Liberal investment policies of the Sri Lankan government deliver interesting herbal businesses.
Even by the largest stretch of the most fertile imagination, the dingy little place in the Colombo neighbourhood of Kollupitiya could not be a Chinese medical centre. There was no sign of a bustling practice in the two-storey building, not a bottle of medicine in sight. A weather-beaten signboard announced that Chinese herbal medicine was practised inside. But whatever herbal application being offered did not seem remotely medical in nature
Two Chinese women sat on the porch… waiting. One wore a flashy gold dress while the other was in bright yellow trousers and a tight black tee shirt. Both wore heavy make-up and smelt strongly of perfume. One woman spoke English. At least, she grasped the word ‘doctor’ and hurried inside to get her boss. When she returned, she sported an old white overall – the type worn by nurses and doctors – over her provocative outfit.
Her boss, the ‘doctor’, was equally delicious. She wore the smallest black shorts and a colourful peasant blouse which exposed a nice section of bust. (The woman in the gold dress had pattered off.) Speaking in halting English, the doctor said that she performed acupuncture. Yellow Pants was the ‘nurse’. The only other employee, a Sri Lankan boy, was on holiday.
So where was the hospital, the equipment, the medicine? we asked. “Inside”, she said, waving vaguely with her hand. She said her clinic had about 15 patients a month. While she spoke to us (as eva¬sively as possible), we saw Yellow Pants sending a patient away. Even before he reached the door, she signalled with her eyes that it was not a good time for acupuncture. “We have little patients”, said the doctor. “You see other places. Many, many places… very busy”.
A second centre was located a few hundred metres away. Same story: deserted building in a quiet spot, populated by numerous Chinese women in skimpy clothes and flashy make-up. Their faces were caked with foundation. On the table was an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts.
At this joint, they did not even feign smiles. Neither did they want to talk about Chinese medi¬cine, herbal or otherwise. A Sri Lankan maid was cleaning out a room. She wore rubber gloves. Speaking in Sinhala, she said that the Chinese women did not understand English. The man who acted as transla¬tor was on holiday. The Chinese women threw suspicious looks in our direction before showing us out.
A third place was a hairdressing salon, also in Kollupitiya. It was a new shop, perhaps explaining why all the customers were Chinese. Chinese women, that is. The solitary Chinese man at the counter was rude and uninviting, refusing to answer any question about his business. The women sim¬ply snapped, “No Engleeeesh”.
Investing in illegality
This is not a debate about the morality of prostitution which, yes, everyone knows is the oldest profession. It is a query about how many palms are being oiled to permit the operation of these brothels, which is what undoubtedly happens.
There are serious allegations about the BOI. Knowledgeable sources claim there is rampant corruption. They say that to obtain BOI licences, prospective businessmen invest very small amounts in the country, most of which is reportedly sent back to China, brought in again and then put into Share Investment External Rupee Accounts (SIERA) by the Chinese mafia. The latter allegedly have a borrowing and lending network established in Sri Lanka. They work in close conjunction with the Sri Lankan underworld.
In some instances, very large amounts are stated in the project proposals, but only a fraction is brought in. By paying personal bribes of SLR 50,000 to 60,000 (USD 520-650), some individuals have even evaded legal procedures, these sources say.
Meanwhile, foreign sex workers are in Sri Lanka on visitor visas. Some of them come and go, while others have been in the country for extended stays. It is not clear on what grounds their visas are extended although the BOI, at least in theory, has some say. A BOI official claims that the board has stopped making recommendations for the extension of visas, but this could not be confirmed. The ‘Lost Chinese Passport’ syndrome also warrants consideration. Many Chinese women, on finding their visas expired, have the ability to lose their passports. This leads to a de facto extension of their stay.
According to available information, 14 Chinese medical centres have been approved under Section 16 of the Board of Investment Act, which sets out rules for foreigners setting up ventures in the country. There is no minimum investment figure and businesses are not granted special incentives like tax holidays, nor are they subject to stringent BOI regulations. Instead, they operate under normal law. Foreigners can also choose to invest under regulations laid out by Section 17, but only if they meet minimum investment requirements and various other conditions. Under Section 17, they are allowed a multitude of incentives, though operations are more strictly monitored.
“Yes, what about them?”
The BOI says that in licensing Chinese medical centres it is simply following the government’s liberal investment policies. While noting that there have been no new applications for more than a year, a senior BOI official said that the board has no grounds for turning down an application if an investor’s papers are in order. One of the few application requirements is that the Ministry of Indigenous Medicine sanctions a prospective Chinese medical practitioner.
“How can we judge from an application whether or not it is a bona fide case?” a ministry official asked, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The govern¬ment has permitted the entry of investors. These centres are opened on this principle”. BOI Director General Arjunna Mahendran con¬firmed that no new licences are being issued and added, “Unless there was a police complaint or criminal accusation, we have no grounds to cancel their licences”. He continued, “We have worked with the police in the past but someone must come out with a firm allegation of corruption before we take action. We don’t want to arrest bona fide people. I have personally intervened and closed down some places. We need a public complaint corroborated by the police”.
As for allegations of corruption in the BOI, several officials said that evidence supporting these claims should be presented. Then, it is police responsibility to prosecute.
The buck was finally passed to the BOI’s monitoring division. Even if there were no new applications, could not the monitoring division inspect these ventures and take action?
“After licences are issued, evaluations and follow¬-up are never done”, said the knowledgeable source earlier quoted. It does seem strange that BOI officials on inspection have missed the glaring evidence of un-medical activity in some Chinese herbal centres.
“I don’t think anybody can monitor what they are doing, day and night”, countered a senior BOI official. “Nobody can do that. When we go on inspection, they may show us beds or medicine and say they are treating patients. We can’t stay the whole day to see if it’s true”. He also observed that there were some 1000 companies approved under Section 16 and that it was difficult for BOI officials to inspect all of them.
“Besides, we don’t do raids like the police”, he added. “That is not our business. We just inspect and if we detect something, we cancel the licence”.
The official claimed that the BOI has, in fact, been on regular inspections of Chinese medical cen-tres. Recently, they concluded a round of spot investigations which resulted in a report. This doc¬ument will be presented to Director General Mahendran, complete with recommendations for a future course of action.
“We may have to take some serious action”, the official said. This may involve cancellation of all licences, forcing interested parties to re-apply. But there is no guarantee that the same characters will not start the same businesses again, unless the law enforcement agencies clamp down.
The BOI emphasises that Chinese herbal/med¬ical centres operate under normal law. Its position is that all concerned agencies, including the police, should launch a coordinated effort to confront the problem.
For their part, the Kollupitiya police do not bother to deny the existence of the brothels. “Those Chinese brothels…?” we asked. “Yes, what about them?” one officer replied. Asked if they faced any specific problem which hindered them from raiding these brothels, Crimes officer-in-charge (OIC) (Kollupitiya) IP Amarasinghe said they have “no problem at all”. In fact, the Kollupitiya police are in the process of conducting inquiries at this very moment and will take action soon. Police jargon.
Station OIC Panamaldeniya said Colombo Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Bodhi Liyanage has also expressed interest in the issue. “We are concerned and we will conduct raids”, he said. “The DIG also spoke to me”. Recently, the Mirihana, Wellawatte and Kirulapone police have clamped down on brothels in their areas.
In Wellawatte, an interesting situation devel¬oped. Authorities stormed a massage centre and produced some of the women. The Chinese boss, together with his lawyers, filed a case against the police for not following proper procedure in the raid. The Kirulapone police, however, enjoyed more success. They produced more than 10 women and deported several whose visas had expired.
Allegations against the police are numerous. The most common one is that they are being paid to turn a blind eye; the raids only come if payment is stopped. It is said that the police cannot enforce the law because they, too, are involved in violating it.
(by Narnini Wijedasa.
Courtesy, the Sunday Island, Colombo.)