Hot on the heels of many controversies surrounding several ministerial offspring, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons last week, when his son cricketer Ramith Rambukwella was embroiled in an unsavoury incident.
Rambukwella (Jnr) was flying to Britain as a member of the Sri Lanka ‘A’ cricket team and allegedly attempted to open the cabin door in midair, apparently mistaking it for a toilet door. The furore though was created by media reports in the British media which suggested that he was intoxicated.
Although there was general condemnation of the incident, the matter would have probably ended there as there were no casualties from the incident and no consequences as such except for some negative publicity for the Rambukwellas, the local cricket establishment and the country.
That was not to be. It was aggravated by several factors: a statement from Sri Lanka Cricket stating the incident was a result of “dim cabin lights” in the aircraft, an assertion by Minister Rambukwella that son Ramith was not drunk and a further explanation that he was merely “sleepwalking”.
These statements led to the Rambukwellas being lampooned in the local media with the sleepwalking explanation being likened to Minister Mervyn Silva’s claim that a Samurdhi officer “tied himself to a tree” and Parliamentarian Duminda Silva’s claim that he “could not remember” a murder.
Minister Rambukwella has chosen to shrug the incident off as being part and parcel of public life but his reputation will undoubtedly take another nosedive as he will be classed alongside the likes of the Silvas after this incident. Rambukwella however has always been a colourful personality.
Keheliya Bandara Dissanayake Rambukwella hails from the hill country but had his education at the ‘school by the sea’, St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. He then pursued a career as an hotelier and was also a film producer before taking up politics.
He was a protégé of the late Mahaveli Minister Gamini Dissanayake who also had his electoral base in the Central Province. However, when Dissanayake fell out of favour with then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and left the United National Party (UNP), Rambukwella followed his mentor.
With the demise of President Premadasa, Dissanayake returned to the UNP and so did Rambukwella. The UNP at that time was thrown to the opposition after nearly two decades in government and Rambukwella had to counter the likes of Minister Anurudhdha Ratwatte in the Kandy district.
This he did with gusto and was elected to parliament for the first time at the general elections in 2000, topping the UNP preference votes, with more than 150,000 preferences. When the UNP formed its short-lived government in 2001, Rambukwella was appointed Science and Technology Minister.
The UNP was back in the opposition by 2004 and has been there ever since but not so Rambukwella. In January 2006, he announced that he would join the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Since then, Rambukwella has cast his lot with the UPFA and President Rajapaksa and has been a vocal critic of the UNP. He has also revelled in the role of being Cabinet spokesman, often attracting criticism for his blasé style of responding to serious questions posed by journalists.
He enjoyed more than his fair share of publicity as media spokesman for the government, especially during the years of the Eelam war. In this capacity, he may not have been the most objective but he must be credited with not losing his temper, despite intense grilling by the local and foreign media.
Rambukwella’s son was a promising cricketer from Royal College but his school career was tarnished when he, along with several other students, was suspended by the Principal of Royal College for allegedly breaking into a school office and stealing documents.
In that incident which occurred five years ago, it was alleged that Minister Rambukwella visited the school and coerced the Principal to lift the suspension. At the time, the Royal College Union was up in arms over the incident which forever damaged Rambukwella’s reputation as a man of integrity.
Minister Rambukwella himself was the subject of much speculation when in February 2012, he fell off a third floor hotel room balcony in Melbourne, Australia. He suffered serious injuries but went on to make a complete recovery after a period of hospitalisation.
In more recent months, he came in for criticism from the media when he proposed a code of ethics for the profession. Had it been implemented, it would have been virtually impossible for the media to report on politicians. Ironically, if that code was in place, this incident may not have been reported.
There have also been rumblings of dissent regarding Ramith Rambukwella’s selection to the Sri Lanka ‘A’ team as he has not been in the best of form lately. Minister Rambukwella’s parliamentary colleague Sanath Jayasuriya is head of the selection panel at Sri Lanka Cricket.
The current incident involving Rambukwella (Jnr.) again brings into sharp focus the indiscipline that prevails among ruling party politicians. This is closely linked to the culture of impunity they are now associated with, believing that no matter what, they would face no consequences.
Minister Rambukwella’s actions in the aftermath of the incident will only add credence to this view. He has dismissed the event, blaming it instead on the “sleepwalking” his son allegedly suffers from. He has also blamed the media for blowing it out of proportion.
Sri Lanka Cricket has ordered an inquiry into the incident, but given its track record regarding inquiries in the past, no one is really expecting Ramith Rambukwella to face repercussions as a result. Minister Rambukwella has said he will resign if it is proved that Ramith was intoxicated.
In the long term it is extremely unlikely that either Minister Rambukwella or his son Ramith will face any serious consequences as a result of these recent events. Yet, they are a stark reminder of the political culture that prevails today, where might is right.