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Sri Lankan minister blames Tamil diaspora for Pandora paper leaks

Responding to the revelation that members of the Rajapaksa family stashed millions of dollars in anonymous offshore trusts and shell companies, Sri Lankan State Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation, C B Ratnayake blamed the Tamil diaspora.

Speaking at a press conference he claimed that the diaspora were behind the revelations in the Pandora papers and further defended Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stating:

"The Pandora Papers have come out because of the diaspora and former Deputy Minister Nirupama Rajapaksa’s name is mentioned. If any Rajapaksa does something wrong, does this mean that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is guilty? If Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe does something wrong, does that implicate Mahinda Rajapaksa?".

Thirukumar Nadesan, the husband of Nirupama Rajapaksa, has been directly implicated by the Pandora papers in embezzlement. He gave a statement to Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption today in regards to the charges levied against him. In a letter to Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he claimed that he and his wife were "totally innocent and are guilty of no wrongdoings". He further urged for an "independent investigator" to examine the matter so that they can clear their names.

The revelation comes as Sri Lanka faces food shortages with the threat that prices could increase by as much as 37% across the board. A parliamentarian for Sri Lanka's ruling party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, Jagath Kumara Sumithraarachchi has said that people may need to skip a meal as the country's economy continues to struggle.

Pandora Paper revelations

The Pandora Papers detail how Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband Thirukumar Nadesan’s used a number of shell companies to conceal their wealth from law enforcement and to invest their wealth in a portfolio of luxury properties across the world, artwork, and offshore trust whilst the country continued to struggle during the armed conflict.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) estimates that as of 2017 the offshore holdings of the couple valued at an approximate $18 million. At the time, the median annual income in Sri Lanka was less than$4,000.

They further detail that amongst the investments are 51 lavish artworks worth an estimated $4 million, and listed under their shell company Pacific Commodities Ltd, and luxury apartments in Sydney and in London. One of the apartments in London was resold at $850,000 and the further two were valued at over $4 million and were rented out “on a commercial basis.”

In their report, the ICIJ consulted with economists which highlighted that in Sri Lanka, "the income gap between the poor and the rich continues to increase, lax tax regulations have been a boon for the wealthy and powerful. The rest of the country which is still recovering from the civil war has been left with little to invest in schools, health care and other social programs".

Family Corruption

In January 2010, following the genocide in Mullaivaikkal where an estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians died, Mahinda Rajapaksa retained his position as President of Sri Lanka.

In this position, Mahinda assigned himself the defence, finance, ports, aviation and highways portfolios whilst his brother Gotabaya retained his post as Defence Security and Urban Development. The Rajapaksas also appointed Basil Rajapaksa to be the Minister of Economic Development and appointed Chamal Rajapaksa as speaker of Parliament.

Nirupama Rajapaksa also secured a position in the cabinet as deputy minister of water supply and drainage. She was elected to parliament in 1994.
In an interview in 2014 Nirupama would claim that more women were needed in Sri Lankan politics stating:

“As women, we have better qualities than men and are more honest and are less vulnerable to bribes and corruption”. 

Out of power

In 2015, the Rajapaksa administration, dogged by charges of corruption and human rights violations, lost the Presidential election to Maithripala Sirisena. Following the election, a spokesperson for the incoming cabinet told reporters that those close to the Rajapaksa clan had secretly transferred $10 billion to Dubai, a notorious tax haven. The money reportedly transferred was greater than the value of Sri Lanka's foreign reserves.

That same year Nirupama would lose her post due to charges of corruption. In 2016, she and her husband were implicated in a $1.7 million embezzlement case involving the 16-acre plot that Nadesan had acquired six years earlier. 

The allegation claimed that the luxury villa was built using public funds and on land which Nadesan owned. The owner of the property was Basil Rajapaksa, a former Economics Minister who was particularly well known for his corruption.

A 2007 leaked US embassy cable noted that Basil “worked for the Ministry of Mahaweli Development, where he earned the nickname "Mr Ten Percent" for demanding a ten per cent commission on every project”. “Embassy contacts say Basil has no close advisors and more enemies than friends in Sri Lanka because he makes a habit of trying to "buy people”,” the cable added.

In the leaked Pandora Papers, it details that Nadesan had written to then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pleading his innocence and claiming complete ignorance over the project. Nadesan claimed that he had sold the land to avoid “harm to [his] name and reputation.”

 

Protecting the family business

In 2019, riding on a wave of Sinhala chauvinism, driven by the perception that the Sirisena administration had betrayed the Sri Lankan people through its co-sponsorship of UN resolution 30/1, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was appointed President of Sri Lanka.

In January 2021, he established a  Presidential Commission of Inquiry on "political victimisation", which sought to exonerate family members and allies implicated in corruption and human rights violations. Many of whom were under investigation by the previous administration.

Amongst the listed cases is the abduction and slaughter of 11 Tamil youth by the Sri Lankan Navy; the assassination of Tamil MP Joseph Pararajasinham; the murder of journalists Lasantha Wickrematunge, Upali Tennekoon, Keith Noyahr and many others; and the Welikada Prison massacre. It also involves the embezzlement charges against Nadesan.

The commission has not only called for exoneration of those accused but has advocated for those investigating the matter and for those who provided evidence to prosecute.

Damage control

Responding to the revelations, Sri Lanka's President claimed that he had instructed the Chairman of the Bribery Commission to initiate investigations into the Pandora Papers and submit a report within a month.

The demand for an investigation further follows the direct request of Nadesan.

Rajapaksa's statement prompted former Human Rights Commissioner, Ambika Satkunanathan, to question the independence of such an investigation.

Read more from the ICIJ regarding the Rajapaksas here and here

Read more detailed accounts from the ICIJ, spanning over 90 territories and 300 politicians, here

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