By Jehan Perera –
The government’s handling of the Central Bank bond issue has generated a wave of public opinion that is critical of it. Even those who voted for the government and count themselves as government supporters have been placed in a situation of consternation. High among the reasons many of them cast their votes against the former government was its corruption. They expected that the new government would speedily deal with those who had been guilty of corruption. But the manner in which government members have been handling the Central Bank bond issue and their reluctance to have a transparent probe into it, has led to a feeling among government supporters of being left with no political champions of good governance any more.
In a recent interview President Maithripala Sirisena has explained his outburst against some of the key state institutions which have been vested with the power to investigate corruption. Earlier he had accused the Bribery and Corruption Commission and the Financial Crimes Investigation Department and Criminal Investigation Departments of the police of conducting politically motivated probes and doing so without keeping him informed. The activist former Director General of the Commission to investigate bribery and corruption Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe resigned following President Sirisena’s public criticisms. The problem to the president appears to have been the order of priority of the state investigation bodies in taking on cases.
The president noted that the FCID was created to investigate and take action on large scale corruption and fraud. He also observed that relatively less important cases were being taken on by the other state investigative bodies. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the summoning of the president’s own deputy in the Ministry of National Reconciliation, State Minister Fowzie for having allegedly misused a vehicle during his tenure in the former government. The main feature of the current government and its greatest strength is that it is an alliance of the two main political parties in the country. This makes it a powerful force as it can muster a 2/3 majority in Parliament. But there is one important condition to fulfill. The two party leaderships must always decide together. It appears this did not happen and as a result priorities went awry.
The President also reminded the people of his commitments and how he had kept them. He did what few other leaders in history had done. After winning the hard fought presidential election, he fought another battle to reduce the power of the presidency he had just won. He negotiated with those of his own party who were now in the opposition and who had got used to an almighty presidency and wanted to keep it that way for their own benefit. However, the president ensured that the SLFP members voted for the 19th Amendment that reduced the powers of the presidency and transferred those powers to the eight independent state institutions that covered the judiciary, police and public service among others. Therefore the genuine commitment of the president cannot be disputed, even though he continues to be under heavy pressure to look after his own and his party’s interests.
In his interview the president also said that it was up to the members of the state investigative agencies to do their jobs without political interference. He said, “The officials should know how to do that. I do not select the cases. It is the responsibility of those officials in the respective institutions to investigate cases regarding what people expect action to be taken”. However, showing political commitment and the determination to protect the public service who are doing their duty is not the same as political interference. The problem is that Sri Lankan society, and the state machinery in particular, got disoriented from practices of good governance in the past decades. Especially after the end of the war the country began to head towards a kind of elected monarchy in which reverence for the monarch was combined with terror of his machinery. There were video songs of the monarch together with the use of emergency laws during the previous decades that set the stage for impunity for politicians to violate the rule of law with abandon.
At the present time the independent commissions and other state institutions are not sufficiently strong enough, and not built on sufficiently strong foundations, to take up the challenge of good governance on their own. The members of state institutions vested with the powers of investigation of massive crimes may feel intimidated, as their foundations are still on shifting sands, and they are unsure of what the future will bring. It may even bring back those they are currently investigating for massive crimes. Therefore it is not reasonable to expect them to take up the challenge by themselves. They need support from other powerful sections including civil society, the religious leaders, the international community, and most importantly the political leaders who are vested with government power and are still committed to good governance.
The same problem applies to the other great challenge the government faces. If the issue of corruption is the most important unaddressed political issue in the Sinhalese majority parts of the country, the issue of the unresolved ethnic conflict is of similar magnitude in the Tamil and Muslim majority parts of the country. In the Northern and Eastern provinces where most of the three decade long war was fought the people are disillusioned at the slow pace of change. Whether it is with regard to missing persons, indefinitely detained persons, return of land and military presence, there has been some progress, but much too slow to impress the people with the government’s commitment. In addition, the newly emerging issue of Buddhist statues and places of worship coming up in areas where there are hardly any Sinhalese is sending warning alarms to them that the past is likely to recur.
A significant reason for the slow change is the resistance from those who have enjoyed power in the past, whether it be military or civilian, and who see value in it continuing. The government has passed legislation regarding an Office of Missing Persons (OMP), but it is still only on paper, and it appears that little if nothing has been done to operationalise it. With regard to the OMP there is a reasonable hope that it will come to fruition if only for the reason that it is a part of Sri Lanka’s commitment to the international community. The international community and international human rights organizations are monitoring and reviewing the post-war transition process and reporting on it. It is important that a similar monitoring and reviewing mechanism should be put in place for the corruption issue and also for constitutional reforms relating to the ethnic conflict.
Many in civil society, the academic community and the international community see the present period as the best in which to resolve the ethnic conflict in a sustainable manner. Even members of the Joint Opposition, who often take up nationalist positions which are seen as communalist, have said that they wish to cooperate with the constitutional reform process so that it will yield a long lasting solution. The country has the good fortune of being led jointly by two leaders who are not communal minded. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in particular has shown himself to be committed to a just solution to ethnic minority grievances and he has not permit electoral considerations to side track him from his core convictions in that regard. The government leaders need to find a way to make the two parts of the government work together. The President and Prime Minister in particular will have to thrash out any disagreements at the outset, and work together to fight for reforms.