By Siri Gamage –
There have been a court decision in regard to sil redi distribution case during the previous Presidential election in 2015 and recently two high-ranking public officials were found guilty of a wrongful action. Since this decision, various commentaries upon commentaries appeared in the Sri Lankan media on the subject. Some justifying the court decision and others critical of it. In terms of the latter, the latest is an article by C. A Chandraprema in The Sunday Island. Chandraprema argues that the two public officials should not have been found guilty on various grounds, one being that the 600 million was only a temporary transfer from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority to be paid back by the Presidential Secretariat later. He shows that such transfers or borrowings of large sums are quite normal in the way the government bureaucracy works in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, he argues that if the two officials are truly guilty of a crime, then the monks in charge of 11000 odd temples that took possession of sil redi must also be guilty.
Another argument advanced is that the two officials are not politically involved figures and they did not gain personally from the exercise. Moreover, the main political actors in the Rajapaksa camp were not seen directly involved in the distribution of sil redi at the time in question. This line of argument by Chandraprema is not very convincing when considering the issue in its political context. I tend to think that this case is not one that can be explained away simply as a bureaucratic or technical act performed by state officials without knowing the legal, moral and political implications – as it happened in the middle of a hard fought election campaign to elect the President of the country. One should not forget the fact that the election was called early, the incumbent contested it for the third term after changing the constitution, previous common candidate Fonseka faced a prison term after the previous election, and many civil society organisations and then opposition parties feared for the further loss of democratic rights and the dawn of a family dictatorship if things went the other way. Let’s not worry about these aspects for the time being. Let’s consider the issue in its context and in terms of implications.
If the President or his secretariat decides to distribute sil redi to the Buddhist devotees outside the election campaign after he really feels for their devotion to Dhamma or due to another thought bubble that led him to believe this is something that he should do to encourage the devotees to continue with their meditation/mindfulness exercises, or out of pure compassion, then it would have been an admirable step. Even then, a question arises as to why only Buddhist devotees? Why no redi for Hindu or other devotees? The usual practice in the country is for the Buddhist devotees to find their own sil redi when observing sil on full moon days. Children and other close family members buy sil redi for parents, grand parents, aunts and uncles as an act of loving kindness and obligation. This is not something that is considered extra expensive or burdensome by most families as the cost of a sil redda is not that high. In today’s world, it may cost the same as a couple of coconuts. In fact, middle class families would consider it is an offensive act if someone offers free sil redi because it implies that the receiving family does not have the means to purchase them. The case in regard to families with lessor means may be different as they look for any material benefit that come their way to meet daily needs. Donating sil redi as a charitable act has its value and meaning in the Sri Lankan Buddhist way of life, particularly in terms of the INTENTION of the donor.
The point about this case is that the sil redi were distributed to Buddhist temples encouraging the monks to distribute them among devotees according to their wishes and needs of the devotee community. According to Chandraprema, this was a gift from Mahinda Rajapaksa following Mahinda chintanaya. Was it not from Mahinda Rajapaksa the Presidential candidate? Did the Buddhist devotees in temple precincts solicit this gift or was it unsolicited? Does the relevant fund in the Presidential Secretariat define what such charitable acts are and how the money should be spent? Or is it undefined? It appears that these redi were distributed to temples lock stock and barrel without necessary checks and balances that should follow when the act involved public money. The episode implies a scheme that is intended for all intents and purposes as one designed at the highest levels to gain a political advantage to the incumbent by using public funds whether they were borrowed from another government entity or not. Though giving a gift to Buddhist devotees by using one’s own money is a meritorious act, any attempt to characterise the use of RS 600 million during an election campaign in the same way does not make sense.
The sum involved in this case is also not a small amount. If we look at Rs 600 million in terms of the equipment required at Maharagama cancer hospital, it is enough to buy not one Petscan machine but three. The ease with which the sil redi distribution took place at the stroke of a pen and the context beg the question as to its propriety in terms of political morality, if not legal liability. Imagine for a moment that present President’s secretary exercised a similar act by using powers of the Presidential secretariat and public money during an election campaign? The cry will be louder than thunder. Logic will be converse. Demonstrations will be everywhere. Moreover, this act occurred during a caretaker period before an election. Did the caretaker principles apply in this case?
This case has to be viewed in the context of election campaigns where the incumbent governing party leaders tend to utilise state resources such as vehicles, media time, personnel, in their political campaigns. Opposition leaders complain about such misuse of state resources to no avail. Election monitoring agencies also write critical commentaries. Nonetheless might is right doctrine prevails. During the last Presidential election campaign, many more kind hearted activities occurred including the invitations received by hundreds and thousands of public servants and others to the Temple Trees for a meal, meeting and greeting session with the incumbent President. The expenses were borne, according to media reports, by various arms of the government. Larger than life cut outs of the incumbent President were erected by district and electorate organisers in many parts of the island as a mark of gratitude. In such a context, sil redi distribution in the manner it happened cannot be explained even in hindsight as a normal bureaucratic act that did not have political underpinnings even though the activity had been mooted since 2014 as claimed by Chandraprema.
For all intense and purpose, it was an activity aimed at political gain for the incumbent Presidential candidate at the time rather than purely a pious act ordered by the then President and implemented by equally pious officialdom out of a concern for egalitarianism, social justice and welfare of the Buddhist devotees. According to Chandraprema’s articulation, Samurdhi officers at grass roots level conducted a survey and sil redi was identified, as a community need. How neutral are these Samurdhi officers and how objective was the survey? Did the temple monks distribute sil redi to the devotees as instructed? Were there any excess redi in certain temples that found their way to shops? There are so many questions one can raise even about the plight of sil redi once they reached temples. We all know what happens to atapirikara when devotees donate them to Sangha.
As I say earlier, there is nothing wrong in a private citizen or a group of citizens deciding to spend (excess) money to buy and distribute sil redi to Buddhist devotees. But when the public money and public officials are involved during an election campaign in distributing sil redi in an unsolicited manner, no amount of technical arguments can hide the impropriety involved. The alert reader can discern the extent of disregard shown for public accountability, political morality, and financial ethics. Alert reader can also easily make the distinction between a purely charitable act of a citizen with only social and religious intention/meaning vs a politically beneficial act of a candidate during an election. The public officials who are involved in executing an act of the latter kind need to be held accountable one way or another for good governance.
There is another concerning aspect to this whole episode. We all know how various institutions that should be governed autonomously from the executive arm of government such as the Universities, police, Government service have been been politicised. If sil redda which is a symbol of piety (unlike the national dress?) is also to be politicised in the manner it happened in this case, there would be nothing left for the innocent poor debilitated by the very system to at least seek spiritual comfort in isolation. Politicising temples is one thing. Politicising sil reddda that belongs in the personal sphere rather than public sphere is another. The sil redi case illustrates a serious crossing of boundaries between the political, legal, religious and moral. Thus it involves more than the money involved including the intentions and implications.