By Jehan Perera –
Public criticism of the government has been growing. The opposition’s criticism is to be expected. With general elections around the corner it is in the opposition’s interests to look for opportunities to find fault with the government. However, it is not only the opposition that is criticizing the government. There is public criticism even by those who supported the government to win the election that brought it to power. One of the major issues at the presidential election was that of corruption and abuse of power. This was the issue on which the unity of the former government split when the presidential elections were called.
Most of the criticism has been on account of the government’s failure to take action against those from the former government who stand accused of corruption and abuse of power during their term in office. Those alleged to be amongst the worst offenders continue to be free, along with all others, even though some of them have been taken in for police questioning. But now a new factor has entered to make the criticism more serious. The issue of insider trading in the sale of government bonds by the Central Bank at huge profit to the beneficiaries and at an equivalent loss to the government has damaged the government’s credibility. Ironically, it has also led to opposition politicians who are accused of corruption and abuse of power leading public protests against those implicated in the deal.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made a long statement in Parliament defending his choice of Governor of the Central Bank, and pointing out the greater misdeeds of the previous government. However, he has also ensured that the Governor goes on leave of absence while an investigation into the bonds issue takes place. The contrast with the way in which issues of corruption and abuse of power were dealt with under the former government is instructive. During the ten year period of the former government, and especially in its latter phase, the corruption scandals that were hinted and whispered about were legion. But there was no public outcry.
The Central Bank under the former Governor was widely criticized for adjusting figures and for making unusual payments to foreign advertising companies. But nothing happened and the previous Governor continued as if the dogs were barking but the caravan moved on. The lack of public outcry was because critics of the government were fearful of their safety. The officials and ministers of the previous government could continue doing what they did because there was impunity. This situation has changed dramatically since the presidential election.
The public outcry over the government bond issue and its repercussion on the government are indications of how much has changed since the government changed. The thrall of fear that silenced the public outcry against corruption and abuse of power in the former government no longer exists. People are no longer in fear of the government and the white vans that could make opponents of the government go missing. Although the new government may be unable to implement all the promises in its 100 days plan it has succeeded in changing the threat perception in society. It was not so long ago that even in Rotary Club meetings attended by high level business persons, participants made critical comments about what was transpiring in the economy and also said that they were concerned about being quoted.
The lifting of the thrall of fear is most evident in the North and East of the country where the return to normalcy is most pronounced. Participants at a workshop in Batticaloa over the weekend that brought together religious clergy from all faiths along with lay persons who formed inter-religious committees in the Batticaloa and Ampara districts and local level media persons who came to publicise their work, said that they felt no fear of attending as they had in the past. The organizers noted that they had a record participation at the workshop. They had invited 25 persons and all 25 attended. This was unlike in the past when it was difficult to obtain such participation.
When I asked the participants at the workshop what had brought them there, the response was that they wished to know more of what was happening in the country. There is a feeling among civil society in Batticaloa, and quite possibly elsewhere in the country, that they do not get all the news and information about developments in the centres of power that determine their lives. This indicates that the government has to try harder to fill in the lacuna and make it a point to keep the people informed about what it is planning to do and what it has done. It is not enough for the government to pass new laws and to make macro level policy decisions, and to expect civil society or the media to do educational work.
The government has pledged to set up effective systems to deal with the rot of corruption. Key to this would be to set up an independent public service, police and judiciary. They would underpin the workings of other institutions such as the Bribery Commission to take those who are accused of corruption to task. This new system will become a reality along with the passage of the 19th Amendment. Until then it is going to be difficult for the new government to take action against those who are accused of wrongdoings. Government members themselves have to constantly educate and create awareness amongst the people, including the people of the North and East, about what their government is doing. The government must take the people along with it on the journey to development and national reconciliation.
Prior to the change of government, an event such as the one in Batticaloa would have been subjected to multi-pronged security operations on the rationale that national security was more important than everything else. In the past there would have been plainclothes intelligence personnel sitting in uninvited, there would be others who would ask for the participants list and there might even be armed security personnel in full uniform coming in repeatedly to check on what was happening.
At the workshop in Batticaloa, the opinion expressed was that the government was no longer seen as an oppressive force, but rather in its traditional role as a problem solver that needed to do more to solve the people’s problems. It appears to be still the case that most people in Sri Lanka, whether in the North and East or rest of the country, still continue to see the government as the agency to develop the country and to ease the burdens of their lives. As the government cannot possibly do this by itself, there needs to be a greater devolution of power and strengthening of the provincial tier of government.
The freedom to live without fear, to meet without restrictions, and to speak without being subject to retaliation are the most basic of human rights and the foundations of good governance. If these foundational rights exist in society, good governance is bound to come sooner rather than later. The criticism of the government that came to power on a platform of good governance, but now is itself being found fault with for permitting corruption and abuse of power so early in its term is a sign that civil society is empowered. Corruption and abuse of power is deep rooted in society and in governmental structures. It will take time to root out. But the freedom for citizens to agitate without fear against those social and political ills now exists and the credit goes to the new government.