President Ranil Wickremesinghe recently went on record that the forthcoming Anti-Corruption law, now under discussion and due to come up in Parliament soon, will be “the best in South Asia.” Be that as it may, the best laws in the world are of little or no use if the implementation capacity is non-existent or inadequate. It needs no saying that this is certainly the case where Sri Lanka is concerned where such capacity, to say the least, is woefully wanting. Strengthening the existing law is one aspect of the problem which the government would like to believe the forthcoming legislation would address; that too at the behest of the IMF demanding such measures as a condition for its bailout package.
Do our rulers have the political will to crack down on political corruption? Most Lankans will surely opt for the cynical answer. It is now over 60 years since the Parliamentary Bribery Commission headed by District Judge Walter Thalgodapitiya was appointed by Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike’s government days before his assassination. The other members on the Commission were Messrs. TW Roberts, a retired colonial civil servant and Mr. SJC Schockman, a former crown counsel. It found two ministers, Messrs. CAS Marikkar and MP de Zoysa and several MPs – DB Monnekulama, Henry Abeywickrema, MS Kariapper and RE Jayatillake guilty. Messrs. Monnekulama and Kariapper resigned soon after the report was published.
The Sirima Bandaranaike government of 1960 took no further action on the matter. Fortunately, the Dudley Senanayake national government of 1965 revisited it, enacting the Imposition of Civic Disabilities (Special Provisions) Act No. 14 of 1965 stripping those determined guilty of their civic rights for a period of seven years. Kariapper who was then an MP lost his seat. He cut a sad and lonely figure defending himself, with no backers, when he eventually exited the legislature.
That was then but this is now. In the decades that have intervened, no Commission of Inquiry has been appointed to specifically go into allegations of bribery and corruption against elected representatives of the people. The situation now, if at all, is much worse than what prevailed in the Bandaranaike era. Commissions of Inquiry, as is well know, do not require the strict standards of proof demanded in a court of law and is a more effective way of establishing the truth on such matters. But whether the voter will hold such a finding against a candidate is another matter. Despite the finding against him Gate Mudaliyar Kariapper was returned to Parliament and sat and voted in the legislature until he was unseated by the Civic Disability Law of 1965. If we remember right, Mr. Monnekulama too ran for Parliament after the Thalgodapitiya findings and, though not elected, made a respectable showing.
In his weekly column today, Prof. Kumar David comments that Sri Lanka cannot wait for a leader like Nelson Mandela to fall into our laps from the skies and deal with the endemic corruption bedeviling both the morality and the economy of this country. In his usually trenchant style, he says “Snivelling won’t combat corruption: Are we waiting for Sri Lanka’s Nelson Mandela?” As great and as respected as he was, Mandela did not eliminate corruption in his country. Some of his successors in South Africa’s leadership (as elsewhere in that continent) have also been suspected or found to be rampantly corrupt.
Many weaknesses in the forthcoming Anti-Corruption Bill have been discussed in recent days. The focus has been on section 119 criminalizing false allegations, making anyone convicted of such an offence liable for 10 years jail, a million rupee fine or both. Opponents including Transparency International of Sri Lanka have urged that this could discourage whistle blowing. They point to provisions for acting against such complaints available in the existing law as adequate. Whether the government will defer the proposed legislation, as in the case of the Anti Terrorism Act, for further debate is not clear. What is clear is that there is foot-dragging in pursuing suspects including politicians.
We live with the totally intolerable fact that a serving minister has been found guilty of extortion by a competent court and sentenced to a fine and jail that had been suspended. He continues in office pending an appeal and serves as chief government whip. Contrast this to Rahul Gandhi losing his seat in India, pending appeal, following a criminal defamation conviction. There’s another minister in office against whom a bribery complaint to the president was made by the Japanese ambassador. He was made to step down temporarily and reappointed after a government appointed committee which quickly cleared him. There was no full-fledged inquiry and the public suspect a whitewash. There are other cases too like State Minister Diana Gamage’s citizenship. A court has pronounced that there is no barrier to her arrest.
We have public figures without clean hands pronouncing on corruption. Onetime Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s wife’s birth certificate/passport matter is one such instance, Such an offence would not have been possible without access to influence. The president is resisting pressure from the SLPP to expand his cabinet with some bad hats among the nominees pushed. Basil Rajapaksa is back in the political picture where he’s presented as a possible presidential candidate. No amount of legislation will enforce public morality. Going back to first principles, the kind of nominees political parties put before the people is at the root of the problem. Worse, it has been proved that the electors too are willing to vote for less than desirable candidates.