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Is Dayan Jayatilleka the target of a witch-hunt?

2012-04-06 18:30:00
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April is here and it’s spring time now. My thoughts turn to Paris. They say that the seasonal charm of spring is best embraced during April in Paris. I remember the old Frank Sinatra song about Paris in April.

 “I never knew the charm of spring
I never met it face to face
I never knew my heart could sing
I never missed a warm embrace”
 “Till April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom
Holiday tables under the trees
April in Paris, this is a feeling
That no one can ever reprise”


However much, the residents of Paris are to be envied during spring there is one person there for whom these days of April seem to have no charms. For Sri Lanka’s official representative in France, Dayan Jayatilleka, April has dawned in a rather cruel, unkind way.

Ambassador Jayatilleka in Paris was the recipient of an official missive dated March 30, 2012 from the Ministry of External Affairs in Colombo. The five-page letter signed by the Overseas Administration Division Acting Director-General W.G.S. Prasanna and received in Paris on March 31 had been remitted by fax.

The letter outlined certain charges against Jayatilleka and called for his explanation.The letter or memo also had a veiled “warning” that the Ambassador’s actions amounting to breach of trust, corruption and fraud were punishable under the Penal code.

It was this writer who on April 1, “broke” the story about the External Ministry threatening to charge Ambassador Jayatilleka under the penal code. Many people upon reading it thought it was an April fool’s joke because it sounded so silly and stupid. But it was no joke. The ministry was quite serious about it.

When media persons queried the Ambassador about the letter the frank and forthright Dayan Jayatilleka confirmed the story and made some spicy comments. The contents of the letter were not revealed. When this writer made a request Ambassador Jayatilleka refused to release the letter.

In a surprising move the full text of the letter soon appeared in a Colombo newspaper. The internal memorandum from the External Ministry to an Ambassador was now public knowledge. The alleged misdemeanors of Colombo’s envoy to Paris for which action was being threatened against him were now in the public domain.
It seemed blatantly clear upon perusal of the letter that deliberate moves were going on within the corridors of power in the External Affairs Ministry to target its envoy in Paris. The seemingly flimsy and trivial charges coupled by the unprecedented threat of indictment under the Penal code indicated that a witch-hunt was on. This official memo does seem to have shades of a “Kafkaesque false trial” about it and could be the forerunner of impending danger in removal from office.

A witch hunt is defined by the Oxford dictionary as, “a search for and the persecution of supposed witches or persons suspected of unpopular or unorthodox views”. Dayan Jayatilleka is certainly a wizard with words but he does not dabble in witchcraft, voodoo, hooniyam or black magic. However the independent, outspoken Ambassador often expresses views that are unpopular in certain quarters and appear unorthodox in some circles.

Being aware to a great extent of the background and context to this perceived witch-hunt against Jayatilleka, I devoted much time and energy into the issue. I was particularly interested in the merits or otherwise of the charges levelled against Dayan so I delved deep into the acts of omission and commission that Jayatilleka is being accused of.

After interacting with a wide range of contacts in Sri Lanka and France, I was able to piece together a rough sketch of what seems to have transpired. The information that I gathered seemed to suggest that in this matter, our Ambassador to France like Shakespeare’s King Lear is a “man more sinned against than sinning”. This further confirmed my impression of a witch-hunt being on.

Since the External Affairs Ministry letter required a response from Ambassador Jayatilleka, I assumed that he had compiled and submitted one to Colombo. I therefore   requested him on Thursday   by electronic mail to provide a copy of it if possible. He replied that it was not possible to do so as it had not yet been sent. Here is the response from him:

"I am sorry I cannot divulge my response to the five page fax sent to me that has been leaked to the media, as I have yet to send to the MEA the report prepared by my Mission staff with my  accompanying letter”.

“I can however, say that I reject with utmost contempt, the references to fraud, corruption and the Penal Code, which I find utterly ironic as would the public”.
“I must also express grave dismay that some elements, probably going behind the back of the able Ministry Secretary Karunatilaka Amunugama, have leaked the Ministry's communication to me, to the media.”

 “The original communication which was faxed to our Mission in Paris, carried the classification 'Confidential'. I also noticed that the original fax had a spelling error which has been corrected in the newspaper version, so one can only assume either that the newspaper did the correction or that a person or persons who had possession of the soft copy -- which this Mission does not, since it was faxed-- leaked it to the media."  

It is against this backdrop that I decided to write this week’s column on the topic of charges against Dayan Jayatilleka. I felt that this was of current relevance and immediate importance. Although I was planning to write the continuation of last week’s column on Tamara Kunanayakam, I am substituting an article on our man in Paris in place of our woman in Geneva this time.

Although there is much to write on the mess that is the Ministry of External affairs and also on why some elements in the ruling establishment are gunning for Dayan Jayatilleka, I would like to focus in this piece on the four main charges against the ambassador in Paris. I think the nation at large should know how our External ministry bureaucrats are using, misusing or abusing their power to harass key diplomats at a critical time.

Let me begin with the first and most “important” charge. I say important because Dayan Jayatilleka has been warned of action under the Penal code for “breach of trust, fraud and corruption”. This is about renovations and repainting of the Embassy building. The charge is reproduced in full because it is the most “serious”. Here it is – Renovation of the Chancery Building

Reference your letter dated 10 January 2012 in response to Ministry Fax No. 16 of 09 January 2012.
Regarding the renovation of the Chancery building you were requested by this Ministry to provide three quotations and a Technical Evaluation Committee Report (TEC) (Please see Ministry Fax No. 438 of 03/10/2011). However, the requested information was furnished with your letter No. SL/FRA/AA/10/03 dated 16 February 2012. It is noted from the annexure that the TEC report is dated 16 February 2012 and the information of the quotations are contained therein. As you would no doubt agree it is evident that the TEC Report has been compiled and submitted after the contract had been awarded and presumably after the work carried out as you had requested for funds to effect the payment by your Fax No. 467 of 30/9/2011.

As you are aware a TEC Report is a pre-requisite for contracts of this nature to be awarded. It may be noted that on receipt of a TEC report the Ministry Procurement Committee (MPC) evaluates tenders together with the recommendations of the TEC report before deciding on the suitable contractor. Therefore, the quotations and the TEC report should have reached the Ministry when you sought approval for renovations on 23 September 2011.

While observing the rationale in the TEC Report of not looking into registration details of contractors, it is noted that the second lowest quotation is from a registered contractor/company. The difference between the two quotations is Euros 301.50 and considering the fact that this contractor is registered, it would have been in order to seek that company’s service rather than an unregistered company, which would justify the slightly higher quotation. It must also be highlighted that the quote that was provided in this respect is a “purportedly forged document.” This is further strengthened by the fact that the Mission has not pursued this matter in seeking payment and has chosen to ignore the payment requirement despite the work been completed. A thorough perusal of the available relevant documents and sequence of events prima facie justify these assertions.

The Mission, without obtaining Ministry approval had commenced the renovation work which is a gross violation of the Government Procurement Guideline 2:14:1 (ii) b. Therefore, the awarding of this contract to S N T B Enterprise General De Batimante has failed to meet the stipulated practice. This action on your part is tantamount to a gross violation and disregard of the existing rules and regulations that governs your appointment and the conduct of an ambassador, actions punishable under the Penal Code of Sri Lanka leading to breach of trust, corruption and fraud as the case maybe.

The transparency on the award of this contract comes into question. Therefore, your explanation is requested with regard to the failure of not adhering to the aforementioned guidelines, which is a part of Government Financial Regulations System”.Before going into this “major” accusation against Ambassador Dayan, here is a point to be emphasized. It is not the task of the Ambassador or High Commissioner to oversee or supervise matters of such mundane nature in their respective missions. This duty is left to the chancery head, who goes into all the knitty-gritty details. The Ambassador however holds overall responsibility and does have to authorize by signing relevant documents.

In this instance there does not seem to have been any wrong doing as alleged or suspected by the Ministry. Moreover there seems to be patent bias on the part of sections in the ministry to scapegoat Dayan Jayatilleka specifically. There is reason to believe that this is due to the hidden agenda of some in the External Affairs establishment seeking to undermine External Affairs Minister GL Peiris.

The Chancery was hastily repainted and renovated prior to the visit of Minister Peiris to France in October last year. The work was done with a week’s deadline only. There were doubts whether the visit would materialize because vested interests in the ministry and outside who are opposed to Prof. Peiris were engaged in efforts to scuttle or abort it.

Despite these efforts the visit did take place and was a success. Ambassador Jayatilleka with the support of his staff had arranged for an impressive itinerary. Prof. Peiris met with his counterpart Alain Juppe the French Foreign Minister at Quay d’ Orsay. He also met French President Sarkozy’s senior diplomatic adviser Jean-David Levitte at Elysee.

The Minister also addressed an audience consisting of   intellectuals, ambassadors and journalists at the Académie Diplomatique Internationale, a prestigious French think-tank.  He received the Medal of the French National Assembly from Deputy Alain Rodet, President of the France-Sri Lanka Friendship Association, during a working lunch with French legislators.  Prof. Peiris was also interviewed by French journalist Jacques Follorou of the prestigious French newspaper Le Monde
It is in the aftermath of the External affairs minister’s victorious visit that attempts are being made to rake up the issue again. Some of the points mentioned had been raised earlier and resolved. This letter purportedly signed by Mr. Prasanna appears to be a clumsy exercise to resurrect a non-existing problem and a childish attempt to intimidate Dayan Jayatilleka.

The ponderous verbiage in bureaucratic jargon visible in the letter released to the media creates an overt impression that impropriety of a colossal scale has been done. The truth is that what amounts to a million in Sri Lankan rupees is only a pittance when converted to Euros. Thus some of the renovation contracts appearing to be huge in Sri Lanka are actually small ones in the West. It is difficult therefore to find good contractors at short notice because the cost is comparatively small and therefore the profit or gain minimal.

According to External ministry bureaucratic regulations or red tape any work costing more than a million rupees requires approval of the ministry procurement committee. The estimated expenditure for renovation and repainting amounted to five figures in Euros thus exceeding a million in rupees. For this the procurement committee required a report from a Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC).  A three member TEC comprising the head of chancery, a first Secretary and a second secretary was set up and asked to furnish a report in two days.

This was practically impossible. Meanwhile the deadline for Minister Peiris’s visit was approaching fast. So the ministry was informed that the mission was going ahead with the renovation work. The members of the TEC agreed to utilize the contractor with the lowest bid although a proper report was not compiled. Information available indicates that the renovation work was done   without the report of the Technical evaluation committee. This was due to the urgency of the situation and not due to any financial impropriety as alleged.

Initially the mission in Paris had requested funds from the ministry for the renovation but when the ministry had emphasized the Technical Evaluation committee requirement the Embassy in France had not pursued the matter further. It had informed Colombo that it was going ahead with the work without going through the TEC procedure because of the situational urgency. The idea was to go ahead with the lowest bidder and furnish the report later for re-imbursement.
What seems to be missing in the ministry letter is the fact that it had at no stage objected to or prohibited the mission in Geneva from going ahead with the renovation work without a TEC report. It looks as if the Ministry had at that stage appreciated the need for urgency and tacitly concurred with the mission. The present indignation expressed in the official missive sent last week does seem contrived when seen in this light.

It is also a fact that reports from the Technical evaluation committee have not been insisted upon as a pre- requisite in matters of this nature in the past. According to informed sources some renovation work in the Ambassador’s residence has been done in 2011 amounting to around 14,000 Euros. Earlier in 2010 during the time of Ambassador Lionel Fernando, the kitchen in the ambassador’s residence had been modernized at a cost of about 7,000 Euros. Both these contracts were in excess of one million rupees but no Technical evaluation committee report had been sought or insisted upon. It is only now that this ‘requirement” is being portrayed as inviolable.
The contract for the renovation work was first given to a company that submitted the lowest bid. Subsequently that company bowed out saying it was unable to deliver within the limited deadline. Thereafter the company with the third lowest bid was given the contract.  The company with the second lowest bid was not given the contract as some work done by it previously for the Embassy was not satisfactory. The difference between the bids of both companies was only 300 Euros. But even this additional cost was waived as the concerned company agreed to lower its estimate to that of the figure quoted by the earlier company with the lowest bid.

Moreover the company awarded the contract had agreed to do work in the evenings and also week-ends to meet the urgent deadline of one week. This had been accomplished to everyone’s satisfaction. Also some members of the Embassy staff had gone beyond the call of duty and graciously volunteered to be on the Embassy premises while work was on during evenings and week-ends. Thus questions of security as well as transparency had been addressed.

Ambassador Jayatilleka is also being questioned on the matter of awarding contacts to registered and non – registered contractors although the matter is not under his specific purview. While it is being projected as some grave impropriety what is being missed is the fact that it has been the established practice in France and other Western capitals  for missions in obtaining services of contractors regardless of whether they were registered or not. This has been the case in France for years and years. So for Jayatilleka to be queried on the matter suggests mala fide motives on the part of the ministry.

Where the Paris Mission is at fault seems to be in the relatively long delay in submitting the technical evaluation report. It was given only in February this year. One does not know the reasons for it but it does look more like bureaucratic lethargy as opposed to some ulterior motive. The mission has also not re-submitted its request for funds for renovation and this is being viewed suspiciously in Colombo. But this could have been simply because the TEC report was not ready for submission and request for payment.

Meanwhile a source in Paris said that full payment is yet to be made to the contractor because funds are yet to be released by Colombo. I was unable to confirm whether this was true or not at the time of writing this. There is also a reference to a “purportedly false document” in the ministry letter. I have not been able to find out what is meant by that reference in the ministry letter. My hunch is that it would turn out to be a damp squib!

The opinion I formed after researching the main charge that warns Ambassador Jayatilleka of action under the penal code seems to be that the ministry memo is “all gas and no solid”. Even if irregularities can be proved there is nothing to show they were fraudulent transactions or that improper financial gains were made by anyone least of all the Ambassador. I am forced to wonder whether Mr. Prasanna was pressured by powerful people to sign such a letter.

If that is the situation in respect to the premier charge what about the others? After probing the matter further the conclusion that I have arrived at is that they are flimsy and utterly without merit. Let me take up the issue of second secretary UA Razee next.

According to the ministry letter “U.A. Razee, Second Secretary had been accommodated on a temporary basis from 04 May to 22 November 2011 while a Second Secretary who was appointed subsequently found accommodation within two weeks. As per the practice that the Ministry has observed in the past and present an officer is only permitted to remain in “temporary accommodation” for a period not exceeding thirty days due to the exorbitant costs involved”.
An explanation is sought from Ambassador Jayatilleka for this colossal waste of funds and reimbursement of related expenditure exceeding a period of thirty days is sought. Again let me state the information I was able to gather on this matter.

In the first place the task of finding suitable accommodation for embassy staff is not the duty of the ambassador and for the ministry to hold Jayatilleka responsible is by itself wrong and possibly malicious. But the problem faced by Mr. Razee in finding accommodation on time is a humane issue and something which many people are faced with in the West.

According to sources close to Mr. Razee the second secretary with a family of a wife and two young children plus a domestic aide to look after the children required a fairly large furnished apartment. He was required to find a furnished apartment within the rent of 2,500 Euros a month. This was a difficult task given the comparatively low rental ceiling.

It was also blatantly unfair as another second secretary George Cooke a bachelor had been given a rental allowance of 3,280 Euros for an unfurnished apartment. After this discrepancy was pointed out Mr. Razee’s rental ceiling was increased to 3280 euros.

Thereafter Mr. Razee found a suitable apartment and just as he was ready to move in the owner refused to rent it out. This is attributed to the rise of anti-Muslim feelings among many Europeans in the current atmosphere. Finally after great difficulty and delay Mr. Razee found a suitable apartment and moved out from the Hotel.
Apparently all the problems faced by Mr. Razee on this account were duly conveyed to the ministry in Colombo and proffered explanations had been accepted. Everything was transparent. It does seem strange that the ministry should now imply “ignorance” of the matter and require an explanation from the ambassador as if some great impropriety has been done.

Besides the second secretary mentioned in the ministry letter who got an apartment within two weeks does not warrant comparison with Razee. That person apparently is a woman who knows Paris well and speaks fluent French as she had grown up and studied in France. Also she and her spouse were the only two members in her family as opposed to Razee with children. Also her finding an apartment in a short time was an exception as no other staff member has ever found accommodation within such a short time in Paris.

Moreover there have been precedents in France where Sri Lankan embassy personnel have been compelled to stay in Hotels for long periods due to inability in finding suitable accommodation. Former deputy head of mission Ranjith Jayasooriya has stayed in a Hotel for one whole year. Chandrika Weerasekara secretary to the ambassador has stayed in a Hotel for four months.

They were never questioned about the long stay in Hotels by the ministry. This was because it was seen as a humanitarian issue. Why then is the External affairs ministry making an issue out of Mr. Razee’s plight? Is this only a ruse to target Jayatilleka or a sign of increasing racism in the ministry? Is Razee going to be transferred out like many Tamil speaking officers in different countries in the past few months?
The third charge concerns the purchase of a Sofa settee. Here is an excerpt from the ministry letter relating to this:  “The cost of the Sofa Settee was quoted as Euro 8300/- (approx. Rs 1, 267,200 according to the parity rate which then prevailed). The Ministry Procurement Committee was of the view that an expenditure amounting to Euro 8,300 for a Sofa Settee was exorbitant and a gross disregard to curtailing such extravagant expenditure. The committee was further appalled at the reason given for such extravagant expenditure of public funds by stating that “the Minister of Foreign Affairs is visiting the residence of the Ambassador” and such a Sofa Settee therefore is required. With all due respect to the Hon. Minister of External Affairs, such a visit does not in the Ministry’s view justify an exorbitant expenditure of Euro 8,300 for a sofa settee and neither does the Hon. Minister wishes for such exuberance at public expense. Our records also indicate that the Hon. Minister never visited your residence to date.”

This charge so frivolous is actually double –edged as it seeks to target both Ambassador Jayatilleka as well as Minister Peiris. What is amusing about this charge is that it displays an utter ignorance of what has actually transpired.

What I learnt about the Sofa issue is that in the first place it does not apply to a single item but a three –piece sofa settee set. Sri Lankan residents in France who are familiar with the Ambassador’s residence say that much of the furniture there is somewhat soiled and stained and in need of a rapid overhaul.
In this case however there was a plan to hold a reception –dinner   for the External Affairs minister at the ambassador’s residence for which many French Govt. ministers and heads of diplomatic missions in Paris were to be invited. It was for this purpose that a Sofa set was ordered and 30 % paid in advance.
Subsequently there was a change of plan and the dinner was held at a Hotel. The order for the Sofa set was cancelled and the advance paid is being refunded to the Embassy. Thus it can be seen that the ministry in Colombo is either clueless or pretends to be clueless with the hidden agenda of victmising Jayatilleka.
The fourth charge stated in the letter alleges that Ambassador Jayatilleka has recruited local staff and assigned them sensitive duties while overlooking staff from the regular diplomatic service. Here are the relevant excerpts: “Some members of the diplomatic staff have brought to the attention of this Ministry (in writing) that they are being overlooked and marginalized in the process of allocation of duties in the Mission, which directly comes under the purview of the Head of Mission and such responsibilities being handed over to non-diplomatic locally recruited staff, thereby raising serious concerns on the aspect of responsibility and accountability vis a vis GOSL.”

“It is alleged that the Locally Recruited (LR) staff have been assigned work of a sensitive nature normally handled or attended by the diplomatic staff of the Mission. It is also alleged that due to their improper allocation of duties the Mission has not been able to achieve its objectives. It may be noted that this Ministry would hold an inquiry into non adherence of Administrative Regulations and the wilful alienation of diplomatic staff who have been appointed by the Ministry taking into consideration the expertise that is required for the proper implementation of the policies of the Ministry in keeping to with the best interest of GOSL.”

When I pursued this matter I discovered that some (not all) members of the staff at our mission in Paris do seem to resent Ambassador Jayatilleka on this count. What has been happening is that Dayan Jayatilleka has been recruiting several youths of Sri Lankan origin who are long standing residents of France. These youths are highly qualified with excellent proficiency in French and are also very familiar with the French ethos and way of life

With their background and expertise these youths have better communication skills and widespread contacts. Though the Ambassador selected them, their appointments were approved by the ministry. But several members of the staff appointed through the ministry are resentful of these local recruits. Given the vast difference between the local recruits with academic credentials from Prestigious French universities and the staff from Sri Lanka,   jealousy the green eyed monster is rearing its ugly head.

It is also learnt that ambassador Jayatilleka has not made changes in the duties allocated to staff by his predecessor except in one instance. This was in the case of the official whose duties included media relations and liaison. Jayatilleka has transferred the duty to the locally recruited Research and information officer who has two masters’ degrees from Sorbonne and a diploma from Science Po. This youngster has discharged duties very efficiently and established many media contacts even earning the praise of Minister Peiris.

The allegation about sensitive work being allocated to the local recruits is only partially correct. While assignments of a sensitive nature have been occasionally handed out the local recruits have always been closely supervised by the Ambassador or senior diplomats.

This then is the background to the charge regarding local recruits. The recruitment of  qualified young residents of Sri Lankan origin and deploying them in the mission by Jayatilleka  is a  pioneering  model worthy of emulation by other missions in the West . However it cannot be denied that such practice is resented by a significant number of Embassy staff. This has made the Ambassador unpopular among these personnel.

Another cause for opposition to Jayatilleka is the ambassador’s efforts in transforming the mission into a multi-ethnic, multi-religious institution. This is resented by some members of the Sihala Buddhist Diaspora in France. Chief among them is the prelate of a Buddhist place of worship in Paris. A vicious attack is being spearheaded against Jayatilleka.

This has led to even an anonymous threatening letter being sent to the Ambassador. When the French police investigated they traced the letter to an embassy staffer in a sensitive post. Although Jayatilleka informed the ministry of this no action has been taken so far. It is this same ministry that displayed inertia on this serious breach of discipline that is now threatening disciplinary action against Dayan Jayatilleka.

It is obvious that the ministry letter sent to Ambassador Jayatilleka by Mr. Prasanna  is not an isolated act. It is part of a more deep-seated conspiracy and is perhaps the opening gambit for more serious action in the future.

The External Affairs Ministry is an Augean Stable requiring a Herculean clean up. It is indeed tragic that at a time when greater unity and efficiency is needed to overcome international challenges the external affairs ministry is embroiled in internal dissension.

There is a lot more to be said about the Dayan Jayatilleka affair and about the prevalent state of external affairs. But as I said earlier I have concentrated on the four (in) famous charges against Dayan Jayatilleka in this column and will leave those matters for a future article on another occasion.
I began this column with references to Paris in April. Let me end by another reference to April days. The "days