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Going after the corrupt, but will they ever be caught?

Image: Corruption us imbedded in the Sri Lanka political class and they protect each other!

By Neville Di Silva.

In a few days, the country’s hard-pressed populace will be munching their aluth avurudha KKK (kevun, kokis and kiributh), waiting for the new dawn promised by president Ranil Wickremesinghe celebrating his first traditional avurudha in office.

Admittedly, for the vast thousands who have suffered a disastrous few years which they are unlikely to forget in this existence though they would surely like to, this avurudha would seem a better prospect than those in the recent past.

So the burst of firecrackers and the beating of raban will be louder and people will trek in their thousands to the temples and kovils to pray to their respective deities for a better tomorrow — of peace, tranquillity, prosperity and good health with medicines available for themselves and their progeny.

And, of course, hoping for the fulfilment of the sheaf of promises made by the ‘new saviour’ as some of his political opponents in the Pohottuwa party now call him shamelessly, changing their previous tune deriding Wickremesinghe as the leader of an empty-seat party.

But with all good intentions, if a resplendent new dawn is to appear over the horizon, Sri Lanka must be seen as a clean, healthy and respected nation of good governance that could be trusted to honour its constitutional responsibilities and international obligations.

For that, it surely needs to be briskly and efficaciously sanitised of the bribery and corruption that has brought this country to rack and ruin while a few robbers lead unaccustomed luxurious lifestyles at the expense of the many.

Economists with their own theories and those borrowed from the more famous of their kind will offer numerous ways out of the recent crisis that still persists and argue their causes in the print and electronic media.

But such economic policies — some of which were expounded by those considered maestros in the science but were in fact masters in the art of misdirection — were which led us into this mess to begin with.

Over the years, the Sri Lankan people were the guinea pigs of power-grabbing politicians egged on by economic theorists and other self-appointed gurus of socio-economic advancement, when the real cause of the country’s decline was hidden behind a thin veneer of patriotism and ethno-nationalism.

The real reason, however much the guilty would try to conceal it, is the unbridled bribery and corruption that has been and continues to be, the curse of the country.

The truth is that no government has made any serious attempts to deal with this ever-spreading cancer. The answer is clear enough. If the Sri Lankan people are asked why this is so, one could say with certainty that the vast majority would point every finger at the governing class which has found that serving oneself more lucrative than trying to pretend to serve the nation .

Why so? Because, whatever the hue of the governing party, it covers up for the party of another hue which has been in power or is aspiring to form the next government. They have been interchanging their roles over the years that when it comes to dealing with bribery and corruption, the ruling principle is “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours and let the country bleed.”

One does not have to dig deep for evidence of this continuous cover-up. Ask oneself a very simple question. How many political leaders, ministers or those one step lower have been investigated, prosecuted and convicted of bribery and corruption and abuse of public office?

Some might well say that the fingers of one hand would be too many for this simple exercise in arithmetic. And they would be right. Even if one starts the count from independence 75 years ago.

A couple of weeks back, President Wickremesinghe told the media that very soon the government would table a new Anti-Corruption Bill. That is going to be the toughest piece of legislation to tackle corruption this side of the Himalayas or something akin to that.

The mounting opposition to the current administration’s other new legislation — the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) — has raised much public ire and criticism from other nations, human rights and internationally-respected legal organisations, that the intended Anti-Corruption law has been shrouded in obscurity despite its undoubted importance in trying to cleanse Sri Lanka’s Augean stables.

The Anti-Corruption law, which one expects will be presented to parliament after the avurudhu holidays, raises two critical questions.

Would such a bill have seen the light of day had it not been pushed so it would adorn our statute books, by the IMF as part of its agreement for the recently approved bailout?

Secondly, would such a separate law have been necessary if the anti-bribery laws already in existence in this country had been rigorously pursued in dealing with bribery and corruption without political and official interference and intervention that has killed many a possible prosecution and conviction?

Singing hallelujahs to IMF-pressured legislation would have been redundant if those mandated under the existing laws to investigate freely without interference by their seniors, had been allowed to perform their tasks.

Sri Lanka is soon to be blessed with the strongest laws to deal with bribery and corruption. Is it not worthy questioning how countries near and far from us but still in the Asian continent have been able to arrest, prosecute and convict their presidents, vice presidents, prime ministers (and their wives), ministers, senior officials and billionaire businessmen without the new laws which we will soon hang out to dry.

Had space permitted one would have listed the whole lot with their names, charges, convictions and their jail terms. Instead let me name some of the countries that have had no compunction in prosecuting their leaders and depositing them in more restrictive places of residence- jail.

Starting with the nearest neighbours- the Maldives, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea.

But what does Sri Lanka do? Why extortionists and abusers of power are made cabinet ministers and given a prominent position in government ranks in parliament.

Take parliament itself. Some loquacious MPs shout about parliamentary privileges and demand that Supreme Court judges who gave a verdict the MPs didn’t like be summoned before them. But the unanswered question is how many of these so-called law makers are law breakers?

How many of them have not submitted their declarations of assets and liabilities as required by law? If there are MPs who have not done so what has the Speaker done to ensure that they submit them. What has the parliament administrators who try to defend MPs at every point when information is called for by the public done to remind truant parliamentarians who thrive on public funds, of their legal obligations?

Still, one needs to ask a last question. It’s all good and high sounding with the application of the new law being overseen by IMF or UN officials. But would the investigations into allegations of corruption and bribery still be conducted by our own police or other law enforcement officials?

So are we not back to first base? Are we then not dependent on a police force in which the public has little or no faith to conduct investigations into bribery and corruption, into money laundering and the accumulation of undeclared wealth in Sri Lanka and abroad and how the kith and kin of politicians who have never seemed to have had a permanent job have substantial shares in hotels and other enterprises? If they have never been investigated and held accountable, WHY?

Now is the time to prove it is nation before self.

Sunday Times/09.04.2023

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