Hardly had the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs waxed eloquent at the United Nations Convention on Corruption in faraway St. Petersburg on the new Government’s crusade against corruption, did Sri Jayawardhanapura, Kotte reverberate with a thundering speech in Parliament by the leader of the JVP. His, the only party still not tainted by the highly [...]


Corruption; the same difference


Hardly had the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs waxed eloquent at the United Nations Convention on Corruption in faraway St. Petersburg on the new Government’s crusade against corruption, did Sri Jayawardhanapura, Kotte reverberate with a thundering speech in Parliament by the leader of the JVP. His, the only party still not tainted by the highly corrupt political system in Sri Lanka, pulled no punches in accusing this Government of encouraging bribery and corruption and protecting crooks.

The JVP leader spared no one; not even the President or the Prime Minister and was especially tough on some Ministers, Deputies and MPs whom he said he was identifying by pointing his eyes at them. He said he spoke with a sense of anger, frustration and disappointment because this was a Government his party helped into power and place defeating what was a corrupt administration.

Backing his statements with facts and figures, the JVP leader listed individual cases of fraudulent transactions that have been suppressed or swept under the carpet. He said this was an era of deal-making and accused people in high office of being the new partners in crime.

This was barely 48 hours after the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the UN Convention that corruption is a “pernicious crime” that “devastates lives” and the Deputy Minister said that the Government “under the leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had taken a host of measures to prevent corruption, to seek out stolen assets, and to build the capacity for effectively curbing corruption and bribery, in an effective, comprehensive, result-oriented manner”. He went on to tell the world community that “in a country where anti-corruption was only a rhetorical commitment under the last Government, all these measures, aimed to contribute towards a culture of good governance, represented a paradigm shift”.

One could be excused for wondering if the contradictory speeches spoke of one and the same country – both made by those who helped defeat a clearly corrupt former Government and pledged to usher in a clean administration for which the people voted them in had great hopes.

That Parliament and the people are already beginning to talk of corruption under the new Government just ten months into office is indeed a sad state of affairs. The JVP leader’s speech and what amounted to the Government’s response spilled over to the Cabinet the next day with some Ministers threatening to quit over the way the campaign against corruption was being handled by their own Government.

The question is: why, after six decades of Independence we still cannot get it right. Every democracy has its share of corruption but Sri Lanka’s is endemic. Is it the political system, the greed of individual politicians, or a combination of both?

The Deputy Minister’s assertion that the Government’s policy “to foster a society with zero tolerance of corruption” had echoes of the previous Government’s policy of “zero civilian casualties” during the last days of the war against the LTTE, but rang hollow in the face of the accusations within Parliament and in the Cabinet.

The continuing debate on the floating armoury — the Avant Garde case — exposed the frailty of the political system and how politicians have got sucked into the fray by big bucks. Notwithstanding the legality, or otherwise of the controversial but lucrative project that was launched to combat sea pirates, there is evidence that slush monies went into campaign funds — a matter that has been brought to light over electioneering under the existing political system.

That it has extended to other areas in the investigations into the Avant Garde activities has compromised this Government. The Police dragging their feet and blaming the Attorney General’s Department for inaction is typical of how things get hushed up along the way. Questions are now being raised as to why the Government that is contemplating bringing foreign investigators for purported war crimes tribunals cannot get foreign investigators on the job for corruption probes. There is also a suggestion to bring back the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) of yesteryear with some amendments to fast-track prosecutions.

We said in our editorial of January 25, soon after the Presidential election in reference to the rogues of the recent past: “All the culprits need to do is duck their heads for a while and ride out the storm. In the meantime they will be looking for patrons in the new dispensation”. And that is exactly what they have succeeded in doing. Take a look at the delegation that accompanied the President on his State visit to Thailand this week. Not quite the ‘Rogues Gallery’ but these are businessmen who can do “business” with any Government. Stories are aplenty of today’s deal-making as the JVP very correctly said – and they are not limited to Avant Garde.

The Finance Minister when in Opposition referred to catching “thoras” (big fish) of the past Government not the sprats when they came to office. Now, with the National Government in place, he finds some of the ‘thoras’ as his Cabinet colleagues. As for the shady businessmen who surround these politicians, they have taken just ten months to announce their “mission accomplished”.
It’s not that the leadership of this National Government is totally unaware of all that is happening around them. But it is not so easy to change the inbuilt, ingrained corrupt system overnight. A recent remark the Premier made to the Finance Ministry officials exposed his frustrations.

But, take the case of the recent appointment of the new chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) – the brother of the Minister in charge. It is a textbook case of nepotism, which together with corruption was another platform on which the present leadership slammed the previous administration and promised the people who voted for them, and the country at large, a change.

Soon after the Parliamentary elections, the people were told very righteously that heads of Government institutions would be selected by a committee comprising the President and the Prime Minister. That such selections would be done on a “scientific basis”. Pray, on what ‘scientific basis’ was this selection done? The Minister claims he has a personal bond with the President. He is one of the few loyalists of former President Kumaratunga who form the troika – or the ‘Holy Trinity’ that runs the Yahapalana Government together with the Prime Minister, in whose party the Minister is now. What explanation have the three of them got for this appointment? It’s a leaf taken from the Rajapaksa regime which they denounced and dethroned.

The disillusionment with the Government is increasing, simply because there was such great hope. Is this the transparency and accountability that the Deputy Minister spoke of in St. Petersburg? Go tell it to the Marines.

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