by Shamindra Ferdinando
Contrary to speculation Sri Lankan politicians are not among those named in Panama Papers (a vast collection of documents pertaining to massive secret investments in far-flung tax havens).
However, among those Sri Lankans who had been named in the Panama Papers are in a range of lucrative sectors mainly among captains of private industries including leisure, tourism promotion, travel industry, health care, capital market promotion, power generation for the state sector, state procurement, and major automobile importer and at least one former head of cash-strapped state enterprise.
Informed sources identified some of those named as near and dear to politicians, both past and present.
Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faizer Musthapha yesterday said that the government would thoroughly investigate the matter. He was answering a query at a media briefing at the Information Department. The Minister didn’t elaborate.
Deputy Minister of State Enterprise Development Eran Wickremaratne on Thursday declared at the weekly cabinet briefing that some Sri Lankan companies and politicians were being investigated and those named in the Panama Papers would be revealed soon.
UPFA Ratnapura District MP Ranjith de Zoysa told The Island that those who had been accusing former President and Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa of having USD 18 bn in secret offshore accounts expected Panama Papers to contain the names of the former President, his family or close associates. The SLFPer said that a thorough investigation was required to ascertain the amounts stashed overseas.
Corporate sources told The Island that now that the government had assured a thorough inquiry it would be the responsibility on the part of relevant institutions to swiftly proceed with the investigation.
Asked who should be in charge of the inquiry, Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva yesterday told The Island that the Central Bank would have to lead the investigation. The economist said that the Inland Revenue Department could step in subsequently.
The government last year established PRECIFAC (Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges) to inquire into transactions during the previous administration.
MP De Zoysa said the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) could be directed to inquire into those named in Panama Papers.
A senior spokesperson for the Joint Opposition told The Island that British Prime Minister David Cameron’s admission that he had held large stake in an offshore fund established by his father came to light amidst high profile UK campaign here against corruption. Deputy High Commissioner Ms Laura Davies recently pledged British financial support and expertise to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) as well as police, especially FCID.
The UK Serious Fraud Office has commenced providing training in addition to making available three quarters of million pounds sterling for the project over a three-year period.
The Island sought a clarification from the British High Commission in Colombo as regards charge of tax evasion directed at PM Cameron, a spokesperson for the government said: “The Prime Minister, his wife and their children do not benefit from any offshore funds. The Prime Minister owns no shares. There are no off-shore funds or trusts which the PM, Mrs Cameron or their children will benefit from in future.”
Caffe Chief Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon yesterday emphasized that it would be necessary to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into offshore accounts maintained by Sri Lankans. However, it would be important to keep in mind that those having large overseas accounts for business purposes and ill-gotten money in offshore accounts should be investigated separately. “Tax evasion cannot be compared with moving ill gotten money from a country.” The NGO activist said that those who had been named in Panama Papers were prominent personalities who held part of their revenue in offshore accounts.
Asked whether the FCID would be tasked to investigate Panama Papers, Tennakoon said that unit had failed to produce results at Dubai and Seychelles, where bigwigs of previous government and their henchmen maintained secret accounts. Referring to funds stashed in Dubai, Tennakoon stressed that the FCID and others responsible for the inquiry failed to achieve desired results. Tennakoon alleged that some people had been reluctant to go all the way, hence serious setbacks. Responding to another query, Tennakoon said the government should initiate legal process here to recover stashed funds overseas and bring them back to Sri Lanka.