Civic society, come out against government corruption

By Ameen Izzadeen
If a substantial section of Sri Lanka’s people took the risk of being labelled as ungrateful to a political leadership that defeated terrorism and voted that political leadership out of power, not once but twice, it is for one reason: To bring good governance.
But it is high time the people fired a salvo at the politicians, who, campaigning on a platform of good governance, came to power through the January 8 presidential election and the August 17 parliamentary elections. They need to be warned that a public perception is growing that rogues in the present lot are no better than those in the previous lot. The Sinhala saying unuth ekai munuth ekai (both are the same) is increasingly being heard in private conversations. So much so that some compare the present state of affairs to a group of starved savages at a dining table. The table has been laid and they are gobbling like savages as though they had not eaten since 2003.
All this dinner table or pub talk is based on stories that trickle down to the masses through the social media and websites. They may be exaggerated or even rubbish. But there is substance in what the people are saying — and the Government should be warned that its anti-corruption battle also appears to be getting corrupted.
The Government should be reminded that the people voted for the ruling coalition because they longed for economic stability and an end to government corruption. To the conscious citizens, who are a growing majority in highly literate and increasingly social-media-savvy Sri Lanka, democracy cannot be government by the crooks, of the crooks and for the crooks. Intolerance for corruption should be at the sanctum sanctorum of democracy. The people who voted for the new Government may give some time for it to reform the economy and bring about some economic stability, though they have begun to complain about the gloomy economic outlook and rising prices of food, medicine and other essentials. But their patience is running thin and their rage growing fast when their doubts about the anti-corruption credentials of the new lot is further strengthened by the Government’s failure to prove conclusively that billions of dollars of Sri Lanka’s wealth have been plundered by the rogues in the previous government. Is it the case of birds of the same corruption-tainted feathers flying together?
Adding to public concern are utterances in parliament by powerful ministers on Wednesday defending a maritime security company at the centre of a fraud probe, and a gossip column news report that the two captains of the Government have warned three ministerial types after they received complaints of corruption against them. It was only months ago that the Government was struggling to answer corruption allegations over a Central Bank bond issue.
The saying that the Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion is apparently lost on some members of the coalition for good governance. That the ruling coalition politicians facing corruption allegations were only warned and freed points to another disturbing state of affairs – the Government leaders are afraid to crack with whip on the errant politicos under their command. The talking citizens say this is because the leaders fear that if harsher measures are taken, the corrupt would cross over. This will reduce the clout the party leaders wield in the coalition Government.
This is all the more reason why the good governance section of the ruling coalition should stop crossovers by introducing amendments to the 19th Amendment. Bud sadly we hear no such movement towards that end.
Mere rhetoric won’t end corruption. It is interesting to note that the Government itself acknowledges this before the international community. Claiming the Government’s anti-corruption drive is not limited to rhetoric, Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva enumerated this week at the United Nations anti-corruption conference in St. Petersburg the measures Sri Lanka’s Government, which he describes as a government with zero tolerance for corruption, has taken to fight corruption. To show the Government’s determination to fight corruption, he cited as evidence the setting up of independent institutions such as the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, the National Police Commission, the National Audit Commission, the National Procurement Commission, and investigation mechanisms such as the Presidential Task Force on Stolen Assets Recovery.
But the people want to see the results of these anti-corruption measures. It is almost ten months since the change of baton, yet all what the people see are bungling and more bungling by the Government in the pursuit of the missing billions stacked in secret accounts in Dubai and elsewhere. With the battle against corruption being not seen to be done to the satisfaction of the people, we may soon hear some minister saying that there is nothing illegal in having secret foreign accounts and – who knows – a statement to the effect that the previous regime they defeated is not corrupt.
With the public confidence in the Government’s anti-corruption drive fast eroding, the responsibility is now more on civil society and the media. But they need to be empowered through legislation such as the Right to Information Bill. The delay in passing this bill is causing some concern in civil society and has given rise to questions whether some sections in the Government are deliberately delaying it to cover up their sins, failures and perhaps their collusion with the rogues linked to the previous regime.
The Government may say it must first gather solid evidence before bringing the culprits to justice. But the Government should also take a serious note of the growing public discontent over its failures.
It should also take note of the power of the social media, especially its ability to topple corrupt governments through public protests. Recently it happened in Guatemala where the people had turned a blind eye to large scale corruption for 36 years since the end of the civil war in that country. But in September this year, in the face of corruption allegations against President Otto Pérez Molina, a small message in the Facebook drew massive public protests across the country, forcing the president to stand down and face trial.
Following social media appeals, massive anti-corruption protests were also held in South Africa recently against the African National Congress government of Jacob Zuma. Similar anti-corruption protests were held even in war-torn Iraq recently. The trend is indicative of a growing phenomenon of youth intolerance of government corruption.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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