By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
“The current Minister of Finance, Mangala Samaraweera, has to give a public explanation citing causes for the decision to remove the Director of Customs so suddenly. People demand that.”
The ancient Greel philosopher Diogenes, lived in a tub and would walk the night with a lamp to find an honest man. His search came a cropper.
Poltical experience all over the world would give this bit of advice to citizens of countries: The human being is full of the selfish gene. Read Richard Dawkins, famous evolutionary biologist and atheist, and he will explain this. The individual human being will, typically, seek opportunities that can enrich himself or save him from parting with his illgotten assets. Politics is the art and science of power.
No society in the world can avoid politics for the simple reason that any society needs an elite who will take decisons on behalf of the community. On the other hand, power gives its holder a leverage, which he will use, if unchecked, to his advantage.
Politician’s Greater Proclivity to Corruption
Have you and I in Sri Lanka, leave alone those in foreign countries, not learnt about man’s proclivity to to corruption and the politician’s greater penchant for that? We had the family caucus-led Rajapaksas almost of all them having had to face court. Now, we see in the government that was set up to catch them nothing being done that can effectively do the catching. Cases taken up are dismissed for want of proper framing by the Attorney General’s Department. Rakapaksa Minister Johnston fernando’s case is an illustration. Special High Courts were were set up too late and they are struggling with the neglected backlog. Cases are getting postponed one by one and my guess is that this will be the situation until the next elections.
The President himself went on record with charges of trying to harbour the Navy high-up who had been accused of shelving the kidnapping and murder of 11 innocent kids taken in for ransom. Some Ministers of this government and the President, again, is charged with protecting the Avant Garde corruption case. The President is also reported as having tried to cover up Gota. In this way, every case is under a cloud. People who voted the yahapalanaya government are frustrated. The latter are now between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea.
This government did much at least to ensure an impartial and strong judiciary protected by an independent (all party -represented) Independent Constitutional Council. President Sirisena has been, time and again, reported as trying to put his favourites into the courts but the Council has repudiated all attempts. As long as this system continues, we won’t have the likes of Mohan Pieris on board. This very high institution on which depends the sovereignty of the people and the protection of the individual against the arbitrary exercise of power by the executive, is now looking good and it is earning the respect of the populace.
Sacked Ms Charles, Director of Customs
On the other hand, one can observe even in this government the growing influence of powerful Ministers who are prone to corruption. Minister Ravi Karunanayake’s performance over Aloysius’s penthouse has received wide publicity. Yet, he has returned to cabinet with a powerful portfolio. A big and ugly cloud is gathering over the recent dismissal of Ms Charles, Director of Customs. Ms Charles, in a public videoed statement, alleges that she went to follow the rules and got into trouble. She also alleges that Minister Mangala Samaraweera had scolded her in filth when she went to defend her decision.
The result is that the trade unions are on strike indefinitely. It is hard to believe that this is an irresponsible strike as individual customs officials are being deprived of extra income in the way of big rewards, by keeping away from work. It is alleged that Minister Ravi Karunanayake has been involved here, too. The current Minister of Finance, Mangala Samaraweera, has to give a public explanation citing causes for the decision to remove the Director of Customs so suddenly. People demand that. This government’s credibility will take a hard hit if no acceptable public explanation is rendered. We want to know the truth. Was it because the Director was conducting investigations into the import of 200 BMW cars duty-free? The customs is a favourite ground of politicians who want to make money. Big stakes are involved here.
I am not referring to the much-hyped Bond case as that case has not yet been adjudicated by the Court. I hate pre-judgments. However, the record of the yahapalanaya government is increasingly getting soiled.
What of the JVP? This party has a very clever leader in Anura Kumar Dissanayake who does his homework before he opens his mouth-the reverse of Vasu. Anura is brilliant and he is eloquent. He means well and he does impress. The UNP sorely misses a man of Anura’s talent and gusto. The problem of the JVP, however, is that it has no policy framework ready to bring the corrupt before the law. They are merely telling us that the Rajapksas were corrupt, the UNP is corrupt and that only the individual JVP leaders have no record of corruption. “Therefore,” the JVP urges, “vote us into government.”
Now, there are several flaws in this kind of rhetoric. Firstly, it depends on th theory of the honest man that we referred to at the beginning and such theory or assumption isn’t factual as human beings will tend to be corrupt given power. The prize is what will matter. Secondly, the fact is that the JVP had not been in power to prove that their members have been free of corruption. Without power, how come corruption? The possession of extraordinary power as in politics is the precondition for dishonesty and abuse. Our corrupt behaviour, like all other behaviours, is conditioned.
The Proposed System Changes
This brings me to the issue of setting up systems that can help keep the corrupt away. It isn’t so much the individual but the system that can avert or minimise corruption. This is the lesson the JVP can learn. I have three proposals for systems change here:
First, set up a Permanent Corruption Commission that is ongoing. We have this in Australia. This must be an independent commission on the same model of the Constitutional Council, referred to above. Unlike the Constitutional Council, however, this commission must be quasi judicial and be brought under the judicial system. No body can influence it-not even the President or the Prime Minister. Give this body supreme powers to investigate and to punish.
The Sri Lankan experience has shown that people cannot trust a single politician who would be prone to avoid corruption. Our President Maitripala Sirisena’s famous sword hasn’t worked even for himself as is evident from the kidnapping episode referred to above. Mahinda Rajapaksa never even in public speaking ever condemned corruption; he, rather, preferred to run his government by franchising corruption among his supporters. CBK was useless. JR had been financially above board but he ignored the corruption of some of his Ministers. Wijetunge did not exercise his power and wasn’t impressed in deals.
My second proposal is to formally set up legislation encouraging whistleblowers among the public or even among even those within institutions. Let the latter spy on each other. Whistle blowers aren’t afraid to expose fraud where they see that. They can have a hotline to the Corruption Commission and the law must give them security after a case comes up. Above all, they must be well rewarded. The establishment of this institution of whistleblowers can go a long way to deter fraud. Those in authority will avoid brazen theft.
Finally, it is super-relatively important that, if we are to be a relatively corruption-free country, the institution of the Executive President must go immediately. It is unhealthy to have one man holding so much power and being immune from law. He will not be deterred to intervene and interfere with any government agency thus destroying the sacred management principle of separation of powers. The Sri Lankan experience was that Parliament was decimated, the independent arms of government were decimated and even the judiciary had been decimated -all in order to keep up the President’s ego and authority. The Sri Lankan culture, particularly, is still imbued with the feudal mentality where the President had been looked upon as king. “Apata Rajek Oneh,” (“we want a King”) was the refrain among many in our population.
Every incumbent is tempted to enjoy the glory of pandering to that wish. Post 19th Amendment – President Maitripala Sirisena suffers from perennial depression and inferiority complex of not “really,” being a king like his predecessor. Much of his aberrant behaviour stems from this complex.