By W. Vishnu Gupta –
The World Bank states that “Political corruption occurs when an office-holder or other governmental employee acts in an official capacity for personal gain. Corruption is most common in kleptocracies, oligarchies, narco-states, and mafia states.”
In a kleptocracy, corrupt politicians and their henchmen enrich themselves secretly outside the rule of law or through kickbacks, bribes, and special favors, or they simply direct state funds to themselves and/or the benefits to their associates. Also, kleptocrats often export much of their profits to foreign nations in anticipation of losing power. The other general characteristics of kleptocracy includes that kleptocrats tend to rely on money laundering and they tend to secure their ill-gotten wealth in assets and investments within more secure stable foreign jurisdiction such as Singapore, Switzerland, or Liechtenstein.
The popular axiom “if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is a duck” leads us to be curious about what is going on in the Sri Lankan political arena. It is not a secret that the present government is dominated by members of one family, and they control overwhelming majority of the national wealth and assets through their cabinet portfolios. Moreover, the opposition accuses the government of introducing the 20th amendment to the constitution to facilitate and accommodate the wishes of the family members and friends. Similarly, they charge that government is attempting to legalize illegally acquired financial assets through manipulative measures sanctioned by the cohorts in the legislature. Under this backdrop, and having observed the economic, financial, and political affairs of the country for a long time, are we witnessing the emergence of a regime guided by kleptocracy in Sri Lanka? I hope sincerely our nation is not a kleptocracy, but it is incumbent upon the “elected” political leadership to prove to the world, that Sri Lanka is not a kleptocracy. It will be a major lapse of judgement to leave this task to the “national list” especially the novice parliamentarians. If the world bank asserts that corruption is common in kleptocracies among other undesirable detested forms of governments, it will be rather difficult to convince the community of nations, especially the democratic western nations that Sri Lanka is free from corruption.
The ruling party lead by SLPP cannot avoid the accusations and outcry of certain segments of the of the voters, mainly lead by leading civic rights protection organizations, the opposition, religious establishment and to some extent by the BASL about kleptocracy linked to corruption. Especially, the President, Prime Minister, newly installed Finance Minister, and the Cabinet of Ministers must be sensitive to the allegations of corruption and kleptocracy. Frequently it is alleged, as it was seen in the response made by leading critics of the government to the recent address of the President to the nation, alleged sugar, and cooking oil scandals. They have accused the government advisors of misleading the leadership. If true, it is easy to deuce that these political novices turned advisor honchos did understand little about the difference between kleptocracy and the instruments of a democratic nation. However, it should not be forgotten that rigged or imperfect democracies always pave the way to establish kleptocracies.
The Leaders of G7 countries have expressed recently that human rights and democracy have come “under siege” around the world. As a result, they expect those who stand up for human rights and against the authoritarian regimes may seek protection in the western democratic countries. Therefore, kleptocracies, especially bankrupt countries should think twice before taking undemocratic actions to suppress the opposition under the guise of Covid-19 pandemic control or other similar unpopular measures. Particularly, the FDI investors will be leery about entering into a kleptocracy or a nation control by highly corrupt politicians.
Lesson from Chanakya
A foreign visitor to the Chandragupta empire of India once visited Chanakya’s house in the evening. Chanakya was writing on his desk under the light of an oil lamp. He welcomed the visitor in and told him to wait until he finished his work. The visitor waited patiently until Chanakya finished writing.
After Chanakya finished writing, he extinguished the oil lamp, leaving the room in total darkness, and the visitor in fear. But after some time, the visitor was relieved to see another oil lamp lit, a different one, and being curious about this strange ritual, the visitor asked Chanakya what made him to change the lamp. Chanakya replied that the first oil lamp contained the oil given to him by the kingdom and is only used for official purposes. As soon as he was done with official work, he switched to his personal oil lamp – thereby saving oil that belonged to the kingdom.
We may argue that the quantity of that oil is not significant, but it is not about the oil, but the value of incorruptibility.
Chanakya set this standard many centuries ago to gauge the corrupt behaviour among those who appear before the citizens as politicians and civil servants. In our beloved nation Sri Lanka, the politicians not only take the “LAMP” after their term in the political office is over, but they expect to “OIL” the lamp until the death including that of their spouses at the expense of taxpayers. What a shame and travesty, they have conveniently rigged the constitution and the laws of the country to obtain many “LAMPS” and “OIL” to maintain their self-indulgent lifestyles while the citizens live in misery. What an irony, undoubtedly, they have ascended to power with the motives driven to reward themselves and their cohorts with unimaginable immoral ways and means of accumulating booty for their kith and kin to last for several generations.
The corrupt individuals under the oligarchies that existed since mid 1950s and purported kleptocracies who have lined their own pockets through embezzlement, with their greed clearly has caused untold damage to the citizens of Sri Lanka they exploit. The “proof is in the pudding”, one must look only at the wealth and affluence gained by parliamentarians, by cabinet of ministers plus their henchmen. Finally, the dismal status of country’s economy and the millions of citizens suffering in every corner of the country is the real proof. The farmers, teachers, fishermen, health-workers, and students have begun to agitate practically against every initiative launched by the present government. Let’s not make a mistake, it is not hundred or thousands, but millions of disenfranchised Sri Lankan mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters are crying for meaningful changes to the governance structure in Sri Lanka that must be free from oligarchies or kleptocracy.
Unfortunately, the traditional media houses, state and privately owned have always partnered with the oligarchies and kleptocracies and hence it will be difficult for them to evade the accusations made by the voters of the country. If the citizens believe that they were mislead by the politicians during the elections held in 2020 and 2019 and before, the media outlets were equally responsible for propagating falsehood. In a true democracy the media is accountable to the citizens of the country and not to any political party. The traditional Sri Lankan media outlets appear to have forgotten the above unwritten rule of decency and common sense, but they have never failed to trumpet and usher the oligarchies and kleptocracies into halls of power.
Finally, let us be reminded of a sutra from Buddhist schoolings about the actions of an individual. Vasala sutra (Outcast Sutra) tells us ‘Na Jachcha Vasalohoti, Najachcha Hoti Bhraahmano, Kamanna Vasalo hoti, Kammana Hoti Bhamanothi’ – A Person becomes an outcast or a brahmin by deed and not by birth – The extension of this sutra with a slight tweak is appropriate at this crucial period of Sri Lanka. The legislative, political, and executive actions of the present government will ultimately decide whether we are a nation of KLEPTOCRACY or NOT.