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Let’s end the gimmick politics of anti-corruption

2016 Oct 23

The first 21 months of the 'good governance' government was an exercise in 'gimmick politics' (politics based on optics), which refused to deal with the ground realities that were increasingly becoming difficult to ignore. The 6.2 million people who voted for 'change' expected results and were increasingly getting tired of various reasons offered by the government for not punishing those guilty of vast financial irregularities. Apart from a few hundred thousands of people, most Sri Lankans are disillusioned with the 'good governance'. Good governance has become a 'bad word'.
 
"Chandi Shyama' of the anti-corruption campaign has returned to the AGs Department. And many people assume and perpetuate that the essence of the President's speech was his critique of the independent commissions. Is that the truth? it is not.
 
It took two days for former Bribery Commission Director General to become the chief target of the president's speech. Dilrukshi had a lot of experience in tackling corruption, but she had little idea about political realities of Sri Lanka. Thus when the President was pointing his finger at the moon, she only looked at his pointing finger and sent him her resignation letter. As I have said earlier when President Sirisena was the face of our desire for good governance, Dilrukshi was the symbol of our hope against corruption.
 
It is after this episode that the people, who were hitherto blaming the President, the Prime Minister and the government for slow progress made in punishing the guilty, attempted to understand what's going on. The people have realized that the so called 'war on anti-corruption' was only a gimmick. This is  a truth that we had realized a long time ago, and attempting to tell the people. But some people who want to 'protect' the government, more than the President and the Prime Minister it seems, attempted to drown our voice by saying 'Mahinda is coming back'.
 
We have always said that the speech made by the President should not have been made. It was bit of an angry speech, made by a man who was tired of the slow progress made on every front, which employed several bad examples. But conflict has always been a pre-requisite in progress and we are realizing that it is the same here.
 
Fight against corruption, flattened
 
After becoming the advisor to the Anti-Corruption Front (ACF), my first task was to determine the progress made on the cases we filed. Bombarded with propaganda from the media, I was under the impression that everything must be sorted, but what I learnt from my inquires, shocked me back to the real world. There was virtually no progress made on the cases we filed. Apart from the FCID, the other investigative agencies lived in a dream world. We tried to wake them up and a number of people who were afraid to investigate corruption of this government didn't see the importance of what we were saying.
 
FCID has filed 12 important cases, under serious difficulty, but it’s staff also faces bribery charges. There are 42 files, on important issues, stuck at the AG's Department. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption as Abuse of Power, State Resources, and Privileges (PRESIFAC), established to look at cases which could not be investigated under existing anti-corruption laws, has made very little progress. There is no one to guide it at all.
 
On the other hand our existing anti-corruption are not capable of dealing with white collar crime. Knowing this only too well, the PRESIFAC is also attempting to punish the culprits using the same laws. I don’t need to tell you the outcome of such endeavors. Those who are summoned before the PRESIFAC, have made it a platform to give speeches and self-promotion. If you look at TV news, you can see these people, alleged of serious white collar crime, beaming to the cameras and talk about how they are targeted unjustly. They also make this an opportunity to comment on the current political context but they say nothing about the allegations leveled against them and no one asks them that either.
 
When will this lunacy end?
Dilrukshi Dias, who we called Chandi Shyama, was the symbol of anti corruption. But can we be happy about what the bribery commission has done. ACF is the organization that has lodged the highest amount of complaints to the commission, 225, but only three cases have been satisfactorily investigated. If the top client of the commission is unhappy, how can others be? I think that those investigated by PRESIFAC and the bribery commission are extremely happy. They can come to these institutions periodically, get free media coverage, fulfill their political agenda and ultimately walk away free from their crimes.
 
Now the people know about not investigating serious acts of fraud and the weaknesses in the process. The selection bias of the commission is also now public. On the other hand we were shocked because details that we considered confidential tended to become common knowledge. For example the driver of former presidential aide, Gamini Senarath, who was a chief witness to an important investigation, was harassed by the police who attempted to convict him as a terrorist. If Udul Premaratne and Ven Ulapone Sumangala didn’t intervene, the driver Sumith Dissanayake might now not be among the living. At this point some attempted to portray us as those who attempt to protect the crooks.
The Police Inspector who handled the Sumith Diaasnayake case has foreign training on money laundering but he had also taken a Rs 2.5 million bribe to cover up several serious irregularities which took during the  presidential election period. If MP Ranjan Ramanayake did not take Dissnayake to the Police HQ on his own vehicle, Dissnayake  might now be languishing in jail as a terrorist. Is that what people wanted?
During Dilrukshi's tenure, the commission uncovered what was said to be the biggest reported case of bribery, when three customs officials were nabbed while accepting a bribe of Rs. 125 million. What happened to that case? Customs filed a case to uncover a serious irregularity involving foreign currency and it was after that the commission carried out the raid. Although Dilrukshi didn't know a second rung leader of the commission has a deep involvement in this case. For the moment it’s enough to say there is a plot intriguing enough to make a film called 'komisama nihandai' (the commission is silent)
This is not to say that the Bribery Commission didn't do anything. They did  a lot of important things. They tried to introduce an anti - corruption culture, they tried to educate the people, they worked from 8 am to midnight, essentially the commissioners had made the anti-corruption campaign their life. But because there was no process or procedure, the investigations took a biased turn.
 
I don't think Dilrukshi was a part of a political agenda. If anyone had attempted to intervene in investigations, she would have quit. But then again, if close to Rs 8 trillion was embezzled we must think how many of the god fathers of corruption have been punished.
 
However Dilrukshi was a shining star among the diplomatic community in Colombo and the international community who thinks we have overcome our 'corruption problem'. Last June, I made a presentation on the corruption in Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, Geneva and most of the audience was under the impression that the battle against corruption in Sri Lanka has been won. When I said the battle has grounded to a halt, there were so many questions. This is not an experience I have faced only abroad, but the 'privileged' NGOs sector in Colombo is still not ready to accept this bitter truth. There are people who say that they consider 'transparency, result oriented intervention, process and procedure'  their mottos in life, how many of them have looked at the ant corruption initiatives under these prisms. Instead they all accept that delay in courts is 'natural' and that things are slow because of the lack of human resources. But everything is not well, we need to open our eyes to the truth.
 
Without the President's speech the first suspect of the controversial Malwana land would not have been jailed. The current debate would not have happened and 'anti-corruption' could well have become a machinery to white wash white collar criminals.
 
On the other hand the current government is also tarnished with allegations of bribery and corruption. Look at the Treasury bond scam, coal scam and allegations against ministry of finance, no proper action was taken on either. there is no point in having anti-corruption agencies that refuse to investigate allegations against the current government. The anti-corruption struggle should not be a war on one party or family.
 
More than anything, it is extremely dangerous to arrest security force personnel, keep them in custody and release them after clearing them of charges. This is rapidly becoming a political liability as it gives the impression that soldiers are being harassed for no reason. On one hand it angers nationalists, who may also have voted for Sirisena, on the other its making those who yearned for good governance disillusioned. We must not also forget the impact it has on transitional justice.
The discussion on the COPE committee report on the treasury bond scam on October 21 demonstrated that the United National party (UNP) is not at all ready for an open and transparent investigation on the matter. A number of UNP ministers and affiliate groups have continuously requested us to drop the issue. And I have asked them whether anti corruption activists have to drop a number of serious concerns, i.e. coal deal, issues in the finance ministry, state institutions which are to be privatized without any transparency and the land grabbing of the east, to 'protect' this government.
 
I have seen my civil society friends argue that the local government elections should be postponed to protect the government. We have allowed the government over a year for that. Now we have an independent election commission but no elections.
 
The entire agenda of the good governance government is based on anti-corruption and the issues that have arisen in these investigations have split the government. And the gap between the UNP and the SLFP keeps growing each day, along with it the agenda for constitutional and electoral reforms
 
The government must at least now use the firearms ordinance when filing charges against those involved in the Avant Garde case. It must investigate the CEB mafic that has built mansions in Australia thanks to the Norochcholei power plant. Those behind the treasury bond scam should be arrested. If not they should remove the words anti-corruption from the dictionary of their gimmick politics.
 
Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon
Advisor/Anti-corruption Front
 
 

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