It took seven years for justice to catch up with international fugitive Sicille Kotelawala but when it did and when she was finally brought before the bar of court to answer charges of misappropriating 26 billion rupees of depositor funds at Golden Key Creditcard Company, it was visible to all that she had begun serving [...]


No happy ending awaits Sicille-Lalith fairy tale


BUNDLED IN: Ambulance journey to Welikada prison hospital after facing court ordeal seven years late

It took seven years for justice to catch up with international fugitive Sicille Kotelawala but when it did and when she was finally brought before the bar of court to answer charges of misappropriating 26 billion rupees of depositor funds at Golden Key Creditcard Company, it was visible to all that she had begun serving her prison sentence long before her court date, atoning for her compounded sins incarcerated within the trappings of her own exacting unredeeming mind. And it was clear: it had taken its toll.

None can flee from one’s own conscience. One can run but none can hide in the barren desert of guilt: for a mind on its own can make a local hell of a foreign heaven and turn even a swanky London flat into a sordid Lankan cell. Wrapped in white and wheeled in shame to the Temple of Justice this Tuesday was the seemingly penitent transgressor, her litany of follies revealing how a high flying social butterfly, the wooed and wined toast and darling of the diplomatic circuit, flitting from one cocktail party to another, could experience the process of a butterfly’s natural metamorphosis suddenly reversed and end up cocooned in a condemned cell.

Whether she is innocent or guilty, it hardly matters now. The epitaph of the vicissitudes of human life has already been etched deep upon her brow and lined her cherubic face in anguish. If the heights to which material wealth coupled with sceptre and crown can propel a human soul to find never ending happiness are the stuff of Hans Anderson’s fairy tales, then the sudden fall from divine grace to perdition’s bottomless depth must be the tragic message contained in Tamburlaine’s turbulent life writ in Marlowe’s mighty line.

Gaze at this picture published here of her climbing into the ambulance this Tuesday to be taken away manacled in irons not bangled in gold to a ward bed in Welikada prison hospital for a further two months on the orders of a High Court judge; and, on this Sunday morning, spare a Christian thought of mercy or bestow a benevolent Buddhist thought of compassion for this staunch Catholic, convent educated Sicille Kotelawala to whom the world was once her oyster and Ceylinco House the pearl on her pendant.

WHEELED IN: Wrapped in white Sicille Kotelawala is brought to court to hear her bail plea which a judge rejects

Born the younger daughter of Gray’s Inn Barrister Sam Peter Fernando who rose to be a senator and the Minister of Justice in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s cabinet in the sixties, Sicille Priya Carmini’s life was destined to be akin to the bed of roses that took pride of place in her horticulturist father’s home garden. Her father Senator Sam was a devout church goer and a member of many church committees who, while instilling the Christian ethic strongly in his daughters, also encouraged Sicille to develop her inborn flair for dancing and find — as she did — her niche in the world of art as a skilled Kandyan dancer of repute.

Then she struck gold when she met and married Jeewaka Lalith Bhupendra Kotelawala, the debonair only son of one of Lanka’s richest men Justin Kotelawala. Lalith — who was also the nephew of the knighted former prime minister Sir John Kotelawala to boot — could promise her the sun, moon and stars and do so from the top of Lanka’s then highest storied building the family owned and have the family Kahatagaha mines and plumbago means to keep his word.

But Providence is as inscrutable as the Egyptian Sphinx which she would have seen firsthand as a young girl during her sojourn in Egypt with her father where he served in the sixties as Lanka’s Ambassador to the Land of the Pharaohs. And though the Kotelawala fortune was built upon gambling against what the fates held for millions of Lankans, neither her husband nor she could foretell and insure against what it portended for them.

Today her sun has set, her moon stands still, in darkness eclipsed; and the millions of stars that twinkled in the skies at night and danced in her eyes during the sun lit hours of day have all burnt out. Grim night has fallen. Only the yawning black hole where hope never comes that comes to all remains in darkness visible.

But before you rush to condemn her with a brusque ‘serves her right’, show her compassion and forgive a familiar intrinsic weakness of the human mind, common to all, even to those who do not yield to temptation only because the forbidden fruit is not proffered to them and is not within their grasp. Do not rush to celebrate hearing the manacles on Sicille’s wrists clank, jingle and ring for they clank, jingle and ring for you. It is the common lot that await all mankind who have shunned the tenets of religious leaders and instead believe that the singular road to human happiness is paved with gold; and the relentless pursuit of wealth life’s sole means to realise earthly bliss.

This was the woman who could have paid off a thousand insurance claims and see burnt the topless tower of Ceylinco House from a terrorist bomb blast without having a single sleepless night to spoil her coquetted beauty or smudge the rouge from her powdered cheeks.

As the deputy chairman of Lanka’s Sinhala owned largest conglomerate Ceylinco Consolidated with hundreds of subsidiaries, Sicille was the better half of Ceylinco whose charity work from the massive Ceylinco charity fund comprising the compulsory monthly salary deductions from its thousands of employees was much publicised in the media. She was the well known public human face of the giant firm and was a priceless asset in public relations. And if diamonds are a girl’s best friend, then she even had a company of best mates to call her own.

Seven years ago, the bubble burst for Ceylinco when the bottom fell out on its alleged Ponzi scheme. It came from an unexpected quarter and was the key that sealed and vaulted their fate. But the pin that pricked the bubble was not held by the husband-wife duo of Lalith and Sicille alone. The Central Bank regulators who looked askance, the depositors who stood in ignorant awe of this Rock of Gibraltar and who religiously held the belief that nothing could sink it and sink it so swiftly without warning, all held the pin together and all, in varying degrees of responsibility, must share the blame.

NOW: The white clad prisoner come to face the harsh strains of justice

The crash which overnight criminalised the Kotelawalas and pauperised Golden Key depositors and sent shock waves through the financial sector came in late December 2008. To the Christian Kotelawalas, it was a rather unchristian way of heralding Christmas cheer to their army of depositors who had shown implicit trust and faith in the Kotelawala brand name heavily hyped as the paragon of credibility to place their money at the Kotelawala owned Ceylinco Consolidated’s affiliated company Golden Key Creditcard Company of which Lalith and Sicille were chairman and deputy chairman respectively.

The immediate response of the Central Bank was to declare that it was an unregistered financial institution and thus did not come within its purview. But this brazen attempt to wash its hands of the biggest financial debacle did not hold water for long. Here was a well known finance house belonging to the best known local company in the island, located in the heart of the capital, sited on one of its busiest main roads which had for years prominently flaunted its existence in neon lights. If Golden Key had not obtained registration as required to do by law, then the Central Bank should have taken cognizance of its prominent and highly publicised existence and taken action to ensure the company’s compliance with registration.

While the going had been good, Central Bank officials had been quite content to accept Golden Key’s non registered status even though the law demanded each finance house to be registered with the Central Bank and obtain the necessary licence upon payment of the fee which was over Rs. 100 million at that time. The Kotelawala wand had deflected the need for this requirement to be fulfilled but now that its magic had fled, the Central Bank officials tried to absolve themselves from all blame in a bid to conceal that they too had participated in perpetuating the scam.

The depositors who had rushed to place their money to receive the promised extraordinarily high rates of interests paid by Golden Key never paused to question the long term financial wisdom of a financial house doling out interest payments at absurdly high rates of interests. Driven by greed, blinded by avarice and their doubts silenced by compelling desire to make hay in the Kotelawala sunshine, they never paused to ask how any finance company could lend to third parties at even higher rates of interests in order to service the high interests payments of the depositors and still survive. They never asked, for the answer would have stopped them in their tracks and prevented them from making a bonanza out of their closeted wealth.

THEN: The glamorous high flying days as co-boss of Ceylinco and Seylan Bank

Buddhist monks, Christian priests, doctors, lawyers, accountants, politicians, politicians’ wives, sportsmen, the whole gamut of society abandoned their vows, acted contrary to their professional instincts, suspended their better judgements to join the gold rush down Duplication Road, Colombo 4. Even pensioners snubbed common sense and waged their last saved rupee to pluck a few bucks more from the Kotelawala Kapruk tree. To all and sundry it was too good to be true and even the nagging certainty the mirage could not last did not prevent them from joining the jaunty caravan to El Dorado’s fabled gold mine.

They deified Lalith Kotelawala and his wife Sicille as their Almighty God and Consort of Perpetual Prosperity from whose cornucopia flowed endless wealth; whose miraculous Midas touch would invest and multiply their deposited money to feed their insatiable avarice even as Jesus blessed and multiplied fish to feed the poor’s gnawing hunger.

Neither the officiating Central Bank priests at the temple nor the now soul shocked depositor devotees who prayed at the shrine can hold themselves out as innocent spectators of the tragedy that inevitably ensued but were willing adherents of devil worship; and have none but themselves to blame when the idolised objects of their faith and devotion turned out to be the false gods they always were.

Today Sicille Kotelawala, who fled to Singapore and thereafter found refuge in a London hide hole despite a Lankan warrant for her arrest in 2009, has been remanded on misappropriation charges till April 27. She will face trial and her plea of not guilty on the grounds that she was only a non-executive director will be a matter for the court to adjudge. But whatever a man-made court may decide the final judgement has already been delivered from a higher court: The supreme court of her own conscience.

Take a look at her now. From what heights fallen. From beauteous butterfly dancing from flower to flower to one with butterfly wings crushed under the remorseless wheels of the chariot of Greed’s fire. From the pedestal of public acclaim tumbled down to the stinking sewers of public opprobrium, with no star of hope to gaze but only a back void to trembly behold. This is the wretched pass to which she has been cruelly brought for allegedly trifling with 26 billion rupees of depositors’ money.

But then temptation is no stranger to many. From presidents to paupers, temptation has been the fascinating bedfellow to whose vile villainy each has surrendered gladly. And each one of them, one day in time, be it in this birth or in another, perforce must honour the blank cheque signed in ignorance to devour a slice of materialistic heaven far beyond the ambit of human appetite to comfortably digest.

In Lankan society a wife is generally expected to do her husband’s bidding and to follow him even to hell. In Sicille’s case, it was to heaven she thought she was following when she walked behind her husband though it was a one way road to a fate worse than hell. Such souls must receive compassion not condemnation. The inexorable operation of the karmic law will visit them in due course without anyone’s help or bidding even as it has visited the London flat of Sicille Kotelawala and brought her, seemingly on her own will and volition, to meet the tumbrels of retribution.

‘Greed insatiable and the lust for power
Ring the death knell at the eleventh hour;
The gods themselves cannot but look askance
When folly out steps the Satanic dance’

This is the enlightening lesson bitterly brought home to the Kotelawalas in the bleak winter of their lives. Similarly, those who still think they can perpetually bathe in sun lit streams and cleanse corruption’s stain and rake the coals, renew the fire and dance in sunlit beams again, should be wise to ponder the words of the Buddha as stated in the Dhammapada: “Not in the sky, not in mid ocean, not in a mountain cave is found that place on earth where abiding one may escape from the consequences of one’s evil deeds.”

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