By Ranga Jayasuriya
The government on Tuesday (23td June) turned down an opposition request to table the report of the presidential commission, which probed allegations of corruption and irregularities in the procurement of high value military supplies for the security forces.
Chief Government Whip and Minister Dinesh Gunawardene told the House that the report of the presidential commission, which was appointed in 2006, could not be made public due to “national security concerns.”
The presidential commission which has now suddenly come under the spotlight was appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the wake of allegations of unbridled corruption and irregularities in the procurement of military supplies for the Sri Lankan military.
That was after the outgoing navy commander and chief of defence staff at the time, Admiral Daya Sandagiri was implicated in a series of crooked deals which involved the procurement of high value military hardware. Among the ones to blow the whistle against Admiral Sandagiri was his successor and the then commander of the navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda. That highlighted the gravity of the situation at the time. 10-4
The president responded, appointing a three member committee comprising Justice Shirani Tilekewardena (chair), Justice Nissanka Udalagama and Justice N.E. Dissanayake to probe allegations of corruption in procurement of “high value weapons, military equipment, material and services between 2001 and 2005.’’
Justice Nimal Gamini Ameratunga was appointed to another commission — one man this time — to investigate the procurement of military supplies to the Sri Lankan Navy. The probe centred on the controversial bid to purchase 20 year old, 30 mm naval guns from the British Navy, to install in the fleet of Dvora Fast Attack Craft of the SL Navy, passing off the guns under question as “brand new.”
Among the matters that the committee was supposed to probe were:
- Whether proper appraisal was made on the need to procure weapons, military equipment, materials and services, etc.
- Whether contract and/or agreements were entered into for the relevant procurement regarding Age and Condition of Product, Warranty, Training, Technical Services Support, After Sales Service, etc.
- Whether due to negligence and/or dereliction of duty and/or impropriety and/or bribery or corruption, loss or damage was caused to the Government and, if so, persons responsible for such loss or damage.
That the mandate of the two commissions was limited to the military purchases made during the period from 2001 to 2005, meant that another controversial military transaction escaped their scrutiny. That was the contentious deal of the purchase of four MIG 27 Ground Attack Craft from Ukraine through a third party – a little known company named Bellimissa Holdings Ltd – though the weapons deal was, officially, declared as a state to state transaction.
Swept under the carpet
During the corresponding period, the Supreme Court, in a separate ruling on a fundamental rights petition, ordered the government to suspend duties of Admiral Daya Sandagiri as the deputy defence secretary – the post to which he was appointed after his retirement from the navy. The Supreme Court noted that two commissions have been appointed to probe irregularities in procurement of defence supplies during the tenure of Admiral Sandagiri and that since the issue came under the purview of the Defence Ministry, it was inappropriate for Admiral Sandagiri to hold a high post in the Ministry of Defence.
However, now it appears that like many other presidential commission reports, the report of the presidential commission which was appointed to investigate allegations of corruption and irregularities in the procurement of high value weapons, military equipment, material and services between 2001 and 2005, has been swept under the carpet.
The commission submitted its report to the president on January 28, 2007. However, its findings and recommendations remained a secret. Last Tuesday, in parliament, Ajith Perera, UNP MP for Kalutara asked whether findings and the recommendations of the commission would be made public. That was the third time the UNP MP raised the same question – during the two earlier occasions, the Chief Government Whip asked for time to answer the question. This time around, Minister Dinesh Gunawardene admitted that the commission report had identified irregularities, but that they could not be made public due to security concerns.
MP Ajith Perera then asked whether the government would enlighten the House about the scope and the recommendations of the commission, to which the Chief Government Whip replied in the negative. MP Perera retorting said that parliament wields the power of the purse, meaning that all budgetary allocations should be approved by the legislature, and that, therefore, its members should have the right to know whether public funds had been misappropriated.
Minister Gunawardene replied that the members could, of course, raise questions, but the government could, equally, reserve the right to decline to answer.
MP Perera hit back saying that he was not asking for the disclosure of military secrets, but only that the government reveals the identity of “traitors” who embezzled public money.
Minister Gunawardene was equally rhetorical in response when he said that, he regretted that MP Perera didn’t know who betrayed the country.
The exchange of words thus ended with a joust about patriotism – which would have vindicated the 18th Century English author Samuel Johnson, who famously said that “patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel.”
Ajith Perera, MP told LAKBIMAnEWS that he was aware that the commission has presented findings which highlighted corruption and irregularities in procurement of military supplies, running into “several billions of rupees.”
Presidential Commissions in Sri Lanka have earned a reputation of being unproductive exercises due to the dismal record of successive governments to act upon the recommendations made by these commissions.
When contacted, Justice Nissanka Udalagama who was a member of the three member bench declined to comment on the content of the commission report. He said the commission obtained evidence in camera and that it was not opened to public, and hence it was inappropriate for him to comment on the contents of the report.
He said that the commission submitted its recommendations to the president “a long time ago.” Justice Udalagama has sat on several presidential commissions. Surely, that findings of many of such commissions were not made public and that their recommendations were not acted upon, have, in no uncertain terms, diminished the credibility of the very idea of presidential commissions.
Justice Udalagama says it is ‘regrettable.’ “We expected them (commission recommendations) to be acted upon,” he added. Further complicating the situation is the absence of a practical regime from which the public could obtain information about the government’s affairs.
A Right to Information Act is legislation that seeks to ensure the public’s right to know about data and information maintained by the government – of course with certain exceptions, such as sensitive information on national security.
In September last year when UNP deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya presented a Freedom of Information Bill to parliament as a private member’s motion, Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardene told the House that the ruling UPFA itself was in the process of formulating a Freedom of Information Bill of its own. Karu Jayasuriya withdrew his Private Member’s motion, paving the way for the government to present its own Freedom of information Act.
That was the last time that the government ranks so passionately spoke about the Freedom of Information Act. Though nothing is heard from the government’s side since then on the issue, it could safely be said that the government successfully fended off an opposition attempt to push through a Freedom of Information Act.
Currently, over 80 countries have some sort of legislation which ensures the right to information of its citizens. In 2008, the then caretaker government of Bangladesh passed a Freedom of Information Aact modelled after the Indian Right to Information Act of 2005, becoming the latest South Asian country to ensure the people’s right to know how their government conducts its business..
Sri Lanka’s exception in this regard should be an indicator on where it stands in the civilized world.