by Anura Gunasekera
About 2,600 years ago, Gautama Buddha, the first Buddhist thero and, unarguably, one of the noblest human beings to have trod the soil of this planet, following a vision derived from a spiritual awakening on conclusion of several difficult years of physical and mental hardship, walked the roads of his land, barefoot, on the first “Pindapatha ” journey. A merchant prince, having renounced all worldly possessions, ties and responsibilities, was taking the first few steps along the path of asceticism, frugality and uncompromising moral integrity, he had chartered for himself.
A few days ago, a large group of saffron–clad individuals, the present day flag-bearers of the Buddha’s austere creed, having alighted from a fleet of luxury vehicles – their normal mode of travel – undertook a similar journey; but the difference in purpose and integrity between these two journeys was much greater than the massive gulf of time and space which separated the two.
That which I now speak of was a journey in which the participating monks opened their begging bowls to a gullible public, not for food for their personal sustenance but in order to solicit money to pay a fine, rightfully imposed on two criminals by the country’s judiciary, determined on the conclusion of a strict legal process.
There cannot be a greater travesty of the Buddha’s teachings than this, nor a greater perversion of the principles of right conduct and right thought, first enunciated by that great being.
What is the crime that we speak of that Weeratunge and Palpita, two senior public servants have committed?
Unquestioningly following a clearly unlawful edict given by then President Rajapaksa , on the eve of a Presidential election he was contesting in, Weeratunge-Palpita used Rs. 650 million of “Public Funds” to purchase “Sil Cloth”, to be distributed amongst lay citizens, with each parcel apparently being accompanied by a calendar bearing the image of Mahinda Rajapaksa, presidential candidate.
The distribution of this bribe – and an election bribe it was as determined by the Commissioner of Elections – had been made just before the election through select temples, places of worship procured for a venal cause by Rajapakse, with the willing participation of the incumbent monks.
Rajapakse has readily admitted in public to having given Weeratunge the order and he sees, as he has again publicly declared from several forums, nothing wrong with his order. He claims it was simply to fulfill a ‘religious purpose”.
Rajapaksa cannot be faulted for the absurdity of his logic as his conscience is warped beyond correction. According to his distorted moral compass any order that he makes is legitimate, whether it is the manipulation of conditions which enable the unjust enrichment of his kith and kin, or the physical elimination of dissenting and or critical voices, or the summary disempowerment of judicial voices which do not strictly comply with his writ, or the incarceration of challengers to his political supremacy. In the fantasy world that Rajapaksa elevated himself to – and that he which still delusionally inhabits – after he became President, especially on conclusion of the war, there is no wrong or right but the simple exercise of his will.
But Weeratunge in particular, as a senior public servant, had a different remit. He was not setting out on an extraordinary initiative dictated by a national calamity or a natural disaster. The cloth was not to cover citizens suddenly displaced by a flood, an earthquake or impoverished by drought. It was specifically meant to imprint in the recipients minds the image of their benefactor and to persuade them to vote for him at the Presidential election.
The “Sil Redi”, ostensibly a symbol of Buddhist piety, in this instance served only to illustrate the immorality and lack of conscience of the two public servants who carried out the presidential order. It was an election bribe and the duo knew that it was an election bribe. They knew that it was a contravention of election laws and therefore illegal. Their compliance of a verbal order for the expenditure of a vast sum of money, for an unacceptable and illegal purpose, was grounded in an assumption of immunity from future accountability. There were so many other examples of such exemption from the exercise of the rule of the law during the Rajapakse monarchy, that they were fully entitled to their assumption.
In an article which appeared in the Daily Mirror of September 13, Dayan Jayatilleke has offered a different defence to the two convicted officials. To quote;
“….When the British uncovered Soviet spies in the Establishment, they looked the other way because imprisonment would send shock waves throughout the system and disturb social stability and consensus. The British knew how to manage these things. The Lankans do not…”
The above is most likely a reference to the affair which involved the famous “Cambridge Five”- Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Cairncross and Blunt, and that which rocked the British establishment then. These men, whilst serving Britsh Intelligence and/or its overseas diplomatic service, for years secretly passed vital information regarding British activities to Soviet Intelligence. Those acts were treasonable and in most countries punishable by long incarceration or death. The actual fact was that Burgess and Maclean fled to the Soviet Union just as they were to be investigated whilst Philby defected later, after he had been dismissed from service. Blunt’s complicity was established by a much later confession and was announced in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Thatcher in 1979. He was subsequently stripped of his knighthood and all other honours. Cairncross too was dismissed from service on suspicion but confessed many years later. Strictly speaking, the Britsh establishment did not look away.
Be that as it may, explicit in Jayatilleke’s observation , following the so-called British example, is that in order to maintain the status quo that the Sri Lankan government should have simply ignored the Sil Redi affair. Now, should he then not apply the same argument to the CB Bond issue which is currently under investigation? To me the difference between the two is in the numbers; the second is simply bigger than the first by an order of magnitude but both represent misuse of public funds. In the case of the Sil Redi the loss has been caused resulting from direct presidential order whilst in the Bond issue there is still no indication of direction from that level of governance, but through the connivance of various active parties, Jayatilleke’s observation also exposes the barreness of his own conscience, which does not perceive the immorality of sublimating the primacy of law in favour of political expediency.
Jayatilleke goes on to say that;
“……Lalith Weeratunge was the last serving member of a distinguished tribe of gentlemanly civil servants, the survivors of which are Godfrey Gunatilleke, Neville Jayaweera, Tissa Devendra, Bradman Weerakoon and Susil Sirivardhana.”
I cannot conceive anything more inappropriate, more ridiculous, than the above comparison. Jayatilleke has named some of the finest and most erudite men to have graced the then Civil Service, in an era when only the best minds in the country were recruited to the Public Sector. All the men he has named eventually retired with honour and integrity intact, having served successive regimes with impartial dedication and unquestionable probity, untainted by personal political bias, other affiliations or by financial misconduct. By what warped measure can a convicted criminal be included in that august assembly? Only in the case of Sirivardhana was there an issue, when the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime acted against him, on the ridiculous charge of colluding with the JVP.
Jayatilleke commenting further on Weeratunge ;
,”………He has been imprisoned and heavily fined for a victimless crime. His careless compliance or impropriety pales in to insignificance…………..Boss of the bond scam bosses”
In the first place, how does the expenditure of Rs. 650 million- unacceptable in the said circumstances – belonging to the State and the Nation become a “victimless crime”? This money did not come out of the Rajapaksa purse but from the coffers of the State and in that context the Nation is the victim.
And the words, “….careless compliance or impropriety….”.
Is it possible for a senior public servant to be careless or unthinking in a matter involving the expenditure of Rs. 650 million of public funds? Can the matter be forgotten or swept aside with the comment that it was a minor aberration? In the totality of the financial misdemeanours of the Rajapaksa era the sum involved is just petty cash perhaps, in Jayatilleke’s view. In the context of Jayatilleke’s absurdly illogical defence of Weeratunge and Palpita, it is not surprising that he remains an ardent supporter of the Rajapaksa project.
Jolly Somasunderam, another former member of the Ceylon Civil Service, writing in the “Sunday Island” of 17/09, in a defence of Weeratunge , both poetically lyrical and informative, whilst conceding the latter’s complicity in a misdemeanor, suggests that some mercy be shown in consideration of Weeratunge’s previous service record. His championship of Weeratunge’s cause is certainly far more rational, based obviously on an in-depth, personal understanding of the intricacies of the Public Sector, than Jayatilleke’s morally irresponsible commentary on the same matter.
Moving back to my introductory theme, I place on record that the recent “Pindapatha” initiative on behalf of Weeratunge-Palpita, coupled with the ongoing BBS movement, is an accurate indication of the extent of befoulment of the Buddhist faith in this country. That viscerally racist Burman, Ashin Viratu, was welcomed as an honoured guest in the BBS led Sangha Convention held in Colombo in 2014.It was clearly a case of a meeting of similar minds, in an enterprise actively supported by the then all-powerful Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. This took place soon after the anti-Muslim massacre and destruction in Aluthgama, in what was an initiative incited, articulated and led by Galaboda At the Gnanasara, with the aftermath sanitized and the evidence of crime removed on the orders of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. What is even more disturbing is that the present regime too appears to be providing safe conduct to the same Gnanasara.
There is, still, a thin silver lining in the dark clouds which continue to overshadow governance in this country. Powerful public servants and even politicians are being made aware that impunity is no longer a given. There are investigations in process which are certain, if taken to logical conclusions, to embarrass and incriminate both former and present public figures. It may be a case of too little, too late but for a citizenry wearied by the corruptibility of a succession of rulers, even a little may offer hope for a new beginning.