Recent events have brought the issue of corruption into the spotlight. When you open a daily newspaper, chances are there will be four or five cases involving corruption within its pages, reported almost every day. Corruption derails development, distorts the democratic system and decays the moral fabric of society. The ultimate victims are ordinary people. Those who can make a major contribution against corruption are not limited to one or two organisations. The media, academics, journalists, civil society organisations, religious leaders and ‘leftists’ should make a concerted effort to oppose and expose corruption, without bias to any one political party or regime.

The reason for pinpointing ‘leftists,’ entirely independent of other political groups and formations, is their declared commitment to combating corruption and injustice. Whether this holds true in practice is still a controversial topic due to various political alliances and ambiguous practices. Those who might make a genuine effort (like the JVP perhaps) should not do it for pure political gain. Selective neglect coupled with exaggeration do little to eliminate the problem.

Sri Lanka is in a precarious position as the present government was voted into power in 2015 on the strength of a platform of good governance, committed to combating corruption, among other social justice issues. This government has nevertheless exposed themselves, with major deviations from this commitment with the anomalies surrounding the Central Bank from the very beginning. One may argue that this is a repetition of 1994, when there was much talk about ‘Dushanaya and Bhishanaya’ (corruption and terror), but no concrete action after the government was elected to power.

Therefore, the public must rely more and more on independent sources to identify, expose, prosecute and eliminate corruption. The independence of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), law enforcement (including the AG’s department) and crucially, the judiciary, are of paramount importance.

Defining Corruption

There are various definitions on the term. It is often grouped with bribery, but corruption is a broader ailment. There are organisations, including anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, who make a distinction between ‘petty’ and ‘grand’ corruption. Petty corruption refers to bribes that minor public servants (peons, clerks) seek and obtain for survival, as they are grossly underpaid. However, as the recent popular teledrama ‘Nethu’ revealed about what normally happens at a local council office, it would be difficult to distinguish between the two. Jayatissa (a clerk) does not take bribes just for survival, but to live in luxury.

Corruption can involve the simple act of soliciting a bribe. It can also mean the decay of society along those lines. What has happened, or is happening in Sri Lanka are unfortunately not isolated incidents, but can be likened to a cancer in society, akin to the Donoughmore Commission’s reference to communalism as a ‘cancer on the body politic.‘ Corruption involves surreptitious acquisition of money, property, assets or power. Those acquisitions must be uncovered and exposed. Corruption is illegal, however there can be weaknesses or loopholes in a legal system that allows culprits to go scot-free. It is important to use a moral compass particularly in the case of politicians.

A major reason for corruption is personal or family enrichment. It can even become a habit at a personal level. Temptation to buy into a corrupt system can only be combated through religion, socialisation, the law and education. In a situation where most religious institutions are themselves corrupt, the only effective deterrent is through punishment.

Corruption can become widespread in societies which suddenly become rich or ‘developed’. The rat race for advancement is rampant influenced by consumerism or the demonstration effect. While it is individuals who sustain a system mired in corruption, the latter can be engineered by groups or political parties with the intention of achieving and retaining political power. As Laurence Cockcroft argued in (Global Corruption: Money, Power and Ethics in the Modern World), ‘these motives can be closely intertwined.’

There is a ‘UN Convention Against Corruption’ with 71 articles adopted in 2003 during Kofi Annan’s time. The following are Annan’s own words, in the foreword to the Convention.

Corruption is an insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies. It undermines democracy and the rule of law, leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life and allows organized crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish. This evil phenomenon is found in all countries—big and small, rich and poor—but it is in the developing world that its effects are most destructive. Corruption hurts the poor disproportionately by diverting funds intended for development, undermining a Government’s ability to provide basic services, feeding inequality and injustice and discouraging foreign aid and investment. Corruption is a key element in economic underperformance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development.”                

Sri Lanka ratified this Convention in 2004. Apart from this, Sri Lanka has legal provisions under the Criminal Code (since 1883) and other legislation in place to prevent and punish bribery and corruption.

The Three Components of Corruption

According to the available information, there are three main types of corruption prevalent in Sri Lanka: (1) Bribery or seeking money, gifts or rewards for rendering public service
(2) Aiding and Abetting preferred or illicit businesses in exchange of monetary or other benefits and
(3) The misuse of public funds for personal or political purposes.

Bribery. This category is about both politicians and public officials at the national, provincial or local level. They seek monetary rewards in the form of bribes for services rendered or to overlook official sanctions/duties, taxes and so on. Bribes for public appointments by politicians is another manifestation of the problem. Approval of contracts, including foreign deals, can be another. Even without bribes, if appointments (i.e. foreign service, official positions and consultants) or contracts are awarded without merit, this amounts to corruption. The Customs Department and the Department of Inland Revenue are two places where major corruption might prevail at the public servants’ level.

Bribery seems to be the oldest and most prevalent form of corruption. During the state council period (1931-47), seven members were found guilty of rather petty corruption, and forced to resign. SWRD Bandaranaike appointed the Thalgodapitiya Commission in 1959, just before his assassination and six parliamentarians were found guilty in 1960. They all had to leave politics, although the alleged corruption was minor. During the 1970s, there were many allegations, but no proper inquiries were conducted as politics prevailed over public service.

Aiding and Abetting. This is about politicians or officials assisting preferred or illicit businesses in seeking monetary or other rewards. The complicity in these activities can be direct or in the form of policy waver, de-regulation and information leaking. The recent controversy around the Central Bank bond issue as well as the former Prime Minister allegedly issuing a letter to the Customs Department on behalf of a drug trafficker can be in this category. A direct involvement was when a deputy minister after 1977 was arrested for attempting to smuggle gold bars misusing his official status.

This type of corruption of aiding and abetting has become rampant under neo-liberalism and with various attempts to promote the economy and the businesses by any means deemed necessary. During the attempted impeachment against President R. Premadasa, there were major allegations on both sides, but no action was taken. The trend has continued until today. Some of the focal points where these can happen are the Stock Exchange, Central Bank, other banks, bond sales and the BOI. Most of the adverse effects are not only in the economy, but also in the moral fabric of society.

Misuse of Public Funds. The Presidential system and the composition of Sri Lanka’s Cabinet are major reasons for the waste and misuse of public funds. This too helps further bribery. The President’s office is expensive and prone to misuse. Whether this has significantly changed is yet to be seen. Ministers and deputies employ family and friends as entourage. Expense on and misuse of luxury vehicles, fuel, security and travel expenses are colossal. There is no clear demarcation between official work and party work. Some of the perks go even to Opposition Members of Parliament. This appears to be a collective swindling of public funds.

Continuity in office of presidents or governments, without change, is one reason for this misuse with perceived impunity. The worst period of this misuse perhaps was the second term of President Rajapaksa believing that he would win a third term under the amended constitution. This was the case whether the former first lady allegedly spending a staggering amount of money attending a UNESCO celebration in Paris or the President’s secretary distributing Sil Redi (white cloth) from telecommunication funds for political purposes.

Attacking The Source

There seem to be three major sources that nourish the three manifestations of corruption in the country. (1) Political degeneration accompanied by the Presidential system and electoral procedures. (2) Neo-liberal economic policies. (3) Moral degeneration of the society at large.

Political Degeneration. Whatever criteria you use to compare the early independence period and present-day politics, the degeneration is quite marked (from +2 to -6) on all fronts. The Presidential system or authoritarianism is at the centre of this degeneration as the President usually protects (if not directly indulges) the perpetrators. This can be the same under an Executive Prime Ministerial system. Past Presidents (namely J. R Jayawardene and Mahinda Rajapakse) allegedly kept files to politically control the perpetrators, without taking action against them.

Politicians wanted colossal amounts of money to contest districts (not wards) under the new electoral (preferential) system. The same goes for the presidential candidates. This has created a close nexus between politicians and dubious business dealers.

Politicians today are not the calibre of people that the country saw early after independence or before. This is not an isolated result, but part and parcel of the degeneration of the political party system. The interests of leaders and their financial backers have become more predominant than party members or the supporters. Party organizers are mostly thugs, almost by necessity. Party policies and programmes have taken a backstage.

Neo-liberalism. At present economic thinking and neo-liberalism exonerates politicians from public duty. Business is the only engine of growth, they argue. Therefore, why not curry favour with businesses? The beneficiaries of such political ‘patronage’ are not the established or decent business establishments, but the new and quick money makers in dubious businesses. Established businesses are rather at a disadvantage; politicians are trying to exploit them.

The neglect of the public sector, the ministries and departments are justified under neo-liberalism. De-regulation and political directives have given rise to the misuse of budget allocations for ministries. Welfare funds (Samurdhi or Divineguma) are often used for political purposes. Although the government has changed, the neo-liberal ideology has not changed.

Most politicians today are money-minded. A doctrine has emerged that politics is a major way of money making. As part of this process, after achieving power in the national government, provincial councils or even local governments, politicians misuse public funds to further their political advancement or party activities. Neo-liberalism or neo-liberal thinking, in its Sri Lankan form, is largely to blame for rampant corruption.

Moral Degeneration

A moral degeneration has penetrated society writ large. That is how corruption survives. Instead of common good or social justice, self-preservation and monetary advancement have taken priority among the people. Major manifestations of this degeneration are increased interpersonal deception, cheating, intolerance, conflicts, crime and violence. Newspapers and teledramas portray an abundance of these stories. Some international trends have influenced the situation. In addition, political and economic changes, as outlined before, and the civil war (1983-2009) also influenced the breakdown. There is no difference in the North or the South.

Religions are still dominant, but more in terms of identity or rituals, than of moral doctrines. There are over 50,000 preachers or priests of all religions; most of them are also corrupt. A population explosion, changes in vocations and employment have made society more complex. A major failure has been in the educational system and the institution of family. Value education has not progressed parallel to the formal (market) education. There is a crisis in education. People may accept that corruption is wrong, but still, opposition is lukewarm. Only recently were there signs of change.

Stopping Impunity

The purpose of this article was to identify three main facets of corruption and the three main socio-political sources that exacerbate them. It is beyond this attempt to propose or identify solutions in a detailed fashion. Eternal vigilance however can go a long way to countering corruption in any society. Education is also necessary. This is a role that should be played by the media, journalists, academics, civil society organizations and opposition political parties and groups. The UN Convention Against Corruption (CAC) and the work of the Transparency International (TI) can be considered a boon to these efforts. There are areas, like money laundering and drug trafficking, where international cooperation is directly necessary.

Sri Lanka now appears to have necessary institutional mechanisms to investigate and punish the perpetrators. Impunity should be stopped. The number of major cases at present however are over 100 and appear legally and politically complicated. In addition to the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Commission on Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), there is the Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID) of the Police. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Central Bank Bond Issue has also proceeded, so far, extremely well and could be a future model for politically related corruption cases.

The major tasks, however, are with the Auditor General’s Department and the Attorney General’s Department. These are and should be independent from political interference. Nevertheless, they must respond positively to public expectations on corruption investigations and due punishments to the perpetrators. One concrete proposal could be to set up a Special Division on Corruption at the Attorney General’s Department to expedite necessary investigations and prosecutions.

Those who enjoyed this post might find “#anticorruptlka: On Combating Corruption and Complicity” and “The Monarch and the Hegemon: Tales of Suicidal Folly” enlightening reads.