| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( January 20, 2015, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) At the end of 2014, The Economist identified three countries which conducted themselves as models of progress during the recent past: Uruguay which made gay marriages legal; Tunisia which conducted fair and just elections which led to its first step toward democracy; and Indonesia, which broke away from the shackles of military rule, and family favouritism and elected a common but decent and ethical man to the presidency through democratic elections. As it is, Sri Lanka should follow as the first progressive country which followed suit in 2015 with elections comparable with that of the Indonesian elections by breaking away from a norm which the voters decided was for the betterment of the country.

When I met an ambassador of Sri Lanka to a country in the Western World just a few years ago and asked how Sri Lanka was doing, his only response was, “the only problem is rampant corruption”.
As things are, the Indonesian example seems to be a desirable model for Sri Lanka. The Globe and Mail of 16 January 2014 says of the Indonesia of President Joko Widodo (popularly known as "Jokowi", a hard working businessman identified with the common man): "Indonesia is experiencing a burst of unprecedented economic and political optimism. The world’s fourth most populous country, with some 250 million people, is emerging as a powerhouse of Southeast Asia, at the dawn of an awakening that many compare to pre-boom China three decades ago. After decades of dictatorship and corruption, the country is quickly shifting course with the election of a political outsider that many think will usher in a new era of sustainable economic growth... corruption has been a problem for years, bleeding away state revenues that could have been used to build infrastructure and pay for services. Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission has been making headway, and Jokowi even had his cabinet vetted; financial institutions were approached for financial records and several potential cabinet ministers were excluded. He’s appointed technocrats to key economic portfolios".

The journal Foreign Affairs, in its November/December 2014 issue published an interview with Jokowi. One of the questions asked was: " You’re the first Indonesian president with no ties to the Suharto regime. You represent a new generation. What does that say about Indonesia and about the kind of president you’ll be? Jokowi's answer was: "The fact that someone like me could become president shows that our democracy is maturing. We have a lively and independent media. We used social media in our campaign and had more than 3,000 groups of volunteers. This is a new political system. We are taking a human-centric approach to win the trust of the people.

It is heartening that this is what the new Sri Lankan regime is claiming to do.

The key words here are "human-centric approach to win the trust of the people".

The first step in this process is incontrovertibly the establishment of a free and independent media, where the people of the country will have access to transparency and the assurance of an incorruptible system of governance. In other words, unfettered freedom of speech. Jeff Jacob Lourie said: “It [freedom of speech] is bedevilled by the evil intent, ignorance, and stupidity of literally millions of people. But it is the greatest protection against tyranny that there is. Witness the fall of the dictatorships of Serbia, Argentina, Greece, and Chile. Even in free countries freedom of speech is not something that is automatic. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. That's not just a cliché. We must guard against the rich, the powerful, the crazies, the haters and the fanatics. We need to maintain everyone's right to free speech, but we cannot let lies and libel go unanswered. On the whole we have done a pretty good job here in the U.S.A. and not only in the obvious ways. I do not think it accidental that our contributions to the technology of freedom are so significant: telephones, television, railroads, automobiles, computers and the internet have all increased our ability to communicate freely”.

The next evil to be attacked should be corruption. The Venerable Walpola Piyananda, in his article Sri Lanka...Independent but not Yet Free published in the Sri Lanka Guardian of 1 February 2012 says inter alia, “As a nation and a people we have not yet won our freedom from egotistical self-centeredness, collective irresponsibility, pettiness, arrogance, and an unbridled lack of discipline… not a day passes without the exposure of another corrupt government official. Bribery, extortion, obstacles to progress removed or kept in place by greasing palms – all have become common in our society. Right livelihood is ignored as greed trumps integrity. Can these self-centered practices exist in a truly free society where selfless government officials work for the benefit of all the people?”

Those in power cannot just wash their hands off from this scourge, by saying they have no control over actions of their fellow countrymen. One must note that the state's inability to implement tight monitoring systems is not the only cause of corruption. For the most part corruption reigns in the absence of an integrated system of internal supervision in the public sector. Corruption has both corrosive and toxic effects on a society. The Rport on Human Development in South Asia 1999 concluded:

“Corruption is one of the most damaging consequences of poor governance. It undermines investment and economic growth, decreases the resources available for human development goals, deepens the extent of poverty, subverts the judicial system, and undermines the legitimacy of the state. In fact, when corruption becomes entrenched, it can devastate the entire economic, political, and social fabric of a country…corruption breeds corruption – and a failure to combat it effectively can lead to an era of entrenched corruption”.

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, said in The Times of India: “To eradicate corruption we require individuals who are incorruptible and, undoubtedly, what produces such individuals is spirituality. There is a saying that violence begins in the mind. This is true also of corruption: corruption begins in the mind. If we can alter our thinking, we can safely say that we shall have eradicated corruption by at least 50%.

J.S.T. Quah, in a paper Curbing Corruption in Asia: A comparative study of six countries, published in 2003 stated that that in Asian countries three patterns of corruption control have been identified :


1. There are anti-corruption laws but no specific agency that implement those laws (Mongolia which has instituted the Law on Anti-Corruption and three provisions restricting bribery in the Criminal Code).

2. The combination of anti-corruption laws and several anti-corruption agencies (Philippines, China and India).

3. The impartial implementation of comprehensive anti-corruption laws by a specific anti-corruption agency (Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and South Korea).

According to a study conducted in 2008 by Transparency International (TI), the global civil society organisation leading the fight against corruption, Sri Lanka occupied the 92nd position among 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2008. The study indicated that Sri Lanka’s score remained at a low 3.2, indicating a serious corruption problem in the public sector. Neighbouring countries except Bhutan, all scored below 3.5. Lack of transparency in political finance and poor parliamentary oversight were quoted as a key governance problem in Sri Lanka. Only India (3.4) and Sri Lanka are above a score of 3 with Maldives (2.8), Nepal (2.7), Pakistan (2.5) and Bangladesh (2.1) remaining with low scores. Analysts attributed India’s position to the implementation of the Right to Information Act.

Victor Ivan, a journalist did not mince his words when he said a few years ago: “The foundation of the political system of Sri Lanka is based on bribery or corruption. Power politics of Sri Lanka may be defined as the right to plunder public property. There is a competition among political parties to win that right for a limited period. The group that wins plunders public property to the maximum during its term of office. It distributes among its supporters some part of the wealth thus plundered. The system of institutions including the judiciary, also functions according to that inherent ideology. Such a system of institutions is required because of the necessity to pretend that the state is un-corrupt although the official ideology is corrupt. The system of institutions including the judiciary, which are built to counter bribery or corruption, also gives the necessary protection to the corrupt practices of the ruling party in power. At the same time, implementation of the law against the corrupt practices of the opponents of the ruling party helps to give the government an anti-corruption appearance”.

I can add my personal anecdote. When I met an ambassador of Sri Lanka to a country in the Western World just a few years ago and asked how Sri Lanka was doing, his only response was, “the only problem is rampant corruption”.

Perhaps it appropriate to conclude with the words of Jokowi to Foreign Affairs when he was asked how he was planning to implement his governance strategy for a better, uncorrupted Indonesia. He said: " I will work with everyone and talk to everyone".

Of course, those in power in Sri Lanka will have to watch the proven deceitful, disingenuous and self serving turncoats and spin doctors.

The author is a former United Nations official.


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