Now Sri Lanka Gets a New Version of Watergate Called ‘Weeratunga-Gate’

Finally, Sri Lanka too has a Watergate. It is Weeratunga-gate, named after the visible architect of the mega scandal that has come to haunt Mahinda Rajapaksa three months after he was rejected by the electorate.

Udayanga Weeratunga is no ordinary mortal. His mother and Rajapaksa’s mother are sisters, and, therefore, the Darbar treated him at par with Rajapaksa brothers – Gotabhaya and Basil, who had called the shots during the previous regime. Weeratunga’s theatre for action was far away in Moscow and Kiev. He was posted to Russia as an envoy and was concurrently accredited to Ukraine during the Rajapaksa years, though there is little in the public domain that qualifies him for the high profile assignment.

The Ukraine government has unearthed an illegal arms racket the Sri Lankan envoy had carried out between 2011 and 2012. His beneficiaries: Pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Going by what the Ukraine government has established, Weeratunga procured and supplied mostly pistols of German, Russian, Czech, Italian and Switzerland makes.

Not A Loose Cannon

Is Weeratunga a loose cannon?

Udayanga Weeratunga
Udayanga Weeratunga

Commentators doubt that. After the Eelam War ended in May 2009, the Rajapaksa regime faced the ire of human rights Ayatollahs at UNHRC in Geneva. By 2010-11 the prospect of an International Tribunal investigating “inhuman brutalities” of the Lankan Army became real. The probe could have ended at the door-step of Rajapaksa himself since, as the President, he was the supreme commander. Around this time Russia was under NATO pressure, offering a perfect setting for a trade-off between Moscow and Colombo.

At present the needle of suspicion is pointed at Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who was the Defence Secretary. Sooner rather than later the “Family” may find itself on the Witness Stand. This is because what got Weeratunga, the envoy’s post is equally relevant. Before his ‘elevation,’ he used to run in the Ukrainian capital, ‘Club Lanka,’ a restaurant serving Sri Lankan dishes. He is fluent in the local language and Russian but speaks Russian with a heavy Ukrainian accent, as a Russian Foreign Ministry official remarked once.

Weeratunga’s arms adventure came to ‘light’ just when Mahinda Rajapaksa was firming up his third term bid. From what I gather, President Poro Poroshenko’s government conveyed to Colombo last November its concern over the ‘unbecoming’ conduct of the envoy. It wanted to know “the legality of the arms transfer by the Head of the Mission (in Russia) in another country (Ukraine).” The Rajapaksa government denied any official or unofficial involvement “in any transaction of this nature,” and sought “details.”

Prompt came the response on Nov 19, 2014. It gave details of the persons who got the Weeratunga weapons, their credentials and the type and make. It was a clear giveaway that the Ukrainian government was not firing blank shots. A rattled Colombo initiated an inquiry. What happened to the probe remains unclear since there was never any official word about it. It is not too late to re-open the case. It would be difficult to wipe out all traces of the transaction since Ambassador Weeratunga traveled frequently from Moscow to Kiev, at least three times a month. The Ukrainian authorities will be happy to fill-up the gaps.

Ukraine Government Protests

The Sunday Times, a Colombo publication, has another version about the Kiev-Colombo face off. “The issue over Weeratunga came to the fore when the Ukrainian Embassy in New Delhi (which covers Sri Lanka) handed over a Third Person Note (TPN) to the Sri Lanka High Commission in New Delhi” in September last year. As the term implies, the TPN is written in the third person and presented by a diplomatic mission to obtain the support of another Government. The complaint enclosed a list of weapons which Weeratunga allegedly gave to “19 Ukrainian nationals, their names, the description of the weapons and the order numbers.” Two of the beneficiaries were former Ministers, who are suspected of backing the rebels.

Naturally, the query raised concern in the top echelons of the Sri Lankan foreign ministry. One senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Sunday Times that “there appears to be a belief that the Sri Lankan envoy allegedly issued those weapons with the concurrence of the Government of Sri Lanka. This is why they are seeking confirmation from Colombo.”

The then Foreign Minister, Prof G L Peiris had the ‘charges’ verified by two senior officers – Secretary and Additional Secretary, but hushed up the matter as it was election time and President Rajapaksa was fighting with his back to the wall. For his part, Weeratunga descended on Colombo to ‘direct’ electioneering, and parked himself at the Presidential holiday resort in what is known as ‘Little England’ of the British Governors and the ruling elite. After the elections, he returned to his post; the new Sirisena government promptly recalled him but he has gone ‘missing.’

MiG Scandal

There is more to the Weeratunga-gate, and it is the Lanka version of the Bofors scam. The newly established Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) of the Police wants to question him as a part of its probe into procurement of MiG-27 ground attack aircraft from Ukraine. While two orders were government-to-government, one contract signed on July 26, 2006 was routed through Weeratunga; the charge is that his deal went through an unknown offshore company, identified as Bellimissa Holdings Limited.

“The cost of the four MiG-27s, freight and other charges went directly to this offshore company to an address in London though it had no designated office,” investigators say. What is more the price paid was “much higher than the two previous purchases” and was “for aircraft which were much older.” Such buys were not unusual during the Eelam war days; in fact, Pakistan made a killing by supplying “old weapons systems” outsourced from Central Asian Republics.

mig 27
In Indian MiG27

A Footnote To Weeratunga-gate

Rajapaksa’s youngest son, Yoshitha Kanishka studied in Ukraine as a local government “sponsored” candidate even after he “got selected” into the Sri Lanka Navy. While Weeratunga made all “arrangements” for the study, Gotabhaya ordered “payment of daily allowance, and travel and phone bills” to his brother’s son.