The Coordinating Secretary to the President, Attorney-at-Law Shiral Lakthilaka, in an interview with Ceylon Today spoke of two pressing issues – the need to prosecute cases of corruption with more vigour and to go for a national government with a ‘win-win’ situation. The country now has the latter, but now the question is whether a government with the same old faces would be as interested in pursuing the corruption of the past.
Following are the excerpts of the interview:
Q: : The Prime Minister (PM) in a special statement to Parliament on the 17, reprimanded the media organizations, which had called for the resignation of the Central Bank Governor, Arjuna Mahendran. In a country where media freedom is to be promoted, is it wrong for newspapers to call for the resignation of a public official who is facing allegations of fraud? This statement seems to mean that though the government promotes media freedom, it only comes to play when the media is attacking the Opposition and not the government? I ask you this because you too have been a strong supporter of media freedom.
A : Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka media freedom is always discussed and portrayed according to the political context. It is not something abstract.
When it comes to the statement by the PM in Parliament, my personal opinion is that it is unbecoming of the PM to refer to me in such a personal manner on that particular issue. If you look at the background to this remark, I am a member of the Anti-Corruption Front; we were the first to expose this Central Bank bond issue. There, we said there is insider dealing in relation to the issuing of bonds and this should be inquired into. We never said A or B is the culprit. We just said that there is enough information to suspect a financial scam. Then, the President who was in England, from there, ordered to set up an inquiry board. We were happy with that, as the government was very swift in taking action and thereafter we found that the PM, making use of the President’s directive appointed a three member committee. When you look at the composition of the committee, one media institution asked me of the ability and credibility of this committee to go into this inquiry. What I said to them was that, first of all they are all lawyers appointed by the United National Party (UNP). Now this scandal happened at the Central Bank, so there should be a governmental inquiry not a civil or UNP inquiry board. This is a State related issue. That was my first opinion. Second opinion was that, I said when you look at the lawyers, on the face of it, two of the lawyers in this committee have a background in criminal law. I said this with respect to their ability to handle such a case, as these lawyers do not have the background to handle this kind of complex financial scandal. Even I, with 22 years of civil practice, am not in a position to go into the sensitive issues of this case. That is all I said. It seems to me that the PM was highly embarrassed by this incident but it has nothing to do with us. We as citizens, though I am holding a responsible post under the Presidential system, aired our view. So he need not remark like this, it is unbecoming and unwarranted, to compare my background with that of the lawyers.
Secondly, the remark he made about me was stated under the Privileges of Parliament. If it was said outside, I had a right to challenge it and that too is unbecoming. If he wants to hurl critical remarks at a person, he should come forward as any other citizen and do that. Because what he said in Parliament was utter falsehood. First, he was referring to some kind of remand case. But the whole country knows who made allegations against me. That is directly connected to the Sirikotha (UNP Headquarters) attack and I have several affidavits by his present Cabinet Ministers to say that we have nothing to do with these attacks. It was a cooked up story and we were remanded and once this case is over we will know how to clear our name. Therefore he cannot say that my credibility is low, compared to whoever is on the inquiry board.
Q : So are you saying that the PM is making this personal, given your history with the UNP?
A: Yes, definitely.
Q : You remarked that the lawyers have a background in criminal law and might not be able to understand the issue. The PM made a similar statement with regard to Parliamentarians when he said that he would not appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee as MPs have no knowledge of bonds?
A: It is the same argument. If politicians cannot understand, lawyers with different disciplines also cannot understand the fine issues of these transactions.
Q : You said this should be a State investigation and not a UNP one, but is not a committee appointed by the PM, a State investigation?
A: Yes, he has a right to appoint a committee. But when it comes to principles of natural justice, the basic principle is, you should not conduct your case when you are a party to the allegation and you should not be the arbitrator of that same case. We know very well that the PM appointed the Central Bank Governor in haste and he showed a tremendous interest in it. At that time he (Mahendran) was not even a Sri Lankan citizen. Then UNP Chairman, Malik Samaraweera is also allegedly connected with this issue. The Bank of Ceylon Chairman is also allegedly connected. So in that case, this is a home and home affair. In that context it is better not to appoint someone from the closer circuits of the UNP but to appoint someone with a professional background affiliated to the State.
Q : Some may point out that you are making all these allegations because you too have a bone to pick with the UNP?
A: No, that is not the case. We formed the Anti-Corruption Front and started going after various scandals of the previous regime. This is a matter of our credibility and we have to show that we are balanced and impartial. In that case, when there is a straightforward case before us, how can we keep quiet? If we keep quiet, what would be the credibility of our movement?
Q : The Anti-Corruption Front was formed soon after the new government came into power. Why did you decide to form such an organization, did you lose faith in the ability of the Commission to Investigate into Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) and other State institutions to tackle corruption?
A: There are many reasons. In the present context in Sri Lanka, it is very difficult for an ordinary citizen to come forward and lodge a complaint before a State institution. Therefore we came forward to offer a facilitator role between the State institutions and the citizens: to take the complaint, verify it and then forward it. Secondly, we know in the context of the Sri Lankan political culture, a lot of citizens fear to take bold action. Therefore, we are there as a movement to take over the risk factor involved. Thirdly, we thought that this kind of movement is needed to change this whole pattern of corrupt political and administrative practices. These motivations led us to form this movement.
But this is not the first time; we have always been fighting against corruption, earlier we were called ‘Corruption Watch’. We were the people who filed the case against ‘hedging,’ we did a lot of things in 2009, so this group has a past.
Q : To date (25) the new government has been in power for 76 days, how has the progress been? Have they taken your verified complaints seriously? Are you satisfied with the response received?
A: So far we have made more than 30 substantial complaints to the CIABOC. We also made several complaints to the Criminal Investigation Department and the Income Tax Department. I can give you a mixed answer, yes and no.
Satisfied, compared to the previous regime. Now the mechanism and process has been started, somebody is inquiring into it and statements are being taken down. But with regard to the speediness of the progress, we are not satisfied. We are also not satisfied in the way the Terms of References were formulated to go after these scandals. Some of the scandals or irregularities are very technical. If you look at the ways in which corruption happens, there are several kinds of corruption: you have financial, management, technical, conflict of interest and waste of money. These things cannot be unearthed in a lackadaisical manner. You need the political will and a strong legal regime. Thus far, we have not seen the government coming up with a strong legal regime; though the 100 day programme has stated that it would formulate special laws to deal with this kind of situations. Therefore we are a bit frustrated but we have not lost hope.
Q : But this government came with a lot of political will to tackle corruption, so why is the legal framework not forthcoming?
A: That is the problem. The case of Avant Garde is a classic case of what is wrong here.
In the Avant Garde issue, it is a multifaceted fraud. It has violated international law regimes, local law, and has made certain individuals unjustly rich. There are so many ways of looking at this case. But unfortunately, Minister Lakshman Kiriella said in Parliament that this was a ‘legal project’. The former Defence Secretary also said this. This is not the case.
M.V. Mahanuwara violated Sri Lankan laws as well as international maritime regulations. In Sri Lanka if you want to carry or hold weapons, the Firearms Act regulates the whole procedure. Under the Firearms Act, nobody can hold firearms.
The International Maritime Agency (IMA) however using international custom to deal with the issue of piracy allowed certain countries to apply to maintain floating armouries. At the same time, it said, the armouries must hold that country’s flagship status. Our Firearms Act does not provide space for such a thing. In that case, it should be the Navy and not Avant Garde. But what did they do? Mahanuwara belonged to the Sri Lanka Shipping Company Ltd. Avant Garde charted it from this company therefore it is Sri Lankan property. In order to carry weapons, they obtained the Mongolian flagship. They cannot do that, it is a blatant violation of international as well as Sri Lankan law.
They also had two other floating ships in the Middle East. Those ships are carrying Sri Lankan flagship status, they cannot do that. Once again this is a violation of Sri Lankan law and you are conning the IMA. This shows the gravity of the situation. Then Avant Garde with the help of Rakna Lanka has issued inducer certificates: a permit to transport arms on a ship. So when you allow third parties to purchase and carry arms, it opens the Pandora’s Box for illegal and illicit arms trade.
Then the Sri Lankan Navy was contracted to manufacture 60 odd naval boats for Nigeria, Avant Garde was the middleman for that. This case is very complex but the Sri Lankan Government says all this is proper.
Q : When this case first came out, there was a lot of interest in prosecuting the case and investigations were launched but all that seems to have died down now?
A: That is because of the conflict of interest within the system. We know what various MPs said and how very very important persons intervened and try to suppress the whole issue. These are what we call ‘deals’.
Q :Garde is one of the biggest floating armouries in the world. There are also reports of Britain wanting to work with Avant Garde because of the legitimacy they had derived with their close association with the Sri Lankan Government. But how is it that no one in Sri Lanka knew of Avant Garde and its operations? How did such a huge operation function below our radar?
A: The problem is that all these deals are hidden. They have also declined to show their assets. The Anti-Corruption Front assumes their annual turnover to be around US$ 900 million, whereas Kiriella says they have paid US$ 235 million as tax, which is peanuts. That is why I said we are frustrated about the way things are going on.
Q: What are the loopholes in our system which let them get away with it?
A: If you look at the International Convention on Corruption, there are certain new offenses which they talk about. There are two ways of dealing with fraud; one is dealing under the Penal Code and the second is under the CIABOC. Both these legal regimes are not enough to tackle these modern type frauds.
Avant Garde is an example of this. These archaic laws cannot deal with it that is why you need to reform the law to suit modern crimes.
When the President appointed a commission to inquire about these issues, I think Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka put forward a Cabinet memorandum with a new set of Terms of References (ToR). Thus far we do not know if they were accepted or not. If those ToR’s are accepted, that is enough to tackle this issue. Confusion here is due to the politicians being in two minds.
Q: They don’t want to tackle this issue?
A: There are various technical and political issues against it.
Q: Do you think that corruption today has become a societal problem in Sri Lanka?
A: Yes. In the last two to three weeks, we have got around 1,700 complaints. When we analysed them, we see they are both big and small. As you said, this is a human problem, so you need structural changes, process related changes and attitudinal changes. Within the next couple of weeks we are going to start an ‘attitudinal change’ programme and as a slogan we want to say that by 2020, we want a society with ‘zero tolerance’ for corruption. That is needed.
If you look at our culture, our culture tolerates corruption. Our culture thinks that if you are not corrupt, you are not a talented guy. Even in a small way, if you try to follow the normal system to get something done, your wife or husband would say you are a fool. This is the attitude of our society.
We are trying to do that, starting with an educational programme. This is a day to day issue.
Q: There has been a deadlock in the issue of electoral reforms. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has now requested 50/50 First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) and Proportional Representation (PR). How will the government act on this issue?
A: When you look at the promises made by the President in the manifesto, there are three salient promises. One is to remove Executive Presidential powers, second is to do away with the 18th Amendment and bring back the 17th Amendment, and the third is Electoral Reforms.
We are now talking of a new political culture, but if you don’t do away with the existing PR system, you cannot think of a new political culture. Once you spend so much money on an election, then you must deal with the black market. Secondly we have given a promise, not all things in the 100 day programme are as important as these three. So we have to keep to it. Whatever said and done by the JVP, they were not involved in this programme. They were in the periphery, giving indirect support, but we were the people who put our necks out, for this whole thing. So we want to see that electoral reforms are done and a new system is introduced into the Constitution.
On the issue of weightage, different parties may have their own opinions we don’t have a problem with that. That is why political parties must come together and do their ‘horse- deal’, whether it is 60/40, 70/30 or 50/50, we don’t mind. But we want a new system.
Q : Your manifesto also promised that the Parliament would be dissolved by 23 April, so do you have time to accomplish all this by that time?
A: No, this is what we are saying. The President also said that 23 April is not a hard and fast rule, what is important is delivering on substantial promises. If we can do the necessary changes before 23, well and good, if not let us do it within a reasonable time framework and then go for elections. Both are important but what is important right now is delivering on the promises.
Q: The new government also promotes the concept of a National Government, but right now we see the Government speaking in many voices, and everyone is confused with what is going on. In such a circumstance, do you think a National Government is a good idea?
A: I am firm believer the National Government, because nobody understands the nature of this in the current context. None have had this kind of experience. A candidate from another party gets the support of the grassroots of the main party of the Opposition and several other parties and becomes the country’s Executive. This in itself is a national situation.
I think we need a pre-election National Government and a post-election National Government; two things. The pre-election National Government will go on until the election, you cannot continue with this for long. This pre-election National Government will give the two thirds majority needed to pass the constitutional reforms in Parliament. The Supreme Court may at times say you need a referendum too. In that context, if you let the political context play out in terms of power politics, we cannot achieve the desired goals. Therefore, you need some kind of national politics. It is obvious that this present government is a minority government you can’t bring in these constitutional changes without the assistance of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), so you need a national understanding.
Q: Do you have hope that this will happen?
A: Yes I have. The President is committed to it.
Q: You think he will be able to change everyone’s mindset?
A: Well look at the way he has changed the people so far? Who ever thought that the President will be made Chairman of the SLFP, or the United People’s Freedom Alliance? Things are happening which many never did not imagine. That is the nature of a win-win situation
BY Zahrah Imtiaz/ CT