29 May, 2022


Can Bureaucrats Say No To Politicians? The Jury Is Out

By Vishwamithra

“Dictators, unlike Democrats, depend on a small coterie to sustain their power. These backers, generally drawn from the military, the senior civil service, and family or clan members, have a synergistic relationship with their dictator. The dictator delivers opportunities for them to become rich, and they protect him from being overthrown”. ~Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

This column is a sequel to my last column captioned ‘Politicians beware! No bureaucrat will carry out your illegal orders…’ In response to that column, a highly respected former civil servant, whom for our convenience, I will call Mr. X, exchanged emails with me and he even gave me his consent, if I desired so, to quote him. His remarks are quite enlightening and at the same time depressing given the institutionalized hazards present in today’s government machinery. In the context of two significant government servants, one, former Secretary to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the other Director General of Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), being found guilty by Colombo High Court and sentenced to 3 years rigorous imprisonment and a collective fine of 106 million rupees, the comments and observations rendered by an honest and efficient civil servant are indeed fitting and striking.

This civil servant’s insight into the intricate issues associated with expanding government structures, political decisions taken during the last two decades to include unessential functions, while at the same being bereft of the required administrative, professional and academic knowhow and capacity, under the umbrella of government along with an increasing influence of government servants on daily lives of citizenry, is remarkable. Furthermore, to quote a source close to the highest leadership in the current Administration: This same civil servant along with some of his close associates who held significant offices in years gone by in the same Ministries, submitted a detailed communiqué to the highest in the land but went unanswered as it was believed to have gone over the heads of those who were charged with making such groundbreaking decisions. Truly worthwhile input from those who produced extraordinary results during their time in the eighties, (‘80s) went abegging!

That is to digress from the central theme. The case against Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita has now been closed, at least until the appeal is taken up by a higher judicial court. However, the forthrightness that is usually forthcoming from the old guard of our civil servants may have disappeared for good. That indeed is a sad and tragic spectacle. Yet to lay the blame solely on our civil servants might not be right. Nevertheless, both Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita are absolutely guilty as sin is beyond question. If one would remember the television and radio interviews Lalith Weeratunga readily participated in during his heyday, one would have certainly detected a tone of unusual loyalty towards his Master. This unusual loyalty bordering on meek subservience is an insult to the high office of Secretary to President.

Secretary to any Ministry is not merely a yes-man’s job. As explained in the most precise manner by the ex-civil servant who exchanged communications with me, “Ministry Secretaries are required under the Constitution to serve under the ‘direction of the Minister’; but this is very vague; the boundaries are not defined. The public perception is and even officials think that if the Minister gives an order ‘in writing’ the officer must carry it out. That is not so and I have never asked my Ministers for orders in writing just to safeguard myself because I  felt the responsibility is mine. I recall there was a case where late Tissa Abeysekera, a talented artist, as Chairman of the Film Corporation carried out a written directive from the Minister and had to pay back out of his poor pocket as the directive itself was illegal or irregular. The strength and independence of a Ministry Secretary rests not so much in the Constitutional appointment but his position as Chief Accounting Officer which the Minister cannot meddle with. This is why there is often room for tension between the Minister and the Secretary.”

I wonder how many of our Secretaries today understand the meaning behind Chief Accounting Officer (CAO). As a matter of fact, that is the most vital function that a Secretary performs in his capacity as Secretary- Chief Accounting Officer. Politicians come and politicians go. But the civil service and its bearers stay on and they are part of the ‘permanent government’, the ones who implement the policies so decided by the politicians. In that exercise of power, that of being Chief Accounting Officer, Secretaries are totally independent and they are the ones who have to answer to their official masters, Public Service Commission. If and when their political heads give illegal, Irregular or unlawful orders, whether orally or in writing, the bureaucracy should exhibit some sense of independence; they must show some sense of guts and spine to say no. There is an enormous amount of character and spirit embedded in the word ‘no’. As much as a pretty damsel says ‘no’ to a rapist, as much as a battered wife says ‘no’ to a lunatic husband and as much as belittled junior worker says ‘no’ to the harassment of a senior manager, the civil servant who holds immense power and influence over the disbursement of government finances must display that grain of character to say ‘no’ to his political head’s illegal, immoral and irregular orders and instructions. In that simple word of ‘no’, he is carrying the weight and burden of his office; in that word he is communicating to his superiors that there are boundaries to power, boundaries beyond which no person, whether an ordinary parliamentarian, Minister, Prime Minister or President dare go.

This fundamental principle of official decorum, this basic element of bureaucratic norm must be maintained at all costs, even at the risk of his position. Mr. X, the civil servant who communicated with me, further says thus: “We are aware of many instances where senior public officers have stood up to Ministers and have had to leave their positions. Unfortunately, though there are others willing to fill the vacuum; this is probably why many administrative positions are now filled by academics and scientists who can perform a more useful service in their own fields. The Sil Redi judgment is a land mark judgment since it surfaces all these issues and is now turned into a political and public issue unfortunately”.

He reiterates his argument further: “When the current administration started investigating serious financial frauds and crimes, I always held the view that the investigators must first take on the public officials who carried out the illegal orders; then only if they speak the truth that one could go after the masters, for the masters in due course will always put the blame on the Chief Accounting Officer (AO)/Accounting Officers (AO) as has happened in several cases. The Sil Redi case is only the first of such massive frauds committed on the poor of this country who will eventually bear the cross”. Words of wisdom!

In the mad rush to make a ‘fast buck’, our politicos have tended to gain control over the country’s finances; this has resulted in an expansion of government involvement in varied fields in which the necessary professional knowhow and capacities are woefully lacking. When one couples that uncontrolled pursuit of government expenditure with lack of knowledge and professional prowess, one invariably ends up with corruption at the highest levels of office. Both politicians and officialdom have fallen prey to this vicious process.

Commenting on yesteryear civil servants and the necessary self-imposed confines within which the old bureaucrats conducted their business, Mr. X says: “The performance and behavior of officers of my generation was indeed a reflection of the value systems and discipline that we had inherited from about the 1960s. Now that has changed beyond recognition. The response of the Joint Opposition (JO), a section of the Sangha and of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the court decision itself, unfortunately, is symptomatic of that change and reflects their mindset and attitudes”.   

In the past ten to fifteen years, the petty bourgeoisie was visibly impatient. The middle and senior level managers in all institutions were eagerly awaiting a rise in the political thermometer. Predator against predator was trying to establish his own jealously guarded-territory. The temple of decency was violated. Government coffers were used as an ATM machine for quick cash. It was this conundrum of corruption within which our bureaucracy had to perform its tasks.    

Withstanding pressures stemming from political masters is a hard task for any government servant. But our own history abounds in instances where such expression of self-confidence and forthrightness has been amply demonstrated by ordinary-sounding government servants, leave alone top-tiered Ministry Secretaries, Government Agents and Departmental heads. History also shows instances where politicians who had chosen to withdraw their requests. And when they were enlightened of the difficulties, as explained by those gutty civil servants, they had to recede. That was in the past. 

The writer can be contacted at vishwamithra1984@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 12

    Hello Visamithra; the writer with a pseudo name. I wonder you may have compiled similar dossier about your leader and his slave- buddies currently holding the similar positions. For example Paskaralingam, Arjuna Mahendran, Charita Ratwatte etc.. Nevertheless, I really commend your remarks about Lalith and Anusha, especially about Lalith. He was an insult and disgrace to the SLAS members. Lalith. not only rubber stamped the government seal on every legal and illegal filthy transactions of the former junta. He went beyond his jurisdiction/duty and became a spokesperson and representative of corrupt behaviour in order to hide the truth. But what can we expect from the Administrative and Judicial services of Sri Lanka. Corruption breeds corruption.

  • 5

    The reality of the matter is the soldier who refused to cock the trigger will be courtmartialed.
    Here is an assumption that there is even a higher authority above the ‘ Executive’ President whom one can appeal to.

    Now I am confused over what on earth the word “executive” means.
    Now who signed the letter of appointment for a foreigner as the head of the Central Bank?

    Who signed the letters of appointment of 50 odd consultants for RDA under Kirille one of which is a Buddhist priest?

    Which higher authority signed the port sale deal with the Chinese company?

    Who signed the letter suspending the port city construction for two years leading to a compensation claim of USD one million a day and cost a large number of jobs and huge losses to subcontractors?

    Who signs the letters of allocation for houses constructed under Minister Sajith Premadasa?

    If according to Mr X one must refuse even if it came in ‘writing’ what about the command line down to the operational level?
    “Ministry Secretaries are required under the Constitution to serve under the ‘direction of the Minister’; but this is very vague; the boundaries are not defined.” says Mr X himself.
    As much as this judgement is ground breaking the the appeal court judgement is bound to be earth shattering on the definition of “direction of the minister’.


  • 9

    In the past ten to fifteen years, the petty bourgeoisie was visibly impatient.

    The author continues to “protect” JRJ.

    It was indeed under JRJ that the public sector lost all credibility!

  • 14

    Lalith Weeratunge may have started off as a civil servant but after 2009 he was a political animal.He was fond of repeating the phrase “when OUR government does things”Power got to the man’s head and his ego went on overdrive.He would never follow traffic.Instead he would have his turbo charged ultra luxury Volvo SUV driven at high speed on the opposite lane of Galle Face Centre road with a police escort blazing the trail.He therefore deserves his current fate.Looks like he is now a broken man of his own calling.

    PB Jayasundera is the other fraudster who needs to be investigated.He too with LW participated in Talk Shows in the run up to the presidential election 2015, and was another arrogant ass hole.He was a law unto himself when he went in his super luxury Honda Accord,breaking traffic regulations.He too began as a Central Bank man but ended as a political crook.How power corrupts.

    Sajin Vass Gonaawardene the MR pimpiya,Balapitiya thug and murderer and. Corruption king is still on the loose and doing a roaring buissness at his ultra luxury high rise office at 29 Grenier Road(Lane immediately after the Keels Super Market)down cotta road,Borella.He drives about in a fleet of BMW 7-Series cars with thugs in back up Land Rovers.People should storm this thug’s place and deal with him for his crimes.The whole process seems painfully slow

    • 9

      If P. Kohona is really Palitha Kohona, you should have raised your voice regarding these people at the time when you too were serving the same master obediently and not now after having lost your lucrative job at UN in New York.

  • 8

    Hello – Both CONVICTS are educated/experienced people. They know the law/procedures – Veterans of the Establishment Code etc. They can refuse/reject unlawful orders . They serve the masters like b’cos they also will benefit otherwise. That is the trend and culture of Sri Lanka Politics/They have done a wonderful job with full knowledge that these acts are illegal. BALLO EKKA NIDIYAGATHTHANAM MEKKO EKKA NAGITINNA – Bye- Nihal Gunatilake

  • 10

    Any more evidence needed to say that this country is a failed state.

  • 8

    The following questions should be added to next year’s Grade 5 Scholarship Exam Question Paper of the Banana Republic of Sri Lanka:- —

    1. “Who were the two convicts who held top government positions, who were sentenced to 3-year Rigorous Imprisonment for misappropriation of Rs. 600 million from public coffer, never spent a single day in prison?” —

    2. “Who were the world’s first two convicts sentenced for 3-year RI who received a vigorous support from both government and opposition politicians and media equally, in a bid to whitewash what they did?” —

    3. “What was the only government in the world after filing a highly publicized, high profile corruption case, vehemently defended the two accused once they were convicted for 3-year Rigorous Imprisonment?” —

    4. “Do you agree with this Quote of the wealthy? — Machang, whatever game you play with public funds, if you want to avoid jail term, you must give it either a religious twist or a Dr. Ranil type twist.” .”

  • 7

    We don’t have to go back too far to find that we have had high caliber govt. servants with a back bone and courage to say no to politicians. The water board chairman refused to sign the Umaoya agreement with Iran since it is unfavorable to the people of Srilanka and resigned. This also happened during president Premadsa’s time when Mr. Wijedasa was presidents secretary and Paskaralingam was the treasury secretary. They either pointed out to the president that it cannot be done or found a way to do it legally.

  • 7

    Late Mr.V.P.Vittachi in his book says when he was principal collector of customs during Mrs.Bandaranayakes period when he was out of the country then finance minister Dr.N.M.Perera told in parliament that he sent Mr.Vittachi on compulsory leave for certain issues on return Mr.Vittachi came to know this and informed his boss treasury secretary Mr.Rajendran who is a classmate of late Mr.Dudley senanayake at STC Mt.Lavinia.
    Mr.Rajendran told Mr.Vittachi he will sort out the matter come to his place in the evening.
    When he was there in evening Rajendran showed the letter he sent the mininter it says “Mr.Minister Mr.Vittachi is a distinguished member of the Ceylon civil service you have no authority to sent him on compulsory leave if he had done something wrong pl. report to public service commission they are empowered to take action if found guilty also note that Mr.Vittachi has right to defend himself”
    As a learned man with international reputation Minister has to withdraw his order thanks fearlessness and courage of Mr.Rajendran who never bowed down to politicians.
    After this still NM started harassing Vittachi and he complained to Mrs.Bandaranayake who told Vittachi that”NM can not have his own way you stay there” that was supreme quality of her too.
    That was the quality of the public servants at that time.

    • 7

      So, so called double doctor N.M.too was a typical Sri Lankan politician.

  • 6

    Lalith Palpita duo will have to blame themselves for the debacle. They relied too much on a Rajapakse victory so that they could have swept it under the carpet. Even an O’level student would have known that its wrong to distribute gifts during election time. It is election law. Even if it is not it is unfair.

  • 4

    The corruption, thuggery & abuse of power in the past few decades is all water under the bridge. There will never be proper investigations & the perpetrators will never face justice. Perhaps a few sprats will be sacrificed & there may be a few more ‘investigative commissions’ to hoodwink the public in to believing that this is indeed a righteous govt. but it would always be a whitewash. If at all, the culprit will (be forced to) ‘resign with dignity’, only to be reappointed after a short period in another capacity. The politicians are able to have their own way because bureaucrats & civil servants have become shameless bum suckers with no professional pride in their work but to serve the masters unquestioningly & in the process, happy to pick on the scraps thrown at them. However, I can understand their plight, with families to support, they dare not upset their masters but this is where the respective professional bodies collectively stand up against wrong doings of the political hierarchy.

    It’s up to the next generation of professionals & civil servants to act with integrity & dignity but with the current lot setting a bad influence, it is doubtful. Perhaps it is the education system that is not doing enough to teach students of ethics & moral values, when the only objective seems to be ‘fast track’ teaching to pass exams to get that lucrative job. If I remember correctly, the University Teachers Association recently showed their solidarity with the Myanmar Govt. on alleged ethnic cleansing of the Muslims in that country, which is a clear indication of the biased thinking of the people who are expected to teach the future generations. With this kind of mindset, how can we expect teachers to provide a balanced education?

  • 3

    Public officials did not say no to your god JR the unscrupulous liar J. They did not say no to your mentor Gamini D and a lot of you would still be poor or with modest income and not jet around the world. If public officials said no to JRJ we would not have had rigged elections. If public officials said no to Premedasa Baski would not have become so rich; orchid flights would not have happened and murder of thousands of SLFP people in the guise of destroying the JVP would not have happened. Harassment of people like Vijaya K would not have happened. Go worship JRJ and admit to your blinders

  • 2

    Vishwamithra starts the article with a quote attributed to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. Since then a new breed of rulers called Democratic-Dictators have evolved. The Democratic-Dictators controlled the army but in due course the army took control of the Democratic-Dictators.
    Vishwamitra’s question ~ “Can Bureaucrats Say No To Politicians?………………”.
    The answer is “Yes”.
    If followed by “Do they?” the answer is “Not always”. This is because bureaucrats become part of the corrupt Democratic-Dictator system.

  • 6

    Lalith & Pelpola are not independent public servants. They were both very political and servile.Politicians did not have to pressure them. They offered their services willingly.

    Visvamithra, would you say Mahendran the Governor of the Central bank could have resisted Ranil the prime Minister ?

    Or was the game a different one ?

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