By Rienzie Wijetilleke
There was a period in the late 80s and early 90s when Sri Lanka’s banking sector was beginning to expand its correspondent relationships around the world and strengthening these relationships through carefully structured facilities was critical. As the CEO of HNB, I was obliged to meet officials and counterparts of various banks around the world in order to negotiate our institutional relationships and thus expand and facilitate the growing import/ export industry as well as finalizing credit lines to Sri Lanka. On quite a number of occasions, I attended meetings in the UK and in various parts of Europe with heads of some of the leading banks in that region. We would discuss Sri Lanka and its economy, politics, the threat of terrorism whilst also working out trade products and negotiating funding lines. Every so often, I would hear remarks from the British and the Europeans regarding the size of our balance sheet. They would jokingly ask whether there are any zeroes missing from our balance sheet, implying that HNB was not of an adequate size to be considered a major financial player internationally.
A Sri Lankan Regional Financial Force
When I studied the local industry at the time, it became apparent that culturally, the banking industry had an issue. The State owned and controlled banks such as BOC and People’s Bank had a major advantage due to their large deposit base and state backing, yet their loan portfolio was much weaker, mainly due to lending to State Owned Enterprises. At that time, due to state ownership, these banks viewed risk differently to private commercial banks. HNB was lending to a myriad of industries which were in their infancy but with a much smaller deposit base. Many of the private commercial banks had the necessary expertise to lend to large projects and new industries, but the institutions themselves were not large enough to participate in some of these transactions. This meant that a lot of the lending had to be syndicated with a foreign bank as well as with a state bank.
Thus, it became clear that HNB would have to grow its funding base in order to compete against the state banks and eventually against foreign banks in the region. Over many decades, Sri Lanka’s banking sector has evolved into a stable industry with an equally effective regulator and sound policy management. There was no reason why Sri Lanka’s finance industry could not find success in markets such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia. My dream was that HNB would grow into a truly regional powerhouse, but this would require consolidation within the Sri Lankan industry to create a financial force that could compete regionally with a balance sheet large enough to entice investors.
HNB needed to buy over a competitor and perhaps through an amalgamated entity, try to enter foreign markets at least with basic financial products before expanding into infrastructure funding and investment banking. If we could start small and get our foot in the door in countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam, this Sri Lankan financial giant could open itself up to new opportunities in markets spread throughout the burgeoning South East Asian region. As the CEO of HNB, I had already overseen the purchase of the local branches of IndoSuez, Emirates Bank and Habib Bank and thus had the necessary confidence to oversee a larger, more meaningful acquisition/merger.
I engaged a few trusted advisors and we decided on presenting some preliminary numbers to key Board Members in private meetings. I had anticipated and received the unqualified support of the Chairman, the late Mr. Chrishantha Cooray and Director and one of its major shareholders: Mr. Harry Jayawardena (DHSJ). As Chairman, Mr. Cooray had always supported me, he was a thorough gentleman and always kept the organization’s best interests at heart. In DHSJ, I was always assured of the steadfast support of the country’s pre-eminent businessman and industrialist, someone that shared my vision. One sticking point was the need to raise fresh capital to partly finance the take-over. Mr. Cooray’s shareholding interest through Brown and Co. was unable to raise significant capital, but DHSJ was ready and willing to infuse the necessary capital. As CEO I had to walk a fine line, as both Mr. Cooray and DHSJ were dear friends of mine and at Mr. Cooray’s request, I had to agree not to take any action that might lead to a dilution of Brown and Co’s share-ownership.
Insecurity of the Regulator
Furthermore, many within the regulator were very much against what they perceived as an attempt by myself to promote individual ownership and domination of the banking industry in Sri Lanka. Personally, this was not a consideration for me, as I was responsible for the bank; a merger or acquisition was very much in the best interests of the organization. However given the sensitivity of the situation on all sides, I needed to be extremely tactful. It seemed obvious to me that the regulator was willing to forego international expansion to restrict individual domination of the industry and prevent a concentration of power. However, I was of the view that a consolidation would not only align with HNB’s vision, but was undoubtedly in the national interest.
Despite some reticence by members of the Board and Senior Management, I received the green light to do whatever needed to merge with or acquire Sampath Bank, even if it was interpreted as a hostile takeover. We opted for Sampath because of the enormous potential it showed at that time. I admired some of their senior management and indeed I even counted as friends some amongst their directorate, but our vision was more important than personal relationships. HNB had an opportunity and the entire country and economy would benefit from a consolidation which would have been unprecedented in Sri Lanka.
At the time, it was my expectation that the regulatory authority would have backed the creation of a Sri Lankan regional financial entity, given the obvious advantages it would bring to Sri Lanka. However, during the initial negotiations, it became apparent that Sri Lanka’s communal divisions had poisoned the hearts and minds of so many Sri Lankans: there was resistance from unexpected quarters.
Communal Divisions come to the Fore
Hatton National Bank, with its roots in the hill-country town of Hatton, was initially known to be a bank that served the plantation industry. Over the years, through the efforts of many, we successfully shed this image and created a new one. HNB came to be known as a “Partner in Progress” to all Sri Lankans and one of the things I am most proud of from my time as CEO was the Gami Pubuduwa scheme which was targeted at Sri Lankans around the country living outside urban areas, to provide them with lines of credit that were sorely lacking. I was also proud that HNB, especially during the mid-90s, had hired some of Sri Lanka’s brightest sportsmen and women, especially cricketers, both household names and up and coming youngsters with enormous potential. At HNB we celebrated all cultures and we would not spare any expense for Bakthi Gee and Christmas events for staff. HNB had become a truly multicultural organization.
To my surprise and utter disappointment, many people involved in the negotiations seemed to consider HNB a “Tamil Bank”. Thus, any potential takeover of Sampath was suddenly viewed through the lens of communal division. The idea of creating a regional powerhouse was now framed as a hostile acquisition of a ‘Sinhala’ Bank by a ‘Tamil’ Bank.
Personal Attacks and Posters
During the coming months, some enterprising members of the Sampath Bank Union began printing “kalapathara” (posters) making various allegations about HNB, its Directors and its management, myself included. HNB’s attempted takeover of Sampath was seen as part of a movement to dilute the Sinhalese culture, and I was viewed as the foremost villain in this story; the Sinhala Buddhist CEO who was selling his people out. There were various threats issued to me and my family. The Board of Directors at HNB was so concerned that they arranged a special security detail for me. We had to shuffle some of the staff that were working under me due to allegations that they were involved. I had to warn my wife that only specific staff would be allowed to enter my residence. On many evenings we received phone calls, with a variety of threats made against me personally and against my family, some of the language used I dare not repeat. On one occasion my youngest son, who was barely a teenager at the time had answered the telephone when my wife and I were not in the house. He conveyed to us that a man had called asking for me had then proceeded to scold my son in filth and warn him that his father’s limbs would be broken soon.
Senior officials of the Central Bank would call me at odd hours and we would discuss the move at length. The accusation was that HNB was trying to take over the banking industry, but I kept repeating that we were trying to consolidate, not dominate. Many at the CBSL were worried about monopolies and I sensed they had been listening to other industry professionals who were against potential domination of the industry by HNB. I can state as fact that I know of some very prominent bankers who despite seeing the obvious advantages, did not want to see HNB succeed in this venture.
The Dream that Died
As the war went from bad to worse, with bombs striking in the business district in Colombo and the government of Sri Lanka not having adequate means to respond, the temperature was starting to increase. The pressures were immense, the negative publicity around the merger/acquisition plus my additional responsibilities were starting to take its toll and I could not in good conscience endanger my family any further. Whilst I had the support of most of the Directorate at HNB, I realized that politically, the transaction would be painted by the communal narrative; the well had been poisoned.
As I think back, the idea to build a major regional financial player would most certainly have succeeded and the rewards would have been handsome. Take the example of Mr. Ishara Nanayakkara and the recent $600 Mn transaction involving the sale of shares in his Cambodian finance company, PRASAC. LOLC and Mr. Nanayakkara are reaping the rewards of taking a long-term view and diversifying into frontier markets with immense growth potential.
In the 90s, South East Asia and the Asian region as a whole was on the cusp of an economic boom. Young economies such as Vietnam and Bangladesh were starting to get organized and open up for trade and investment. An entity with the expertise of HNB and Sampath Bank with a large balance sheet would have taken a foothold in many of these markets and would have enjoyed a stake in their shared prosperity.
Unfortunately, small minds prevailed and Sri Lanka’s communal divisions would continue to dictate the country’s policies and initiatives, it might be argued that this sorry state of affairs still continues to this day.
Geneva Debacle: Forging a Way Forward
By DHARSHAN WEERASEKERA
Alisdair Pal of Reuters says of the recent UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, “the resolution allows the U.N. to “collect, consolidate, analyze and preserve information and evidence and develop possible strategies for future accountability….[it] is a “huge blow” to the Sri Lankan Government including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.” (“What does the U.N. resolution mean for Sri Lanka, 24th March 2021, www.reuters.com)
To my knowledge, much of the commentary on the resolution follows a similar pattern, i.e. the focus is on what the resolution entails for Sri Lanka, but not the Council. It is vital to focus on this latter aspect in order to facilitate a future defence of Sri Lanka at the Council, and related international forums. In my opinion, the “Core Group” and the other nations that joined them in voting for the resolution, have destroyed the credibility of the UNHRC and thus the institution.
In this article, I focus on the “Core Group’ consisting of the U.K., Canada, Germany, North Macedonia and Montenegro that brought the resolution. I argue that the existence of such a group within the UNHRC makes a mockery of the principles and purposes behind the Council’s founding statutes, U.N. General Assembly resolution 60/251 and UNHRC resolution 5/1 (“Institution-building in the Human Rights Council”).
The UNHRC and the “Core Group”
The U.N. General Assembly created the Human Rights Council in March 2006 as a replacement for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that had been functioning since 1993. Many people accused the Commission of having become too politicised and biased. Therefore, the “Charter” of the Council was formulated to ensure that the new institution would not follow its predecessor. Paragraph 4 of UNGA res. 60/251 states inter alia:
“The work of the Council shall be guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation.”
Meanwhile, para 5 (e) states:
“[The Council shall] undertake a universal periodic review, based on objective and reliable information, of the fulfillment by each State of its human rights obligations and commitments in a manner which ensures universality of coverage and equal treatment with respect to all States; the review shall be a cooperative mechanism.”
To my knowledge, there is no other mention of a specific mechanism through which the Council should carry out its work. Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that the framers envisioned that the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was the best means through which the institution could carry out its work while conforming to the principles enunciated in para 4.
To turn to the Council’s other founding statute—UNHRC resolution 5/1 of June 2007—Annex 1 of the resolution sets out detailed instructions in regard to the Universal Periodic Review. Para 1 of the annex states that the basis of the review shall be: a) the U.N. Charter, b) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, c) Human Rights instruments to which a State is a party and d) voluntary pledges and commitments by States.
Meanwhile, Para 2 states: “In addition to the above and given the complementary and mutually interrelated nature of human rights law and international humanitarian law, the review shall take into account applicable international humanitarian law.”
The fact that the instructions for the UPR include a mandate to look into humanitarian law issues, means that the framers envisioned that if a particular country is accused of violating humanitarian law, such matters could also be reviewed through the UPR mechanism. Therefore, the following question arises: If, as alleged by Sri Lanka’s critics there are rampant human rights abuses going on in this country or humanitarian law issues that remain unaddressed, then why could not these issues be taken up through the UPR process rather than through country-specific resolutions?
Neither UNGA res. 60/251 nor UNHRC res. 1/5 prohibit the Council from resorting to country-specific resolutions. However, reason and common sense suggest that where recourse to a country-specific resolution is made, it should be for an occasion or crisis of a magnitude or urgency that cannot normally be dealt with under the UPR. Otherwise, it makes no sense to have the UPR.
It necessarily follows that, if the Council determines that a crisis of a magnitude or urgency that cannot be addressed through the UPR exists in a particular country, such determination must also be made through an open, objective and impartial process of assessing and evaluating the relevant evidence, including by giving the accused country adequate time and opportunity to speak in its defence.
Now, let us turn to the “Core Group.” In this regard, one must consider three points. First, the “Core Group” is a self-appointed group and does not have a mandate either from the Government of Sri Lanka or any U.N. organ, including the UNHRC, to monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
Second, some members of the group, notably the U.K. and Canada, have domestic political reasons to involve themselves in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. In regard to this, the following matters are relevant. First, there is a 2009 Wikileaks cable by an American diplomat to his bosses in Washington, detailing his conversations with the head of the Sri Lanka Desk at the British Foreign Office. He says inter alia:
“Waite said that much of HMG and ministerial attention to Sri Lanka is due to the “very vocal” Tamil Diaspora in the U.K., numbering over 300,000 … .He said that with elections in the horizon the Government is paying particular attention to Sri Lanka with [David] Miliband recently remarking to Waite that he was spending 60 percent of his time on at the moment on Sri Lanka.” (“Wikileaks: David Miliband championed aid to Sri Lanka to win votes of Tamils in U.K.” The Telegraph, 22nd January 2012)
Some people might object that the above happened when the Labour Party was in power, and now that the Conservatives have taken over things are different. However, the Conservatives are under just as much pressure to win Tamil votes, and this is proved among other things by the conduct of former PM David Cameron on his visit to Sri Lanka in November 2013 for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. No sooner had he landed, he gave a speech scolding then President Mahinda Rajapaksa for his treatment of the Tamils and was whisked off to Jaffna to commiserate with the folks there. This behaviour shocked even some English people. The well-known columnist Rod Liddel wrote derisively:
“Normally, when one is a guest in someone else’s country, it is incumbent to be polite, even deferential. But the prime minister is aware that this does not apply to Sri Lanka …. So, it is to David Cameron’s immense credit that he struck the right tone when addressing his Ceylonese jonny. It is the tone of a member of the Eton upper sixth addressing some errant fag who has failed to buff his shoes to the correct level of shine, through either incompetence or negligence.” Rod Liddel, “That is the President of Sri Lanka, PM, not one of your fags,” Times of London, 17-11-2013, www.thetimes.co.uk)
Meanwhile, in the recent past, the Conservative Party in its manifesto for the 2019 Parliamentary elections, had a clause calling for a “two-State solution” in Sri Lanka, and that clause was corrected only after stringent protest from the Sri Lankan Government. To repeat, the Conservative Party has just as much reason as Labour to court the Tamil vote, and it is reasonable to suppose that with the present action at the UNHRC, PM Boris Johnson and his cohorts have achieved a veritable “coup” in that regard.
To turn to Canada, Martin Collacott, a former Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, writing in The National Post in 2005, says, “LTTE-friendly community leaders are willing to ensure that liberal candidates win votes in Tamil-heavy urban constituencies provided the Federal Government turns a blind eye to fundraising” (Martin Collacott, “Canada’s role in Tamil terror,” The National Post, 26-1-2005). In sum, the U.K and Canada have ulterior motives to be interested in Sri Lanka, and this makes the motives of the Core Group as such suspect.
Finally, to my knowledge, the “Core Group” has not submitted to the Council any report explaining that the purported human rights problems they see in Sri Lanka cannot be pursued through the Universal Periodic Review, and must instead be addressed through country-specific resolutions.
To accept what the Core Group has done is to accept that rich and powerful nations joined by poorer nations that they can coerce, cajole or influence, can decide by themselves that a particular country has a human rights “problem”, and proceed to take action against such nation at the UNHRC, without ever establishing before the Council that the “problem” of which they complain actually exists, and all the while violating the purposes and principles of the Council as well as the right to a fair hearing of the targeted nation. Sri Lankans must do everything in their power to hold the Core Group accountable for their actions.
Regulate sports in popular schools ahead of big matches
The Big Matches between popular schools in Colombo and main outstation cities are round the corner. In the past school sports was in the hands of former sportsmen and sportswomen who loved the game as well as their school. They devoted their time and money to coach the budding youth without any monetary gain for themselves.
But, see what has happened today. Sports coaches selected by the schools demand millions of rupees to coach the students. And this is readily agreed and paid by the school authorities. In the good old days the members of School teams were provided free meals during match days and also Sports equipment. But it is not so now. The school earn millions of rupees from big matches played for a duration of two, or three days in some cases, and this money could be utilised to buy the required cricket gear such as bats, pads gloves, boots, etc,. I understand a pair of cricket boots is in the region of Rs.18,000 to 25,000. Can a poor village lad who is enrolled to an affluent schools in Colombo, based on his performance in Education and Cricket afford this? These lads should be given all the support to continue in their respective sports rather than drop out due to financial constraints
Coaches in some schools are in the payroll of big-time businessmen whose children are, in the so called pools. Parents of children engaged in a particular sport should not be permitted to come in as sponsors as this would be rather unethical.
The Big Matches between popular boys schools are around the corner and I suggest that the Sports Ministry ensures performance based selections rather than on other criteria.
‘Post turtle’ revisited
I have written about this amusingly thought-provoking creature, the ‘post turtle’ to ‘The Island’ around three years ago (appeared in the opinion column of The Island newspaper on the 19th of June 2018, titled ‘The post turtle era’). The story, which I am sure most of you have heard/read already, is obviously not a creation of mine and I happened to come across it somewhere, sometime ago.
And for the benefit of those, who haven’t heard the story, it goes like this:
“While surturing a cut on the hand of an old Texas rancher, the doctor struck up a conversation with the old man. Eventually, the topic got around to politics and then they discussed some new guy, who was far too big for his shoes, as a politician.
The old rancher said, ‘Well, ya know he is a post turtle’. Not being familiar with the term, the doctor asked him what a ‘post turtle was’.
The old rancher said, ‘When you are driving down a country road and you come across a fence post with a turtle balanced on top, well, that’s your ‘post turtle’.
The rancher saw a puzzled look on the doctor’s face, so he went on to explain. ‘You know, he didn’t get up there by himself, he doesn’t belong up there, he doesn’t know what to do while he is up there, and you just wonder what kind of a dumb ass put him up there in the first place’.”
Now I was having this nice, little siesta, the other day and suddenly there appeared ‘the turtle’ in front of me, sitting on a fence post, seemingly doing a precarious balancing act as the post itself was too high for it to give it a try to jump down to the ground. Not that it probably wanted to do it anyway for it looked quite contended and happy sitting there doing absolutely nothing. And no doubt some loyal and dumb all rolled into one, must have put him up there and been feeding it well too, for it looked quite contended and fat showing a thick head that kept turning to the left and then to the right, while its tongue kept on lolling out as if it was saying something, which must have been absolute gibberish and rubbish anyway.
What a fitting and symbolic representation,
I mean this ‘post turtle’, of the lot, or the majority of it sitting across ‘the oya’, I mused on after I woke up from my snooze.
Many of them get there thanks to the gullible voter, who while ticking the boxes, thinks: he/she will surely deliver the goods this time as promised!
And those two-legged post turtles inside the edifice, bordering the Diyawanna, like the one in the story, keep uttering sheer rubbish and spitting out incomprehensible mumbo jumbo, all in return with thanks to those, who tick the boxes in their favour.
Their statements such as ‘what is oxygen for, to eat?’, is just one among many such stupendously stupid utterances of theirs and I don’t want to tire you with the rest, for they are well known and far too many.
Now I have only one question for you before I end this:
When are we going stop being ‘those dumb asses’, once and for all?
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