By Mohamed 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.