International players in corrupt politics

By Ameen Izzadeen
Politics is a head-deep mud hole. Those who walk into it, even if they wear the world’s best mud-proof suits, cannot claim while being in it that they are clean. Politics leads to power and authority and involves big money. The greater the authority politicians wield, the greater the temptation to get lured by big money thrown at them by Big Business – local and foreign. One wonders whether corruption and politics are inseparable twins.
But the irony is that the path to political glory and power is paved with strongly worded slogans calling for the eradication of corruption. A new set of rulers come to power often by firing a series of corruption allegations at their predecessors. In Sri Lanka we saw this happening during the last presidential and parliamentary election campaigns. Spoken of with disgust and disdain during the campaigns were corrupt practices linked to the tsunami aid, the LTTE’s election boycott call in 2005, wealth secretly stashed up in banks in Dubai, Seychelles and elsewhere, the multi-billion dollar Chinese-funded highway and port projects, the floating armoury and the Israeli water project, not to mention the Ferraris and Lamborghinis, among others.
But after more than 20 percent of President Maithripala’s presidential term has elapsed – note, he wants to serve only five years in office — none of the mind-boggling corruption deals has been proved beyond doubt and the culprits punished. The state of affairs, on the one hand, may indicate that those charged with corruption allegations are super smart operators. On the other hand, it may point to deals within deals, because it is hard to see a fraction of the government’s enthusiasm that was overly evident before the August parliamentary elections even in its rhetoric now. When confronted with questions as to the slow pace of the investigations, the standard government answer is, “There will be arrests very soon.”
It appears that the saying ‘Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion’ is lost on ‘good governance’ politicians, who should be warned that the kind words for Sri Lanka’s new rulers in Transparency International’s 2015 Report, released on Wednesday, may not be so kind if the sluggishness in the fight against corruption continues.
Corruption is not endemic to Sri Lanka. It is a global phenomenon. When deals are made, when contracts are signed, when elections are held, money is given over the table and under the table. Even if the local politicians try to be honest, international players tempt them to commit sin in breach of the trust the people have placed in them.
The issue has become one of the big headaches for China’s President Xi Jinping. China, which had fallen from the 80th place in the 2013 Transparency International corruption index to the 100th place in 2014 before it rose to the 83 in the 2015 report released on Wednesday, is cracking down on corruption, as several high-profile cases show, especially after President Xi launched his anti-graft drive. But little attention is paid to corrupt practices of state-run companies in securing multi-billion dollar infrastructure development projects overseas, although the criminal law has been amended, making cross-border bribery a crime.
According to the New York-based research group Charney Research, a startling 35 percent of companies in China pay bribes or give gifts. One company went so far as to describe the practice as “an unspoken rule.” Should we speculate on gifts that may have come Sri Lanka’s way?
The public outrage in Malaysia these days over a high profile corruption case is another example of rich and powerful foreign countries paying bribes. The case involves Najib Razak, prime minister of Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s third largest economy. On Tuesday, deepening the suspicions and triggering a public outcry, that country’s Attorney General cleared Najib of all charges. The AG’s ruling came despite the recommendation from the country’s anti-graft commission that Najib be charged with “dishonest misappropriation of property”.
At the centre of the investigations were unaccounted-for funds amounting to US$ 681 million in Najib’s personal bank accounts in 2013 – a case that bore some similarities to Sri Lanka’s yet-to-be-fully-exposed Helping Hambantota case. The allegation was that the money had been transferred from the State-run IMDB fund.
Attorney General Mohamed Apandi-Ali, in absolving Najib of wrongdoing, said the money was paid to him by Saudi royals who wanted to prevent an Islamic-minded opposition party linked to the Brotherhood Party in Egypt from winning Malaysia’s 2013 General elections. He claimed the money had been returned to the senders. He also ordered the anti-graft commission to shut down the investigations — a ruling that has made Malaysians say that there is more in it than meets the eye. Discerning readers may compare this ruling with the Sri Lanka Supreme Court judgment in the Helping Hambantota case.
Yesterday, the anti-graft commission called for a review of the ruling of Attorney General Apandi-Ali who had been appointed by Najib himself while the case was being investigated by the previous AG. On Wednesday, Transparency International’s Malaysia chapter president Akhtar Satar, commenting on the multimillion dollar scandal, slammed Najib’s government for dragging Malaysia down four notches in the latest Corruption Perception Index ranking.
The involvement of Saudi ‘bribes’ in the Malaysia scandal reminds us of the infamous Yamama affair that involved US$ one billion in bribes paid to a Saudi royal by British Aerospace (BAE Systems) in return for an arms purchase deal worth more than US$ 40 billion. The case came to light when BAE Systems pleaded guilty, in a 2010 court case in the United States, to charges of false accounting and making misleading statements. This case led to an investigation by the British Serious Fraud Office. But in a shocking move, the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered the probe be stopped, claiming that Britain’s national interest was at stake – some 5,000 British jobs. Blair’s order came following a threat from Saudi Arabia that all ties with Britain would be severed if the investigations went ahead.
Bribery is a crime whether the bribe comes from a foreign source or a local source or even if it comes in the form of a little gift or a commission and whether it is given or taken.
In the United States, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) prohibits giving bribes to state officials of other countries to secure contracts. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) adopted an Anti-Bribery Convention in 1997, and it makes cross border bribery an international crime. Countries like China and Saudi Arabia are not signatories to this convention. Yet, one way of curbing this foreign bribe menace is for Transparency International to name and shame bribe-giving states also in a separate annual index.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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