Mis­ter Mahinda, so sorry to say, your sil slip is show­ing all the way

For­mer pres­i­dent ex­posed in TV glare beats hasty re­treat to live an­other day Ra­japaksa’s sil de­fense: “I gave or­der but it’s no wrong, it’s no wrong, it’s no wrong” Sil cloth given to pro­mote Bud­dha Sasana as Ar­ti­cle 9 of the Con­sti­tu­tion dic­tates”

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT -

Emerg­ing from the gates of We­likada jail where he had gone to see first­hand the penance his per­ma­nent sec­re­tary was pay­ing for act­ing on his or­ders, for­mer pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa flared in anger when an­swer­ing ques­tions raised by the posse of jour­nal­ists as to whether he held him­self re­spon­si­ble and felt any re­morse for the fate that had be­fallen his trusted lieu­tenant Lalith Weer­atunga for fol­low­ing his il­le­gal or­ders with­out ques­tion.

For once, Lanka’s top doc­tor of spin found to his dis­may the ball did not turn to his lik­ing on a pitch that had long gone dry. For once, the mae­stro of voice cuts, a pro­pa­ganda de­vice he had used splen­didly to stroke his po­lit­i­cal mes­sage be­yond the bound­ary line, found to his hor­ror his throat suf­fer­ing drought too; and in­ca­pable of de­liv­er­ing the bit­ing in­vec­tive against the Govern­ment, hurled re­peat­edly in the af­ter­math of his de­feat, which had served so well to keep him in the pub­lic eye. For once in his life, he found the mask of charisma – care­fully built, prop­a­gated, ag­gran­dised and suc­cess­fully im­planted in many a Lankan mind – slip with­out warn­ing when the rat pack of me­dia men sprayed their ver­bal fire upon a man whom many would have read­ily kissed the ground he walked on just a cou­ple of years ago.

Ac­cost­ing him out­side We­likada jail gates, the me­dia pack pounced on him. First they asked him

a) Why did you give per­mis­sion for this wrong do­ing to take place His re­ply: “This is no wrong do­ing. Peo­ple are try­ing to por­tray this as a wrong do­ing but it is not a wrong. It was a re­quest made by the peo­ple to me. There were ten or eight other re­quests. For all these eight re­quests, on that day it­self we re­served the fi­nances. b) But is it against the elec­tion law that gifts can­not be dis­trib­uted dur­ing an elec­tion as the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion has re­peat­edly stressed? His re­ply: “No this is some­thing we had al­ready sent. So ac­cord­ingly those of­fi­cials dis­trib­uted it in the prov­inces. We had al­ready sent it ear­lier. c) Along with your photograph and ……?

His re­ply: “No, no. That is false talk. d) Do you take re­spon­si­bil­ity for this? His re­ply: “It’s my or­der. But the judge said that I have not used force. I do not know what was meant by that but when I tell a sec­re­tary to do some­thing it be­comes an or­der. Not that I have to take a pole and hit the sec­re­tary and or­der that he must do this or that. e) But hasn’t the Elec­tion Com­mis­sioner said that such gifts could not be dis­trib­uted once an elec­tion had been pro­claimed? His re­ply: “Then you have to ask the Elec­tion Com­mis­sioner. This is not an elec­tion case. f) Then are you say­ing that the fault is with the peo­ple who dis­trib­uted these gifts? His re­ply: “No. There is no wrong in this. I told you, no, I ac­cept that I am the one who is­sued the or­der. g) Yes, you may not be at fault but then these gifts were dis­trib­uted. His re­ply: “Here, you don’t come to rile me. You want to make this a big me­dia cir­cus. That’s enough. He then turned away get­ting into the car and said, “I ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity if it’s a wrong. But it’s no wrong.”

When a man says he will ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for his acts if he had com­mit­ted any wrong but then non­cha­lantly usurps the role of an in­de­pen­dent judge and pro­ceeds to pass judg­ment on his own con­duct and de­clares that no wrong ever has been done by him and holds him­self in­no­cent of the charges laid at his door by his own reck­on­ing, it is clear he has taken leave of harsh re­al­ity and that his senses have fled to the re­deem­ing realms, to the cuckoo land of fan­tasy.

It’s not a time for vile con­dem­na­tion. It’s a time to pour pounds of pity, to show com­pas­sion in the man­ner the Bud­dha has ad­vised all to do – be it to friend or foe - for mor­tal men act thus out of ig­no­rance. It’s a time for un­der­stand­ing, a time to ex­tend the na­tion’s heart­felt sym­pa­thies.

A time to grieve and bleed with the im­mense bur­den of re­morse Mahinda Ra­japaksa must feel to know in his heart of hearts that some­how, whether his ac­tions were right or wrong, he, as the first cit­i­zen of Lanka, was the sole cause of the then first cit­i­zen of the Civil Ser­vice ly­ing in­car­cer­ated in jail whilst he, Mahinda, has the free­dom to roam the broad acres of the land and de­clare to the me­dia that he only made a ver­bal re­quest to Weer­atunga which was obe­di­ently fol­lowed with­out ques­tion.

As Ra­japaksa said in his ‘voice cut’ me­dia brief­ing out­side We­likada jail af­ter meet­ing Weer­atunga, “Not that I had to take a pole and hit the sec­re­tary and or­der that he must do this or that.”

How true. No one could have nailed Weer­atunge’s vol­un­tary col­lu­sion in the sil cloth scan­dal to the cross of guilt bet­ter.

In the course of Monday’s We­likada voice cut out­burst, Mahinda Ra­japaksa also said, “We have a right to ap­peal against this ver­dict. There are many le­gal is­sues in­volved here. There are many is­sues which must be sub­jected to de­bate and ar­gu­ment. So I think we have a right to present them. “

True to his word, Ra­japaksa is­sued a state­ment this Thurs­day on the is­sue. Not so much in the man­ner of a de­fence coun­sel ar­gu­ing in the in­ter­est of his client but more so in the man­ner an ap­peal court judge, nay, the chief jus­tice would de­liver his con­sid­ered judg­ment. Af­ter hear­ing his own case. And pro­nounces his or­der was ‘le­git­i­mate’.

In this state­ment he says, amongst oth­ers, that “The ver­bal in­struc­tions given by me in this re­gard have been recorded in the form of min­utes placed by Mr. Weer­atunga on cor­re­spon­dence with of­fi­cials of the Pres­i­den­tial Sec­re­tariat. The judg­ment it­self states that nei­ther Lalith Weer­atunga nor Anusha Pel­pita had ap­pro­pri­ated for their per­sonal use any of the money used to pur­chase sil redi. From my point of view, they only car­ried out le­git­i­mate in­struc­tions is­sued to them by the Pres­i­dent of the coun­try.

Does that make the pres­i­den­tial or­der le­git? Per­haps the for­mer pres­i­dent has missed the point com­pletely.

FIRSTLY, the ques­tion is whether he, Mahinda Ra­japaksa, as pres­i­dent of the coun­try, had the le­gal au­thor­ity to ver­bally in­struct his per­ma­nent sec­re­tary, with or with­out the use of a pole to bash the poor man to do his bid­ding, to fol­low an or­der which, Weer­atunga – who had risen through the civil ser­vants ranks and was no new born babe sip­ping mother’s milk, not wormed and weaned - would have known had no le­gal ba­sis?

SEC­ONDLY, he states, “The se­vere sen­tence im­posed on Lalith Weer­atunga and Anusha Pel­pita is not be­cause they en­riched them­selves through cor­rupt means”. Again Ra­japaksa seems to have missed the bus. The is­sue is not whether Weer­atunga or Pel­pita per­son­ally en­riched them­selves from the sil cloth saga. The is­sue is whether the then Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa had the le­gal au­thor­ity to is­sue ver­bally or oth­er­wise to his sec­re­tary to trans­fer funds from one govern­ment en­tity to an­other with­out first ob­tain­ing cab­i­net ap­proval and trea­sury sanc­tion and fol­low­ing stan­dard pro­ce­dure when it came to pub­lic fi­nance. That is the crux of the mat­ter.

As the SUN­DAY PUNCH com­mented last Sun­day, “even if one does not per­son­ally rob or en­rich one self, it is still not suf­fi­cient to claim one’s place in the halls of hon­our, if one vi­o­lates the en­tire struc­ture of pub­lic fi­nance in the coun­try. Or al­lows a politi­cian to do so.”

THIRDLY, the Ra­japaksa De Pro­foundis state­ment claims that giv­ing sil redi to the na­tion’s up­asika­van was due to a re­quest made by the pub­lic. Apart from the fact that many in Lanka would read­ily be­come up­asika­van overnight when it comes to re­ceiv­ing any­thing free, what right does a pres­i­dent have to grab pub­lic money in pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, to dip his hands in the pub­lic till, and spend it as he pleases, as it were his own – as if he was giv­ing in­struc­tions on the cell phone to his bank man­ager and re­quest­ing him to trans­fer Rs 600 mil­lion from his per­sonal ac­count to an­other ac­count in an­other bank?

And, there­after, at­tempt to jus­tify his act by ref­er­ence to some vague and un­founded re­quest sup­pos­edly made by some sil ob­serv­ing pub­lic that moved his mood to do char­ity and amass merit at pub­lic ex­pense? Is this the way the pub­lic money was han­dled by the Ra­japaksa regime en­trusted with its care, im­posed as it were with the be­holden duty to act with care as trusted guardians of the na­tion’s money, not as spendthrifts of the pub­lic’s cash?

Ra­japaksa’s de­fence is that it’s all right, no problem, what’s the fuss -- or as it is suc­cinctly ex­pressed in the ver­nac­u­lar “avu­lak na­hay” -- be­cause it was to be re­im­bursed at some fu­ture date; and any­way it was all done for a good cause.

Ac­cord­ing to him “Sec­tions 218, 115, 65, 66, 68, 93 and 94 of the Fi­nan­cial Reg­u­la­tions of the Govern­ment of Sri Lanka also au­tho­rize ‘Chief Ac­count­ing Of­fi­cers’ (who in the case of the Pres­i­den­tial Sec­re­tariat was Lalith Weer­atunga) to trans­fer money be­tween govern­ment agen­cies un­der his au­thor­ity on the ba­sis of re­im­burse­ment -- a cheque with the date left blank.

In his own supreme court over which he was judge and jury prob­a­bly that would have been the in­evitable con­clu­sion. But whether it will hold wa­ter be­fore an im­par­tial tri­bunal, bereft of his le­gal wis­dom, is left to be seen.

FOURTHLY, he states “It was stated in the judg­ment that the sil redi parcels con­tained a la­bel which read "Mahinda Ra­japaksa me­thithu­man Mahinda Chinthana prathipaththi walata anuwa yamin karana da­ham pan­durak". (A re­li­gious of­fer­ing made by Mahinda Ra­japaksa in pur­suance of Mahinda Chin­tanaya poli­cies.) "This was only a la­bel stat­ing the prove­nance of the sil redi, and in any event, is not in vi­o­la­tion of Sec­tions 72 and 68(1)(e) of the Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tions Act No:15 of 1981, which deal with the dis­play of printed mat­ter dur­ing elec­tions.”

Amaz­ing, is it not, that he had thought it fit to in­ter­pret the elec­tion laws of the land. And this in spite of deny­ing be­fore the me­dia corp, four days be­fore at the gates of the We­likada jail, that it was a to­tal false­hood to say that his photograph had ap­peared on each and every sil cloth dis­trib­uted to the de­vout. And now here in his state­ment he read­ily ad­mits his name was plas­tered on the pris­tine cloth with the de­scrip­tive tag as be­ing a re­li­gious gift from Mahinda Ra­japaksa – mind you not from the Pres­i­dent, but up close and per­sonal, in pur­suance of his own ‘ chinthana’ phi­los­o­phy. Not a word that you and I – the masses of this coun­try – had any hand in this char­ity. In fact we could not even place our hands upon it and say sadhu, sadhu, let alone a men­tion in the la­bel.

But as Ra­japaksa’s state­ment says, "This was only a la­bel stat­ing the prove­nance of the sil redi. If pub­lic money had been used to do this char­ity, and if the la­bel de­clared its prove­nance, shouldn’t it have been men­tioned that the real ori­gin of the gift had stemmed from the peo­ple of Lanka and not solely by Mahinda Ra­japaksa?

Tech­ni­cally, of course, he did not trans­gress the fourth pre­cept of musavadha - tell no lies. No photograph was splashed on the pris­tine while sil cloth in the man­ner teeny boppers t shirts are printed with the face of their favourite rock stars. But as he ad­mits in his state­ment, every sil cloth dis­trib­uted to the up­asika­van in his cli­max to the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion came gift wrapped with his name. If any­one says that Mahinda Ra­japaksa’s name in text is dif­fer­ent from Mahinda Ra­japaksa’s photograph and the two have no con­nec­tion what­so­ever, then it’s akin to one say­ing, “I re­mem­ber the name but, sorry, I for­get the face Mr. Pres­i­dent.” FIFTHLY and this takes the cake – Ra­japaksa’s state­ment de­clares that sil cloth was dis­trib­uted in pur­suance of the govern­ment’s con­sti­tu­tional duty to pro­mote and fos­ter the Bud­dha Sasana in ac­cor­dance with Ar­ti­cle 9 of the Con­sti­tu­tion. Ra­japaksa’s state­ment de­clares: “The se­vere sen­tence im­posed on Lalith Weer­atunga and Anusha Pel­pita is not be­cause they en­riched them­selves through cor­rupt means but be­cause they car­ried out the in­struc­tions of the head of state to dis­trib­ute sil redi to tem­ples in pur­suance of the govern­ment’s obli­ga­tions un­der Ar­ti­cle 9 of the Con­sti­tu­tion to fos­ter and pro­tect Bud­dhism.’

But does the Govern­ment, ac­cord­ing to its con­sti­tu­tion brief, have any such duty? The con­sti­tu­tion is nearly forty years old now but not a sin­gle pres­i­dent has ever been struck that the con­sti­tu­tion de­mands that cloth­ing should be pro­vided to as­sist the pil­grims’ progress to en­light­en­ment.

The du­ties of the Bud­dha Sasana Min­istry and thence the Govern­ment, is ba­si­cally:

To su­per­vise and main­tain the gen­eral wel­fare of the na­tion's Bud­dhist clergy and places of wor­ship, to over­see Bud­dhist ed­u­ca­tion in the coun­try, to pro­mote devel­op­ment of tem­ples as com­mu­nity cen­tres with mul­ti­ple ser­vices out­side of mat­ters spir­i­tual, to main­tain se­lected places of Bud­dhist wor­ship, and to as­sist the prop­a­ga­tion of Bud­dhism and Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy and main­tain the na­ture of the Bud­dhist state via nec­es­sary leg­is­la­tion. But nowhere is it listed that one of the Govern­ment’s Sasana du­ties is to pro­vide for the laity to be clothed in sil uni­forms. And, if need be, to rob Peter to pay Paul with the prom­ise that Peter will be re­im­bursed at some fu­ture date, the date con­ve­niently left un­said, ex­cept for a vague ref­er­ence that “Lalith Weer­atunga sent a note to the Chief Ac­coun­tant stat­ing that the money from the TRC should be re­im­bursed as soon as the al­lo­ca­tion for 2015 is re­ceived and that at least Rs. 200 mil­lion should be paid back in the first quar­ter of 2015.”

Was this the man­ner in which the then cus­to­di­ans of pub­lic fi­nance, in whom the na­tion had re­posed its trust and faith, played ducks and drakes with the peo­ple’s money?

Ra­japaksa con­tends in his state­ment that, "Un­der our con­sti­tu­tion, the di­rec­tion and con­trol of the Govern­ment is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the cab­i­net of min­is­ters (in­clud­ing the Pres­i­dent) and the pub­lic ser­vice is ex­pected to work in good faith to achieve the pol­icy ob­jec­tives of the govern­ment. There­fore pub­lic ser­vants who carry out law­ful in­struc­tions is­sued to them by the Pres­i­dent and the Cab­i­net should be pro­tected if there are no se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion against them.”

But the fact re­mains that he, as the then pres­i­dent, had no au­thor­ity to is­sue such an or­der. Through­out his en­tire state­ment to con­vince the pub­lic that it was a le­git­i­mate or­der he has failed to re­fer to a sin­gle law­ful source from which fount springs his le­gal au­thor­ity to or­der the trans­fer of pub­lic money from one govern­ment in­sti­tu­tion’s bud­geted al­lo­ca­tion to an­other.

His ref­er­ence to the many sec­tions in the Fi­nan­cial Reg­u­la­tions of the Govern­ment of Sri Lanka and hold­ing that it “au­tho­rises ‘Chief Ac­count­ing Of­fi­cers’ (who in the case of the Pres­i­den­tial Sec­re­tariat was Lalith Weer­atunga) to trans­fer money be­tween govern­ment agen­cies un­der his au­thor­ity on the ba­sis of re­im­burse­ment” is noth­ing more than his own prej­u­diced in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the law of the land – some­thing per­haps he has be­come ac­cus­tomed to af­ter 10 years of be­ing judge, jury, ex­e­cu­tioner and ‘lord of all he sur­veyed’ all rolled up and bun­dled into one as pres­i­dent for life – and thus is of no le­gal im­port, of no real value, akin only to a dud coin which, un­der scru­tiny, will soon re­veal its phony face.

Fi­nally for the ic­ing on the Ra­japaksa cake of de­cep­tion con­tained in his last para. The crescendo to his op­er­atic blun­der.

"Un­der our con­sti­tu­tion, the di­rec­tion and con­trol of the govern­ment is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the cab­i­net of min­is­ters (in­clud­ing the Pres­i­dent) and the pub­lic ser­vice is ex­pected to work in good faith to achieve the pol­icy ob­jec­tives of the govern­ment. There­fore pub­lic ser­vants who carry out law­ful in­struc­tions is­sued to them by the Pres­i­dent and the Cab­i­net should be pro­tected if there are no se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion against them."

No one can dis­agree with that. A per­fect text­book para. One to be en­graved in gold and writ­ten in blood and tossed to the sky as one epit­o­miz­ing the ideal re­la­tion­ship a civil ser­vant should have with his po­lit­i­cal mas­ter.

Ex­cept for two words: “Law­ful in­struc­tions.”

Lalith Weer­atunga is lan­guish­ing in jail to­day not be­cause he stole the state’s fi­nances but be­cause he fol­lowed his po­lit­i­cal mas­ter’s or­ders with­out ques­tion, ig­nor­ing the code of the civil ser­vice that one must stay faith­ful to the civil ser­vice creed, that one can­not serve two mas­ters. Some­where down the line, he chose the wrong turn­ing, dragged per­haps, in­vol­un­tar­ily to the vor­tex of po­lit­i­cal power. As Colombo High Court Judge Gi­han Kulatunga ob­served last Thurs­day when pass­ing sen­tence, “It is clear that pub­lic ser­vants have been prompted to car­ry­out il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties un­der the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate that ex­isted at that time.”

A learned judge of a com­pe­tent court has thus de­scribed that trans­fer­ring money from one govern­ment en­tity to an­other as il­le­gal. The for­mer pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa claims his or­ders were le­git­i­mate but, in his raga­muf­fin state­ment, pro­vides no cred­i­ble rea­sons to prove its le­git­i­macy.

In his state­ment he speaks of Weer­atunge’s deal­ings with the Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion and how Weer­atunga had re­ferred, in his com­mu­ni­ca­tions with the TRC and with var­i­ous other bod­ies, that he had re­ceived ver­bal in­struc­tions from Ra­japaksa, but does not present any ev­i­dence of any con­sti­tu­tional or le­gal right that he, Ra­japaksa, had to is­sue such an or­der to his sec­re­tary. The il­le­gal­ity stems at the source and, if not dammed at its spring, pol­lutes the en­tire stream wher­ever it flows.

Therein rests the crux of the mat­ter. The is­sue is sim­ply this. For­get the fact that the sil redi was dis­trib­uted af­ter the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions were an­nounced. The ques­tion that must be ad­dressed is whether a top rank­ing civil ser­vant should be granted im­mu­nity for fol­low­ing an or­der that lacks le­gal ba­sis. The fact that it all hap­pened af­ter the elec­tion was de­clared only serves to ag­gra­vate the mat­ter.

Mr. Weer­atunga and his fel­low part­ner Pel­pita have now ap­pealed against their con­vic­tion. Ra­japaksa has not merely pre­sented his ver­sion but has al­ready de­liv­ered his fi­nal judg­ment to clear him of any guilt for is­su­ing in­struc­tions to Weer­atunga to plun­der pub­lic cof­fers with­out le­gal au­thor­ity merely be­cause his po­lit­i­cal mas­ter, who him­self lacks the le­gal au­thor­ity to is­sue such an or­der, tells him to do the need­ful.

Soon the ap­peal will come to court. Till that day the truth must stay put.

RA­JAPAKSA: If I have done wrong I will take the re­spon­si­bil­ity but I have done no wrong

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