Interviews

I will once again bring $ 1 billion in foreign exchange: Nissanka Senadhipathi

  • Launches new fishing project
  • Working to uplift prisoners’ lives

By Skandha Gunasekara

Avant Garde Chairman Nissanka Senadhipathi, who was released on bail a few weeks back, sat down for a chat with The Sunday Morning to talk about the ordeals he had to face in the last few years, his experience behind bars, and his future plans.

Below are excerpts of his interview with The Sunday Morning:

You were associated with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his tenure as the former Secretary of Defence. Some claim that you had underhand dealings with Rajapaksa. How do you respond to these allegations?

I have only one official connection with him – that is the maritime security company. I’m the one who sent a proposal about such a maritime company. That was at the end of 2010. At the time, Rakna Araksha Lanka did not have a maritime company. They took my proposal and they started. I never had deals with the former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He doesn’t do deals and he doesn’t associate with those who do deals. This is what I know about him. He associates with people who speak the truth, who bring foreign exchange and looks after the country and its people. Otherwise, you can’t fool him. If you fool him once, the second time he’ll never talk to you.

I worked closely with him during the 2010 presidential election but despite that, he didn’t favour me when it came to the maritime security proposal by Avant Garde. We asked to do the job of maritime security through a proposal but it was delayed for 11 months and instead of giving it to me, it was given to another 25 companies. These 25 companies were under the Government.

It was only when they lost the weapons which belonged to the Government and a letter sent by the UN Security Council stated that Sri Lanka was about to be blacklisted from these particular operations that Rakna Lanka opened their eyes to my proposal and called me. Actually they did not call me. I told them that if they don’t give me the opportunity, I would go to courts. Then they summoned us to the Ministry of Defence.

Assistant Secretary of Defence Damayanthi Jayaratne asked Rakna Lanka why they were not giving the job to Avant Garde. Rakna Lanka representatives said that “if we give it to him, what will he do? He will take the whole world into his hands including taking over Rakna Lanka. He is that kind of person. Therefore, we don’t want to give him”. Then Miss Jayaratne said: “That’s exactly the kind of person I need for this country. I will authorise this venture”.

Again they refused to give it to me saying that I don’t have the shipping license and of course I didn’t and I was quite disappointed. However, I had been studying another project which was to provide security to longline fishing vessels in Somalian and Arabian waters. So instead of proposing to purchase firearms as intended initially, I changed it and requested Rakna Lanka to give some guards to run this security operation. But they refused, as the longline vessels stay at sea for a period of one year, but the commercial shipping vessels that Rakna Lanka was doing were only at sea for about 15-20 days and then the guards dock at the nearest port and return to the island by air.

So then I spoke with those working at Avant Garde and told them that I would give Rs. 5 million compensation to their families in the case of a death and asked people to volunteer. Six of my people volunteered and they gave us three longline licenses to operate for a three-month period.

Ex-commandos of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces are trained professionals and in the first month itself the Avant Garde men performed extremely well. They had contact with Somalian pirates and they were able to repel the attacks. This happened on several occasions and we were able to repel them. This is because I gave them the necessary firepower – far more than what the pirates had.

I did this because I was a commando who was trained in our Army to plan well before a battle. So I put 10,000 rounds of ammunition on each ship. Then word spread of our prowess on the seas and all global shipping associations heard of a Sri Lankan maritime security company that could give proper protection.

Commander Nandana Diybalanage, Wing Commander Senarath Dissanayake, and K. Rajaratnam – I must extend gratitude and respect to these three individuals. They helped me in these endeavours. We recognised that we had the largest forces deployed in the Somalian waters.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa never had deals with me because if that was true, then I would have been the first one to get the contract but instead I was the 26th after 11 months. He never favoured me. He believed that I was a man who could get things done. He asked me to ensure I bring foreign remittance through my work but put in place a rule that no foreigner could have shares in my company. Another rule was that all money, to the last cent, must be brought to Sri Lanka and cannot be kept abroad. The only unethical thing he requested from me was that he wanted 50% from the turnover. He told me to keep the profits but to give him 50% of the turnover. This would have had a negative effect on the company so I was able to plead with him and bring it down to 42%.

Do you feel that you were a political victim and can you prove in court that these allegations against you are not true?

The trial at bar judges dismissed some 7,500 charges. Only 19 charges remain out of which only two are against me. They maintained that this case could not be heard. If I had made a mistake then that would not have been the case.

You asked me if I was a political victim. What happened in the last four years? The man behind this show is none other than (MP) Champika Ranawaka because I didn’t pay his ransom so that he can win his election against (Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa. The second person is (MP Dr.) Rajitha Senaratne who wanted me to give evidence against current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on bogus things that he has not done. I will never lie and blame someone for something he has not done. For that, I became a victim. Next is (MP) Arjuna Ranatunga. The other is (MP) Anura Kumara Dissanayake. I think he can even teach the Mexican drug cartels how to demand ransom. So they are all angry with me. There are also two ministers from Galle who are demanding ransom, threatening my wife.

The foreign captain of the Avant Garde ship was detained in Galle while your case was going on. Was he ever compensated by you for the ordeal he endured?

Thanks for asking this question. I volunteered to bring down his family and he refused. I volunteered to pay his salary but the company that hired him – I think Sri Lanka Shipping – are paying it even today. The captain underwent a heart surgery and I offered to pay for that but Sri Lanka Shipping refused and they paid for that too. We must thank Sri Lanka Shipping.

Do you think your company will be able to resume operations now that there is a change in Government or is there no future for Avant Garde?

A change in Government is not relevant to me or my operations. President Rajapaksa during a meeting of the Eliya movement said that Avant Garde was a novel business in Sri Lanka and was able to bring in massive amounts of foreign remittance but they used false allegations and destroyed this company. As I know, Gotabaya Rajapaksa doesn’t talk just because others tell him to. He studies something and then speaks or acts. That’s how he won a war that no one else before him could. He is someone who talks only about what he knows and he practises what he preaches.

Avant Garde was shut down by those three idiotic ministers – Ranawaka, Seneratne, and Ranatunga. No, I won’t even say ministers – because calling them ministers is an insult to other ministers in Parliament. They pushed former President Maithripala Sirisena against the wall to take action against me. But the Yahapalanaya Government also continued the Galle floating armoury for a period of one year. So how can they maintain it if it was illegal?

I sent letters to President (Maithripala) Sirisena about these ministers. Finally, at the end of 2019, President Sirisena summoned me. The first thing he did was apologise and say that he had no choice and that he knew it was political revenge. Avant Garde has been cleared by the trial at bar. I will go to courts and have my company reinstated.

You were in prison for awhile. Describe that experience.

I was in two prisons. First, I was sent to the Welikada Prison. After 30 days, by the order of courts, I was sent to the Judicial Medical Officer who decided that I should be admitted to the National Hospital where I had operations on the hand, spinal cord, and shoulder. I’m managing with physiotherapy and painkillers.

The very first day I was scared because I had an issue with Duminda Silva who was also in the same prison and I was afraid he would take revenge. But it was the other way around. He gave me his shorts and shared his food. But I was scared to sleep that night because I didn’t expect that from Duminda and thought he would try to harm me while I was asleep. But in the morning I understood that Duminda was not who I thought he was. The next morning, other inmates started coming and telling me what they were convicted of – one said he had committed 14 murders, another said he was a drug dealer. I was initially nervous as I thought they would attack me as it was a UNP Government at the time and they could do anything. I was ready for anything but I remained calm.

They said that they respected me and offered to help me. The one who claimed to have killed 14 people started giving me a head massage while the drug dealer gave me a leg massage. They also helped with my physiotherapy the way they knew how. Soon they were bringing me tea. I felt that I don’t get such good treatment even at home.

That day, I thought it would be best for me to have these fellows working for me at home because they are doing all this for free. I didn’t even know these people but they looked after me. What is unfortunate is the social stigma they have to face when they leave prison.

Regarding Duminda Silva – I was allowed to have chicken brought in for my meals from outside as I had a stomach operation and could only have certain foods. One day, my chicken came and I kept it on the table and went to the washroom but when I came back my chicken was missing. Next to me was Duminda Silva and I thought “hell of a fellow he’s eating all my chicken”. But I didn’t think too much because it was just food. That evening I got my chicken but before I left the table I quickly served two. But then he said: “Nissanka machan, can I have these two?” When I asked why, these two as there were four pieces on the table, he said that it wasn’t for him but for the cats in the prison. You can get from outside but they don’t have that freedom. I was annoyed at first but he spoke the truth and I understood. I have 16 cats at home and I love animals; they are better than most humans.

Another instance when I was going to bed, Duminda came and asked me if I had any biscuits. I told him I had a few packets for me to eat from time to time. He asked me to give them all and when I questioned as to why, he told me that the inmates in our block had not eaten the previous meal as it had spoilt soon after being served. So I gave them the packets. Duminda really managed the inmates and ensured no one fought. I was able to have about 20 people released from prison. Instead of paying ransom to corrupt politicians, I used it to help people who were imprisoned unjustly. I helped them with their lives outside of prison. Most were clamouring for jobs and I did my best.

Then, in my time in prison, I formulated a project to rehabilitate and train inmates within the prison so that they will be skilled when they are released. There is a huge demand for labour and I decided I could train about 4,000-5,000 ex-prisoners and give them a good life.

Additionally, it will benefit the country as these ex-prisoners would be given legitimate employment instead of going back to criminal activities and drug peddling. So I planned to do this in the next few years where I would train them in skilled labour and open up an agency to send them abroad.

I calculated that I could bring in about $ 300 million a year to this country. Once I was released from prison, I presented this proposal to Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva who gave his approval and asked me to start on it immediately.

Then for my luck, when I went to the prison this week, the Commissioner General of Prisons told me that there was another project for me to handle. He told me that there was a plot of about 200 acres of land belonging to the prison and he asked me to cultivate that land with the use of former inmates. I promised him that within 30 days I would start the project. This is in Vanathavillu. It would be a public-private partnership where 50% of the profit would go to the Government and 50% would be for me as I would be investing my own money to do this.

Apart from these two projects, any other future plans?

Yes, of course. When the current Prime Minister was appointed in 2018, he summoned me and tasked me with bringing in foreign exchange. I promised to bring in $ 1 billion. So I decided to expand the longline fishing that Avant Garde is running even now. I met with State Minister of Fisheries Sanath Nishantha and told him too ,and he immediately agreed to support me. I asked him to bring in some boat owners as well as fishermen. Next, I discussed it with them and they were delighted with the plan of entering the longline fishing trade.

Accordingly, my plan was to recruit 3,000 ships for longline shipping. I found a foreign investor and I hope to start this project soon. This project, once successful, would see Sri Lanka dominating the global fishing trade. Even my investor asked me whether I can do it since no one else has done it. I responded saying: “That is why I’m going to do it.” I want to do what no one has done before. Everyone wants to do what is commonly being carried out, but I want to be the one to do what no one woulwd ever do. I hope to start this project by July this year.