It is tragic but telling that within a relatively short period, lofty expectations regarding the performance of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government have dwindled into an abject murmuring of ‘well, at least it is better than the Rajapaksa regime.’ As comforting as this may be to our bruised and battered ears, there is a singular danger in [...]


Those many Chequered irons in the ‘yahapalanaya’ fire


It is tragic but telling that within a relatively short period, lofty expectations regarding the performance of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government have dwindled into an abject murmuring of ‘well, at least it is better than the Rajapaksa regime.’
As comforting as this may be to our bruised and battered ears, there is a singular danger in such complacency. Quite apart from the fact that Rajapaksa rule cannot be used to measure the performance of its ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) successor given that there was essentially no standard to be compared against, there are other perils in this line of thought.

A subtle undermining of the Rule of Law
Put directly, the one good thing about the Rajapaksas was their unmitigated crudity and complete unconcern in professing even a nodding acquaintance with basic governance. Shocking as this was, it also constituted a good platform to expose the excesses of a single family’s ransacking of Sri Lanka’s coffers. The critical democratic mass in January 2015 rejecting that regime was precisely as a result of that abysmal crudity. Had the Rajapaksas deigned to be just a tad more subtle, that result may have been immeasurably harder to achieve.

But what we have now in contrast is infinitely more sophisticated game playing with Sri Lanka’s economy, the democratic system and the piteous wails of the Tamil polity in the Wanni awaiting that long promised justice. At each level, there is a specific contradiction that gives the unmistakable lie to the rhetoric though only a few will be dealt with here due to space constraints.

Let us take basic Rule of Law challenges. So at one point we have Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe expounding on the importance of Parliament regaining control of finance in the best traditions of Westminister governance. But juxtaposed with that assertion, the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) has disturbingly this week proclaimed its indignation regarding the refusal of the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL), the Prime Minister’s handpicked choice, to provide information relating to Treasury Bond issuances from 2015. This was following a special investigation undertaken by COPE given serious allegations of insider trading and profiteering. These reports, quoting the Chairman of COPE, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna parliamentarian Sunil Handunetti, have not been denied so far.

Testing RTI against the CBSL
Scandalously, anti-corruption activists have also pointed to a surreptitious destroying of information and data in the Central Bank records relating to the issuance of the two Treasury Bonds. If such allegation is subsequently proved, relevant public officials will be held accountable thereof. In fact, if this Government holds good to its promise to enact the Right to Information (RTI) law this month, the first priority of anti-corruption activists should be to test the strength of the enactment by filing a spate of RTI applications against the CBSL. Contrary to the excitable pronouncements of some, the CBSL is not exempted from the RTI law. Indeed, this would be an excellent test case to assess the vitality of the public interest disclosure clause which constitutes the most important part of the RTI Bill and which mandates compulsory disclosure.

In general, the issue of the Governorship of the Central Bank has become a litmus test on the Rule of Law for this coalition Government. So far it has failed quite spectacularly to demonstrate its bona fides. Where the Prime Minister is concerned, what emerges is a ringing tone of stubborn disapproval in regard to imposing external accountability of the CBSL. This was well illustrated last year when the Prime Ministerial finger was directed at newspapers which had published extracts from an earlier interim report of COPE in its previous term, threatening the editors with parliamentary privilege.

The role of President Sirisena in this regard is scarcely better. His weak suggestion in July last year to the Government that the Central Bank Governor be asked to resign from his post was an attempt to restore public faith in the Presidency just prior to the parliamentary election. This explanation was following the Treasury Bond fracas earlier that year where bonds were sold at unreasonably higher interest rates to a company connected to the Central Bank Governor`s son-in-law. But except this ‘suggestion’, precious little else was done. This year, anti-corruption activists alleged another bond deal in similarly inauspicious circumstances.

Other ‘yahapalanaya’ contradictions galore
Cumulatively the Government’s conduct in this regard exemplifies the paradox of expounding on the importance of financial accountability on the one hand while undermining it on the other by treating the CBSL as the proverbial sacred cow.

On his own part, Governor Arjun Mahendran has vigorously refuted charges against him, utilizing an order of the Supreme Court in which leave to proceed in a petition challenging his functioning was refused. However, no substantive hearing of the petition on its merits took place. This indicates the dangers of filing hasty and (legally) ill considered applications in court given the damage that takes place thereafter as a result of strategic propaganda.

In this context, President Sirisena’s stand in the forthcoming reappointment of the Central Bank Governor will no doubt, be crucial. But the Governorship of the CBSL is by no means the only chequered iron in the ‘yahapalanaya’ fire. Last year, this administration’s Minister of Justice thought fit to boast that he had ‘prevented’ a frontline Rajapaksa from being arrested on charges of corruption. Now we hear of instructions emanating from the Presidential Secretariat regarding a ‘go-slow’ of the arrest of public officials who had been complicit in corrupt deals of the previous regime. What nonsense is this?

Shadow boxing with ‘yahapalanaya’
Meanwhile piling insult on injury, the Government announced an outrageously massive supplementary estimate for ministerial luxury cars this week even as the displaced in Aranayake, Kosgama and the floods camped out in dirt and mud.
The Prime Minister’s reassurance that this would be ‘temporarily’ held back till the displaced are settled did nothing to alleviate this blinding sense of injustice. What is needed is a permanent withholding until Sri Lanka’s economic woes are dealt with. This is what is meant by shadow boxing with ‘yahapalanaya.’
The sooner we recognize this, the better if a challenge is to be mounted to the failures of democratic governance that increase day by day.

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