Laws made to be broken



Monday 11th September, 2023

The effective date of the new Anti-Corruption Act––15 Sept. 2023––was announced on Saturday (09). The timing of that announcement could not have been more inappropriate. The gazette notification came less than one day after the government had made a mockery of its much-advertised commitment to eliminating bribery and corruption.

On Friday, the government defeated the Opposition’s no-faith motion against Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella over various malpractices including questionable pharmaceutical and surgical equipment deals in the state health sector. Now, the corrupt in the Health Ministry must be over the moon because the government has declared in Parliament that there is nothing wrong with their actions; they will be emboldened to do more of what they have been doing, much to the detriment of the country’s interests, and the collapse of the publicly-funded health service might come sooner than feared.

New anti-corruption laws are said to be aimed at establishing a culture of integrity by honouring Sri Lanka’s obligations under the UN Convention against corruption and adopting international best practices. A new anti-graft commission will be set up with more powers than the existing CIABOC (Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption), we are told. But is there anything stupider than to expect a government notorious for corruption to make an earnest attempt to eliminate bribery and corruption? Hunters cannot be expected to prevent poaching, can they?

The CIABOC has failed to live up to its raison d’etre mainly due to political interference. All political parties that are currently campaigning for good governance had no qualms about joining forces, under an SLFP-led regime in the early 1990s, to emasculate the CIABOC by denying it powers to carry out investigations on its own initiative without having to rely on external complaints of bribery or corruption. Every government has since kept it under its thumb.

It may not be too cynical a view that Sri Lanka at present has a government of the corrupt by the corrupt for the corrupt. In 2015, Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe won elections by campaigning on an anti-corruption platform. Claiming that the Rajapaksas were corrupt, and had stashed away billions of dollars in offshore accounts, the Yahapalana politicians undertook to bring back the stolen money and throw the culprits behind bars. On 07 May 2015, the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera (UNP) declared at a media briefing that foreign intelligence agencies were assisting in the Yahapalana government’s efforts to trace Sri Lanka’s stolen funds, and the Rajapaksas held assets worth over USD 18 billion overseas.

The Rajapaksas and their cronies undertook to bring the Yahapalana politicians and their allies involved in the Treasury bond scams to justice, and sought a popular mandate for accomplishing the task. But after returning to power in 2019, they made up for lost time, and committed the sugar tax fraud, which caused a loss of billions of rupees to the state coffers. There have been numerous corrupt deals, especially in the power and energy sector. Today, the Rajapaksas, Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have closed ranks and are savouring power together, and their government is promising to rid the country of corruption!

The new commission to be set up to fight bribery and corruption is made out to be the proverbial silver bullet that will help get rid of the corrupt. But with so many corrupt politicians around, it is bound to be as impuissant as the CIABOC. They are not worried about the anti-corruption laws, which, they think, are made to be broken like pie crust. It is doubtful whether the situation will improve even in the event of a regime change, for the current Opposition worthies are no better. The SJB consists of former members of the corrupt Yahapalana government; some of them shielded racketeers and went so far as to dilute the second COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) report on the Treasury bond scams by having a slew of footnotes incorporated thereinto.

The self-righteous SLPP dissidents, who have taken moral high ground and are pontificating about the virtues of good governance, benefited from the current regime before breaking ranks with it for their own sake rather than that of the public. The JVP was part of the corrupt UPFA government under President Chandrika Kumaratunga; it helped Mahinda Rajapaksa secure the presidency in 2005, and backed the UNP-led Yahapalana government thereafter. The SLMC has been in all corrupt governments during the past three decades or so. The TNA backed the Yahapalana regime to the hilt despite the latter’s corrupt deals.

A country needs tough laws to battle the twin evils of bribery and corruption. The recently-passed Anti-Corruption Act is therefore welcome. But an inescapable condition for making it work is to get rid of the politicians who indulge in corruption and protect corrupt officials. This, we believe, is a task for the people, who unfortunately get swayed by political allegiances, patronage and other factors such as caste, religion and ethnicity, and elect political dregs, and then protest. Hence the need for a robust social reform movement that transcends partisan politics to enlighten the public on their rights and persuade them to vote intelligently. There is no workaround.