An Echo Of Nullius Filius

“As enterprise development minister, Bogollagama took a delegation to London for a meeting of the Commonwealth Business Council. He also took his wife Deepthi, son Lakshitha and daughter Dilshani. Their names were included as members of the delegation. Expenses were borne by the government.”

by Namini Wijedasa

(August 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Month after month, Rohitha Bogollagama continues to astound the country with his free-wheeling attitude towards public finance and his blatant abuse of the foreign ministry portfolio for the good of his own.

Since the ministry of foreign affairs fell onto his lap on 28 January 2007, very much like manna from heaven, Bogollagama has been engaged in antics that have made Bozo the Clown look normal in diplomatic circles.

Here we document some of the humorous - and not so humorous escapades of the high-spending minister (not in chronological order). Some of them are from his ministry of enterprise development days. Apologies for the many omissions as we have only so much space.

Bogollagama makes no excuses for brazen nepotism. In fact, he makes a hobby of it. As recently as June, his sister-in-law Jayathri Ranjani Samarakone was named as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Singapore.

His brother-in-law, Palitha Ganegoda, was posted to New Delhi and recently promoted to the post of deputy high commissioner. That’s not all - Bogollagama’s daughter is now reportedly attending medical college in New Delhi while staying for free at the official residence of the deputy high commissioner. Coincidence?

Bogollagama’s intended son-in-law, the twenty-something Aminda Rodrigo, was posted as second secretary to Washington last year.

Perhaps to make it much easier for him to spend official money on her travel, Bogollagama made his wife, Deepthi, his private secretary.

When President Rajapaksa went on a state visit to Japan, Bogollagama reportedly insisted on taking his “personal assistants” - wife and son.

Bogollagama repeatedly shepherds his elder son, Lakshitha, into official meetings that the mere offspring of ministers have no business attending. He has continued to do this throughout his tenure as foreign minister. Lakshitha is often seen in the corridors of the foreign ministry, in parliament and by his father’s side on international travel.

During a 2007 visit to New Delhi, where his father attended the SAARC Council of Ministers, Lakshitha even issued a press release on behalf of the foreign ministry. It was an unprecedented act.

More recently, daughter Dilshani is also being herded into official discussions. Bogollagama took her to a special meeting of SAARC foreign ministers in Colombo on 31 July 2008. The meeting had been out of bounds even for ambassadors and high commissioners of the region. Dilshani and Lakshitha were listed as delegates of Sri Lanka.

In response to a query by LAKBIMAnEWS, the foreign ministry revealed in December last year that Bogollagama had far exceeded his 2007 travel budget by more than Rs 10 million. The estimate for 2007 was Rs 31,200,000 but Rs 41,568,000 had been spent by November 30. He had been foreign minister for just eight months. Bogollagama’s travel budget for 2008 has been increased to more than Rs 41 million.

Attempts to get details of Bogollagama’s latest travel - and other - expenditure proved futile as these are supposedly “confidential” files. However, the costs of supporting the minister are said to be “astronomical”.

Bogollagama is commonly known to draw lavishly from the budgets of Sri Lanka’s overseas missions for his expenses while on international travel. After he leaves those countries, the missions tie themselves in knots trying to get these enormous expenses reimbursed by the foreign ministry.

Since he became foreign ministry, Bogollagama has made it his business to fly to every little corner of the world - whether or not it serves a national purpose. More often than not, he lands in Sri Lanka during the morning and catches another flight out at night. He is deemed by many in diplomatic circles to be on a ‘wata wandanawa’.

Last week, Bogollagama was curiously in Iceland (accompanied by his wife). He stopped in Frankfurt on the way back, which makes it three times that the man has been to Germany. He has also been to Italy twice, France, Canada, Belgium, the UK more than five times, Kuwait, Jordan, Iran, Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Uganda, Malaysia, Singapore (many times), Philippines, Japan, China (twice), South Korea, Thailand, Myanmar, India (many times), twice to Pakistan, three times to Maldives, twice to Bangladesh, several times to the US, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan and other countries that we can’t immediately name.

During a visit to Washington DC, Bogollagama’s hotel bill came to nearly US$60,000. “He stayed at the Ritz Carlton,” a source said by telephone. “Some of his family members were there, too, and the bill was paid by our embassy in Washington.”

When they were at the Ritz Carlton in New York two years ago, Bogollagama and his wife had a loud argument in the dead of night in the corridors of the hotel. He was on the same floor as Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was in New York to address the UN General Assembly.

Bogollagama accompanied President Rajapaksa to London for a two-day mini summit of the Commonwealth heads of government. He soon became an object of gossip when he tried to jump into a photograph that Rajapaksa and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown were posing for following a bilateral discussion at Number 10, Downing Street. At a dinner in London, a tale bearer told Rajapaksa: “Sir, the Sri Lanka high commissiner’s official vehicle is a Jaguar but it’s not being used by her. It’s being sued by the foreign minister’s daughter who lives in London.”

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala, Uganda, last year Sri Lanka exposed an embarrassing lack of coordination and political cohesion in the international arena when Bogollagama supported the suspension of Pakistan from the Commonwealth - only to be publicly contradicted by President Rajapaksa the next day.

At one cabinet meeting, the question of where the Lakshman Kadirgamar memorial statue should be installed arose. The foreign ministry has been given the task of finding a suitable permanent address for the statue. Bogollagama was absent. President Rajapaksa asked Deputy Minister Hussein Bhaila where the statue would eventually be erected. Bhaila said he could not tell as Bogollagama was not in Sri Lanka. “It will take another ten years for him to get back,” Rajapaksa had reportedly said, angrily. “As acting minister, you must make a decision. If you can’t take decisions in such a manner, I will have to appoint somebody else to your place.”

During a recent breakfast meeting with President Rajapaksa, a senior retired diplomat asked him a question that haunts many - “Why are you tolerating Minister Bogallagama?” “Aiyo, ey miniha pissek ney!” came the answer.

Canvassing for Sri Lanka’s re-election to the UN Human Rights Council, Bogollagama went hunting for votes at the UN in New York. He met the Palestinian representative and requested that he votes for Sri Lanka. Bogollagama goofed - because Palestine is only an observer and not a full fledged member state.

Just before he visited the US State Department in Washington DC, Bogollagama claimed he was “very familiar” with the State Department because he had once worked there. “Some of us thought that maybe he was a one time CIA agent!” joked a Sri Lankan from Washington. The real story is that the US Embassy had hired on a short term contract to provide legal advice to the embassy when it signed some sort of contract with the Sri Lanka Government. Consequently, Bogollagama had a short stint with the US Information Services which has an office in the State Department. He was based in Washington DC briefly. So much for being “very familiar” with the US State Department!

After the recent SAARC summit in Colombo, Bogollagama delivered a glowing speech in Parliament thanking all and sundry for the success of the event. (No surprise that it was a success, considering that his ministry had extracted Rs 2.8 billion from national coffers to meet expenditure related to the summit). That evening, he returned to the foreign ministry where an officer showed him a statement of thanks issued by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The statement did not contain a word about the foreign ministry and, horror of horrors, did not even mention Bogollagama! Visibly upset, he immediately telephoned Gamini Senarath, the president’s coordinating secretary, and had a word. Not long after, a letter came from the president’s office. In two or three lines, it thanked the foreign minister and his officers for a job well done.

While President Rajapaksa hosted an official SAARC dinner at Rs 4,000 per head, Bogollagama went the whole hog and ordered lobster, tangy truffle remoulade and caramalized aubergine cream for Rs 10,000 per head for his official SAARC dinner.

Last year, an irritated President Rajapaksa overruled a posting made by Bogollagama and decided to retain K J Weerasinghe, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Brussels, till the end of his term. Chitranganee Wagiswara, a senior career service diplomat who is Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Paris, was also abruptly summoned back to Colombo by Bogollagama. It is learnt that she annoyed the petulant Bogollagama by querying some of the hefty bills he had left behind after a visit to Paris. Her return, too, was stalled on Rajapaksa’s instructions. Wagiswara had led Sri Lanka’s successful campaign for re-election to the Executive Board of UNESCO.

Bogollagama reportedly made it impossible for senior retired diplomat C D Casie Chetty to function as executive director of the Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies. He left in disgust.

It is reported that Bogollagama uses the premises of the Kadirgamar Institute in Horton Place as he would his own home (when in Sri Lanka, that is). A newspaper once reported that his security guards close down the institute and chase away people when Bogollagama arrives at the scene. One morning, members of the government’s advisory board of the Sethu Samudram project - including two secretaries of ministries - arrived at the Institute for a meeting but were shut out by Bogollagama’s guards as he was breakfasting there. Some left in disgut while the others parked at a distance and waited till the minister left around 11 am - followed by the catering truck of a five-star hotel.

As enterprise development minister, Bogollagama took a delegation to London for a meeting of the Commonwealth Business Council. He also took his wife Deepthi, son Lakshitha and daughter Dilshani. Their names were included as members of the delegation. Expenses were borne by the government.

Also as enterprise development minister, Bogollagama took his wife and children to Geneva (for peace talks with the LTTE) even after President Mahinda Rajapaksa instructed the delegation that family members must stay behind. The Bogollagama family stayed at the Geneva Hilton when everyone else was put up at the Chateau de Bossey where talks were being held. Once again, questions were raised over his expenditure but no action was taken.

When Bogollagama’s son met with a nasty accident in the US some years ago (when he was still in the UNP), he sought the assistance of the Sri Lanka embassy in Washington DC which helped him to get money from the President’s Fund to pay the son’s massive medical bill.

(Courtesy: Lakbima News, weekly news paper based in Colombo)
- Sri Lanka Guardian