By Mohamed Harees –
‘There is no more dangerous menace to civilization than a government of incompetent, corrupt, or vile men’ ~ Ludwig von Mises
Memory is essential for survival. The brain stores all kinds of memories, like the way to ride a bike, what happened yesterday and even the meaning of the word ‘memory’. But memories are fragile and when the brain is damaged by an accident or an illness, memories can disappear along with the ability to remember. However, Ravi Karunanayake’s recent memory loss is symptomatic of a special type of syndrome (The first victim being Duminda Silva) – ‘Mata Mathaka Nehe’ syndrome, which only afflicts corrupt criminalized politicians even today –Yahapalanaya withstanding. This comical circus will continue, as long as the corrupt system and political culture remaina and to expect it to vanish merely with the change of government is like expecting cure for the headache by changing the pillows.
In January 2015, people were gullible enough to believe that the political culture too will change radically once the name board changed to Yahapalanaya, in order to rid this country of corruption and racial hatred which became the bane in the Post War MR era. Of course there were positive developments. More than 2 years later, none can deny that there were few commendable measures taken such as more freedom of expression, RTI and some concrete steps to alleviate the suffering of the Northern people which earned international commendation. Even the Presidential Commission which is looking into the CB Bond scam would not have come about under MR rule. However, both MS and RW have been overall a sorry disappointment leaving the electorate wondering whether there will be any further democratic hope to usher in a corruption-free, hate free country, after losing yet another historic opportunity. Is democracy then failing in Sri Lanka ? What happened to transparency, to accountability which are the pillars of democracy ?
Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy remains the most intuitive essence of this form of government: government of the people, by the people, for the people. In many supposed democracies around the world, this has either completely changed, or is changing right before our eyes to the worse. And an increasingly disillusioned electorate seems to take a backseat approach in dealing with the offenders. Voter turn-out is the lowest it has been around the world in a generation. Voters have lost faith in politicians and are turning to demagogues like Donald Trump – and the things he represents. And who can blame them when we see what it has become? The less we trust our political elite, the more likely we are to take a gamble on one of Trump like demagogues. After all, can a fear-monger be any worse than the cronyism and lies democracy has become?
Democracy was built on the power and needs of the people. It has since been sold out to money. And that, experts agree, is the biggest threat to it today. If the corruptive influence of money has left voter in the West disenchanted, it has been even more damaging in Africa and Asia, Sri Lanka included. Voters are no longer shocked by revelations of corruption. For a long time, oligarchs in the garb of democrats pretended to serve the interests of the people. But the veil of deception is lifting. People are starting to recognize that the dreams of collective prosperity promised by democracy are being turned into nightmares for the majority, and monumental wealth for the privileged ruling class and their allies. We should however not trust democracy without extremely powerful systems of accountability. Like in many so-called democracies today, in Sri Lanka too, that accountability – and the transparency that goes with it – have gone missing.
It is said that a strong democracy is still the best anti-corruption tool. Unacceptable behaviour weakens social justice and fosters populism. Public vigilance is of utmost importance and should keep the government to account so that the government should step up the fight against corruption by promoting integrity and transparency in public life at all levels, in particular by adopting sound rules on the declaration of assets, income and financial and other interests, making such declarations easily accessible to the public and setting up independent supervisory bodies and regulating lobbying activities. The role of the media and also social media in denouncing corruption should be acknowledged, while ensuring that media regulation respects media freedom and responsibility. Besides , the Parliament should also develop a code of conduct covering guidance on the prevention of conflicts of interest, gifts and other advantages, while ensuring that parliamentary immunity does not protect members of parliament from criminal prosecution for corruption-related acts.
John Locke was, to English philosophy, the equivalent of Sir Isaac Newton in science. According to Locke, if a government created by society is not doing its job properly, that is, in the interest of those who created it, then it ought to be overthrown. There was nothing new in this idea. Since the Middle Ages and during the Reformation, kings and emperors had overthrown each other, claiming that their enemies on the throne were not governing justly.
Locke, however, went further by stating clearly exactly what a government’s role was. A government’s job, in Locke’s view, was to protect life, liberty and, above all, property. When it fails to protect these, it should be replaced. To prevent power being abused, Locke insisted that the legislative (Parliament), executive (king) and judiciary (courts) be independent of each other and constantly checking on each other. But it’s still not too late. To make sure this lack of trust in politicians does not translate into a complete lack of trust in democracy, we must now begin to focus on making transparency and accountability fundamental to our acceptance of a government as democratic.
Good governance (Not the brand of Yahapalanaya Sri Lanka has been accustomed to in recent times) principles if practiced as they should, can make it more difficult for corruption to take root. As we know, of many requirements of good governance, some key components are participation, accountability, transparency, and rule of law. It is the combination of the principles that can help stem corruption and build a stable society. And, in a system where rule of law prevails, citizens have an equal standing under the law regardless of their political affiliation, social status, economic power, or ethnic background. Public participation greatly helps mitigate conflict because there are legitimate public forums and mechanisms for peaceful debate. Public participation in politics (through elections, political parties and civil society organizations) can provide a check on the government and keep political authorities accountable. Such accountability is enhanced by the rule of law, which encompasses the processes, norms, and structures that hold the population and public officials legally responsible for their actions and impose sanctions if they violate the law. Although this may seem idealistic in Sri Lanka as things stand, this is the ideal we must go towards however difficult this journey may seem to the people.
Can Citizens Make a Difference?
There are all kinds of institutions and laws that can be put in place to combat corruption, but some of the most effective programs happen at very small scales. Citizens’ campaigns at the local level can, in fact, be one of the most effective ways to fight corruption. As stated, no progress can be made until citizens are involved. To date, there has been an institutional approach to fighting corruption, but there has been a shift in thinking that this alone can’t make a dent. It’s important, but not enough. Civic organizations, neighbourhood groups, and community networks all have to become involved.
Initiatives that give journalists and citizens more access to government information is particularly important to ensure transparency. Fortunately , one of the laudable measures taken by this government has been to bring in the Right to Information Act. The legislation requires public officials to provide information to citizens in a timely manner and enable citizens to obtain details of any publicly funded scheme, project, or institution. RTI if effectively used could hold the politicians and the government officials to account and also result in a number of indictments. Only ‘Citizens initiatives’ can prevent future recurrences of comical circuses like RK loss of memory dramas and Wimal’s fasting antics to avoid prosecution for their corrupt track records.