Sri Lanka has never had a Foreign Minster resign over allegations of corruption. But the once unthinkable happened last week. Many, including in government and from the ruling party, supported the resignation of the former Foreign Minister on the grounds that what is now in the public domain around his dealings with Arjun Aloysius, subject to a convenient partial amnesia, was deeply detrimental to government. Note that what’s flagged as embarrassing or wrong isn’t what was purportedly done, but rather, that it came to light. Power, and retaining it, trumps principle. Tellingly, even in his submission to Parliament, the former Foreign Minister offered no hint of contrition. Hubris and chutzpah rule, when shame and guilt should reign. What, if anything, has really changed?
The political theatre around the resignation masks other more disturbing developments. At the time of writing, the nominee to the now vacant post of Foreign Minister is an individual who is about as far removed from the avowed promise of yahapalanaya as one gets. In sum, we have one individual, tainted by allegations of corruption, out the door, replaced almost immediately by another who was forced to resign in 2015 from his Ministerial portfolio and was the erstwhile legal advisor to the Chairman of Avant Garde, Nissanka Senadhipathi. Frankly, ‘House of Cards’ couldn’t come up with a better plot twist.
Some have raised concerns around the nature and scope of the Commission of Inquiry into the bond issue, which isn’t part of the judiciary but acts with a vigour and verve that has many surprised, and asking the question as to why other investigations into allegations of corruption lack similar vitality. This is a fair question, since not a single investigation into the allegations of eye-watering corruption by members of the Rajapaksa regime have resulted in anything of consequence. The past fortnight alone showcases how when political will and partisan interest is behind a process, things happen, which by extension can only mean the lack of any discernible, meaningful progress in the investigations into high profile members of the Rajapaksa regime is a political decision as well. The question is who benefits, why, and at what cost.
One journalist tweeted that as a result of the eight thousand odd pages gleaned from the phone of Arjun Aloysius, several messages with initials, prima facie, implicating individuals in high political office were found. Some initials were pursued. Other initials were ignored. The bond issue involves individuals noted in the COPE report from last year, which itself saw high drama around finalisation and public release. These individuals are free to do and roam around as they see fit. Statements in Parliament around a new political culture of accountability ring hollow in this light. One response to this, tweeted by a senior government minister last week, is that those now in the Joint Opposition robbed more, killed more and abused power more. This is a false equivocation and one that the government must be unhesitatingly shamed for parading and promoting. The baseline for democracy isn’t what the Rajapaksa regime was or wasn’t, or what the JO today is or isn’t. Constitutional democracy, the rule of law as well as the early promise of yahapalanaya, as enshrined in the Presidential Manifesto of 2015, matter far more as baselines. Unsurprisingly, compared to the JO’s sordid record, anything that happens today is a miraculous advancement of democracy. But that’s a false baseline, established and promoted only to hide the growing stench and sins of the present government. The mere resignation of a Foreign Minister signifies nothing other than a political calculation around electoral loss and liability. No higher principle in operation here. The mere fact that the individual nominated to take up the office of Foreign Minister is someone roundly rejected by the people’s mandate in 2015 suggests that we will invariably see the re-emergence of the former Foreign Minister in some form or office a few years hence, when the present drama would have been forgotten. After all, this is a government that appointed this year the same individual in charge of Sri Lankan troops in Haiti accused of truly unspeakable child sexual abuse as the Army Chief of Staff. Clearly then, loyalty, kindship, friendship and corruption glue more than accountability.
The other key issue is around the constitution of the CoI. The establishment of it under Presidential fiat is problematic, because of its broad powers and the precedent it sets for a more authoritarian Executive, in the future, to use similar mechanisms to hound political opposition and quell dissent. A friend flagged valid concerns over the nature of the evidence collected – the manner in which witnesses were called, the degree to which the CoI had access to personal records carte blanche – including private content well beyond the scope of investigations – and the safeguards, or lack thereof, against this material from making it into the public domain. Even the former Foreign Minister has an inalienable right to privacy, and his enforced resignation from office, no matter how welcome, isn’t a presumption of guilt. Further, the CoI has no obligation to make its findings public. This is why it isn’t a replacement for judicial intervention in cases of corruption. The danger is that proceedings of the CoI and a single resignation alone is seen as some great victory against corruption, when in fact it’s utterly meaningless in the larger scheme of things. And to those who think the President is a doyen of incorruptible governance, a simple question – what happened to the inquiry, initiated by the AG’s Department, around allegations of corruption published in the Australian mainstream media last year, that involved requests for vast sums of money to be paid to the SLFP?
A fairly high-ranking official now in government once told your author that he inherited an official body where the production and serving of every single cup of tea had someone skimming something, at some point of time, somewhere along the process. He said that if he were to root out corruption, it would necessarily involve the sacking of everyone presently employed. The challenge then becomes how much of corruption one countenances. This is murky terrain, but inescapable, because it is a fact of political life. Everyone is on the make, or is looking to create a deal that results in personal or partisan profit. Loyalty is bought. Clearly, mainstream media and journalists aren’t immune from the seduction of corruption, as is evident in public proceedings from the CoI that reveal a well-known Sunday newspaper to be funded by the same person the former Foreign Minister forgot he was on flights to Singapore with. The rot is everywhere, including in the private sector, which never loses an opportunity to grease the palms of those in power for greater security around returns on investments.
In speaking with youth, I don’t know any more how to inspire the hope and confidence in them that the political system, as it stands, can work for them. Making them believe in advancement through merit only seems to set themselves up to failure, anger, apathy and possibly even violence. We need to name and shame. Continuously. And it needs to start at the top, because it is a political culture supported by and for the benefit of a few, that gives life to corrupt practices by so many. The elephant in the room (no pun intended) is whether the stability of this government is important in order to prevent the rise of and return to power of the previous regime, which suggests a greater patience with corruption today, as somehow a necessary evil to ward off a greater one in the wings. Don’t buy into this. Corruption needs to be flagged without fear or favour. It is wrong no matter who does it, and if in flagging what’s wrong today, it is the JO that benefits, then so be it, because their odious rank includes those who did far worse. A great purge of putrid politicians needs to be engineered and sustained, through media and discourse at multiple levels that holds up honesty as a virtue and value. Youth see this, and are impatient with those who promise much, but change nothing. Today’s anger is a result of promises around yahapalanaya and how far removed the government is from them. Spin isn’t going to cut it. A mere resignation isn’t going to cut it. Heads must roll. Governments must fall. Democracy must win.