As Sri Lanka prepares for the crucial presidential election on November 16, the major crisis is clearly political corruption with the abuse of power and the failure to take effective legal action. Since independence, few if any leading politicians have been jailed for corruption including bribery and fraud. Furthermore little or nothing has been recovered from the hundreds of millions of rupees if not billions they plundered from public funds which means the people’s money including the poor people. In the J.R. Jayawardene era a wide-powered Special Presidential Commission (SPC) was appointed to probe alleged corruption by leaders of the former United Front regime lead by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
The SPC found Ms. Bandaranaike guilty and she was stripped of her civic rights for seven years but most independent civil rights groups claimed the procedure followed was flawed. That was the major instance of some action being taken for corruption or abuse of power but there too the procedure followed was widely regarded as unjust.
On January 8, 2015 the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government was elected with a relatively large majority. Its main promise was to take effective and urgent legal action against some of the former regime’s leaders who had allegedly plundered billions of rupees and hidden them in secret foreign bank accounts. But now as President Sirisena comes to the end of his term after going here, there and eventually nowhere not a single former leader or official has been convicted or jailed for corruption and not a cent has been recovered from the billions allegedly plundered. In some instances, cases are dragging on in courts and in others the courts have said the evidence is insufficient. In response to widespread public criticism, the government last year appointed three-judge High Court benches to expedite corruption trials by holding daily hearings. But that move also has run into various problems with critics alleging that in both major parties the leaders are helping each other to delay investigations or hide evidence. Therefore corruption is continuing at a fearfully staggering rate while politicians are continuing to give themselves more perks and privileges such as modern vehicles, houses with extra personal security guards at public expense.
The situation is so bad that the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) itself is tainted with its former chief heard to say on tape, “I know how to make the law and break the law”. Thankfully this officer was removed from a senior post in the Attorney General’s Department but that is not enough.
Sri Lanka needs thousands of billions for vital areas such as poverty alleviation, the battle against global warming, health, education, vocational training and the provision of well-paid jobs for the youth in this age of digital technology with artificial intelligence and robotic marvels. To find these billions of rupees, corruption has to be gradually curbed and stopped with strict action taken against the offenders and the plundered amount seized from them whether it be in cash, land or property. But who will do this? That needs to be a major question for the people at the November 16 presidential election. Corruption is a worldwide crime but if an index is taken Sri Lanka will rank deplorably high.
UN Secretary General António Guterres says corruption is corrupting all countries, rich and poor, North and South. It is an assault on moral values. It robs societies of schools, hospitals and other vital services, drives away foreign investment and strips nations of their natural resources.
It undermines the rule of law and abets crimes such as the illicit trafficking of people, drugs and arms. Tax evasion, money laundering and other illicit flows divert much-needed resources for sustainable development. The World Economic Forum estimates that the cost of corruption is at least $2.6 trillion or 5 per cent of the global gross domestic product.
According to the World Bank, businesses and individuals pay more than US$1 trillion in bribes each year. Corruption begets more corruption and fosters a corrosive culture of impunity.
The UN chief says millions of people around the world have gone to the ballots with the curbing of corruption as one of their top priorities. So does Sri Lanka on November 16. Let us take a stand for integrity and honesty, accountability and transparency in the hope that our leaders will have the grace and or inner transformation to serve the people sincerely, selflessly and sacrificially so that we could build a just and fair society. Otherwise corruption will kill us like a