Colombo Telegraph

Hold Those Who Promised A Better Sri Lanka Accountable

By Lukman Harees

Lukman Harees

The ‘Good Governance’ Fad, The ‘Bandwagon Effect’ & The Need For Civic Activism

“Those in power need checks and restraints lest they come to identify the common good for their own tastes and desires, and their continuation in office as essential to the preservation of the nation.” – Justice William O Douglas

A bandwagon is a float or wagon in a parade that encourages people to jump aboard and enjoy the music that is being played. As a principle, the ‘Bandwagon Effect’ was used from the 19th century in political campaigns to link candidates with the notion of having fun and to paint those who are not ‘on the bandwagon’ as missing out. This is exactly what seemed to have happened in the latter part of 2014 in Sri Lanka, when people were thirsting for a decisive change in the political culture and yearned for a people friendly regime and a political leadership with integrity and maturity. People boarded a popular bandwagon, being treated to a timely and apt political catchphrase Yahapalanaya and resultantly voted out the corrupt and racist MR Regime in two elections ,despite his Churchillian styled feat in giving political leadership to defeat the barbaric Tigers few years ago. The Silent Revolution of 2015 was thus a milepost of this bandwagon journey.

The Maithri-Ranil camp used this catchphrase ‘Yahapalanaya’ or Good Governance (GG) to come to power,very wisely and appropriately, to lure the people ,who with or without realizing the gravity of their role, boarded this bandwagon. In fact, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake appeared upbeat at the very beginning when he declared that his government was not looking at just “minimising corruption but at eliminating it fully.” He echoed that “Corrupt officials will be severely dealt with irrespective of their political affiliation and status… We criticised the Rajapaksa regime while in the opposition and now it is our turn to practice what we preached.” There was widespread approval from the international community as well. President Obama praised President Maithri’s commitment and actions taken for strengthening of democracy and good governance in Sri Lanka. Foreign envoys based in Sri Lanka too hailed his ‘total commitment’ to Good Governance and his determination to strengthen democracy despite major obstacles. And since then, much water has flown under the bridge.

In fact, a government which came to power , building their success upon public frustration then existed ,arising from the misdeeds of the previous MR regime- “nepotism, cronyism, abuse of financial transactions and conducting government business as if it were a “family company”, will naturally be expected to uphold strong ethical standards in conducting its’ affairs in general. There cannot be double standards and it would be absurd for the present regime to claim that they are better than the MR Regime in terms of degree only, as all governments everywhere must be held accountable to the same principles of good governance. At the same time, it should also be borne in mind that as in every other human endeavour, GG cannot be a perfect ideal; Governance, good or bad will always be criticized by those pursuing different political ideologies.

The good news is that this catchphrase tends to be still alive and visible at least in the language of the political leaders, although it is doubtful how serious they are in spirit. PM Ranil Wickremesinghe speaking at the cremation of Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera, said that the greatest tribute that could be paid to him is to commit to bring about GG. President Maithri too appears to show his immense interest outwardly to make this concept work. However, time is of essence, as bandwagons often have limited lifetimes and eventually run out of steam. People will quickly abandon the ‘sinking ship’ if they see others leaving. Thus, it is pertinent to ask almost one year on since the fall of the MR Regime, to what extent were the drivers of this ‘Yahapalanaya’ concept, able to keep up this promise? Have the people who voted in this government to fulfil this all-important promise of GG , lost interest in the concept and already jumping out of …the bandwagon?. Is the credibility of those who said they will ‘walk the talk’, still intact?

The term Good Governance is an oft repeated and apparently much misused term. Good governance became a catchword in the 80s through 90s due to increasing policy significance conferred on this concept by the international donor community and to a certain extent academic research around the world, which have brought up various issues of corruption as a governance problem in many countries. According to the UNDP , “Good governance – addresses the allocation and management of resources to respond to collective problems; it is characterized by participation, transparency, accountability, rule of law, effectiveness and equity”. The Asian financial crisis in the 1990′s showed us quite clearly how dearly the governments, financial institutions and other corporate bodies had to pay for lack of good governance. The implementation of the principles of good governance in a country would be futile unless and until the principles of this ideology cascades to all units of the economy. In contrast to good governance, bad governance is being increasingly regarded as one of the root causes of all evil within societies.

To be fair, there have been many positive developments which we have been witnessing since this government came to power. One of the greatest changes experienced by the people and the Media has been the breath and feeling of a greater sense of relative freedom. Further, President himself gave an adorable lead in reducing his own powers and expenditure of his Secretariat significantly. What happened under the 19th Amendment was phenomenal indeed! Even PM too led by example in many aspects. Some ministers followed them too; so it seemed. Another important development was the notably visible improvement of the country’s international image and in respect of relationships with old friends, which led to unstinted support being pledged from all-round. Sri Lanka also signed up for many UN conventions too. Another noteworthy achievement was the cessation of the wave of racist and communalist politics ,which instilled fear and a sense of insecurity among the minorities and also sending a strong message to the hate groups that hate has no place in Sri Lanka. BBS, which even MR later called as a ‘Western Conspiracy’ felt abandoned for want of patrons in government. This was certainly a welcome move towards building up a conducive environment for harmony which culminated in throwing out all racist parties in both sides of the divide, at the elections in August. R. Sampanthan became the Opposition Leader by consensus too and JVP leader became the chief opposition whip.

But, all have not being going on well in the Paradise Isle in terms of peace, harmony and Governance issues. The sad development was that despite the concerted campaign launched by anti-corrupt activists including Ven Sobitha Thero, many electorates returned candidates with shady backgrounds and inefficient track records to power; some with huge majorities at August elections;Wimal W, Geetha K, and Muthetuwagama were examples, casting doubts of the efficacy of the process of democracy itself. Even many shady characters who were voted out of power were cunningly brought into Parliament through the National List route, thereby negating the very purpose of establishing that route; Hisbullah and SB came back to Parliament through that route despite massive protests by the people. Then again, the Maithri- Ranil government renegaded on their promises in the name of a ‘Unity’ government , to prune their cabinet size. They followed the example of the MR government by maintaining a top heavy cabinet. PM is also already on record as getting ready to increase the staff of every MP from 3 to 18.

In terms of the fight against corruption too, the government was found wanting. To begin with, our Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, quoted earlier in this article, had been facing court charges for alleged money laundering a few years ago, violating Sri Lanka’s Central bank regulations and the Exchange Control Act. Then, in February, the government was faced with another scandal – “biggest ever public financial fraud committed” in the country’s history by alleged blatant abuse of power by Arjuna Mahendran to help his son-in-law, Arjun Aloysius. Then again, what happened to the numerous serious charges of corruption levelled against the MR regime; state monies being squandered and pocketed by corrupt officials and misuse and abuse of public resources? These days, we witness many ‘staged dramas being enacted and also see various ‘guilty’ parties being dragged into the FCID from time to time including MR and his brothers Gota and Basil; some were jailed and later released. Still conclusive evidence of massive financial wrongdoings however, is yet to be provided. Further, some charges have also turned out to be either exaggerated or false.

Further, in a move which is pregnant with political possibilities, the government recently told the Court that it does not want to proceed with the “floating armoury” case in which Gotabaya Rajapaksa was involved. The termination of the case appears suspicious as anti-corruption activists allege that for political reasons, the present government is “going slow” in cases relating to the Rajapaksas. Why are several ministers and politicos whose names were implicated in this saga, still not been dealt with or not resigning on their own accord like how Marapana did? Wasim Thajudeen inquiry was another case in point where many grey areas still exist and getting dragged due to political pressure. Still the Tamils are disillusioned , still waiting for action regarding disappearances and LLRC recommndations while BBS are allowed to subtly rekindle their hate campaign targeting Muslims.

Well, obviously the government will need more time to put things in order but the way things are moving does not give the people much hope and confidence regarding the rulers’ full commitment to GG. Will GG go in the same way as the election promises of yesteryear? Truly , Sri Lanka cannot be found wanting, since Independence – Sinhala Only slogan of 1956, 20 promises of the 1965 UNP government, in this respect: Rice from the Moon promise of Sirimavo in 1971 and 1972 Constitution, JRJ’s Dharmishta Samajaya (Virtuous Society) promise and the disastrous 1978 Constitution ,

Mahinda Chinthanaya of MR and his rule and now the ‘Yahapalanaya’ from this regime. Earlier, promises turned out to be mere fantasies and their key performances have brought nothing but havoc to our people. We, the gullible, have been falling in style for these many attractive catchphrases /slogans and promises put forth by both major parties who have ruled Sri Lanka in turns in the past, and tolerating their misdeeds and corrupt deeds too. If we do not learn lessons from history, and fail to hold our rulers to account and display civic activism even now, our present lot too will take our inaction as approval and continue their age old tricks. We should form action groups irrespective of our party affiliations for this purpose. Citizen’s Front and Anti-Corruption Fronts are examples, but needs more organized action. Don’t we think that the subject of governance is too important to be left merely in hands of the politicians!

Peter Kloos in ‘Democracy, Civil War and the Demise of the Trias Politica in Sri Lanka’, attempts to understand how and why hopes and aspirations of the people of Sri Lanka at independence, became mere fantasies. The author queries, ‘‘So how does one explain the transformation from a promising democracy in the 1940s to the state of the present?’. After a detailed study of our political trends, he comments, ‘Far-reaching decisions regarding the political process are based on political expediency rather than on fundamental discussions of democratic rule’. This note aptly sums up the key reason for the pitiable situation faced by the people in the Paradise Isle and calls for more engaged civic activism even now, to at least make the spirit of the 2015 ‘Silent Revolution’ stay on and work as it should, by holding those who promised a better Sri Lanka, to account. We owe this to our progeny.

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