Midweek there was a strong rumour that Parliament would be dissolved at the stroke of midnight. Even the Speaker seemed unsure judging by a comment he made from his lofty perch in the august assembly. Only the President knew it was not to be; but by the end of the working week he had taken [...]


Where are the rogues of the last regime?


Midweek there was a strong rumour that Parliament would be dissolved at the stroke of midnight. Even the Speaker seemed unsure judging by a comment he made from his lofty perch in the august assembly. Only the President knew it was not to be; but by the end of the working week he had taken the decision he had been painfully contemplating for weeks.

The House, as Parliament is also known, took the unusual step during the week of having a full dress rehearsal of a bill that was to be otherwise passed, i.e. the 20th Amendment which deals with how the next-to-next Parliament is to be elected, and how many members will sit in that assembly in 2021, or thereabouts.

It was clear the United National Party (UNP) was going to scuttle 20A not merely as a tit-for-tat for what its opponents in the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) did by moving a plethora of amendments when 19A was put to vote using the latter’s Parliamentary majority, but also given the ground realities. The UNP opts for the present mode of elections. The minority and minor parties are heavily on its side at least on this issue because they feel that 20A is a death-trap for them.

That Parliament had become dysfunctional was obvious. No legislative work was getting done, the heavy partisan and thickly parochial obstructionist party politics being the cause. The UNP wanted an early dissolution for more reasons than one. Its honeymoon budget was wearing off and the Government was running out of money (please see our story on page 1 on the contradiction by the Finance Ministry). The UNP Government was facing three No-Confidence motions and a Parliamentary oversight committee (COPE) report on its handling of a purported Treasury Bonds scam, and yet, it was not going to allow a UPFA Government for the remainder of Parliament’s term.

One would think that an option for the UNP would have been to go into the next election as an oposition party — or, go full tilt until April by which time it could have, hopefully, put some of the perceived rogues of the previous Administration behind bars for corruption and abuse of power. The trend now seems to be that many of those in the previous setup who were remanded no sooner their statements were recorded on certain allegations, are being released on bail, one by one, with no objections from the State. In the case of former Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the State even conceded that he did not get any benefit from the case in point. Many of those accused who were in hospitals under judicial custody, were suddenly being released on bail and that cannot be due to the want of beds to admit the influx of patients with H1N1 or conjunctivitis which is spreading in the country.

The public perception, therefore, is that they are being released, either because there were no substantial cases against them — certainly no indictments have been preferred yet — or that a hidden hand is moving in some other political gamesmanship.
Already, former ministers sullied by allegations of corruption are boldly coming out on TV debates on private channels, challenging the Government deputies pitted against them; “Where are the Lamborghinis, the drug peddlers, the ethanol dealers, where are the stacks of money deposited in overseas banks”, they ask as the deputies mumble excuses. Then they ask: “What happened to the Treasury Bonds, where are the development projects and what about the talks with the LTTE Diaspora?”

Clearly, this UNP-led Government was moving far too slowly on corruption investigations. The problem seemed to be both the lack of staff and the lack of competence. The Special Presidential Commission appointed by the President himself is still looking for staff to investigate 800 complaints, they say. But it is difficult to accept that they haven’t the staff to investigate even five complaints. So, was there a deliberate go-slow is the question giving mixed signals even to investigators that it is better to go slow rather than be at the receiving end of a heavy-handed comeback from those being investigated should they ever return to office.

When former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was tried for corruption and abuse of power in the well-known Water’s Edge case, there were no police investigators involved. There was no need for them. And yet, a cast-iron case was brought by public-spirited men and women, a handful of them, to have the Supreme Court find her guilty and make her pay a fine. With the massive machinery available to the Government, what went wrong?

The Bribery and Corruption Commission was deftly castrated by the timely resignation of one of its Commissioners appointed by the very Government that is being investigated. Whoever drafted this law, and whatever Parliament that passed it with great hurrahs, made a huge mistake in saying that the Commission shall have three members. Many rogues past and present got through the net on this loophole whenever the Commission was minus a member. At least one of those hauled up before this Commission and escaped on this loophole, is advising this Government even today. Crippled, with little or nothing to show for the past six months, when an all-out offensive was promised to the people, the Commission is as it has always been, an extinct volcano.

It is understandable that the people are baffled by the Government’s lack of evidence to prosecute wrongdoers. As all investigations had to be channelled through the over-worked under-paid Attorney General’s Department, that there is a bottle-neck is understandable. The Department has to sift through the evidence before indicting persons. In the Kumaratunga case there was no need to go to the AG’s Department, it was a Fundamental Rights application filed by public-spirited citizens who felt she had cheated them as citizens, while in office.

There is dismay in people’s minds. They feel a clean Government had been voted in on January 8 and shortly thereafter they were told that international investigators were already in town, that the World Bank’s anti-fraud unit was commissioned and that the US was going to help in providing information of illegal transactions and monies stashed and properties purchased there. In the corridors of power, it is known that some of that information was within the purview of the Government. Why then this inordinate delay in proceeding? The Securities Exchange Commission has been one sorry tale of its failure to throw the book at persons who diddled the Colombo Stock Exchange.

President Maithripala Sirisena eventually threw in the towel on Friday night. His headaches were more with his dual role as the President of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). His untiring efforts to keep his predecessor out of politics and win over his party have not succeeded. His motto now seems to be ‘if you can’t beat ‘em; join ‘em”.

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