For decades since independence, Sri Lankans were wont to look over the Palk Strait and enviously compare the strides that the Indian legal system had been taking in regard to protection of the Rule of Law. True, serious blimps were evidenced on the radar in regard to practical implementation of good judicial decisions. Allegations of corruption were intermittently made against Indian judges themselves. However, despite these negatives and even notwithstanding the alarming undermining of a once vibrant public intellectual culture in recent times, the judicial system and the Constitution of that country still retain the respect of the teeming Indian multitudes.
A powerful lesson for the region
Now we can look equally covetously elsewhere as yet another neighbouring country holds out an example that we may justifiably yearn for. This week Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigned from office after the country’s Supreme Court unanimously declared him as ‘not honest’ and disqualified him from elected office. Sharif was ruled to have been dishonest in not disclosing his earnings from a Dubai-based company in his nomination papers during the 2013 general election.
The 2016 disclosures in the Panama Papers that three of Prime Minister Sharif’s children had used shell companies to buy properties in London were pivotal to the case. The former Prime Minister has refuted any allegation of wrong doing but stated that he will respect the Court’s decision. Certainly the ruling will potentially wreak more havoc on Pakistan’s tumultuous political systems. And it is doubtful if a single ruling of this nature will suffice to cleanse the notoriously corrupt political culture in the country. Even so, the stark fact of a Prime Minister forced to a measure of accountability stands as a potent and powerful lesson for other political leaders in this region.
In contrast, what do we have in Sri Lanka? The dismal fate which has now visited the 2015 rainbow coalition as public disillusionment if not fury grows is clear. A core component of that anger is the complete inability of the unity alliance to bring previous corrupt politicians to justice as well as maintain minimum standards of anti- corruption by its own members. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appear to be engaging in typical party politics at the expense of their campaign promises to bring about a change from the past.
This is certainly not a simple matter
Soon after it came to power, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance announced that major anti-corruption bodies will be re-structured and current legislation will be amended. Amusingly it was claimed that the biggest challenge crippling anti-corruption investigations is the lack of expertise on the part of local officials, investigators and lawyers. One time corruption crusaders backing the Government declared with a flourish that anti-corruption investigations against the former leadership of the Rajapaksa Government were going just as they ought and that the people would see the results soon. This was, of course, not to be the case.
But the irony was that such sweeping promises were made at the very same time that the United National Party Government was embroiled in the Perpetual Treasuries bond controversy with its top leadership fighting tooth and nail to protect the former Governor of the Central Bank, Arjuna Mahendran whose son-in-law Arjun Aloysius was the owner of Perpetual Treasuries which benefited from the bond deal. Parliamentarians from whom one would have expected better standards of reticence such as Eran Wickremeratne and Harsha de Silva protested before the national media that if at all, what was in issue was a simple conflict not financial irregularities.
Now, as this scam disentangles itself into its several scandalous components before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Perpetual Treasuries bond deal, we can see that this is not a simple matter after all. Rather, it is octopus-like with its tentacles extending into the highest reaches of the Government.
The appearance of impropriety
Recent testimony before the Commission has put on record that a massive sum of Rs.145 million, used for an initial payment and thereafter for a monthly loan installment to purchase a luxury penthouse for a company owned by family members of the current Minister of Foreign Affairs Ravi Karunanayake, had no source of origin nor was it accounted for. Previous testimony was to the effect that the lease of the penthouse occupied by the Minister and his family members had been paid by Arjun Aloysius, son-in-law of Mahendran and owner of Perpetual Treasuries.
No doubt, these allegations will be inquired into further once the Minister himself appears before the Commission as summoned in the coming days. But the appearance of impropriety is too high for many not to be shocked even when the level of shock was thought to have already been transcended.
In sum, a contemplative look back at the past two years shows that the gains of the 2015 people’s rejection of the Rajapaksa brand of non-governance were frittered away as a result of major mistakes made by this Government. Fundamental to this is the apparent thinking, born (it seems) of a deep cynicism at the highest levels of the unity administration, that nothing really needs to change all that much. What is needed is that the appearance of change is maintained and abuses of the law are adequately whitewashed. This reasoning is not singular to the fight against corruption. It is the same thinking which applies to other areas of reform, including transitional justice and constitutional reforms.
A complete betrayal
This is unforgivable. It is a complete betrayal of the trust and the hope placed by hundreds and thousands of courageous Sri Lankans who believed (against all expectations) that the country would take a turn for the better in 2015. As a result of this bitter betrayal, the possibility of another reform movement being accepted in the near future with sincerity and genuineness by ordinary people had dwindled to nothingness. This is the ultimate result of the political charade that was permitted to take place during the last two years.
If there is even a modicum of shame in the current political leadership, it will take serious measures towards reversing mistakes of the past. It will do so, in the minimum, with the understanding that if not, its own fate will be irreversibly sealed.