The US Secretary of State stopping by in the neighbourhood seems to have run out of ideas. One must look out for some innovative thinking to tackle the problem of Sri Lanka's Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), she said, but it seems the US Congress, or at least one of its influential committees, has gone back to their time-tested ways of arm-twisting nations by simply voting to cut off aid to Sri Lanka.
Similarly, it seems that the Government of Sri Lanka has run out of ideas and innovative thinking to stop the accumulating incidents of financial setbacks that have cost the country and its citizens dearly.
In Parliament at Sri Jayawardenapura-Kotte this week, Government Ministers were instructed to oppose an Opposition drive to ask for a Select Committee to investigate two matters that are enveloped in patent mismanagement and reeking with questions of corruption, viz., the oil hedging fiasco and the import and distribution of a stock of petrol --despite being twice rejected on quality tests. Both involved the Petroleum Ministry.
Embarrassing as it may be for the Government, there was nary a proper statement made on the floor of the House on either matter. Instead, under the cover of sub-judice, the Government argued that Parliament, the supreme legislative body of the sovereign people of Sri Lanka, was not entitled to talk on the subjects.
The Government's dodgy handling of such matters of public importance displayed its reluctance to come clean on its incompetence on the one hand, and its commitment to honesty and transparency on the other.
The priorities may have been dominated by the need to win votes in yesterday's Northern local council elections being held after decades, in an attempt to show that the people of the newly-liberated areas are one with the Government in Colombo. But the mess that has been created in the administration is not likely to go away as easily as the Government would wish.
What is most unfortunate is not so much that some Government agencies, with reaches to the very apex in the Treasury and the Central Bank, have been involved in the faulty decision-making process, but the Government's sheer reluctance to book the culprits.
When previous allegations of corruption in this Government have been raised from time to time, the stock answer has been to pass the buck to a defunct Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption. This commission was on vacation for more than a year with no commissioners appointed, but even after its 'commissioning', the new chairman, retired Supreme Court Judge J. Balapatabendi said the simple truth. The commission does not have powers to initiate corruption allegations. It must await a complaint and if the Government, which has all the records and documentation is not forthcoming in taking persons in high places before the commission, so be it; the commission will remain toothless and useless justifying its existence by going after the 'sprats'.
We have oft said that the original law was badly drafted and flawed. Its composition of commissioners with retired appellate court judges and law enforcement officers alone was insufficient. It required accountants for instance, not only as commissioners but also as investigative officers. They are better qualified to probe financial matters. Then, there is the question of bringing in the private sector within the ambit of the commission. These too might be looked into as Justice Balapatabendi says new provisions are being looked at, though our belief is that it may well be a timeless exercise, an exercise in futility, because this Government just does not have what it takes to combat bribery and corruption in this country.
The image of the Government is taking a pounding on this front.
The lack of will to pursue wrongdoers is sending the wrong signals overseas. The British High Commission website linked to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office warned its entrepreneurs about "considering their strategy for dealing with bribery and corruption" in Sri Lanka. "Allegations (of bribery and corruption) plague many government deals… indeed almost every public body that businesses rely on to function fairly". That's a terrible indictment on a country. Our front page story -- with details in the stocks page of our Business section -- where key players in the local stock exchange are openly dismissive of regulations and threaten to crash it with sheer impunity, is a case at hand. The joke that Sri Lankan ministers are prepared to give receipts for the bribes they take is in reality a serious one.
The Government's reaction to the US Congress vote to cut aid would be interesting. There will be chest beating no doubt and a "go to hell' attitude, but with Western aid and investment drying up, the Government will increasingly be relying on Indian and Chinese Government-to-Government aid, which will inevitably run into political storms at some point.
Minister Wimal Weerawansa made a brave speech last week when he said that the economic saboteurs of this Government are found within and called for their scalps. Yet, he must see that the Government walks the talk. If one is to go by the reaction of the Treasury Secretary (both speeches were reported in our political commentary last week), the Minister's remarks were dismissed as alarmist and without substance. The loss incurred in the oil hedging deal was no big deal, according to the Treasury Secretary.
Rs. 18 billion is no big deal to the Treasury Secretary, but the claim for higher salaries by University lecturers is. Compare the bills. As against the oil hedging loss is a bill, the bill the Treasury Secretary has agreed to, that envisages only an interim increase of Rs. 12,000 per academic per month. i.e. for 4,738 of them a cost of Rs. 56.8 million and for the whole year Rs. 682 million as against the Rs. 18 billion plus interest lost to just one bank.
The Government must surely know that it is in trouble even if it puts up a brave front, and sweeps things under the carpet. A host of seeming financial twists and turns, and heavy losses have surfaced in the open despite all the efforts to put a lid on them, and the Government owes an explanation on each of them. It cannot go on and on hoping that what it does not want the people of this country to know, is not happening.