OPINION

New law better than existing one, but there’s long way to go

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Battle against corruption:

(Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa’s speech on the Anti-Corruption Bill)

Mr. Speaker, I believe that today is a day of positive change in our country after a struggle. Today, we are taking a significant step forward and this is an important day to initiate action to eliminate corruption, fraud and theft, which have become a curse to this country, from society, government and non-governmental bodies.

This is much better than the situation prevailed so far. However, there are many serious questions about whether this forward journey is sufficient. I would like to say at the outset that the Hon. Ranjith Madduma Bandara, the general secretary of our party, introduced an anti-corruption bill a few years ago. That bill is stronger than the bill under consideration today. But, Hon. Minister of Justice, the sad fact is that you did not gazette it. However, a Bill promoted by Kaputa to call back the members of the dissolved local government bodies and give them power has been gazetted! The bill presented by the Samagi Jana Balawega was relegated to the dustbin.

Mr. Speaker, within a few days from 26.06.2023, when the private bill of recalling the local government members was gazetted, it was read for the first time on 07.05.2023. The government has so much interest in recalling the members of the local government bodies that were dissolved without an election. A shameless act. I would like to make this point in particular. The new bill that you are bringing is better than the current situation. I look at the bill optimistically. But have we gone far enough? The country is bankrupt; the resources of the country have been destroyed; resources of the local, common people have been stolen; those resources have been looted. Hon. Speaker, they have looted the country. The family has looted the country. One family has come together and caused a massive destruction in this country. At a time when theft, fraud, corruption and robbery have been brought to the top of the national agenda, we would like to say that there should be a positive change in this system.

Mr. Speaker, this bill should have been brought as soon as the incumbent government came to power. But why are they presenting this bill today? This is done to fulfill a condition of the IMF. They have implemented this programme only as one item in the ‘to do list’ of the IMF in granting its Extended Fund Facility so that the government is supposed to pass this bill and put a tick in the box against that item in the said ‘to do list’.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to make it very clear at this instant that the Supreme Court has stressed the need to introduce a number of amendments, nearly 29, to this bill. Apart from that, we have submitted more than 53 amendments. When we submitted the amendments in the Ministerial Consultative Committee from our side, the government also submitted a number of other amendments. About 88 amendments have been submitted.

75% of the amendments we proposed have been accepted. But serious concerns have been spelt out in the remaining list of 25% that has been rejected. What are the rejected proposals Hon. Minister? We suggested that this law should be implemented with retrospective effect. In particular, we have suggested that the United Nations Convention against Corruption should be implemented from the date Sri Lanka ratified it. The government has rejected those amendments. We have proposed to implement the amendment called Recovery of Stolen Assets. The government has rejected that amendment too. Similarly, we have submitted amendments to make a clear, positive and lawful change in the process related to withdrawal of indictments. But the government has refused that too.

In particular, I would like to ask whether you are going to enact this bill only because the IMF asks us to do so and, therefore, you all have to put a tick in the box against that item in the ‘to do list’ of the IMF. This positive change should happen only based on an honest political will. We have a serious question as to whether this Act is being implemented based on the rational idea that a more transparent, good, pure and honest governance should be established through this transformation.

At this time, we would like to make it very clear that we hope to implement a number of more progressive and positive measures to prevent corruption in a future SJB government, and the SJB itself. We will certainly introduce legal reforms to impose severe punishments to those involved in fraud and corruption. Also, we declare at this instant that we will take the responsibility of implementing the legal system to recover the resources lost to the country through illegal acquisitions.

Sajith Premadasa

Mr. Speaker, the President of this country said the other day that all should work for the country on the basis of national interest, putting aside politics and narrow political differences.

Today, we are talking about introducing a new anti-corruption bill. However, one among these 225 MPs has smuggled gold, smartphones worth, I think, about 78 million rupees. But only a penalty of 10 percent or 7.5 million rupees has been imposed for that fraudulent act. But, when a Frenchman smuggled gold worth 80 million rupees into our country, he was fined 70 million rupees. It is in such a country that we are bringing new laws to eliminate theft. Mr. Speaker, the 22 million people of this country are laughing at this.

I remember that at the Party Leaders’ meeting you chaired, it was mentioned that everyone should come together and decide that the MP should be removed regardless of his party affiliations. You only said that, without ever putting it into practice. The reason is that the vote of that member is also necessary for the existence of this government. It is in such a situation that we are talking about an anti-corruption bill today.

The President invites us to join hands with him for the national interest. I would like to ask whether we are supposed to join hands to catch the thieves or to save them. Are we joining together to keep the people alive, or to destroy people’s lives? Are we going to team up to catch Pandora Paper thieves or to save them? Are we to catch or save sugar tax swindlers, substandard gas scammers, garlic swindlers, coconut oil tricksters? I would especially like to ask whether you are inviting us to capture or save those who killed Lasantha Wickramatunga. Are you asking us to unite to arrest and save those who launched the violence against Journalists of this country, including Upali Tennakon?

Mr. Speaker, when I was considering this proposal, I was able to read something revealed by WikiLeaks. At that time, the American ambassador in this country, Mr. Robert O. Blake sends the following message to the Foreign Ministry of his country, the USA. Mr. Yashushi Akashi had stated at that time as follows. It says, ‘in response to a private exhortation by the then Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe for Japan to suspend its economic assistance, Akashi told Wickremesinghe, and later reiterated publicly that the Sri Lankan people should not be punished “for acts of commission and omission by their leaders.” WikiLeaks reveals that Robert O Blake had sent a statement Mr. Yashushi Akashi made to the heads of the US Foreign Ministry. Now are you asking us to unite for the sake of national interests only to send such messages to other countries asking them not to help our country?

Hon. Speaker, I would like to mention with responsibility that every time we meet international institutions, representatives, political institutions, and financial institutions, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya and the Samagi Jana Sandanaya have asked them always to provide the best possible assistance to the 22 million people of this country, and those arrangements should also be implemented with transparency.

There is only one thing to say. I would also like to mention this point at this time. They say that they will help me to become the President and, meanwhile, to retain the position of Opposition Leader. I know very well how they helped me to become the President in 2019 joining hands with Gotabaya Rajapaksa. I don’t need that help. I think that where we go and where we stop should not be decided by political deals or in a culture of deals. I would like to mention that it should be done through the vote of 22 million people in this country.

Also, I would like to say that I have no need or hope to warm the chair of the opposition leader for 21 years. But I would like to say one thing. While talking about the 75-year history of this country, I would like to clearly state that for the first time as an opposition, we have added value to this country. In the health sector, hospital equipment and medicines worth Rs. 171.9 million have been donated to 56 hospitals.

We have fulfilled our national responsibility and duty for the country, nation and the land. We have donated buses worth Rs. 349.2 million to 72 government schools. Rs. 29 million worth of IT equipment – computers, smart boards, printers – have been donated to 33 schools in our school system.

Also, this fact should be stated at this time. Until today, we have not had any obstacles from the current President in carrying out this mission. While criticising where there is reason to criticise, we should also see the good side of a person where there is good. We remember very well the request the incumbent President made from the Opposition Leader at the time he was the Prime Minister to assist for the good of the country.

Mr. Speaker, we have shown how to help the country. We do not want to burden the country by undertaking Ministerial portfolios. We have implemented the maximum number of projects that we can do by using our strength, backbone, personality, ability, knowledge, local and foreign connections. We have accomplished these activities through the Sakwala Bus Programme, Sakwala Information Technology Programme and Husmak Programme.

I would like to state at this time that we are going where we need to go, not with political deals, but honestly with the blessings of the people. Hon. Speaker, Finally, I make a very kind request to you. After listening to the speeches made in this chamber, we need to think about these programmes further. At this time I will present a 35 second audio clip with a statement from a certain person. Everyone please listen to it.

Hon. Speaker, I will tell you the reason for presenting the audio tape. Early this morning, a group of people made big talks about bankrupting the country. They, in the past, likened Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was supposed to build this country, to Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. Local Lee Kuan Yew has bankrupted and destroyed the country and what are they going to do now? Now they are trying to conceal previous mistakes.

They come early in the morning and relate big stories that everyone should be held accountable for bankrupting the country. I am clearly saying that the rating agencies of Fitch, Moody’s and Standard & Poors downgraded our country because of the 600-700 billion tax concessions granted to the wealthy in this country. According to the information we have gathered, we have been downgraded even today in the credit rating.

You delivered big talks about domestic debt restructuring. The country has been downgraded in credit ratings even today. The bankruptcy of our country started because the government revenue was lowered from 12% to 8% as a percentage of the gross domestic product under the blessings of all on your side. The IMF was kicked out. Not only were they kicked out, you also refused 100 million dollars. Reasons are the so-called patriotism, pride and nationalism. They were chased away then, but today you all raise your hands to what the IMF says. We say we should go to the IMF.

But every agreement with the IMF should be entered into for the well-being and development of the people of this country. I respectfully request our Prime Minister to agree to the proposed amendments and help catch the thieves who have stolen country’s assets.

The United Nations also has a Stolen Assets Recovery Initiative and a Stolen Assets Recovery Programme. Let’s work towards recovering funds and other assets the country has lost due to frauds exposed by Pandora papers, etc. Also, I suggest that we use those resources to create a National Wealth Fund similar to ones in operation in the developing countries of the world.

While making the proposal to move towards a corruption-free country through that National Wealth Fund, in a programme that will protect the present and future generations, I would like to state that we are committed to creating a corruption-free country by using all the strength of Samagi Jana Balawegaya and Samagi Jana Sandanaya. I would like to reiterate that this law is better than the existing one. However, there is still a long way to go. I appeal to the Prime Minister to agree to the relevant amendments before the end of the day in order to go the full length. Thank you.

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