How many Sri Lankans have heard of the “Pentagon Papers”, never mind whether they have read it or not. How many still remember the scandal that erupted in the US on its release for it is a little over 50 years since the New York Times first published excerpts on June 13, 1971 followed by [...]


Papers, papers and still more papers


How many Sri Lankans have heard of the “Pentagon Papers”, never mind whether they have read it or not. How many still remember the scandal that erupted in the US on its release for it is a little over 50 years since the New York Times first published excerpts on June 13, 1971 followed by the Washington Post immediately after, of this vast trove of information of US shenanigans during the Vietnam War.

Since then there have been other papers with different titles and vastly different content. The latest being the “Pandora Papers” released a few days back.

That was preceded by the “Panama Papers” in April 2016 and which formed the core of the film quite appropriately and perhaps mischievously called “The Laundromat” signifying the laundering of dirty money by political leaders and a variety of other individuals using shady institutions and multiple ruses to hide their dubiously accumulated cash, treasures and ownership of luxury real estate across the globe.

The Pentagon Papers revealed Washington’s growing involvement in the Vietnam War and its illegal military expansion into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia and attacks on North Vietnam’ coastal areas under President Lyndon Johnson.

All this would have remained buried in some archival tomb had it not been for Daniel Ellsberg who worked on Defence Secretary Robert MacNamara’s project compiling the history of the US role in the Vietnam War, who exposed it all.

Space restrictions do not permit a detailed account of the Pentagon Papers that provide fascinating reading of American perfidy over four administrations starting with that of Harry Truman and ending with the damning lies of the Johnson government.

What is relevant just now for those who value the right of the media to expose the secret agendas of governments and the despicable acts of politicians, state officials and business executives that engage in frauds, money laundering and the amassing of stolen state assets, are the attempts by governments in many countries to block the media from making public their frailties — to use an understatement.

The Richard Nixon administration tried its best to clamp down on both the New York Times and the Washington Post after the first excerpts were published going right up to the Supreme Court in its determined efforts at censorship.

But the Supreme Court by 6-3 threw out the prior restraint injunctions. One Judge — Justice Black — declared: “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deceptions in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people……..”

Just as the two leading New York and Washington newspapers undertook that task with due diligence despite legal efforts, those that helped produce the Panama Papers and Pandora Papers were journalists from media in several countries who trawled through millions of documents, some leaked others not, over two years or more to compile those dossiers.

The simultaneous release of the Panama Papers in several countries led to an international scandal with leading figures in the political world, business, government officials and company executives named, rushing to exonerate themselves of guilt and wrongdoing as happens even now.

I cannot remember any leading figure named who went down on his or her knees pleading mea culpa and seeking what one might call absolution.

Rather there was sufficient evidence against some world politicians and others for several countries to file criminal charges or leading to resignations from office in shame. But the ill-gotten wealth was not often recovered.

Coincidently or not a month after the Panama Papers opened a Pandora’s box than then British Prime Minister David Cameron hosted an international anti-corruption conference in London at which President Maithripala Sirisena was an invitee.

I attended that conference at Lancaster House and was surprised to find how strenuously some of the territories that are well-known for their offshore dealings and where the corrupt and launderers hide their wealth, defended themselves.

What was more surprising was Sri Lanka’s statement to the conference. In the opening para it said: “Sri Lanka commits to drive out corruption in all sectors. It would work towards making the Public Service corruption-free at all levels.”

Then point 2 of what seemed like its action plan the statement pledged “we will not tolerate impunity within our jurisdiction and will cooperate with international partners to battle corruption wherever it exists.”

Alas as our recent history has shown it is a battle lost before it even started. Those who were to face indictments on corruption, abuse of state assets, frauds etc have all had their cases dropped.

Today it seems that those who wish to buy a pod of garlic first hears a litany of protests about garlic scams in a state institution, perhaps to add a new flavour to the curry.

Some might recall that the finance minister in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition government, Ravi Karunanayake at the time of the Panama Papers said eloquently how he would track down those Sri Lankans named in that exposé.

He was quoted as saying Colombo would investigate “each and every Sri Lankan whose names were likely to come up when the Panama Papers are publicly available.”

The media also cited him as accusing the earlier government of failing to look into 46 Sri Lankans whose names came up in a 2013 probe known as the “Offshore Leaks” by the same International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), responsible for the Panama Papers and the Pandora Papers.

“Our panel will look into names that will come up in the Panama Papers as well as those already named in the Offshore Leaks,” Karunanayake was quoted as saying.

So what happened to that panel and its findings? Was it nailed to the front door of the finance ministry? Or were those named prove more powerful than the government as our rice ‘mafia’ appears to have displayed?

Talking of panels, South African President Thabo Mbeki who headed the African Union’s panel on illicit financial flows named the Seychelles as the fourth most mentioned tax haven in the Panama Papers. Sri Lanka does have a presence there, doesn’t it?

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy
Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)


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