By DNR Samaranayaka –
A majority of the decisions that have been taken by the coalition government since it came to power in 2015 appear to be contrary to the expectations of the people who helped its formation. A clear indication of this is the number of articles that are very critical to the government now appearing not only on websites, but also in the print media. The newspapers such as The Daily Mirror, The Island, The Sunday Times, Ceylon Today, and The Weekend Leader were earlier not engaged in openly criticising previous governments, but they too are now highly critical about this government, especially with regard to its corrupt practices. Already, the government is experiencing a backlash from civil organizations about its broken promises. This is the first government in known history to face a barrage of criticisms from the public within the first year of administration.
The coalition government came into power promising to adopt an administrative system known as ‘Yahapalanaya’. It is normally referred to as a government devoid of undemocratic practices such as corruption, threats, abductions, suppression of freedom speech or similar unethical practices and without abusing the executive powers of the presidency. The commitment to Yahapalanaya was in fact promoted as the raison d’etre of this new coalition much to the comfort and support of the popular masses who were thoroughly disappointed with the corrupt practices manifested under the Rajapaksa regime. Thus on the promise and expectation of Yahaplanaya, this government was elected. Among the identified priorities of the coalition government were the action against political corruption, establishment of an Ethical Code of Conduct, and re-establishment of democracy and good governance.
Since the formation of the coalition government, commissions such as the FCID and PRECIAC have been established to investigate political corruption which occurred under the former administration. However, the promises that were made to bring corrupt politicians to justice have not produced any results up to now. Every day it is reported that the politicians of the former administration are visiting the FCID or PRECIAC to record statements. Disappointingly, nothing much happens thereafter. Although the level of corruption was the main issue that led to the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and a highlight of the opposition campaign, it now seems apparent that this issue is no longer a priority. It would seem that the issue of corruption was of a huge concern to the ordinary masses was deliberately used by the then opposition as a massive stick to beat the previous government and ultimately come into power.
During and after coming to power, President Sirisena openly accused Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family of corruption. Almost all the family members have been investigated by either the FCID or PACFICA on various charges related to corrupt practices. Some leading ministers of the government also accused Mahinda Rajapaksa of possessing US$18 billion in foreign banks and sought international assistance to locate such funds. Some of the minsters were very confident about locating the missing money hidden in places like Dubai. Despite the promise of the government, these billions are yet to be found and the people have lost interest in the promises of Yahaplanaya. The recent arrest of Namal Rajapaksa appears to be a response to the growing criticisms about the promises made to bring the members of the Rajapaksa family to justice. However, the common belief is that the coalition government is not actively pursuing these cases because either (i) key figures in the present government will also be implicated if prosecutions are made, or (ii) the promises made during the election campaign were made merely as a way of convincing the public to vote them into power and they were never intended to be carried out.
Colombo Port City Project
One of the key promises made by the coalition government before the presidential election was the promise to stop the Colombo Port City Project from implementation due to its adverse implications on our environment and the stability within the region. Most people who were opposed to this project took this promise very seriously and gave their full support to Maithripala Sirisena. The Sirisena camp also echoed the adverse implications of relying wholly on the Chinese for investments on large scale projects. Furthermore, they wanted to distance from China and get close to India to re-energise the closer relationship that was maintained previously with India. Although the Government spokesman kept on assuring people that the project will not be continued, the leaders, on the other hand, were giving assurances that the project will be continued. After the President’s visit to China early last year, for example, Mr Liu Jianchao, assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs has said ‘President Sirisena has stressed that what happened around the port city is rather temporary, and the problem does not lie with the Chinese side and hopes to continue with the project after things are sorted out’. Eventually the government made the decision to continue with the project despite the opposition of the people living in coastal areas and ignoring the serious concerns of Environmentalists about its impact on the coastal belt.
The Avant Grade affair
The Avant Grade floating armoury case made headlines when it first came to public attention and remained there for a considerable time in 2015. It was used to highlight the level of corruption and breach of security of the country by some leading politicians in the previous regime. This firm was accused of money laundering and firearm violations. A minister had to resign because he had been associated with legal matters of this firm and made a statement supporting the legality about its operation. There were high expectation that a VVIP member of the former government would soon be arrested. This is, however, yet to occur. There was also claims that the Avant Grade offered bribes to a particular minister. At the same time, the head of Avant Grade, Mr Nissanka Senadhipathi, claimed that three ministers of the present government –Mr Rajitha Senartne, Mr Arjuna Ranatunga and Mr Champika Ranawaka–demanded bribes to keep quiet in the case pending against Avant Grade. While angrily refuting this accusation, the three ministers have asked the police to investigate this claim by the head of Avant Grade. To date, after a flurry of activity, nothing substantial has happened. It would seem that this matter will also not be pursued or the members of the previous government will be prosecuted. All of this is contrary to the promises made by the government.
Acts of nepotism carried out by President Sirisena
One can expect that a government which comes to power on the basis of ‘Yahapalanaya’ and promises to eradicate corruption at all levels of government and hold to account the members of the previous regime who have engaged in corrupt practices will have an administration which lives by those ideals. Sadly, the present regime from almost the inception of its coming into power has indulged in nepotism and corruption which is far from the ideals of Yahapalanaya and appears to be speedily following the footsteps of the previous regime.
An act of nepotism may not necessarily a corrupt act if a politician offering a family member or a friend with a benefit with financial implications does not except anything in return. These opportunities are not normally accessible to family members or friends without the intervention of political hierarchy at the highest level. However, it is a form of political corruption, similar to a bribe, if a politician involved in such an act has the intention of benefiting directly from it. On this basis, some of the acts, as reported below, carried out by the President Sirisena can be regarded as corrupt practices needing investigation by FICD or PRECIAC.
(i) Size of the cabinet
Contrary to the expectation of the people that President Sirisena will not go back on his promise to keep the Cabinet to under 35, he surprised everyone by gradually increasing it to 92. This action clearly shows how the president ignored the concerns of those who worked very hard to make him the president. One of the main criticisms of the Rajapaksa administration was the amount of public expenditure that needed to maintain a jumbo cabinet. In this context, the President Sirisena’s regime is no different to the previous regime. There is no reason to increase the number unless it is undertaken with the sole purpose of strengthening President Sirisena’s power base. A jumbo cabinet, as seen under Rajapaksa regime, normally brings waste and corruption and it also results in a huge allocation in the budget to maintain their luxury life styles without any benefit to the country. As demonstrated by the recent behaviour in parliament, most of these ministers are not capable of contributing anything to the development of the country. It is this reason that the people opposed to a jumbo cabinet and the president accepted to trim it a more affordable level.
(ii) Back door appointment of defeated candidates
Appointing defeated candidates to parliament through the back door to fill the places in the national list, depriving those who rightly deserve to be appointed to the parliament for their services to the country. President Sirisena, who has been in the parliament for over 40 years and who knows that these places are reserved for a special category of people in the community, filled them with those who were rejected by the people. This is a deplorable act carried out by the President and it is identical to the practices of the previous regime; surprisingly, these are the same practices that the Yahapalanaya promised to eliminate.
(iii) Buying opposition members and giving them ministerial posts
Some of the SLFP members who were in joint opposition, and worked against President Sirisena, were invited back to the government and offered them with ministerial posts. This is another violation of the trust placed on him by the people. The main reason for this move was to ensure a SLFP government after the next election. President Sirisena fails to understand that the role of the President is to serve the entire country and not as the president of the SLFP. This is an act that can be charged under the existing laws as it misappropriates public funds to support ministers who will help him to achieve his personal objectives.
(iv) Protecting corrupt politicians’ by inviting them to join the government
The parliamentarians who were invited to join the Sirisena government were members of the former Rajapaksa government. It is therefore possible that most of them, if not all, would have been engaged in various corrupt activities during their term under the previous government. The opportunity offered by the president to cross over to his government helped them to enjoy immunity from FCID or PRECIAC investigations. Any person with authority knowingly protecting another corrupt person is also equally corrupt. This is a serious violation of trust placed on him by the people and, therefore, this action by President Sirisena needs to be investigated. President Sirisena was also a member of a regime which he now claims corrupt. An investigation is also necessary to clear his name for any wrong doings and to justify the actions he has initiated against others in the previous regime.
(v) President Sirisena’s brother as CEO of SLT
One of the first acts of President Sirisena was the appointment of his brother as the CEO of SLT. The president’s action can be justified if his brother was discriminated by the Rajapaksa regime for being the brother of President Sirisena or he is an indispensable person to take the Yahaplanaya forward for the benefit of the country. Unfortunately he is an accountant among the thousands of accountants in the labour market. Although this is an unethical action, it is not illegal since there is no direct financial benefit to the president. However, when Central Bank Bond scam became known, he advised the Prime Minister to sack Mr Arjun Mahendran as the Governor of the Central Bank. The same rule did not apply to his brother when there were reports about his corrupt activities as the CEO of SLT; he kept mum about it. He should have been at least investigated to find out whether there is any truth of such accusations. He used his power to suppress any such investigation.
Some former ministers are being currently investigated by FCID for misappropriating public funds to help their relatives and friends financially. Although former ministers may have not directly benefited by these corrupt practices, they have used public money for the benefit of their relatives and friends. These crimes can be charged under the existing laws of the country. The same rule should apply to President Sirisena as well.
An Ethical Code of conduct for parliamentarians
An Ethical Code of Conduct for parliamentarians was included in the 100-day program since it was considered one of the priorities of the coalition government. Although it was expected to be released on January 22, 2015, the country has not seen it even after one and half years lapse since the presidential election. Its fate appear to be sealed since the government does not speak about it anymore, and the parliamentarians are also acting as if they do not give a damn about their behaviour in parliament.
Usually, a code of conduct in other democracies is what lawmakers practice as servants of the people. If any parliamentarian or minister found to be involved in an unethical practice, he or she is immediately dismissed or forced to resign. In these democracies, with fully independent judiciary and police, the rule of law is applied to every one irrespective of the person’s social standing or his or her political connections. However, such policies are completely out of the question for the parliamentarians in Sri Lanka whose interests are only to serve themselves. They also lack the intellectual capacity to understand what is right and what is wrong.
A minister of the Rajapaksa administration, Mr Keheliya Rambukwella, has suggested the introduction of GCE (O/L) as the basic educational requirement to be a parliamentarian, implying that some of the MPs, and possibly the Minsters, of the present government do not even have such a basic qualification. Unfortunately, these are the people who are serving the community as parliamentarians and ministers of the present government. They are also the people asking for luxury vehicles such as Land Cursers, Outlanders, Hummers, Volvos, Jaguars, Mercedes Benzes, and Audis to serve the people. Given the quality of parliamentarians in the parliament these days, a code of conduct is certainly not going to serve any purpose. It may not be worth even the paper it is printed.
Unfulfilled promises of president Sirisena
Since Maithripala Sirisena became the President, he has been frequently making various promises. As noted above, almost all the promises he made earlier have not been fulfilled. Although earlier promises were not honoured, he continues to make further promises. A few of such promises are as follows:
To take action against those involved in destroying our forests and the nature reserves and also against those involved in illegal clearing of forests for their valuable timber. There is nothing he has done so far to take this promise seriously. As recent press reports indicate, the officials who are enforcing the law are harassed by the politicians and the political leadership is taking the side of the politicians even without an investigation.
To eradicate the LTTE ideology, which is still present locally and internationally. He justified his claim by saying that since being elected as the president he had been able to cultivate friendships with world leaders. He would rely on their assistance to seek a solution and encourage reconciliation. Clearly, this is not a problem that can be sorted out through his friends, no matter how influential they are, because it is a problem that requires a comprehensive solution that is acceptable to both communities. The reconciliation process is certainly not going to be easy because of the influence that diaspora can exert on the Sri Lankan government, and it cannot be undermined especially under Hilary Clinton as the US President. The Prime Minister David Cameron is one of his so-called friends, but his influence is no longer has any impact since he has lost his position after the Brexit. The head of the UNCHR’s recent statement clearly demonstrate who is firing the shots on accountability of war crimes in Sri Lanka.
To refuse foreign judges to serve in Sri Lankan courts to hear human rights violation supposed to have occurred during the last stages of the ethnic conflict. It is, however, yet to be seen how this will be handled by the President. Usually, the UNCHR has the final say.
To take urgent action to reduce cost of living and to strengthen the economy. Certainly this is one of the most relevant issues, not only to Sri Lanka, but also to almost all other nations in the world that grappled with low growth, high inflation and high unemployment. This is a very complex problem, and it has become even more complex due to the ongoing globalization process, which creates interaction among countries causing adverse implications on the economies of other countries. Although Brexit is simply a vote for Britain to exit from the EU, it is economic impact is widely felt. The Sri Lankan economy is also likely to be affected because of the trade and investments that flow between the two countries. If Britain is affected economically as result of the exit from UK, the trade between Sri Lanka and Britain could also suffer, causing difficult economic problems for Sri Lanka as well. Although the President’s intentions may be genuine, the priorities of the government with the offers of many perks to politicians do not indicate that president has grasped the key elements of this problem. Unfortunately, the direct impact of the policies pursued by this government is likely to make the problem even worse than that exists now.
To eradicate the worst form of child labour by 2016. This another promise made at the Child Labour conference held at the BMICH on 21st June 2016. At this conference, he had taken an oath. How he is going to achieve and how he is going determine that it has been eliminated is yet to be disclosed.
To introduce an uncompromised solution for the VAT system. It won’t’ be a surprise if nothing really happens by his decision to help the people who are affected by the VAT increase. The government may do some cosmetic changes, but the structure of the VAT system will not change. This increase is a condition imposed on the government by the IMF and its removal could damage the relationship with IMF. Moreover, any modifications to the changes made to the tax system is unlikely to be tolerated by any government. It is also not clear what is ‘uncompromised’ solution means. Getting involved in matters that he has no direct control only indicates his ignorance.
The president has so far failed to demonstrate that these promises have been made with responsibility as the head of state. He has not done anything to justify that he is serious about what he says. His promises are continuing to build up, but one by one they drop out as people are not very serious about what he says.
Re-establishment of democracy and freedom of speech
One of the areas where there is a significant progress since the presidential election is democracy and freedom of speech. This change is not due to the efforts of the Maithri-Ranil government; it is entirely due to the efforts of the civil organizations that helped the restoration of democracy and freedom of speech even before the election. A clear indication of this is the 2015 presidential election, which is one of the cleanest that the country had seen since the 1980’s.
Mahinda Rajapaksa had doubts about his return after the entry of Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate, but he did not resort to unlawful acts to inflict fear on the minds of the people to refrain from voting against him or to engage in vote rigging as suspected by most people in the past elections. The reason for this change was the role of civil organizations, which stood firmly against the Rajapaksa regime, and, as a result, the Rajapaksa government was forced to uphold democratic practices. Some of the government ministers are claiming that the freedom of speech and the absence of the ‘white van’ saga are the achievements of the present government, but this government did not play any role in bringing these changes that we now experience compared to the previous administration. The credit should go entirely to the efforts of various civil organizations who fought for freedom that the country currently enjoys.
Although the country experiences the benefits of freedom of speech, a lot more needs to be done to achieve an acceptable level of good governance. One of the key element of good governance is free and fair election and the party, once elected, acts in a manner that takes into account the wishes of the majority of the population. Although this government does not take direct action against those who criticize the government, there is evidence that the political leadership abuse the power to influence decisions in its favour.
The recent behaviour of the Prime Minister in relation to the Arjun Mahendran affair clearly shows how he abuses the power to protect him and how he manoeuvres this affair to justify his stay as the Governor of the Central Bank. As reported in the media, the Prime Minister even attempted to manipulates his colleagues to challenge the COPE findings, exonerate the former Central Bank governor and clear him from any wrong doings. It is difficult to understand how a prime minister could go that far to protect one individual at a heavy cost to the country. Even if Arjun Mahendran is not involved in any wrong doings, the way that the prime minister handled this matter made him guilty in the eyes of the public. Now the prime minister has lost his credibility and the recognition of him as a statesman. Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe was not appointed by Arjun Mahendran, but the people of this country. He would not have been the prime minister or even a minister, if not for the support of the civil organizations.
The unexpected defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa was his own making: it was an outcome of excessive corruption, abuse of power and bad advising from his advisors who failed to read the emerging signs. A simple change to the way he administered his authority and the priorities of his investment policies, together with some control of political and administrative corruption, he would have undoubtedly be the president of the country even today. Because of these mistakes, he lost his power base and the gratitude of the people for making this country a safe place, saving billions of rupees and lives by eliminating terrorism for ever. Unfortunately the replacement is not as good as the promise that was made by the leaders who brought in this change in 2015. Since it was his failure that resulted this change, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa is also greatly responsible for the current political situation in the country.
The writer is an economist he is on firstname.lastname@example.org