Corrupt to the core
Last week this newspaper published some damning details of arms procurements in the Sri Lanka Navy which implicated the then Navy Commander. The report included very serious allegations against the then Commander, who currently holds a very senior post in the Defence establishment.

It said that not only did he get entangled in shady arms deals from which he benefited financially but also he fudged his Declaration of Assets.
One offence is as bad as the other, because not only is one not expected to put one's hand in the public till when holding public office, but fiddling with a document that was introduced to ensure honesty in public life is inexcusable.
The declaration of assets that public servants are supposed to fill in and which is to be kept in the custody of the Head of Department is practised in the breach. These assets declarations are either not available in the record rooms of public departments or are not even filled and filed.

In some quarters, there are those public servants who enhance their assets in anticipation of acquiring new ones because there is no matching done by the Inland Revenue Department. But what happens when the Head of Department himself fiddles with his own assets declaration?

There is the classic case of a former Deputy Defence Minister who was nabbed by the Bribery Commission more than three years ago. The inquiry is still proceeding when all the Commission has to do is compare his explanation to them with his declaration of assets made to the Speaker.

This brings us to the entire question of fighting graft in Sri Lanka -- and what a joke it has become. A fortnight ago, four policemen were nabbed trying to solicit a bribe from detectives of the Bribery Commission. This ought to have sent shivers down the spines of other traffic cops, but has it?

And the question that keeps popping up is -- are only the sprats going to be caught while the thoras and moras (the big fish) break through the net?
The President, we hear, is going to appoint a panel of High Court judges to probe the Navy deals. And one might say, that is the end of the story. There is no need for a panel of High Court judges IF the Bribery Commission can get its act together.

High Court judges will only be listening to evidence produced before them. The Bribery Commission has investigative powers. We have long advocated the need for the Bribery Commission to find itself more accountants rather than just lawyers and policemen. The Commission must take on the role played by some French Magistrates who have investigative powers as well and are not limited to being just a judicial functionary. In France, some Magistrates even have powers to investigate terrorism.

Sri Lanka has become a state where corruption is a chronic disease. Bribery and corruption are endemic from the very top. Take the cases of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga that have been highlighted recently. Did she take Rs. 600 million from the President's Fund and transfer it to a trust she founded? Did she get state land worth Rs. 300 million as a free grant when she was President of the Republic (in addition to Rs. 25 million for her annual upkeep and an official bungalow as her office)? Did she spend Rs. 800 million to build a Presidential Palace for herself, and the area remains abandoned?

Is this not a colossal waste of public funds, quite apart from blatant abuse of power? But what's the use, if none of these is investigated and new standards are not set for those who hold public office?

The incumbent President is also on a bad wicket -- having asked that an investigation against him for misuse of public funds (Helping Hambantota) be stopped. What do you expect from the next set of leaders -- Ministers who stay at star-class hotels in New Delhi on BoI funds and Deputy Ministers who want the Sri Lankan embassy to foot their mini-bar bill in Bangkok? No action is taken against them either.

The Public Trustee of this country has some 30-odd charges against him for defrauding public funds -- and the man is on bail. Bribery Commission officials bungled the case against S.B. Dissanayake and its competence came in for serious questioning.

The country's leaders cannot say that their focus is entirely on the insurgency -- and allow this silent haemorrhaging of the body politic to continue. While the Courts, the last bastion of justice, have a crucial role to play, the political leaders of the day and the Commission itself, born after much labour, cannot abdicate their role in cleansing public life in this country.

The irony is that there are no examples to show of why bribery and corruption do not pay. But there are plenty of cases to show - that it does.

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