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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Corruption as a tool of Rajapaksa rule

(Tisaranee Gunasekara)  In October this year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka used his constitutional powers to grant a special pardon to a politician convicted of misusing public funds. The Appeal Court and the Supreme Court had upheld the conviction of Kesara Senanayake, a former mayor of Kandy. Rajapaksa’s timely pardon saved him from a year in prison and made him a free man.

This November, a bipartisan parliamentary committee accused a state entity, controlled by Presidential sibling minister Basil Rajapaksa, of massive financial malpractices. Last year, environmentalists accused the then air force commander of building an eight-roomed luxury house on a Unesco heritage site. Instead of being prosecuted for breaking the law, Air Marshall Roshan Gunatillake received a promotion, as the Chief of Defence Staff; he also got to keep his illegally constructed house.

Former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, who became transformed from Rajapaksa-ally to Rajapaksa-foe within six months of winning the Eelam War, was found guilty by a military court of financial misappropriation, stripped of his rank, honours and pension and sentenced to a 30-month imprisonment. There was no presidential pardon for him.

These incidents are symbolic and symbiotic of a new Lankan reality. Under Rajapaksa rule, corruption has become systemic. It is ensconced at the core of the Lankan state as an indispensable tool of governance, a way to reward allies and punish enemies, a method of strengthening familial rule and promoting dynastic succession.

The Rajapaksa brothers, President Mahinda, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya and economic development minister Basil, occupy the commanding heights of the Lankan state. Blatant tolerance of official corruption is a key characteristic of this Rajapaksa-controlled state. Though corruption, including in very high places, is not alien to Sri Lanka, the current, openly blasé attitude is rather unprecedented. This attitudinal-shift has created a permissive atmosphere, in which official corruption, freed of the stigma and empowered by impunity, is flourishing.

In 2007, the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) contracted hedging deals with five foreign banks. A ministerial sub-committee subsequently revealed that that the contracts were seriously flawed and if enforced would lose the CPC around US$800 million. The CPC chairman who made and defended the deal, Ashantha De Mel, is a Rajapaksa family connection. No legal action was taken against him even though the Supreme Court voided the deal as illegal, and blamed the government for appointing “an unqualified person who had not even passed the GCE Advanced Level examination to a responsible position like the CPC chairmanship”.

The Rajapaksa-tolerance of corruption, by their own, is encouraging opposition politicians to switch sides in order to evade legal action for financial (and other) misdeeds. Milinda Moragoda was a senior minister in the 2001-2004 UNP administration. In 2009, the Supreme Court accused him of acting in a manner “flawed and marred by various improprieties” when privatising the state-owned insurance giant, Sri Lanka Insurance. Despite this damning pronouncement, no legal action was taken against Moragoda. By then he had switched sides and become a minister in the Rajapaksa regime.

In its latest findings, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) accuses Maga Neguma (Improving Roads), a state-funded entity under control of Basil Rajapaksa, of defaulting road-contractors of “a massive Rs 1.2 billion”. The defrauded contractors have not sought legal redress because they fear Rajapaksa’s ire, according to a COPE member: “We learnt that some of these contractors have paid huge commissions to certain politicians. They are unable to speak against this injustice openly. If they speak, they will be harassed in various ways…”, he told a newspaper.

The officials of Maga Neguma act as if they are above the law. They do not submit their accounts to the Auditor General; according to a COPE member, “they even produced letters from the Attorney General’s department to support their argument that the COPE has no powers to probe them”. Such arrogant insouciance is natural in a familial state. Lankan officials, like Lankan politicians, know that they can break laws and contravene rules with impunity, so long as they do not commit the cardinal sin of opposing the Rajapaksas.

The 17th Amendment to the Constitution set up seven independent commissions to promote good governance. The independent Bribery Commission so born was the entity which investigated the actions of former Mayor Senanayake (who visited Singapore with his wife, using municipal funds granted to him to attend a workshop in Taiwan). By the time the convicted Senanayake got his presidential pardon, the Bribery Commission that enabled his successful prosecution had lost its independence. The Rajapaksa-introduced 18th Amendment turned independent commissions into presidential appendages by empowering the president to hire and fire their members at will.

The 18th Amendment also placed the Elections Commissioner (and the inspector-general of police) under presidential control. The Elections Commissioner was disempowered from acting to prevent the misuse of state resources by government-politicians during election times. As the deputy elections commissioner explained, “With the passage of the 18th Amendment, the commissioner no longer had constitutional powers to appoint a competent authority to ensure balanced media coverage”. The 18th Amendment has thus rendered corrupt electoral practices partially legal, making it easier for the Rajapaksas to win elections.

Under Rajapaksa Rule, Sri Lanka is a state-in-transition from a flawed democracy into a One-Family State. Creating a new legality is an essential component of this transformation. This includes institutionalising and normalising corruption. In the emerging state, corruption is an instrument wielded with impunity by the Rajapaksas to enhance their power.

When rulers tolerate corruption and protect the corrupt, corruption, while remaining a crime in law, ceases being a crime in fact. As corruption flourishes in open sight and the corrupt get away scot-free, public perception of corruption too undergoes a radical transition. From a social-solecism corruption becomes a new norm. People begin to regard corruption as an esoteric issue which is of little relevance to them.

Such a public perception can become an insurmountable impediment to the creation of a mass movement against corruption, unless, and until, people realise that corruption impedes development and undermines their own living standards.

– The writer of this article is a senior political analyst based in Colombo. She declined to give her photograph for use.


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