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The sleepy village of Lunuoya in Eluwankulama in the Puttalam District, surrounded by thick jungles, gripped with fear of terrorist attacks, had passed through a hard day. The only unusual event was the rain earlier in the day, which ended months of drought.
A few minutes into midnight last Tuesday, Somapala was awakened by the sound of footsteps and voices. Sensing something unusual, he raised his voice and wanted to know who had entered the compound. The kerosene lamp in his wattle and daub hut helped him to figure out that 10 persons dressed in military fatigues and armed with automatic weapons and swords and wearing slippers were standing beside him.
Somapala, himself a cripple, shouted out, "Kauda Kauda" but one of the armed men flashed a torch at him and pushed him down. It took little time to realize that terrorists had entered the village. It was only last year that terrorists had fired at an army vehicle. Earlier five soldiers were killed, but the villagers still continued to remain in the area.
Somapala's immediate reaction was to pray to God to save them. The terrorists next entered the house, went into the kitchen and took away a gunny bag of rice. Then they caught hold of 7-year-old Dinesh and twisted his arm at which his 10-year-old brother, Ranil Krishantha appealed to them not to beat his brother. The response was a few more blows. The terrorists tied the hands of the inmates who were ordered to stand up.
In the kitchen, some of the terrorists were seen setting a few wires and fitting a device, which later turned out to be explosives. Somapala and nine others including his daughter, son-in-law and three children were going through some terrible moments.
When Somapala's daughter resisted a terrorist harassing one of her children, an order went out in Tamil.
That was the beginning of another brutal massacre of innocent children, women and men.
Those shot, fell one over the other. Renuka, 31 years, was feeding her baby, who fell too under the weight of the mother. It was a gory scene of blood, splattered all over the room.
Somapala then started to turn over the others, to find that his touch made another injured person, show signs of life. That was his nephew Ranjith. Together they started to check on the bodies. He saw his daughter Renuka's body. Her infant still was sucking at the mother's breast, bubbling with life.
He told Ranjith to douse the fires if he could, while he tried to get out. But it was useless, as there were two terrorists yet in the doorway. They did not see Ranjith, who managed to run for life in the dark.
Beautiful Charmila who went to Lebanon to help her poor family last year is back with horrifying tale of torture by her mistress, attempted suicide, repeated rape by a policeman and a child of his lust in her womb.
How many more sordid stories must we hear about our women who go in search of black gold till something effective is done?
Charmila, 19, is yet another victim. Her story is both shocking and inhuman. She says she was raped by a police officer, when she escaped from her master's home in Lebanon. Pregnant and lost, she returned to the country a few days ago.
Through an agent in her village she left for Lebanon in November last year. The first month of her stay had been good. But problems had started later.
"My mistress was very wicked. She kept on telling me that I was too beautiful and that her husband would marry me. So she ill-treated me a lot. They had two children but neither of the parents took much care of them. It was I who looked after them. I had to sleep in the kitchen without a pillow" she said.
There had been times when she had not been given food and even asked not to have a bath for two months.
The mistress had gone to the extent of cutting her thick black hair. "But the master of the house was very kind. He could not help me because he was afraid of her. One day she sprayed an insecticide to my eyes. I nearly went blind, but the master took me to the doctor", said Charmila.
On May 2, Charmila decided to run away from the house. The right moment had come when she was asked to go shopping with the mistress. "The only thing I wanted to do was to commit suicide, because I knew no one will be able to help me." said Chamila.
Just as she was trying to jump into the sea, she was rescued by two police officers. After questioning her, they had asked for the passport, but unfortunately she had not brought it . "The previous night I took out a copy of the passport to take with me, but I had forgotten to bring it. They told me they were taking me to the station because I had no passport."
Once at the police station, she had been questioned and looked after well. But all along, Charmila had been pleading with the officers to set her free. "They were very kind. They brought food. But by night fall I got very scared as there were no females at the station. Once morning came she had approached the officer in charge about her release. Instead of allowing her to go, the young officer had said that he will take her to the ticketing office and in four days she would be able to return to Sri Lanka.
"At first I did not believe him, but later he said he asked me to sign on a paper, which had the Air Lanka symbol, I believed him. I was taken in his vehicle. We stopped at a hotel. I knew things were getting bad. So I pleaded with him to take me back to the station. But he said he would not harm me and he has already told the hotel staff that I am his wife. He raped me thrice and then took me to the station.
For eight days Charmila had been kept in the police station, where she forced to share the room of the officer.
Q: Why have you chosen to give an interview at this time when you have never before spoken publicly about the privatisation of the plantations?
A: During the time that I was undertaking the privatisation of the plantations for the government mine was principally a technical and administrative role and I did not generally involve myself with dealings with the press and the public. After I stopped working for the PMMD in December 1995 I refrained from making any public statements regarding the privatisation of the RPCs, even when I have been directly criticised by the press in what I considered an unjustified manner, because I did not want it to appear as if I was interfering with the process in any way. Now however, Rajan Asirwatham who is the Chairman of PERC, under whose overall direction the PMMD carried out the privatisation of the first 9 RPCs, has chosen to comment on my role in the privatisation exercise in an interview he has given to The Sunday Island of June 9.
If Mr. Asirwatham had simply made a telephone call to inquire from myself or the PMMD about the criticisms leveled against me before commenting on the matter to the press I would not be giving this interview today. I think that Mr. Asirwatham did not make such an inquiry because he suspected that there was a simple explanation and he couldn't then divert attention from criticisms of his and PERC's actions to others such as myself, which is what he attempts to do in his interview. Under these circumstances I no longer feel constrained to remain silent on the subject of privatisation.
Q: Statements have appeared in the press that you resigned from the PMMD over the Kotagala PL share sale. Is this correct?
A: It is not. I was never a regular government servant. I worked on contract for the PMMD, and earlier for the PRU. I did not resign from my contract. My contract expired on December 23, 1995 and it was not renewed by the Ministry in charge of Plantation Industries under which the PMMD was constituted.
Q: Why was your contract not renewed? After all you had been the prime mover behind the privatisation of the plantations these past 5 years or so.
A: I have no idea why my contract was not renewed. There was no discussion about the Kotagala PL share sale at that time and it could not have had anything to do with the non-renewal. You will have to ask the Minister in charge, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, who decided on the non-renewal as to the reasons for it. Once I was informed by senior ministry officials that my contract was not to be renewed, I didn't ask for reasons, I left. If the government did not want my services I was quite ready to go.
Q: A photograph has recently been published in the press showing you handing over a certificate for shares in Kotagala PL to a foreign lady, Ms. Mary Ong. In his interview Mr. Asirwatham criticises you for this and says "at least inquiries should have been made as to what this lady is doing on behalf of George Steuarts". Why did you hand over a share certificate to a foreigner and shouldn't you have made inquiries as Mr. Asirwatham says?
A: To answer this question I will need to describe the full sequence of events leading up to the transfer of shares of Kotagala PL to GSMSL. The facts are as follows:
PERC wrote a letter on October 26, 1995 to GSMSL requesting payment for the shares in two installments, Rs. 22.2 million by November 2 and the balance Rs. 79.8 million on or before November 25. GSMSL forwarded a Cheque for Rs. 17.2 million to PERC on November 2, which together with a previous down payment of Rs . 5 million made up the Rs. 22.2 million. Mr. Ananda Weerasinghe, Director General /PERC requested the PMMD to handle the collection of the final payment of Rs. 79.8 million and to arrange for the Managers to the Share Issue, Waldock Mackenzie Ltd., to issue the share certificate in the name of GSMSL.
Scott Direckze, Chairman/GSMSL called me on November 23 and informed me that he would be sending Rohan Gunaratne, Chief Executive Officer of Kotagala PL seconded to the position by GSMSL to make the balance payment of Rs. 79.8 million plus other related payments due in terms of the share sale conditions on Friday, November 24 at 10 a.m. since November 25, the last possible day for payment, was a Saturday. Mr. Gunaratne, who was the principal GSMSL representative with whom the PMMD had been dealing over the previous 3 years arrived at the appointed time along with a number of other persons, including Ms. Mary Ong. This was the first occasion I had ever met Ms. Ong. Mr. Gunaratne mentioned that Ms. Ong's husband was providing financial support to GSMSL in its purchase of Kotagala PL. They handed over bank draft No. 836784 from ABN AMRO Bank for Rs. 79.8 million, in the name of the Secretary to the Treasury, plus other bank drafts from the same bank to cover connected payments for taxes and purchases of debentures required in terms of the share sale conditions.
Mr. Gunaratne made an appointment to pick up the share certificate on Monday, November 27 at 9.30 a.m. The PMMD checked the authenticity of the Rs. 79.8 million bank draft with ABN AMRO Bank and forwarded it the same day to the PERC. The Managers to the Share Issue prepared a share certificate for 10,200,000 shares in the name of GSMSL. I have a copy of the share certificate if you want to see it. A debenture certificate for Rs. 120 million to be issued in connection with the share sale was also prepared by the PMMD in the name of GSMSL. At the appointed time on Monday, Mr.Gunaratne again arrived at the PMMD accompanied by the same persons who came on Friday. At the request of those present, the share and debenture certificates were ceremonially handed over to Ms. Ong, at which time the photograph referred to in your interview was taken. During the meeting Mr. Gunaratne received a call from Mr. Scott Direckze, Chairman GSMSL to bring over the share and debenture certificates to his office. I requested Mr. Gunaratne to forward a receipt from GSMSL for the share and debenture certificates. Such a receipt signed by S. Skandakumar, Director / GSMSL was forwarded to the PMMD on November 29. I am in possession of a copy of the receipt.
Rohan Gunaratne, then CEO Kotagala PL seconded by GSMSL has, at my request, given a signed statement which is in my possession corroborating the events described by me above.
Mr. Asirwatham says that I should have made inquiries about Ms. Ong. What inquiries is he referring to? GSMSL paid for the shares, the shares were written in the name of GSMSL and GSMSL has issued a receipt for the shares. If GSMSL had sent the office peon with a note to hand over the share certificate I would have done so since the payment had already been made. In this case the CEO came to pick up the certificate with some others and it was requested that I ceremonially hand over the certificate to Ms. Ong. May be I should have said "No, no, I can't hand it over to a foreigner, I might be found fault with, so Mr. Gunaratne I'll give it to you and you give it to her".
In any event, I am certain that Mr. Asirwatham is well aware that the mechanism by which the government restricts foreign share holding in locally incorporated companies is to require all foreigners to obtain Board of Investment (BOI) approval for such share holding. It is the BOI, and not the PMMD, which can approve any foreign share holding in GSMSL. Since leaving the PMMD I have come to know that the BOI had already granted permission to Mr. Aiyadurai to take up a 40% stake in GSMSL long prior to the transfer of Kotagala PL shares to GSMSL and that PERC is aware of this fact. A copy of the approval will be straightforward for PERC to obtain from the BOI and is most likely already available in PERC's files. So why is Mr. Asirwatham speaking about my checking up on Ms. Ong when he already knows that BOI had given permission for the foreign share holding in GSMSL?
Q: In his interview Mr. Asirwatham referring to the Merchant Bank of Sri Lanka's advice to Mr. Aiyadurai (the foreign investor in GSMSL who indirectly got control of Kotagala PL) says that there is no harm if Mr. Aiyadurai used a local nominee to get 100% control of GSMSL, even though the BOI has restricted foreign share holding in GSMSL, to 40%. Do you agree with this?
A: I find this view shocking. What he has said without any ambiguity is that it is quite all right for a foreigner to circumvent government rules on share holding limits by using a local nominee to hold the additional shares in his (the local nominee's) name and act as a front for the foreigner. This from the Chairman of PERC who is in charge of privatisation policy. In other words, it is quite all right for foreigners to use nominees to effectively control 100% of every company to be privatised by PERC irrespective of government restrictions on share holdings. And they can go to the Merchant Bank, of which he is Chairman, if they want specific advice on how to do it.
Since this whole question of Merchant Bank's advice and the legal draft drawn up by Merchant Bank for the deal between George Steuarts and Mr. Aiyadurai seems to be now available to the press, I think that Mr. Asirwatham, as Chairman, Merchant Bank, should make the contract public so that the public can judge for themselves if the nominee methodology of share holding suggested by Merchant Bank and endorsed by Mr. Asirwatham is acceptable.
Q: Mr. Asirwatham says that the morally correct thing to do is for Lankem to return the shares of GSMSL it subsequently purchased from Mr. Aiyadurai and ask for a refund of the moneys it paid to Mr. Aiyadurai. What are your views on this?
A: Mr. Asirwatham does not appear to have any understanding about the nature of commercial transactions, which is what the sale of GSMSL from Mr. Aiyadurai to Lankem was. Reversing it now would be like unscrambling an egg. More importantly, we have a situation here where a controlling interest in Kotagala PL has transferred from a foreigner, who obtained this controlling interest through a controversial procedure, to a locally owned company. By suggesting a reversal of the transfer Mr. Asirwatham is saying that he would prefer it if Kotagala PL is today controlled by a foreigner, using the nominee mechanism designed by Merchant Bank which circumvents government rules, rather than by a local company. Is this also the view of PERC? Does he mean that in the privatisation of the remaining 14 RPCs it is acceptable to PERC if foreigners gain 100% control through the use of nominees?
Q: It is now almost six months since you left the PMMD. What are your views on the rate at which privatisation of the RPCs has been progressing since your departure?
A: From the time of the government's initial decision to privatise the RPCs in May 1995 to November 1995 the share sales of 9 RPCs were opened on the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE) and these sales have now long been completed. The Offer for Sale document for a 10th RPC - Agarapatana Plantations Limited - was also issued during this time but the PERC suspended the sale just prior to its opening. All work relating to these privatisations was done by the PMMD under my supervision with a technical staff of just 4 persons and without using any outside consultants. In addition to doing the work for the first 10 RPCs much of the technical work for the remaining 13 RPCs, such as preparation of accounts, execution of lease amendments had also substantially been completed by the PMMD prior to the expiry of my contract in December 1995. I have been told that a decision was taken by PERC in February 1996 to privatise 10 more of the RPCs and to complete the work before the end of this year. It is now June and I understand that not a single Offer for Sale document, other than that for Agarapatana PL which was prepared during my tenure, has even been submitted in first draft form to the CSE. At this rate if PERC works fast, which I frankly doubt it will, we can expect 2 RPC share sales to open on the CSE during the rest of this year. Basically, the privatisation of the RPCs seems to have ground virtually to a halt since my departure.
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