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FINANCIAL CHRONICLE™ » ECONOMIC CHRONICLE™ » UNP's Best Business Buddies and How Mahaweli Projects, Rupavahini Building Construction, Katunayake Airport Runway Construction was Corrupted in J.R. Jayawardene Era - Sunday Times

UNP's Best Business Buddies and How Mahaweli Projects, Rupavahini Building Construction, Katunayake Airport Runway Construction was Corrupted in J.R. Jayawardene Era - Sunday Times

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Business Basil


Manager - Equity Analytics
Manager - Equity Analytics
UNP's business buddies 1977-94

By Paakshikaya

As you can see Viruddha Paakshikaya, I am only giving a background of the Business of Politics or the Politics of Business-whichever- about the UNP's past with the murky world of business with cut-throat intrigue. This, Viruddha Paakshikaya is only a prelude to the next instalment.

Reading through the long litany by my friend, Viruddha Paakshikaya last week, I felt he was writing like a man possessed, losing all sense of objectivity.

He (or she) had challenged me to produce Ranil Wickremesinghe's Top Ten business personalities, asking me to find a large magnifying glass and saying, I didn't have even three names. So, Viruddha Paakshikaya was all excited; why? I'm told Siri Kotha and Cambridge Terrace were all agog, some scrambling to get into the Top Ten and some to get out of it!

Well, Viruddha Paakshikaya, what I promised I shall deliver, but I'm in no hurry to please your deadlines. So, let's begin at the beginning of what must be a long essay. And, to do that, we must take a look at those who were UNP beneficiaries since 1977 when the UNP "opened" the economy.

For example, there was Mitsui Corporation of Japan. They were awarded several construction contracts including the new Parliament Complex, the Rupavahini Corporation and the Airport runway. They were only required to give jobs to J.R. Jayewardene's relatives. They also gave legitimate commissions to their local agents.

Then there were the local agents of companies involved in the many construction projects of the Mahaveli project. They were agents for the likes of Skanska and Balfour Beatty, which supported the JRJ regime. And, those who got spin-offs from the contracts at Mahaveli later became financial backers of Gamini Dissanayake. They were the transport agents, those who provided the cement, heavy machinery etc. They would not only finance Gamini Dissanayake's political objectives, but also undertake contracts like constructing a pavilion for his old school!

Gamini Dissanayake also had Finco - (Remember, Viruddha Paakshikaya, how S.P. Amarasingham of The Tribune said the Mahaveli flows not to Trinco but to Finco!) - a firm of his in-laws.

If those were the suave, English educated urban businessmen, in Christian Dior short sleeves shirts and tie, there was R. Premadasa with his coterie of indigenous businessmen - the self made Sinhalese businessman in white sarong and shirt.

There was S.M.A. Aloysius alias Aloysius Mudalali, Kattar Aloysius of Free Lanka Trading, a rare breed because he was a friend of Premadasa, Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali!

Then there was Nawaloka Mudalali, H.K. Dharmadasa, who was really a fan of J.R. Jayewardene (JR said at the opening of his hospital that had he been monarch of England he would say, "Rise, Sir Nawaloka" and knight him. Instead, Dharmadasa got the 'Deshabandu' award and ironically, JRJ breathed his last at the same hospital he opened).

Anyway Nawaloka Mudalali was a UNPer and Premadasa was a party man, so their interests didn't clash. So whenever Premadasa appealed to the people to hoist the National Flag on February fourth, Nawaloka Mudalali made a handsome profit. "Mudalali" as he was known those days also kept a line open to Premadasa through a super secretary at that time considered to be the Vice-President of Sri Lanka under the Premadasa Presidency.

The 'Grayline' Wijeratnes were also Premadasa's men running a luxury intercity bus service but had some 3000 of their jackpot machines destroyed overnight when Premadasa ran foul of Joe Sim and his casinos. Yet, the Grayline people bounced back under D.B Wijetunga but that is another story.

Premadasa also backed the Casino types. Aloysius Mudalali opened the first casino in Sri Lanka "next door" to Janadhipathi Mawatha. When others in the UNP wanted to close down casinos, Premadasa howled saying so many jobs would be lost. But close them he did when he thought Joe Sim had become too friendly with his family.

Then there was Lalith Athulathmudali who as Minister of Trade and Shipping had a natural reason to befriend the commercial world. But rather than be befriended by the traditional lot, he built his own loyalists by giving them breaks to do business. People like Chanaka De Silva were foremost among them. De Silva a former Royal College opening bowler had worked at Lewis Browns. He became an agent for Mitsui and was to later purchase Kelani Tyres.

So, basically the players at the time were Premadasa, Dissanayake and Athulathmudali- the three musketeers of the UNP, each preparing for the post - JR Presidential stakes. They all knew they needed financial resources to compete with each other. JRJ gave them Housing, the Port and the Mahaveli. So they could use government machinery to cut each others neck, so that his own was saved.

Perhaps another who ran in this race would be Ronald Joseph Godfrey de Mel who wanted to be something more than being a finance Minister. But he was jittery about Upali Wjewardena, the country's most colourful entrepreneur at the time who said, modestly that his intention was to be like the famous World War II German leader Erhard who said, "First Finance Minister, then Chancellor (Erhad succeeded but Upali didn't neither did Ronnie)

This dislike of Upali Wijewardena made Ronnie de Mel and Premadasa form an alliance of convenience against the "common enemy"-Upali and that too helped JRJ who did what the British did-divide and rule.

Now among these- apart from Aloysius there was a group which was able to keep everybody in the UNP happy: the Rajahs They had JR in their left pocket, Premadasa in their right pocket, Dissanayake in their shirt pocket and Athulathmudali in their hip pocket, but let's put all this in perspective Viruddha Paakshikaya.

Athulathmudali really, was their lawyer. When he was practising as Minister of Trade he did business with them, but I concede there were no allegations of impropriety or favouritism. JR also maintained good relations with them and again there were no allegations of impropriety other than possibly when he argued their case with officials of the Insurance Corporation after some factories of the Rajahs were burnt down out during the 1983 July riots to obtain higher compensation.

As for Dissanayake and the Rajahs, it was one school chum of his, whose name unfortunately rhymes with 'crook' who dealt with him. Then there was also the Rajah's London correspondent who would look after Dissanayake when the latter was in Old Blighty.

Dissanayake, of course was blessed with school boyish good looks and was a charming man. He made easy friends with the rich and famous-Upali Wijewardena and even Harry Stassen Jayawardena. He was apolitical when it came to business buddies and he regarded the Rajahs as one of them.

But it was Premadasa who was Number One with the Rajahs. After all the Rajahs knew he was only a heart beat away from the Presidency, being Prime Minister to a President, though fit, was in his eighties. So much so that the Rajahs who had not done too well during the SLFP's 1970-77 rule advertised one day in the newspapers in 1978 that they had 40-odd agencies for world wide companies, for instance for Parker pens. When the principals came to Sri Lanka, tea with the PM at the Parliamentary complex was a sure fixture on the schedule but Premadasa would never talk business - only small talk: " How long are you here for? and "Where are you going from here? But ask any businessman and he will tell you how important it is to show off that you can get your principal to have tea with the Prime Minister of the country!

But the 1983 riots did hurt them and since then like most businessmen anyway, they began siphoning off monies, mostly to Australia and the Australian High Commission in Colombo perks up when their passports arrive while lesser mortals have to hang around and suffer the ignominy of harassment for visa!

When Premadasa became president, the Rajahs became emperors. Everything had fallen into place. A lingam ( Who was by now in their coat pocket) had become the most important man in Sri Lanka next to the President. Everything financial had to go through this man. The power of the Rajahs at this time was illustrated in this story:

You see, Viruddha Paakshikaya, the Rajahs work on a Commission basis - they have several freelancers in the field when tenders are called. They provide them with some pocket money for incidental expenses- taking an official for dinner at the Hilton or offering some cash to a Technical Evaluation Committee member- even a Minister. The freelancers have to clinch the deal and prove they did it. Then the Rajahs dole out their commissions because they are also really the agents for the tenderers.

One of these freelancers was a crook. He was absolutely with Gamini Dissanayake, who had fallen out with Premadasa during the halcyon days of the impeachment, and Premadasa wanted the crook sacked as a free-lancer of the Rajahs. It had been discovered that Dissanayake had been given funds and a vehicle for his political work against Premadasa. The Rajahs stood firm. They told Premadasa to go to hell-metaphorically of course. It just shows the clout they had with a UNP President because they knew he couldn't do without them -and vice versa too.

They were able to get the Airbuses purchased for AirLanka and when the Eels tendered by offering Boeing aircraft the wrath of the President fell on them. The state run Observer at that time lashed the pants out of the Directors of Eels who learned the lesson of their lives- not to mess around with the Rajahs. And what followed was that the Rajahs, the agents for an obscure Middle Eastern airline, became local collaborators for AirLanka. And Viruddha Paakshikaya complains beating his strident drum when our government merges AirLanka with Emirates, picked as the No. 1 airline of the world!

But what happened next was the LTTE assassinated Premadasa and the otherwise shrewd Rajahs never bargained that the gentle Dingiri Banda Wijetunga would be President of the Republic on May 1, 1993

Now it was not that Wijetunga would have been averse to some help from the Rajahs. But when you are blinded by making money you forget little things like looking after others. So Dearly Beloved Wijetunga shut the door firmly in the face of the Rajahs, though some say it was a communal minded decision

He had his own breed of men to nurture and promote-The Earls of Gunasekara, the Nilames of Kataragama and the like. And one Rajah looked to us in the SLFP in total desperation! By this time they (the Rajahs) no doubt backed Dissanayake as a stand by choice but the October 1994 bomb dashed their hopes with the UNP. Undeterred, they hitched their wagon to the rising stars in our own party- with ulterior motives of creaming the little fat that was left in this land.

I do concede, Viruddha Paakshikaya, in all this, Ranil Wickremesinghe kept aloof. Viruddha Paakshikaya refers to a story that the Rajahs sent him a big bouquet of flowers when he became leader of the House and that Ranil had told a nosey friend who queried from where they were: "new appointments, new friends."

It just goes to show how the Rajahs operate; The only problem they had was they forgot to send flowers to D.B. Wijetunga!

Now, I can almost see Viruddha Paakshikaya saying, "so where's the Top Ten of Ranil Wickremesinghe that you promised?"

Well, I did say that Ranil Wickremesinghe, had kept aloof from all this business of business from 1977 to 1994 when the UNP ran riot in Sri Lanka, when contending party leaders were competing for the hands of businessmen and gave them favours in return for their patronage of political work.

But what of now? Ranil Wickremesinghe is the Leader of the UNP. Viruddha Paakshikaya will surely agree that no businessman, in his right sense would not 'cultivate" Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Even in the 1977-94 period Ranil Wickremesinghe was no insignificant pup in the UNP regime especially after he became Minister of Industries and then Prime Minister for 15 months.

He once went to the Paris Aid Consortium. He had negotiated with the United States on garment quotas. He bailed out one or two companies that had got into serious financial difficulties.

He was the friend of some non-political business groups-the Singers, the John Keells, the Ceylon Group, the Tobacco company to name a few -who had kept their links with all parties and governments without getting involved in political wheeler dealing and financing as far as we know.

As you can see Viruddha Paakshikaya, I am only giving a background of the Business of Politics or the Politics of Business -whichever- about the UNP's past with the murky world of business with cut-throat intrigue. This, Viruddha Paakshikaya is only a prelude to the next instalment.

So I will bide my time, my friend. Today's information will help you and our readers - to judge whether those in Ranil Wickremesinghe's Top Ten- when they are revealed -are any better or much worse than the lot that have been rewarded with an honourable mention today.!

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/980802/news5.html

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