Kath Noble

Declaring war on corrupt politicians

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on June 27, 2012

Why this is one struggle that shouldn’t be left to Sarath Fonseka

I’m no fan of Sarath Fonseka, but he’s got one thing right. Something has to be done about the corrupt political culture in Sri Lanka.

At his first press conference after being released from prison, the former Army Commander identified tackling corruption and nepotism as his top priority. These are issues the middle class loves, so he may expect and indeed get a lot of support from across the ideological spectrum. People are fed up with politicians. Mervyn Silva used to be the egregious example of the depths to which politics in the country has plummeted, but we’ve grown so accustomed to his exploits that he hardly seems worth mentioning now. There is so much competition.

The latest depressing revelation has come from the heart of the Rajapaksa homeland of Hambantota, around which it would seem Julampitiye Amare has roamed for decades, shooting at whomsoever he pleases in the knowledge that politicians would protect him from any unfortunate consequences – like arrest or death ‘while trying to escape the Police’.

Sarath Fonseka is hoping to ride the anti-politician wave. His criticism of ‘political interference’ – as he put it, ‘almost all facets of this country have been completely dominated by politicians’ – implies that he thinks people may prefer him in charge, and not just of a ‘war’ on corruption. Discipline is supposed to be everything to military men.

We are asked to forget that he has been found guilty of political interference himself, in arms procurement. Just because the court martial was politically motivated doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Sarath Fonseka must clear himself if he is at all serious about his campaign on corruption, else we will be tempted to call him a hypocrite. We may already use worse terms to describe him, given his suspected involvement in attacks on journalists when he was Army Commander.

Tackling corruption really ought not to be left to Sarath Fonseka. The country needs other, better anti-corruption activists. But where are they?

The most well-known in civil society is Transparency International, whose most visible activity is the construction of a global index ranking countries from most to least corrupt on a scale from 0 to 10. In 2011, Sri Lanka scored 3.3, making it the 86th most corrupt nation in the world. What use that is to anybody I really don’t know. I don’t think I even want to know how much of somebody else’s money they are spending on such totally pointless activities, although this too is a form of corruption – they get funds on the basis of claims that they are doing something meaningful to benefit Sri Lankans.

They should give it up immediately and start with some real work, by which I mean exposing dodgy deals.

NGOs are not always completely useless. Initiatives like the ‘I paid a bribe’ website in India are interesting – they invite ordinary citizens to record their personal experiences of corruption for all to see. By demonstrating just how upset the public is about being asked to pay Rs. 1,000 for a marriage certificate or Rs. 500 to escape a traffic fine and by showing just how many people are affected, they can empower officials within the public service who want to make changes. I am sure that if somebody were to bring this idea to Sri Lanka, there would be useful results.

However, it is not the most pressing task. Even the Government tackles low level corruption to some extent, via its otherwise very underwhelming Bribery Commission.

As I expect Sarath Fonseka would agree – albeit perhaps for other, more vengeful reasons – attention must be focused at the top. It is the corruption of those at the top that encourages others, and it is through the corruption of those at the top that they are so often protected. Also, this corruption has a much greater impact. How much damage can a clerk in the Samurdhi Authority really do? Not a lot in comparison with the minister.

If a minister is ‘Mr Ten Percent’, he is getting his hands on billions of rupees. We care about corruption not out of jealousy at the riches a few manage to amass – they can do that perfectly legally, if the ‘right’ economic policies are adopted – but because they are taking money that the Government has collected for all its citizens, especially the poor.

At the moment, it would seem as though the only thing the corrupt have to be careful about is thieves breaking into their homes and running off with the stash. (Even then the Police can be summoned to do a bit of uncharacteristic sleuthing and they will probably be finished in time for their afternoon tea break, demonstrating that catching criminals is not as difficult as we were led to believe when, to take just one example, Lasantha Wickrematunge was murdered.) The Government will not strengthen the Bribery Commission, nor does it pay much attention to that institution’s occasional, inadvertent victories – the former mayor of Kandy, who was found guilty in 2011 of ‘misappropriating’ Rs. 1.9 million, was promptly given a Presidential pardon.

The 2010 passage of the 18th Amendment made it clear that the Government has decided to move in the direction of less checks and balances rather than more.

(Of course, it’s hard to blame them, since the Opposition is no more interested in tackling corruption than the Government – when Kesara Senanayake was given that Presidential pardon, the UNP seriously considered putting him up as its mayoral candidate again.)

Without a strengthened Bribery Commission, the sometimes sterling work of Parliament’s Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) will continue to be ignored by officialdom. The 2007 COPE report exposed the corrupt privatisations of the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation and Lanka Marine Services, but it was left to a private citizen to petition the Supreme Court to get those dodgy deals undone. To date, no real action has been taken against the politicians and officials accused of wrongdoing, even though this all happened under the UNP. Instead, the responsible minister – Milinda Moragoda – was enthusiastically welcomed into the Government. He was even appointed Minister of Justice and Law Reform in 2009, presumably because Mervyn Silva was too busy working out what kind of rope is best used in tying people to trees.

The 2011 COPE sessions brought up the possibility of corruption in the Maga Neguma Company, which tried hard to pretend that it wasn’t a Public Enterprise and therefore did not have to report to Parliament. We await news of the claims that contractors paid ‘huge commissions’ to certain politicians. (This is obviously not the only news we are awaiting, but there would not be space to list all the allegations pending investigation and corrective or punitive action.)

A few good men like Wijedasa Rajapakse and DEW Gunasekera can’t clean up Parliament by themselves, and it is at this high level that the ‘war’ on corruption must be fought.

To have any hope of victory, the media must step up its game. It must play its role as watchdog in a much more effective way than it has of late. Politicians must be exposed – in every gory detail – and the public must be reminded of their sins again and again until they realise that they are the ones who lose out when they elect such people to rule over them.

It is too easy to argue that there is no freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. Of course it’s risky to expose the corrupt, especially when politicians have taken to maintaining their own personal gangs of thugs and ministers seriously argue that this is necessary to win elections. However, the recent kerfuffle at Ceylon Today should have reminded us that the Government is not all-powerful – politicians of all parties are pretty good at manipulating the media. It may be somewhat perverse to consider this a good sign, but the situation demands that we look into every dark hole for signs of light.

The Julampitiye Amare saga has itself demonstrated that politicians cannot completely ignore widespread and unqualified condemnation. The outcry at the shooting of JVP activists brought about the surrender of a man who had previously managed even to visit prisons without the Police thinking of serving any of the outstanding warrants against him, and that too within a matter of days. Whether he is convicted and imprisoned is another matter, of course.

Sarath Fonseka would like us to accept that he can and should lead this struggle against corrupt politicians, since he did such a good job of crushing terrorists. However, it is a very different kind of activity, and I for one believe that to allow him to acquire any further popularity due to the failings of politicians would be a great mistake. Military men may be known for their enthusiasm for discipline, but they also tend to be impervious to outside opinion. This is fine so long as they are on the right track, but disastrous when they get hold of the wrong end of the stick.

I wouldn’t trust Sarath Fonseka with a stick.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on 27th June 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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The Army’s no-war games

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on June 20, 2012

Why demilitarisation should not be limited to reducing checkpoints and high security zones.

What should the Security Forces do when there’s no war to be fought? Now that three years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE and pretty much everybody is convinced that there will be no resurgence, this would seem to be a pertinent question to ask. Of course vigilance is needed. The Security Forces have to ensure that they are ready to deal with any new militancy. However, that’s a limited task in comparison with the all-out war they were caught up in until 2009. So what now?

Last week, the Daily News reported that the Army had started purchasing paddy from farmers in the Eastern Province, cutting out the exploitative middlemen. Soldiers are working in shifts to clean and process the produce, and they would soon be in a position to supply their full rice requirement of over 1,000 MT per month, since they are busy renovating a ‘giant’ processing unit in Dehiattakandiya. Farmers are getting a fair price for their harvest, after years of struggle.

Now we are told that the Army is also going to make the country self-sufficient in milk. Malnutrition will be a thing of the past, since it is importing 10,000 cows from Australia, which the Army intends to raise in its farm in the Polonnaruwa district.

In some ways, this is good news. These are certainly worthwhile objectives.

Also, leaving soldiers sitting around doing nothing is a waste of resources. The Army alone claims to have around 200,000 members. That’s large by international standards, even in absolute terms.

The Ministry of Defence budget for 2012 takes up a massive 20% of Government expenditure. It amounts to 4% of GDP, compared to spending of 2.7% in India and 2.1% in China. Even the US, which is busy trying to rule the world, spends only 4.8% of GDP, and this isn’t so unproductive considering that it relies largely on domestic manufacturing. Sri Lanka imports its material defence requirements.

More significantly, these figures constitute an increase over previous years. Also, the explanation given when this information was published back in October – that the money was needed to construct new bases in areas reclaimed from the LTTE, as well as to repay loans taken for equipment bought during the war – was misleading, since Rs. 162 billion of the total Rs. 231 billion Ministry of Defence budget is to be spent on salaries and allowances, and this is what has increased. Sri Lanka has to spend so much on the Security Forces because they employ so many people.

Reducing the size of the Security Forces is understandably controversial. For one thing, having risked their lives for their country, it wouldn’t be very nice of the Government to throw them out of their jobs, even with compensation.

However, just because this is a difficult problem doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be tackled. Getting soldiers to do the work of civilians is no solution – these are other people’s jobs, after all.

It is rather like Colombo’s garbage issue, apparently resolved since Gotabhaya Rajapaksa took over the Urban Development Authority. Everybody is happy, since the city had suffered piles of rubbish slowly and so malodorously putrefying on each and every street corner for years. It was a health hazard as well as a nose and eyesore. Within months of his taking over, everything changed. The streets were suddenly spotless. However, there was no magic involved. It needed only political will. Those who had allowed the contractor to get away with not collecting rubbish just had to be told that their actions would no longer be tolerated. Bribes would not be accepted.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa deserves credit for this achievement, but it’s ridiculous to suggest that there is only one person in the entire country of 20 million who could have got this very simple job done. It’s not like wiping out a highly-sophisticated terrorist group.

Sri Lanka must be the only country in the world with a Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. Amongst its key objectives are both ‘assuring the territorial integrity and national security of the country’ and ‘the protection and development of wetlands’. How many more unconnected tasks will be added to this list?

Since the war ended, as well as paddy purchasing and processing and milk production, the Security Forces have also been marketing vegetables. They run tea shops and restaurants all over the North and East. And recently the Navy announced that it is building a hotel in Mirissa.

Even if the Ministry of Defence can handle all of these tasks, soldiers are paid more than the people who usually do them. Also, they are trained at great expense for something entirely different.

It is useless to argue that the Government should entrust pressing issues to the Ministry of Defence because it is the only ministry that functions well. Even if that were true – which seems unlikely – this can only be a recent phenomenon. After all, the war dragged on for three decades, with the Ministry of Defence apparently powerless to do anything about it. Other departments can and must be reformed too.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has been half-heartedly intervening in the agriculture sector ever since he came to power, with rather more rhetorical flourish but only slightly more action than his immediate predecessors. If he really wants to make the country self-sufficient in milk and solve the marketing problems of vegetable and paddy farmers, he has a Ministry of Agriculture for that. It gets a fraction of the funds of the Ministry of Defence – Rs. 6 billion in the 2012 budget, of which less than Rs. 2 billion is to be spent on salaries and allowances. It would function better if it had more money. Even doubling its allocation would mean only a pathetic 1% share of Government expenditure. And if a change of leadership is needed, there’s nothing stopping Mahinda Rajapaksa doing that too.

If a bit of political will were employed in the agriculture sector, the country would be transformed, in particular the North and East where there is so much undeveloped potential.

The end of the war was supposed to provide the opportunity for such change, as resources can now be redirected towards more productive purposes. But this is a process that is not going to end well if it takes place only within the Ministry of Defence. There is a need for other expertise and other methods.

Also, the fact that the Security Forces are essentially mono-ethnic means that their takeover of so many functions of the state is bound to be interpreted as discriminatory. It doesn’t matter whether or not it was intended that way.

Do Sri Lankans really want soldiers to run any more aspects of their society than is absolutely necessary?

There would seem to be no escaping the need for some reduction in numbers. While it is tempting to argue that such decisions should be left in the hands of the Security Forces themselves, who undoubtedly best know what is needed, it should be remembered that nobody likes to reduce their own power. Sarath Fonseka was so keen to increase his influence when he was in charge of the Army that he actually proposed accelerating recruitment after the war ended, with the objective of doubling its members. His former colleagues are undoubtedly more measured in their approach, but the final say must be with politicians, whose determinations must be influenced by a wider range of factors.

Although there is clearly no justification for sacrificing jobs in the North and East for the sake of the South, the economic impact has to be considered, since the majority of soldiers are from rural areas. Their salaries propped up the rural economy in the South through the long years of war.

Even more importantly, the process has to be handled in a much better way than the integration of the former LTTE cadres of the Karuna faction, many of whom are now running amok both in the Eastern Province and elsewhere. Those trained in the use of force have to be trained to do something else when they are no longer needed. They need new skills. There must also be political will to stop them employing their old skills outside the confines of the law. This rather obvious observation is accepted in the case of LTTE cadres who fought to the end, but it is not applied to those who gave up earlier. Gratitude for their assistance in crushing Prabhakaran should extend as far as agreeing not to prosecute them for crimes committed during their time in the LTTE, which were in many cases egregious. Crimes they go on to commit three years after the war ended simply cannot be tolerated. The problem is that the Government is tolerating many things these days, for its own convenience.

Gratitude towards soldiers can also only go so far. There must be a proper assessment of needs and a real shift in approach to reflect the fact that the country is now at peace. If not, Sri Lanka will have to face the consequences in the years to come.

Never mind the economic and political problems, if the Security Forces spend all of their time making cups of tea, they will forget how to fight wars.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 20th June 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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The forgotten people

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on June 13, 2012

How the plight of 70,000 Sri Lankans living in temporary camps in Tamil Nadu for the last 30 years continues to be ignored by authorities on both sides of the Palk Strait.

Sri Lankan refugees have been making the news again in recent days. A group of 40 whose claims of persecution have been rejected by the UK was sent back to Colombo at the beginning of the month. Only hours earlier, more than 100 others had been arrested before they could even leave the island – the boat that was supposed to carry them to Australia was spotted by the Police.

Some people are clearly desperate to get away. A few months ago, the BBC reported the story of 200 Sri Lankan refugees stranded in Togo. They had paid agents $6,000 each to be taken to Canada. Instead, they found themselves incarcerated in a football stadium in a country they probably hadn’t ever heard of. They weren’t being given enough to eat and they were suffering from malaria. Who knows how many had died before they even got that far – such journeys generally claim dozens of lives. And now they are being deported. When they reach Sri Lanka, they will be under suspicion.

Asking why people would take such a risk doesn’t usually generate much in the way of interest. Many of us just assume that they are all LTTE cadres.

That is unlikely to be the case, three years after the end of the war.

Nevertheless, it is our lack of interest in another group of Sri Lankans that I want to draw attention to in this article – Sri Lankans who have been given refuge overseas yet actually want to return to the island. I refer here to the 70,000 Sri Lankans who have been staying in temporary camps in India for much of the last 30 years.

Ironically, these probably constitute the majority of Sri Lankan refugees.

According to UNHCR, the refugee claims of just over 140,000 Sri Lankans have been accepted worldwide to date, of which 100,000 by India. In addition to the 70,000 in temporary camps, there are another 30,000 Sri Lankans living with relatives and friends in Tamil Nadu.

Given the fervour with which Tamil Nadu politicians talk about the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils inside Sri Lanka, we might expect those who crossed over to India to have been treated like royalty. At least they should have been given their full rights, as the ‘brethren’ Karunanidhi and more recently also Jayalalithaa embrace wholeheartedly in their speeches on Sri Lanka.

In fact, they are languishing in an appalling state.

There are 112 temporary camps in Tamil Nadu, spread more or less evenly throughout the state.

The refugees are given some relief – they get a cash dole of INR 400 per month for a head of family, INR 288 for other adults, INR 180 for the first child and INR 90 for other children. It obviously doesn’t go far. They need to work, but they are only allowed to leave the camps between 6am and 6pm. They have to apply to the official in charge of the district to stay away for longer – a process that is fraught with difficulties. And even when they are successful, it is not easy to find employment. They are not entitled to government jobs, and private sector companies exploit them when they find out about their refugee status – they are paid less or made to work under worse conditions. University graduates often end up working as labourers.

Those staying in camps near major urban areas are fortunate. In rural areas, even labouring work isn’t available.

Most of the refugees were farmers or fishers in Sri Lanka, but there is little chance of their being able to continue these activities in India. They can’t buy land, and they are generally kept a long way from the sea for security reasons.

Even when they manage to make a bit of money, they can’t do much to improve their living conditions. They are stuck in the camps. They can’t even get the permits needed to buy sand to extend the ‘houses’ some of them have been given by the state – 10 foot by 10 foot windowless rooms made of concrete and covered with a metal sheet, too small for all family members to lie down at once and in any case too hot to remain inside for long enough to fall asleep. Some refugees have lived for several decades in abandoned grain stores put up during the British period, hanging sarees for privacy and going to the fields to relieve themselves. They don’t even have a water supply.

A handful of NGOs are permitted to work in the camps, but their activities are limited and strictly controlled. Outsiders are not allowed to enter. Even UNHCR can’t visit.

Perhaps worst of all is the lack of hope. The refugees don’t see any way in which their lives can be anything other than miserable in India. They have been in the same pathetic situation for 30 years – an entire generation. They are aliens in Tamil Nadu.

Many of them want to return home.

If they approach the UNHCR office in Chennai, they can get help in arranging their travel, plus a grant of SLR 10,000 per adult and SLR 7,500 per child to establish themselves once they reach Sri Lanka. Some took advantage of this assistance in the immediate aftermath of the war, but the numbers are falling. There were 2,054 returns in 2010, but only 1,728 in 2011. UNHCR figures for the first quarter of this year showed a further decrease – to 408.

At this rate, it will take several decades for the 70,000 in temporary camps to return to Sri Lanka. They will be long dead by then.

The question of why they aren’t returning isn’t too perplexing.

For a start, they are yet to be convinced that the war is over. Some of them have come back to Sri Lanka several times already, only to have to flee again when fighting restarted – on each occasion leaving behind everything they owned. They don’t want to risk another round of displacement. Confidence will grow over time, but this will take much longer in the absence of the political solution they were led to believe they could expect. The long delay in starting talks with the TNA, and the recent decision to refer the matter to a Parliamentary Select Committee, make them think that it will never happen.

At the same time, the Government is either unable or unwilling to restore their faith in the Security Forces. The extremely belated decision to inform close relatives about LTTE cadres detained at the end of the war is hardly sufficient to restore transparency, while effectiveness is now apparently a lost cause, with abductions continuing at a disturbing rate. I won’t even start with accountability.

The refugees want to see progress on all of these issues.

However, they also need more structured support for their return. They are poor. When they fled Sri Lanka, only the poorest went to India – those who could afford it headed straight for the West. And they have become even poorer during their time as refugees. They need more than UNHCR is offering to rebuild their lives after so long away from the country.

I believe that they should also be given the choice of staying in India if they prefer, as citizens. Some of them were born and brought up there.

Whether they stay or go, some kind of agreement between the two countries is long overdue. However, clearly neither party is keen – the refugees are never even mentioned when Indian ministers or officials visit. Even Tamil Nadu politicians pretend that they don’t exist.

As usual, the Government doesn’t appear to have a plan.

The only time anybody remembers these Sri Lankans is when they try to emulate their compatriots by risking their lives to get to the West, as a group of 150 did just last week. Then and only then are they in the headlines.

This article was published in The Midweek Review on 13th June 2012. The online version can be accessed here.

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