4th November 2001

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Focus on Rights - By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

An illfated anti-graft body

The continuing tussle over the removal of one Director General and the appointment of another to the Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption has, yet again, brought into public focus, fundamental defects in the law under which the country's premier graft fighting body functions. The outgoing Director General charges that his removal was due to his "determination to go ahead with investigations when evidence was available and reluctance to do so when there was no evidence." His successor has retorted that he would continue with all investigations presently before the Commission and has denied that his appointment was prompted by "political reasons." The actual truths (or should one say the relative untruths?) behind these contrasting public positions belongs, of course, to a different debate altogether. 

To that debate is also more appropriate, the sense of amazement that visits one when the moral high ground is assumed with such consummate ease by individuals who cannot but be less qualified to do so.

For the moment, this column concerns itself with the actual position of the Director General vis a vis the Commissioners under the Act that was passed unanimously by Parliament after a marathon sitting in 1994. This is central to the ongoing dispute and deserves some clarification in view of utterances on both sides of the controversy this week that tend to give a misleading picture of the nature of the office of the Director General. Similar misconceptions arose, in fact, in 1997 when the Commissioners of that period were caught up in similarly destructive antagonism with then Director General Nelum Gamage. Then, it became very clear that the 1994 Act specifically situates the Director General in a position inferior to the former Bribery Commissioner under the old Bribery Act and indeed reduces the Director General to nothing more than an investigating officer of the Commission.

Thus, the Act makes provision for a Director General to "assist the Commission in the discharge of the functions assigned to the Commission." It is the Commission itself however that is empowered to enter into investigations and the Commission could, in fact, direct any officer other than the Director General to look into a particular case. Criminal proceedings are instituted against individuals by the Director General but only upon direction of the Commission and it is only in this context that indictment could be signed by the Director General. The capacity of independent action given to the Director General was therefore limited. Indeed, the final draft of the law that came in Bill form before Parliament refers to the Director General merely as a Director. The more grandiloquent phrasing in the Act obviously emerged through the parliamentary debates and amendment process.

It was appropriate therefore, (or so the framers of the law, including then Minister of Justice, G.L Peiris would have reasoned albeit unfortunately, at that time), that the security of tenure of the Director General need not be guaranteed to the same extent as the Commissioners. 

Thus, the 1994 Act prescribed a laborious procedure for removal of the Commissioners that is akin to the procedure for removal of judges of the superior courts (however flawed that may be). The provisions governing the appointment and removal of the Director General are however very different.

Thus, while appointment to the post by the President "may" be in consultation with the members of the Commission, removal of the Director General, by some startling oversight, is minus even this minimum safeguard and is not provided for at all in the Act. 

It remains highly arguable meanwhile whether the process of 'consultation" specified in the case of appointment of a Director General, applies, by implication, to the process of his removal as well. It is precisely these ambiguities regarding the office of the Director General, which have constantly plagued the smooth working of the Commission since it was set up seven years back and now effectively diminished its credibility in the public mind.

The questions therefore are obvious; in all its seven years of working with full time or part time Directors General, what are the actual achievements of the Commission in the convictions that it has brought about? Its annual reports may give statistics of the number of cases prosecuted or investigated but that is not the question in issue. Has it been a significant deterrent force in curbing graft in the country? It is equally obvious that negative answers must be returned to all these queries.

An important contributing factor to its ineffectiveness meanwhile has been the absence of provisions giving the Commission an independent investigative unit unlike anti-corruption units in Singapore and Hong Kong. The police division attached to the Commission is under the IGP and its officers liable to transfer or disciplinary action at any time as was apparent in 1997 when a substantial number was transferred out of the Commission, crippling its functions. 

It stands to reason therefore that at a saner moment in time in the future (if this country should ever survive to witness such a time), that necessary amendments be made to the 1994 Act that would bring about a more rational balance between the Commission and the office of its Director General as well as grant to the Commission, an independent investigative force.

But the question as to whether even these amendments would result in a Commission that sets a strong moral tone in tackling bribery and corruption in Sri Lanka is far more complex. For that, we need individuals of not only integrity but also tremendous courage serving on the Commission in a culture moreover where laws and institutions are not so deplorably governed by political necessities and personal aggrandizement. 

In the absence of this, it is a pertinent question as to whether we would be better off without a corruption fighting body that has hitherto marked itself only by its internal controversies adorning the front pages of our newspapers? 

Clinically Yours - By Dr. Who

Thanks for cricket, no thanks for politics

Arjuna Ranatunga is contesting the elections; OK, so what? Much has already been made about this entrée of the Grand Old Man of Sri Lankan cricket to the dirty old game of Sri Lankan politics, but is there anything in it to write home about? Just because Arjuna Ranatunga the cricketer transformed Sri Lankan cricket like it had never been done before, is there reason to hope that he could do the same for local politics? 

Ranatunga sees himself as the paragon of virtue; remember how many times he has reminded us that he is the poor kid who used to travel from Gampaha to Colombo by train for cricket practices, just as much Ranasinghe Premadasa reminded us that he was the little boy who sold 'levariya' at Kehelwatte ? And it is the same Arjuna Ranatunga who said that he never appeared for a single advertisement. And of course Ranatunga it was who initiated the fund-raising campaign to purchase a MRI scanner for the National Hospital. 

But before we go ga-ga over Ranatunga the gentleman, let's consider the other side of the coin. Papa Reggie is already in the dock, accused of at least being a spectator to the first political murder in the current election. And Arjuna himself is charged with assaulting schoolboys for the crime of entering his garden to retrieve a cricket ball. And ask any UNPer about the gung-ho of the Ranatunga clan in Gampaha and they will have many stories to relate. 

It is also an open secret that Arjuna was the monarch of all he surveyed in the Cricket Board after his World Cup triumph- the Sinhala media coined the word 'Ranatungakaranaya' to describe the phenomenon. Calamity came upon those who crossed the path of the cricketing Emperor and they who were at the receiving end say that the arrogance King knew no bounds. 

Today, Arjuna takes a broadside at Imran Khan by saying that he would become the first international cricket captain to taste success as a politician-but there is a significant difference here that Arjuna chooses to ignore. Imran was committed enough to realize that the two-party system in his country was corrupt beyond repair-as it is here- and courageous enough to strike it out on his own. 

Not so Arjuna, who has a ready family electoral fiefdom to inherit. So, he will win and handsomely at that- but that will not make him a great politician. Yes, we as a nation should be grateful to Ranatunga for making little Lanka proud as a cricketing power. Yes, he did defend Murali by sticking his neck out as no one would have done and we do admire him for that. 

But while we must say thank you for the Cricket, Arjuna, we must also say no, thank you for your politics, at least not yet. From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a short step. 

Ranatunga now descends from the sublime summit of winning the 1996 World Cup to the ridiculous rabble of politics, an act that could sadly overshadow or even obliterate the niche he has carved for himself in this country's history. 

In Arjuna Ranatunga in the cricketing arena, we have seen the power of arrogance. But let it not be now said, you ain't seen nothin' yet folks, for may we soon see the arrogance of power. 

2001 Election - Issues 

President's attempt at Hara-kiri 

It was pressure-cooker atmosphere back home. The President had just averted certain defeat at a censure vote in Parliament. Her close allies were deserting the sinking ship. She had called for elections; just about rustled up a nomination list, and needed a break very badly. Apart from the Kurumba village in the Maldives, London is the place she opts for such, eh, 'working visits'. 

Infact, she had decided to visit the United Arab Emirates, but folks over there were a little more than startled that there was someone visiting the area in the midst of a war in the region. So, the visit was called off at the eleventh hour. 

Bell Pottinger a highly priced Public Relations agency was hired to line up a few interviews for the visiting first lady from Sri Lanka.

The one question that begs an answer is why a PR agency had to be hired when BBC and CNN had asked for interviews in Colombo. In Colombo, the President would have been on home turf; but she opted to go to Old Blighty instead and into their studios and their den. 

When an interview is requested by BBC or CNN from the President in Colombo there is some obligation for those broadcasters to be a little gentle. When in their turf, they have absolutely no obligation and that is why we saw Zain Vergee (CNN) and Tim Sebastian (BBC Hard Talk) being very dismissive of, after all, the Head of a sovereign country. 

Neville De Silva, our correspondent in London says that at one stage she was forced to admit that she had not read the latest US state department report on Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lankans abroad are overwhelmingly of the view that Kumaratunga's interview on Hard Talk was like 'Romans throwing the Christians to the lions.' 

Here was Zain Vergee, a fairly junior anchor at CNN studio in Atlanta, mind you, and not London, cross-examining the President of Sri Lanka. Why did the President of Sri Lanka subject herself to this? Surely, did she not learn a bitter lesson only two months back when BBC's (India) Hard Talk specialist Arun Thapa made mince-meat out of her. The President should also have realized that she was the head of the country not the head of the Peoples Alliance because that is how she is introduced to the world.

Well, we defend anyone's right to make a spectacle of things but several important issues have to be raised. There is one thing that local VVIP's have never learnt, which is to trust the local press and get on with them. 

They prefer the state media where an interviewer usually asks a question then goes to the canteen for a smoke and a cup of tea, and returns to find the VVIP still talking. When he/she decides to stop, they ask the next question. 

Even our local TV chat shows (private channels included) are open-ended, sometimes going on into the silent night while the rest of the country has fallen asleep. Our politicians who love to talk have not learnt the art of speaking to the point. They don't know the importance of sound-bites. 

But what is worse is that the Govt. of Sri Lanka does not know how to use the media other than the State media. In that case, they must stick to it. 

Interesting incidentally, is the fact that two previous assignments of Bell Pottinger had been to save the soul of Augusto Pinochet the Chilean leader and to convince the world that Genetically Modified (GM) food is harmless. No wonder Sri Lanka withdrew its own ban on GM food.

The President, Pottinger-prodded or not, did not know what she was about at times during the interviews. She referred to the 60,000 people killed during the 1987-90 JVP led insurgency as an insurgency involving "democratic youth." In the CNN interview; she referred to the "UNP" as if the whole world knew what was UNP (..some viewers may have thought it was a UN agency like UNFPA or something).

She then said that the people who stuffed ballot boxes are now with the opposition, in other words admitting that ballot boxes were stuffed during her tenure as President. 

Bell Pottinger is also distinguished by it's efforts to find a mediator between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Suggested names? Madeline Albright, Jimmy Carter and John Mitchell? All people rather aloof from the Sri Lankan situation. This for all that's paid to them?

UNP-led coalition or vise versa?
Is it going to be a PA-UNP contest at the forthcoming elections or a PA-PA contest. From what can be seen, it looks more like the latter. The PA's campus of resigned frontliners has 'hijacked' the opposition campaign. At the UNP rallies in Colombo and Kandy it is GL Peiris and S.B. Dissanayake who are sitting next to party leader Ranil, edging out Karu the trusted old lieutenant. 

Their speeches especially of SB is like baila to the UNP ears. The hardcore UNP love the defectors because they see in them, people who can throw authentic mud at the PA especially the President and give some titillating insights to how the government was run during the past seven years. 

All this has given the confidence to a party that had neglected its grass-root organizational machinery, a glimmer of hope considering that when it comes to rigging, the New champs are now with them. However, there is a large segment of the voting population that might think the UNP is the better alternative, but ask the question whether this is the UNP they want? 

With all the rascals in the PA taking front seats with a smile that says 'cat that got the cream?' GL Peiris is the Messiah and spokesman for this new Front. Is the UNP so bankrupt to have this wizard who hardly two months ago issued a press release contradicting reports that he had decided to join the UNP, adding that he was presiding over some SLFP Bala Mandalaya meeting in Moratuwa at the time the report was made? 

SB's recent speeches have CBK running down Galle Face Green like a madwoman. Well, at least he was asked about it, but gives the incredible answer that he did not know the media was covering the event at 'Siri Kotha'. Ranil has a difficult task ahead no doubt. While (because of the UNP's weak organizational capacity) he has to rely on the PA defectors and the minority parties, he must accommodate them. On the other hand he must show the electorate that they are voting for the UNP led coalition not the coalition led UNP. 

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