By Jehan Perera –
The new government is coming in for a lot of criticism on the grounds of inaction with regard to issues of high level corruption and abuse of power under the old government. At the presidential election one of the main issues raised by those who sought the defeat of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the acts of corruption alleged to have been committed by members of the former government. There were photographs of allegedly ill gotten properties, some of it being wheeled into aircraft. There were figures given of infrastructure costs that had been allegedly inflated several times over. There were cases of political and even criminal killings that were laid on the door of the former government.
However, nearly two months after the change of government there has been no high profile arrest of former government leaders who were alleged to be responsible for these crimes. This is causing misgivings amongst those who voted for a change of government. There is concern that the new government is proceeding too slowly on matters of past abuse of power and corruption. This is seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the government or even worse as an indication that members of the new government have been bought over by corruption themselves. This can have the consequence of demoralising those who voted for a change of president in the hope that this would lead to a country in which corruption would no longer be mainstreamed or even tolerated.
The media conference called by Minister of Public Order John Amaratunga to explain the current situation was undoubtedly in response to the public criticism being made of government inaction. The Minister used this occasion to publicly rebuke the police for failing to act on high profile cases. The government’s position since it took over the reins of office has been that its promise of good governance has meant that it can only proceed slowly paying due regard to issues of proper process. The collection of evidence that meets the legal standard of proof can be time consuming, especially in cases where the tracks have been covered and evidence has been destroyed. Good governance also means permitting those institutions vested with powers of investigation to do their job without political interference.
The problem with the government’s approach to corruption and abuse of power is that it a technical one. The public service, including the police, have been politicised over the past four decades. Therefore they find it difficult to act without political leadership. Public servants fear that if they appear to act on their own, even in following the proper procedures they will find that the political leadership will either override their decisions or else not stand by them in case there is a problem. Therefore, even if the public service is to act within the proper procedures they would need to be shown political leadership. The more passion and commitment there is in the political leadership the easier it will be for the public service, including the police, to take action.
*The government needs to give confidence to the people as to how it proposes to meet the challenges of coping with the past and the war crimes and human rights violations that are alleged to have taken place. Photo – T. Thurairajasingham, whose nom de guerre was Colonel Ramesh, after being shot with a high calibre weapon on 22 May 2009, is burned on a pyre. A Sri Lankan army soldier poses for a ‘trophy’ photo, an image that forms part of the chain of custody.
In tackling controversial issues, there is also the need to enlist the support of the media and civil society groups who have access to the general population and have the capacity to create awareness amongst them as to the need for certain actions. All problems have two or more sides to them, which is why they are problems. When people are unsure about what they should support, the question of political leadership can be decisive. This is an area in which the former government excelled. They used the media to maximum advantage to get their messages across. The members of the former government spoke with passion and showed the people that they were convinced that they were right and would pursue the actions they had promised to do.
It is not only on the issues of corruption and abuse of power that the government is losing ground. It is also leaving a vacuum open with regard to the UN investigation on war crimes and the longer term status of its report. There is considerable disquiet amongst the large number of people who voted for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is likely to be one of the targets in an international war crimes probe. While the former government chose to ignore international sentiment on this issue, it failed to propose an alternative. The present government is promising to have a national response as an alternative to an international one. The government needs to have a champion who will take up the issue of reconciliation and an inquiry into the past and the alleged human rights violations and war crimes that occurred during the last phase of the war.
The visit of a top level South African delegation to Sri Lanka to conduct talks with their Sri Lankan counterparts on a number of issues is one of the positive outcomes of the former government’s foreign policy which gave a new emphasis to the African continent. The former government had a Look Africa policy in which it sought new friends to stand by it in international forums. However, the policy of the former government of not engaging with the Western led international community on the issue of war crimes only led to a worsening of the situation. Now the election of the new government has given the country a breathing space to prepare for the UN inquiry report which is due in September. The invitation to the South Africans to conduct a workshop on reconciliation with Sri Lankan counterparts is an indication that the new government is thinking of finding a way forward on the issue with their assistance.
It is important that the government should use the time and space it has received from the international community to win the confidence of the Sri Lankan people. The government needs to give confidence to the people as to how it proposes to meet the challenges of coping with the past and the war crimes and human rights violations that are alleged to have taken place. The government has to avoid the two extremes of punishment as advocated by Tamil groups and burying the past as has been the practice of the governments of the past. Any democratically elected government has to take the majority of the population along with it. At the same time it has to ensure international standards are met if it is to maintain its credibility with the international community.
There is much to learn from the South African experience in this regard. Prior to dealing with the issues of the past, the South African government actively promoted the widespread discussion by the general public on the issue of dealing with the past and preparing for the future. It was only after a lengthy period of public discussion and submissions were received from the people that the draft law pertaining to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was published. Civil society and media groups were given the task of conducting dialogues and educational activities in order to help people understand the issues at stake. Leading members of the South African government took part in this educational process. As in the case of corruption and abuse of power, the Sri Lankan government needs its own champions to take forward the cause of reconciliation.