News Features

 Lies, deceit and scams: The Sajin Vaas story

  • Confidence trickster taking 20 million Sri Lankans for a ride

  • Rs. 2 Billion in 12 months – and rising, with interest payment at Rs 1 million plus per day

  • Top Government officials unwittingly roped in and at risk

By Hawkeye
Every politician in the world needs and has assistants. Their role is simply that: to assist their principal to accomplish various goals – be it political or personal.

But the story of Sajin De Vaas Gunawardena is a phenomenally rare one. For, he has taken the friendship and gratitude of one man and abused that generosity to an extent that the political hierarchy of Sri Lanka is at grave risk.
Sajin Vaas Gunawardena’s story has brought new meaning to the words “embarrassment” and “fraud”.

Sajin Vaas has proved himself to be a habitual phony. His capabilities had much in store for him. Yet, inherently, his nature is that of a confidence trickster. He plans, from the outset, what his goal would be – that, in itself, is no bad thing. However, most successful people plan on their goal being achieved via the opportunities presented to them, opportunities they have created for themselves, in order to achieve the goals they set for themselves.

It is desperately sad, that a man who had so much going for him, a man who has the backing of the very elite forces in this country, a man whose capability can actually help achieve goals for his country and for his mentor, has chosen to abandon these rare opportunities, apparently, in favour of misdeeds. His apparent casting away of these opportunities has been done with seemingly gay abandon – more at home in the seedy nightclubs of Patpong Street rather than the genteel suburbia of Mirihana.

When the President of the Palestine-Sri Lanka Friendship Society stopped over in Dubai, while enroute to celebrations in Saudi Arabia, in 2002, he met with many Sri Lankan migrant workers there. Among them was a Wharf Clerk by the name of Sajin Vaas Gunawardena, working for one of the largest Sri Lankan based freight forwarding companies, Trico International. Assisting the VIP with his baggage formalities, Gunawardena fast made friends. Sajin displayed remarkable foresight and a deep understanding of his new friend’s requirements. Immediately understanding that there was no other person within the entourage who was as fluent in Sinhalese as in English and who was computer literate and internet savvy, Sajin immediately seemed an attractive proposition to the President of the Society. Only half jokingly did he ask Sajin to, “come and work for me – assist me with my vision for Sri Lanka”. Within a month of that visit, Sajin Vaas was back in Sri Lanka helping his new ‘friend’.

That the new ‘friend’ then went on to become Minister of Highways, Prime Minister and eventually, President of Sri Lanka, is contemporary history.

Sajin worked tirelessly and with much enthusiasm for Mahinda Rajapaksa. The President was impressed and rightly so: Sajin had, he felt, been a good choice. He was young, energetic, and had obviously taken to everything like a duck to water. Those around the presidential candidate were equally impressed. He would make a good co-coordinator said the newly elected President in the wee hours of the morning, when it became apparent that he was the victor at the presidential campaign.

The President-elect was generous in his gratitude to Sajin: he told some of his advisors that Sajin was a very useful fellow; give him a task and he was like a dog with a bone. No sooner given than Sajin was sure to come back with the goods. “He could deliver,” was the message: so he promptly appointed him as a co-coordinating secretary.

Generosity and trust abused - the stolen business plan
And that is when Sajin Vaas started plotting to do anything other than co-coordinating work. Having convinced the new President of his capability, he set about putting his established modus operandi into play. Apparently, his interests lay not in serving his President and country – it was to embark on any form of money making exercise. Sajin had already tasted the value of being close to someone inherently part of the political establishment, when he was at the RDA. Mahinda Rajapaksa, as Minister of Highways, was already aware of Sajin’s ability to “get things done”. Now, with his mentor holding the highest office, it was a case of ‘Open Sesame’. Numerous offers came his way, but it would have meant that Sajin would have to be simply a facilitator. That role was not for him – he was after something rather more substantial and which oodles more recognition. At a party, he was given the idea of a new airline, but the offer to him was not attractive enough: originally, he was meant to start an airline with private sector investment. With his affinity and intimacy to the Presidential Secretariat, he was after the ‘Main Event’. Having put Mahinda Rajapaksa’s naturally suspicious mindset to rest, with the hard work he put in, he completely misled the new President and his key advisors such as Lalith Weeratunga, with his audaciously simple plan to set up an airline. He spoke passionately and with sanguinity about how he could set up another State airline, but nowhere near the cost the Treasury incurred setting up Air Lanka.

Sajin wasted no time and got in touch with a Sugath Rajapaksa – who provided a Business Plan for Mihin, allegedly in exchange for promise of employment. Rajapaksa was absorbed into Mihin Lanka, only to be sidelined once Sajin got going.

Obtaining a copy, with possible promises of a bigger role to play, Sajin presented to the President, his proposal to set up a budget airline called MIHIN LANKA. With clever play on the choice of name, he also gave the President an offer he could not sensibly refuse: Sajin, was, he allegedly claimed, able to start a budget airline with just Rs 700 million or approximately US$ 7.5 million.

The President had no reason to mistrust a man who had proved to be a very able lieutenant; so he sent him to discuss matters with none other than his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Impressed too, with Sajins’ talk and having been told by Sajin that this had the presidential nod, Gothabaya too agreed and extended his cooperation. Sajin was then sent on to the Air Force Commander, as well as to see Lalith Weeratunga.

Sajin now had a star-studded Board: Gothabaya Rajapaksa as Chairman, Lalith Weeratunga, Air Marshal Roshan Gunathilaka (Commander of the Air Force), Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera and of course, himself.

He had convinced all these eminent persons of his ability to set up an airline with only US$ 7.5 million, as he intended to set up a low cost airline.

None of the fellow Board members have any commercial expertise or acumen in terms of Aviation. Clearly, they too placed emphasis on the fact that they were dealing with “the President’s man”. Which, probably, would have been exactly what Sajin had in mind, in any event.

With their agreement in place, he bypassed the then Minister of Aviation Mangala Samaraweera, who, he was privileged to know first hand, was on the way out of favour with the President, and went straight on to the Director General of Civil Aviation. Minister Samaraweera was suitably embarrassed in Parliament during questions, when he had to admit to having no knowledge of the Mihin Lanka operation.

Fanning the fire of hatred and antagonism
To apparently fan the fires of hatred and antagonism between the President and Minister Samaraweera, it is alleged that Sajin covertly arranged and destroyed Mihin Lanka billboards on the airport approach road – one of the most heavily guarded roads in the country. The blame fell squarely on Tiran Alles and Mangala Samaraweera, prompting an enraged President to all but accuse Mangala directly at the cabinet meeting.

Intimidating DG H.M.C. Nimalsiri
Sajin promptly visited the offices of the Director General of Civil Aviation, the soft-spoken, professional H.M.C. Nimalsiri. In moves more at home in the Arab World than elsewhere, he announced that “In the Name of The President” I am applying for an airline operators licence and I want your fullest cooperation. If ever there was a straight bat, that was Nimalsiri: he astutely said “yes, we will accommodate you” and arranged for Sajin to collect an application. Nimalsiri’s Rahu period thus started: he was allagedly bullied into compromising his professional standards, coerced into ignoring rules imposed on the DGCA by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) – an agency no less than from the United Nations – and banned from further work on the other local applications that were being processed.

In a matter of weeks, Nimalsiri tendered his resignation – he was then allegedly bullied into taking a 2 ½-year leave of absence instead, to save face – and joined COSCAP-SA. (see box) It is one of the few instances when the involvement of Sajin Gunawardena has resulted in greater benefit: Nimalsiri is now the Regional Coordinator for COSCAP-SA and is highly remunerated at over Rs. 800,000 per month and is allowed to get on with his job without any let or hindrance. Adding to the irony is that Nimalsiri will have to actually oversee the local Civil Aviation Authority on matters of continued airworthiness, a matter where Mihin Lanka is bound to run aground with the use of old aircraft on the fringes of the safety regulations.

ICAO Audit will probe shortcomings
Ironically, Nimalsiri has now written to his successor DGCA, pointing out to various shortcomings in the Mihin Lanka operation, from a safety point of view.

Nimalsiri has done so just ahead of the annual audit of the Civil Aviation Authority, which will be carried out by the International Civil Aviation Authority, ICAO, in December this year.

Its payback time for Nimalsiri: he copied his correspondence to ICAO headquarters in Montreal, for good measure.
With the Mihin AOC coming up for renewal in March, we are bound to see interesting times ahead.
Acting Director General, Parakrama Dissanayaka is not a happy puppy – what, with the letter being copied to Montreal and Sajin Vaas breathing fire down him. And all the while, he must be seen to be doing a professional job!

Bullying Shafik Kassim and Expo Aviation
In a spectacular interpretation of the rules governing the issue of an aircraft operators certificate (AOC) – the primary instrument needed to set up an airline – and proving Sajin’s penchant for bending if not breaking the rules – Sajin persuaded Expo Aviation to “Dry Lease” its ageing 25.3 year-old Fokker F27 aircraft. Shafik Kassim was given perhaps one of the worst deals in his commercial career. Dry Lease the F27, but lend us the flight crew, Mihin will Wet Lease it back to Kassims’ Expo Aviation without any form of monetary value. Except perhaps, Kassim must have been acutely aware of the difficulties his other aviation operations may face, had he not played ball with Gunawardena. After all, Kassim too, must be aware now, that his old Fokker F27 was re-registered with the CAA as 4R-MRA. Another clever play with the Presidential initials this time around. Gunawardena was able to get his F27 approved, despite its age, because it was already registered in Sri Lanka and thus came under the local Civil Aviation Authority’s purview!

Safety considerations and regulations compromised
Expo Aviation, despite being the owners of the Mihin 4R-MRA Fokker, now have use of it via a wet lease. As the operator of the aircraft, they are responsible to the CAA in terms of its operation. The owner of the aircraft, in this case on paper only and for expediency, is Mihin Lanka. The owner too, has to file a report with the CAA in terms of its maintenance and safety issues.

Thus, when the F27 had to return to Ratmalana after taking off for Palaly, Expo dutifully filed an Accident and Incident Report with the CAA.

When Mihin failed to do its part (as they had “given back’ the F27 on a wet lease) the CAA contacted Mihin. Only to be told that they had “nothing to do with it”. Athula Dissanayake, a one time Air Traffic Controller and Training Manager, is the de-facto Flight Operations Manager at Mihin Lanka and the virtual Personal Assistant to its CEO, Sajin Gunawardena. He displayed his lack of expertise for the regulatory process in refusing to file an appropriate report with the CAA. It is for reasons such as these that his qualifications are not acceptable to the CAA for the position of Flight Operations Manager – hence our choice of words, “de-facto.” In fact, Mihin Lanka has a figure head for that position in the form of retired Captain Errol Cramer who all but lends his name for those purposes, but plays no active role at all. Had Mihin Lanka been an airline without “influence”, it is extremely doubtful if the CAA would have accepted such roles for sensitive posts such as this.

Another instance of many, giving credence to the accusation that Mihin Lanka spends far too much, causing it to constantly lose money.

Mihin Lanka AOC in jeopardy – Expo Aviation set to sell F27
In a startling move, Shafik Kassim and Expo Aviation have now requested Mihin to hand back the Fokker F27 back to them, as they wish to rid themselves off an old and near decrepit aircraft. The manufacturer has closed down and spares are only available from third party suppliers. It may also be that Expo are growing tired of the constant headache of perpetrating and sustaining an agreement reached with Mihin Lanka, reached purely to help Mihin Lanka.

In the event that this happens, Mihin Lanka will automatically lose its AOC and would have to close down! Sajin Gunwardena, therefore, is a busy man: he has contacted his Romanian interests to supply an ageing RomBAC 111, previously used as a troop carrier in Afghanistan. Registration number YR-BRI and also used by a short lived airline called Aerotrans out of Larnaca Airport in Cyprus. This model is available in a handful of African states and used more militarily than elsewhere.

The RomBAC 111-561RC, aircraft Sajin is negotiating on, is actually used more as a troop carrier than passenger jet. Its relatively short range and age means that Mihin Lanka is getting the aircraft purely – again – for expediency. The aircraft will have no real use other than to serve the AOC rules and is likely to be parked incurring charges. Airlines do not have aircraft to be parked and act as a cost centre solely!
All this in the backdrop of the phenomenal financial losses incurred by Mihin Lanka.

Damning Bank of Ceylon report shows Rs 2 billion loss

A highly confidential report on the state of Mihin Lanka has been prepared by the Bank of Ceylon, which remains the largest lender to Mihin Lanka. Entrusted to carry out this task was the Chief Financial Officer, Bank of Ceylon, Head Office, Saliya Rajakaruna. The report tells a sorry story.

A financial loss of Rs. 2 billion – US$ 20 million – in the space of about 12 months, without any asset worthy of note, is staggering by any standards.
The drain on the Treasury is colossal.
The Bank of Ceylon is not minded to grant any further monies to Mihin Lanka. Their track record is one of ad hoc decision making and unjustified spending. GSA’s are allowed to make money far in excess of the accepted norms, giving rise to other speculations as to the reasons for this.

Mihin Lanka is a State owned airline. They must adhere to basic principles, prior to incurring expenditure. Transparency is sadly lacking and the entire operation is run unprofessionally, leaving Mihin Lanka as a venture, in dire straits.

Saliya Rajakaruna has painstakingly done his due diligence. His comparison of the actual expenditure incurred and the Mihin Business Plan are completely at odds with each other. Soon after reading this report, Sajin Vass was summoned to see Minister Chamal Rajapaksa.

The Minister was perturbed to note that the interest component alone that Mihin Lanka must pay each month is an astounding Rs 36 million – or in excess of Rs 1 million per day. They have no substantial assets, but have senior staff lacking in expertise- and - continue to spend lavishly, such as the recent tamasha in Singapore.

The Minister, however, was told by Athula Dissanayaka that Gunwardena was not available. Eventually, after a number of attempts Gunawardena did turn up at the Ministry to be roundly remonstrated by his Minister. He demanded explanations and reports, and insisted that he be kept abreast of developments, as it was he who was responsible to Parliament.

An incensed and furious Minister reprimanded Sajin and reminded him that Mihin Lanka was not one man’s private property – it belongs to the “mahajanathawa”, thundered a usually placid Minister.

It was quite possible that the Minister was fully aware that Sajin is well known to have a meeting, then go to the hierarchy and convey a completely different story.
He urged him to get his act together before it was too late.

Top Government officials at risk in the future
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Air Marshall Roshan Gunathilaka, Lalith Weeratunga and P.B. Jayasundera are all at risk due to the actions of Sajin Gunawardena. They are all open to charges by any future investigation into the finances of Mihin Lanka. Whilst they have never actively involved themselves in the running of the airline, they are all nevertheless on the Board and therefore, have a responsibility under the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Public funds are at stake. If this was a private sector company the Board Members would have all resigned or voted the CEO out of office a long time ago.

Yet, trading on the trust bestowed upon him, Sajin Vaas has consistently done as he pleases without listening to rhyme or reason or to a professional.

Sajin Vaas Gunawardena set himself up in the airline business and has cost the state a chilling US$ 20 million. He has nothing to show for it, not even a contract for a lease on an Airbus 320 – which is what he promised in his now infamous Business Plan.

The winds of change … and poisoning
He, apparently, proceeds without regret and without the necessary expertise to run an airline. At best, he had a good vision and should have had the presence of mind to allow a professional to manage Mihin. But the winds of change have reached Sajin Gunawardena. Fast losing his appeal, in desperate moves, possibly to gain the sympathy of those that have been steadfast in giving him an opportunity, Sajin has recently claimed that he had been poisoned by parties unhappy with his various links and to destabilise the President. It is a highly unlikely scenario but it has the effect of keeping Sajin from meeting his Minister and facing his nemesis.

Until and unless Sajin Vaas Gunawardena is prepared to accept that he is not CEO material and lacks the expertise to turn this around, Mihin Lanka is set to be a permanent drain on the Treasury – dragging the country into a mire that is getting deeper by the day – in fact, deeper by a cool Rs 1 million plus, a day.