By Rajan Philips –
The contrasts between 4 February 2015 and 4 February 2020 could not have been starker. No, I am not going to harp on the national anthem, for there is no point in harping too much on singing when there is no listening. I am on to a different contrast. In 2015, the then government was holding up the white banner of transparency and good governance, while promising to expose and end state corruption forever. But even before the end of February 2015, the government was caught red handed in a massive bond scam. There was no recovery for the wretched yahapalana government from that early betrayal. The 19th Amendment, which was passed by a virtually unanimous parliament in the wake of the first bond scandal, has turned out to be the only positive achievement of that government. Those who cavil too much about the motes of flaws in the 19th Amendment, conveniently ignore the beams of contradictions in the 1978 Constitution.
On independence-day in 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa may have been hoping to initiate a new narrative of development, unblemished by anything that may or not have happened not only under the previous (Sirisena-Wickremesinghe) government, but also his brother’s (Mahinda Rajapaksa) government before it. That was not to be. Last Tuesday’s independence day celebrations could not shake off the shadow of the findings of the controversial forensic audit of bond transactions and stock market manipulations over the last ten years, and the incontrovertible statement of facts about Sri Lanka’s aviation corruption revealed in the Airbus DPA (Deferred Prosecution Agreement) in a British court.
If the bond scams and stock market manipulations are home grown corruption specimens, the Airbus involvement shows that Sri Lanka has fraudsters who can play at the highest corporate level in the global fraud network. Aviation industry is known to be a highly fertile terrain for global corruption, but transparency watchdogs often complain that it usually escapes scrutiny and exposure because aviation is under government control in many countries. That was also the case in Sri Lanka until the Airbus statement of facts became public.
The shadow of state corruption now seamlessly stretches, over not one, but two previous governments. The new government cannot run away from it, or pick only the corruption under the last government and ignore the one before it. Until the Airbus revelation, it was possible for the two alternating governing alliances to accuse one another of political witch hunt, and separately blame mutually opposing political interferences in the judiciary and the police. The Ramanayake tapes provided comic grist to every media mill that has vested interest in badmouthing law enforcement agencies and the judiciary to sway the cynical court of public opinion that every politically connected criminal jailed during the last five years should be freed because they had been wrongfully convicted by a corrupt judiciary. Never mind that the same judiciary is duly praised for its independence by whichever side that happens to get a favourable ruling, or even a mere recusal.
The information in the Airbus DPA statement of facts was already known in Colombo. And it is telling that nothing was done about it until the Airbus statement became public in London. Even more telling, nothing would have been done if there was no Airbus DPA. The significance of the Airbus statement is that no one in Colombo would dare challenge, deny, or pick holes in the statement of facts. The way the beleaguered forensic audit of bond issuances is being picked apart clearly shows that. That is after mighty efforts to keep the audit, or at least its appendices, safely under wraps. And after mighty efforts, as well, to preemptively to discredit the audit by a former governor of the Central Bank whose credibility and credentials as a governor were never impeccable.
All the technical pettifogging and journalistic wrestling about the audit is aimed at covering up, directly or indirectly, the inconvenient home truths that the audit seems to have laid bare. The nonsense about economic audit and social audit in this case is pure grandfather prattle. Even the questioning of the methodology of estimating losses incurred by the government is not immediately relevant. The real and immediate question is whether any crime was committed and, if so, who and who did it. At the least, does the audit provide sufficient grounds to start criminal investigation?
Dr. Harsha de Silva, still the UNP MP but seemingly feeling liberated from yahapalanya loyalties, did not mince words in the long interview he gave to the Daily Mirror. “What needs to happen, said Dr. de Silva, “is to take all the evidence available and get the Attorney General to begin the judicial process. The CID can certainly do any further investigations if necessary. That is perfectly ok. But let us not delay taking legal action anymore. Everyone, immaterial of status or party affiliation must be brought to book.” He went on to trace the evolution of corruption and the graduation of corrupt actors from one financial field to another – involving the stock market, the EPF, and finally bonds, spanning both the second Mahinda Rajapaksa government, as well as the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe one-time-only government.
“The difference between the post 2015 and pre 2015 (governments), Dr. de Silva noted, “was that opposition members didn’t have powers in the committees. It was only under the Yahapalana regime that we appointed people like Sunil Handuneththi to chair the committee.” Prior to 2015, according to Harsha de Silva, “however much we tried in Parliament to get to the bottom of this, even the parliament was directed by outside parties (apparently by the then Central Bank) not to release information that was critical in analysing what had happened. He further recalled “how people like Wasantha Samarasinghe, the JVP former MP, being one of the most vociferous critics along with me. But unfortunately, all kinds of roadblocks were placed upon us. We couldn’t really dig deep into that.”
We do not have to rely on Dr. Harsha de Silva to know about the cover-up attempts after 2015, under the Yahapalana government. But the man is totally honest about having the entire ten-year period thoroughly investigated. In that vein, it is heartening to note that on Friday, parliament again selected JVP MP Sunil Handunneththi as Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). But what will happen after the parliamentary election, when, as widely predicted, the SLPP returns with a majority in parliament, and a two-thirds majority to boot?
Options and Constraints
Put another way, will the new parliament after the election be able to keep the search light on state corruption, or will it turn it off and return to same old business as usual? What options does President Gotabaya Rajapaksa have, and which way is he inclined to go? Keep the search lights on, or turn them off? With the Airbus DPA and the forensic audit both out in the open, it would be difficult to push them under the carpet anymore. At the same he will face constraints and resistance from vested interests who do not like being put under national search light. The new president can either make a mark or choose to spoil the current opportunity to expose and address corruptions.
First, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should allow the Attorney General’s Department and the Police services to act freely and protect them from outside interference including interference from the cabinet of ministers. This is something that has not happened under any government for as long as we can remember. Will Mr. Rajapaksa be able to achieve that. There will be plenty of pushback on this and from all corners – familial as well as political. He certainly gave no indication that he was going to do any of this during the election campaign. All that he has been assuring so far is that he will run a clean government. By implication, he clearly meant, let bygones be bygones. Now the Airbus revelation has brought all the bygones to the centre stage of politics. How will the President respond?
At the political level, how will the President deal with ‘political’ individuals whose names are part of the current corruption cases? Their legal jeopardy should of course be impartially investigated by law enforcement agencies and decided by the courts. On the other hand, they should not be politically rewarded – i.e. given political appointments to state institutions or nominations as candidates etc. The selection of candidates for the parliamentary election will be the litmus test for all political parties. In 2015, both the UNP and the SLFP spectacularly failed in their candidate selection by ignoring public warnings about the poor qualifications and legal shortcomings of large numbers of their candidates. Many of them were returned as Members of Parliament. And it showed.
Will the new President have any influence in the selection of candidates for the SLPP? The question is all the more pertinent given the SLPP’s anticipated campaign for a two-thirds majority in parliament. Will the same MPs and Ministers whose names have been exposed in one or the other of the corruption scandals be allowed to contest and return to parliament? Will that mean another end to the parliamentary committees probing corruption allegations of the last two governments? We have no way of knowing whether the Ancien Mahinda Rajapaksa Regime will prevail in parliament, or a new Viyathmaga parliament will emerge under the new President. But the exposures of the forensic audit and the Airbus DPA will place new constraints on the selection of SLPP candidates and its overall campaign. They may create new and positive opportunities as well.
Equally, how will the UNP and its allies fare in the selection of their candidates for the April parliamentary election? In the August 2015 general election, UNP insiders acknowledged that the UNP alliance failed to win a clear majority because of the first bond scam in February 2015. The UNP did not learn the lesson, or ignored it, and went ahead with more of the same. It has since lost two elections, the local government election in February 2018 and the presidential election in November 2019. The UNP’s slate of candidates in April, will show if the party has learnt anything, or if it has forgotten everything.
The young Turks of the UNP, who might have plenty of ammunition on corruption for the election campaign, will be severely handicapped if they can have no say in the selection of UNP candidates before the election. The JVP can be expected to campaign vigorously on an anti-corruption platform, but whether it can improve its electoral fortunes on its own is still an open question. It may want to revisit the old model of electoral alliance, not the failed one of 2015, but the provisionally successful vehicle of 2004. For the TNA and the Muslim political parties, the upcoming election might be the opportunity to finally sever their bonds with Ranil Wickremesinghe. In one way or another, the spectre of corruption will haunt the parliamentary election in April. And it must.