The UPFA Government is hiring and firing public relations agencies in the United States at its will and pleasure with enormous cost to the Sri Lankan taxpayer. The secret exercise costing millions of dollars appears to have become high priority, or so the UPFA leaders believe, due to the adverse fallout on Sri Lanka. It [...]


Anti-US rhetoric, but tens of millions busted to win Obama’s support

Vass Gunawardena signs multi-million-rupee contracts with PR firm, giving mystery postal address in Colombo - Luxury taxi driver also paid sums for unspecified work to help boost Lanka's image - President playing all his cards, but major questions remain as to what will happen at Uva provincial polls - International investigation on alleged war crimes begins, MR to name Japanese expert also to domestic inquiry panel

The UPFA Government is hiring and firing public relations agencies in the United States at its will and pleasure with enormous cost to the Sri Lankan taxpayer.
The secret exercise costing millions of dollars appears to have become high priority, or so the UPFA leaders believe, due to the adverse fallout on Sri Lanka. It has been caused mainly by the successive US resolutions at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva. It has been exacerbated by the UNHRC’s international investigation into alleged war crimes.

The transactions involving a number of PR agencies have come to light only because the US Department of Justice is mandated to collect documents relating to them. Agencies are required to list their agents and the foreign principals they represent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act or FARA. Such registrations have to be filed with the Attorney General. These statements are routinely made available to agencies, departments and the Congress and are meant for public disclosure. The idea behind the exercise is to ensure transparency and avert corrupt practices by the agencies and their foreign principals. The Sunday Times has obtained details of the many transactions where PR agencies have been hired and fired by the UPFA Government. Their tasks in almost all respects are to carry out responsibilities that should easily be done by an effective, professionally staffed embassy in Washington DC. Alas, other than the new Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam, all others in the embassy are political appointees. The once highly respected career Foreign Service has diminished in stature.

The man at the helm of all these PR campaigns to woo the United States Government is the one tasked by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to function as Monitoring MP for the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) — Sajin de Vass Gunawardena. In his official role, he should, as the title implies, monitor the effective and professional functioning of the EAM. Instead, he has hired a number of US agencies to outsource the work of the Sri Lanka’s diplomatic mission in the US. All this is supposedly to win over the Obama Administration and forge close ties with the world’s leading superpower.

Vass Gunawardena is President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s trouble-shooter on most matters related to international affairs and the day-to-day running of the EAM. He plays a bigger role in the conduct of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy than even Minister G.L. Peiris. The minister has been focusing mostly on foreign visits, meeting his counterparts, addressing events and issuing media statements.

A FARA registration document dated June 2 reveals that Vass Gunawardena signed up with Beltway Government Strategies Incorporated, a US public relations firm, for the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC. The office of this agency is located at 624 ½ Vincent Park, Redondo Beach, Los Angeles. One of the Directors, Mark Skarulis, has given only his office address. The second Mohamed Khan has declared his residence as 1351 Westwood Boulevard, 105 Los Angeles. A third Director Deborah Goldberg has, however, declared her address as Arlington, Virginia, Washington DC. The road to the centre of US power, their capital Washington DC, seems to be through Los Angeles. That is at least for the Government of Sri Lanka.

The tasks assigned to Beltway Government Strategies Incorporated have not been defined nor the amounts to be paid to it revealed. There is little doubt that almost all of the functions the PR firm will undertake are those outsourced from the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC. It was only last Wednesday; Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told Parliament that out of 49 heads of overseas missions of Sri Lanka, 35 had been filled with political appointees. The Sunday Times published this list in its issue of January 19 this year. Dissanayake said relatives, friends and close associates of the Government were recruited to the Foreign Service with complete disregard for their competence. He said that the service had been converted into a branch of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the main partner in the UPFA.

On July 20, the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) revealed that Vass Gunawardena was engaged in back-channel diplomacy to cushion any possible adverse fallout from the international investigation into alleged war crimes. He told his friends and associates that he would “resolve the matter within months.” At the centre of his efforts is Imad Zuberi, a US citizen of Pakistani origin. He is a partner in a venture capital and boutique international consulting firm. He is co-Vice Chair of National Finance Committee (NFC) of Obama for President, National co-chair of Technology for Obama (TECHS 43), National Co-chair of Generational Forty Four (Gen 44) and National co-chair of Asian-American Pacific Islanders for Obama (AAPI). He is using the full weight of his office, of course, for a fee.

Zuberi was introduced to UPFA leaders by Salim Mandviwalla, a former Pakistani Finance Minister and one time chairman of the Board of Investment of that country. Diplomatic sources in Washington DC say Zuberi introduced Beltway Government Strategies Inc. to Vass Gunawardena. Among those whom he counts as friends in this firm is Director Mohamed Khan who is also of Pakistani origin. The diplomatic sources also said that on matters of foreign policy, “there is little that PR or lobbying firms could do except get rich from their clients. There is a lack of clear understanding that there would be dramatic US foreign policy changes when one recruits them. That is furthest from the truth.”

The June 2 registration statement seeks the “Name of Foreign Principal” in one of the many cages. The reply given is “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka Office of the Monitoring MP for the Ministry of External Affairs.” In other words, it is neither the Ambassador for Sri Lanka in the United States nor the Sri Lankan Government which has authority over Beltway Government Strategies Inc. It is the Monitoring MP for the Ministry. The FARA registration makes clear he calls the shots with not only this agency but with others too.

The official address of the Monitoring MP has been given in the FARA document as “No: 9/2 Dudley Senanayake Mawatha, Colombo 8.” The Sunday Times found that occupying that address now is the office of Korean International Co-operation Agency (KOICA) as the picture on this page confirms. Inquiries revealed that before them, the premises were occupied by Cosmos Aviation, a firm which Vass Gunawardena is closely associated with. It is in the business of hiring out helicopters. Gunawardena himself uses these helicopters when he has to fly from Colombo to coastal Pasikudah (near Batticaloa) where his seaside resort is located. Why this address has been given when the Monitoring MP was functioning from the External Affairs Ministry remains a mystery.

The address given by Monitoring MP for External Affairs, Sajin de Vass Gunawardena to US public relations agencies - No. 9/2 D.S.Senanayake Mawatha, Colombo 8. Offices of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) are located there. Pic by Indika Handuwela

Just 20 days after the June 2 FARA statement, another US public relations firm applied for registration. That was on June 23 when Burson-Marsteller LLC was signed up for a monthly fee of US$ 75,000 (or over Rs. 9.75 million). Here again, the signatory was Monitoring MP Vass Gunawardena with the Dudley Senanayake Mawatha address. The repetition of this address on a second occasion makes clear it was not a mistake to say the least. There is no Governmental presence in the premises referred to.
These transactions appear to be a highly convoluted exercise. It was Vass Gunawardena who, as Monitoring MP of the External Affairs Ministry, hired Beltway Government Strategies Inc. Now, Beltway has in turn hired Burson-Marsteller LLC. Amit Khetrapaul, Managing Director of Burson-Marsteller has said in a letter dated June 5 to Mark Skarulis (Beltway) that the price the firm would charge is US$ 75,000 a month. Here are relevant excerpts;

“The engagement letter outlines the role, scope of work, expected output and specific financial and billing terms of Burson-Marsteller LLC (B-M) for the services specified below to be rendered to Beltway Government Strategies for the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Washington DC (hereinafter “Client’) which commenced at Client’s request on June 1, 2014 and continues through May 31, 2015. It is understood that this letter complements and is governed by our legal terms and conditions that have been submitted under separate cover.

“Scope of Work
“During the term of this engagement B-M will provide the following professional

Launch an education and communication programme to improve confidence in Sri Lanka among US based investment and influencer community

Lay the groundwork to promote Sri Lanka as a business and travel destination.
“Financial Terms

Professional fees for the scope of work outlined above are based on a fixed non-reconcilable retainer at US$ 75,000 per month and will be billed to Client as stated in the Billing/Payment terms below. The total fixed and non-reconcilable retainer is based on services being rendered through the full term of this engagement.

Expenses such as postage, messenger, photography, travel and related expenses and third party vendor invoices will be billed in addition to the fees noted above. Please note that production related to third party vendor costs will bear a commission of 17.65 per cent.

“Any work beyond the scope of work outlined in this engagement letter will be negotiated separately and outlined in a separate engagement letter on a per purchase basis. No such additional work will begin without the prior written agreement of both parties….”

It is relevant to note here that these two transactions have been concluded by Vass Gunawardena when there was no functioning Ambassador at the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC. Ambassador Jaliya Wickremesuriya had relinquished office on May 15. His successor arrived in Washington DC on June 21. However, he functioned as Ambassador only from July 14 after presenting his credentials to President Barack Obama. Thus, Vass Gunawardena took the decisions evidently in consultation with UPFA leaders. The move means some of the functions outsourced to the PR agencies will also be duplicated by the Embassy staff, if indeed they are active.

Two more PR agencies have also been hired in June this year. One is the Madison Group. It is located at 1030n 15th Street, NW Suite 1080 West Town, Washington DC. The registration submitted on June 10 is for “Assisting the Ministry of External Affairs with creating situational awareness of current affairs in Sri Lanka in dialogue with policy makers.” The agreement which is due for further review when the Sri Lanka Ambassador is in place is for a fee of US$ 15,000 a month. The signatory here too is Monitoring MP Vass Gunawardena with the Dudley Senanayake Mawatha address.

The other is the R & R Partners Incorporated of 900 Pavilion Centre Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada 89144. It has been signed on June 23 with the client being the Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka, for a payment of US$ 35,000 (over Rs. 4.55 million) a month. Here again the transaction appears convoluted. The services of R & R Partners Incorporated have been hired through Beltway Government Strategies Inc. It is a signatory to the agreement. The purpose declared in the statement is significant in the light of Sri Lanka’s strained relations with the United States. It says, “Activities contemplated will be designed to encourage adoption of US policies which will support the development of Sri Lanka’s natural resources and economy. Conduct activities designed to increase awareness of Sri Lanka’s importance to the United States.”

Besides, the four US agencies signed up this year, a separate company Thompson Advisory Group (TAG) which has been signed up by Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal continues to function. One of its achievements has been to get articles under Cabraal’s name written and published in some economic journals in the United States. Last year’s fee for TAG totalled US$ 683,635 (or more than Rs. 88.87 million). A breakdown of the payments in the FARA documents makes some interesting revelations.
Tilak Siriwardena, a Sri Lankan living in the United States, was paid several amounts last year. On March 21, 2013 he received US$ 7,000 (or over Rs. 910,000) but no reason has been given. This is said to be his monthly fee. On August 3, 2013 he has been paid US$ 7500 (more than Rs. 975,000) “to compensate him for his time in participating on the fact-finding trip” to Sri Lanka. Also on August 3, 2013, he was paid a further US$ 20,175 but no reasons were given. In all, on three occasions last year Siriwardena received a total of US$ 34,675 (or more than Rs 4.5 million).

Who is Tilak Siriwardena? This is what the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of April 13, 2013 had to say of him: “…………….. the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) reported that TAG, the US lobbying firm, was recommended to Sri Lankan officials by an expatriate Lankan who is operating a limousine service in Maryland, Washington DC. Among his clients is said to be the head of TAG, Robert J. Thompson, our report said. This week, the widely accessed US website Politico reported that ‘In a recent FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act) filing, Thompson Advisory Group listed a limousine driver as a consultant to the firm.

“Thilak Mohan Siriwardena is being paid $ 7000 (over Rs. 889,000) per month on a contract with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. He is also registered for ‘hire-driver’ in Maryland. Multiple calls and e-mails this week and last week to Thompson Advisory Group went unanswered about the nature of the contract…..” The Sunday Times inquiries in Washington DC revealed that Siriwardena holds official Badge No: 48258 valid till February 28, 2016. The carrier number allotted to him is 4182 and the website for his hire service is: . It is not immediately clear what form of consultancy Siriwardena is offering the TAG…..” Thus, it can be seen how even luxury taxi drivers are being hired at great cost to the taxpayer to promote Sri Lanka in the United States in a costly exercise of outsourcing diplomacy.

A disturbing feature about these developments is the fact that none of these transactions including the amounts involved has been approved by the Cabinet of Ministers nor reported to Parliament. Nor are these transactions transparent or perused by any state agency for reasons of accountability and public interest. That such public funds are being virtually squandered when schools are without furniture, equipment, drought victims have no drinking water and schoolchildren cannot afford to buy books is a damning indictment on the UPFA Government. These deals make clear the continued ad hoc approach to the conduct of the country’s foreign policy.

It was weeks earlier that Education Services Minister Duminda Dissanayake got the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers to receive Rs. 575 million for his Ministry. This was for the supply of student’s tables, chairs, teacher’s tables and chairs to needy schools countrywide. In the light of financial constraints, he has also been asked to repair broken furniture. There are also a number of instances where the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation makes payments for fuel. Thereafter, Petroleum Industries Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa obtains covering approval from the Cabinet of Ministers. The hiring of PR agencies in the US appears to be an exception. This has remained a secret until the FARA disclosures.

Some of the firms hired by the Government have been fired too. They are Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods Incorporated, the Majority Group, Sienna Briella Girgenti, Patton Boggs LLP, Hedges Strategies, Bell Pottinger and Qorvis Communications. Last year, they were paid a total of US$ 43,997.47 (or more than Rs 5.7 million).
From this year’s UPFA Government transactions with US public relations agencies it is clear that the Government is jolted by the successive UNHRC resolutions and the resultant international investigation. Whilst making an external thrust through these agencies for virtual rapprochement with the US, domestically there appears to be a contradiction. In recent weeks, the External Affairs Ministry has joined the fray in veiled attacks on the US about Colombo meetings of next of kin of missing persons in the North. Two such meetings were held in the Centre for Society and Religion in Maradana. External Affairs Minister Peiris summoned Colombo-based diplomats for a meeting in his office on Thursday to caution them. Though he did not identify any particular diplomatic mission, he was in for some surprises. Some of them challenged him leaving him embarrassed.

Peiris’ action drew some strong comments from Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Speaking at a meeting at UNP headquarters Siri Kotha, he said, “The Government and the External Affairs Ministry appointed a commission headed by retired judge Maxwell Paranagama to look into disappearances. Thousands have already given evidence. There are six foreigners and five locals (as advisors). If the government believes that the foreigners are aware about the disappearances, why should they block these persons who are trying to present their cases to the foreigners? (Meaning the OHCHR investigation team now probing alleged war crimes). If that is the case, the Government should remove the foreigners. This means the External Affairs Ministry decides which of the foreigners the people can talk to.” Though there are only three foreign nationals in the Advisory Panel to the Commission on Disappearances, they are to be increased to six, President Rajapaksa said last Tuesday. The remarks came during a breakfast meeting with heads of local print and electronic media. The extra members of the panel would include a Japanese expert. Tokyo has been pressing Colombo for a domestic inquiry mechanism and the matter is to be further discussed when Japan’s special envoy Yasushi Akashi arrives in Colombo next week. It is a prelude to next month’s visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

From India, the Government has obtained the services of Avdash Kaushal, a human rights activist. He was once a nominee of the Union Ministry for Rural Development to monitor its rural job generation scheme. A diplomatic source in Colombo said the Government of India was not officially associated with this nomination. It is to be Gazetted next week.

As reported in these columns last week, the initial phase of the international investigation into alleged war crimes by UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was formally announced on Monday. Among other matters, the office said, “……. to establish the facts and circumstances of alleged violations, abuses and crimes by both parties, the OISL (OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka) will conduct a desk review of existing documents and information, including government and civil society reports, collect and document victims’ testimonies and the accounts of survivors, witnesses and alleged perpetrators, as well as seeking information from other relevant sources such as satellite images, authenticated video and photographic material and official documents. In analysing the information collected, it will seek to corroborate facts and accounts to meet the agreed standard of proof.

“It will continue to seek to engage with the Government of Sri Lanka, as envisioned in the Council resolution. The High Commissioner will continue to request for the OISL to have access to the country to meet with Government officials and others, as well as to have access to all relevant documentation.”The OISL will seek to develop regular dialogue and cooperation with other United Nations entities, including its specialised agencies, interested institutions and academics and non-governmental and community organisations.

“Any state, individual or organisation may submit information in writing to the OISL. Submissions to the OISL may be sent to: . In carrying out its work, the OISL will be guided at all times by the principles of independence, impartiality, objectivity, transparency, integrity and “do no harm”. The OISL will take appropriate steps to address witness and victim protection concerns and shall adopt procedures and methods of work aimed at protecting such persons during all stages of its work.

“The Government of Sri Lanka also has an obligation to protect victims and witnesses and others in Sri Lanka who make contact with the OISL, and it will be requested to make an undertaking that no such person shall, as a result of such contact, suffer harassment, threats, acts of intimidation, ill-treatment or reprisals…..”
In another statement “calling for submissions,” the OHCHR said, “Individuals, organisations and governments are invited to submit information and/or documentation on alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes allegedly perpetrated from 21 February 2002 until 15 November 2011 in Sri Lanka by either of the parties to the armed conflict.

“Submissions must be made by midnight, Geneva time, on October 30, 2014. This is to allow the investigation team time to analyse all the information gathered before drafting its report. Drafting needs to be completed at least two months before the report is presented to the HRC in March. “Submissions should be sent in written form and must include the contact details of the author(s). Submitting entities/individuals should specify if the submissions — or parts of them — should be treated confidentially. Upon receipt of the submission, OHCHR will take all necessary measures to protect the confidentiality of the personal details of the authors or any other persons named in the submissions.

“Submissions may be in English, Sinhala and Tamil. They must not exceed 10 pages. Should the OISL require additional information, it will contact the author(s) of the submission.”Any video, audio or photographic material related to the submissions should not be submitted via email. Contact the OISL to make arrangements to send it by alternative means. Email and postal addresses for submissions: By email to: By post to: OISL, UNOG-OHCHR 8-14 Rue de la Paix, CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland…..

“In carrying out its work, the OISL will be guided at all times by the principles of independence, impartiality, objectivity, transparency, integrity and “do no harm”…. The term “do no harm” is UN parlance. An example of how it is used:

“Although aid can become part of the dynamics of the conflict and may even prolong it, humanitarian organisations must strive to “do no harm” or to minimise the harm they may be inadvertently doing simply by being present and providing assistance. Humanitarian actors need to be aware of this and take steps to minimizse the harm when, for example, aid is used as an instrument of war by denying access or attacking convoys; aid is an indirect part of the dynamics of the conflict because it creates jobs, gives incomes in form of taxes, leaves no or little responsibility on the state for social welfare, etc; or aid exacerbates the root causes of the conflict by securing rebel activities……”

UPFA ministers are yet to be briefed on either the recent hiring of the US public relations agencies or on the extension of the scope of the Commission on Disappearances as a domestic inquiry to probe alleged war crimes. Rajapaksa said on Tuesday that the international experts had been appointed at the request of Commission Chairman Maxwell Paranagama. He said it was intended to strengthen the local mechanism.

At Thursday’s weekly ministerial meeting, Rajapaksa sounded a note of caution to Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. He has been engaged in a war of words with his colleague Dilan Perera. Calling it a “manapa poraya,” (War over preference votes), Rajapaksa said that all ministers should put their best effort to the UPFA campaign for the Uva Provincial Council election. He noted that drought was affecting some areas but said bowsers were being deployed to distribute drinking water.

Rajapaksa turned to Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem who is also the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) to remark that he had joined hands with political archenemy Rishard Bathiuddin. Hakeem replied, “yes” and added that they were fielding candidates under the Democratic Unity Alliance (DUA).

That was to bring an acidic response from Minister Wimal Weerawansa who started punning on the word “DUA” or “Duwa” (meaning daughter in Sinhala). “Anith paara puthaath ei,” (Next time the son would also come), he remarked. Not to be outdone Hakeem shot back “I don’t have the pancha ayudaya.” The five pronged spear is the symbol of Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF). Rajapaksa was to add, “You don’t need one. What you have now is enough.” Hakeem was among those who laughed loudly at the light hearted banter.

For both the UPFA and the opposition parties, particularly the UNP and the JVP, the outcome of next month’s Uva polls would be a pointer to how their vote base would respond at the upcoming presidential election. It is of particular significance to UPFA leaders who are on a domestic campaign against the United States and an international campaign to win them over. Quite clearly, President Rajapaksa is playing all his cards. How many will trump the others, particularly in the backdrop of UPFA’s dwindling popularity, is the billion dollar question.

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