Mahinda gorged on foreign cake while people struggled for bread

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THE ITALIAN JAUNT: With Lanka on the brink of defaulting, fine dining in Italian style at a chic ristorante with family and friends on public money

President’s Office reveals: Nation’s slide into bankruptcy no bar to foreign junkets with family and friends on taxpayers’ money

Startling revelations regarding Rajapaksas’ foreign travel expenses for 2021 have now been made public by the President’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Office which had earlier refused to disclose to a Right to Information inquiry when the two were under Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa respectively.

First take President Gotabaya’s travel breakdown.

He had spent an austere Rs. 5.4m in September to attend the 76th opening session of the UN’s General Assembly along with other Heads of State in New York, scrupulously paying for his wife’s ticket privately;

He had spent a frugal Rs. 1.8m in October to attend the UN’s 28th Climate Change Summit in Glasgow;

and spent a meagre Rs 5 lakhs in December to attend the Indian Ocean Conference in Abu Dhabi.

The total cost of his foreign travels is approximately Rs 7m.

These three visits can be taken as three minimum ‘musts’ on any President’s travel itinerary for the year. The first, to join other Heads of State to inaugurate the UN 76th Session, the second, to participate in the international conference on global warming which directly impacts every country, and the third, the importance of being present in person at a meeting concerning the island’s own sea, goes without saying.

The costs incurred in flying to far off destinations such as New York and Glasgow — especially after the massive rise in airfares after the COVID crisis — and the total amount of all three visits totalling only Rs. 7 million, seems fair and reasonable in the circumstances. For all his faults, Gotabaya has been circumspect and kept a miserly rein on his travel expenses.

Not so his brother, Mahinda. While Gotabaya had lived off a hermit’s bowl abroad, Mahinda had drunk deep from a Maharaja’s chalice together with his family and friends, all at public expense.

Consider Mahinda’s travel breakdown for the same year:

He and his wife, along with other members in his entourage, flew to Dhaka in a specially chartered VVIP SriLankan Airlines flight. The purpose of the two-day visit was to join in the birth anniversary celebrations of Bangladesh’s Sheik Mujibur Rahman and to participate in the Independence Day ceremonies of that country. The cost of this two-day visit: Rs 10.5 million.

On September 9, Mahinda Rajapaksa flew to Bologna, Italy. The purpose of the visit was to deliver a speech at a seminar held by a non-governmental organisation, G20 Interfaith Forum, on the topic, ‘Time to Heal: Peace among Cultures, Understanding between Religions’. It was, of course, a subject he could preach by heart though he often failed to follow it in practice. This time on the junket tour he was joined not only by his wife and officials but also by family members and close friends. The cost: Rs. 26 m.

The Bangladesh birthday party and the Italian jaunt cost the Lankan taxpayer a total of nearly Rs. 37m. Compared to Gotabaya’s stoic Rs.7m, Mahinda’s lavish Rs. 37m seems positively vulgar and insensitive to the hardships faced by his people.

In fact, on September 8, only two days before  Mahinda left for Italy with family and friends on the public account, he would have heard his brother, then Finance Minister, Basil, warn Parliament of the hard times ahead.

The Sunday Punch of September 12 last year commented: ‘Basil made no bones when he declared the economy was in dire straits, with the present severe foreign exchange shortage coupled with a total of Rs. 1.6 trillion in lost revenues’.

What is shocking in the official revelation this Wednesday, is, perhaps, not so much the figure of Rs 45m as the total costs of the Rajapaksa duos’ foreign travel last year but that, having known so well from Basil’s mouth that the nation’s dramatic slide into bankruptcy was well underway, Mahinda had no qualm in gorging a massive slice of the public funded cake with family and friends, while his people struggled to find their daily bread. The 37million Mahinda spent on his foreign flings with his family, would, in the coming months when public coffers lay bare, have bought a 35 million rupee shipload of oil — as Reuters reported — to last a week, and still left two million bucks to spare.

Thankfully for the nation, the squandering Rajapaksa triumvirate have been driven out of office by the people’s struggle on the Green and the accompanying protests staged throughout the island. Thanks to the citizens, the Rajapaksa family’s direct access to the public coffers, as if it were their family heirloom, has been temporarily stayed. But has the people’s resounding triumph proved at the end a pyrrhic victory? It had cost some their liberty and the struggle’s masthead ‘Aragalaya’ turned into a dirty word by those who gained its spoils. The Rajapaksas have come out from the deadwood, and, though deprived of official status, still rock Lanka’s political cradle. In or out of office, their tentacles have spread so far and wide in the nation’s political tapestry that they still call the shots and their fiat still runs.

No wonder this island, which they made godforsaken to its people, still remains a ‘punya-boomie’ or thrice-blessed land for the three Rajapaksa brothers and their families.

Courtesy   Sundsay Times

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