several violations of law and government financial regulations in the manner in which these monies were supposedly transferred to the medical facility in Salt Lake City, Oregon which should open up inquiries into money laundering and embezzlement.
Colombo Telegraph separately exposed how the duo had manipulated the quotations for the air ticket, for which Aryasinha had approved EUR 3,152 when embassy officials had obtained quotations as low as EUR 1,293.
Public officials are confused about what warranted this extra-special treatment for one ambassador for Sri Lanka over all others. Most astounding to most at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other related state institutions is the patriotism the duo wear on their sleeves for the benefit of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime while robbing the Sri Lankan tax payer blind.
(By Chinthika de Silva)