By Mohamed Harees –
“Instead of politicians, let the monkeys govern the countries; at least they will steal only the bananas!” ― Turkish Playwright and Thinker Mehmet Murat Ildan
The mass and the social media have been buzzing with the news that a close aide of Mahinda Rajapaksa has been accused of stealing from his bank account. According to reports, the close aide, named by the media as Udith Lokubandara, had allegedly used an ATM card linked to the bank account and stole millions, perhaps to the tune of 35 million as per media reports. The crime was said to have been committed over the past several years when Uditha served in Mahinda’s office both when he was the President and later when he was the Prime Minister. The money in the account had reportedly included part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s salary when he was President.
The humour lies in the fact that according to sources close to Mahinda, it is unlikely that PM will pursue legal action against his once trusted Private Secretary for embezzling money from his private account although it involved large sums, as the latter had ‘promised to return the money’. A recent cartoon in a Daily pointed out that the Media appears to be only showing this ‘minor’ theft while conveniently ignoring the fact that the millions in this account which even Mahinda has forgotten to check were pickpocketed off the public pockets. However, his son Namal did not know that such a syphoning has taken place; just like he did not know about Mahinda’s surgery!
Stealing from a thief may be considered ironic, although some may simply call it karma. There is a difference between an Ordinary Thief (OT) & a Political Thief (PT). The OT steals our money, bag, watch, gold chain etc, whereas the PT steals our future, career, education, health & business etc. The hilarious part is that the OT will choose whom to rob. But, we ourselves choose the PT to rob us. And then the most ironic one is that the Police will chase and nab the OT, but they will look after and protect the PT. Political thievery is legal and thievery for ordinary survival isn’t. That’s the travesty cum irony of our current society and, we blindly say we are not blind and even defend those robber barons in highest seats of office. Don’t we? Thomas Love Peacock, the English novelist, poet, and official of the East India Company of 19th century once asked, “Is ours a government of the people, by the people, for the people, or a kakistocracy [his own coining for a state or country run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens] rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”
Sri Lanka is presently in an ‘Age of Robber Barons’. Sri Lanka is today a country in social crisis where every institution including policing, judiciary, health, education, administration, are corrupted and dysfunction .It is an open secret that Sri Lanka is being run by a ‘Ring of Thieves’ that is bleeding the country’s coffers dry and embezzling billions of rupees in kickbacks while citizens are killing themselves unable to repay predatory loans. This vicious gang of ‘the proverbial Alibaba and 40’ thieves which the public openly say is being led by the Rajapakse dynasty, has made a profession and a livelihood out of fraud, corruption and misuse of state funds. There is nothing that is not stolen in this enchanted island. Various scandals are still remaining unsolved- Central Bank, Avant Garde, Sugar, Oil, Gas Cylinder, Covid Vaccine are some of them. The sources of corrupt funds used to keep the Rajapaksas and their cronies in luxury comfort, are by and large unknown apart from mysterious windfalls like Daisy Aachchi. Lavish lifestyles of the Rajapaksa family have been very much contrasting to the underprivileged conditions of the greater part of the population, due to the spiralling cost of living. The Yahapalana ruling gang who were given a mandate to punish the corrupt and but failed miserably to fulfill that task led to the people punishing them at the 2019 and 2020 elections, voting back the earlier corrupt set of political thieves.
The issue of Corruption is not new to Sri Lanka; in fact, it has been sweeping into the body politics and unreservedly grabbed a fair portion of Independence; and continues to do so. However, allegations of corruption, scandals and scams running into Billions that have been levelled against successive Governments in the Post war period far superseded than the previous ones. In fact, Bribery Commissioners did not want to impartially investigate cases concerning the allegations of corruption of Parliamentarians. Today, those who make indictments against the men in power alleging corruption are the ones who were equally corrupt or more corrupt when they were in power. Some corrupt politicians of the past who have turned into ‘good thieves’ have all the liberty to enjoy an unhindered political life. Meanwhile, this is a really tough time for ‘bad thieves’. Had those thieves joined the ruling party, they would have been cleansed like those who were wise enough to do so. It is a shame that many of those who voted them to power still chose to defend their masters who are living on ill-gotten wealth, syphoned off the public purse.
Unfortunately, every government in the past has used the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ thieves to dislodge political opposition. There was talk during Yahapalana rule, of Sri Lankan investigators having located more than $2bn that was secretly transferred to accounts in Dubai by figures close to the administration of former regime of Mahinda. With absolute power at their disposal, they yielded to such temptations. Nothing however was done to punish the robbers. Today a good percentage of politicians of both the big parties are corrupt to the core. The present Government has got into dire financial straits due to the robbery and plunder of state property by the politicians, and their Cronies and Acolytes who have been handling the economy. Extensive financial scandals running into Billions are being seen at high echelons while the political authority turns a blind-eye, or more unsurprisingly, aiding and abetting them, while the public are suffering under dire economic conditions.
JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in early 2021 listed out in Parliament, the corrupt acts committed by the Ring of Thieves and noted no one was held responsible for the losses incurred by the state. 01. Rs. 23 Billion loss to the Employees Provident Fund from 2008 to 2012. 02. Rs. 11 Billion loss from Bond Transactions from 2007 to 2015. 03. Rs. 80 Billion loss from the Hedging Deal. 04. USD 52 Million loss from investing in Greek Bonds when the Greek economy was falling apart. 05. Avant Garde taking over the Maritime Security operations conducted by the Sri Lanka Navy. The Sri Lanka Navy said it generated Rs. 08 billion in revenue before the operations were given to Avant-Garde. 06. Ex-CEO of SriLankan Airlines Kapila Chandrasena and his wife for their alleged links to a $ 2 million bribe in the SriLankan Airlines re-fleeting deal. 07. USD 6.5 Million payment for a CIA agent by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. 08. New York Times reported that two companies, China Harbour & China Merchants, had made payments to Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Anura Kumara Dissanayake said even before the New York Times reported about it, it was the JVP that exposed how money was moved to the accounts of one Pushpa Rajapaksa.
He also noted that the government that succeeded the Rajapaksa administration was also involved in fraud and corruption. 01. Rs. 11 Billion loss from the 01st Central Bank Treasury Bond Scam. 02. 546 Land Cruiser SUVs were released for a fine of mere Rs. 16 Million from Sri Lanka Customs. 03. Million swindled when importing dairy heifers to Sri Lanka. 04. Rs. 04 Billion loss at the Paddy Marketing Board. 05. Millions misappropriated at the Central Cultural Fund and the National Housing Development Authority.
There is no doubt that corruption has been endemic to all governments in the past. Despite some serious moves to curb the corruption, the problem has grown over time. The only answer to this political dilemma lies in the fact that all anti-corruption measures were politically-motivated and used selectively either to dismantle political opposition or dislodge governments. The partisan role of governments in dealing with corruption has always caused serious damage to the political process and the institutionalisation of democracy. Nothing came out of a probe ordered by Gotabhaya, when their cousin Nirupama Rajapaksa, and her husband Thirukumar Nadesan, were named in the recent International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ (ICIJ) “Pandora Papers” files leak. In 2016, when Basil Rajapaksa was accused of using public funds to build a villa in Malwana, Nadesan was also charged with embezzlement in connection with the incident.
Since the advent of mankind, bribery and corruption have existed everywhere on the Earth and in many different forms, but they inflict the worst damage on poorer countries like Sri Lanka by exacerbating poverty. And in the words of the African Commission, good governance holds the key, because unless there are improvements in capacity, accountability and reducing corruption, other reforms would only have a limited impact. History shows that while accountability of the affluent and the mighty in poor countries is a rarity, it is a continuous feature in the developed nations, where political scams too occur but are not as rampant as in poor nations. Continuous accountability in developed nations hence prevents the menace from adversely affecting the under-privileged classes of the society.
Corruption is a deep-rooted problem that Sri Lanka needs to overcome as it leaves the past behind, with the country being poised to become a ‘super connector’, thanks to its strategic location in Asia. Unfortunately, only China, India and few Western nations are exploiting this geographical advantage to their benefit. As lawyer and blogger Baratha Tennakoon says, law as it presently stands, has all the necessary provisions to tackle political corruption and thievery happening in Sri Lanka at the highest echelons of power. One such provision is the need for all those seeking public office from the President downwards to declare their assets and liabilities, which is today being observed in the breach. Despite all these deterrents, checks and balances available in law books, men calling shots in the upper echelons of power have continued to find ways to earn filthy money without taking the consequences into account. Most politicians and their stooges have been let go unpunished by the courts – Nissanka Senadhipathi, Johnston Fernando, Basil Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s sons as well as Wimal Weerawansa were some blatant examples. Society has a question: Why doesn’t the government put anybody behind bars?”. As it is said “What is it about the government and its agents and employees that they can lie to us with impunity, but we risk being sent to jail if we lie to them?” Isn’t impunity in crisis proportions in Sri Lanka? “.
There needs to be more public activism in questioning and challenging this blatant political corruption at higher levels and impunity. A former Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies Abeyagoonasekera sees great potential in engaging a new generation to drive this change, as over a fifth of the population are aged 15 to 29. The challenge, he says, is that young people are not willing to go into government because they are disillusioned with it, and prefer to work with the private sector. “Rather than actively engaging, they become critics. This needs to change – we need more qualified youngsters in politics.” The Elections Commission and anti-corruption bodies also remain important and independent for promoting transparency, and sanctions remain a live option to stymie individuals and their families who violate human rights and thrive on corruption. As Mehmet Murat ildan says ‘A country ruled by criminals needs two revolutions, one small and one big: The small revolution is to overthrow the criminal government, the big revolution is to radically undo the damage these criminals have inflicted on the country- and to change the mindset of those who elect them to office’ (bold mine).