By Gamini Jayaweera –
The Hon. President Mr. Maithripala Sirisena addressing a public meeting of police and anti-corruption activists in Colombo said that he was regretted to inform the nation that more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s public procurement contracts were tainted by bribery and corruption. The nation is not surprised about the Hon. President’s statement because the public are fully aware of the bribery and corruption activities of successive governments and its continuation under Maithri-Ranil leadership for the last two years. But the nation is surprised to learn that the President knows the people who are involved in this dirty business, but he is unable to reveal the names because of the fear of organised strikes by the corruptors. If this statement is correct it is a very serious threat to our democracy because it appears that the government institutions are not run by the elected representatives but by the organised fraudsters who operate above the law of the land. But the public believe that the root cause of this cancerous activity lies within the top of the government. As the Hon. President, has quite rightly stated fooling people with empty words such as” Good Governance” is no joke because the culprits are holding responsible positions in the government with the blessing of some politicians. We need to cast our minds back to the last two years to see how the corruption has continued under this government and what the root causes of this problem are before we criticise the corrupt process of procuring public contracts.
Millions of Srilankans who voted for Mr. Maithripala Sirisena and Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe were hoping that the new government would develop policies and take decisive actions to work towards creating a new political culture to govern our country, where we would maintain Law & Order, Justice, and Efficient government service with zero tolerance for bribery & corruption. I, like many other civil society members published articles denouncing the previous regime, and extensively used the social media to gather electoral support for the new government during the election campaigns. We placed our trust and pinned our hopes that we could begin a new chapter in our society. The over whelming majority of the people who voted for this government did not expect to hear that the government was unable to name the culprits because of a backlash from the fraudsters. I firmly believe that if the President can name these culprits the nation is right behind the President and they won’t allow these fraudsters to hold the elected government to a ransom. But it appears that there is something more than the threat of strikes is behind the President’s decision to withhold the names of these culprits. Is it because close government colleagues are involved in this dirty business? Preaching what the public wants to hear during the election campaign and then practising something else once in government was the customary way our country had been governed by successive governments. Is it fair to assume that this government is also following the same path irrespective of their promises given during the election campaign?
Is it reasonable to accept the allegations that the very first kind of “bribe” under the new government was executed by the newly elected President by appointing members of parliament from the previous regime who could not gather the public trust and lost the general election, as Ministers and State/Deputy Ministers of the new government? Most of them played vital roles in the previous corrupt regime and the public are aware of the corrupt practices carried out by some of these politicians. At the time there were lot of opposition to these appointments from the members of civil societies who tirelessly campaigned, risking their lives to replace the previous regime. Unfortunately, the Hon. President ignored the public outcry stating that those defeated members were victims of a campaign carried out by the Mahinda faction of the SLFP because they supported him against the will of the former President. Recently the Hon. President has given other reasons for his unethical action to appoint these defeated MPs. Nevertheless, the appointment of the defeated members as ministers and state/deputy ministers in the new government could be seen as a “bribe” for supporting the President who would have lost the majority support in the Central Committee of his own party (SLFP) if he had not elected these defeated members.
Allegations had been made that the next kind of “bribe” introduced by the President and the Prime Minister, was appointing most of their MPs as Ministers or State/Deputy Ministers to gain support for the government. During the pre-election period the leaders of the “Yahapalanaya” quite rightly criticised the size of the cabinet in the previous regime and promised us that they would not follow the same path of appointing a “Jumbo Cabinet” because it would cost the country a vast amount of money to maintain it. The impression given to the nation was that the cabinet would be a maximum of thirty (30). But the total no. of ministerial, and state/deputy ministerial posts has risen to nearly 100. This unnecessary “Jumbo Cabinet” set up by the President and the Prime Minister is not based on the requirements to serve a small country like ours, but it appears that the appointees have been allowed to serve well for themselves in return for their support for the government. Is it fair and reasonable to assume that these are “bribes’ offered by the government undermining the principles of “Yahapalanaya” hence fooling the people with empty words?
During the pre and post-election periods some members of the present regime highlighted a number of allegations against the previous regime of Bribery & Corruption, Misuse of public finance, Acquiring enormous amount of wealth within a short period of time, Drug dealings, Alleged murders, Exorbitant high prices for road construction, Use of Judiciary to obtain judgments in favour of members of previous regime, and Alleged Coup by the former president to stay in power etc. Are our newly elected/appointed government ministers and MPs sincere about these allegations, because the public is fed up with them and to-date no action has been taken on most of them? It appears that some members in the current regime are actively involved in agreeing to “deals (bribes)” to safeguard the dishonest politicians because they are connected to each other. If this is true isn’t it fair to assume that the corruption stems from the top of the government and hence the inability to name the culprits?
It is a fact that government institutions and state corporations in Sri Lanka play a vital role in the country’s economy as well as providing a major contribution to the social and technological developments. It is also a well-known fact that majority of these corporations’ performance is inefficient, uneconomic and very much below the generally acceptable level. It appears that appointment of politically affiliated people as CEOs and Directors without giving due consideration for their ability and experience to run these organisations, at the expense of experienced professionals, may have been contributed for poor operation, performance and management of majority of these organisations. In addition lack of processes, procedures, transparency, accountability, and the absence of corporate governance coupled with lax entrepreneurship and rampant corruption in the procurement of public contract, and other unethical activities, have also contributed to the dismal performance exhibited by the majority of these institutions.
Corporate Governance of state-owned Corporations is a difficult and major challenge in Sri Lanka because of increased political interference in the management of these institutions. It is understood and accepted by the public that the government is responsible for electing Chairmen and the Board of Directors to run them. There is no problem in carrying out those functional responsibilities by the government. The problem is undue political interference in the management of those organisations by corrupt politicians. The Hon. President’s concern over the corrupt practices of procurement of public contracts are part and parcel of this unacceptable political interference. Good governance provides better transparency of how the organisation is structured and operates in a professional and accountable manner. Good corporate governance also reduces the opportunities for undue political interference. Transparency and efficiency in corporate governance should have been implemented during the last two years to ensure that management of our public institutions is credible and they are in line with international regulations. Is it fair and reasonable to assume that the dishonest politicians, and their cronies, are the root cause for processing more than 50% of public procurement contracts in a corrupt manner?
The Doctrine of Buddhism has specified the rules for governing a country in a proper and peaceful manner and these rules are known as “Dasa Raja Dharma”. Any political system, any political ideology, or any political party can apply these ten rules if they want to create a just society in the country. As Lord Buddha said in Anguttara Nikaya “When the ruler of a country is just and good, the ministers become just and good; when the ministers are just and good, the higher officials become just and good; when the higher officials are just and good, the rank and file become just and good; when the rank and file become just and good, the people become just and good”. This is natural law. Appointing corrupt politicians as Ministers and State/Deputy Ministers and their cronies as CEOs/Directors in the government institutions will naturally lead to corrupt procurement practices in the public sector.
In conclusion, I would like to remind our rulers that spending public money for conducting conferences, publishing pamphlets, etc. to eradicate bribery and corruption is a waste unless the rulers practice what they preach. The Hon. President’s decision not to name these fraudsters for the fear of alleged threat of strikes cannot be accepted as a defence for the continuation of corrupt practices by the government institutions. Clear majority of Srilankans who voted for a real change in our political culture believe that it is still not too late for the Hon. President to act like a statesman and reveal the names of these fraudsters who are plundering public funds and violating our democratic values. As Martin Lither King Jr. said “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”