25th November 2001

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L H Plantations replies to state-media "news"

Mr. Sripathi Sooriyarachchi, Coordinator PA Polls Watch says in recent Rupavahini and ITN TV broadcasts that L H Plantations (Pvt) Ltd., tried to "absolve Ranil Wickremesinghe" as well as "not disclosed the correct facts thus misleading the people of this country". Mr. Sooriyarachchi's statement has been publicised in the Dinamina and the Daily News as well. He believes that Ranil Wickremesinghe usurped his position in a former UNP Government to award state coconut lands to a private plantation management company, L H Plantations in which some of Mr. Wickremesinghe's relatives were (and are) shareholders.

Mr. Sooriyarachchi, a lawyer, seems to be or wants to be wholly unaware of basic facts. He is singing the same sad song that members of the PA have sung for the last few years.

L H Plantations (Pvt.) Ltd., states again:

1. Ranil Wickremesinghe did not award or influence a Government/World Bank initiative in 1992 to hand over State lands to our private management company (L H Plantations in which some members of his family held shares. The World Bank itself tightly screened all such awards. If Mr. Sooriyarachchi has any concrete proof of how Mr. Wickremesinghe and "other relatives have unjustly enriched themselves........", let him show it.

2. Regarding Mr. Sooriyarachchi's diatribe on corruption, may we remind him that the PA Government itself requested Mr. A S Jayawardene, Governor of the Central Bank and former Secretary to the Treasury to investigate into any irregularities in the awarding of these management tenders (the very practices of which Mr. Sooriyarachchi accuses Mr. Wickremesinghe and L H Plantations . No adverse comments or actions ever emanated from this comprehensive investigation. Is it that Mr. Sooriyarachchi disbelieves the word of his own Government or has he misread his facts again ?

3. Neither Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe nor any member of his family ever owned any State lands managed by L H Plantations. Mr. Wickremesinghe has never owned shares in either the government controlled Kurunegala Plantations Ltd., (of which L H Plantations is the Managing Agent) or in L H Plantations itself. The Managing Agent also has no share holding in Kurunegala Plantations Ltd. Mr. Sooriyarachchi and other supposedly responsible PA officials before him would do well to first check facts before frivolously making such misleading statements to the public.

4. Form 3: Bid Offer, Tender for Management Contract for Estate Company No. 21 (p.2, Clause 4) - the relevant privatization document of 1992 - requires all lead companies bidding for the management of State agricultural lands to form new dedicated companies to manage such lands after their bids are confirmed. L H Plantations a private management company dedicated to the task, was born on June 4th 1992, after lead company Lake House Printers and Publishers Ltd., was awarded the contract in May 1992. Mr. Sooriyarachchi finds it " most interesting" that we actually followed the clearly laid down rules and regulations !

5. Publicly listed companies such as Lake House Printers and Publishers Ltd., and Lake House Investments Ltd., as well as other entities and individuals took an equity state in L H Plantations. This was entirely within the regulations of the above Bid Offer document. Mr. Sooriyarachchi, Ranil Wickremesinghe or any other citizen, could have freely held a share in this venture. This is hardly a "covert or highly questionable" action as Mr. Sooriyarachchi suggests.

6. Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe neither held any shares nor was ever a Director in Sarathi Ltd. What company register is Mr. Sooriyarachchi looking at ? He is again very incorrect on both counts.

7. L H Plantations does not own an inch of State land nor do its shareholders have any ownership rights over any such land, despite the long list of estate names given Mr. Sooriyarachchi as a distraction. L H Plantations is merely entrusted with management of these lands, a fact that neither the President nor Mr. Sooriyarachchi seem to grasp since 1992.

8. With regard to the issues brought up by Mr. Sooriyarachchi, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her supporters, we state that the actions of the current government, intent on discriminating at every instance against L H Plantations and Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe in this matter, caused considerable loss and confusion to this country's agricultural sector. We state this for these reasons:

i) An integral part of the 1992 Management Agreement was that Managing Agents could, as stakeholders, bid for 51% stake in their regional government owned plantations company (i.e. Kurunegala Plantations Ltd.) Accordingly, at considerable effort, Lake House Printers and Publishers Ltd. fielded a financial package to bid for a 51% share of Kurunegala Plantations Ltd., in 1995. Cordial discussions were conducted with Chairman PERC, M Tittawala, on the Government's behalf. Suddenly and mysteriously, the Government singularly deviated from the formal privatization rules (which had hitherto applied to all privatized tea and rubber companies) and excluded the two coconut management companies from being eligible to bid for their 51% stake. After over four years of management, this was an unprecedented and drastic turn of events.

ii) On January 1st, 1998, the Government arbitrarily cancelled the 1998-2002 Extension to the Management Agreement between Kurunegala Plantations Ltd., and L H Plantations although the latter met all required criteria for renewal. In a further bout of disorganization, this was done hours after the Extension commenced. The Government neither adhered to the conditions laid down for termination in its own Agreement, nor had any valid reason to contest the successful management of State lands by L H Plantations.

iii) As a result, by February 1998, L H Plantations resorted to an independent Panel of Arbitrators, as provided in its Agreement. By early 1998, three reputed lawyers and Arbitrators, Mr. R K W Goonesekera, Mr. G K Dayasiri and Mr. S C B Welgampaya were appointed with the full concurrence of the Government and L P Plantations (Pvt) Ltd. On June 7, 2000, the Arbitration Panel unanimously declared, firstly, that the Government's termination of the Extension (1998-2002) to the Management Agreement was unwarranted, secondly that the Managing Agent was fully entitled to its Extension and thirdly awarded costs in favour of L H Plantations. The Arbitration awards were made not merely "on technical grounds" as Mr. Sooriyarachchi belittles, but also as a right. The PA Government, described by Mr. Sooriyarachchi as "committed to democracy and not to a witch-hunt" and one which "did not wish to waste public funds on pursuing this matter further", has 17 months later - yet to sign our Extension to the Management Agreement and implement the Arbitrators' Ruling.

We leave it to the reader to judge the overall wastage in time and effort thus caused. The impact on the coconut sector is a further sobering thought. As to who profits from this chaotic state of events. Out of the 16,190 acres of agricultural land originally leased to Kurunegala Plantations Ltd., over 10% has been arbitrarily acquired by the Government for various - mostly non-agricultural motives. No compensation was offered to Kurunegala Plantations Ltd. for the loss of productivity caused by this unrestricted land alienation despite the contractual onus on the Agent to increase productivity. Excellent and bearing coconut lands have been seized or even bulldozed overnight. Many lands thus acquired have been neglected, or utilized for very different purposes. Government sympathizers and opportunists have squatted on others. Politicians have even vented abuse on our staff in their quest for land.

In the light of gross misinterpretations, inaccuracies and innuendos in Mr. Sooriyara-chchi's statement, we urge him not to mislead the public further about L H Plantations.

Stars are not under a cloud:'Ira Handa' editor

By Chandani Kirinde
The chief editor of the astrological newspaper Ira Handa , Priyantha Ratnayake who is embroiled in controversy following allegations that his newspaper faked predictions in favour of the ruling party denied these allegations and said he did not need to do anyone's dirty work.

Mr. Ratnayake who also serves as the Chairman of the Building Materials Corporation (BMC), a Corporation under Minister of Urban Development and Deputy Minister of Finance Mangala Samaraweera for more than a year, said he took up the job as a challenge and that the Rs. 25,000 monthly salary it fetches was no attraction for him as last year alone he paid income tax amounting to Rs. 4.7 million. Mr. Ratnayake is also on the Board of Directors of the National Savings Bank (NSB).

"I am a very rich businessman. My favorite hobby is buying the most expensive vehicle that is imported to the country. No one can buy me," he said denying allegations that Minister Samaraweera asked him to print predictions favouring the PA.

Mr. Ratnayake admitted being a close confidant of Minister Samaraweera but said his close association with members of the ruling party did not cloud his predictions.

He also dismissed the allegations made by his former employee Wijesiri Jayasinghe saying Wijesiri had lied for money. 

"I was offered 30 million rupees by an opposition politician to print on the front page of my paper that the UNP would win the next election but I refused. He had then offered Jayasinghe a little money and got him to turn against me.", Mr. Ratnayake said. He declined to say who in the opposition made the offer but confirmed it was a politician.

Wijesiri Jayasinghe told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday at the residence of former PA Minister and United National Front (UNF) national list nominee S.B. Dissanayake that since 1999, the Ira Handa had been concocting stories in favour of the PA government and in its issue earlier this month had predicted a huge victory for the ruling party.

Even though Mr. Jayasinghe was introduced as an expert astrologer to reporters, his former employer dismissed this claim saying the man had worked for several years in his paper as a paste up artist.

"He has no knowledge whatsoever of astrology," said Mr. Ratnayake whose own knowledge of astrology is not quite star-studded. He claims he is a self-taught astrologer and specialised in 'political astrology.' and says he had gained experience and knowledge of the subject after handling the Ira Handa newspaper for ten years.

Asked whether astrology could be learnt just by reading about it, Mr. Ratnayake compared it to the legal profession where the most academically qualified lawyer may not always be a success in courts. "There are many astrologers who may have better qualifications but they may be unaware of the practical aspect of the science," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jayasinghe is reported to have gone into hiding in his home town of Baddegama following what he claims are threats to his life when he went public with the allegations that the Ira Handa predictions were concocted and politically motivated. Several attempts to contact him on the phone were unsuccessful.

Dr. Kingsley Goonetilleke, a leading astrologer in the country when asked for his comments on the unfolding drama said an astrologer needed to be an independent and impartial person.

He also said that the science of astrology was one that had to be studied thoroughly before one could make a profession of it.

Astrologers in star wars

Astrology has also become highly politicised in the run-up to the December 5 general elections with soothsayers supporting the PA and UNP going all out to make predictions and counter predictions.

Although most independent astrologers contacted by The Sunday Times declined to get drawn into the controversies surrounding their profession, many others have gone on television predicting a victory for the party of their choice.

The national TV station Rupavahini last week hosted several astrologers who predicted a win for the ruling PA while a panel of three astrologers on a pro-UNP television station foresaw a win for the UNP.

However, a leading astrologer said that it was difficult for astrologers to predict a win for any particular party unless they studied the horoscopes of all the contesting candidates. 

But the two parties seem to be banking on the large number of star-struck Sri Lankan voters who may decide to vote for the winners as foretold by the stargazers.

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