The recent Malaysian elections that resulted in the downfall of a political party that has ruled the country for decades and the ouster of an allegedly corrupt leader have brought home an important lesson. But it is hardly likely that our leaders will learn from this significant turn of events. It is more likely they [...]


The mighty and the corrupt fall but not always


The recent Malaysian elections that resulted in the downfall of a political party that has ruled the country for decades and the ouster of an allegedly corrupt leader have brought home an important lesson. But it is hardly likely that our leaders will learn from this significant turn of events.

It is more likely they would round the wagons and protect themselves with added precautions so they will not have to face the ignominy now haunting Najib Razak accused of fiddling accounts and robbing national wealth.

One way crooked politicians and their bag carriers protect themselves is by keeping investigative agencies at arm’s length and curbing their independence of action which they were promised to uphold in the early days of this government and even before that.

While many Asian leaders over the years have faced trial for corruption and fraud, some of our leaders act as though they would never have to pay the price of being named, shamed and brought to justice and spat upon by an incensed public that believed the honeyed words that emanated from seemingly sincere political mouths at election time.

The architect of our 1978 constitution, former president Junius Richard Jayawardene used to compare some leaders to the French Bourbons who, he said, learnt nothing and forgot nothing.

The vile and corrupt among Sri Lanka’s political community-and we have quite a lot as you would have noticed- are in some ways like the Bourbons that seemed to fascinate the wily JR who used to be called “The Fox”. My brother Mervyn went one better and called him “ 20th Century Fox.”

File photo shows President Sirisena’s former Chief of Staff I. H. K. Mahanama and State Timber Corporation (STC) Chairman P. Dissanayaka who were arrested by the Bribery Commission while accepting a bribe being taken into remand. Pic by Amila Gamage

Indeed “JR” as he was popularly called, had some attributes of a fox. But one thing he could not be accused of was being corrupt, though I am sure he had an inkling of some who dipped their fingers into the public purse and other means to fatten themselves.

Sir John Kotelawala who preceded him as prime minister many years before and led the country in the early 1950s knew very well that some of his political buddies were on the take and so his celebrated saying to colleagues and others “Hande athe thiyanakan beda ganilla” (as long as the spoon is in your hand serve yourselves). Make hay while the sun shines may be a close English-language approximation of the Kotelawalian words but hardly as coruscating.

One could name many from the post-independence era who were honest to the core and passed away with virtually little or no assets to leave behind. Those days of honest politicians who ruled Ceylon and then Sri Lanka are long past.

Many of them were educated and were from the professional classes unlike some of today’s lot who, having failed to achieve basic educational standards have found refuge in politics which needs no standards at all, educational or ethical.

What is so galling is that corruption has seeped to the lowest of political institutions and even simple and normal administrative exercises that citizens are entitled to receive from public institutions and public servants are deliberately delayed or even refused if ‘something’ (a bribe) is not given when such gratifications are solicited.

During a recent visit to Colombo I heard constant public complaints that nothing moves until the wheels of administration are not greased with palm oil. These complaints come from citizenry who have had to deal with officials of an elected institution such as the Colombo municipality and government departments to village-level bodies.

Nothing moves and even the services that a member of the public is entitled to are generally performed only when the greedy and corrupt are mollified and gratified that sufficient grease has passed between them.

When much of the state structure, if not its entirety, functions on greasing those who run such institutions, it is a sign of moral decay and no amount of promises held out to the people will convince the populace that political pledges will ever be fulfilled.

In the early months of the yahapalana government I listened to President Sirisena telling an anti-corruption conference in London organized by then British Prime Minister David Cameron, what steps the Sirisena administration has taken in its fight against corruption. He also set out what he hopes to do to bring to justice those of the previous government who were responsible for corruption and abuse of national wealth.

President Sirisena’s homilies seemed genuine enough for he had only months before come to power and other leaders and government representatives gathered at Lancaster House were keen to know how the state machinery, with the help of foreign anti-graft bodies, would be utilized to fight the corrupt.

Three years have passed since those promises were made before an international audience. But even before he came to office the public were promised that if elected a Sirisena administration would bring to book those who robbed the state and had their hands stained with the blood of corruption and fraud.

So what has happened? Virtually nothing. Those who were accused of corruption remain free. Some others against whom cases have been filed never have their cases heard as they are postponed for months on end each time a hearing comes up in court leading to public questions about judicial integrity.

Certainly some have been brought to justice. But they are not the big beasts who were said to have been involved in big time corruption and stealing the wealth of the nation.

Even more interestingly the political infighting between the two major parties in the coalition has resulted in the spotlight being turned on them. The allegedly corrupt on both sides of the yahapalanaya administration have been exposed to the public.

Most recently it was President Sirisena’s chief of staff called I. Mahanama who was caught in the counting house- the back seat of a car- counting out the money which was only a small portion of the loot allegedly demanded.

But whatever happened to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s chief of staff Gamini Senarath whose name came into focus a couple of years or so ago but has now faded from the legal radar screen. Where on earth has he got to? And what about Sajin Vass Gunawardena about whom much was said but little seems to have been done, according to some who spoke to me on the failed promises of the yahapalana government.

If the public is incensed it is because new burdens are being heaped on their already burdened shoulders while politicians go merrily along untouched by all this. That is because every government has pampered them with more perks such as luxury vehicles and increased salaries/allowances.

What is also galling is that politicians are involved in nefarious activities such as stripping forest reserves of their trees and even encroaching into such reservations and partitioning off areas to settle their supporters.

Defending some political actions, one yahapanalaya supporter told me that politicians like others declare their assets. Goodness me, what a puerile argument. Does the Speaker to whom MPs present their assets declaration or the president to whom ministers present their declarations ever glance at any of them. Even if they do what good has ever come out of it.

If politicians want to come clean their assets declarations must be made available to the public to peruse freely and without charge. If there is no such provision now then there should be a law permitting such perusal. If politicians have nothing to hide let them open their declarations to public view. Will it ever happen, politicians voluntarily making their assets and liabilities known to the voters?

It was the celebrated author George Orwell who once said that “the people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims….. but accomplices”.

One of the problems is that our leaders do not learn from history. They do not believe that they will be ousted and subsequently found they had dipped into the till. But the mistake they make is believing that power is eternal, that they will always remain acceptable to the people.
How wrong they could be. Should they take a Kaleidoscopic view of Asia alone and how the mighty have fallen from grace in the continent’s post-war history they should realize that nothing is permanent, as the Buddha preached.

From Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the Philippines with an iron fist, to Indonesia’s Suharto and family who stashed away enough money to open a new bank, to Pakistan’s corrupt leaders such as Nawaz Sharif named in the Panama Papers, several Indian chief ministers such as Jayalalithaa Jeyaram and the recent South Korean president Park Guen-hye jailed for 24 years on several charges of corruption to Malaysia’s defeated leader Najib Razak, have all been exposed for corruption and fraud.

If some of Sri Lanka’s leaders and other politicians believe they are permanent fixtures in the political firmament and can continue to rob and allow their kith and kin to rob and demand pay-offs, they better take some history lessons.

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here”, wrote Shakespeare in the Tempest.
How true. Remember those promises of ending corruption, nepotism, cronyism and installing accountability, meritocracy and clean governance. Hell any of us could have said. After all we don’t have the power to do so.

But then what of those who have the power but still will not do so because as President Sirisena said the other day, there is more work to be done. Indeed and we know what that is, don’t we.

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