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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