Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sri Lanka: Shadows of corruption in Good Governance!

The reasons for the President getting perturbed are clear. His time is running out fast, while the opposition is gathering steam and pushing forward faster than anticipated. Yet, the proposed solution, as announced at the media briefing by the government spokesman, is not one the people expected.

by Raja Wickramasinghe-
( July 11, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The President has now completed the halfway mark of his term in office and this offers an opportunity to the people, and to the government, to take stock of its achievements and failures of the past thirty months. Democracy, the rule of law, corruption, waste and politicisation of government institutes were prominent among the issues raised at the 2015 January Presidential Election. The main theme of the campaign was punishing those politicians and officials, who thrive on bribes, kickbacks, embezzlement and other forms of grand corruption. The people expected the government to fulfil their expectations as promised. This was the biggest challenge to the government.
Already the calls to account for the deficit between words and deeds have begun in earnest for the government. It may be possible to ignore them for a time, but they all come home to roost over the lifetime of the government. In this context, the President getting perturbed over the performance of some government agencies lagging behind in achieving results can be expected. It was last week that the cabinet of ministers chaired by the President discussed about institutions and agencies the government set up to achieve certain defined objectives, being inefficient and not working towards those set objectives. It was also reported that the President summoned the Directors and principle officials of the Sri Lankan Air Lines and reviewed its performance in the company of some Ministers, and was not satisfied over their achievements.
The reasons for the President getting perturbed are clear. His time is running out fast, while the opposition is gathering steam and pushing forward faster than anticipated. Yet, the proposed solution, as announced at the media briefing by the government spokesman, is not one the people expected. Taking over all the law enforcement agencies under the President, complete investigations within three months and put the related persons behind bars, would never be appreciated and accepted by the people who endeavoured to defeat such action in January 2015.
It is not the stature of the political authority at the helm of these institutions that matters most. These law enforcement agencies need resources, expert advice and assistance, an environment to work with freedom and independence to do their job without interference and fear. They need words of appreciation, encouragement and acknowledgement rather than threatening words to discourage them. They need to be elevated to higher positions in recognition of their good work, rather than drag them out of their job for doing it.
It was often found difficult forensically to pursue the hard trails of corrupt politicians, especially those with high placed friends, and corruption committed with overseas connections. To overcome such situations, the need of a highly trained, specialized corruption investigative and prosecuting staff is needed. They could expedite investigations, having provided all the resources, expertise and assistance of other government agencies to facilitate investigations within the country and also beyond its borders.
The civil society and anti-corruption activists in the country, during the last two and a half years, much before the President took it up last week, continuously criticized the government’s lax enforcement of its anti-corruption laws, delays in concluding investigations into complaints, and bringing the culprits before the law.
They asked the government to set up special courts to exclusively deal with cases of grand corruption involving VVIP politicians and high level public officials. It was justified to set up a special Anti-Corruption Tribunal in the country, to try and provide punishments to corrupt political leaders and those who feed off corrupt practices, and thus minimize the crimes of corruption countrywide. An anti-corruption tribunal with wide powers to try, and punish these politicians and public officials would help to reduce impunity and thus deter grand corruption. Nothing has happened thus far. However, allegations of serious corruption and wastage of people’s tax money, against politicians of the present government in power have started to surface, eroding the confidence the people reposed in the “Yahapalanaya”
An Anti-Corruption Tribunal would focus its energies and time on grand corruption, whether it refer either to past or the present regime or to this or the other party – the large scale theft or conversion of public money to private riches. It would not focus on insidious petty corruption as allegedly the inquiries are now focused on. Such a tribunal would be more concerned to prosecute those who preside over rampant corrupt practices and reward their families, friends and henchmen. This was the people’s expectation.
As for providing protection to criminals, the criminal justice system requires that people accused of crime be afforded certain rights and protections. We need to take these constitutional guarantees very seriously in spite of our personal frustrations, as we believe the criminal justice system is the arbiter of truth.
It is hard. The Bar for a criminal conviction is high. But the fact remains that the protection and rights afforded to the accused limits the prosecutor’s role. Such protection and rights are not afforded to the complainant. Under these circumstances, it is debatable whether this system provides a level playing field to the complainant? Nobody would be surprised in this truth seeking process, if the outcome did not match the truth the people desire, and are quite aware of. Yet, we need to keep our faith stronger in the system of investigation, prosecution and the judicial process. If a criminal is not convicted, that verdict does not mean that he did not commit that crime. What that means is that there was not enough evidence to convict the accused. There are always two trials going on, one in the courts of law, and the one in the court of public opinion. The verdicts can be strikingly different.
Sri Lankan airline, other government owned institutions that provide utilities such as electricity, petroleum, water etc. are mired in politics and empire-building does not appear to have changed much, to the dismay of the people who expected a change.
People are left to pay off ballooning debts with nothing to show for it but politically driven white elephants. In the face of bad planning and stubborn mismanagement the consumers are called upon to pay higher prices. Despite all this the blame game goes on and on, non-stop with the former blaming the present for privatizing and selling country’s assets. The present one is blaming his predecessor for robbing national wealth and enriching themselves and their kith and kin. Oh, God, when will this be stopped and the truth come out. Will that day ever dawn?
These institutions were set up by a more responsible generation of politicians then as a wise investment. After years of political meddling and economically dubious investments since then, attempts are being made as the only way to attract private capital, to hive off the bad debts these institutions currently carry, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill, as proposed in the case of Sri Lankan air line. This is one institution the new government was swift to appoint a committee of investigation to unearth previous management’s financial irregularities and mismanagement, and set in motion an efficient system of management and financial discipline. Alas, the new management is yet to take action on important recommendations of the committee. In the meantime, nothing has changed but the faces, the Sri Lankan Airline continues to burden taxpayers in billions of rupees incurring losses, and continuing unhindered to be mired in politics and empire building.