By Mohamed 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.