deceit and scams: The Sajin Vaas story
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
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
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$
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,