As the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s permanent secretary Lalith Weeratunga was ignominiously led out of the court room on Thursday, hand manacled to his partner in crime Anusha Pelpita, former Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, and bundled into the Black Maria to transport them to the Welikada prison, perhaps, the last words King Henry the Eighth’s chief adviser Cardinal Wolsey expressed on his way to meet the executioner’s axe may have resounded in his ears: “Had I but served my God as diligently as I served my King, he would not have deserted me at this hour”
Like it had been to Wolsey, the choice whether to serve God or mammon, whether to take the high road and follow the civil servants’ code of honour or whether to traverse the thoroughfare for reasons of personal survival or gain and bow before a politician’s vile dictates of shame, had dangled tantalizingly in Weeratunge’s hands. And, perhaps, in a moment of moral weakness, he had opted to kneel before Mahinda’s altar and light the joss sticks to perfume Mahinda’s third term presidential bid with the incense and myrrh of religious fervour rather than stay faithful to what chapter and verse spelt out in the civil servants’ Bible.
And this Thursday, he had to pay the price for aiding and abetting, for colluding with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bizarre plan to drape the nation’s electorate in white yards of ‘sil’ clothing to camouflage his regime’s corruption.
To serve his master, Weeratunga went beyond his call of duty. He not only walked but appears to have sprinted the extra mile. In order to survive, safeguard his position and his realm of influence, he did the unthinkable, With his present fellow cell mate, Anusha Pelpita, he siphoned funds to the tune of Rs 600 million from the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to religiously promote Rajapaksa’s image in the hearts and minds of the sil observing elderly upasikavans of Lanka.
No doubt, he was ordered to do so by his boss, the then President of Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who apparently practised the belief that, by wrapping the white sil wool over the flock of innocent sheep, who gathered each Poya at the nation’s Buddhist shrines to pay their homage to the Buddha, would, in turn and in gratitude, raise their hands in worship – the self same hands that place the flowers in the temple’s gedige – and to cast the vote for him at the polling booth come election day to make him Lanka’s political Supreme Being for another eon.
The fact that this was a blatant attempt by Rajapaksa to blindfold the nation with sil cloth and conceal from public gaze the sordid corruption that prevailed in his reign, would not have been lost to the astute Weeratunga. He was no tyke at the temple of power but one who had long been ordained in the civil service, one well versed in its vinaya code of conduct. He had risen from the ranks; and he, no doubt, knew the wiles and ways of political masters and the unscrupulous means they employ to achieve their political ambitions by nobbling the civil servants they handpick to be at their beck and call and do their bidding.
Weeratunga was possessed of the means to warn them of the perils that lay in pursuing an uncharted course that would lead them to their own downfall. As the then President’s most senior advisor, he had the power to dissuade him from his own mad rush to commit folly. But he opted to remain mute, a willing slave to the demands of his master; a eunuch who voluntarily castrated himself of the influence his exalted position held; and abdicated his duty to the nation in order to serve the Rajapaksa harem of decadence better; and, after a distinguished career as a civil servant of integrity, one who allowed his better judgment to elope to a foreign clime.
For when it came to suffer Rajapaksa’s studded fiats, he chose to bite the dust than walk away with head held high, with honour intact, in the style and custom his honourable predecessors, who had held that high same office, had done before. He did not opt to set an example for his juniors in the civil service to follow but, in the interests of his own self preservation, chose to succumb to the political will of the executive.
And today, as a result of grovelling under Mahinda’s jackboot, he perforce must sip the gruel of a prison diet. Not only that. He is now bound to pay a fine of Rs. 2 million; and a further Rs 50 million to the Telecommunication Board as compensation. That has been the price of his sycophancy for bending the knee to a ruthless regime, determined to establish a feudal dynasty on democratic soil and keep enslaved a populace to his will and subservient to his family’s dictate in perpetuity.
In passing sentence on both Weeratunga and Pelpita, Colombo High Court Judge Gihan Kulatunga observed that there had also been a political motivation in the commission of the offence and it was to support their appointing authority. But even without it, Weeratunga should have known that it went against the financial regulations operative in this country for even the President lacked the constitutional or legal authority to order a civil servant to transfer funds from one government entity to another without Cabinet approval plus Treasury permission.
Read the learned judge’s take on the matter:
“Bribery and corruption have turned out to be one of the key topics under discussions in society and passing a sentence in such a case we should not only look from his view point, but also the view point of society.”
“It is clear that public servants have been prompted to carry out illegal activities under the political climate that existed at that time.”
“It is also clear that Rs 600 million was obtained from the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission without the approval of the Directors for a non-important event such as distribution of ‘Sil Redi’ and thereby the fraudulent intent is clear.”
“Even if the Board of Directors approved it, the use of such money was illegal at a time when the Commissioner of Elections had gazetted the conduct of the 2015 Presidential election. The action was in favour of one particular candidate. No reasoning was given as to why the money was suddenly allocated for a non-important act.”
“The action should have been to stop distribution of ‘sil redi’ as an election had already been announced.”And whilst this once respected public servant bemoans alone his fate within the prison walls of his solitary Welikada cell, wonder what he thinks of his political paymaster Mahinda who, without expressing remorse at the fate that had befallen his permanent secretary and accepting responsibility as the architect of the poor man’s downfall, has instead chosen to extract from the corpus of this whole legal saga, a pound of another’s flesh to feed and give life to his own moribund political fortunes.
On Friday in Kandy, he declared that even the present First Lady could be sued as she was seen distributing ‘Sil Redi’ along with the President a few days ago. But he misses the point. The merit in the action is in giving clothing to those in need with one’s own personal resources. The sin is in doing it with another’s cash without permission. The scandal is in the plunder of the public coffers to the tune of 600 million bucks in order to influence the devout to place their faith in one and mark their cross of preference in one’s favour on the ballot paper. If picking the public pocket was not enough outrage, what made the whole saga even more sordid was thieving from the public hand their polling cards and denying them the fundamental right to exercise freedom of choice without undue influence when it came to their voting franchise.
But each man must pay the price for his own sins and each man must answer to his own conscience. At the Nuremburg trials held in 1945 at the end of the Second World War to bring to justice the surviving members of Nazi Germany’s high command for the atrocities committed in the name of the Fuehrer and the Fatherland, the jurisprudential principal was established: Following illegal orders issued by one’s superiors was no defence to a charge of crime.
Thus, though Mahinda Rajapaksa may have asked his faithful ‘Barkis’ to do his bidding, Barkis’ willingness to wag tail and oblige, cannot be raised as a defence. There can be no passing of the buck. Even as it applies to any head of state, it also stops at the table of any public servant. Good governance depends on this principle.
For if civil servants are ready and willin’ to buckle under the slightest political pressure, if they hold true their public duty to be is to follow the orders of their ‘here today – gone tomorrow” political masters, if it becomes the institutionalised philosophy of this once highly respected body of men and women who once put principle before personal gain, to toe the line and nod in agreement with every illegal fiat issued by any ‘Johnnie come lately’ politico and execute the order sans question then it will cause and lead to the crumbling and crash of the pillars of democracy.
The sil redi saga has been timely to avert the tragedy the nation was waiting to happen. As Weeratunga faces a siege of sorrow condemned to a life within four walls for the next three years and a bill of 52 million rupees for heeding to his master’s voice; perhaps, he envies, in secret and in silence, the broad acres of freedom enjoyed by the Rajapaksas’ even now whilst he, the puppet who danced to their tune, now lie comatose on his lonely prison bed in his rat infested prison cell.
But if there is one cheer left to uncork the bubbly and restore some spirit to his heart and mind, it is the comfort and solace that he, by his actions, has set an example to his juniors at the civil service in an odd way. His martyrdom — perhaps a statue should be erected in his image at the Presidential Secretariat and a photograph hung at every government department — has served to illustrate the fate that awaits all civil servants who stray beyond the ambit of their authorised terrain; who go beyond the call of duty to please their political masters and enter the political realm.
The lesson he has left for the entire civil service to follow is that all public servants must first realise that if one is appointed to high office then one is acting on behalf of all the citizens of Lanka and not merely serving some politician who happens to be temporarily installed in power and that one’s duty is to promote the interest of the public at large and not promote the political fortunes of one’s political master, especially when the two collide.
And secondly understand that 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.