By Colombo Telegraph –
“In reality, economic decisions are often made by President Rajapaksa and his brothers, with input from a handful of trusted economic advisors. A number of well connected business leaders and academics agreed that economic decision making is opaque, but key decision making is made by a very tight circle, usually President Rajapaksa and his two brothers.” the US Embassy Colombo informed Washington.
A leaked US diplomatic cable details the situation of the economic decision-making process in Sri Lanka. The Colombo Telegraph found the cable from WikiLeaks database. The cable written on 17th November 2009, classified as “CONFIDENTIAL” by the Deputy Chief of Mission Valerie Fowler.
Under the subheading “Comment” the US Ambassador Patricia A. Butenis wrote “Econoff has found that many local business leaders are well connected, and thus benefited from Sri Lanka’s personalized economic decision making. …. Although decision-making is far from transparent, it pays to be a member of the cozy club who knows right people.”
Under the subject of “Formal GSL Process” Butenis wrote “ Sri Lanka’s formal process for economic decision making is focused of the Finance Ministry, but included input from line Ministries and private sector. The GSL has over 100 Ministries, and many Ministers hold their office for purely political reasons. If a Ministry plans to change economic policy, it must first seek approval from the National Planning Commission in the Finance Ministry. If approved then it makes a formal request to the Finance Ministry.”
Under the subheading the US Ambassador Butenis wrote “President Rajapaksa serves as his own Finance Minister. Finance Secretary Jayasundara has by far the most influence over the Rajapaksas, he runs the Finance Ministry, and he has taken change of economic policy since his return to power. Several others, such as Central Bank Governor Cabral and Minister for export Development and International Trade G.L Peiris have input, particularly on their direct issues. Our contacts repeatedly emphasized that economic policy is usually trumped by short-term political considerations and made ad hoc basis. The official government channels are much less important. The NCED had been sleepy and fallen into disuse.” “Although Jayasundera and Cabraal were close collaborators in 2005, we have since heard there has been a falling out. Our contacts believe that Jayasundara has established himself as the primary economic advisor to President Rajapaksa.” Butenis further wrote.
Read the full cable for further details;
VZCZCXRO9924 PP RUEHBI RUEHCI DE RUEHLM #1040/01 3210606 ZNY CCCCC ZZH P 170606Z NOV 09 FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0769 INFO RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA PRIORITY 2044 RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD PRIORITY 9072 RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU PRIORITY 7314 RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI PRIORITY 3469 RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI PRIORITY 9635 RUEHKP/AMCONSUL KARACHI PRIORITY 2568 RUEHCI/AMCONSUL KOLKATA PRIORITY 0454 RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI PRIORITY 6929 RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC PRIORITY RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHDC PRIORITY C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 COLOMBO 001040 SIPDIS E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/17/2019 TAGS: CE ECON EFIN PGOV SUBJECT: SRI LANKA,S PERSONALIZED SYSTEM OF ECONOMIC DECISION MAKING REF: COLOMBO 981 Classified By: Deputy Chief of Mission Valerie Fowler for Reasons 1.4 ( b,d) ¶1. (C) Summary. The real power to make economic policy appears to transcend the formal government policy channels and focus on the influence of President Rajapaksa and his circle. According to our contacts, the new Secretary to the Treasury, P.B. Jayasundera, is the policymaker with the most influence on economic policy. Jayasundera, along with several other key economic advisors, are well educated, and they have crossed party lines to remain economic advisors through the last three administrations. Econoff has noticed that contacts were quite reluctant to discuss the Sri Lankan process of economic decision-making. Sri Lanka's well connected business leaders seem reasonably comfortable with these arrangements. End Summary. Formal GSL Process ¶2. (SBU) Sri Lanka's formal process for economic decision making is focused on the Finance Ministry, but includes input from line Ministries and the private sector. The GSL has over 100 Ministers (over half of their Parliament), and many Ministers hold their office for purely political reasons. If a Ministry plans to change economic policy, it must first seek approval from the National Planning Commission in the Finance Ministry. If approved, then it makes a formal request to the Finance Ministry. There is also a mechanism for Ministries to consult with the private sector through the National Councils for Economic Development (NCED). The NCED has 27 clusters, organized by industrial sector that meet regularly to provide feedback to the GSL. In addition, if the proposed policy requires funding, the Finance Ministry must also approve and incorporate the policy into the national budget. The Finance Ministry consults with the cabinet and the President for major decisions. ¶3. (SBU) Economic Policy can also be formulated by different means from the Presidential level. President Rajapaksa heads the National Economic Council, which also includes: the President's Secretary; the Finance Secretary; the Governor of the Central Bank; the head of the Board of Investment (which promotes investment into Sri Lanka); Saman Kelegama, head of the government-aligned think tank Institute for Policy Studies; and Dr. Lloyd Fernando, with the Postgraduate Management Institute. The GSL can also appoint a special blue ribbon commission. For example, the GSL is planning a major overhaul of its tax system, and President Rajapaksa has appointed a Presidential Commission on Taxation to come up with recommendations. How it Actually Works ¶4. (C) In reality, economic decisions are often made by President Rajapaksa and his brothers, with input from a handful of trusted economic advisors. A number of well connected business leaders and academics agreed that economic decision making is opaque, but key decision making is made by a very tight circle, usually President Rajapaksa and his two brothers. President Rajapaksa serves as his own Finance Minister. Finance Secretary Jayasundera has by far the most influence over the Rajapaksas, he runs the Finance Ministry, and he has taken change of economic policy since his return to power. Several other officials, such as Central Bank Governor Cabraal and Minister for Export Development and International Trade G.L. Peiris have input, particularly on their direct issues. Our contacts repeatedly emphasized that economic policy is usually trumped by short-term political considerations and made on an ad hoc basis. The official government channels are much less important, since many Ministers have little real influence. The NCED had been sleepy and fallen into disuse, but Secretary Jayasundera has started to reinvigorate the NCED to strategize and direct economic policy. Secretary Jayasundera is pushing for further implementation of President Rajapaksa's election manifesto Mahinda's Thoughts,, which outlines his economic strategy. Characteristics of Economic Decision Makers COLOMBO 00001040 002 OF 003 ¶5. (C) The key Sri Lanka economic decision makers -- Treasury Secretary Jayasundera, Central Bank President Cabraal, and Minister of Export Development and International Trade Peiris -- share several characteristics: they are intelligent and well educated and they have crossed party lines to work for the last several administrations. Finance Secretary Jayasundera, for example, holds Master's and Doctorate degrees in Economics from Boston University, and a Master's Degree in Developmental Economics from Williams College. Jayasundera has served as a consultant to the IMF and World Bank. He was the Secretary of Finance under President Kumaratunga (leftist SLFP party) from 1999-2001 and 2004-2005, as well as the Chairman of the Public Enterprises Reform, Sri Lanka's Privatization Agency, under the rightist UNF government from 2002-2003, before returning as the Secretary to the Finance in the current leftist administration. As an example of his ideological flexibility, Jayasundera was in charge of privatizations in the previous rightist United National Front government, but he is now the leading economic policymaker in an administration that opposes all privatizations. Similarly, Minister Peiris is a former Rhodes Scholar and academic who also served in prominent positions in President Kumaratunga's and the UNF government. Peiris departed the rightist UNP party to join the government in 2007. Central Bank Governor Cabraal was an Eisenhower Fellow, a member of the rightist UNP who crossed over to the leftist SLFP in 2005, and former President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka. ¶6. (C) Secretary Jayasundera and Governor Cabraal were the architects of Candidate Rajapaksa,s 2005 economic policy manifesto Mahinda Chintana ( Mahinda's Thoughts,) that promotes a nationalist economic policy. Although Jayasundera and Cabraal were close collaborators in 2005, we have since heard that there has been a falling out. Our contacts believe that Jayasundera has established himself as the primary economic advisor to President Rajapaksa. Cabraal has less general influence and works on issues critical to the Central Bank, such as monetary policy, and promotes Sri Lanka as a destination for foreign investment. The Return of the King ¶7. (C) As described in reftel, Secretary Jayasundera was recently reappointed as Treasury Secretary after one yea r away due to his involvement in a scandal. Jayasundera was accused of reducing the market value of the state owned enterprise Lanka Marine Service when it was privatized and sold to local conglomerate John Keells Holdings. In October 2008 Jayasundera agreed to pay a fine of 500,000 rupees (approximately $4,400 USD) and filed an agreement with the Sri Lankan Supreme Court in which he agreed never to hold public office again. Although some contacts claim that the case 3aa`xwQrvU|GRMRc=za9 uNt5I|Q45j$office as scheduled, President Rajapaksa requested that Jayasundera return as Treasury Secretary for the good of the country. The Supreme Court allowed Jayasundera to withdraw his promise never to serve in public office in October, and two days later President Rajapaksa reappointed Jayasundera as Finance Secretary. ¶8. (C) Although Jayasundera is described as an economic nationalist, local business leaders were very pleased that he has returned to a position of influence in government. President Rajapaksa had appointed a quiet civil servant as Finance Secretary. A well connected contact described the Finance Ministry as "paralyzed" when Jayasundera was out of government. Jayasundera also continued to coordinate economic issues behind the scenes even during his year out of power. One business contact related that when he had problems with the GSL, he went to Jayasundera in a private capacity, and he fixed the problem right away. Several business contacts have praised Jayasundera as a guy who can get things done., However, several contacts have stated that the Finance Ministry staff is weak, so Jayasundera takes care of many issues personally. COLOMBO 00001040 003 OF 003 Example of Economic Decision Making: Interest Rate Reduction ¶9. (SBU) The GSL recently ordered a reduction in lending interest rates by state banks, which illustrates Finance Secretary Jayasundera's influence and GSL,s willingness to intervene in the market. The GSL was frustrated that, despite much lower inflation rates, lending interest rates remained high and domestic lending was stagnant. On October 27, in order to jump start the economy, President Rajapaksa ordered that state banks cut their interest rates by 7% from 15-22% to 8-12%, in loans to certain sectors like agriculture and infrastructure. State banks cover at least 37% of the banking industry, and private banks feel pressure to follow suit to keep their best customers. President Rajapaksa made the decision after meeting with the state banks and Finance Secretary Jayasundera. Although the decision concerned interest rates, clearly in the Central Bank's realm of responsibility, Governor Cabraal was not consulted. Although local businesses were generally pleased, the state banks already have high non-performing loan ratios, and it is unclear if the private banks can afford these new lending interest rates. Reluctance To Discuss Economic Policy Making ¶10. (C) Business leaders, academics and government officials were clearly quite concerned about making comments to econoff how economic decision making actually works in Sri Lanka. Several contacts nervously confirmed that econoff's notes would be treated confidentially and emphasized that they did not want to be quoted by name. Econoff also noticed that these contacts were much more candid when they were alone, and tended to clam up if their staff were about. As another example, a prominent opposition-affiliated economist felt that he was on relatively safe ground criticizing the government's economic policy in English, but he was very worried when he was interviewed on television on the same subjects in the common Sinhala language. ¶11. (C) Comment. Econoff has found that many local business leaders are well connected, and thus benefit from Sri Lanka's personalized economic decision making. Although Secretary Jayasundera can be difficult, there was widespread relief among business types when he returned to government. Although decision-making is far from transparent, it pays to be a member of the cozy club who knows the right people. End Comment. BUTENIS