17th July, 2005  Volume 12, Issue 1

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    


Helping Humbugstota

"While congratulating and welcoming Prime Minister Rajapakse therefore," an English weekly effused barely a year ago, commenting on the alliance government's announcement of its prime ministerial nominee, "we hope with all sincerity that he will fulfil the high expectations the nation has in him." Rajapakse would, they wrote, "be the prime minister who gives leadership to the cause of a government free of corruption, nepotism and extravagance. It is a challenge we hope he will address with his customary missionary zeal."

That newspaper was this newspaper. We welcomed Mahinda to Temple Trees unreservedly, breaking a decade of tradition by referring to a politician by his first name, and with unconcealed affection. "We at The Sunday Leader cannot disguise our pleasure in welcoming Mahinda Rajapakse as the 13th Prime Minister of Sri Lanka," we declared. And we meant every word.

No prime minister of Sri Lanka has been a darling of the media - nay, the people - as Rajapakse has. Unassuming, approachable, friendly, gracious, sociable, responsive, open, pleasant, affable... Roget's Thesaurus exhausts itself in positive synonyms that personify Mahinda. The contrast between him and Chandrika Kumaratunga could not be greater. Mahinda may not be one of the great thinkers of our age, but he certainly is everyone's darling.

So much the greater our disillusionment then, when we caught him bending. Fiddling a tender here, subverting a contract there: that we have all come to expect of people holding political office in Sri Lanka. But misappropriating money that well meaning citizens, their hearts aflame with empathy for the victims of the tsunami, had donated to the Prime Minister's Fund, is surely taking food out of the mouths of the widows and the orphans. And that is what Mahinda has got caught doing.

The surreptitious transfer of Rs. 82 million from the Prime Minister's Fund into a private account called 'Helping Hambantota' was not just illegal, but treacherous. After all, the dirty deed was done barely two months after the tsunami. Tens of thousands were living under canvas, bereaved and traumatised. Never has our nation known such misery. In Hambantota, Mahinda's own district, thousands are still homeless. More than 800 children had been made orphans there alone. Yet, the money was siphoned out and kept unspent, in a private account controlled by his brother and three cronies. The more generous section of the public opines that it was set aside for his presidential election campaign. The less charitable attribute even more sinister motives to the heist.

So much is Mahinda loved that few find it conceivable that he is a thief. Yet, having got caught with his hand in the till, he has been unable convincingly to answer the pointed questions his accusers throw at him. Affability alone will not wash away the question mark that hangs over his integrity, and he would do well to give convincing answers that lend credit to his honesty. The whole country would breathe a sigh of relief were Mahinda to tell them it was a single act of poor judgment, or the work of some careless official, or a directive from the President, absolving himself of culpability. But, rather than addressing the issues, he has sought to brush them aside through a verbal sleight of hand. That will not do.

The Sunday Leader would like to invite Mahinda, even at this late hour, to come clean by answering clearly and unequivocally the following straightforward questions:

Was he aware, when he authorised the cheque for Rs. 82 million to be written in favour of 'Helping Hambantota' that he was misappropriating government money - money that he was holding as a sacred trust, for the state, on behalf of tsunami victims?

Was he aware that there was no legal entity (e.g. an NGO registered with the Finance Ministry or the Social Services Department) called 'Helping Hambantota' - that this name had been coined simply as a device to open a bank account?

Was he aware that the four signatories to the 'Helping Hambantota' account were people closely associated with him, including his brother Chamal, acting in their private capacities?

Did he know that by transferring the money to an entity other than the three accounts approved by the government (as reiterated in parliament only last week by Finance Minister Amunugama), he was committing a further offence?

Why was it that while the cabinet minutes of February 10 explicitly require all tsunami donations to be credited to one of the three official government accounts, he took no action whatsoever during the ensuing four months to recover this money from 'Helping Hambantota' and credit it to a legal fund?

Why did he mislead the country by stating that all the money received by him had been accounted for and approved by cabinet when he (a) did not declare to cabinet that he had given Rs. 82 million to 'Helping Hambantota' and (b) cabinet in any case directed him to deposit all monies received in the official government accounts?

These are questions Mahinda would do well to answer fully and frankly, rather than saying that his heart is pure and he has done no wrong. Even at this stage it is not too late for him to clear his name, for he should know better than anyone that this is baggage he does not want to carry to a presidential election, especially given the thousands of tsunami victims who are still homeless in his electorate. It would be a tragedy if 35 years of admirable politics were to end in epithets like Tsunami Hora and Tsunamigate.

It remains to be seen whether the tsunami funds heist ends up as Mahinda's Watergate or Waterloo. We hope it will be neither. But his credibility and his image have been badly tarnished by his actions. No prime minister in a civilised country could survive what he has done: misappropriated US$ 820,000 of government money. Tony Blair, had he tried an antic like that, would have been standing in the dole queue before he knew what had hit him, and George Bush would have found himself impeached even though his daddy is best friends with all the judges of the Supreme Court.

Sri Lanka has been betrayed by its favourite son, Mahinda. We have often referred to the 11-year reign of Chandrika Kumaratunga as the most corrupt in the history of Sri Lanka. But Kumaratunga's excesses pale into insignificance beside this, quite apart from the even more tragic aspect of donor money being hijacked. The nation has been twice stabbed in the back.

What is needed now, more than recrimination or finger pointing, is to get the money back and put it where it belongs: in one of the government's official tsunami aid accounts. Question is, does Mahinda have the courage to do that - to do the right thing? After all, now he has been exposed as having purloined the money, he cannot spend it, whether for tsunami relief or anything else. Indeed, he knows as much, for that is how come the loot has, since The Sunday Leader expos‚, been placed in a call deposit, earning a paltry 4% per annum. Sooner or later, a criminal investigation will ensue, with the direst consequences for the Premier. But there is yet time to come clean, make good, and look forward to a long and productive career in the service of the nation.

Mahinda must not forget that he yet represents the only credible challenge to the Bandaranaikes' stranglehold of the SLFP. He must spare no pains to avoid being seen as a political liability to The Family, for they do not really need excuses to jettison him. Sadly, he has now handed them one on a platter, with cucumber dressing, to boot. Ironically, it was Mahinda whom Kumaratunga accused of being "the reporter in the cabinet" after she suspected him of leaking cabinet secrets to The Sunday Leader.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP's Mr. Clean, must find Mahinda's comeuppance to be finger-lickin' good. But this is not an issue of cheap politics. It is an issue of national decency. Mahinda should know that every foreign dignitary who comes to meet him with offers of tsunami aid - indeed, every foreign ambassador - greets him effusively all the while holding at the back of their mind the observation, 'Ah, so this is the chap who pinched the tsunami money.'

The victims of the tsunami, now more than six months orphaned, homeless, jobless and hungry, are getting used to the fact that nobody really gives a damn what happens to them. They mostly do not speak Latin. If they did, they might well ask, "Et tu, Mahinda?"

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