During the Presidential Election 2015, the most shameful act that caused a devastating public outburst was the distribution of 'Sil Redi'. Reports, objections and complaints about this activity started flooding in to the Elections Department (currently the Commission). The matter was taken up unitedly by PAFFREL, CAFFE, CMEV, TISL with the Election Commission. Unstoppable TISL published a series of newspaper advertisements requesting the Buddhist monks to reject the 'Sil Redi' offered to their temples, and most of them complied with the request, while those temples which had already accepted bundles of 'Sil Redi' promptly refrained from distributing them among the devotees until the election was over. That was purely because even those Buddhist monks realized that it was a gross violation of the election law.
Since such activity dangerously confronted the free and fair process of an election, PAFFREL filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court in April 2015 (SC (FR) 76/15), through which the following three concessions were anticipated:
1. Directing the Attorney General to take legal action against Mr. Lalith Weeratunga and the others involved in the abuse of state authority and the resources of the government during the time of the Presidential Election.
2. Directing the Auditor General to assess the loss to the government due to the said act.
3. Implementing procedures to prevent recurrence of such activities.
While our case was in progress, the Attorney General and the Auditor General agreed to accede to our requests made with regard to the two of them, and as we were informed that legal action against the parties concerned had already been instituted, we decided to withdraw our case. Accordingly, in response to the case filed by the Attorney General in the Supreme Court, a landmark judgment has already been delivered. This, undoubtedly, could be classified as the most admirable judgment of our time in regards to violation of election laws. However, it is deplorable that certain sections of our society are engaged in an effort to extenuate the value of that historic judgment by ignominiously undermining it with a religious garb. Hence, this intervention by PAFFREL.
What were the important issues raised through the judgment during the judiciary process?
1. The fact that Mr Lalith Weeratunga, being the Secretary to the President, was well aware that the Presidential Election was to be held in January 2015, and therefore, if he acted in good faith, he could have distributed 'Sil Redi' before or after the election.
2. Mr. Lalith Weeratunga, being one of the most senior public servants, should have been well aware that an act of any distribution, such as the 'Sil Redi', should not and could not be carried out during an election period.
3. The fact, that the circular of the Election Commissioner relating to the use of state property had been issued on November 22nd, 2014, while the holding of the Presidential Election was declared on November 20th 2014.
4. While having that circular in front of him on his table, on December 05th, 2014, he had obtained Rupees Six Hundred Million belonging to the T.R.C., without the approval of its Governing Board, of which he was the Chairman.
5. When T.R.C. had allocated only Rupees Hundred Million to Social Care Account for that year, and when all such funds had been exhausted, urgently procuring Rupees Six Hundred Million without the Governing Board approval.
In this regard, the Judge had raised the following questions.
1. What necessitated the need to urgently distribute 'Sil Redi', procuring such funds by contravening the rules, and ignoring the circular of the Elections Commissioner?
2. Whether the Buddhists of Sri Lanka observe Sil during a month of January, when 'Sil Redi' were distributed, or in the months of Wesak and Poson?
3. Whether any instances have been recorded when Buddhists of Sri Lanka were not able to observe Sil due to non-availability of 'Sil Redi'?
4. Under such circumstances, what was the necessity to have distributed 'Sil Redi' within the first week of January itself?
5. What were the reasons to have secured those funds with such urgency for a purpose, which had no relevancy to the funds of the T.R.C.?
6. Mr. Lalith Weeratunga was unable to furnish any feasible answer to those issues.
Were these 'Sil Redi' distributed according to a policy of the government?
Although the defense tried to convince the courts that the Sil Redi project was implemented as a project under a policy of the government, the analysis of the Judge queries the urgency for the implementation of such a government project, even if it is covered by a government policy, while ignoring the circular of the Elections commissioner, and without waiting until the funds were voted for the subsequent year, and having obtained funds that were non-existent in the CSR account of the T.R.C. in a matter of a day, and having credited such funds to the account of the Secretary to the President on the very same day, and then to have purchased Sil Redi on that very day.
If the distribution of Sil Redi was done outside the election period, and if the funds were utilized after being approved to the President's Fund, nobody would have gone to courts against Mr, Lalith Weeratunga.
In Sri Lanka, where the majority are Buddhists, is it wrong to distribute Sil Redi?
Subsequent to the delivery of the judgment in this case, an effort was made by some politicians to popularize the view that, in a country where Buddhism has been given priority by the constitution itself, and where the majority are Buddhists, it has become impossible to distribute even Sil Redi to devotees to observe Sil. This is absolutely a misinterpretation of the basis of the judgment to satisfy their political needs. Anyone, even tomorrow, could offer Sil Redi or anything else of his or her choice to our Buddhist devotees, but with his or her own funds. On the contrary, the basis of this judgment was the abuse of state funds, or in other words the taxes paid by the general public, to the tune of Rupees Six Hundred Million to promote the candidate of one political party, by way of distributing Sil Redi during an election period, ignoring the established election laws. Incidentally, such distribution was carried out accompanied by a message from the candidate concerned. In addition, the distribution was done with the hands of the family members and the relatives of the candidate as well as the political party leaders of each area. Here the question arises whether national policies of a country should be implemented by the relatives and the supporters of the Head of the government?
Does this judgment prevent public servants from making decisions in urgent situations?
Certain people are arguing that the judgment in this case will prevent public servants from making decisions in urgent situations such as floods and landslides. This is a diabolical untruth. Government servants are entitled to make any decision within the rules and also based on financial regulations. They must, also, be able to make decisions even outside such rules, if such decisions are fair and reasonable, and are within the limits that could be proved to be in good faith and justifiable. In this instance, the specific issue raised was the case of that good faith and justifiability. What was the urgency to have bought Sil Redi and distributed them in such great hurry, when the funds were not available for such purpose, without waiting for the provisions of the year to follow, and having procured them from an agency meant for some other functions and having ignored the laid down procedures, besides violating the election laws proclaimed by the Commissioner of Elections. This was the crystal clear point discussed without an answer. Mr. Lalith Weeratunga was unable to find any. I have never heard anyone saying that he is a fraud. In an environment, within which he is recognised as a public servant with an unblemished reputation, what he has done was abusing public funds to the value of Rupees Six Hundred Million to cause the victory of his Master, sacrificing all his limitations, which fact he could not justify in anyway in the eyes of the law of this country.
Is this judgment a challenge or a blessing to public servants?
This judgment will never be a reason to take as a challenge or a shock to any public servant, who is honest, efficient and far-sighted. For such officers, this judgment is nor a blessing either. However, this judgment will remain an ideal tool to refuse orders of the politicians for public servants to act against the rules and the financial regulations governing them, in terms of the current politicization found in all spheres of the society. In the recent past, many public servants have opted to refuse to carry out the non-lawful orders of their Ministers. They are those with a backbone and courageous personality. Secretary should be fearless enough to point out the rights and the wrongs of the decisions made by the Minister. That is what they are there for, equipped with adequate responsibility and authority.
One more point to ponder.
The accused in this case may one day be free. They may even become heroes, socially. They may also hold high positions in a new government. But will they be free in their conscience? Think! Were you genuinely interested in helping the devotees with Sil Redi? Or were you helping the Master in his campaign?
A question has to be posed to the political leaders as well, who are destroying the degree of public veneration and social grace enjoyed by the Buddhist monks. They are dragging the monks to their own political mire, by way of trying to cover the Sil Redi business with a Buddhist garb, projecting it to the Buddhist community as a genuine Sil Redi distribution in a Buddhist country.
In the name of whatever sacred religion you follow, think whether you are doing the right thing. Tap your conscience for that, if you are honest.
The final question is, if the present Head of the government also abuses state funds and starts distributing whatever things or help temples with finances or with other means, are you ready to approve it?
Can anyone assure that political leaders will not do so?
- Rohana Hettiarachchi