SRI LANKA: Undoing corruption – the colossal, the trivial, and the real

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once spoke of Fidel Castro as a person “incapable of conceiving any idea that is not colossal”. During the last few months in Sri Lanka too there has been an interest in colossal ideas. One such colossal ambition is the idea of eliminating corruption. 

It even became a major theme in an electoral campaign and the majority of the people even voted for it. Within a cultural milieu that often takes a pessimistic view of anything noble and great as being beyond achievable, this new situation was quite extraordinary. The newly elected President and his government went on to even promise that significant steps towards this colossal ambition would be made within the first hundred days of the new government. 

True to their words, there were indeed a few bold and courageous steps taken in that direction. Getting advise from foreign experts on proper conduct of investigations into financial and other complicated transactions with the view to bring alleged perpetrators of offences relating to corruption to justice was indeed a serious as well as an intelligent first step. Furthermore, persons thought of as capable of handling this task were appointed to positions of responsibility and several important investigations were undertaken. As of this moment, there are several cases before the courts and several high profile officials of the last government have been produced before the courts. And a few more, it is said, will be brought to courts in not so distant future. 

This approach to corruption is in complete contrast to how things have been during the past 35 years, i.e. since the 1978 Constitution was launched. It was a constitution designed to guarantee impunity. The first President under this Constitution, J.R. Jayawardene had a habit of turning a blind eye to corruption among his close cabinet and parliamentary associates. Political observers saw in this a subtle strategy of preventing challenges to his power from within his close circles.

Subsequent governments benefited a great deal from the societal consequences that resulted from this strategy. The society began to treat ever-increasing corruption as an inevitable part of the new political culture. 

The period under President Mahinda Rajapaksa witnessed the growth of corruption to unprecedented levels, and there was no direct resistance to the most blatant forms of abuse of national resources. The very strategy of keeping the government alive through the buying of members of the opposition was also popularly perceived as being achieved through corrupt deals. 

Though there were no overt expressions of resistance, the peoples’ frustration grew and it was the distancing of the people from any loyalty to the Rajapaksa regime that got expressed within a short time of the announcement of an election. The election period saw splits within the inner circle and those who broke away began to reveal the depths of corruption that had become so widespread. On January 8, 2015, people expressed their condemnation of this political ethos by voting for those who promised to bring this prevailing political culture of corruption to an end. 

In the days that followed the election victory of the new government, people have eagerly awaited news about the inquiries into the conduct of those who were powerful during the last regime. Like the way they eagerly follow a cricket match, Sri Lankans have also followed the revelations about corruption and the news about inquires taking place. The same mood continued to be expressed by various forms of protests relating to the slowness of inquiries and the delay in arrests and legal actions. After a few months, a few cases have proceeded to courtrooms and Sri Lankans are keenly watching the outcome. 

When the threat of inquiries was proving not to be bluff, leaders of the former regime began to show their agitation and this is what is going on at the moment. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has himself begun to visit prisons and make loud claims about being persecuted. For a leader of a political regime that created a nationwide culture of fear to claim that he is himself now being persecuted is indeed an indication that something of real significance is happening in the country. 

The latest in the saga is that the strongman of the last regime, former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, is going to the courts claiming that his fundamental rights have been violated through inquiries, which he claims are politically masterminded and directed. What a change for a man who created a government within government and virtually terrorised the country with threats of abductions, arrest and detention, and even disappearances. 

However, his resort to a court should be celebrated as it indicates that the courts are once again being seen as playing their role as protectors of people against abuse of power. Ultimate outcome of such cases will be in the hands of the judges who are expected to decide these matters on the basis of legal principles and not by way of political directives. 

If the Rajapaksas, who denied everyone the right to the recourse of courts and made all attempts to manipulate the very system, are themselves now being able to recourse to law and the courts, it is indeed an achievement for Sri Lankan democracy. 

Besides recourse to court, the leaders of the former regime are also engaged in attacking the journalists and media establishments that have played a significant role in exposing corruption. All kinds of campaigns are being carried out with the idea of destroying the messenger. Repression of media was the central aspect of political life under the last regime. It is therefore no surprise that it will be repeated in the process of trying to vilify legitimate actions of legal authorities as political vendetta. 

In the midst of all this, it is legitimate to ask whether any real progress has been made in dealing with the issue of corruption and thus fulfilling the peoples’ colossal ambitions relating to this. It is in no way possible to claim that real progress is being made or even attempted. This is not to deny the importance of the few cases in which actions have been taken. But, as against the expectations, the actions so far, while laudable, do not appear to be adequate at all. 

While the government would want to claim that this is due to the time factor, meaning that they have had only a short time in power, it would appear that the defects lie more in the overall strategies that have been adopted or, in fact, not adopted by the government. Anti corruption drive cannot be confined to some limited action that will only bring about short-term propaganda advantage. Given enormous contradictions within the legal system itself, there is no likelihood of seeing a successful prosecution in the near future in even the limited number of cases that have been undertaken. The claim by the government – that they have brought the people to court but as the legal process in the country is beset with delays the decision in these cases will also come only at some distant dates – has the possibility of undermining even the limited attempts that have been made in recent months to deal with offences relating to corruption. The government cannot claim that it is a victim of delays in courts. The government has within its power the capacity to deal with the problems of the legal systems that are the real cause of impunity. 

And, this brings up the subject of the strategy of the government in dealing effectively against corruption. This strategy cannot be separated from a strategy to address problems that have made the legal system fail to grant effective relief to the people who come to seek such relief. If the relief that the legal system provides is only for alleged criminals who wish to take advantage of delays then no critically minded citizen would see that a serious attempt is being made by the government to honour the promises made. 

Colossal ideas are an inspiration to humanity. However, the realisation of such ideas is possible only when political imagination is capable of understanding the practical steps that need to be undertaken in order to achieve these great goals. When big ideas are not accompanied with practical strategies and programmes for realisation the only result is disillusionment and frustration. 

Even in such limited actions as the appointment of committees and commissions, people have a right to expect that the government will be accountable and transparent and that such committees and commissions will act within a framework of law. All expenditures into such activities should be made available to the people through lawful channels. It is the right of the citizens as well as the media to expect such transparency. Dealing with corruption in the Sri Lankan context is a colossal task. Such task also requires to be carried out with absolute transparency.