By Jehan Perera –
Sri Lanka is at the threshold of its third transition within the space of a decade. The first took place in 2009 on the battlefields of the north when the LTTE was militarily defeated and the government regained control over the entirety of the country. The second transition took place in 2015 with the political defeat of the former government that won the war at the presidential and general elections that took place in the course of the year. The issue of Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake’s involvement in the Central Bank bond case and its potential fallout could be the third transition. The way that the polity, not just the government, tackles this issue could prove to have momentous consequences.
The public controversy that has engulfed Foreign Minister Karunanayake is an outcome of the process of transition launched by the leaders of the government, most notably President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and including former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, in 2015. During the presidential and parliamentary elections that took place that year they promised good governance and an end to impunity, where the Rule of Law prevailed over the Rule of Men. In concrete terms they promised that the culture of fear that gripped all sections of the population would be brought to an end. They also promised that the corruption that had reached massive proportions would be ended and transparency brought to governance.
To its lasting credit the government has delivered on the first, and most important of its promises. The culture of fear has receded if not ended. Without security of life there will be unwillingness to act or speak out. Today there is a willingness and ability on the part of the general population, let alone political activists, to voice their criticisms of the government and its leaders. The storm that now threatens the Foreign Minister could go beyond to others in the government. During the period of the last government there were scandals of massive proportions, such as the construction of white elephant projects that have created a long term foreign debt crisis for the country, and the purchase of foreign bonds from bankrupt countries. But fear kept most people silent from voicing their concerns and governmental impunity ensured that there were no independent investigations at all.
Foreign Minister Karunanayake’s daughter has written about this disparity and double standard on Facebook. She asks why her father has been singled out when there is such a large government. Today there are many pots calling the kettle black. But the challenge posed by the daughter is valid. The larger picture needs to be taken into consideration. It would not be good governance to make her father the “fall man” as she has put it. The problem of corruption is both widespread and deep rooted and needs to be dealt with in a systematic manner. Together with the most recent allegations, the corruption of the period that came before also needs to be investigated. Or else the process of investigating corruption runs the risk of becoming corrupt.
One of the government’s biggest failures so far has been its unwillingness to deliver on its election promise to tackle corruption. This has caused much heartburn amongst the general population. This corruption comes in many forms. It comes in the form of the multi million rupee super luxury vehicles that are routinely imported for government ministers. It comes in the form of the growing percentage that is siphoned off contracts to give to political decisionmakers. This percentage was believed to be extraordinarily high during the period of the last government. It is now believed that a similar situation exists under the present government. A contractor who told me in late 2015 that a big change had taken place and ministers did not demand their commission had a different story to tell when I met him a year later. Not only that contractor but most of those who do business will confirm the reality of corruption, though they may not wish to go public as they themselves will be incriminated for being part of the deal.
It is important that the government, and the polity as a whole, should utilize the present moment when the general public is focused on the corruption issue to regain its credibility and show deference to public opinion. Both public opinion and the independent institutions that the government created through the 19th Amendment to the constitution are at work at the present time to force the government’s hand. The Attorney General’s Department is investigating the Central Bank bond issue with a vigour that is unusual. This demonstrates the value of the 19th Amendment and of having government leaders who respect the Rule of Law and do not seek to impose the Rule of Men upon those whose duty is specified in their institutional mandates.
In tackling the problem of corruption a cue can be taken from the transitional justice process of dealing with the past and with the war time violations of human rights. The path that Sri Lanka is taking is one of restorative justice, where the emphasis is on healing of victims and of ensuring non-recurrence, rather than punitive justice where the emphasis is on meting out punishments. In addition, instead of an emphasis on the last phase of the war when the LTTE was defeated, the thinking seems to be that the period to be considered should include those that came before when the LTTE was on the ascendant. This would be like the fisherman throwing out his net and catching all the fish, and not using a fishing rod and catching just one or two big fish. All sides have done wrong in the past, and so the process needs to be inclusive and holistic if it is to obtain the people’s acceptance, as befits a democracy.
Shortly after the present government came to power in 2015, it launched investigations into a number of corruption scandals, and also heinous crimes such as the murder of Sri Lanka’s rugby captain Wasim Thajudeen. At the beginning the investigators made swift progress in obtaining the evidence necessary to prosecute those guilty of these crimes. But they now appear to be moving too slowly. This has led to the surmise that the investigations have been stalled on purpose for political reasons. One more than one occasion President Sirisena has lamented that the investigations into crimes committed by members of the former government are not being taken forward. The failure to take action against members of the former government who today lead the joint opposition weakens the president as it undermines his bid to gain full control over the SLFP.
At the celebrations in Parliament to mark the 40th anniversary of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s entry into parliamentary politics, the prime minister stressed the need to speed up the process of finding a political solution to the national question and the development of the economy. He said, “The two main factors we have to focus are on securing permanent peace and economic development and it is essential to speed up our effort to achieve these objectives,” and added that the two main parties should work together for this purpose. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe need to come up with an agreement to ensure that political rivalries, such as contesting the next elections as leaders of rival political parties, do not stand in their way when they tackle the issue of corruption also.