Selling the nation while the corrupt have a laugh

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In my student days when given just three weeks to complete reading Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece “War and Peace”, under duress as it were, it seemed the abolition of slavery was a myth, just as much as our recent addition to the veritable cornucopia of the country’s laws—the Anti-Corruption Act—would soon assume mythical proportions.

Going through 1,400-odd pages of Tolstoy, however fascinating the narrative and the writing, so soon at the expense of other activities, seemed a back-breaking task that only the Roman slave Spartacus could have survived.

But trying to get through the text of President Wickremesinghe’s extensive statement to parliament last week on the 13th Amendment and study more closely its intentions and implications and separating the rice from the chaff, so to speak, in time for this column seemed a far more enervating exercise than poring over the Tolstoy classic.

So, until we find enough time to wade through a constitutional amendment that has been hanging around for some three decades or more with no government that has bossed over its people has wanted to implement in full in case the political wrath of some southern inhabitants descended upon its collective head, there are other serious matters of national interest to consider than this sudden burst of enthusiasm and desire to steamroll the JR Jayewardene legacy.

We hear this is all in the national interest. But these are some of the very people who put the 13th Amendment in the attic of forgotten things and bolted the door until those who have bought (or actually sold to) a huge stake in the island nation insist that we get this done– or else!

Those who recall their Greek studies and especially Homer’s “Odyssey” will remember that Odysseus was ‘caught’ between Scylla and Charybdis, and advised to choose the lesser evil. To depart from Greek mythology and offer a modern rendering of the twin dangers it could be “between the devil and the deep blue sea” which might be more appropriate in the circumstances.

The earlier controversy over whether Sri Lanka has been sold to the IMF which, as history tells us, has itself sold several other developing countries down the river. That sale has been enlarged.

Now, some say, that a crucial part of the island nation is being hocked to Big Brother in the north.  It happened during President Wickremesinghe’s official visit to New Delhi last month when he generously offered a land link and other ‘connectivities’ to northern Sri Lanka and other goodies in vital Trincomalee.

Some seem to detect in all this the hand of High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda who had cut himself a good deal with the Rajapaksas before heading for the Indian capital.  The almost daily pictures appearing in the media of Moragoda meeting this one and that one should be in the national interest, if not in the interests of the Pathfinder Foundation he once headed and for which he appears to be finding a new path.

Still others would say that Sri Lanka’s vital organs have been sold to both our modern-day Scylla and Charybdis, one in Washington DC and the other a few degrees north of us.

All this, though critics of this government tend to forget, is being done in the national interest. But who decided or decides on this “national interest” remains obscure since the nation has not been asked to decide. Not even a by-your-leave, thank you.

To put it differently, this government has a president from the UNP which is represented by one MP in parliament whose name popped up just the other day in connection with a one-time telephone conversation at his home where the former Solicitor General Dilrukshi Wickramasinghe was ensnared, as an inquiry-finding says, and the Pohottuwa that props up the president in parliament.

The question is, are both of the same mind? As Shakespeare said, “The marriage of true minds admit no impediments.” So are they agreed that what is being pushed through as of national interest is really of national interest and not a cover for personal interests for their longer stay in power?

To read the comments of Sri Lankans propping up here and there in assorted media on all these manoeuvres and meanderings going back even decades, one is made to wonder in retrospect, whether Mr. Modi’s generous financial help at the height of Sri Lanka’s financial crisis, is more Mephistophelean than his publicly articulated policy of good neighbourliness.

Just days before all this distraction, there appeared several news reports of suspected corruption, fraud, and perhaps bribery, in state institutions. These include some top officials of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau supposedly tampering with tender documents. They have been transferred to the Tourism Ministry while investigations continue.

Another is the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation where a Deputy General Manager who was reportedly under investigation for huge losses over some years sending a letter of resignation from abroad, probably stealing a leaf out of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s book.

How a high-ranking official could leave the country while under investigation and who gave clearance for him to leave, also needs investigation to ascertain possible collusion.

That is not to mention the shenanigans at the Health Ministry where top officials should be administered some of the drugs they order be imported as “emergency” requirements so they might be permanently cured of their prevailing ailments.

Never mind if they are “inferior” drugs for which there is no “official definition” according to the learned Dr (??) Keheliya Rambukwella so there is no danger.

Sometime last March I think, President Wickremesinghe announced with much panache and media fanfare that he would soon introduce an Anti-Corruption Bill that would be the strongest such legislation this side of the Himalayas or words to that effect.

As we said at the time such a law would not have seen the light of day if the IMF had not made it one of its conditions for the bailout, like other multilateral organisations, which drew attention to rampant corruption.

We also asked whether the existing laws were not sufficient to catch the crooks who have swindled the nation over the years—politicians and their relatives, bureaucrats, business cronies and other assorted thieves—if those in power seriously wanted to, without singing premature hosannas to the intended legislation.

This much-hyped law will go the way of all flesh—cremated or buried—along with previous laws which remain virtually dead because politicians in power scratch each other’s backs to cover up their corruption, piles of financial handouts and commissions and other malfeasance, irrespective of the political fences that separate them.

Meanwhile, the Attorney-General and his cohorts will be scratching their heads instead of backs—why is not hard to guess.

A look at history is all the proof one needs to presume that this law too will end up buried even deeper than the Egyptian pharaohs in their pyramids.

The proof of the pudding, as the adage goes, is in the eating.

 

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later, he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)

 

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