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14th March 1999

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Mirror Magazine

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Mirror Magazine

Point of View

The cloak is not transparent

Of Presidential Commissions and presidential transparency

By Dr. Vinoth Ramachandra

Yet another Presidential Commission has been appointed, this time to report on the Wayamba polls violence. Since the present government came to power, numerous commissions and task forces have been set up and given their recommendations. Large sums of tax-payers' money are invested in these commissions. The people who sit on them are usually responsible, professional folk who do their work with diligence. As a citizen, I would like to know: which of the recommendations, made by any commission or task force, have been implemented in the past four years?

For instance, several months have passed since newspapers announced (on their front pages) that the Presidential Task Force on Tobacco & Alcohol Abuse had urged a total ban on tobacco and alcohol advertising in the nation's media. The Attorney-General's Department still seems to be sitting on the necessary legislation. Why? Has the President and her ministers been bought over by the Tobacco and Alcohol lobby? Such rumours are rife, and unless the President openly explains the delay to the public, the credibility of this government will continue to be suspect. As citizens we have a right to an answer; and the more your readers demand answers to such questions the more likely that Sri Lanka will become a democratic society one day. Ever since the East Asian economic "bubble" burst we have had numerous public seminars on the need for good governance, especially transparency and public accountability. Moral issues, long banished from political and business discussions, have belatedly been recognized as central to the creation of a stable and prosperous society. Yet the PA government, which came to power promising an end to the political style of the UNP era, has embittered so many of its supporters by the apparent duplicity and corruption of its senior ministers. A cloak of secrecy has enveloped many of their dealings. This secrecy is, I suggest, more destructive of democracy than the continuing censorships of news reporting from the north and east.

Creating a democracy is more than a matter of having elections one every few years.

It is a matter of creating a culture of transparency, where decisions which affect our lives are discussed and debated among as wide a cross-section of people as possible. For instance, a controversial bill introducing deep-seated changes in the Postal Services is about to be brought before parliament.

Why does the minister responsible for this bill not explain the raison d'etre on television and invite the postal unions and others to debate with him the issues in front of us all? There are, after all, legitimate fears: for example, that those citizens living in remote areas will be suddenly robbed of postal services once profit becomes the over-riding concern in a privatized service.

Should not these fears be publicly addressed? Why not put such controversial issues to a referendum, after all views have been sought and aired in the mass media? Once again, the absence of public transparency only fuels distrust in government.

It deepens our suspicion that corruption and dishonesty in Sri Lankan society begin at the very top. Nothing is more destructive of public morale and social order.

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