Many years ago I remember Ranil Wickremesinghe used to be called Mr Clean. I don’t know whether that sobriquet is still being used or he has earned another appellation. But if Sri Lanka is to shed its badly tarnished image that some people and organisations are intent on parading before the world particularly as a [...]


‘Mr Clean’ needs to clean up the Augean stables


Many years ago I remember Ranil Wickremesinghe used to be called Mr Clean.

I don’t know whether that sobriquet is still being used or he has earned another appellation. But if Sri Lanka is to shed its badly tarnished image that some people and organisations are intent on parading before the world particularly as a corrupt country whose national motto is “give and take”, then a clean-up from top to bottom of our institutions and those who represent them is long overdue.

Right now President Wickremesinghe has some two and a half years to do so and it is a tough ask because politics and the public service are so tainted with accusations of graft that some have been stamped with the appellation of “Mr 10 percent”.

That, of course, was long before our rate of inflation was aiming to penetrate the stratosphere, so to say, and our foreign earnings were mistakenly called “reserves” when it should have been called something more appropriate like beggar’s bowl.

If state administrators and economists insist on addressing this as reserves, then one must perforce ask the vital question into whose pockets some of it went for there certainly is little or nothing left in the kitty.

So before the world that we have turned to in desperation to rescue us from the follies of politicians and the administrators they have corrupted with the lure for filthy lucre, start asking pertinent questions such as what are you doing about cleaning up the Augean stables, the best the government (if that is what we have) could do is to start doing so itself.

Naturally one cannot ask “Mr 10 Percent” (if there is such a person) to clamp down on corruption and insist on transparency and accountability being strictly observed. Then the job should be done by “Mr Clean”, living up to the sobriquet that has been pasted on his chest.

Consider one recent example. Last week the Colombo Fort Magistrate ordered the Fort Police to hand over immediately the Rs 17.8 million that protesters found at the President’s House on July 9 and gave to the police asking that it be handed over to Court.

Yet on July 28, the Magistrate had to ask the police what happened to the money and why it had not been handed over to Court. Why indeed! At this writing, the money was still with the police. Maybe the bundles will soon make their way to the Magistrate’s Court.

A story circulating at the time was that a senior police officer had not wanted the money to be handed over to Court. If that is true why did he not want it done? Was it useful for other purposes people are prone to ask?

Such questions need answers because things do happen at police stations and disappear from such places without ever being traced.

If the police are so lackadaisical about a large sum of money, which was assiduously counted and accounted for by the Aralagalists who asked it be handed over to the Court, and could behave as the Fort police have done, could the citizens rely on the police to act responsibly and observe due process in matters that concern civil rights and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms?

President Wickremesinghe might well remember that when he was prime minister in the Yahapalana government his UNP colleague and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya initiated the drafting of a Code of Conduct for MPs. Although there were shortcomings in it–possibly to win the support of the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led opposition–it included provisions that would regulate the behaviour of MPs.

Copies of the draft were given to MPs to peruse over the long National New Year holidays. Whether MPs read it or not (and if so how many did), one does not know. But whatever the code did to try and instil in them conduct becoming of parliamentarians, did not seem to have penetrated beyond the epidermis. Fisticuffs broke out in the chamber and even the Holy Bible was weaponised by some MPs to throw at others or across the chamber, followed by airborne copies of the Constitution among other missiles like chilli powder.

If provisions of the code on personal conduct are so visibly broken and carried to the homes of Sri Lankan people and the world outside (UK’s Channel 4 showed it) by televised proceedings and mobile phone cameras which easily identified those acting like thugs and hooligans, would provisions that call on MPs to declare “information relating to their business relationships and financial interests including information of close family members, in order to increase public trust in Members” only seem like a huge joke perpetrated on the masses.

I remember when the code was first drafted and was in the public domain my asking who are “close family members” and how is that defined? What after all is closeness for it is easy to deny that a person is ‘close’ and therefore not include them in the declaration. A family tress could have a shady side

All MPs are expected to declare their assets and liabilities. But do they do so? How many who are MPs today have declared their assets and faithfully do so on time?

Having parliament administrators handle this task just will not do. There must be an independent Ethics Committee with sufficient powers to inquire into the conduct of recalcitrant MPs and those who think that critical provisions could be ignored or violated with little or no consequences. The results of inquiries must produce meaningful consequences not just slaps on the back of their wrists.

What is more, this code applies only to ministers and MPs. What of members of provincial and local councils where some brazen activities take place? Are those to be allowed to continue with impunity?

I remember when attending the Commonwealth Press Union Conference in Colombo, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister at the time, said they were working towards a Right to Information (RTI) Law. Its gestation took many years until he returned as PM in 2015.

He also initiated the removal of the Criminal Defamation law and helped push through the 19th amendment to the Constitution.

Now is the time to clean up bribery and corruption in the country which everybody and their second cousins know only too well, is rife. From the political establishment and their business cronies corruption has seeped down to he lowest levels of public administration.

One reason is that ministers and MPs recruit their relatives and close friends to their personal staff. This opens the doors to all sorts of shenanigans some of which do come to light now and then. Naturally not every minister or MP is caught up in this situation.

Such activities make the public increasingly cynical about the conduct–or rather the misconduct–of some of our legislators over the years, their abuse and misuse of power, alleged corruption, use of national assets for personal gain and the use of position to fatten their kith and kin.

Unless the country is truly cleansed and each arm of the state is made transparent in the way it functions and held accountable for its actions, not all the help from the outside world will help transform society from what it is today.

Without chasing after an individual or two for entering the President’s House or secretariat in a public display of toughness, surely it would be far more meaningful to deal with the bribe givers and bribe takers and hold them accountable for their wealth and other assets.

We do not have to wait for Panama Papers or Pandora Papers which anyway seems fruitless inquiries.

Having lived in Hong Kong for several years I remember how its Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) actually functioned independently instead by name and did catch the crooks irrespective of how high in office they were.

Sri Lanka could well do with a body like that which some time back arrested and charged Hong Kong’s recently retired Chief Executive (equivalent of Governor) of corruption and receiving gifts.

That would be a good legacy for Ranil Wickremesinghe now that he has reached the top.

(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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