Clearing or Laying Land Mines with Friends and Family?

by Rajeewa Jayaweera

A recent full page advertisement, carried out and paid for by the Ministry of National Policy & Economic Affairs headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was indeed thought provoking. Its headline was "The Landmines that have Wrecked the Economy". The text stated "State-owned enterprises are heavily in debt to domestic and foreign banks to the tune of 1,042.8 billion rupees. The SriLankan Airlines share alone is approximately Rs 212 billion. Keep in mind that these are only the liabilities that have surfaced so far. Handing over these institutions to friends and family members of politicians as well as gross mismanagement facilitated corruption, waste and the illegal use of budgeted funds. With better policies and management, we have managed to repay 100 billion rupees of the outstanding debts these institutions have accumulated. And this is only 10% of what we owe! These debt-ridden institutions constitute a minefield that stands in the way of progress. We cannot and will not pass on this burden to our children and future generations." The advertisement ended with "Instead of seeking short-term political benefits we will take prudent and decisive steps to resolve this unprecedented debt crisis."

The legality and ethics of ministries carrying paid advertisements in state owned and private publications, especially with messages carrying political content is best left for another day.

The most curious part of the advertisement was "Handing over these institutions to friends and family members of politicians." We are all aware of the promises made by both the President and Prime Minister prior to Presidential and Parliamentary elections of eradicating nepotism and family bandyism, turned into a fine art by the Rajapaksa administration. That said, the past 15 months has seen members of the Yahapalanaya administration indulging in similar acts of nepotism and family bandyism. An entire newspaper will not suffice to list out the various acts of nepotism and family bandyism of this administration. Two glaring examples will suffice for the purpose, one of which was raised by Trade Unions immediately prior to the Sinhala New Year break. The silence thereafter suggests unions may have been silenced.

Chairman Sri Lanka Telecom

Having informed the initial 27 member interim cabinet appointed to oversee the 100 Day Program to "earn back the respect of the people", one of the first appointments made by the President was that of his sibling Kumarasinghe Sirisena as Chairman of state owned Sri Lanka Telecom.

A holder of dual degrees in Public Admin Management and Management and a Post Graduate Diploma in Accountancy and Financial Management, sibling Sirisena had previously worked as Coordinating Secretary to his brother, in the capacity of Director in several state organizations and CEO / General Manager of State Timber Corporation till he was sacked once his brother announced his candidature for the presidential elections.

Whether sibling Sirisena holds requisite experience to be appointed as Chairman of one of Sri Lanka’s biggest state owned enterprises is debatable. Nevertheless, the primary reason is that of an accident of birth being, born to the same parents as the President.

The Sri Lanka Telecom Trade Union Alliance has been demanding sibling Sirisena’s removal for alleged financial extortions of SLT assets and unethical practices. Some of the other allegations by the Trade Union Alliance include obtaining employment for his son in SLT owned Mobitel who has undertaken several overseas trips during his probation period, appointment of a close friend to the SLT Board and appointment of a favoured Advertising Agency to handle the Mobitel account.

Sirisena is also accused by the unions of making the SLT Board approve a Housing Allowance of Rs 750,000 a month. The subject minister has found fault with the SLT Board for not keeping him apprised of Board decisions and developments at SLT.

These are all signs of gross abuse of power by a presidential sibling similar to abuses of the Rajapaksa clan.

National Carrier SriLankan Airlines

It is no secret the Board of the national carrier is packed mostly with close friends and associates of the Prime Minister. Professional back ground of most of them including the Chairman indicates little they could contribute to the development of the airline. Nevertheless, they have been appointed as Board members. It is rumoured the board for some time has been divided into two camps.

The CEO’s appointment saw the board divided for the first time some time in mid 2015. The CEO is the brother of Charitha Ratwatte, a very close confidant of the Prime Minister. The CEO became the finalist under dubious circumstances and a tie ensued in a board vote. The Chairman using his casting vote ensured the appointment was approved.

Subsequently, in the appointment of the Chief Commercial Officer, the board had been split three for and five against. The board decision was overturned by a Prime Ministerial directive.

The CEO’s employment contract specified a six month probation period which was nearing completion. In view of the current volatile situation of the airline, it was decided by a majority of board members to extend the CEO’s probation period. Meanwhile, the Airline Pilots Guild of Sri Lanka had written to the Chairman on 26 April informing of the "loss of confidence in the current CEO" by its membership. During the board meeting held on Thursday, 28 April instructions had been received from both the Prime Minister and the subject Minister to confirm the CEO to his post.

Should the airline be made a public private enterprise as announced recently by the Prime Minister, the first person to be replaced by the new management will be the CEO. No new company retains a former CEO. If that be the case, the present CEO who is now confirmed to his post will have to be compensated by paying millions of rupees.

These are but two of the examples of ‘Helping Friends & Family’ policy of the present dispensation. Similar cases are taking place starting with the Colombo Port and in almost all Ministries, Boards, Corporations and state owned enterprises. The President and Prime Minister, who themselves practice ‘Helping Friends & Family’ are not in a position to prevent Ministers from employing friends and family in establishments under their purview. It is a far cry from the pre-election promise of eradicating nepotism and family bandyism.

Such perfidious acts have been common practice since 1970. It is a case of ‘old wine with a new label’. However, using public funds for advertisements stating the previous regime "handed over state institutions to friend and family members of politicians as well as gross mismanagement facilitated corruption, wastage and the illegal use of budgeted funds" while indulging in the same practices is deceitful.

It would be appropriate to conclude by quoting Abraham Lincoln’s famous epigram ‘You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time’.


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