By Jehan Perera –
A year ago a contractor whom I spoke to rejoiced that corruption was much reduced under the new government. He said that the minister in charge of his area of work had merely asked for a donation to be made to support a public institution. Though this donation had nothing to do with the contract, he was happy to oblige, as it was for a public cause and not for the minister’s personal pocket. When I met this same contractor last week he was a disillusioned man. He said that business was good, but that corruption had gone sky high, and there was no limit to what was now demanded. Although perhaps still less than it was under the previous government, corruption is on the rise and is likely to get worse unless government policy changes and there is the political will to implement it right from the top.
The victory of President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential elections of January 2015 was due to two main reasons. Most of those who switched their allegiance away from the former government did so on account of their rampant corruption and their getting away with whatever wrong they did. The ability of the former government leaders to champion the cause of Sinhalese nationalism was also high and remains so. It brought them electoral victory after victory. But at the presidential election, the issue of corruption trumped that of nationalism for a sufficient number of voters to give President Sirisena a narrow victory. Accompanying corruption was impunity, the fearlessness to break the law knowing no consequence would follow. The abduction, torture and near death of senior journalist Keith Noyahr in 20o8, which has led to recent arrests, was symptomatic of the impunity that once prevailed.
In the Tamil and Muslim-majority parts of the country, however, it was not corruption that was the main factor determining the popular vote. Rather it was impunity and sense of fear of state and non-state actors who might act lawlessly but against whom there could be no redress. This type of impunity no longer exists so that people of all walks of life, and all communities, feel safer and freer to express their views than they have in a long while. This gives both civil society and media groups the space to report on any abuse, which is the best safeguard against the past impunity and fear from returning to recapture the present. However, the people in general and the Tamil people in particular want something more. They want accountability for criminal acts during times of war and outside the theatre of war and for economic crimes.
Unfortunately, today there is a sense of disillusionment with the government. Its progress in delivering on the promises to be found in its election manifesto is much too slow. The exception is giving the people freedom from fear and the space to protest. However, the battle against corruption appears to be lost. Little or nothing is heard anymore about the work of the Bribery and Corruption Commission which under its former head, Dilrukshi Wickremasinghe, actively engaged with civil society and took on high publicity cases to investigate and to prosecute. She was willing to take risks and court danger. But she did not receive the bipartisan support from both parties in government that she needed to tackle those guilty of corruption on both sides. It was unfortunate that the appearance of partisanship was used to make her resign.
The battle for transitional justice with regard to the ethnic conflict is also going very slow. In October 2015, the government promised to the international community and to the Tamil people that it would set up four mechanisms to deal with issues of truth, missing persons, accountability and reparations. But so far it is only legislation with regard to missing persons that has been passed into law, but even here the Office of Missing Persons has yet to be established. After being in abeyance for nearly six months since the law was passed, it is now in the process of being amended. There are efforts to reduce the scope of the legislation due to pressures from the defence authorities who fear that this mechanism will be used to gather information that will one day be used against them in a court of law.
The problem with regard to the country taking a new direction is akin to putting old wine into new bottles. Little or nothing is changing. Those who held positions of responsibility in the past, when corruption and impunity prevailed, continue to hold high office in the present. This is true of the two main constituent parties of the government and also of the security forces. The vested interests that prefer the status quo are extremely powerful. The only thing new in the government is the bipartisan agreement that the UNP and SLFP have entered into which includes the formation of the National Unity Government. It is this new element that needs to be utilized in the national interest. It was this hitherto unprecedented coming together of the UNP and SLFP under the leaderships of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena that promised the dawn of a new era.
However, at the present time there are indications of a sharp deterioration in relations within the National Unity Government. The SLFP spokespersons in the government are openly expressing their unhappiness about the current arrangements and talking about reunifying with the dissident group headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The SLFP Media Spokesperson has reportedly said that the two factions of the SLFP in the government and the Joint Opposition headed by the former president would definitely get together at the forthcoming local government elections. He has also said that the two factions contested the last general election together even though the issues that divided them were much more than at present. He assured that an SLFP government would be established in 2020 and the first step for it was to win the forthcoming local government election.
Members of the SLFP have also made a new argument. They are claiming that the term of office of President Maithripala Sirisena is six years and not five years as mentioned in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Minister Faiszer Musthapha and State Minister Dilan Perera addressing a press conference at the SLFP headquarters said the term of office of President Sirisena was not curtailed by the 19th Amendment. “President Sirisena was elected before the 19th Amendment was passed. Therefore he is entitled to a term of six years” Minister Musthapha said. On these grounds, he said the next General Election would be held before the Presidential Election. The term of Parliament ends in 2020 and a General Election will have to be held first. If the usual political trajectory is followed it is very likely that the UNP and SLFP will go their own ways before too long. The members of both parties would wish to enjoy 100 percent of power and not share power. Each side would believe that it will be better off on its own without the support of the other.
President Sirisena becoming the joint opposition candidate and receiving the support of the UNP has led to the present and unique situation of a government of national unity. The bipartisan government depends for its continuation on the commitment of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and their continuation in the positions of power they now hold. When the country continues to be mired in corruption and potential ethnic conflict, it is better to have two parties at the helm than one, for one can check the other for the good of both. This is what is currently happening, but without the two of them working as closely together as they ought to. With former President Rajapaksa and his nationalist allies of the Joint Opposition waiting in the wings, it is only a renewed partnership between the two of them that can lead to solutions to the problems of corruption and impunity and to the resolution of the ethnic conflict.