I was late.
Two colleagues were waiting at the Orient Club for me to return from a press conference.
We had another appointment in an hour. I was late because I had spent my morning taking down notes while leading religious dignitaries censured government plans to expand the casino industry in Sri Lanka.
So as I approached the Orient Club in Colombo 7, I was running. After dashing in through the open gate, however, I wasn’t certain whether to turn right or left.
There were two buildings in the compound—one had a fresh coat of paint and coloured windows; the other looked older and more in need of maintenance. I had been to the Orient only once before and I couldn’t remember which way to go.
I’ll go right, I decided, making my way quickly towards the swankier edifice. But I stopped short.
At the entrance to the building—which I later discovered was a new Indian food restaurant called Maharaja—was Ravi Wijeratne, the local partner of Australian casino king James D. Packer and the chairman of Rank Holdings (Pvt) Ltd. He owns the Casino Marina on Marine Drive in Kollupitiya.
And alighting from vehicles in their saffron robes, to be cordially greeted at the entrance by this same casino boss, were some Buddhist monks. In an instant, I recognized Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera who, only 30 minutes ago, had been blistering about the government’s casino legislation!
I also made out Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera and Ven. Ittapana Dhammalankara Anunayake Thera among the collection of robes. I was later told that, from among the leading monks who had been at the press conference, Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera and Ven. Banagala Upatissa Thera also attended the meal at Maharaja.
To say I was stupefied would be an understatement. In that split second, I also had time to feel intensely and acutely dismayed and disappointed. I had, in all good faith, gone to their briefing and written copious notes. I had recorded their voices so that I would not miss a word of what they said. And the leaders had made some convincing arguments against a spread of casinos.
But here they were—half of the number of senior, most eminent Buddhist prelates who had been at that briefing. They were having their feet washed by Wijeratne and his minions before tripping up the red carpet into the restaurant.
I didn’t approach the gathering because both the prelates and Wijeratne knew me. I had asked four questions at a press conference attended by all of five journalists. As for Wijeratne, two international colleagues and I had met him for an interview at Casino Marina just the previous night. I wasn’t sure how they would react if I went forward and showed my face.
The place was swarming with Wijeratne’s men. There might or might not have been a safety issue and I didn’t want to risk finding out which of these two was fact. Besides, I wanted them to complete what they had come there to do and to not modify their actions merely because a journalist had sighted them.
So I did what any self-respecting reporter in those circumstances would do—I dived behind a tree and watched. They all went in. When they emerged some time later, Wijeratne’s men were carrying gifts for the prelates which they loaded into their cars.
The Sunday Times has photographs. The newspaper’s report, with one photograph, can be seen here:
Here is a transcript of the conversation the Sunday Times had with Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda Thera, who was among those present at the lunch.
Q: Swaminwahansa, did you attend a special lunch after the news conference on Thursday?
A: It was an almsgiving.
Q: Who was giving this almsgiving?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Who invited you?
A: It was Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera.
Q: Was anything discussed there about casinos?
A: Not a word.
Q: What was this lunch in aid of?
A: It was a sangha danayak.
Q: Was everyone who attended the news conference present at the lunch?
A: There were a few of them.
Q: Do you know (the businessman)?
A: I have no connection with him.
Q: You don’t know him?
A: I have no recollection of him.
The Sunday Times contacted Ven. Dr. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera to verify that he had, indeed, extended the invitation to Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda Thera.
Q: Swaminwahansa, did you go to a restaurant for lunch on the invitation of (businessman) after the news conference on Thursday?
A: I was invited to an almsgiving at the restaurant. I didn’t know anything about a casino connection. We went to the almsgiving and came away.
Q: Did (businessman) invite you?
A: The invitation came from (associate of businessman).
Q: Do you know the (businessman)?
A: We didn’t know him. We went into the restaurant, we had our offerings and left.
Q: Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda swaminwahansa said you had invited him to the almsgiving. Is this true?
A: I didn’t invite him. He was also invited by (associate of businessman).
Q: When was the invitation extended?
A: About two weeks ago.
Q: Did you discuss anything about casinos at this restaurant?
A: Nothing. We did not think so much… that he’s connected to casinos.
Q: When you were invited to an almsgiving, you did not ask who the person is?
A: When we are invited, we don’t try to find the origins (agak mulak) of the person who is inviting us. We go and consume the offerings and come back. Some websites are trying to sling mud at us.
Representatives of other religions in the Congress did not attend the almsgiving.
So what’s wrong with this picture?
Nobody begrudges a monk an almsgiving, be it at a temple, in a house or, for that matter, in a restaurant.
But when you summon a press conference explicitly to protest against gambling—and, in particular, a new casino to be set up by Ravi Wijeratne and James D Packer—it smacks of extreme hypocrisy to partake of a luncheon supplied to you by that same Wijeratne 30 minutes later.
It does not look right to afterwards to drive away from the venue with car boots brimming with gifts.
It does not sound right to later tell the reporter who attended your press conference that you did not speak a word about casinos at the said lunch; because that gullible hack might have been hoping, to save your face and hers, that you went to this spread with the intention of telling Wijeratne where exactly he could stuff his casinos (given you had spent the morning doing just that).
It does not do justice to the leaders and representatives of other religions—Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Javed Yusuf and Brahmasri S. Kuhanantha Sarma—for you to be hosted by Wijeratne in their ignorance.
One of these representatives was so appalled at the occurrence that he called me the next day to check whether I’m absolutely certain of what I had seen. I told him that, even if I weren’t, the camera doesn’t lie.
It is not believable that none of the eminent, learned, distinguished prelates knew who was offering them alms.
It is not proper to decide—after the news is published—that you will hold a press conference to reaffirm your opposition to casinos, and then promptly cancel it saying, “We have achieved our objectives as the government has withdrawn the bills”.
A representative of the Congress of Religions telephoned on the morning of 22 October and said Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera wants to summon another briefing; by afternoon the plan was off.
As for Wijeratne, he lost nothing. He committed an act of merit by offering alms to these prelates. Sure, his plans suffered a temporary blow but that isn’t necessarily because of the events of that day.
And will the government call off the Packer deal because of it? Not on anyone’s life. One way or the other, those casinos will be built. It’s only the packaging that will change.
What a country. What a reality. What abject hopelessness.
As a journalist, I am increasingly aware that nothing is ever what it seems. We write stories which we think are truth. But the truth lies several layers below.
Those in control of the truth feed us elements of the story and inveigle us into believing that we know all of it. They even let us write this semi-story and lead us on to believe that, by god, we’re ruddy smart.
But we’re not, really. We are suckers. If I hadn’t stumbled upon the party the other day, I’d have spent yet another day being a sucker.
PS: That afternoon, I mentioned to UNP MP Mangala Samaraweera (with whom my colleagues and I had an interview) what I had seen. He said he wouldn’t tell anyone. By nightfall, it was all over town.