20 June, 2024


Worsening Rot At The Top In ‘Kleptocratic’ Sri Lanka!

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman Harees

When the power or authority comes in the hands of unfit persons, then wait for the Hour (Doomsday.)” – Prophet of Islam (OWBP)

Once again, under Gotabaya Rajapaksa, scenic Sri Lanka is becoming known in recent times for the wrong reasons around the world. Apart from racist politics and rule of law crisis, many countries are quoting this country as a bitter lesson on economic mismanagement, to be learnt – one which has fallen into an irretrievable Chinese debt trap. Interestingly, when Al Jazeera reported rural kids heading trekking miles and climbing rocks and mountains for want of internet access to follow their online classes, a reader asked whether Sri Lanka is in Africa!  Now, the latest one has the shameful appointment of Duminda Silva, a drug lord and a  murderer/criminal, who was pardoned by a dictatorial Head of State using his controversial powers under the Constitution weeks ago, as the Chairman of National Housing Authority. Such brazen impunity and scant disregard of the rule of law! Many moral as well as legal issues have been haunting the public mind surrounding this controversial decision; and Gotabaya’s pardons were shocking to the world at large, but  however to those who have studied the scenarios in many other countries, it should be eerily familiar as a phenomenon out of the kleptocratic playbook.

I read recently, about an Indian Supreme Court panel (2011) sitting in judgment over an appointment of a Police Constable with a pending criminal record, where it held that ‘a person facing criminal cases cannot be considered suitable for appointment in government service unless acquitted of the charges, Surely, the authorities entrusted with the responsibility of appointing constables were under duty to verify the antecedents of a candidate to find out whether he is suitable for the post of constable. “And so long as the candidate has not been acquitted in the criminal case of the charges he cannot possibly be held to be suitable for appointment to the post of constable’. In the case of the murder convict Duminda Silva, some may argue that the President pardoned him. However, in the bigger context, it was a clear case of misuse of power by a sitting President where a criminal sentence to death by a proven judicial process was reversed in contravention of established legal principles. Further, it is an example of the oft-quoted aphorism “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.”. Now, the President adds insult to injury by going further – appointing Duminda to high office as well!

If a failed state is a political body that has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government no longer function properly or when its legitimacy is lost even if it is performing its functions properly, isn’t Sri Lanka qualified to be one? Isn’t Sri Lanka  being run by a Kleptocracy, a government whose corrupt leaders (kleptocrats) use political power to appropriate the wealth of their nation, typically by embezzling or misappropriating government funds at the expense of the wider population. Derived from the Greek words for thieving and ruling, the word “kleptocracy” entered the modern social science lexicon through the work of the Polish-British sociologist Stanislav Andreski in the 1960s. His book The African Predicament identified post-independence African regimes as kleptocratic. Kleptocracy is literally rule by thieves.

Sri Lanka has all the signs of  being a Kleptocracy, generally associated with dictatorships, or other forms of autocratic and governments in which external oversight is impossible or does not exist. This lack of oversight can be caused or exacerbated by the ability of the kleptocratic officials to control both the supply of public funds and the means of disbursal for those funds. Kleptocratic rulers often treat their country’s treasury as a source of personal wealth, spending funds on luxury goods and extravagances as they see fit. Many kleptocratic rulers secretly transfer public funds into hidden personal numbered bank accounts in foreign countries to provide for themselves if removed from power. Kleptocracy is most common in developing countries and collapsing nations whose economies are reliant on the trade of natural resources. Developing nations’ reliance on export incomes constitute a form of economic rent and are easier to siphon off without causing the income to decrease. This leads to wealth accumulation for the elites and corruption may serve a beneficial purpose by generating more wealth for the state.

State-directed kleptocracy is this century’s brand of authoritarianism, but it is critical to understand that kleptocracy and authoritarianism are mutually supportive and reinforcing activities designed to achieve total control. An authoritarian leader and his or her inner circle can secure state-owned and private assets through kleptocratic means, and kleptocratic means can secure control over key government and democratic institutions. Today, modern authoritarian and kleptocratic leaders and their practices are particularly devastating. Not only does this form of kleptocratic governance describes as “sovereign or managed democracy” – challenge the international order, it also devastates he credibility, desirability and moral authority of the liberal democratic model itself.

By definition, a liberal democracy’s strong rule of law and reasonably effective mechanisms of accountability prevent and rule out systematic plunder by the country’s rulers. Certainly, there have been many instances historically of tentative and low-quality democracies that were pervasively corrupt. As with any concept, kleptocracy is slippery, and it is hard to know where to draw the line between kleptocracy and a system that is simply highly corrupt. But different measures of corruption show the same stunning pattern. Most of the least corrupt countries of the world are liberal democracies. And almost all of the most corrupt (and generally, we can say, kleptocratic) countries of the world are authoritarian regimes. The data tell a compelling story. It may be difficult to imagine a kleptocratic regime that doesn’t depend on authoritarian means to extract resources, or an authoritarian regime that doesn’t use expansive power to boost a leader’s personal portfolio.

But it is a mistake to assume that kleptocracy is nearly always associated with repressive states. Social anthropologists studying influence elites, also refers to a subtler kind of kleptocratic behaviour take hold in Western democratic states, which they call as a ‘kleptocracy in a Brooks Brothers suit’. That something smells at the top has not been lost on ordinary people in Western democracies, who have seen elite fortunes roaring along as theirs stagnated and whose faith in public institutions has plummeted. Elites, who have generally ignored their plight, are prime practitioners in the new, systemic corruption that has arisen over the past several decades. Their corruption has helped foment the anti-establishment movements we see today, the dynamics and repercussions of which threaten democracy.

Political corruption is organised crime’s most powerful tool.  Organised-crime related corruption amongst Members of Parliament (MPs) or high-level political appointees (heads of agencies, departments) have become a common phenomenon even in the West. Local level administrative and political corruption was more commonly observed across the EU. Examples of mayors or city councillors convicted for associations with organised and white-collar criminals were found throughout the EU. Police have the most direct exposure and frequent contacts with organised crime and, as such, organised crime most often targets them. Both institutional and external factors make the police vulnerable to corruption. Political and judicial influences on police can facilitate corruption. In the majority of countries, organised crime targets the judiciary, particularly the courts, much less than the police or politicians. Political influence over the courts is a key factor of judicial corruption, especially in countries with high levels of political corruption such as Sri Lanka. Criminal groups corrupt the judiciary by accessing magistrates via social, political, professional and family networks. Elite social networks allow criminals to enjoy direct contact with members of the judiciary.

It is a complicated political maze with the criminal godfathers. Definitely many drug barons and criminal leaders are politicians still not brought to book. Politicians have been involving the underworld for political campaigns and their dirty work. Punishment to the gangs has never been  severe and no stringent legislation were implemented. I remember Minister Gammanpila when in Opposition, stating in 2019, ‘similar to the saying ‘there is a strong woman behind every successful man’, there is a political leader behind every underworld leader, Regardless of the status or the political party they belonged to, politicians must be brought to books if they back underworld figures or activities. No underworld can sustain without the backing and support of politician and the protection of the police. There is always a politician behind each underworld leader. Without any differences, action should be taken against politicians if they back the underworld’. However, to Gotabaya and his rogue regime, underworld kingpins like Duminda Silva are a sine-quo-non and the relationship is symbiotic. His release from the gallows was also the fulfilment of a shady deal, with a Media baron who made Gota’s election a possibility. In Thailand it is the death penalty for drugs. In Sri Lanka, the drug lords are politician’s financiers, and now Duminda becomes the head of a state institution, with his crime of murder of a political opponent being pardoned by his political patron.

Sadly, in modern Sri Lanka, loyalty and obeisance to a  saviour-leader are demonstrated through sycophantic actions, and symbiotic deals. The state is thereby merged with the individual politician and the individual becomes the state. In the instance of Sri Lanka, Rajapakse family becomes the centre around which the state revolves. This process was symbolically formalised when public officials took an oath on January 1, 2021, not only to serve the public but also to implement Gotabaya’s ‘fake’ election manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor’. People caught up in the hyper-nationalism that relies on communalism and fake news churned by media affiliated to the regime, pay no heed to the truth, analysis or reason. 

When legal systems and processes become tools to be employed or dispensed with at the executive’s convenience, the result is a selective application of the law. When formal rules and procedures do not function effectively and are applied unequally or in a biased manner, a parallel informal system of ‘getting things done’, which undermines institutions and legal processes, comes into being. This too is steeped in our culture, but has taken on new life, form and importance during the Rajapaksa regimes. An outcome of the dominance of the informal system is the appointment of those known to and trusted by the regime to positions of power in the interests of ‘getting things done’, such as family members or friends. These persons also seem to be able to act in extra-legal ways with impunity. Appointment of a criminal of Duminda’s calibre, with impunity is a case in point. The message is that one can escape legal action through patronage. 

The Sri Lankan public, which has long suffered from inequality, discrimination and poverty is politically disillusioned. One of the best ways to fight kleptocracy is to institutionalize a genuine democracy in which the people can throw rotten rulers out of office and the judicial system can act independently to go after public officials who have erased the line between public interest and private greed. Then why do people, while demanding an equitable society, paradoxically, still gravitate towards saviours and paternal figures who perpetuate a culture dependent on maintaining the status quo?

As analysts point out, In Sri Lanka, democracy can easily be undermined and electoral authoritarianism entrenched because democratic values have not been internalised. To Sri Lankans, democracy begins and ends with casting the vote and there is little understanding of the citizen’s civic duty to hold the government accountable between elections. One fact that is unquestioningly evident is that many Sri Lankan politicians, particularly the current regime, view critique of the government and dissent as anti-national and unpatriotic instead of as the civic duty of every citizen. However, unless the public rise above narrow loyalties to the rulers and their elite class, and hold the government to account, the rulers will thrive on this sense of public apathy and blind, slavish loyalty and continue to run a kleptocratic style of government. Therein lies the biggest problem. The best lines of defence against kleptocracy are usually found within the countries where it originates. Kleptocracy thrives not just because the legal and political systems in the countries of origin are debased but also because of a weakened public activism. Sri Lankan electorate need to wake up, stand up and battle against kleptocracy. Otherwise, democracy in Sri Lanka will only be a namesake.

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Latest comments

  • 27

    I like the last para of this profoundly incisive essay, which begins with: “As analysts point out, In Sri Lanka, democracy can easily be undermined and electoral authoritarianism entrenched because democratic values have not been internalised. To Sri Lankans, democracy begins and ends with casting the vote and there is little understanding of the citizen’s civic duty to hold the government accountable between elections” and ends with: “Kleptocracy thrives not just because the legal and political systems in the countries of origin are debased but also because of a weakened public activism. Sri Lankan electorate need to wake up, stand up and battle against kleptocracy. Otherwise, democracy in Sri Lanka will only be a namesake”

    HOW TRUE. Sadly, with the exception of a vanishingly small number of individuals, Lanka has no political leaders who can cast aside religion and race, and agitate successfully wake the populace up to stir up a mass movement of legitimate and indignant public activism at a national level and with scale, to dethrone this utterly reprehensible regime and consign it to the dustbin.

    • 12

      Easton Scott,
      “Sri Lankan electorate need to wake up, stand up and battle against kleptocracy.”
      If we have a true Buddhist Priest in this country, it is absolutely true that he or they will stand up and battle against “kleptocracy”. Unfortunately, our buddhist priests are not there to work for ordinary people but for those who deny justice. What a shame?
      What was the purpose in the constitution to include this power to the President? Definitely not to protect criminals.

    • 1

      Yes, it is indeed a profoundly incisive essay. Needs to be put into pictorial form (like into a series of cartoons), so the masses can internalize the shameful and inferior system they are living under.

  • 10

    A Chinese takeover is better than this.

  • 10

    Easton Scott, Holding the government accountable between elections is done through a legitimate opposition which is wise enough not to be side tracked into unnecessary minor issues to expend their energy. All cannot be leaders and must be humble enough to be submitted to others. If all stand together with a new name of unity, there will come a dethroning of repression and an expression of true media freedom.

  • 14

    1) Bring back Hitler cry is clear indication of a Lankan voter’s mindset and understanding of Democrazy, 7 million went for it 2) Kleptocracy is seen in western and developed world too but rational people tend to resist , not enable as in Lanka. Trump and Putin are examples of Kleptocracy. 3) In U.S and U.K there were few court sentenced criminals released by leaders, but the law is clear that they will never be able to return or hold any position in public sphere. 4) Prior to elections when I wrote about the similarities between how Mafia and Rajapaksas function , many had difficulty digesting. What this writer implicates is pretty much the same. 5) Imagine ‘how one murderer has the power to pardon another, so that both can be free and continue with their mayhem. What does it tell to Judiciary, Courts and Low and Odor. 6) Mafia dose not stand in elections, but their proxies do. They control power, through money, causing fear and buying loyalty. 7) The cartels dominate by buying the support of local people, judiciary, law and order and influencing local elections. In Lanka Mafia itself is representing people. Amazing isn’t it .

  • 18

    LH, you write about Kleptocracy, the 7 million lead by Lankan “Viyathamaga” is murmuring “what about Basil ?Chamal ?Namal ? being our next??? Vistas of poverty and misery with splendor. A failed nation lead by unlawful, immoral leaders supported by the same.

  • 20

    Dont Despair,

    Econimic Mismanagement is now a thing of the past.

    SIR BASIL is back. He has vowed not to leave any stones unturned. He is gong to look for cash which he only knows where it is all hidden which he and his brothers stole. Look at the array of stars Glittering the Lawless Sri Lankan sky.

    ANOTHER CRIMINAL ( WAR ) SHAVENDRA Leading the fight against Tamils

    At lease Hirunika with her Sinhalese appeal can usurp Gotha .

    • 3

      You missed out two important stars:
      “Look at the array of stars Glittering the Lawless Sri Lankan sky.”

      • 7

        So, you are one of those 6.9M voters who do not mind losing an eye, as long as members of minority communities lose both eyes.

  • 21

    I must say this is an excellent article. Every word is true. It must be published in the English newspapers. It must also be translated and published in the Sinhala and Tamil newspapers. I wonder if anyone will come forward to do this!

  • 8

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.

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  • 10

    Apart from racist politics and rule of law crisis
    As if rajapaksas are the only racist sinhala leaders? Almost all of them since colonial independence have played their role in trying to erase tamils from the island. With many muslims acting as an enzyme for the process.

  • 6

    That something smells at the top has not been lost on ordinary people in Western democracies, who have seen elite fortunes roaring along as theirs stagnated
    Thats exactly one of the main reasons they staged the covid hoax. To decimate the working classes and transfer all of the money, wealth and resources into the hands of the ruling classes.

  • 5

    Its worth noting that all political leaders and underworld leaders are freemasons.

    • 1

      .Your comments about “Freemasons” ha

    • 1

      I’m sorry my previous attempt to engage you in discussion resulted in premature ejaculation.
      I was saying that your comments on Freemasons have become a joke in the light of your not substantiating anything that you say on that subject.
      What you say on other subjects: I have a hazy idea that you are reasonably intelligent, but it is difficult to form correct judgements when so many use pseudonyms to post (as I do myself).
      However, I regularly identify myself clearly and readily enter into discussion of details. You’d better say a little more, and then readers will be able to draw conclusions.
      Please make more comments, but confine yourself to topics that you actually understand.
      Panini Edirisinhe of Bandarawela (NIC 483111444V)

      • 1

        Don’t you think the deluded are entitled to their delusions? Like the well-known Princeton educated medical anthropologist.

  • 7

    Gota announces he needs another term to deliver prosperity to the people (i guess for th 6.9million)

    Sri Lanka V India B team series is going on in Sri Lanka
    Sri Lankans are drinking arrack and shouting
    hathara ekak arra
    hiyay ekak arra
    arra arra arra

    an Gota hit every one for a six (including the 6.9million) that he needs another term to deliver prosperity

    He hopes that
    covid will go away
    tourists will be back
    port city will have some empty sky scrapers
    6.9 million will become 9.6 million
    white van would have got rid of all trouble makers

  • 2

    If you look at the pictures of the the both the way…..that smile from both say something else …

  • 7

    Blind Eagle Moron is getting bashed and rejected yet the fool dont feel dejected. Moda Eagle as long as pingadiyas like you around these nonsense will continue and Sorry lanka will finally perish. What a fool you are. cant you just think moron. Even though someone is paying you to sweep the drains yet you must think baang. This country is ruined bu such fools who have lost the ability to think. You are ok with pimpady from aussie tax payers but how about the poor guys still stuck here. I read so many educated guys are rushing to embassies to get out. Some have even gone to B’Desh, embassy, Paksitan embassy and even Burma embassy to go there to work ans live.

  • 3

    At the end of the day it all depends on what sets of values you were brought up with .

    • 0

      Pundit, Agree values are what matters. Builders of the tower of Babel said “Let us make a name for our selves”, the same Luciferian agenda which says “I will be like the Most High” They were unaware that they were divided and scattered. Kingdom of darkness fails.

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