By Siri Gamage –
Suddenly, corruption has come centre stage again in Sri Lankan politics at a time when the Yahapalana government led by the UNP and supported by official SLFP is completing two years of governance under an outfit called ‘a national unity government’. Corruption and anti corruption were main talking points of the election platforms in 2015. They were focus areas of civil society organisations such as the one led by Rev Maduluwawe Sobhitha prior to the election. In a society where there is less accountability on the part of politicians elected or appointed to parliaments and the wheels of justice move unjustifiably slowly, majority of people who go after mythical figures invented nationally and provincially, i.e. Gods, to seek justice rather than the courts.
The window of opportunity opened up at the last election was a God send to express people’s true feelings based on negative experiences that the system of governance allocated to them. Little they realised that the rulers they elected had only change of colour and nice words to fit the times pretending to be people’s heroes for a few weeks rather than charismatic figures like Anagarika Dharmapala or Ariyarathne who were genuinely concerned about the plight of the disadvantaged, country and nation. (My article published in Colombo Telegraph in 2015 elaborated the basis on which the political class in Sri Lanka operates irrespective e of any national government.) People’s worst fears are coming true after two years of national unity government and many media contributions in recent months have highlighted this. The latest saga in this unfolding political drama or palace conspiracy is the one related to Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe.
The critical question emerging from this saga is whether he was a protector of the corrupt in the previous regime because the attorney general’s department did not expedite cases about which files have been submitted by investigating bodies or an anti corruption crusader and protector of the independence of judiciary as he claims after his sacking by the President? The public will examine this closely in due course. Suffice it to say that the credibility of an anti corruption crusader emerges if the person so claiming has a track record of doing so. Though his reference to several cases for which he appeared pro bono and secured results involving state property may be noteworthy, the argument about non-interference in the judiciary as an excuse for not expediting anti corruption cases hangs in thin air in the eyes of the public. His detached approach to this issue until his sacking must have been adopted so with the blessings of the power hierarchy in the Yahapalana government. Otherwise, how could a single minister adopt such a stance for two years on his own when the whole country or at least 65 lakhs of voters and their representatives were demanding action?
Thus this saga reflects a deep-seated malaise within the Yahapalana outfit rather than the failings of one individual, particularly when viewed in the light of the bond scam and Ravi Karunanayake saga. In Sri Lankan politics and for that matter even in Australian or American politics there is this tendency to characterise failings in terms of individuals. But we need to realise that these topics in Sri Lanka reflect systemic failures rather than the faults of one individual. How can one minister assure the independence of judiciary without the backing of his cabinet and be charged about non-interference and undue slowness in expediting of justice on an individual basis? Cabinet unity applies in this case also. If the cabinet-the executive- really wanted action, it could have decided so long time ago and the subject minister is bound by such decisions.
Corruption by those elected or appointed to public office assumes significance in a country like Sri Lanka because its economy runs on borrowed money with heavy interest payment obligations in dollar terms. The money borrowed for various PROJECTS by the government not only augment the budget bottom line but also spreads around like hot cakes among those who control such money. It has come to a ridiculous situation that nothing significant can be done in Sri Lanka without borrowed money. This seems to be the modern disease we have inherited and one national characteristic of the patriotic nation. But what happens to such borrowed money and those accumulated by way of taxes is the crucial question? How much of it actually goes to the work or projects and how much is spent on consultants etc are topics in everyday conversations among middle class literati who have some insights on this aspect.
When the payments for interest and paying back borrowed money becomes difficult, a situation arises for the sale or lease of public assets to foreign entities. As a country caught up in a debt trap, Sri Lanka is facing numerous difficulties at this time. However because the POLITICAL CULTURE remains the same with self serving norms and practices that nurture the families of politicians, bureaucrats and managerial class that support them, running the country has become less feasible. This is because the system has to cater to the needs of a political and managerial class whose desires and lifestyles are extravagant and costly, in some cases bordering on corruption, on the one hand and the needs of the majority who demand yahapalanaya by way of socially just and effective economic and welfare policies. A government caught up in an internationally driven debt trap can’t do both. When one side of the scale goes up (with the cost of luxury cars etc.), the other side goes down. Keeping a balance is not easy even by a compassionate President whose hands are tight in terms of the political forces he has to deal with. So the country is facing a classical political conundrum that can be summarised by quoting the popular Sinhala saying: Gedara giyoth ambu Nasi, maga hitiyoth Ma nasi (if I go home my wife will die, if I stay on road I will die. This is a statement by a person who was carrying a backpack with a snake).
If we are to break free from the existing debt trap, the government needs to do more than pursuing corruption cases and sacrificing a couple of ministers temporarily. An economic strategy based on first principles to combat the disease needs to be developed. Simultaneously, a national social strategy to combat dependence on foreign project money needs to be developed. When I was a school going boy in the far south in the 50s and 60s, there was the concept and practice of Sramadana to cut wells for water, build roads, temples etc. This practice needs to be revived. Why not try to build at least one section of the Central expressway with local talent and funds together with Sramadana? Most of all there needs drastic reform in the political culture without which other goals cannot be achieved (Sarah Fonseka was vociferous about this before he joined UNP?). The extravagant lifestyles and accumulation of wealth by politicians, their associates and families need to be controlled before they do so rather than pursuing justice after the event especially when the wheels of government and justice grind very slow when it comes to pursuing those who have charges of corruption. This brings us to the point about legal reform –another sorry story in the country for the last 70 years.
Wijeyadasa saga is not the beginning or end of this national conundrum, even though the way he was sacked is amusing to many. Theatrics in politics raise imaginations and curiosity of the voters momentarily but the show goes on when the drama is concluded. The condition we are experiencing today has far deeper ramifications unless addressed by the more alert segments of society in a systematic way and develop strategies to combat the ill effects as well as causes with equal attention. Most likely Wijeyadasa will reemerge in politics in another way after a few weeks or months. But the large majority who don’t belong in the political or managerial classes will still struggle to meet ends in a system which is unduly biased toward the needs and desires of a few rather than the many.