Withering of yahapalanaya as nepotism returnsView(s):
When people voted for Maithripala Sirisena on January 8, they believed in his campaign promises. They had faith that Sirisena would indeed install clean government and rid the country of the existing corruption and nepotism he condemned from platforms.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, with a military triumph behind him, was made to believe that whatever he and his inner circle did and do a grateful public would remain eternally loyal and forgiving. It was a modern version of the emperor and his new clothes as Rajapaksa’s flatterers led him to believe he was irreplaceable and invincible. But the voters, like the child in the fable, were prepared to explode that myth of political permanence.
I was in Sri Lanka several times in the lead up to and during the presidential election. The common candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, was hardly a Pericles. His lack of oratorical skill, his dull and monotonous speaking style had little magnetic appeal.
What he had going for him was something else – a sincerity and honesty that seemed genuine and the backing of a conglomeration of forces led by the highly respected Buddhist monk Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha which urged the public to turn its collective back on the Rajapaksas.
While the abolition of the executive presidential system was high up in the opposition agenda what won widespread public support was Sirisena’s pledge to cleanse the country of corruption, family rule and nepotism. Clean politics is what he offered and what the people expected.
On January 8 the voting public kept faith with the public avowal of a new political culture that eschewed the misuse and abuse of public office, of public funds, family control of power, position and resources. The public looked forward to this promised dawn. What it is experiencing instead is a false dawn with the road to yahapalanaya littered with broken promises.
I returned to Colombo six weeks ago for a month long stay during which I talked to a cross section of people (and a very cross section it proved to be), especially those who worked untiringly to effect political change and others who voted for Sirisena truly believing in the sincerity he appeared to exude from every pore.
Some months later those voters are disillusioned. Today they believe they were deceived by Sirisena’s seeming sincerity just as Rajapaksa was misled into believing in Sirisena’s loyalty when he shared an egg hopper dinner before his cabinet minister faded into the night only to emerge as the opposition candidate soon after.
This time round I heard some references to Judas Iscariot. I would not go that far to excoriate Sirisena though I dare say that Judas might have learnt a thing or two had he lived today. There is a marked difference. Judas betrayed Jesus. Sirisena has let down a nation of many communities all eager for a resurrection of real democracy, the restoration of the rule of law and the rejection of nepotism in appointments to public office.
What we increasingly see today is not an end to family rule and nepotism as promised but their continued entrenchment as though such unethical and unsavoury conduct enhances our political life.Had nepotism re-emerged in the conduct of a few ministers intent on consolidating family and friends in important positions it might have been forgiven but not forgotten or excused.
Arjuna Ranatunga’s appointment of his brother as chairman of the Port Authority is a case in point where unqualified persons are catapulted to key positions for no other reason than family connections. There was also the case of Ravi Karunanayake having installed a close relative at the Insurance Corporation thus providing him temporary cover at least.
But when the first blatant act of nepotism is performed by the head of state himself who promised to spring-clean the political system- and that too within a couple of weeks of assuming office- then it is not only unpardonable but a slap in the face of the millions who voted for him.
Sirisena appointed a younger brother, until then the general manager of the Timber Corporation – as chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom and a subsidiary named Mobitel.The story does not end there. Within days of Kumarasinghe Sirisena moving into the new positions, he reportedly submitted memoranda to the two director boards seeking a three-fold salary increase for him self and the directors which would have earned him a monthly income of over two million rupees, adducing puerile arguments to buttress his case.
The fact that this avariciousness was not immediately shot down particularly after his brother had already been given a plum job does not speak highly of President Sirisena’s commitment to his publicly proclaimed principles at election time.
Some years back the then government here decreed that an official holding two positions was entitled to draw only one salary, whichever one he chose.
It is a pity that such refinements that would enthrone good governance have escaped this government’s attention despite the myriad of ‘advisers’ and ‘consultants’ they have sought to employ. Instead family aggrandizement is being encouraged with directors or officials removed to be replaced by faithful “yes” men to support the newly emergent family fortune hunters. Would the voters ever be told who was responsible for getting rid of directors who were critical of such extravagant salary increases?
During his recent visit to Thailand President Sirisena reportedly chastised our embassy in Bangkok for organizing a dinner for him on a river cruise. Those who have been to Thailand know that this is not a great gala event.Yet the president’s sedulous frugality in the spending of public funds would have been far more believable and publicly applauded had his dedication to parsimony extended to his family.
Surely the river boat dinner for the president and his delegation could not have cost more than Sirisena junior’s visit at state expense to the UN in New York where he was strangely found seated with the Sri Lanka delegation. There is also talk that persons with rather dubious antecedents are returning to lucrative jobs. Already politicians rejected by the people’s vote have found their way back in various guises including ministerial garb.
Now other names are cropping up, one being Kapila Chandrasena, the former CEO of SriLankan Airlines, who a board of inquiry headed by lawyer Weliamuna found was not only unsuitable for the job but surprisingly had been paid a salary of Rs 1.5 million a month on top of other perks. The inquiry recommended criminal prosecutions of Chandrasena and chairman Nishantha Wickremasinghe.
Even if Chandrasena does not make it to Mobitel or a related organization one who has apparently done so is Pradeep Gunawardena, a former chairman of the State Trading Corporation who is under investigation by the Financial Crimes sleuths and has already been questioned by them.
Posters and cutouts (what an infelicitous word) portraying Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gunawardena were prominently displayed in Colombo 5 and 6 during the presidential election.Suddenly Gunawardena has become the good guy and has reportedly been appointed to the Sri Lanka Standards Institute under Minister Susil Premajayantha, who by the way was Kumarasinghe Sirisena’s minister in a previous avatar. When it comes to setting standards, what better choice!
There is also talk of an advertising agency that has sprung to life somewhere in Colombo 5. There is nothing wrong with that if state advertising, especially from SLT and Mobitel, is not directed mostly in that direction. Such things have happened before.
The UNP, the principal partner in the unity government, is not entirely lily-white when it comes to nepotism. But the danger for the party is that if this malignancy is not extirpated the UNP too will be scarred.