The UN Anti-Corruption Day will be marked across the world today with ceremonies, events and bold promises by the most corrupt of corrupt regimes. Many of these corrupt leaders would profess to govern sensibly, with dignity, honesty and in a transparent manner. Corruption has got so ingrained into public life across the world that trying [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka leaders: Being just and honest

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The UN Anti-Corruption Day will be marked across the world today with ceremonies, events and bold promises by the most corrupt of corrupt regimes.

Many of these corrupt leaders would profess to govern sensibly, with dignity, honesty and in a transparent manner.

Corruption has got so ingrained into public life across the world that trying to ferret it out is like finding a needle in a haystack. There are however times that even those flag bearers of transparency and governance are not transparent themselves – leave alone those in the political domain (the most corrupt of them all).

For the sensible and honest few in society, it’s a case of ignoring all these so-called leaders and ensuring values and discipline are honed in at home, family and the own workplace – rather than trying to discipline a world that cares two hoots about righteousness.
So where does Sri Lanka lie in this global scenario where ‘evil’ is clearly the winner over ‘good’?

The country is, no doubt, at crossroads. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, amidst a cloud of uncertainty over the way the war was conducted in the last stages of the conflict, won accolades for ending the war from all sides, even from the opposition and the often-critical West.

But have Rajapaksa and the government capitalised on this success and taken the country on a development path that has all the ingredients of a ‘respectable’ economy that Sri Lankans would be proud of?

Development is widely accepted as a process that runs together with human rights, governance, transparency and accountability. Ministers and officials should be accountable; processes should be transparent (example – impeachment of the chief justice) and human rights must be ensured in every sphere of public life.

Is that happening? Has the government lost its way in accountability and governance with the euphoria over the war (which covered up a lot of issues) ending?

Ask any man or woman on the street and they’ll tell you how easy it is to get things done in any government office as long as a ‘santhosam (bribe)’ is given. It is so matter-of-fact that many don’t realize that this is a bribe and that it the duty of the government and its officers (servants of the people, mind you) to serve the public, honestly, efficiently and faithfully. Do we get such services in the state sector? In a recent survey of key government departments by Business Times journalists reporting their first-hand experience on how these units worked (“Govt. offices: Are you being served” – Oct 28, 2012 issue), views were mixed. While senior officials in some departments were polite and efficient in dealing with the public, most of the lower rung officials were abrupt and indifferent.

At a higher level, the corruption game gets murkier. At one time, there were politicians who were labeled ‘Mr 10 per cent” based on a 10 per cent commission for each deal. Now the grab is more than 10 per cent and unlimited boundaries in making money. Private sector officials, terrified to state facts in public for fear of being victimized through lost contracts or just harassment in day-to-day operations, are bluntly asked for commissions – just to be shortlisted for a tender. To (eventually) succeed in winning the tender means paying another commission and there is the chain of officials to take care of.

In his article on corruption to mark UN Anti-Corruption Day, Sri Lanka’s best-known corruption buster Nihal Sri Ameresekere cites the Mahawamsa as saying, “The ruler’s trusteeship of the resources of the State which belong to the people is a part of the legal heritage of Sri Lanka dating back at least to the third century BC.”

He also quotes Article 28 (d) of the Constitution as saying that “The exercise and enjoyment of rights and freedoms is inseparable from the performance of duties and obligations, and accordingly it is the duty of every person in Sri Lanka – to preserve and protect public property, and to combat misuse and waste of public property.”

All these point to the fact that the government and its leaders are trustees of the people and on whose behalf they are acting (and must act). There is no debate over that.

It is like running a public company where directors are solely responsible to all shareholders; not just a few. If the directors fail to perform in the best interests of the shareholders and the company, they are voted out.

Similarly the governing party is voted to office by the people who can throw them out if they fail to deliver. Public criticism of their actions if they do wrong is based on betraying that trust bestowed upon them as ‘trustees’ of public resources that belong to all, not a few.

While there are good deeds by the government (for which praise is due), there are bad ones too and permitting criticism is a sine qua non for an honest administration.

Perceptions matter a lot and the government has a long way to go in clearing the doubts of the public that today’s ruling party leaders are anything but just, honest and accountable.




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