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Corruption: Making a difference

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The Anti-Corruption Act straining to seek passage through Parliament this week has now been put off for later in the month due to delays in making last-minute changes to it while accommodating Opposition requests. And yet, questions linger if this is just old wine in a new bottle – for if there is no political will (as opposed to political interference) to implement the new law with all the force needed for its success, it will be a mere ‘scrap of paper’.

That corruption is endemic in Sri Lanka, like in many countries that remain poor due to it, is legendary. The former Bribery and Corruption Commission (CIABOC) introduced more than two decades ago for the same reasons of rampant corruption at that time, never went beyond recording statements and filing defective indictments. A flaw in the law enabled the corrupt to get away on technical grounds like the lack of a quorum, or with half-baked investigations and faulty charge-sheets. The accused would then come before the media and without any sense of shame proclaim that they had been acquitted.

There were no powers for that Commission to act suo moto (on its initiative) and they had to wait for a complaint to get going. They were short-staffed and lacked expertise. It became fashionable for political party lawyers to lodge complaints before the Commission and get themselves into the night’s news or newspapers the next morning knowing only too well that was the end of the matter.

The new law that has just been enacted seeks to rectify these flaws, but then, leave it to the lawyers to find the loopholes on behalf of their clients. Without investing in the new Commission with highly paid investigators, not just policemen but professional accountants, bankers, etc., even the new Commission under the same CIABOC name will justify its presence merely by catching ‘sprats’ while the ‘sharks’ get away.

The anti-corruption drive must not resemble what the Indian Government is doing with its Enforcement Directorate using it as a political tool. Yet, without the political will, and the expertise, to make corruption hurt those who rob the public purse, the fate of this new Commission will be no different to the one that winds up with nothing to show for its existence.

Has Lanka abandoned the Palestinian cause?

Sri Lanka was quick – and correct, to condemn the burning of the sacred text of the Holy Quran outside a mosque in Sweden during Eid ul Adha celebrated by Muslims worldwide last week.

It was an unusually rare, proactive move to condemn religious bigotry and even seemed a veiled message to the Western world that such intolerance is not the exclusive preserve of the non-Western world.

That said, why did not the Government condemn the harshest military offensive in decades by Israeli Defence Forces against the Palestinian people at about the same time? Its last statement expressing “concern” at Israeli aggression in ‘Occupied Palestine Territories’ was during the escalation of violence during Ramadan in April. Not this time when refugee camps have been hit by air strikes and scores are dead, wounded, and displaced. But has Sri Lanka abandoned the ‘Palestinian cause’ as a ‘lost cause’? The new India has donated money to Palestine in a show of appeasement while also playing ball with Israel. Sri Lanka cannot afford to do even that.

In the intervening period between Ramadan and the recent Eid, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister attended the Israeli National Day celebrations in Colombo. Apart from questionable protocol in a Foreign Minister attending national day functions, and in this instance raising a glass as a toast to the creation of Israel, did it also signal a shift in policy by successive Governments that were steadfast opponents of Zionism and stood fully in solidarity with the Palestinian cause?

Times have changed no doubt. Israel helped the Sri Lankan Government, especially in the East to neutralise the LTTE and is now promising investment in Sri Lanka. It is not that Sri Lanka should continue to cold-shoulder Israel; why should it when some Arab states have cosy relations with the state and the Palestinian leaders have also come to accept the two-state solution of living side-by-side as the pragmatic way forward?

And yet, Sri Lanka remains the permanent chair since 1968 of the Special Committee of the UN to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories. Significantly, the special committee’s work is supported by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

World record in animal cruelty

The painful saga of ‘Muthu Raja’ – the majestic tusker gifted by a Thai prince to a Sri Lankan president and handed over by the latter to a temple, gripped the nation these past few weeks following the Thai government asking for it to be returned to Thailand. For a people already humiliated by their political leaders driving the country to bankruptcy, this added disgrace could not be placed at the door of the pandemic or the worldwide recession.

Wildlife authorities have to take a chunk of the blame; the department’s legal officers apparently refused to take action even when the elephant’s wounds were brought to their attention, saying they couldn’t act because a Buddhist temple was its custodian. The Wildlife Conservation Director General takes a classic position that this elephant was ‘private property’ and they had no right to intervene. What kind of department is this that is vested with the welfare of animals?

Successive Governments are huffing and puffing to enact an Animal Welfare law, even though the existing laws against cruelty to animals were sufficient for the Police to act in this case. This collective inaction by Governments and their servants, made the country suffer the utter humiliation that the recent ‘Muthu Raja’ saga has brought on Sri Lanka, on every tv channel and newspaper the world over. And now, NGO activists, some genuine, some with agendas, have got a shot in the arm to stop elephants taking part in religious ceremonies.

This must be the first time a country has asked for its prized gift to be returned so it can be taken care of. Yet another world record for Sri Lanka.

 

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