"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?"