21st September 1997

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The healer is sick?

Spotlighting the plunder and pillage of public resources by previous UNP regimes, the People’s Alliance had proclaimed in its manifesto that it would crack down on corruption while restoring openness and transparency, especially in contracts and business dealings.

For this purpose, the PA took a first step quite fast and in keeping with the manifesto, a permanent commission with wide powers was appointed to tackle bribery and corruption.

One of the biggest and most expensive if not dirtiest jokes in Sri Lanka is that if we want to sweep something under a carpet and take public attention away from it, the most effective way is to appoint a committee or a commission.

Tragically, it seems that the vital job of investigating, exposing and rooting out corrupt elements or bribe-takers has fallen into the ever-expanding areas where much was promised but little has been produced.

For the past few weeks, especially those who expected decency and transparency in public dealings, have been disturbed by the goings on at the Bribery and Corruption Commission.

Among other things, people with vested or personal interest are alleged to have leaked or planted stories against officers who were widely known to have maintained the high degree of integrity and honesty.

Last Friday, the Bribery Commission’s Deputy Director General Vijaya Hettiarachchi — counting some 15 years of sincere and straightforward work without hidden agendas — threw in the towel in apparent dismay over what’s going on. The crisis may turn into a catastrophe, if and when Director General Nelum Gamage also resigns amidst stories she is being fixed by those who don’t like her face or those who want her place.

While Mr. Hettiarachchi’s resignation has raised major questions regarding the credibility of the government’s anti-corruption drive, the orchestrated move to get Ms. Gamage also out through pressure tactics makes us wonder whether there is a place in the administration today for good and honest public servants.

Using the imagery of the electric bell, that a petty someone installed on Ms.. Gamage’s table during her absence, we must also ask a fearful question whether they have decided on something like setting a thief to catch a thief.

The Permanent Commission against bribery and corruption was set up more than two and a half years ago with much fanfare and hope that the era of the UNP’s admitted corruption had ended and that the robbery of the people’s wealth would be stopped and exposed. But how many have so far been indicted on charges of corruption? None. Does it mean there is no corruption in the country?

With little or nothing to show, it would also be interesting to work out the expenses of maintaining a high-powered commission with a big staff and various facilities in comparison to the relatively less expensive Bribery Department that functioned earlier. If nothing was done then nothing is done now. It’s only a little more expensive.

In a separate but related development, The Sunday Times investigative team has had access to some files obtained in the raid on one of the country’s largest import-export firms.

In the Stassen’s case the Customs Department has acted courageously and seems to be determined to pursue the investigations with more than 40 incriminating files that it has obtained.

The Sunday Times investigation on page 6 shows the full extent of the alleged goings- on for several years. If the government is sincere in its fight against corruption, we today call upon and challenge it to allow the Customs to do their work and the law to take its course while ensuring the independence that was expected of the Permanent Commission on bribery and corruption.

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