Photo courtesy of iPleaders

Today is International Anti-Corruption Day

The sad story of corruption in Sri Lanka stretches far back and, by all accounts, will be stretching far into the future as well. On the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) compiled by Transparency International, Sri Lanka slid to 94th place out of 180 countries, from 89th place in 2018. Every day there is a new story of some scam in public institutions from Sri Lankan Airlines to Sathosa. Even the sacred game of cricket is not exempt.

Instances of impunity and turning a blind eye are close at hand. First came the Panama Papers then the Pandora Papers. Both resulted in “shocking” revelations that were the talk of the town for a few days. Many familiar names were on the list of the Panama Papers. The Pandora Papers named former Deputy Minister Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband Thirukumar Nadesan, relations of the present leaders, and believed to be their money launderers.

Also mentioned in the report compiled by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists  (ICIJ) was R. Paskaralingam, a civil servant from the time of President Ranasinghe Premadasa and who was advisor to both Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas. He is accused of creating trusts and companies in the British Virgin Islands to hold millions of dollars, invest in a private college and buy property in the UK.

After the furore over both sets of papers died down, the charges are all but forgotten despite promises of investigations and prosecutions. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) to investigate the ICIJ findings and Mr. Nadesan, who maintained his innocence, has testified before the commission. “The President referring the Pandora Papers to the Bribery and Corruption Commission (CIAOBC) and asking them to investigate the Sri Lankan involvement is tantamount to a bad joke,” said an editorial in the Sunday Times.

President Rajapaksa himself was facing embezzlement charges and corruption charges when he was elected. He was cleared the charges, which related to his time as Defence Secretary, after his election. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The deep vein of corruption runs through society, tarnishing all in its path. The corrupt will always shield each other so they are allowed to flourish in a culture of impunity when their turn comes. Despite vigorous promises during his 2015 election campaign to bring corrupt politicians to book, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did little to punish well known wrong doers of the previous regime whose Mr. 10 percent, charged and acquitted of corruption, is now the country’s Finance Minister – a case of the fox looking after the  chickens.

Under this government, those who were charged have been released by the court for want of evidence including Minister of Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Minister Johnston Fernando, Minister of Ports and Shipping of Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Avant Garde Chairman Nissanka Senadhipathi, former DIG Vass Gunawardena and former MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardena. Those who investigated the charges and gathered evidence such as former CID director Shani Abeysekara and Inspector Nishantha Silva have been vilified for doing their jobs, thrown under the bus by Mr. Wickremesinghe and his lot.

In a twist of irony, the accused become the victims, as can be seen by the Commission to Investigate Political Victimisation. The commission report recommended the withdrawal of nearly 40 cases of bribery and corruption pending in the courts, identifying them as incidents of political victimisation.

The Commission or the Attorney General has acquitted 16 suspects in five cases due to withdrawal of charges or indictments on various technical grounds. In addition, 27 people have been acquitted and released from eight cases. Forty three suspects who were charged with bribery, corruption or criminal involvement have been acquitted or released by the courts.

At the end of the day, the effects of corruption are that the poor get poorer and the rich carry on regardless. Fighting corruption is a thankless and seemingly fruitless task in Sri Lanka. Some, such as journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, paid the ultimate price for exposing the MiG deal while many others including activists and lawyers have fled the country.

However, there are organizations and individuals still forging on including Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), a national chapter of Transparency International (TI), working towards combating corruption. TISL raises awareness on the damaging effects of corruption and works with the government, public sector, business and civil society to develop and implement effective measures to tackle it. It also assists victims and witnesses of corruption to access justice.

TISL’s director, Nadishani Perera, answered questions from Groundviews on the state of corruption in Sri Lanka and its effects on society.

Everywhere in the world, corruption exists in all sectors from politics to sport. How has this become normalised and acceptable?

Corruption exists because of the greed and selfishness of some people, which leads to them wanting to increase their wealth even by abusing the powers entrusted to them. Corruption is also instigated by the people who look to take the easy way to get things done to their benefit, such as getting a job or facing a traffic violation. Corruption is exacerbated by inefficiencies in the public service sector, which creates the space for public officials to demand bribes to provide a service on time and for people to offer bribes in order to obtain the service in due time. Corruption has become normalised because the people have also accepted that, even though it is wrong, that this is the feasible approach for them on a personal level, further justifying that there are larger corruptions taking place and one’s own corruption would not make a difference. People fail to realise that they are losing out on so many things because of corruption. It is unfortunate that a large number of the global population fail to realise the far reaching consequences of this corruption as well as the domino effect it causes on every aspect of their lives.

How much does corruption cost the country in economic terms?

We believe that the loss caused to the country is incalculable. We say this for a number of reasons. The first is that that it is difficult to put a figure on the losses suffered by the country due to petty corruption. It is even more difficult to put a number on the losses suffered by the country due to larger white collar crimes and grand corruption. Corruption in Sri Lanka is like an iceberg, you can only see a small fraction of the cases that come to light; there could be so many cases that simply don’t make it into the limelight or public attention and the causes of corruption run deep. Corruption is notoriously difficult to measure due to the fact that all relevant actors in the crime of corruption are usually part of the crime, which means it often does not come to light.

Low income people just struggle to survive and think corruption in high places doesn’t affect them. Is this a misconception?

It is absolutely a misconception that corruption at higher levels doesn’t affect the people at the grass root level. Sri Lanka has a great free health care system, in a country where corruption doesn’t occur at higher levels, this health care system could be even better. The same rationale applies to many other services including education and transport. The people of this country shouldn’t also forget that there always those who would take decisions that benefit them rather than the general populace. Corruption at higher places can and does impact every aspect of your life from the food that you eat to the roads that you travel on and even the air that you breathe. It robs resources away from the country’s development. The problem is that there is a large gap between corruption that takes place and the impact of it. Because of this, people find it difficult to relate their day-to-day issues to particular acts of corruption.

Everyone acknowledges that corruption is a bad thing but it is allowed to go on. Why is this?

Corruption continues to exist and thrive because the people of the country have not really understood the types and impact of corruption, have not united to reject corruption and uphold integrity in their day to day lives and because our people have not united in identifying ways to combat corruption. If citizens come together and demand greater transparency and accountability from the government and the public sector, demand an end to corruption and not tolerate corruption at all levels and ensure that when the time comes to exercise their power in this democratic country, they make the right choices, we can truly create a difference in the level of corruption in the country. As long as we keep contributing to the problem ourselves, little can change, as change begins with our daily refusal to engage in corruption.

It seems that each government is more corrupt than the last. How can we root out systemic corruption?

Systemic corruption or any other systemic issue cannot be rooted out with the status quo being maintained. The system needs to be reset or rebooted and the people of this country have the power to do that if they take a long hard look at who they elect to power. This is why TISL has been advocating for many years on the disclosure of Asset Declarations of MPs and Ministers in a bid to create a more informed electorate. While agitating for change at the grass root level, if the clean and corruption-free individuals are placed in government there will be pressure from both the top and bottom, the middle man or the public sector will automatically change.

We think mainly of government corruption but it is present in the private sector as well as they are the bribe givers. How can this be addressed?

The private sector is a big part of the bribery equation. Currently, our law doesn’t sufficiently address the bribe givers – often the private sector. As such, many corporates who engage in bribery in order to beat their competitors are not held accountable. This needs to change in two main ways. On the one hand, the private sector itself needs to self-regulate, in order to collectively create the conditions where they can each confidently refuse to engage in bribery. On the other hand, the laws of the country need to change to capture private sector bribery of public officials effectively. Fines and other penalties must be suitably dissuasive to stop the private sector engaging in corruption.

Are there loopholes in the law that allow for corruption to carry on?

If you take public and political sector bribery, Sri Lanka’s laws are sufficient to address the problem. However, we do not enforce existing laws sufficiently well. The relevant authorities need to be well resourced and able to act independently in order to able to effectively police bribery and corruption. In relation to the private sector, our laws are ill-equipped to hold bribe-givers accountable. There also need to be improvements in terms of our laws, by introducing a law on election campaign financing in order to reduce undue influence upon public representatives and to create a fair playing field. Our laws on corruption certainly need updating in line with global standards of transparency that leverage technology and open data to fight corruption. One major issue is that corrupt actors always learn new tricks, especially given how quickly the internet allows money to move. This means that law enforcement needs to be just as agile.

In the last two years, the courts have dismissed cases for corruption against many high profile people in the government? What sort of message does this send out on the rule of law?

TISL has been extremely concerned by the seeming collapse of many corruption cases filed by the CIABOC. There have been two broad categories of such cases: The first are those withdrawn due to a technical error. This is said to have been based on a precedent from a 2018 Court of Appeal decision. The second category are the cases where they have been withdrawn allegedly due to an insufficiency of evidence. Both these reasons are troubling. In the first instance, CIABOC should have taken immediate steps to re-file the cases, rectifying the technical error. There have not been any public reports of this happening. On the second, there is a question as to why the cases were filed at all, if the prosecution thought there was insufficient evidence. If they were filed, there is a reasonable expectation that they would be prosecuted to the end, and not dropped. TISL has filed an RTI request with CIABOC and an appeal, asking for reasons for this. We are yet to receive a response.  Combined, the successive collapse of key cases paints a negative picture about Sri Lanka’s commitment to fighting corruption, and to accountability. It certainly also raises concerns about the rule of law.

Last year the government allowed expatriate Sri Lankans and investors to deposit foreign currency including black money in private banks. Is this a way to legitimize money earned through corruption?

There can be a reasonable doubt that could arise as to whether the exemption provided by the government was abused to legitimise money earned through illicit means. This is why TISL suggested a number of recommendations that could be taken to ensure that the exemption was not abused. In September this year, TISL called on all law enforcement and regulatory authorities to ensure that the public is kept informed of the safeguards put in place to avert such abuse.