By Lukman Harees –
‘The misfortune of a republic…happens when the people are gained by bribery and corruption: in this case they grow indifferent to public affairs, and avarice becomes their predominant passion’ – The Enlightenment philosopher Baron de Montesquieu
It was in the news that President Sirisena attending the Anti-Corruption Summit in UK reiterated : ‘We were elected to office on the policy platform of democracy, good governance and rule of law. Therefore, we consider our prime duty to root out of corruption from the country. We have already taken significant measures for this purpose’. Quite a good assertion indeed! But have this lofty rhetoric transformed itself into actionable plans and walking the talk? Sadly not (fast enough), which leads the people who voted for the change of government to ponder: Is this ruling coalition decked in Yahapalana clothing, another case of mere old wine in new bottles?
True there are apparent signs of this government’s willingness to open up, be transparent and close some gaps in fighting corruption. But despite the change of the government, many of the ‘shady’ characters who were identified with political abuse and corruption in the last regime are still being seen within influential circles of this government too. The people of Sri Lanka, voted for a clear and structural change and not for a mere cosmetic one. They yearned for access to justice and transparent institutions, and the elimination of the corruption and bribery that makes their lives far harder and far more expensive. It is therefore the duty of this Yahapalana government to eliminate political and institutional corruption and to create a society founded on justice, fairness and the rule of law. The people count on this government to take bold decisions and act decisively to strengthen the fight against corruption and bribery without being on the defensive saying that it is better than the previous one in comparison.
Few weeks ago, General Sarath Fonseka gave a piece of the political ego embedded inside the psyche of a Sri Lankan Minister in current times, during an interview with a prominent TV. He sought to justify the absurd amounts being spent on the vehicle he demanded by stating that they (meaning other ruling politicians too specially the Ministers) needed sufficient comfort to serve the people whom they represent. It was comical for 2 reasons; firstly, he was not even elected; but came through that ‘wild’ footpath –the national list, and secondly the absurd reasons he gave for adopting such luxurious lifestyles when compared with the simple lifestyles of some political giants of the yester-year such as W. Dahanayake. However, views expressed by him obviously may not have surprised many as the present corrupt political culture tolerates ,encourages and even have attracted the worse amongst us, rather than the best amongst us to indulge in politics to further their family fortunes. Perhaps, the bystander ‘indifferent’ mentality of the ‘nice’ Sri Lankan people has consciously or unconsciously led to this growing process of political degeneration in our Paradise Isle.
To put things in perspective, there was a recent appeal for funds to purchase a much needed PET SCAN machine costing over SLRS. 200MN for the Cancer Hospital, which dream could have been easily made into a reality, if only some politicos ( not all) decided to forgo some of their perks. It is a pity that health and educational budgets are being slashed while these so-called ‘servants of the people’ are being given an open cheque to build actual castles in the air and allowed to earn for generations through shady corrupt deals. The recent ‘Panama papers’ revealed how this ‘so- called’ democracy and fiscal laws have become mere covers for those at the top to become richer and hide their ill-gotten incomes while the poor are being allowed to become poorer. The inequality gap has been getting wider since WWII in most countries including Sri Lanka, and has been mind-boggling and disgusting to say the least.
It’s true that the “good old days” weren’t always good, but it is not rocket science to realize that those days were head and shoulders better than nowadays in a myriad of ways. The political degeneration being witnessed today is undoubtedly symptomatic and representative of the societal degeneration. Same corrupt characters with changed tunes to suit the new expectations, many serious charges against MR and his family being still left in limbo and in fact MR been allegedly afforded paid trips to attend functions aboard, among many charges of nepotism of the top rungs in government are already denting the credibility of this Yahapalana clique. Therefore, it is not surprising that many citizens groups such as Citizen’s Front and Anti-Corruption Fronts ,which supported Maithri to defeat MR are in a state of utter disappointment and even dissociating themselves from that revolution in 2015. Aren’t the big dreams of that great visionary Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero whom our nation lost many months ago, in shambles now?
The right to a society free of corruption is inherently a basic human right because the right to life, dignity, equality and other important human rights and values depend significantly upon this right. That is, it is a right without which these essential rights lose their meaning, let alone be realised. As a fundamental right, the right to a corruption-free society cannot be discarded easily “even for the good of the greatest number, even for the greatest good of all”. It may be argued that the right to a corruption-free society originates and flows from the right of a people to exercise permanent sovereignty over their natural resources and wealth, that is, their right to economic self-determination, recognised in the common article of the ICPR and the ICESCR. Hence it may be argued that the state is in violation of the right to economic self-determination if it transfers in a corrupt manner the ownership of national wealth to select power-holders who happen to be influential in a society at a particular point of time. This violation by the state also results in a situation where people are denied individually and collectively their right to use freely, exploit and dispose of their national wealth in a manner that advances their development.
Although the people of Sri Lanka cried itself hoarse about the persistent evil effects of corruption and talked about it and voted against it, yet it flourishes with impunity in many apparent and non-apparent forms. The electorate seems to rest after giving the mandate until the next election. The need of the hour is to bring about a change in our political morality and society’s sense of values. We need to ensure that certain basic values like integrity and honesty are inculcated in our education system itself. What is more unfortunate today is the growing tolerance and our acceptance of corruption as an inevitable and integral part of the civil society. Unless an alert and active citizenry adopts zero-tolerance to corruption and shuns the corrupt, it may not be possible to meet the challenge with any amount of sincerity—remedy, therefore, to a large extent, lies with us—the bystanders.
This appalling situation therefore calls for active public participation and civic activism. The adoption of laws that do not protect the legitimate interests of society gradually occurs when citizens are passive, ignorant of their reality, and only limit their participation to voting, for democracy is more than casting a ballot. The society must establish ties, take action and become an agent of change. Institutions degenerate and countries decline when their economic and political backwardness and disparities hinder the welfare and prosperity of their people, when institutions become burdens, and authoritarianism stifles innovation and limits the freedom of individuals. As past experiences repeatedly remind us, politicians will not adopt important transparent measures, only futile gestures, unless they are forced to do so by an informed and participatory society.
They say, ‘without civic virtue, “no theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea”. Thus, continuous public activism is a must for any effective clean political hierarchy in a vibrant democracy to function. It is however difficult to maintain a high level of activism at the individual level in addition to other major commitments, especially a conventional job and a family. One of the challenging tasks for social movements will therefore be to develop campaigns that allow many people to participate, not just those able to drop all other commitments. Further, there should be awareness building campaign among the general public too to ensure only those with a clean track record will be elected not just to the Parliament, but to all other bodies too.
It is true that it will be the duty of the government to fight this menace of corruption first by giving the law machinery sufficient teeth through meaningful constitutional provisions, laws, and regulations. However, there should be effective enforcement machinery supported by an alert civil society to get rid of this social menace, as it is foolhardy to fully rely on governmental intervention alone to fight corruption. Civil Society activism is required to make law making transparent and to identify culprits and force the hand of government to take effective action against corruption and corrupt elements.
Further, it has been argued that the struggle to promote human rights and the campaign against corruption share a great deal of common ground. A corrupt government that rejects both transparency and accountability is not likely to respect human rights. Therefore, the campaign to contain corruption and the movement to protect and promote human rights are not disparate processes. They are inextricably linked and interdependent and both the elimination of corruption and the strengthening of human rights require a strong integrity system. The earlier both the State and the public understands their mutual role in realizing this goal of a corruption-free society to the greater good of our nation, the better.