Photo courtesy Getty Images, via Sri Lanka Mirror
As the media predicted last week, alluding to an off-guard comment made by a junior member of the Attorney-General’s legal team of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Central Bank bond scam, a star witness has turned the public discussion on high profile corruption into a major political drama.
Ms. Anika Wijesuriya, a young female entrepreneur from an extraordinarily rich business family in Colombo, has done what the Joint Opposition of ex-president Mahinda Rajapakse, or Mr. Anura Dissanayake’s radical JVP, has failed to achieve in more than two years. In half a day of evidence before the commission of inquiry, she has rocked the very foundations of the current yahapalanaya regime. She has also changed the terms of the political debate between the government and the opposition. All these unwittingly though.
Ms. Wijesuriya’s evidence provided a detailed account of questionable financial deals between the family of Ravi Karunanayake, the former Finance Minister, and Arjun Aloysius, the young businessman whose name has figured as the main actor in the massive bond scam. To make the drama unbelievable, Aloysius happens to be the son-in-law of the Central Bank Governor, Arjuna Mahendran – son of a longstanding UNP stalwart – who oversaw all the transactions, including the bond auctions, of the Central Bank. Mahendran as well as Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, and his cabinet team of economic whiz-kids, did not seem to have any idea about the principles of conflict of interest and public trust. In the process, Ministers Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne also lost their credibility in a rather sad manner.
Karunanayake’s claim to innocence before the supreme court judges through pleading ignorance of those deals over the renting of the penthouse apartment was not only unconvincing, but also appeared to be out and out deceit. Denial has made his case most indefensible. And the yahapalanaya government now finds itself in its most serious crisis since it was formed in January 2015. The UNP, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, has fallen victim to its own false promise of corruption-free good governance. After Wickremasinghe went lackadaisical about the corruption inquiries into the dealings of the big wigs of the Rajapakse regime for obviously narrow political reasons, he now faces what one may call the poetic justice.
Unless Karunanayake resigns or is sacked from the cabinet, the UNP will be in deep trouble. Even then, problems for the UNP will not be over. Attempts to recover the lost moral high ground by making claims to renewed yahapalanaya spirit will not help Prime Minister Wickremasinghe or his UNP. People, even those who supported him and his government, are now totally disenchanted with his politics of deception and tactics of deceit on the bond scam. He is facing a truly serious crisis of credibility before the citizens. Re-building that lost trust between the prime minister and the citizens will require a wholesale clean-up of the UNP section of the present coalition government. That process might even put his own position at risk. Meanwhile, under normal circumstances, democratic politicians who lose public trust so badly tend to look for authoritarian alternatives. Wickremasinghe has no access to that option either, thanks to the much-maligned system of diarchy introduced by the 19th Amendment.
Who is the immediate beneficiary of this crisis? President Sirisena or the former President Mahinda Rajapakse, or Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the JVP leader? Rajapakse is unlikely to benefit much, even though the joint opposition will try to make political capital out of the UNP’s crisis. The Rajapakse brothers and sons have not replied to the allegations of massive scale corruption in any manner that can bring back any political credibility to the former first family. The Rajapakse outfit, with its claims to having a couple of advisors or propagandists with some academic credentials, is one with no sense of self-criticism whatsoever. Sri Lankan voters are not lured by the personality cult alone. The JVP will certainly benefit from the UNP’s predicament, since their MPs have been in the forefront of the anti-corruption campaign, particularly exposing the central back bond scam.
The person who can benefit most from the UNP’s crisis is President Maithripala Sirisena. Unlike the Prime Minister, President Sirisena has not got his own Mr. Clean image badly tarnished by defending, and covering up, the misdeeds of the former Central Bank governor. But President Sirisena does not have a totally clean slate either. He is also surrounded by a bunch of people with little credibility when it comes to the question of corruption while holding political office. Some of them joined him after the December 2014 elections primarily to avoid investigations and prosecution. President Sirisena does not hide it, especially when he tells even his sympathetic critics like me: ‘an ounce of political practice is more valuable than a ton of political theory’.
It is against such a backdrop that the citizens and anti-corruption activists should show immediate interest in the meticulous investigations conducted by the lawyers of the Attorney General’s department. The latter are professionals who have not been known for being so efficient in their normal corruption investigations and prosecution during the past so many years. Yet, suddenly they have found a new spirit of professional efficiency, pride and commitment. In what particular way the yahapalanaya agenda has contributed to that change is not yet clear. However, before the investigating agencies and public prosecutors become fatigued or intimidated, citizens must ask them through President Sirisena to investigate all those whose names figure in the 5,000 odd pages of transcripts of Mr. Arjun Aloysius’s short messages, which the Attorney-General’s Department has produced before the Commission. Obviously, Ravi Karunanayake is only one among many political and bureaucratic names mentioned in those messages. Moreover, Aloysius’s phone messages with incriminating data might have a history going back to days well before January 2015, as should his Central Bank’s bond business too.
Such a demand by citizens, the media and civil society groups for full disclosure of Aloysius’s messages should not be motivated by partisan politics. It should not aim it proving the mere point that all are corrupt. Citizens already know it. What is not known are the data, evidence and concrete information how the nexus, or the unholy alliance, between the business and politics works to the detriment of democracy, good governance and public welfare. Just briefly look at Ms. Anika Wijesuriya’s evidence. She gave the Commission startling details about how businessmen and politicians make and operate mutually beneficial deals involving public money as well as hoarded private funds of enormous proportions. These businessmen and politicians are close family friends. They have close school ties through themselves, their spouses, lovers, and children.
In Ravi Karunanayake’s case, the alliance is between the alumni of the Royal College and the Colombo International School. These are not the Sinhala or Tamil speaking vernacular godaya mudalalis. They are men and women from a small class of the unbelievably rich. All the men wear expensive suits. They are children of the open economy and globalization. They freely loot the public wealth as if it is their right and privilege. A new class of businessmen and politicians, with insatiable greed for accumulation of money and material wealth began to capture the state power. In the investigations into some of them under the yahapalanaya regime, the same processes and structures seem to continue with a few new names replacing the old.
When a big minister looking for a house, a businessmen volunteers to donate a rent free pent house apartment. The minister accepts all this with no idea of conflict of interest or the principles of governance he himself promoted when out of power. Obviously, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Young Ms. Onella Karunanayake is absolutely right. Why only target her father, when there are so many who have been doing it?
The citizens, the media and civil society groups must demand from President Sirisena to continue these probes through presidential commissions on previous bond scams as well. There is now forgotten Greek bond issue which the UNP leaders told us that days that it cost the country billions of rupees. Obviously, there have many Aloysius’s in Colombo who made a lot of money on bond business. And also politicians and officials who amassed ill-gotten wealth through these deals. Targeting a few individuals like Karunanayake, Aloysius and Mahendran is not enough. The entire system needs to be cleaned up. That is the yahapalanaya promise. That is what the citizens expect from President Sirisena. That is also the only way he can prove himself to be a statesman, qualitatively different from the Rajapaksas and Wickremasinghes.
Meanwhile, citizens of Sri Lanka should thank the Presidential Commission for providing a forum where concrete details about the unholy alliance between business and politics are exposed. These are details that cannot be obtained under the RTI Act. Neither have such details been discovered by the government’s investigating agencies about highly publicized corruption allegations against the powerful individuals of the previous regime. Now, citizens have some concrete data about how domains of business and politics allow themselves to be interpenetrated and how businessmen capture individual politicians, political parties and even government’s decision-making process. Now, we have a slightly better idea of how our democracy gets distorted by this business-politics nexus.
Obviously, Sri Lankan citizens can now begin to re-think their political loyalties, electoral strategies and expectations.