September 2, 2018 (LBO) – As video clips move through traditional and social media, the public is abuzz about the comments made by some of Sri Lanka’s most powerful businessmen at the ‘Fireside Chat’ event last week at the Colombo Hilton.
The event featured panelists: Dhammika Perera, Harry Jayawardena, Janak Hirdaramani, Merril Fernando, Sumal Perera and Ashok Pathirage. The panel was moderated by Daily FT Editor in Chief Nishtar Cassim, and HNB Chairman Dinesh Weerakody.
Some backlash has been evident on social media. One particular twitter exchange embedded below highlighted the problem of letting business people with entrenched interests try to dictate policy:
Arms dealers, casino operators & alcohol merchants want to run the country. Actually the do from behind the scenes, but now they are boldly coming forward. Not economists, policy experts, lawyers, foreign policy experts, scientists & academics. Let that sink in! #Mercantilism
— LankanStyle (@LankanStyle) September 1, 2018
Some of the business leaders seemed to make policy statements whose primary aim was not to benefit the country, but rather to benefit their own business interests. Some comments that generated particular angst among civil society were made by Harry Jayawardena, Sumal Perera, and Ashok Pathirage.
Harry Jayawardena complained that the government owes him Rs25bn due to the state takeover of his assets, in particular Pelawatte Sugar. He claimed that he is pursuing litigation against the government. Independent analysts say his claims for compensation seem excessive based on the assets seized. Despite the legislative seizure of some of his assets, Jayawardena maintains a business empire which many speculate is worth in excess of US$1 billion dollars.
Sumal Perera lamented increases in certain taxes which have increased the tax burden on his businesses. Analysts say the calculations he presented are highly suspect and significantly exaggerated the increase in tax burden. Despite the the increased tax burden due to legislation, Access Engineering (AEL) remains significantly profitable. Analysts also say that AEL has been a beneficiary of significant state patronage during the previous regime.
Softlogic boss Ashok Pathirage perhaps made the most outrageous claim saying that he thinks that Sri Lanka is in need of a ‘Dicator’ otherwise ‘nothing will happen.’ Political analysts say that these comments are completely against the January 8th election, where the people of Sri Lanka voted to end a regime that was becoming increasingly authoritarian. Pathirage is said to have had close contacts with the previous government.
Political insiders say that the Prime Minister is not enamoured by Sri Lanka’s oligarchs and is unlikely to be responsive to their self interested criticisms of his Government.