South Asia

An Explosive Corruption Saga Rocks Sri Lanka

A high-profile businesswoman who rose out of obscurity has stunned the country with tales of mind-boggling money games involving politicians and the rich.

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Even by the standards of corruption in Sri Lanka, a high-profile businesswoman who rose out of obscurity has stunned the country with tales of mind-boggling money games involving politicians, the filthy rich, high-end parties, actresses and phone sex.

Since her dramatic arrest on October 5, Thilini Priyamali, 40, who headed a group of multi-sector companies collectively known as Thico, is in jail in Colombo facing allegations of cheating many of millions of rupees, much of it clearly unaccounted money. Her lawyers deny any wrongdoing but the courts have refused to bail her. 

Janaki Siriwardhana, a well-known business personality who apparently introduced her business friends to Priyamali, was taken into custody on November 4. Those held previously include a Buddhist monk and a man variously described as a business partner and husband of Priyamali.

Media reports say Priyamali was the eldest of four children of a carpenter father from Kalutara. She dropped out of school and worked here and there, at times finding herself on the wrong side of the law, before finally making it big in Colombo around 2018-19.

This is when Priyamali began rubbing shoulders with powerful politicians and befriending their families, moving close to Sri Lankans who swim in wealth and throwing lavish parties to people who mattered. She later began frequenting the official residence of then-prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. At the same time, she built for herself the image of a pious person who donated to charities. 

According to the LinkedIn page of the Thico Group Ltd, the company “is the brainchild of Thilini Priyamali … and well diversified” catering to a range of industries including construction, entertainment, gems and jewellery, real estate and trading. “The ultimate expectation is to help our customers to fulfil their dreams.”

Thico had a great address: the 34th floor of the swanky World Trade Centre in Colombo’s business centre, a building once targeted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The monthly rent was a cool 1.6 million Sri Lankan rupees or $4,000 then. And reportedly she had paid up 12 months of rent in advance.

Priyamali allegedly made big money by inducing several businessmen to invest money with her to secure high returns. In most cases, the investors would indeed get a good return soon. But once greed made them cough up vast sums of money, the woman’s cheques would start bouncing.

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) said as much to the Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court.

According to the Daily Mirror, investigators said that one Colombo businessman was swindled a whopping Rs 750 million. Former Colombo mayor Azath Sally accused the woman of cheating him of Rs 80.5 million. A Ceylon Today report said that a “multi-millionaire female” told the CID that Priyamali took Rs 45 million from her.

The CID got a dozen complaints against Priyamali but many who the police feel lost large amounts of money were reluctant to file charges as they may not be able to explain how they got so much wealth in the first place. The court was told that many politicians and “popular personalities” were not forthcoming with their losses. Clearly, a lot of money was being laundered.

A report in the Daily Mirror revealed that investigators were probing complaints that some businessmen were blackmailed when they sought their money back – with taped conversations of “telephone sex” with women set up by Priyamali. “It is alleged that these conversations may have been recorded and later used to blackmail the businessmen.” Priyamali “paid between Rs 500,000 and Rs 1 million to three models and actresses for ensnaring businessmen”, the Sunday Observer said. Two actresses were avoiding police summons.

One of the first to approach the police was businessman Kamal Hassen, who accused Priyamali and her partner Isuru Bandara – who has been arrested – of swindling him of 100,000 Australian dollars, USS $60,000 and 136.7 gold sovereigns. He sought to know how she could have bodyguards armed with automatic weapons.

According to Hassen, Priyamali spoke about the widespread fuel shortage in Sri Lanka and told him that she had won a tender to import oil but was short of money. So, he gave her the jewellery belonging to his wife as well as two daughters and sold a house given to one of his daughters to provide Priyamali foreign currency. She told him that the finance ministry would reimburse the amount in two days. Everything was a lie.

Also Read: Impunity for Rights Abuses and Corruption Underlying Causes for Lanka’s Collapse: UN Report

Billions of rupees swindled

Taken in by her persuasive skills and flaunted political links, many businessmen and politicians fell into the woman’s net, losing massive amounts of money. Reports also said that a Sri Lankan drug smuggler living in Europe had lost 200 million Sri Lankan rupees. According to the report, if all such complaints were lodged, the total money swindled could amount to an unbelievable 10 billion Sri Lankan rupees. 

One businessman told the CID a bizarre story. Having found out that he believed in the occult, Priyamali visited him unannounced and said his late father had been reborn as a cobra and that he (the businessman) would end up losing all his money if he stored cash in his house. He then handed her a bag full of money, hoping he would earn a profit. As collateral, she gave the businessman gleaming gold batons which turned out to be brass laced with gold.

According to EconomyNext, Priyamali ran a lucrative operation from early 2019 offering the US currency at 140 rupees when the commercial selling rate was 40 rupees more. She would sell smaller quantities of dollars at 140 rupees to build trust. When punters raised the stakes and gave her millions of rupees to buy cut-rate dollars, she would not deliver the goods. And where did the dollars come from? These were provided by “a former minister”, the report said, without naming anyone.

Priyamali is known to have befriended the wife of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Photographs on the Internet show them together. In April this year, a month before mass anti-government protests forced Mahinda Rajapaksa to quit as prime minister, Priyamali threw a party at Shangri La Hotel to launch her Sinhala movie Maya Jaala (Network of Deceit). Among those who attended the event were Shiranthi Rajapaksa, the prime minister’s wife, and former President Maithripala Sirisena. The Colombo grapevine has it that she funded a prominent politician during elections in 2020. Now, Mahinda Rajapaksa has denied that he or his family had any links with Priyamali.

Mahinda Rajapaksa. Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Could a businesswoman with no credible background have risen so high without political patronage? Equally striking is that sections of Sri Lanka’s moneyed class were ready to trust in promises of a high rate of return even as the cash-strapped country was virtually begging the world to rescue it from a mess created by mountains of corruption and poor governance. And all these years, no one in authority smelt a rat while shocking amounts of money exchanged hands. When Priyamali opened her office, the chief guest was the manager of a leading private bank. Some senior police officers were friendly with her. With such connections, who would have wanted to trip her up? This is the question that perhaps needs asking.