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Sri Lanka

Action against corruption may finally become a reality

Today there is a greater willingness on the part of the general population to criticize political leaders

Jehan Perera, Colombo

Jehan Perera, Colombo

Published: September 29, 2017 04:24 AM GMT
Action against corruption may finally become a reality

Sri Lankan aide to former president Mahinda Rajapakse, Lalith Weeratunga (center), and former director-general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Anusha Palpita (second right) are escorted from the Colombo High Court after being convicted on corruption charges on Sept. 7. Both men were given three-year jail sentences. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

Sri Lanka may be at the threshold of a third major transformation within a decade.

The first took place in 2009 on the battlefields of the north when a decades-long civil war ended with military defeat of secessionist Tamil Tigers.

Central control was re-asserted over the entire nation.

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The second transition took place in 2015 with the political defeat of the government that subdued the ethnic Tamil insurgents.

The government of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost both presidential and general elections in the course of the year.

The fate of a potential third significant societal transformation centers on the issue of corruption and whether or not it can be successfully tackled.

After the 2015 elections a corruption investigation was initiated, largely driven by civil society, over campaign handouts.

The then Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga has now been found guilty by a court over the disbursement of some US$4 million worth of cloth to female Buddhist devotees.

Election monitoring organizations had condemned the giveaways as electoral malpractice.

After more than two years, Weeratunga was on Sept. 7 sentenced to three years rigorous imprisonment and fined Rs.52 million (US$340,000).

The same punishment was meted out to Anusha Palpita, director general of the country's telecommunications commission.

Both were found guilty of misappropriating government funds for political purposes.

During the election campaign of 2015 there were a large number of allegations against top ranking members of Rajapaksa's government.

Among the claims were that the now former president had stashed US$18 billion in foreign countries.

And there were questions over family members owning Lamborghini racing cars.

Post election investigations proceeded so slowly that anti-corruption campaigners started to fear that wrongdoers would escape justice.

As confidence in a post-election anti-corruption drive shrunk, public cynicism grew.

This was underscored by a series of corruption allegations against members of the current government of Maithripala Sirisena.

Within two months of the change of government in January 2015, a massive scandal came to light in which members of the new government were accused.

The sale of bonds on a much larger scale than initially planned, and at a higher interest rate, led to allegations of huge profits being raked in by one of the government's allies and financial backers.

The general public, especially those who voted for the government in the expectation that it would change the political culture of the country, was feeling badly let down.

And community groups demanded that there be no repeat of past 'white elephant' infrastructure projects, such as the Chinese built Hambantota Port, which imposed a long-term foreign debt burden on Sri Lanka.

However, some recent developments offers at least hope that people who use their political or administrative power for self-enrichment will be held to account. 

First, there were the convictions of members of the former administration for misusing government property during the last election campaign.

Secondly, the current government's foreign minister, Ravi Karunanayake, has been forced to resign over an alleged conflict of interest in relation to the Central Bank bond scam.

And to its credit, the current government has ended the climate of fear that previously existed in relation to those who spoke out against official abuses.

Today there is a greater willingness and ability on the part of the general population, as well as civil society activists, to criticize political leaders and bureaucrats.

And courts are handing down judgments according to the law.

Voice against Corruption, a watchdog group, said if investigations into 89 complaints they have lodged were to be successfully followed through by the attorney general, half of the government's members would be imprisoned.

Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. He is a regular weekly political columnist for newspapers in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. 

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