El Dorado

dorado2.jpg (19225 bytes)By Shamindra Ferdinando
When Fisheries and Ocean Resources Minister Mahinda Wijesekera flew to Kuala Lumpur in late May for a three-day official visit he was accompanied by his wife Ajantha who is also his private secretary.

The duo was there to represent the government in a conference and trade fair. She is Wijesekera’s private secretary from his PA days.

Health Minister P. Dayaratne was not alone when he flew to Geneva recently to represent the government at the 55th annual general meeting of the World Health Organisation (WHO). He was accompanied by his wife Deepthika who is also on the minister’s personal staff. Obviously they were not the only spouses cum private secretaries. Their visits were not isolated cases of spouses accompanying ministers as there are many similar tours over the years.

It is no secret that spouses of many ministers and MPs, both past and present function as their respective private secretaries of members of their personal staff. But in some cases, children, sometimes just out of their teens, have been included in their respective staff for obvious reasons. They have also included mothers, sons, daughters and daughter-in-laws on their respective personal staffs’.

There are many benefits including a full pension after being on respective personal staffs’ for just five years. Since J.R. Jayewardene’s government offered pensions to members of personal staffs’ of politicians over two decades ago, UNP and SLFP politicians have taken the full advantage of the opportunity. Staff members were given car permits, fuel allowance and a good salary.

"The PA cancelled vehicle permits later," laments a friend of mine who says he was about to receive a permit when the facility was withdrawn. But the cancellation came in year 2000. But other benefits remain and the possibility of the government re-introducing car permits cannot be ruled out.

The source agrees that most of them were keen to earn the right for a full pension. Imagine where else government servants can obtain full pension rights after working for just five years. MPs are also entitled for full pension rights after completing five years in parliament.

Ironically more and more political appointees have the opportunity to win full pension rights plus a gamut of other benefits including foreign travel as the ordinary people face the daunting task of earning enough to have three meals a day. Some of them go as far as the parliament.

During the PA administration, PA top guns had a six member personal staff. However, it was reduced to four by the government.

Gampaha District PA MP Jeyaraj Fernandopulle recently tabled a series of questions asking a selected group of ministers the names and designations of members of their personal staffs. Fernandopulle has asked them to reveal the relationship they had with any such staff members. Fernadopulle later alleged that Speaker Joseph Michael Perera has permitted part of the questions to stand, while removing that part of each question seeking information on the relationship between ministers and their staff members.

It is apparent Fernandopulle did not want to question the conduct of ministers but wanted to ridicule them. He wanted to prove that the UNP-led government which was highly critical of family members being named to the personal staffs of ministers of the PA administration, is doing the same.

Fernandopulle also some of the ministers on appointments made to various departments coming the purview of their respective ministries.

Mr. Sam Wijesinha, who long served as Secretary General of Parliament, said that the Speaker’s decision disallowing the part of the question on the relationships was correct. "Given that the official is paid by the government, it is in order to ask who the official is," he explained. "But not the relationship."

"Questions are meant to elicit public information, not to establish who your son-in-law is," he said.

It was also pointed out that relationships between ministers and their personal staff will not be part of departmental records from which information for answering parliamentary questions must be extracted. While the whole office would know that the minister’s wife is his private secretary, that information will not be on file.

Former Samurdhi, Rural Development, Parliamentary Affairs and Up-country Development minister S.B. Dissanayake’s wife Thamara was his private secretary. She is one of the lucky spouses as she remains private secretary to S.B who is the Agriculture, Livestock and Samurdhi minister in the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) government.

It would be interesting to name a few ministers of the previous administration who had their family members in their respective personal staffs. Provincial council and local government minister Nandimitra Ekanayake’s wife, Manel was his private secretary until he quit the PA in late 2001 along with S.B.Dissanayake-led dissidents.

Ekanayake who contested the last parliamentary elections in December on UNP ticket failed to return to parliament. Nandimitra Ekanayake’s brother, Sarath was his private secretary when he was in charge of the forestry and environment minister. Sarath Ekanayake stayed with the PA even after his brother quit the party.

Former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake who held the plantation portfolio named wife Kusum, as his secretary.

SLFP heavyweight and the former Buddha Sasana Minister Lakshman Jayakody appointed his wife Pamitha as his private secretary. She clashed publicly with the premier’s wife over Seva Vanitha.

Former Urban Development, Construction and Public Utilities Minister Mangala Samaraweera had his mother as his private secretary.

Mrs. Ramani Karaliyadde was the former Indigenous Medicine Minister Tissa Karaliyadde’s private secretary.

Former labour minister Alavi Moulana’s son Nakeeb was his private secretary.

Former highways Minister A.H.M.Fowzie had his daughter-in-law, Fara, as his private secretary. She is married to his son Nauzer.

Former Food and Marketing Development Minister Reggie Ranatunga named one of his sons, Prasanna, as his private secretary. His wife, a sister of Sena Gunasekera who had been private secretary to Dr. N.M.Perera, too had been a one time secretary to Ranatunga when he was a deputy minister. But she was identified by her family name.

PA General Secretary and former Agriculture Minister D.M. Jayaratne’s wife, Anula, was his private secretary. But she went as Anula Yapa.

Former Youth Minister Jeewan Kumaratunga’s wife, Shereen, was his private secretary.

The list is long. The ex- Higher Education Minister Indika Gunawardene appointed his wife, Padmini, as his private secretary. Mrs. D.S. Semasinghe was the former Co-operatives Development Minister H.B. Semasinghe’s private secretary.

Former Land Development and Minor Export Agriculture Minister Salinda Dissanayake’s wife, Manjula was his private secretary.

Mrs.A.R. Herath was the private secretary to the former Rural Industrial Development Minister Maheepala Herath.

Former Cultural Affairs Monty Gopallawa appointed his daughter as his private secretary.

It was no secret most of the private secretaries had the opportunity to accompany their respective ministers abroad on state expense.

Former Health minister John Seneviratne was no exception. His wife Khema Seneviratne was his private secretary.

Former Transport Minister and MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardene made his brother Geethanjana his private secretary.

It is obvious that family members and close relatives have not being only chosen as private secretaries. They have been able to work as private secretaries, co-ordinating secretaries and in some cases as public relations officers.

Former Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister Mahinda Rajapakse appointed his wife Shiranthi as his co-ordinating officer while another SLFP heavyweight Nimal Siripala de Silva had his wife, Mrs C.I de Silva as his private secretary.

Former Deputy Minister of Health and Indigenous Medicine S.B.Navinna appointed his son Shaminda his private secretary.

Ministers are able to appoint a six member personal staff. It includes a private secretary and four co-ordinating secretaries to handle different subjects including media and trade union related work.

Former Deputy Industrial Minister Athula Nimalasiri Jayasinghe’s wife Malini was his public relations officer while Mrs. T. Kamini Dhammika was his private secretary. She was believed to be the wife of another member of the deputy minister’s personal staff.

Mrs Visakha Wickremaratne was former Internal and International Commerce and Food Minister Kingsley T. Wickremaratne’s parliamentary affairs co-ordinator.

Former Deputy Minister of Justice, Constitutional Affairs, Ethnic Affairs and National Integration P.B.G.Kalugalle did something unique. His two daughters, Indira and Mala were appointed the privately secretary and co-ordinating secretary respectively. Ironically they contested each other at parliamentary elections. Both were unsuccessful.

Irrigation Minister H.G.P. Nelson has done what Kalugalle did years ago. He has appointed his sons, Kings and Gamini as his private secretary and media secretary respectively.

Former Deputy Transport and Highways Minister Athauda Seneviratne appointed miss Yamuna Athauda as his private secretary.

Former Deputy Telecommunications Minister M.L.A.M. Hisbullah had Mrs Rameeza Hisbullah as his public relations officer.

I want to remind you I have not mentioned appoints made by successive UNP governments between 1977 to 1994. There were many.

The SLFP which returned to power in August 1994 shamelessly gave appointments to family members and relatives. The remaining few vacancies were filled by political associates. Nepotism at its highest.

Remember social services minister Berty Premalal Dissanayake who quit the parliament to contest the provincial council elections and was appointed the Chief Minister of the north-central province by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Mrs. Jaani Dissanayake was his private secretary.

The present government which was critical of the PA has done the same. Minister W.J.M. Lokubanda has appointed his wife as the private secretary while Central Region Development Minister Tissa Attanayake has named his wife Mala Damayanthi as his private secretary.

Industries Minister Rohitha Bogollagama has his wife Deepthi as his private secretary.

Co-operatives minister A.R.M. Abdul Cader has appointed Mrs S.F. Cader as his private secretary.

SLMC leader and minister Rauff Hakeem too has included his relatives among the personal staff. His brothers have been appointed the minister’s media consultant and a co-ordinating secretary. There were allegations that the Sri Lanka Ports Authority has released 159 employees so far and attached them to the minister’s personal staff. They include two dozen drivers.

Hakeem’s predecessor, A.H.M.Ashraff had his wife Ferial Ashraff on his personal staff.

Home affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Alick Aluvihare has appointed one of his sons, Daljith as his private secretary.

Interior Minister John Amaratunga has Lal Ratnayake, a senior retired policeman who happened to be a close relative as his private secretary.

Government heavyweight Dr. Rajitha Senaratne has his wife Dr (Mrs) Sujatha Senaratne as his private secretary.

Public Administration, Management and Reforms Minister Vajira Abeywardene has his wife Namal as his private secretary while Women’s Affairs Minister Amara Piyaseeli Ratnayake has her son, Manjula Bandara as her private secretary.

Minister Lal Gamage too has his wife Dharshani as his private secretary.

Mrs. Kamala Jayatilleke is Minister H.R.Jayatilleke Podinilame’s private secretary.

Minister Ravindra Samaraweera has wife Seetha as his private secretary.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister A.H.M.Azwer’s son M Azwer is his private secretary while State Transport Minister A. Piyasoma Upali’s wife is also on his personal staff.

It would not be long before our politicians find a way to make advanced appointments in a bid to create vacancies for their grandsons and granddaughters.

The list is not complete. It will continue to grow while politicians from both sides talk of belt tightening as part of the measures to overcome economic difficulties while being in the government and do something entirely different when they return to power.