Sri Lanka

Defending the indefensible

Sep 19, 2017
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a lengthy statement, issued to the media, had gone to great pains to defend his one-time Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, recently sentenced to jail, for misuse of public funds to offer election bribes, as deemed by courts. Rajapaksa, in his statement, says that Weeratunga was only carrying out an order issued by the President of the country and had not acted against any election laws. He says that the issue of sil redi took place in the normal course of events, for which funds were set apart from the President’s Special Development Fund, as also for seven other projects. Since Rs. 400 million had been reserved for a project of the Kotalawela Defence Academy, the Chief Accounting Officer of the Presidential Secretariat had issued a note to Weeratunga that there was insufficient funds from the budgeted Rs. 1,000 million, of the Special Development Fund, for the sil redi project, to which Weeratunga replied that Rs. 400 million be allocated to the KDA project, as already arranged, and the Rs. 600 million would be obtained from the TRC to be reimbursed later.
Rajapaksa goes on to state that the sil redi project was decided on as far back as May 2014, when no Presidential Election was in the horizon. In any event, the distribution of sil redi was akin to the distribution of free school uniforms, at the end of each year, and this, by no way, would influence the result of an election, like did the sil redi distribution, which was part of several projects already earmarked. The sil redi distribution also had no time frame and it was left to the chief incumbents of temples, to which the sil redi was handed over, to decide on the time, which could be any time.
Rajapaksa may attempt to wriggle out of a hopeless situation by offering explanations, to justify the actions of his one-time Secretary. But the fact remains that the sil redi distribution took place almost on the eve of the Presidential Election. It is strange, indeed, as to how ALL the temples in the country happened to distribute the sil redi at the same time, given Rajapaksa’s claim that the time of distribution was solely at the discretion of the chief incumbents of the temples. Comparing the sil redi distribution with the distribution of school uniforms too fail to stand up to scrutiny. School uniform distribution is, like the provision of free health and free education by the state, inbuilt in the system. This is an obligation on part of the government of the day, and is treated as such by the public. The question of the public being electorally influenced by a routine act of the government does not arise.
On the other hand, an act such as distribution of sil redi, which is an isolated instance, can certainly influence the public, especially when such an act takes place on the eve of an election.
Rajapaksa also states that that the mode of distribution of sil redi did not enable the beneficiaries to be selected on political grounds, since this was done through the temples, at a time decided by the chief incumbent and even daham pasal children, who were not of voting age, were recipients of sil redi. True, but any benefit accruing to a young member of the family no doubt, will make the parents obliged to the giver, and, since the sil redi bore the picture of Mahinda Rajapaksa and was accompanied by a clock, bearing his visage, the conclusion is inescapable that the whole project was intended as an election bribe.
When Rajapaksa say that the whole sil redi issue was decided as far back as May 2014, when no election was round the corner, one has to stretch one’s imagination to come to terms with this assertion. Is Rajapaksa expecting the public to believe that he had not already decided to go for a snap Presidential Election, a full two years before its due, by May 14? More so, when there was heightened speculation of an impending Presidential Election, even in the early part of 2014, with ministers, such as DEW Gunasekera and Maithripala Sirisena, warning Rajapaksa against going for a premature poll, pleadings which appeared in detail in the newspapers. Was the distribution of sil redi, therefore, not a calculated act, for which the groundwork was laid seven months ahead?
It was moving indeed, the other day, to observe members of the Sangha, carrying begging bowls paathare, moving in single file, in all solemnity, to collect money from the public, to pay the fines of Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita. There are today hundreds of prisoners who are behind bars for the simple reason of being unable to raise money to pay their fines. How wonderful it would be, if those taking part in this meritorious act, spared a thought for these hapless souls and part with a portion of their collection to bring an end to the misery, of at least some of them. 
Daily News, September 19, 2017

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