Colombo, Economy, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

The Rajapakse regime: Rewarding the corrupt and sheltering the criminal?

If there is one thing that is crystal clear about the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, it is that it rewards wrong doers and punishes the righteous.

The President’s decision to include the Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera in his delegation to China for the opening ceremony of the Olympic games days is a case in point. Just days after the man found guilty of corruption in the privatization of Lanka Marine Services Limited by the Supreme Court and fined Rs. 500,000, the President’s action illustrates that anybody has a place in the regime’s inner circle as long as he is a “yes man.”

The Court upheld the findings of a the report released months earlier by the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) which said that the privatisation of LMSL when Jayasundera served as the Chairman of Public Enterprise Reforms Commission (PERC) had been “executed blatantly without Cabinet approval, with several flaws causing loss and detriment to the Government.” But the abject failure to act against those named in the Report meant it took Public Interest Litigation initiated in the Supreme Court to name Jayasundera as a guilty party in the LMSL case.

Even though the Government is slow to act against such persons, we got to know last week that two police officers attached to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption were abruptly transferred out of the department while they were probing the assets of a Government (non-Cabinet) Minister. In their fundamental rights application filed in the SC, the petitioners made a shock revelation that two top officials in the Bribery Commission – Commissioner Indra De Silva, who is also a former IGP and Director (Investigations) Neville Guruge – were attempting to cover up the case against the Minister.

A look at some of the convictions that the Commission has to its credit amply shows that while the sharks cut their way out of the bribery net, it’s the small fry that is gets caught. A Police Constable was convicted in 2002 for accepting a bribe of Rs. 2,000 to refrain from filing a case for a Traffic Offence. His punishment from Court was two years imprisonment for each charge. A minor employee of a government office was convicted for a bribe of Rs. 2,000 and got 12 months imprisonment. Another Police constable who accepted a bribe of Rs. 300 for a traffic offence was convicted and got two years rigorous imprisonment.

Clearly, engaging in bribery and corruption must be punished irrespective of the sum of money involved. But going by the severity of the punishment that has been meted out to the three persons I have cited as examples, I ask you to determine what punishment is suitable for a man whose actions have resulted in the loss of millions. Paying Rs. 500,000 as a fine must have been like handing over pocket money for Jayasundara when one recognises the magnitude of the fraud involved in the LMSL case. And this may only be the beginning. Similar irregularities may well come to light in cases such as the privatisation of the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, where Jayasundera also figured, that are pending before the Courts. The COPE report said that in the SLIC privatization deal, Jayasundera had “failed and neglected to act in the interests of the Government.”

What does inaction against the rot at the top of the ladder tell the ordinary citizen of this country? Steal millions in public money and you are safe to live a life of luxury and comfort and hobnob with the politically powerful but be honest but try to stand up against the rot, all you can expect is to get transferred, demoted, harassed and hounded.

But Jayasundera is only one in a along list of wrongdoers that the President has chosen to mollycoddle even when their atrocities are staring him in his face. There can be no more glaring example than the case of Minster Mervin Silva. The President famously asked Silva to be present at a meeting with employees of the Rupavahini Cooptation who were being signalled out for attacks after the trashing Silva got following his outrageous behaviour against the New Director of the SLRC. What the President did here is pat the man on his back and tell him it is time to stop such attacks. Obviously this sickening molly-coddling has not stopped the man and only encouraged him to worsen his attacks on journalists and media organizations.

And what has come of allegations against a Minister for robbing the money meant as compensation to the farmers affected by the Mavil Aru incident? What of another junior Minister who was allegedly involved in a visa racket to the USA using government influence? What of the fertilizer subsidy tender racket which again meant massive loss of public funds?

The media has to a great extent done its best to bring such issues to the public forum. Some opposition legislators have even attempted to bring them up in Parliament.

Sadly and tragically though, a government blind to bribery and corruption continues to be in deep slumber when confronted with these uncomfortable truths.

  • Exapt

    Excellent article, its not only MR is molly-coddling and his brother who runs the country’s military affairs. GOD Save Sri Lanka.

  • Expat

    I was reading Ravindra Wickrmasinghe’s article on AT, for a novice on Sri Lankan war-fare he had done a good job. The civil war in Sri lanka is all about money money. I just wish the people in south could read English and surf the internet.

    [Editors note: Sorry, but I had to edit your comment since this forum cannot allow hearsay. Given that I agree with your argument, perhaps you could find a better way of putting it?]

  • Concerned

    This is not a surprise. Mervin Silva has to be looked after as he has all the thugs and murderers needed to carry out the mayhem. PBJ, a man who will sell the country to keep his high position can always be depended on to carry out any fraud. The people have the right to punish all these wrongdoers without any regard to position they hold at the right time. These people will pay the price at the hands of the people.

  • I also remember the fraud related to the ‘Rubber Goods Manufacturing and Export Corporation’ ( during Chandrika’s Regime ) for which sums totalling Rs 900.34 Million were allocated by Minister Ratnasri Wickremanayake aided by P B Jayasundara. The “Corporation” was never established. The money simply vanished without trace – the information is available from newspaper anchives for anyone interested.
    There was preliminary inquiry by the CID, the ‘chairman’ and ‘accountant’ of the mythical corporation were interdicted, and that was the end of the matter ! !

  • This is not just an issue only in Sri Lanka, having lived in north america for awhile I saw exactly what happened to the likes of Martha Stewart and the CEOs of ENRON. Juveniles get 2 year sentences for minor assault or robbery in some states in the USA but influential rich-uns pay a fine (which to them is peanuts) and get off scot-free.

    Put that into context with a 3rd world country gripped with terrorism and it just isn’t as big a deal.

    I agree it is a sad scenario corruption is part and parcel of Sri Lankan life, I know this cause I lived there for 20 years. Having been blessed enough to have lived in other 3rd world nations as well I can tell you this injustice is not only a Sri Lankan problem.

    When the LTTE’s military wing is not a significant enough force to keep all of Sri Lanka under their rule of fear, only then will we have any genuine chance to ensure all Tamils can represent themselves freely and only then will we have a genuine chance of turning this downward spiraling economy , upwards. When the cost of living comes back down and people have more money in their pockets the roots to corruption can be gradually torn down.

  • Munidasa Pathmasri Ranaweera

    Corruption has become a hot topic once again. Unfortunately corruption is discussed only during election time. Winners of elections burry it for good until their opponents resurrect it at the next election. So the cycle continues. Lack of credible direct evidence of corruption is the main difficulty in taking action against it. However empirical evidence is available for all to see about the degree of relative corruption. Relative corruption is the level of corruption of one government compared to another government.
    In 1994 Chandrika alleged massive corruption of the UNP government. It worked well for her but did the country do any better? Actually she was blaming the Wijetunga administration of faults of his predecessors! While at no place she mentioned Wijetunga’s corruption or his government’s corruption, she was complaining about Jayawardena and Premadasa administrations’ corruption. However people voted out the not so corrupt Wijetunga government and elected to office a government which is considered far worse. Turning back at the events of the last two decades, it is crystal clear that the 1993-94 Wijetunga government was less corrupt that its replacement of 1994-2001.
    When there is large scale corruption it becomes evident through practical indicators. High corruption means less welfare schemes, inability to meet state financial commitments, reckless borrowing, depleting foreign reserves, selling government owned entities, economic hopelessness, reducing investor confidence, closure of universities for long periods, cuts in public spending and staff and no salary increases for the public sector.
    If one compares these practical and real indicators of previous governments and the Rajapaksha government, a strange conclusion emerges. It is strange because it is not what you hear on political stages and politicised media.
    Although it is not considered sound economic practice, the Rajapaksha government increased the welfare spending. The fertilizer subsidy was extended to Vanni, displacement subsidies from Mavil Aru to Menik farm, drought and flood subsidies, Samurdhi subsidy and a number of other subsidies were granted.. Not a single subsidy was cut. The increase in welfare schemes took place despite allocating double than before for defence.
    The Rajapaksha government never went for reckless borrowing. Government’s lack of desperation in borrowing was displayed to the IMF and other donors. This was despite the war. From 2001 to 2003, within just two and a half years, Sri Lanka’s external debt rose from US$ 8.3 billion to US$10.6 billion even without a war! However, from 2005 to 2009 for four years Sri Lanka’s external debt only rose from US$10.85 to US$13.50 billion. Whether the annual increase is considered or the percentage increase is considered, the Rajapaksha administration has done very well.
    The composition of the loan portfolio is also important. By 2005 about 60% of the state debt portfolio was external (foreign) debt. This reduced to close to 45% by 2009. Lesser foreign debt means less national indebtedness as it lowers the impact on the exchange rate and external reserves. This is a remarkable achievement despite the war.
    External reserves reached an all time high in 2009.
    Can both these happen at the same time if there was more corruption than before? Very unlikely.
    Exchange regulations were eased as never before since the country has a stable level of foreign reserves and managed external debt with the hope of a gigantic economic expansion.
    In the last couple of years the world went into recession. Contrary to dire predictions, Sri Lank overcame this challenge with flying colours.
    Selling government owned entities has always been a popular escape. When in a situation of unmanageable budget deficit, selling off ‘family silver’ has been a quick fix. However, people suffer as a result. How many government owned entities were sold by the Rajapaksha government? Almost none. All previous governments after 1977 sold off public owned enterprises to cover the budget deficit. Ceylon Oxygen, Ceylon Cold Stores, Textile Corporation, Kelani Valley Plantations, Kotagala Plantations, Maskeliya Plantations, Namunukula Plantations, Sri Lanka Telecom, Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, National Insurance Corporation, Distilleries Corporation, Sri Lankan Airlines (formerly Air Lanka), Ceylon Transport Board, Lanka Gas (sold to Shell gas), CINTEC, the lucrative distribution arm of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (sold to Indian Oil Company), etc.
    Many desperate attempts were made to sell Bank of Ceylon, Peoples’ Bank, National Savings Bank, State Investment and Mortgage Bank, Ceylon Electricity Board, Sri Lanka Railways, Sri Lanka Post, etc.
    The Rajapaksha administration didn’t do this. Where did the government find the money to manage a US$1.5 billion war, welfare schemes while not earning a quick buck by selling off state owned entities? If the Rajapaksha administration was more corrupt or as corrupt as other administrations, this should not be the trend.
    Further, previously sold out entities including Sri Lankan Airlines were brought back under peoples’ ownership.
    On top of all that, the Rajapaksha administration increased the number of persons employed in the state sector. While modern economists would not like it, the government managed the increase very well. Economists note with concern that Sri Lanka has the highest state sector employment as a percentage of the GDP. Despite that salary increases were awarded as never before.
    Employing unemployed graduates in very large numbers was also seen during this time. Over the years most of them have been equipped with skills to meaningfully contribute to the economy.
    Where is the money? Of course the government increased taxes but total taxes as a percentage of the GDP steadily fell. It is obviously not possible to sustain such a massive state sector if corruption was higher than previous governments.
    There were times when economic hopelessness reached astronomical proportions. In 1971, 1980, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1994, 2001 and 2004 were examples of utter hopelessness in the economic front. Is there economic hopelessness today as it was then? No. Although the cost of living has skyrocketed, people’s income has also increased. But above all there is much anticipation of future economic prospects.
    All this is because there is wide anticipation that the economy will do well despite the loss of GSP+, 26 years of war, international pressure and other adversities.
    A simple question would clarify the matter. Do you have better prospects today than there were following the tsunami (2005)? The answer is obvious.
    University disruptions have reduced compared to the past and the government is spending a huge amount of money on primary, secondary and tertiary education. University admissions have steadily increased. Percentage of schooling children has increased over the years. Teaching in the English medium meaningfully started and is expanding. Once this was thought impossible. The healthcare system was also protected and in fact improved. Improvement in the healthcare system helped it cope up with the very large number of war casualties from 2006-09.
    If corruption had not reduced compared to the past, none of this would have been possible. When governments were in dire financial state, their attention is first directed towards these vulnerable sectors.
    Investor confidence has increased as never before. The Colombo Stock Exchange became the world’s best stock exchange. It shows the tremendous increase in investor confidence. If the present administration was as corrupt as the previous ones, this cannot happen. Many third world countries despite more liberal economic policies were defeated by the Colombo Stock Exchange in the past few years.
    Very large scale investment activities take place from the South to the North.. Potential of these investments is even higher.
    Infrastructure development is unprecedented. A very large number of key bridges have come up linking communities and industries. New bridges have opened up new markets, production sources and reduced transportation cost and time. Economic development in the Eastern Province alone was unthinkable a few years before..
    Traffic congestion around the City has been a major wastage factor causing wastage in time, fuel, money, property and even lives. Flyovers that came up during the past few years have eased congestion. Real benefits will be seen in time to come. Compared to the previous work of similar nature especially the Baseline Road Project, the present government has been very efficient..

    Work on key roads has been stalled for over 25 years until the Rajapaksha government got down to it. Now these artery roads are being built at a vigorous speed. Economic contribution that comes with it would be significant.
    Power plants are coming up around the country. Although some of these were on the drawing board for decades, actual work started only recently. There was a time not so long ago when governments think of power plants when CEB is forced to cut electricity.

    A staggering US$1.5 billion was made available for defence. Compared to previous allocations, it has almost doubled. Other ancillary defence related expenditure also increased. Government refused to cut corners when it comes to requirements. Although the budget was passed with extreme difficulty, spending was better managed.
    A massive defence allocation along with all the other large spending endeavours was possible thanks to a reduction in relative corruption.

    Otherwise not only the war effort would have stalled but also the state sector would have collapsed, state enterprises would have been sold out and welfare spend would have been cut.
    During election time these facts are not given enough prominence as the craze for power blinds a section of the population. However, the society must recognize these before it is too late to correct. Politicians are willing to wait another six years for power but people cannot wait for development any longer. They have already waited for 26 long years.