Public servants, especially those who hold top posts in the present Government, should follow the law of the country and their conscience in taking decisions under the present Government which has no mandate, former civil servant and diplomat Lionel Fernando said. “Sri Lanka’s total number of public servants account for 1.3 -1.4 million and they all have to be conscious about what they do,” he said. In a hard-hitting interview with the Daily FT, Fernando, an outspoken civil servant with 58 years of experience, expressing his dismay over the present political crisis, said that the public servants must act according to the law of the country, which is still the law which was prevailing before 26 October. Fernando has held 38 posts in the public sector including as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France and the Netherlands, Secretary to Media, Tourism and Aviation, Foreign and Civil Defence Ministries, Chairman of Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and Governor of the North Eastern Province. Fernando was also the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation and Essential Services and a former Advisor to President Maithripala Sirisena. “The newly-appointed public servants are violating the law of the land by accepting the posts. The law of the land is still with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe,” he said, adding that they could refuse the orders that are not in line with their conscience as they are not politicians. Following are excerpts:
Q: How do you see the present political impasse?
Well, I feel strongly about it because it came about so suddenly and everybody was taken unawares. It is an unprecedented historical situation; a president of a country has never taken an overnight decision to change the prime minister of that country without giving a credible explanation. Today, everybody is guessing why and how it came about as President Maithripala Sirisena has not given any reason for the unexpected move.
Q: He has given some reasons when he spoke to the foreign correspondents in Colombo recently.
Yes, his disclosure is all based on hearsay and we are unaware of the truth. Suddenly a man appearing from nowhere and claiming to be a director of an organisation, which is also subject to conjecture, reveals a plot to kill the President. No one has probed whether he is a psychic case or if he is being handled by someone else. Since there is no proper explanation on this allegation, it has now created a mess.
By going through the events of the last month since 26 October, there ought to be better explanations by the parties concerned as to bona fide for their actions. To me, they are all mala fide, in the sense that they can’t convince the voter. They can’t convince the people who supported the present President way back in 2015 and fought against a regime which was very corrupt.
How come there are two prime ministers in one country? President Sirisena says not to propose Ranil Wickremesinghe’s name as he will not appoint him. He has also been speaking on lots of negative things and that is not the way a head of state should speak. It was like in a children’s play that he appointed a new prime minister in the presence of some selected people at the President Secretariat. We did similar plays and we see our children also act out such dramas.
The President tried to justify the entire mess by saying that he is working according to the Constitution, which we all follow. Today, he has appointed his absolute enemy and people have begun to wonder how come this friendship was formed and what for.
On the other hand, the de-facto Prime Minister is languishing in his own official residence saying he is not quitting. Today everybody, from ordinary people to international organisations like the UN and UNESCO, is alarmed while the new posts – the Prime Minister and his cohorts as ministers – created after an overnight decision have upset the whole apple cart and not been recognised internationally.
Can we accept this situation? Are we so dumb a constituency where over 6.2 million people voted to bring a government in January 2015 against an incredibly corrupt regime? There were some news reports with lists of names of misdemeanours during the Rajapaksa Government.
Q: But the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government couldn’t prove the so-called allegations in relation to corruption during that regime?
The acts of corruption committed during that regime were listed and from December all the cases were coming up for hearing so they wanted to stop that.
Q: While still MPs crossing over, don’t you think that the Government has the majority in the Parliament?
Both sides claim that they have the numbers while one party says that they exactly have 121. They also talk about the Westminster system of administration and governance coming from London. Then why don't they stick to those?
The entire system is in turmoil today. When you have good drivers, the road will be clean and clear. Likewise, if we follow the Constitution, we will have discipline in the country.
In this instance, every day the President gives a reason. Now he says he has observed that Wickremesinghe was unsuitable from the day of the formation of the Government in 2015. Why did he wait for three years to say that? They were together going around the country attending many events and praising each other.
While parliamentary procedures and administration have been brought down to zero, they humiliate and tarnish the image of decent people like Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who has done a superb duty, which is not appreciated yet. They have burnt the effigies of the Speaker, who has done his best to maintain the dignity of Parliament.
Q: Do you think that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution triggered this constitutional crisis?
No, it not the reason for the conflict. I don't blame the Constitution. I blame the President for contriving the plot. I would like to go back to those days when we had discussions with the late Ven. Sobitha Thera at Naga Vihara. He said that he was asked by the UNP and the other parties to be the common candidate but he refused the request saying that he would only give necessary guidance and support to form a unitary government.
He had also made a peculiar statement regarding the fate of a candidate when he becomes a head of state. He said, ”Even I pledge that I will stop this and that including the Executive Presidency if I become the President, I will refrain from doing so when I feel the taste of the post.” I think this is what has happened to President Sirisena.
If President Sirisena felt that he couldn’t be with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, he could have immediately removed him. If you punish a child or a student, you don’t wait for the next month, you will punish him immediately.
I can remember during the late Prime Minister Dahanayake’s era, every day there was a change in his Cabinet. President Sirisena is not confident enough to govern the country.
The best of our better politicians, who are erudite, have stated that this is not the man that they voted for and he got this taste of the post and now wants to have a second term. How does he contrive the second term?
He has given options for three politicians, including MP Rajapaksa, who was his total enemy, who was waiting for a chance and also would do his bidding. Unfortunately, the whole system is now getting messed up with his so-called ministers.
Q: People voted for every President who pledged to abolish Executive powers. Do you think Sri Lanka needs an Executive President?
What is wrong is not with the Executive Presidency or anything else. It is how you play the game – whether its cricket, football, rugby or politics.
The head of state must cater to the public, not unto himself. That is why certain heads of state have been called those who were beneficial to the people. Sometimes Napoleon Bonaparte is supposed to have been a better monarch than anybody else. Even King Dutugmunu had once stated that his all endeavours were to serve the people of the country.
Our President always says that he failed to take decisions when he was with Wickremesinghe but says nothing about what has happened to the people of this country, which is now in a mess. Those who have messed up the whole thing are those who have the highest number of accusations on corruption.
I really don’t know why the Bribery Commission does not take action against those who have been bribing others in Parliament. I strongly feel that they should do that.
Q: How do you think this situation will affect the public service?
This is my 58th year in public service, having started as a DRO in Galle in 1960 and having held 36 senior positions in government. I remember when the case against Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita on Rs. 625 million worth of 'sil redi' came up, many media personnel asked me for my opinion. I said it is a matter of conscience as each individual has to act according to his or her conscience. Government servants are there not only to act on orders but to take orders with certain correct information. That conscience is the motivating factor for him to take decisions which will not malign him in the future.
What is the mandate that the present Cabinet has to work and issue circulars?
Q: But the top officials, including ministry secretaries, have already been appointed by the Government?
Yes, there will be conflicts under two prime ministers. This conflict will continue and it will snowball. There will be a domino effect.
Therefore, these public servants must act according to the law of the country, which is still the law which was prevailing before 26 October. The civil service has carefully selected and appointed officers. Sri Lanka’s total number of public servants account for 1.3-1.4 million and they all have to be conscious about what they do.
They are not politicians, so they could refuse the orders that are in line with their conscience.
When World War II was over, Adolf Hitler also behaved similarly to a certain point. During his time at the beginning of the Third Reich, the Parliament got burnt and Hitler blamed the Soviet Union. All the big powers who were involved in the war, the US, UK, Soviet Union, France, etc., had appointed their own judges who held the Nuremberg Trial in 1946. It said that all actions must be supported by the conscience of each officer.
Therefore, similarly, under the present context, all decisions must be taken according to the conscience of the senior officers.
Q: If you were serving in the public service in this crisis situation, what would you do?
Well, I have had a few difficulties with certain ministers in my career when I was dealing with some tenders. I refused to deal with them and I came home.
I will do the same if I am caught in this mess. I would have come home. I have come home four to five times after challenging some ministers. You must not be scared when you are strong in your decisions and worried about your job as you could find a job elsewhere.
I also left the President’s Secretariat on 10 October after serving as the Advisor to President Sirisena. He asked five of us to go home without giving any reasons or one month’s notice. I handed over my official car and phone and came home in a trishaw.
On the other hand, all secretaries are liable for financial liabilities. Therefore, they must have the mandate to sign cheques. The new public servants are violating the law of the land by accepting the posts. The law of the land is still with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
If I am appointed to a public post, I will not accept the new posts for which I don’t have a mandate. As I said before, the Nuremberg Trials set the precedent for where one’s conscience comes first. Today, people are lobbying against the present situation not for any personal gains but to restore democracy.
Q: The behaviour of some MPs has been highly criticised. What are your views?
I strongly believe that they should not have been elected to Parliament. Therefore, I blame the people in those constituencies for electing them, knowing that there are 94 MPs who have not passed their Ordinary Level examinations. What I want to say is, don’t waste your vote next time.
I think we must have the presidential election first because if you have the general election, these people will win by crook or by hook. In the future, we must select people with a certain amount of education, dignity and maturity.
Q: As a seasoned diplomat, how do you think this chain of incidents will affect the country’s image internationally?
The country's image is already at stake. There are many things to look at. Who is the protagonist and the architect of this turmoil? It is none other than President Sirisena. Therefore, he must react now. As MP Sajith Premadasa says, the Government is losing at every step and enough is enough.
It will take a lot of time to recover from this plight. People, including MP Rajapaksa, who have been around the President have to bear the blame for causing chaos. It is they who orchestrated this situation.
But at the next election people must be very wise. No thugs should be tolerated and the existing MPs need to be taken out from the constituencies by not voting for them and also not even allowing them to come to our houses during the election campaigns. We can do it easily as we know the list with their names.
Q: Are you angry and upset with President Sirisena because you were removed from your post at the President’s Secretariat in an ad hoc decision?
No. I am very grateful to him for taking that decision (laughs). This is the first time I was removed without giving reasons. I have no personal animosity.
By Shanika Sriyananda