The political atmosphere in the country has seen some significant change during the last month or so, as one can observe the villain and the hero in the government’s anti-corruption drive gradually swapping their roles, pushing the administration to be on the defensive. In other words, the entire anti-corruption drive of the ‘yahapalanaya’ government has been faced with a crisis situation mainly for two reasons involving both the main coalition partners of the government.
One factor that nearly turned the government’s so-called good governance image upside down is the controversial speech made by President Maithripala Sirisena at the Sri Lanka Foundation (SLF) on October 12, in which he accused his government’s own anti-corruption campaign for functioning according to a political agenda. The other was the controversial Central Bank bond issue that tarnished the image of the government as well as the main driving force behind it, the United National Party (UNP).
As a Tamil saying goes, with the crow sitting on the tree branch the fruit has fallen down, this naturally gives the credit or blame to the crow in spite of the question whether there was a link between the crow’s action and what happened to the fruit.
A leading figure in a prominent case that was mentioned in the President’s speech was allowed to travel abroad, while the suspects of two other cases which too were touched upon in the speech were bailed out. It is inevitable for one to resort to deny the ‘accidentality’ of the incidents. After all, we are human beings and we had such
a recent history.
The resignation of Bribery Commission Director General Dilrukshi Wickramasinghe subsequent to the President’s speech, and the failure on the part of the government to appoint a new permanent DG to the Commission, have further complicated
Despite the President and the Cabinet Spokesman, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne having strived to express that the former meant the opposite of what many people gathered from the speech – that he was pushing for investigations on the major allegations against the former regime, instead of probing minor allegations – they failed to clear the air properly.
Before the controversy over the speech subsided, Chairman of the Committee of Public Enterprises (COPE) Sunil Handunnetti presented the Committee’s report on the controversial Central Bank bond issue on last October 28. The media reports on the behaviour of the UNP MPs on the issue for the past 20 months, especially during the last two weeks prior to the presentation of the report in the House have inevitably given rise to a public opinion against the UNP.
At the last moment, when they had been compelled to acknowledge that a large-scale fraud has taken place, it was said that they wanted to blame only the Perpetual Treasuries, a private company which the COPE is not mandated to investigate, whereas it was the Central Bank that had increased the value of bonds that were to be sold.
People do not seem to believe the UNP’s claim made following the presentation of the COPE report that it has been in the forefront in taking the culprits of the case to task. Never in the past twenty months did the UNP tell the country that something fishy had happened during the bond transaction. They had even published books denying allegations of corruption in this transaction. The media have reported that a group of MPs had wanted to charge only the Perpetual Treasuries letting the Central Bank heads to go off the hook.
However, the ultimate result has been that the leaders of the former regime who had been accused of plundering public wealth worth billions of rupees being gradually reborn in the eyes of the general public as those fighting against corruption and fraud.
In fact, they have a strong case against the incumbent regime. It is a proven fact that the Central Bank, after publicly calling bids for bonds valued at only one billion rupees, had sold 10 billion rupees of 30-year bonds at high interest rates on February 27 last year.
Meanwhile, loyalists of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa deserve to be acclaimed in this regard in spite of their highly-corrupt past as it was they who initially exposed this colossal fraud. They contributed immensely, though with political motivation, to maintain the pressure on the government in this regard throughout the past twenty months, along with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the civil society organisations.
The only way out for the government now is to keep its words in respect of democracy and eradication of corruption. The President in an interview with the Sunday Lankadeepa a fortnight ago had stated that he wanted to send the message through his recent controversial speech at the SLF that large-scale corruption cases against the former regime must be investigated. As if assisting him, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake during a lecture titled ‘Fraudsters and guardians,’ held at the Colombo Public Library Auditorium on Monday, reminded the government of a list of high-profile corruption cases which, he said, had already been swept under the carpet. For instance, he questioned as to what happened to the cases on Greek Bonds and Hedging agreement.
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera once equated Rajapaksas to Ferdinand Marcos of Philippines and Sani Abacha of Nigeria, Suharto of Indonesia, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti and Alberto Fujimori of Peru who had plundered the wealth of their countries. While spelling out this long list of world notorious corrupt rulers, Samaraweera on May 7, last year told journalists that the Rajapaksas ranked number two in the world in robbing public wealth. He claimed that Rajapaksas held assets worth over a whopping US$ 18 billion in other countries.
Ten days after President Sirisena and his government were sworn in, the then Deputy Minister of Planning and Economic Development Dr. Harsha de Silva stated that World Bank assistance had been sought under its Stolen Assets Recovery Initiative (StAR) to trace wealth stashed by Sri Lankans in Seychelles Banks. Four days later, on January 23, the Seychelles Government announced that it was prepared to assist the Sri Lankan Government in this regard. Again on March 21, Dr. de Silva told the journalists that the country had sought Indian assistance in tracing $ 2 billion allegedly stashed in three bank accounts in Dubai by the members of a Sri Lankan family.
Now, the President himself accuses his government for not investigating into the high-profile corruption cases. On the other hand, a report on a largest-ever fraud in Sri Lankan history has been submitted to Parliament by COPE which consists of members from all political parties in Parliament including the constituent parties of the ruling coalition. Then the case for the government is easy; just act to keep your words, one may say.
However, the JVP leader remains pessimistic as he argued before the packed audience at the Public Library on Monday that the current government too would fail to clean the country of corruption, as many friends of the leaders of the ‘yahapalanaya’ government were involved in corruption cases in some way. At the same time, the government seems to have caved in to the patriotic card played by the former President and his loyalists. All in all, the government is enmeshed in its own promises on corruption and democracy, manifesting a credibility crisis.