Sri Lanka to field 53-strong team to New York
UN meeting opens doors for unprecedented joy ride
President Mahinda Rajapakse is set to lead a record-breaking 53-member delegation to New York for the United Nations General Assembly later this month. Rajapakse’s gargantuan delegation includes nine ministers. Also in the list is First Lady Shiranthini Rajapakse’s personal beautician, Amali Jayawardana. Incidentally, Rajapakse is not alone in raising eyebrows New York-side. President of the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou-Nguesso shocked the UN in 2005 when he brought with him an entourage of 50 people, including his butler, personal photographer and wife’s hairdresser.
by Namini Wijedasa
@ Sunday Island - 03Sep2006
President Mahinda Rajapakse is set to lead a record-breaking 53-member delegation to New York for the United Nations General Assembly later this month, costing the country millions in precious taxpayers’ money.
Rajapakse -- who had pledged in his election manifesto to continuously review government expenditure and direct it towards "essential priority areas" -- has surpassed his predecessors Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Kumaratunga had 27 in her 2004 delegation while Wickremesinghe had 24 in 2003. Authoritative UN sources said that these were "the only other big numbers" in recent times.
Rajapakse’s gargantuan delegation includes nine ministers. Also in the list is First Lady Shiranthini Rajapakse’s personal beautician, Amali Jayawardana.
According to informed sources, the giant squad has already applied for US visas. Among those heading for New York are: President Mahinda Rajapakse and Mrs Rajapakse, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Trade Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, Social Services Minister Douglas Devananda, Education Minister Susil Premajayantha, Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Viswa Warnapala, Resettlement Minister Rishard Badiuddin and Regional Development Minister Gunaratne Weerakoon.
Also travelling are Deputy Skills Development Minister Sripathy Sooriyaratchchi and Deputy Education Minister Nirmala Kotelawala. They will be joined by Parliamentarian Dallas Alahapperuma, Sabaragamuwa Province Chief Minister Mahipala Herath, Deputy Speaker Geetanjana Gunewardena, Western Provincial Council Member Renuka Perera and Central Provincial Council Member P Digambaram.
Included in the group are two members of an advance security team, four other security personnel and medical staff. There are also seven people listed as "media". Together, it adds up to 53 delegates.
Incidentally, the widely-travelled Enterprise Development Minister Rohitha Bogollagama is not part of the current excursion. Neither are any of his family members. "Well, I’m glad to see the government’s cracking down," joked a Western diplomat, tongue firmly in cheek.
The foreign ministry remained tight-lipped when asked about the composition of Rajapakse’s delegation but other official sources expressed apprehension that the final tally may be even higher. It is confidentially learnt that making travel and accommodation arrangements for the contingent has posed "a logistical nightmare".
"It is a very legitimate concern that such a massive delegation will cost the country dearly at a bad time," one of these sources said. "We hear that the foreign ministry had advised relevant authorities that they (foreign ministry) do not recommend a large delegation because of the expenditure outlay."
"As far as I can see, this is unprecedented," another source said. "It is obviously a huge junket paid for by tax payers. I am wondering whether we can afford it at this time of political and economic crises."
Authoritative sources in New York said that, unlike Chandrika Kumaratunga, President Rajapakse is firmly avoiding the UN press corps -- no press briefings are scheduled.
It is also understood that around 35 members of his delegation -- including President Rajapakse -- will first travel to the Cuban capital, Havana, for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. The 116 non-aligned countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean will be meeting in Havana from September 11 to 16. The Sri Lankans will then head to New York and join the rest of the delegation.
While in New York, the main delegates, including Rajapakse, are tipped to bunk at the expensive UN Plaza Hotel. Sources in New York said that average prices at this exclusive venue are between US$300 and $350 per night (or even higher, depending on the suites). Other members of the delegation are likely to stay at less expensive hotels, including the Helmsley Hotel, which averages about US$200 per night.
Cost of hotel accommodation aside, each delegate will receive a daily allowance, the rate of which was not immediately available.
Meanwhile, ministers and other top ranking delegates are likely to fly business class. According to inquiries, the usual International Air Transport Association return fare for a business class seat to New York (Colombo-Dubai-New York and vice versa) is Rs 503,300 (including tax). The return economy class fare on the same route costs Rs 270,100 (including tax).
The usual IATA economy fare to Havana (via Paris) is Rs 232,056. It was not immediately known whether charter flights would be used for any of the trips.
Incidentally, Rajapakse is not alone in raising eyebrows New York-side. Another president shocked the UN in 2005 when he brought with him an entourage of 50 people, including his butler, personal photographer and wife’s hairdresser. President of the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s group occupied 25 rooms at the Crowne Plaza hotel while the president stayed in the prestigious Palace hotel.
The other members of the delegation are Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga, Foreign Secretary H M G S Palihakkara, Head of the Peace Secretariat Palitha Kohona, Presidential Adviser Jayantha Dhanapala, Consultant to the President Gamini Gunaratne, Additional Secretary to the President Gamini Senerath, Coordinating Secretary to the President Vas Gunewardena and Public Relations Officer to the President S Rajapakse.
Also going are five officials from the foreign ministry, accompanied by Sajad Mowzoon, director of the Ports and Aviation Authority, and two coordinating secretaries from the ministry of aviation and shipping.
The six members listed as media are ITN Chairman Anura Siriwardene, Media Coordinator Chandrapala Liyanage, Director of Information Anusha Pelpita, Presidential Photographer Sudath Silva, Rupavahini Journalist P K Don Godage, Rupavahini Cameraman G D Ajith and Channel Head MTV Sri Ranga Jeyaratnam.
Apart from beautician Amali Jayawardene, Mrs Kamphi Rambukwella is also listed as personal staff.