Photo courtesy of Asia News

Twelve years ago today The Sunday Leader Editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was brutally murdered in broad daylight within a high security zone. His killers have never been punished. Here is why.

When I first heard the phrase “MiG deal” as a kid in 2007, I never expected that less than two years later, the printing of those two words in my father’s newspaper would lead to my standing over his open grave on the darkest day of my life. It has long been clear to me, and to all those familiar with the evidence, that had my father not exposed the MiG deal in The Sunday Leader, he would still be alive today, still writing, still exposing wrongdoing, still standing tall against the powers that be. He knew the risks of exposing a man who cherished his holier than thou public persona, but the risk did not stop him from doing his job.

Today, even 12 years after his death, many people remain unfamiliar with the facts of the MiG deal. As I seek to persuade Sri Lankans that it is in the national interest that my father’s killers be brought to justice, it may help to explain the MiG deal in simple terms. The exemplary work of a handful of Sri Lankan detectives has left little to the imagination. As the cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. I cheat and try to explain the MiG deal with both a picture and a thousand words. Here goes.

In January 2006, the Air Force Commander, Donald Perera wanted to call for an open tender to buy bombers for the Sri Lanka Air Force to fight the LTTE. The following month, a gaggle of Ukrainian officials and Singaporean businessmen came to Sri Lanka with Udayanga Weeratunga. The Ukrainians and Weeratunga met with then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. After the meeting, the plan to call for an open tender went out the window and the only offer solicited to buy bombers for the Air Force was that from the Ukrainian firm Ukrinmash brought to Sri Lanka by Udayanga Weeratunga.

As the deal was finalized, Weeratunga dealt directly with the Air Force on behalf of the Ukrainians, even after he was appointed Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Russia and Ukraine in June 2006. While Ukrinmash was a company owned by the Ukrainian government, and the Defence Ministry justified not calling for tenders on the basis that the MiG deal was a “government-to-government transaction”, the contract signed between the Air Force and Ukrinmash, said that all payments for the MiG bombers and overhaul services had to be made to a private company with an address in the United Kingdom, Bellimissa Holdings Limited.

Per the terms of the contract between the Air Force and the Ukrainians, Sri Lanka paid Bellimissa a total of $14,661,944.24. As far as Gotabaya Rajapaksa was concerned the MiGs arrived, the job was done, the agreed amount of money was paid and that was that.

But journalists smelled a rat. It was Iqbal Athas of the Sunday Times who first reported in 2006 that something was fishy about the MiG deal. He pointed out that the Air Force had paid $2.462 million per MiG in 2006, twice the price that was paid for similar aircraft in 2000 by the Kumaratunga government. In a series of articles in 2007, my father’s newspaper probed even deeper, proving that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was directly involved in the decision to go with the Ukrainians instead of a tender process, exposing the involvement of Weeratunga and the Singaporeans and devastatingly revealing that there was no company in the United Kingdom called Bellimissa Holdings.

My father was on the cusp of putting all the pieces together when he was killed in 2009. It was nearly a decade later that police investigators finished the job and vindicated him with a breathtaking multinational effort involving evidence shared by the governments of Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Hong Kong and the British Virgin Islands.

It turns out that in the records of Ukrinmash, there was no trace of any “government-to-government” deal with Sri Lanka for the MiGs. The Ukrainians had sold the MiGs to a company in Singapore called D.S. Alliance, who claimed to be acting on behalf of the government of Sri Lanka. D.S. Alliance had paid the Ukrainians not $14,661,944.24 but half that sum: $7,833,000. D.S. Alliance was owned by a Singaporean medical equipment mogul named Lee Thian Soo, whom my father exposed in his investigations.

It turns out that the mysterious Bellimissa Holdings was a shell company in the British Virgin Islands owned by the same Lee Thian Soo and his brother Lee Thian Bock. Lee Thian Soo’s wife, Ng Lay Khim, was a director of the company and his personal lawyer, Lim Kim Lark, was the company secretary. The shell company was used to hide the involvement of the Lee family and D.S. Alliance from Sri Lankan officials, because they had been blacklisted by the Air Force.

This is the crux of the MiG deal:

  1. The Singaporean Lee family paid $7,833,000 to Ukrinmash for goods and services to be given to the Sri Lanka Air Force
  2. The Sri Lanka Air Force unwittingly paid the Lee family $14,661,944.24 for those same goods and services, an 87 per cent markup
  3. The Sri Lanka Air Force received the goods and services they were promised, and thus they were none the wiser to the scam

So, what happened to the 87 per cent commission of $6,828,944.24 that the Singaporean Lee family made off with? Sadly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa shut down the police investigation into the MiG deal before they could get to the bottom of it but they were able to trace some of the money.

At least $400,397 was wired from Singapore bank accounts controlled by the Lee family to an account of the Gampaha branch of Commercial Bank held by a wastewater engineer you may have never heard of named Lelum Duminda Mannamperuma. He is married to the sister of the infamous Udayanga Weeratunga, which is to say that they are brothers-in-law.

Sri Lankan detectives traced at least another $80,000 in suspicious transactions to the account of Weeratunga’s brother-in-law but it looks like they were not able to confirm their link to the MiG deal before their investigation was shut down. What they were able to do, however, is trace what Mannamperuma did with most of the money.

At least $324,971.66 was wired by Mannamperuma to a real estate developer in Dubai called Star Giga Establishment as a down-payment to purchase penthouse apartment number 3403 at a condominium complex in Ajman called Goldcrest Views 2. The buyer of record for the apartment was Udayanga Weeratunga. The proof of the pudding is that when the Dubai police found and arrested Weeratunga in 2018 to extradite him to Sri Lanka, they put the cuffs on him in this very apartment.

So that is the MiG deal. Sri Lanka paid an 87 per cent commission to Singaporean wheeler dealers to buy arms and services used to defeat the LTTE. The Singaporeans paid at least $400,000 as a kickback to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cousin Udayanga Weeratunga, which we know that he used to buy himself a penthouse in Dubai. It looks like a good chunk of the remaining $6,428,547.24 made its way to accounts controlled by prominent Sri Lankans. Someday, if investigations are allowed to resume, we may find out for certain who exactly pocketed these bribes.

There is a Rajapaksa brother affectionately known as Mister Ten Percent. Had my father lived to finish his sleuthing and testify in court, Sri Lankans would have realized that another brother deserved the moniker Mister Eighty Seven Percent. Until the evidence proves otherwise, I remain convinced that this is why evil men decided that my father had to die.