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The versatile banker rich in humane values



When I read the article ‘Dismal behaviour of people’s representatives’ on 7th July in this newspaper by veteran banker Rienzie T. Wijetilleke (RTW), former Managing Director and Chairman of Hatton National Bank PLC, I noticed he had mentioned that he was in his 80s. That prompted me to pen this article as his next birthday approaches.

A leader is the one who knows how the way goes, and shows the way. Such a man’s name is ever embedded in many hearts. To the world he may be one human being but for many he is the world.

Quite deservingly many articles about him have been written by erudite veterans such as, Dr Upul Wijayawardhana, W. A.Wijewardane, former Deputy Governor of Central Bank in ‘My View’ and Savithri Rodrigo in her ‘Rienzie Wijetilleke – Revisited’. (to name a few of eulogies).

Some of the following accounts of him are not known to many outsiders and may be confined only to some brothers and sisters of HNB. Although I have worked at HNB for 18 years my interactions with this great leader was unfortunately limited to four instances.

If my memory serves me right, I met him for the first time in Panadura in the late 80s as the then Vice President of the Panadura Sports Club when HNB sponsored a cricket match between the club team and a touring English team. The chat lasted less than three minutes. Then, it was when he came to the HNB City Office in 1991 to give his blessings for the very first shipment of foreign currency notes to Singapore. The third was when he visited the Treasury Department of HNB, which was shifted to a new building opposite the City Office in Colombo Fort in the late 90s. My most important and vital meeting was in late September 2001.

When I was selected to Head the Representative Office of HNB in Karachi, Pakistan, in October 2001, I had to meet him. So, on the day of the appointment when I went to his room, I experienced the noble qualities and true humanity of this great gentleman. After a lengthy discussion about my new posting (mainly fatherly advice) and also about my family, the following kind words of his still echo in my mind and will not be forgotten in years to come.

“Lalith, give my direct telephone number to your wife to contact me for any emergency and she and your children can be assured of my protection and care in any emergency”.

Further, he fulfilled a special request made by me before I left. If love, compassion and care define a mother, then he fits in there.

He created and promoted the ‘Hatna Family’ concept, to go deep into the hearts of all at HNB. He never neglected the children and the close relatives of the ex-employees of HNB. However, in this world there are so many ungrateful people who do not have an iota of gratitude even after receiving ‘impossible’ opportunities. Leaving that sad part aside, I just wonder how many fathers, mothers and children are smiling today because of the stability of their lives, well assisted by our Sir, RTW. Surely most of them must be transmitting their telepathic best wishes and gratitude to him.

Our quarterly in-house journal, ‘Hatnamag’ was his brainchild. When I was in Karachi I used to circulate it among the prominent bankers there and some expressed their eagerness to have their own ones. However, the most prominent and enthusiastic reader was our then High Commissioner to Pakistan, (stationed in Islamabad) the ever smiling and amiable, General Srilal Weerasooriya.

The annual dance of HNB, the ‘Hatna Nite’ which was not held for many years was rejuvenated by Sir, RTW, I was told.

Media, especially the television channels, had a special place reserved for HNB. Decades ago when ‘Rupavahini’ broadcast the programmes, ‘Vanija Lovin’ (from the commercial world) and ‘Business Matters’ the channel authorities selected HNB as the provider of the articles. As requested by SDGMT, Mr. GK, I wrote those Sinhala and English articles for HNB. Before the introduction of the Euro in January 1999, ‘Rupavahini’ gave the opportunity for HNB to educate the wide range of viewers about facts related to the same. Then ART TV had a programme called ‘Business Matters’ every fortnight. Those were recorded at the Treasury Department of our bank. In all occasions I was lucky enough to be the interviewee thanks to my boss, Mr. GK, SDGMT. All those opportunities were not conjured by a magic wand but because of the rapport that HNB amassed throughout the years, thanks to the unparalleled leadership of our Sir, RTW,

It is a well-accepted fact that the sport (corruption free) is a real tool that can bring all people together. RTW had a special concern for the sportsmen and women. HNB became an oasis for them as the bank recruited, plethora of players of national fame in cricket, rugby, basketball, netball, soccer and hockey. The lengthy sports fabric of HNB was neatly decorated by the above players who brought plenty of championship trophies in Interbank, Mercantile and National tournaments. The numbers of achievements / trophies are too vast to name one by one. Thus, in the sports arena too HNB, created an indelible reputation.

He also extended the opportunities at HNB for three star athletes who brought honour to our motherland in Asian Games — Jayamini Illeperuma, Sriyani Kulawansa and Dhammika Menike.

Since I was a playing member of the team, I am proud to mention that in 1996 HNB became the Mercantile Over-40 Cricket Champions.

The number of bank branches swelled to over 180 in 2004 from 33 branches when he took over as the MD, with ATMs scattering right round the country.

As a colossal figure in the banking industry of Sri Lanka, while being the Managing Director he built a colossal mansion for the bank – HNB Towers, inaugurated in January 2003. Despite some pessimism about the building by corporate customers, his unhesitant determination, supported by an enthusiastic team saw the giant baby born.

In 2004, our Sir, RTW was elevated to the prestigious position of Chairman of HNB. By then the number of Exchange houses in the Middle East that had commenced agency arrangements with HNB for the inward remittances for the benefit of the expatriate Sri Lankans was very high. Those arrangements extended to some affluent countries such as Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Singapore and the UK as well during his tenure as the MD, with the Inward remittance business expanding many folds.

The establishment of the departure and arrival outlets of HNB at the BIA was another feather in his cap. Gold business of HNB commenced when he was MD. The high volumes of Gold sales by those two outlets and a large number of foreign currency deposits by duty free shops at BIA, the total collections of the same became unprecedented, resulting in the repatriation (export) of foreign currency notes to Singapore and Switzerland weekly. The profits were enormous.

The ‘Gami Pubuduwa’ programme was initiated during his tenure as Managing Director, which the World Bank hailed as a role model of the world in 1995. Under his guidance HNB became first for many local and international accolades.

The enormous number of scholarships offered to the deserving employees of HNB was unparalleled. Most of the ‘lucky’ ones, including me, are in retirement, reminiscing the ‘bright’ flame that glittered throughout, making plenty of opportunities for his subordinates.

The Training Centre of HNB was expanded to greater heights by recruiting well experienced and erudite personnel. The bank conducted the first ever training programme for the school leavers in 1989. The library was revitalized to modern standards in January 1990, and both relocated at HNB Towers.

After the introduction of the free economy, many foreign banks opened their doors in Sri Lanka. With the passage of time almost all of them wanted to quit Sri Lanka. (If I’m not mistaken only the CitiBank and Deutsche Bank remain to date). However, HNB made three record number of mergers, namely with Sri Lankan branches of Emirates Bank, Banque Indosuez and Habib AG Zurich, guided by Sir, RTW. Under his guidance HNB also established two Representative offices in Chennai, India and Karachi, Pakistan.

‘Cheqleaf’ at HNB Towers is an oasis with manna for the ‘exhausted’ but ‘spirited’ loyalists after 6 pm. The Pool Table there is an ideal substitute for billiards and snooker fanatics like me. It has become a good pastime for many employees.

I purposely refrained from obtaining opinions from retired and present senior staff members (joined before 2004) of HNB about our Sir, RTW for the simple and obvious reason that this article would have become too lengthy.

Sir, RTW, as the Chairman ran the best cricket interim committee of the country in 1999. Political interference brought an abrupt end to his top quality management. That is another sad episode of cricket in our motherland.

Like King Dutugemunu had 10 giant warriors, our Sir, RTW also had such capable men around him. One special lieutenant, an amiable character like a shadow enabling his boss to reach the pinnacles of successes, was Mr. Upali De Silva. He was the best ‘midwife’ at HNB who assisted his boss to deliver at all times. His camaraderie with his boss was exemplary.

Sir, RTW retired in 2010 as the proud Chairman of HNB. Even at 80 you are still young at heart. The birthday of our former Big Boss will be on 10th November.

Your wisdom and exemplary humanity will always be etched in our memories. Along with thousands of well wishers, I wish you good health and longevity to serve the human kind for many more years to come.

‘Scent of flowers does not travel against the wind, but the fragrance of good people travels even against the wind. A good man pervades every quarter’.




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The lasting curse of Janasathu



Kataboola tea estate

Let me begin with two anecdotes.

In the 1960s, my father would pull into the local Shell petrol shed and a smiling pump attendant, smartly attired in a uniform (khaki shirt and shorts) would come up to the driver’s side and inquire what was needed. While petrol was being pumped, the attendant would wipe the windscreen and check the engine oil. The toilet was clean. The air pump worked. To my delight, large, colourful road maps were given out, for free. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? All this for about Rs. 1 (one) for a gallon of petrol!

The next anecdote. In 1978, I visited Brian Howie, a former classmate, at Kataboola Estate in Nawalapitiya. Brian was an SD – assistant superintendent – and his bungalow was in a remote corner of the estate, so remote that it had its own mini hydroelectric plant. Mrs. B’s government, which had nationalised the estate, had recently fallen and the estate was now under new management.

The bungalow was sparsely furnished, and I noticed that a corner of the living room was blackened. Brian told me that the previous occupant, a former bus conductor turned “SD”, had not known how to use the kitchen stove, so he put some bricks together and had created a lipa in the living room to do his cooking. Meanwhile, every appliance and item of furniture in the bungalow had been stolen by the same man.

Janasathu has a false ring, meaning “owned by the people”. But, as everyone knows, the term instead means a nest of thieves, running up millions in losses at the cost of the people. A place where friends and political supporters are given employment, showered with generous perks, and given a free run to plunder. Government owned corporations, companies, and “other institutions” run into the hundreds, and perhaps a handful make a profit. The rest are leeches, sucking the blood of the nation.

Do we need a corporation/board for salt, ceramics, timber, cashew, lotteries, fisheries, films, ayurvedic drugs, handicrafts? For a publisher of newspapers? They are so swollen with employees that their raison d’être appears to be employment, perks and plunder that I mentioned above.

I recently read that Sri Lankan Airlines, the CTB, the Petroleum Corporation, and the Ceylon Electricity Board are the biggest loss makers. The Godzillas among them appear to be Sri Lankan Airlines, which reportedly lost Rs. 248 billion in the first four months of this year, and the Petroleum Corporation, which lost Rs. 628 billion in the same period. (The Petroleum Corporations is owed billions of rupees by both Sri Lankan Airlines and the Ceylon Electricity Board.) The Ceylon Electricity Board appears to be a mafia, subverting efforts to promote renewable energy, while promoting commission-earning fossil fuels. While the poorest among our population are starving, the crooks that run these organisations continue to deal and steal.

In Hong Kong, where I lived for 20 years, no airline, bank, petroleum company, telephone service, LPG or electricity supplier is owned by the government. The buses belong to the private sector. In Japan, where I live now, in addition to the list from Hong Kong, even the railways and the post offices are privatised and provide a courteous, efficient service. In Japan, the service at petrol stations is reminiscent of Ceylon’s in the 1960s that I described above.

At least in one instance, Mrs. B attempted to correct her folly in nationalising plantations. The de Mel family owned thriving coconut estates in Melsiripura. After nationalisation, the estates declined to such a sorry state that Mrs. B personally invited the de Mels to take them back. Today, the estates are thriving under efficient management.

As a nation, we need to admit that janasathu has failed, and take steps to remedy the situation ASAP.


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Road to Nandikadal: Twists of Kamal and Ranil actions



I am re-reading retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book “Road to Nandikadal ” these days. This is his first hand experience of the battle against LTTE, and his journey in the Sri Lankan army from Thirunelveli in 1983 to Nandikadal in 2009, where the final battle took place. Thirteen years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 under the political leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapakse and the then secretary of defence Gotabaya Rajapakse. As we all know, Gotabaya became the president of Sri Lanka in 2019, and resigned last July, due to public pressure, and is currently travelling from country to country without a set destination.

In his book, Kamal has written an interesting chapter titled “A final chance for peace” and detailed the peace process followed by the then government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the prime minister. This is Kamal’s narrative about the memorandum of understanding (MOU), brokered by the Norwegian government and signed by the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2002. “According to the MoU, members of the LTTE political wing were allowed to enter government controlled areas to commence their political activities. The first group of such LTTE political wing members entered the government controlled area from Muhamalai, singing and cheering, as if they had won the war. They insulted and jeered at the soldiers manning the checkpoint with impunity whilst the poor soldiers, under strict instructions not to react, helplessly looked on. The Navy, which arrested a group of terrorists, was immediately instructed to release them. Upon release, the terrorists threatened the sailors and lifted their sarongs, baring their genitalia at the stunned sailors, who could do nothing but simply look down in shame. Such developments intensified the apprehension we held of things yet to come and prepared ourselves to face untold humiliation in the name of the Motherland”.

Kamal further writes, “At the time of drafting the MoU, experienced officers like myself, knew it was premature to enter into peace negotiations. On the one hand, LTTE could not be trusted to keep their word, as past experience had taught us bitterly, and on the other hand, negotiations should be ideally undertaken from a position of strength”. He continues, “The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was very confident of the peace process and strongly believed there would never be a war again. They did not have any confidence in the Army, which spurred this belief and therefore pursued peace at any cost”.

Kamal’s criticism of the Wickremesinghe administration continues: “The step motherly treatment the Army received during this period was terrible. Strict instructions were given to cut costs and the ever obedient army reduced many of our facilities and benefits. The army even stopped the annual issue of face towels to soldiers, given as a benefit for decades. It felt like they wanted us to live like ‘Veddhas’ without a bit of comfort”

Now the same Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Kamal Gunaratne, who was highly critical of the Wickremesinghe administration, is the trusted Defence Secretary of the president. Is it a twist of fate or twist of faith!


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Need for best relations with China



(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)

I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.

Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.

I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.

Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.

It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.

It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.

A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.

These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future


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