At first there was the “Pentagon Papers”. That is, of course, if you rightly dismiss Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers as belonging to a different genre. The Pentagon Papers, as it was called, was a top secret study by the US Department of Defence of the country’s 20 years or more of military-political involvement in Vietnam [...]


So to our perpetual papers and perpetual promises


At first there was the “Pentagon Papers”. That is, of course, if you rightly dismiss Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers as belonging to a different genre.
The Pentagon Papers, as it was called, was a top secret study by the US Department of Defence of the country’s 20 years or more of military-political involvement in Vietnam up to 1967. It was scooped by the New York Times and published in 1971.

President Sirisena: Pledged to end corruption

Many Sri Lankans of today would hardly have heard of the Pentagon Papers, let alone reading it. The only book many read today is Facebook.But some of them may have read or heard about the Panama Papers- the unprecedented leak of some 11.5 million files from the database of the fourth biggest off-shore law firm which an unnamed source provided to the southern German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung which shared it with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Its members worked on it to unearth the multitude of ways by which the rich and powerful in the political and business worlds bury their assets, too frightened, I suppose, to keep under the mattress.

Early last year when the news broke and some named names of Sri Lankans on the list much was made of it. Let it be clear. Dumping assets in overseas tax havens is not necessarily illegal. It all depends on where the money came from and how it got into the hands of the person or persons who found a safe (it was hoped) place to stash it away from the prying eyes and noses of those following the money trails.

But many shady deals by even more shady people have been traced to some of these places which are not necessarily paradise islands. Some of that wealth that has been hidden, often in the name of companies buried in other companies some of which are shell companies has been put there not necessarily by political leaders but others lower down the totem pole and officials who have pilfered national assets.

Whether all the dirt in the Panama Papers and those involved have been meticulously studied and the guilty strung up from what in our school days we threatened to do to our rivals on the cadju puhulang tree I do not know. What we do know now is some zealous individual or group dropped another 13.4 million documents onto the laps of the overworked journalists of the same southern German newspaper, who, as previously, shared the precious documents with other members of the International Committee of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

That might give you some clue why political leaders in our country who had no qualms about receiving political support from the mainstream and social media not many years back are now picking on the media that expose them for what they are and how far removed they are from the promises they made. It will be some time before the journalists now targetting the big beasts with their hidden money bags, get round to naming others, the smaller ones who have been operating below the radar focused on the high and mighty and in their shadows.So far the “Paradise Papers” as this set of leaked documents are called because it involves several islands and sovereign states in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean, have not revealed any names except a few big and famous ones.

But those who stole our state assets and those who benefited from their connections with the wielders of power especially in the business community, must be thanking the multiple deities they turn to and the politicians they cling on to, for sparing them the ignominy of exposure and public punishment. Three years ago as the presidential election gathered momentum ending in an unexpected denouement most of what we heard on stage and screen consistently were harsh charges of corruption, kickbacks, commissions, bribery and assorted crimes of those in power and some of their dubious associates.

While Alice thought that things in Wonderland were turning curiouser and curiouser in our own wonderland they were getting murkier and murkier. Even after Maithripala Sirisena put on his presidential hat those in government threatened to bring the perpetrators to book and bring back the billions and trillions they were said to have robbed.

Less than two months after the opposition victory some of the Racecourse Avenue cabal met at the Central Bank not to discuss how to recover the stolen assets they had told the public of but how to get some assets to pay road development loans. Even the road to hell, it has been said, is paved with good intentions. Not too many believe this story of the country being in urgent need of money. Even if they did, subsequent events seemed to throw buckets of iced-water on this tale of woe.

It took almost two years before the president thought enough was enough and appointed a commission of inquiry. By that time the fat was virtually in the fire what with Racecourse Ave trying with cabalistic calculation to defeat the COPE inquiry. Eventually all their procrastination ended up as footnotes in the COPE report just as some of them could end up as footnotes in the pages of our political history, if they get a mention at all.

The nation waited with bated breath to see those who robbed the people, brought to justice and swinging from the cadju puhulang trees before they too are cut down by politicians and their henchmen. And they are waiting. Public anger grew and the various attempts to postpone local government elections by ruses such as half-baked legislation had to end before some of the President’s Counsel who counsel the president with such schoolboy pranks were dragged up to any available tree.

So before the elections were upon us and public disquiet contained before votes are cast for elections and at a referendum on the constitutional changes, some have been brought before the courts and others are awaiting their turn. But the big beasts that have stolen the millions and billions are not even in the transit lounge. When President Sirisena attended the International anti-corruption conference in London summoned by Prime Minister Cameron (another pre-election ploy) in May last year the world-at least the 11 heads of state and government including Sirisena who attended and the 40 countries represented) heard our new leader say what steps had been taken to eliminate or at least minimise corruption and punish the guilty. That speech is still on the president’s website.

Cameron called corruption the “cancer at the heart of so many of the world’s problems” and “one of the greatest enemies of progress in our time”. I too listened to President Sirisena wondering when all the promises made by him before and after the elections and his main coalition partner will take the scalpels in hand and perform the surgery on the cancer that Cameron referred to.

But time is fast running out. One wonders whether he remembers the pledge that he and other participants at the London conference signed. That commitment was to “expose corruption wherever it was found, to pursue and punish those who perpetrate, facilitate or are implicit in it and to ensure it does not fester in our governments, institutions, businesses and communities”.

This message must surely have reached the other main coalition partner, the UNP which is controlling the country’s economic activity.The UNP also cannot forget the extremely valuable UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) which Sri Lanka ratified in March 2004, the second country to do so. Signing commitments and ratifying conventions is hardly implementing their core messages.

If Sri Lanka had been in the forefront of nations ratifying such an important convention such as UNCAC then surely it intended to faithfully fulfil its obligations under this convention. If that was the real intention and not a sham commitment to fight corruption, then it seems unfortunate that years later we appear to be backsliding.

The more we read or hear about the happenings round the world the more we realise how necessary it is that the international fight against this scourge needs to be strengthened so that public officials are not only prevented from accumulating ill-gotten gains but are held accountable for such mass-scale robbery.
The public was told foreign investigative agencies would help Sri Lanka in its quest to get its wealth back. One such agency was the World Bank’s State Assets Recovery (StAR) body. One is not certain whether they did and if so the result of these investigations.

The public perspective seems to be that the political class, especially in the higher echelons, is inter-linked and help each other out. President Sirisena himself was quite open about it at a cabinet meeting where he said that investigations were being blocked or delayed by some within the government itself. One curious story that was doing the rounds is of a person close to President Rajapaksa who is being investigated yet has been provided with official security on the orders or influence of one in the present government.

Stories of procrastination and delays in conducting investigations and filing charges by certain state institutions at the behest of some in the current or previous government are legion. Whether true or not the only way to erase such impressions is to act and act decisively. Appointing committee after committee makes little sense unless and until what emerges from them are implemented. A classic example of the worthlessness of committee findings is the Weliamuna report on Sri Lankan Airlines where the report of a committee appointed by the UNP coalition partner is discarded by the UNP appointed Chairman and other airline officials.

Earlier next month a Global Assets Recovery Forum (GFAR) will be held in Washington. The 3-day meeting starting on December 4 will focus on assistance to four countries including Sri Lanka. It would be interesting to know what Sri Lanka has to say on efforts at recovery so far and what the government intends to do to keep its promises as the deliverables for GFAR will include progress on cases achieved by the four focus countries, increased capacity through technical sessions, renewed commitment to advancing asset recovery cases, and increased collaboration among involved jurisdictions.

With local council elections a little over a month away will the public be treated to another dose of political rhetoric and an extra serving of perpetual promises?

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