Serious questions have been raised about the current Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the UK Saroja Sirisena billing an exorbitantly priced air ticket to the Sri Lankan Government for personal travel undertaken for a medical procedure.
The air fare of nearly Rs 700,000 indicates the ticket was a business class or first class fare, billed to GOSL as an economy class ticket and approved by Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ravinatha Aryasinha.
The irregular transaction took place when Sirisena was serving as Sri Lankan Ambassador to Austria in July-August 2019.
On 23 August 2019 Foreign Secretary Aryasinha approved a sum of Euro 3150 (Rs 637,680 at the current exchange rate) for then Ambassador to Austria Saroja Sirisena’s air travel to the United States for “medical treatment”. See proof of approval below:
According to the approval granted, Aryasinha has authorized an “Economy Class” ticket for Ambassador Sirisena. The Foreign Secretary failed to respond to questions posed to him regarding this approval by Colombo Telegraph.
However the sum of money involved makes it clear the air ticket was for business class travel, fraudulently submitted to the Government of Sri Lanka for approval as an economy class fare. Even in peak travel times, air tickets between Vienna and the US (New York JFK Airport) cost between 600-1000 Euro.
Aryasinha’s close association with Sirisena appears to have led him to pass this airfare on to the state coffers as an “economy class air ticket” in order to mislead Government auditors. Together both officials may have committed fraud against the Government of Sri Lanka, a criminal offence.
But sources told Colombo Telegraph that the Foreign Secretary should not have approved Sirisena’s request for reimbursement of air travel expenses to begin with. Financial regulations prohibit paying public officers back for personal air travel expenses. Financial regulations governing public officials are also explicit that a medical procedure which is not an emergency must be authorized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Furthermore if the medical procedure is not available at the station at which the diplomat is posted, the officer must return to Sri Lanka for treatment.
Bafflingly Saroja Sirisena had left Colombo to take up her post in Vienna only in July 2019. Less than a month later she took off to the United States for her medical treatment. It is unclear if this medical procedure was not possible in Sri Lanka prior to her departure Vienna, which would have saved the Sri Lankan Government hundreds of thousands of rupees in airfare at the least.
Colombo Telegraph learns that Ms. Sirisena travelled from Vienna, Austria to Seattle, USA for an eye procedure, part of which was reportedly elective. The procedure is reported to have cost tens of thousands of US dollars, but it remains unclear whether the Government of Sri Lanka incurred this expense on her behalf.
Questions posed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Colombo Telegraph about this matter went answered.
Some details about this story have already appeared in the gossip columns of a prominent English Daily newspaper in Sri Lanka. According to the column Sirisena’s medical treatment had also been approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a massive cost to the Sri Lankan tax-payer. However Colombo Telegraph is unable to independently confirm this claim so far since the Foreign Secretary has not responded to the questions posed. A document we are able to publish with this report however indicates that the air travel was certainly approved by Aryasinha.
According to informed sources in the Government Saroja Sirisena has a history of billing the Sri Lankan Government for cosmetic expenses. As a junior diplomat in Paris, France in 2000, Sirisena was reportedly reprimanded for attempting to claim reimbursement for cosmetic products by claiming they were medication.
Saroja Sirisena was appointed Spokesperson to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and director of International Media relations during the October 2018 attempted coup. Soon after President Maithripala Sirisena illegally ousted Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as his purported Premier, high level changes took place at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Retired Career diplomat Prasad Kariyawasam was sacked as Foreign Secretary and Ravinatha Aryasinha, who had been an ardent follower of the Rajapaksa Doctrine on Foreign Policy replaced him by the order of the President.
Saroja Sirisena became Aryasinha’s right hand during the coup. Aryasinha and Saroja Sirisena worked together closely when the now Foreign Secretary was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Brussels. Saroja worked as an official under him.
Earlier this year Aryasinha recalled Manisha Gunasekera as Sri Lanka’s High Commission to the UK in order to replace her with Saroja Sirisena. Gunasekera is known to be a highly skilled and exceedingly knowledgeable professional diplomat was summarily recalled from London despite the tremendous work she had done to enhance bilateral relations. Gunasekera had served less than two years of her term and her appointment to London as Ambassador was approved by an independent transfer board.
No reasons were given for Gunasekera’s recall. However Colombo Telegraph learns that Saroja Sirisena also a career diplomat has always been a staunch ally of the SLPP within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She was previously married to UPFA MP Dilan Perera and is currently wedded to a British citizen Sudath Talpahewa. This may have played a significant role in the transfer of Saroja Sirisena from Vienna to London soon after the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Colombo Telegraph emailed Foreign Secretary Aryasinha on 5 May 2020 to the following email addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
These were the questions we posed to the Foreign Secretary with reference to this payment he authorized for Sirisena’s air-travel:
1. What was the nature of the air travel approved by you at a cost of Euro 3150 to the Sri Lankan Government?
2. Was the travel airfare approved by you on 23 August 2019 considered to be emergency travel?
3. If the travel was for medical reasons was there no option for this medical procedure to be performed in Austria or Sri Lanka?
4. Did the Ministry in addition to the airfare also approve payment for the medical procedure?
6. If the procedure was not an emergency, were three quotations for airfare sent to the ministry of Foreign Affairs for approval as mandated by government regulations?
7. When did Ms. Saroja Sirisena assume office as Ambassador to Austria?
8. On which airline and which airline class did Ms. Saroja Sirisena travel on at a fare of 3150 Euros? Was the Ministry presented with an invoice for an economy class ticket at this cost?
9. What was the date of travel on this airline at this airline fare?
We are in possession of information that as Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have approved a payment of 3150 Euros as airfare for Saroja Sirisena on 23, August 2019. We also understand that Ms. Sirisena assumed office as Ambassador to Vienna in July 2019.
Regarding this payment to Ms Sirisena we are reliably made to understand that the travel was for purposes of medical treatment. It is also understood that such travel is not normally reimbursed through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even though the medical treatment itself may qualify for reimbursement or insurance coverage.
With regard to the following we seek the following clarifications from you prior to publication.
(By Chinthika De Silva)