19 August, 2022


Sri Lanka – A Nation Torn Between Chronic Political Corruption & Inadequacy Of Public Activism  

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman Harees

‘A Gura not heeding good advice; it does not matter whether he travels on the higher plane or the lower plane ’ goes a popular Sinhala adage. In the context of  the political corruption cesspit, Sri Lanka has fallen into, this adage quite deservingly applies to its’ people too, who despite repeated advice continue to mourn after getting deceived regularly by sending a different set of political actors at each election to represent them based on idle promises; knowing subconsciously that they all are the products of the same underlying corrupt political system and culture. From one ‘Bangalawa’ to another, the political leadership changes hands and the ultimate result has always been the continuation of the system of exploitation and corruption, hidden under different laudable political slogans; at times marketed with some cosmetic changes. It is therefore nothing but insanity to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. Yes! every nation then gets the government it deserves as philosopher Joseph de Maistre once said. So, does Sri Lanka!

While many of us may not be governance specialists; we can however equally relate to the impacts of good and bad governance. It needs no rocket science for ordinary citizenry to realize that good governance (GG) in Sri Lanka is still a distant dream. It was in 2015 that this catchy slogan came into public prominence which ultimately led to a downfall of a powerful government which till then was held in  high regard in the light of the ‘war’ victory. Many civic anti-corruption groups cautioned the general voting public to avoid sending the corrupt and those with adverse criminal track records to seats of power. Ven Sobitha Thero spearheaded this campaign to raise public awareness ; however both the public did not heed this advice and the government which came to power on the GG bandwagon also had the last laugh by brining such shady characters through the national list route. Three and a half years later, people are belatedly seeing through this deceit, with their long felt aspirations for GG being utterly frustrated. But, without a nationwide will and lack of public activism to the required level, to change the political culture, the corrupt political class will always triumph.   

True! if social media and ‘coffee shop’/ train conversations are anything to go by to gauge the mood and feelings of the people, there is widespread disappointment about- far beyond just political names – of the democratic and electoral political system itself whereby they express their will and change governments through the ballot at regular intervals.  In fact, the whole drama enacted through this (then) popular GG fallacy when Maithri/Ranil initially came into power fell apart, when those entrusted by the people to catch the thieves ultimately ended up thieving themselves through the famous CB scam. People were further treated to Thamashas and entertainment for the next few years, with many few high placed politicians in the former government , prosecuted charged by the FCID/ Bribery and Corruption Commission, ended up having a short lived gala time either in the Prisons or the prison hospital ( a luxury not afforded to the ordinary folks accused of even much-much less graver crimes); other cases are still waiting to see the light of the day being put on the back burner. Meanwhile, the cancer of corruption appear to have pervaded beyond the political arena, into the entire gamut of public and judicial service too, judging by many shocking revelations from public spirited whistle blowers, who are unfortunately being given the ‘achchu’ treatment by respective professional bodies to suppress the truth from coming out into the public domain.    

It was recently, that the nation was treated to another round of revelations;  this time emanating from overseas, from a leading newspaper in the US- the NYT, which revealed in a comprehensive article dated 25th June 2018, the massive extent of corrupt deals involving MR, when ‘China was getting Sri Lanka to cough up a Port’ as the headline suggested, presenting a stark illustration of how China and the companies under its control ensured their interests in a small country hungry for financing  like Sri Lanka. It was left for an overseas newspaper to reveal details of these shady deals, and as it was pointed out, apart from putting a debt trapped Sri Lanka at the mercy of their Chinese slave driver, these mega deals  had international implications as well. NYT echoed ‘Mr. Rajapaksa was voted out of office in 2015, but Sri Lanka’s new government struggled to make payments on the debt he had taken on. Under heavy pressure and after months of negotiations with the Chinese, the government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years in December. The transfer gave China control of territory just a few hundred miles off the shores of a rival, India, and a strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway. The case is one of the most vivid examples of China’s ambitious use of loans and aid to gain influence around the world — and of its willingness to play hardball to collect.The debt deal also intensified some of the harshest accusations about President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative: that the global investment and lending program amounts to a debt trap for vulnerable countries around the world, fueling corruption and autocratic behavior in struggling democracies’. The inherent corrupt deals have been subsequently coming out through glaring revelations made both in and out of Parliament even providing details of cheque numbers paid to MR and Co. as well. Unfortunately the debate on the NYT article do not appear to have elicited  much interest, judging by poor Parliamentary attendance- another waste of  public money. Meanwhile, many foreign activists have been citing Sri Lanka as a prime example while advising their countries against falling into the Chinese debt trap; examples being Malaysia and Kenya to cite two of them.    

Corruption in politics, that include bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, graft, and embezzlement, has been an issue that has and will continue to hinder the prosperity of Sri Lanka. Most large scale corruption by politicians as referred earlier, have been almost impossible to be proven. Nevertheless, although a widely spoken topic amongst many spheres of the national landscape, however this problem is never addressed through legislation and actions. Despite the bogus rhetoric emerging through some voices within the Government, ultimately the people have been misled, fooled and made victims to the malicious personal agendas of the politicians. There are simply no viable options available in sight, when the question is being raised amongst the people as “whom to trust” in the present political landscape of Sri Lanka, with both the ‘GG’ Government and the Joint Opposition being accused of large-scale corruption. The danger lurking in the background, will be that public frustrations at persistent corruption can combine with declining public trust and become a breeding ground for populist forces, sowing political chaos. It was comical to note President Maithri accusing PM Ranil shielding MR, his family and supporters in corruption cases, in a fresh jolt to their ruling coalition. Are both of them not leaders of the same GG  Project which sent MR out of power in 2015, and therefore is it not the case of pot calling the kettle black!    

It should be recalled how the previous government along with corrupt officials even did not spare a public disaster  like Tsunami to fatten their pockets. That tone was echoed in the editorial of ‘The Island.’ In the Post-Tsunami time. It accused “corrupt elements in the garb of public servants” having profited from the unprecedented death toll across the South Asian island following the walls of sea water that smashed the coastline on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004.’The government’s failure to bring those who have robbed the tsunami funds to book has led to a severe erosion of confidence of the public as well as the international donors who answered Sri Lanka’s desperate call for help,” the paper argued. ‘’The distribution of tsunami relief is seriously flawed”. In addition, ‘Helping Hambantota’ scandal too smacked of  nauseating corrupt deals at the highest levels which to-date remains un-investigated. Nowhere had international concern for the failed tsunami recovery operation been more marked  then, than criticisms levelled at Sri Lanka, which came to symbolise squandered hope, given the high expectations that the post-tsunami phase was expected to usher in peace to the war-ravaged island. Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General General lamented, “There was great hope that recovery and reconstruction would be underpinned by a new spirit of peace and reconciliation, as the same disaster engulfed friend and foe alike,” Annan said. ‘”(But) in Sri Lanka, that spirit has not been sustained.”

Ensuring Public Accountability and Public Activism-US Experience 

As Prof. Allan Rosenbaum of Florida International University (USA pointed out, ‘There is no issue more central to good governance than accountability generally and the accountability of those in government to their citizenry in particular. Consequently, there is no issue more central to any discussion of the challenges facing government and civil servants, either now or in the 21st Century, than the matter of commitment to a high degree of accountability. Indeed, issues of accountability to the citizenry are quite simply the most important elements of contemporary governance and, as a consequence, need to be at the very center of any discussion about good governance, education for the public service and the future millennium’. 

There is an imperative need for the civil servants to redefine their roles from being the servants of the Politicians to Servants of the Public to ensure public accountability. Learned Professor above in fact refers to the US experience in terms of seeking to ensure a high degree of public accountability on the part of its’ government officials and civil servants as very substantial. Whereas in Europe, civil servants, as the representative of the “State” often have been seen as figures of imposing authority, this has not been the case in the US. There, the civil servant historically has been viewed primarily as a person who simply happens to work for the government. Another factor contributing to the creation of an environment which encourages and supports a high level of public accountability is the general belief that emerged in the US that the civil servant is, in fact, “a public servant.” By viewing civil servants in that manner, one makes it very clear that they are, and must always be, accountable to the citizenry. This approach is very much a part of the education provided to public administrators in training in the US’s graduate schools of public administration. It is also very much a part of the education that all of the Country’s citizens receive as students in their high schools and colleges.

Another important contributory element in creating the environment of public accountability which exists within the US is the very considerable emphasis placed upon the availability to the citizenry of copious printed information about government programs and activities. Not only is there a tradition of extensive media coverage of the activities of government administrators and public officials, but governmental institutions themselves are highly influenced by very strong traditions of making such information readily available.

 Further in the US, encouraging the availability of information to the public, and the creation of an environment that strongly encourages public accountability, is the fact that many governments in the country have very stringent laws requiring that all governmental meetings and/or records be open and readily available to the public. Moreover, in the case of meetings, most governments have laws that require that adequate advanced publicity be given to the time, place and purpose of governmental meetings. While some of this legislation does have significant limits built into it, in many places such legislation is highly demanding. Besides, because of the Country’s historic concern about public accountability, virtually all levels of government in the US have also developed a variety of institutional structures that are designed to encourage openness, citizen participation and public accountability. One institutional device that is widely used in the US, and very much encourages public accountability, are public hearings by governmental agencies and legislative bodies at all levels. Such hearings are frequently used for formulating the annual budgets of government at the national, state and local levels. As such, they provide for extensive citizen input into the shaping of what typically is the most important decision driving process of governmental units and/or agencies in the US.

Another important governmental institution used to insure the accountability of civil servants to the public, as well as the policy makers who represent the public, is ‘audit agencies’. Generally reporting to the legislative branch of government, these organizations typically have considerable number of highly trained personnel whose principal activity is the routine review of governmental agencies and their performance. Further, two further major forces for insuring public accountability are the investigative journalism in the media sector and NGOs specialising in auditing the activities of the government.

It is therefore imperative that degree and quality of public activism in Sri Lanka be enhanced to demand the necessary climate and structures to hold the government and its’ agencies to account. Only sustained public activism and supervision can keep corruption cancer at bay.    

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Latest comments

  • 7

    Lukman , after seeing the same crap for more than 65 years, the plunge our nation has taken and still having the same old clowns and their by products to rule, I find the pathetic retarded public responsible for the failure of nation.Just see what 4 million people of Croatia or 11 million people of Belgium could achieve. They did have all the problems what we are facing and yet they are able to built their nation by electing proper leaders.. Where as in Lanka what we have is a gift for racial prejudice, hatred, jealousy, apathy, selfishness … etc wrapped in a glossy cover called politics.What is more absurd is there is enough and more proxies out there to keeping the machine well oiled.As you have mentioned our nation has had opportunities more than any could hope and still decided to squander all.Today the rumor is China has gifted ???? 1400 crores to MS to spend on projects of his choice?????.( may be Dayan and Rajiva can suggest a few). Now when did you last hear this kind of Thamasha.(try sharing a banana among troop of monkeys)

    • 0

      Mr. Lukman.
      Fake Foreign Aid/ loans is the biggest corruption racket! And corruption has a supply side as well as demand side.
      And not just China is corrupt among fake aid loan givers to corrupt politicains.
      Please ask Bondscam Ranil what the US govt. Right Wing Millennium Challenge Corp is doing with its Compact hot air for 5 years? Paying for Harvard trips for Bond scam Sujeeva Senasinghe, privatizing the Lanka railway with Fake policy advice and selling obsolete GE train engines to Lanka railways
      Corruption has a supply side and demand side _ Japan, US and EU are flooding Lanka with luxury SUVs to corrupt politicians, while Japan also gives loans for unnecessary Highways for its Toyatas in Lanka and is delaying constuction of rapid rail public transport in Colombo.
      Debt trap, fake aid is the problem and there need to be Tranasparency of ALL foreign aid/loans

  • 3

    We have been conditioned to consider ‘Democracy’ as the licence to impose the will of the majority of voters. this bred manipulation of voters to disastrous results. Remember Hitler was elected and so was Mugabe. We witnessed the Trumpism.
    Voter manipulation will lead to corruption/nepotism/impunity and we are in this blackhole now.
    Public activism is the only way to bridle this bane. The silver lining is Lankan activists are speaking out as never ever in the last decade. Results will come but only gradually.

  • 1

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 1

    This article is BS.Count how many things given to USA companies via MCC. Why people are not talking about American influence and the money wasted on that. There are so many things that you do not know.

    • 5

      Who is this Jim softy. Not just a nut but a hard nut. or an inmate of a mental hospital who has run away! Every article on CT he jumps in and makes out of point comments . This article is speaking of widespread corruption and how public activism should be promoted . Being of one track mind, Jim must check the SIM in his mind. Or take his medications on time .
      It makes all sorts of crazy minds like this to make this world.

  • 4

    Sri Lanka has got everything but not good political leaders…
    Sri Lanka is one of rich country in human resources and yet poorest of many Asian countries ..
    Corrupt politics has done a greater damage to nation ..

  • 1

    There are lacunae in every system and there are cunning people who can find lacunae in every system. Still most countries do have a system which is functional. There are countries who have oversight committee to scrutinize the expenditure of elected members including laundry,travel,whining and dining.Where in Lanka the rumor is China DONATED 4800 crores to MS to use for projects of his choice ???? Is that a payment made to nullify NYT allegations. In a dysfunctional country like India at least they have RTI act overseen by special independent peoples courts, based on which any citizen/layman can file for an inquiry ( where IT is mandated to raid houses for unaccountable property/wealth). In Srilanka we have citizens debating who is worse than other.( as though it makes one of them a better person), The usual debate topics of our retarded citizens are 5% or 10%, MR / RW, Cabral/Mahendran, Basil/Aloysus, GR/Hitler. .Can any one name a current politician with a decent record?????. To graft if you add murder, rape, violence, thuggery and political killings “voila” you have a full house called PARLIAMENT. Truly a Miracle.

  • 3

    Corruption is and has taken place in many forms. This has been imbibed by the Public services during the
    Decade of Rajapakse rule, but continues galloping. Here is an example: The richest Department Staff are
    at the Immigration & Emigration Dept. This is a place no one likes to move out on Transfer as illegal income is at the highest – since March 2015 with the re-commencement of Dual Citizenship grants.

    Currently, 35000 have obtained it according to News information. The most bribing community are the Tamils, as they cannot approach Officers due to Language problems and meekness – they prefer to get off this local hassle by just throwing away to the dogs to put it harshly.

    Tellthepresident link has been told of the level of corruption – this tip has only been filed with the I/E. The
    Bribery Comm. has been informed but ignored – as victims are only Tamils! The Presidents ex-Secy. a one
    time IE Controller has stayed the Transfer of many.

    The mafia operation at the Citizenship Div. can be gauged as follows: 35000 granted which can include say
    10% Tamils. Say only 50% bribed to be on the conservative side and the original fixed fee was 350 USD.
    1750 x Rs. 50,000/- is = Rs. 87.5 million !!! Even currently it is gathered when the legal fee of Rs. Three lakhs
    is paid with an additional of One lakh – Applications of Tamils, duly checked and approved by the Overseas
    Consular staff are held back in some instance of 3 years – file misplaced! In fact the Data entry has been
    tampered with – 6 clerks are involved in Data updating. deliberately faking the email ID, the Country of
    Citizenship etc. etc. The Public Services Commission has also been notified – but who cares as the victim
    is a diaspora Tamils!! . (It is presumed Tamil M.PP & Tamil media too have a sense of jealousy to report this
    happening) Over to the Minister in Charge, who is of course sleeping…………

  • 0

    One has to ask the question: Why Chronic Political Corruption continues and thrives? The obvious answer is: There is “NO” Public “AWARENESS” . Even if awareness is present, then why there is no ACTIVISM to oust the corrupted politician? The answer to that question is the most RELEVANT and VITAL factor that explains the continuity of that “Chronic Political Corruption”. The answer that comes to my mind is: The PEOPLE even “KNOWING” and being “AWARE” have over decades got conditioned and are being conditioned to “REFUSE” and “IGNORE” what is “TRUE” in “PREFERENCE” to what is DICTATED by the very corrupted politicians. That MIND SET, I call it, “SLAVERY” is an INHERITANCE of our society, demonstrated very exclusively during election times. This factor coupled with SELFISHNESS rather than COLLECTIVE INTEREST makes matters very EASY for the Political Corruption to continue and thrive unabated. So until the PEOPLE decide to HANG UP that “SLAVERY” mind set and brake the shackles of BONDAGE of allegiance , this cancerous ailment in the country will continue and spread till the death to those “BONDED”; but not to the “CORRUPTED”.

  • 2

    Feel free to go and do your activism in Saudi Arabia. Make sure to take the rest of your barbarians along with you. No one wants your sorry self in SL.

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