By Sonali Samarasinghe –
A man is often judged by the company he keeps. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is no different. Already the President has come under heavy fire for his association with Ajith Nivard Cabraal, and questions have been raised regarding various business dealings of Cabraal and how it would impact on the nation’s economy given Rajapaksa’s recent appointment of him as governor, Central Bank.
Now it seems that President Rajapaksa’s blue eyed boy and his coordinating secretary to boot, Sajin de Vass Gunawardena comes with a dubious track record dotted with remand time, fraud bureau investigations, unpaid loans and unfulfilled promises.
President Rajapaksa’s style of choosing his advisors and close allies become even more pertinent given that Sajin de Vass Gunawardena was refused a place by Ranil Wickremesinghe when the then prime minister was told that Sajin had a criminal track record. Wickremesinghe was to advice the young man to clear his name first.
It was after this that Sajin went off to Dubai to work with Trico and even there allegedly fell out with the management. However by a happy coincidence he was to meet the then Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa who was in Dubai on a visit and young Sajin showed him around.
Rajapaksa comfortable in the vernacular and a more simple way of life was rather enamoured of the well spoken young man who was both good in his English and rather spiffy on the computer. To Rajapaksa this made Sajin seem like an excellent catch. “Why don’t you come and work for me,” the Opposition Leader invited. Sajin de Vass Gunawardena didn’t have to think twice. All his life he had wanted to get into politics. This seemed like the perfect opportunity. But more on Sajin’s re entry anon.
Meanwhile who is this young man so close to the Chief Executive?
Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, 33 years of age, is already Coordinating Secretary to President Mahendra Percy Rajapaksa and is a well spoken, charming young man. He is also a key though nebulous figure in Rajapaksa’s peace process.
In February this year at the first round of peace talks between the Tigers and the government, Sajin was to creep into the negotiation room at Chateau de Bossey in Geneva in a surrepticious manner. His name did not appear in any of the official lists.
He arrived a day later than the official delegation which consisted of such renowned names as H. L. De Silva, Gomin Dayasiri, Palitha Kohona and John Gunaratne. He was sent there as a special emissary of the President himself to oversee and spy on the proceedings and the government players. Already seniors in politics such as Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and Mangala Samaraweera were beginning to look upon him as an unsavoury upstart.
If the second round of peace talks scheduled for April had materialised no doubt Sajin would have winged his way to cooler climes again. However in June his role in the peace process became less nebulous and more potent. The LTTE while rejecting the peace talks on various grounds agreed to meet in Oslo to discuss the limited issue of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, its constitution and its security.
Having hemmed and hawed over its participation, the government finally decided to send a third level team to Oslo for the talks to be held on June 8 and 9 headed by Peace Secretariat Chief and consummate diplomat Palitha Kohona. To assist him was none other than young Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, Shanaka Jayasekara of the Peace Secretariat and Attorney-at-Law, Gomin Dayasiri.
So who is Sajin? What perhaps has endeared him to President Rajapaksa and why has this young man been shot to the top like a Sirasa Superstar?
Sajin is the son of A. De Vass Gunawardena who was for a space after Chandrika Kumaratunga‘s regime took over government in 1994, the director general of the Board of Investment.
Vass Gunawardena senior was a remnant of the Premadasa era. However he continued as BOI chairman for sometime until replaced by Chandrika’s favourite, Thilan Wijesinghe.
It was during his father’s time at the BOI in 1995 that he got involved with the Grayline Group which at the time was considered controversial in their business dealings. At Grayline owned by Lal Wijeratne, as the new Project Development Manager Sajin proved a useful tool able to have easy access to the much sought after BOI due to his father’s position.
Sajin was still a young buck of 22 and was described by those who knew him then as an enthusiastic gung ho chap with a silver tongue and a smooth and slick manner. This always fooled the gullible person into helping him with money matters. And Sajin had one flaw. He couldn’t stop borrowing money and not paying back, until the police came knocking on his door. Before long, due to various issues he parted company with Grayline.
Sajin then decided in 1994 to launch into business at the Biyagama Free Trade Zone. He set up a company called Tapes International Pvt Ltd. Incorporated on October 11, 1994 the objectives of the company were to carry on business as manufacturers and dealers of adhesive gum tape, cellotape, silicon plated paper and aluminium coated sachets and byproducts.
In order to start the company at the time he was to obtain a loan of Rs. 2.5 million from a couple, Wimalasiri and Shirani Fernando of 14, Gregory’s Road, Colombo 7. A cheque was accordingly made out and one of the witnesses to the transaction was his father A. D. de Vass Gunawardena. After a couple of months however Sajin began to default on his interest payments and the Fernandos filed action for Rs. 3.5 million inclusive of interest in the district court of Colombo.
Shirani Fernando when contacted by this newspaper declined any further comment except to state that the case had been concluded and the chapter was closed.
That apart, the subscribers to this company were of course Sajin de Vass Gunawardena of 4/1, First Lane Egodawatte Road, Boralesgamuwa, his brother Rohan de Vass Gunawardena also of the same address and Charini Vilakshana de Silva of 117/18, Jaya Mw; Temple Road, Kalubowila who was his first wife.
The smooth talking Sajin is currently in his third marriage and the relevance of that is only to focus on a financial issue involving the second wife.
As at the annual return date of 14/01/1997 Sajin held the majority shares in the company while CF Venture Fund Ltd. was the only other major shareholder.
CF Venture Fund was the finance management company that Sajin approached to finance his FTZ venture. One Hiniduma Liyanage Lakpriya Manoharan Nanayakkara was on the board of CFVF and to the powers that be at CFVF Sajin looked like a personable young man who could get things done. And so they backed his venture for approximately Rs. 2-3 million.
At the time 40% of the funding was provided by CFVF. Approximately 20% by the NDB through equity injection and the rest of the funds was provided by Sajin himself.
It was not soon after that it was discovered that he was siphoning funds from Tapes International Company account to a private bank account. He was in fact drawing out money and issuing certificates on board resolutions even though the Board had never met or resolved any such money transactions.
On June 21, 1996 Sajin was to bring in his father Abeydeera De Vass Gunawardena as a director. At the same time he was also to bring in his uncle, Nandana Abeysuriya who was last month killed in a claymore attack at Wilpattu .
Be that as it may, it was now discovered by the board that Sajin had allegedly claimed he had paid a sum of approximately Rs. 5 million to a construction contractor, Sarath De Costa.
By this time one of Sajin’s close friends, Manoharan Nanayakkara had taken majority control of the company. But Sajin and Manoharan were to fall out – with Sajin in fact even walking into Manoharan’s room at CF Venture Fund and abusing him.
Manoharan Nanayakkara was to resign as a director of Tapes on October 29, 1996.
In January 1997 Manoharan more famously known as Mano Nanayakkara was to sell his shares in the company. It was a Korean company called Young An Lanka Pvt. Ltd. of Export Processing Zone Malwana, Biyagama in the exclusive business of making caps that bought these shares. Thus on February 5, 1997 Choon Jo Kim, Sang Heon Lee and Hyn Jun Lee of this company were appointed as directors of Tapes.
It was on the very same day that Charini Vilakshini De Silva, daughter of former SSP Carlyle Silva resigned. Charini was of course Sajin’s first wife.
Subsequently the Korean company was also to become suspicious about the financial activities of Sajin de Vass Gunawardena. They immediately prepared to bring in lawyers from the United States and to retain other legal luminaries from Sri Lanka to look after their interests at Tapes.
It was at this time that one Sharma of Indian origin was brought in to pump money to the ailing Tapes International Pvt. Ltd. Sharma was in fact introduced to Sajin through his uncle Gamini Abeysuriya who in turn was introduced to Sharma by Dubsy Kanagaratnam of George Steuart fame.
Somewhere in 1999/2000 relations began to sour between Sharma and Sajin. On a complaint made by Sharma the Fraud Bureau filed a case against Sajin in the Maligakanda Magistrate’s Court. Sajin was then remanded for a period of 10 days in the Mahara remand prison. However his father again had to rescue the young alleged habitual fraudster and pull some strings in order to place him at the Mahara prison hospital instead.
Standing bail for him in the case were his uncles, the late Nanda Abeysuriya, and Gamini Abeyusirya, formerly director marketing at Singer Sri Lanka. Later Sajin’s father sold his house in Wijerama Mawatha, Gangodawila to settle Sharma and thus the case was settled. Sajin’s father then moved to a residence in Battaramulla.
Account wiped out
The lawyer who appeared for Sajin in the case was Lakshman Ranasinghe.
There is now also a debt recovery action filed against Gunawardena by HNB over Tapes International and the case is now pending in the Colombo Civil court.
Nonetheless it was not long after the Sharma affair that Sajin left for Dubai to work with Trico.
If this were all it would yet be sufficient. However the list of Sajin’s transgressions goes on and on. It was his first wife Charini’s father, former Senior Superintendent of Police, Carlyle de Silva that was now the victim of this smooth talking man. Sajin it is alleged had wanted Rs. 600,000 to get him out of another familiar financial crisis. Being a kind and trusting father-in-law, Carlyle was to give his son-in-law at the time, Sajin, a blank cheque. Sajin allegedly quickly wrote down the enhanced sum of Rs. 2 million and by this wiped out the bank account of Carlyle Silva. Carlyle, a long time friend of President Rajapakse’s brother Chamal, himself a former police officer in despair wrote to him detailing the facts of the matter and Sajin’s subterfuge.
Sale of car
And then of course there was the other little matter of the car. It was somewhere in early 1996 that his business ally at the time, Mano Nanayakkara who was then married to Lakmali Nanayakkara of Ernst & Young, was successfully sold a car by Sajin that did not belong to him.
In 1996 Mano Nanayakkara was still dealing with Sajin in connection with Tapes International and was perhaps still a tad impressed by the smart smooth talking young man. So when in February or March 1996 Sajin drove in with an almost new black Mitsubishi Lancer and made a sales pitch the couple decided to purchase the car. The car had done some ridiculously low mileage of 2000 miles. The couple felt that a new car would go at about Rs. 950,000 and was happy to pay Rs. 850,000 for it. Sajin in fact even issued a receipt for the payment received.
It was then that the excreta hit the fan. One day as the old driver employed by Nanayakkara was driving in to United Motors he was stopped and told that the car he was driving was infact theirs. Sajin had apparently leased the car from United Motors and with no ownership title had sold the car to a third party. He was also overdue in rental payments and had defaulted for about four months.
United Motors now made a complaint to the police and very soon uniformed police personnel visited the Nanayakkara house in Talahena and requested them to report to the Mulleriyawa police station.
Sources close to Mano Nanayakkara who now reside in Brisbane, Australia told this newspaper that it was then that Mano had confronted Sajin and asked him to return the Rs. 850,000 and return the car to United Motors or face a jail term given the fact he had a reciept for the sale, and the matter was sorted out accordingly.
But as we said the list does not stop. Now he gets entangled with a foreign national, Pauline Edwina Williams, holder of British Passport Number 022542371. Somewhere in September 2002 she was residing in room 242 at the Trans Asia Hotel. Williams was distraught. She was the proprietor of a pleasure yacht ‘Croft Original’ which was at the time lying at the yard at Colombo Engineering Enterprises in Colombo.
She had entrusted the repairs of this yacht to one Frank Wilfred Perera of No. 6, 7th Avenue, Alexandria Estate Jaela. She had remitted to the account of Wilfred Perera the sum of Sterling Pounds 9500 for the said repair to account number 8810002051 at the Commercial Bank at Jaela on April 24, 2002.
Wilfred Perera meanwhile had passed away on June 10, 2002 without being able to effect any repairs and Williams now proceeded to intervene in the testamentary proceedings 324/T for the recovery of this amount.
The late Wilfred Perera of course was interestingly connected. Sajin having divorced Charini De Silva married for the second time Wilfred Perera’s daughter, Dilrukshi, an airline stewardess. Pauline Edwina Williams also alleged that she had sent in October 2000 another sum of US$ 11,000 to Perera also for repairs but no repairs were done.
But Pauline had another grouse. It was obvious that Sajin was now getting involved in yacht repairs. Perhaps it was one reason why his father requested the top post at Sri Lanka Ports Authority during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership. A post that was denied him.
Be that as it may, Pauline Edwina Williams in her complaint to the Fraud Bureau stated that Sajin De Vass Gunawardena accepted a sum of US$ 8,000 for the repair of her yacht but no repairs were affected by him. As Williams was leaving the country she effected a Special Power of Attorney through K. P. Law Associates of 218 Hulfstdorp Street, Colombo 12 on September 27, 2002 appointing an associate to act as her attorney. He was empowered through the special power of attorney to appear before the Colombo Fraud Investigation Bureau or any other police station in respect of the complaint made against Sajin.
In fact the Fraud Bureau through Inspector Pillai (now ASP) obtained an arrest warrant and informed the person holding the power of attorney they were looking to arrest Sajin. The Fraud Bureau thereafter went to the Jaela residence at Alexandria Estate only to be told Sajin was working at Trico. At Trico the Fraud Bureau was told Sajin had left to work in their Dubai office.
Not long after Sajin was to be divorced from Wilfred’s daughter.
So it is this very disturbed and habitually fraudulent young man who had already been rejected by Ranil Wickremesinghe for his dubious track record who was now taken in by Rajapakse, desperate perhaps for English speaking personable young persons to flash up his act.
Anyway having invited the young man to work for him Rajapaksa winged his way back having been shown around Dubai by Sajin. When Sajin returned in 2003 he was to work for Rajapaksa. Immediately after the general election victory of the UPFA in 2004 and Rajapakse ascended the Prime Ministership and the Highways Ministry, Sajin was appointed General Manager of the Maga Neguma project. Later however he was accused of making over payments to a company run by one of his uncles who stood bail for him in the Sharma case and he was moved out from this position as consultant to the the Palaly runway and KKS breakwater rehabilitation projects.
Sajin was in fact so influential with the then Prime Minister Rajapaksa he would sit on invitation at board meetings of the Maga Neguma Road Construction Equipment Co. Ltd. even though he was not a form 48 bona fide director.
But if he was invaluable for whatever reason when Rajapaksa was prime minister and leader of the opposition he became even more useful during the presidential campaign last year.
Sajin booked in his name and on behalf of the Rajapaksa camp 25 rooms at the five star Cinnamon Grand Hotel to promote the Mahinda Chinthana campaign. The massive bills run up by those using the rooms were however paid regularly with Sajin coming over to the hotel personally and settling the bills. Sajin himself occupied one of the rooms.
However things became a little more sticky after Rajapaksa’s victory in November 2005. Almost all those who were occupying the rooms vacated them but there was an outstanding bill of well over Rs. 2 million. To the consternation of the hotel this bill was not settled.
However the Cinnamon Grand now resorted to ‘hostage’ taking in sheer desperation. Fortunately for them one single remnant of the Rajapaksa campaign camp remained. That was none other than Dayan Jayatilleka, who is a presidential advisor.
Lo and behold when Jayatilleka having possibly had enough of hotel life attempted to check out he was told that the hotel could not let him leave unless the outstanding bill is paid in full.
Apologising profusely, the hotel told him ‘we are very sorry but you are the only insurance we have to get our money back.’
Jayatilleka shot back, “don’t ask me, ask Sajin about this. He is supposed to make the payments.”
So Dayan stayed on as insurance while the hotel tried to contact Sajin who was not available for a couple of days. Nonetheless when the hotel finally reached him Sajin immediately told them, I will have the cash for you in half an hour. And as he promised, the cash of approximately over Rs. 2.5 million was paid and Jayatilleke released from ‘hotel’ arrest.
Question is how did Sajin have the money in half an hour? Has he declared these monies to income tax? Worse still is he collecting these from public funds with or without the knowledge of the President?
In the final analysis does a man with such a track record deserve to hold public office? As Coordinating Secretary to the Head of State at that? In President Rajapaksa’s book, we guess he does.
Sajin unavailable for comment
The Sunday Leader tried several times to reach Sajin’s office and get through to him on his mobile phone but could not do so. We thus left a message with a lady staffer in his office at the Presidential Secretariat and stated we were writing an article and would like to speak to him urgently in that regard.
We also verified with her Sajin’s email address and sent him a list of questions which we hope he would answer for publication in next week’s issue of The Sunday Leader.
*This article appeared on 2006 07 02 in The Sunday Leader