So to our per­pet­ual pa­pers and per­pet­ual prom­ises

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT -

The pub­lic per­spec­tive seems to be that the po­lit­i­cal class, es­pe­cially in the higher ech­e­lons, is in­ter­linked and help each other out.

un­prece­dented leak of some 11.5 mil­lion files from the data­base of the fourth big­gest off-shore law firm which an un­named source pro­vided to the south­ern Ger­man news­pa­per Sud­deutsche Zeitung which shared it with the In­ter­na­tional Con­sor­tium of In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ists. Its mem­bers worked on it to un­earth the mul­ti­tude of ways by which the rich and pow­er­ful in the po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness worlds bury their as­sets, too fright­ened, I sup­pose, to keep un­der the mat­tress.

Early last year when the news broke and some named names of Sri Lankans on the list much was made of it. Let it be clear. Dump­ing as­sets in over­seas tax havens is not nec­es­sar­ily il­le­gal. It all de­pends on where the money came from and how it got into the hands of the per­son or per­sons who found a safe (it was hoped) place to stash it away from the pry­ing eyes and noses of those fol­low­ing the money trails.

But many shady deals by even more shady peo­ple have been traced to some of these places which are not nec­es­sar­ily par­adise is­lands. Some of that wealth that has been hid­den, of­ten in the name of com­pa­nies buried in other com­pa­nies some of which are shell com­pa­nies has been put there not nec­es­sar­ily by po­lit­i­cal lead­ers but oth­ers lower down the totem pole and of­fi­cials who have pil­fered na­tional as­sets.

Whether all the dirt in the Panama Pa­pers and those in­volved have been metic­u­lously stud­ied and the guilty strung up from what in our school days we threat­ened to do to our ri­vals on the cadju puhu­lang tree I do not know.

What we do know now is some zeal­ous in­di­vid­ual or group dropped an­other 13.4 mil­lion doc­u­ments onto the laps of the over­worked jour­nal­ists of the same south­ern Ger­man news­pa­per, who, as pre­vi­ously, shared the pre­cious doc­u­ments with other mem­bers of the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ists (ICIJ).

That might give you some clue why po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in our coun­try who had no qualms about re­ceiv­ing po­lit­i­cal sup­port from the main­stream and so­cial me­dia not many years back are now pick­ing on the me­dia that ex­pose them for what they are and how far re­moved they are from the prom­ises they made.

It will be some time be­fore the jour­nal­ists now tar­get­ting the big beasts with their hid­den money bags, get round to nam­ing oth­ers, the smaller ones who have been op­er­at­ing below the radar fo­cused on the high and mighty and in their shad­ows.

So far the “Par­adise Pa­pers” as this set of leaked doc­u­ments are called be­cause it in­volves sev­eral is­lands and sovereign states in the At­lantic and In­dian Ocean, have not re­vealed any names ex­cept a few big and fa­mous ones.

But those who stole our state as­sets and those who ben­e­fited from their con­nec­tions with the wield­ers of power es­pe­cially in the busi­ness com­mu­nity, must be thank­ing the mul­ti­ple deities they turn to and the politi­cians they cling on to, for spar­ing them the ig­nominy of ex­po­sure and pub­lic pun­ish­ment.

Three years ago as the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion gath­ered mo­men­tum end­ing in an un­ex­pected de­noue­ment most of what we heard on stage and screen con­sis­tently were harsh charges of cor­rup­tion, kick­backs, com­mis­sions, bribery and as­sorted crimes of those in power and some of their du­bi­ous as­so­ciates.

While Alice thought that things in Won­der­land were turn­ing cu­ri­ouser and cu­ri­ouser in our own won­der­land they were get­ting murkier and murkier. Even after Maithri­pala Sirisena put on his pres­i­den­tial hat those in gov­ern­ment threat­ened to bring the per­pe­tra­tors to book and bring back the bil­lions and tril­lions they were said to have robbed.

Less than two months after the op­po­si­tion vic­tory some of the Race­course Av­enue ca­bal met at the Cen­tral Bank not to dis­cuss how to re­cover the stolen as­sets they had told the pub­lic of but how to get some as­sets to pay road de­vel­op­ment loans. Even the road to hell, it has been said, is paved with good in­ten­tions.

Not too many be­lieve this story of the coun­try be­ing in ur­gent need of money. Even if they did, subsequent events seemed to throw buck­ets of iced-wa­ter on this tale of woe.

It took al­most two years be­fore the pres­i­dent thought enough was enough and ap­pointed a com­mis­sion of in­quiry. By that time the fat was vir­tu­ally in the fire what with Race­course Ave try­ing with ca­bal­is­tic cal­cu­la­tion to de­feat the COPE in­quiry. Even­tu­ally all their pro­cras­ti­na­tion ended up as foot­notes in the COPE re­port just as some of them could end up as foot­notes in the pages of our po­lit­i­cal history, if they get a mention at all.

The na­tion waited with bated breath to see those who robbed the peo­ple, brought to jus­tice and swing­ing from the cadju puhu­lang trees be­fore they too are cut down by politi­cians and their hench­men.

And they are wait­ing. Pub­lic anger grew and the var­i­ous at­tempts to post­pone lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions by ruses such as half-baked leg­is­la­tion had to end be­fore some of the Pres­i­dent’s Coun­sel who coun­sel the pres­i­dent with such school­boy pranks were dragged up to any avail­able tree.

So be­fore the elec­tions were upon us and pub­lic dis­quiet con­tained be­fore votes are cast for elec­tions and at a ref­er­en­dum on the con­sti­tu­tional changes, some have been brought be­fore the courts and oth­ers are await­ing their turn.

But the big beasts that have stolen the mil­lions and bil­lions are not even in the tran­sit lounge. When Pres­i­dent Sirisena at­tended the In­ter­na­tional anti-cor­rup­tion con­fer­ence in Lon­don sum­moned by Prime Min­is­ter Cameron (an­other pre-elec­tion ploy) in May last year the world-at least the 11 heads of state and gov­ern­ment in­clud­ing Sirisena who at­tended and the 40 coun­tries rep­re­sented) heard our new leader say what steps had been taken to elim­i­nate or at least min­imise cor­rup­tion and pun­ish the guilty. That speech is still on the pres­i­dent’s web­site.

Cameron called cor­rup­tion the “can­cer at the heart of so many of the world’s prob­lems” and “one of the great­est en­e­mies of progress in our time”. I too lis­tened to Pres­i­dent Sirisena won­der­ing when all the prom­ises made by him be­fore and after the elec­tions and his main coali­tion part­ner will take the scalpels in hand and per­form the surgery on the can­cer that Cameron re­ferred to. But time is fast run­ning out. One won­ders whether he remembers the pledge that he and other par­tic­i­pants at the Lon­don con­fer­ence signed. That com­mit­ment was to “ex­pose cor­rup­tion wher­ever it was found, to pur­sue and pun­ish those who per­pe­trate, fa­cil­i­tate or are im­plicit in it and to en­sure it does not fes­ter in our gov­ern­ments, in­sti­tu­tions, busi­nesses and com­mu­ni­ties”.

This mes­sage must surely have reached the other main coali­tion part­ner, the UNP which is con­trol­ling the coun­try’s eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity.

The UNP also can­not for­get the ex­tremely valu­able UN Con­ven­tion Against Cor­rup­tion (UNCAC) which Sri Lanka rat­i­fied in March 2004, the sec­ond coun­try to do so. Sign­ing com­mit­ments and rat­i­fy­ing con­ven­tions is hardly im­ple­ment­ing their core mes­sages.

If Sri Lanka had been in the fore­front of na­tions rat­i­fy­ing such an im­por­tant con­ven­tion such as UNCAC then surely it in­tended to faith­fully ful­fil its obli­ga­tions un­der this con­ven­tion. If that was the real in­ten­tion and not a sham com­mit­ment to fight cor­rup­tion, then it seems un­for­tu­nate that years later we ap­pear to be back­slid­ing.

The more we read or hear about the hap­pen­ings round the world the more we re­alise how nec­es­sary it is that the in­ter­na­tional fight against this scourge needs to be strength­ened so that pub­lic of­fi­cials are not only pre­vented from ac­cu­mu­lat­ing ill-got­ten gains but are held ac­count­able for such mass-scale rob­bery.

The pub­lic was told for­eign in­ves­tiga­tive agen­cies would help Sri Lanka in its quest to get its wealth back. One such agency was the World Bank’s State As­sets Re­cov­ery (StAR) body. One is not cer­tain whether they did and if so the re­sult of these in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

The pub­lic per­spec­tive seems to be that the po­lit­i­cal class, es­pe­cially in the higher ech­e­lons, is in­ter-linked and help each other out. Pres­i­dent Sirisena him­self was quite open about it at a cabi­net meet­ing where he said that in­ves­ti­ga­tions were be­ing blocked or de­layed by some within the gov­ern­ment it­self.

One cu­ri­ous story that was do­ing the rounds is of a per­son close to Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa who is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated yet has been pro­vided with of­fi­cial se­cu­rity on the orders or in­flu­ence of one in the present gov­ern­ment.

Sto­ries of pro­cras­ti­na­tion and de­lays in con­duct­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions and fil­ing charges by cer­tain state in­sti­tu­tions at the be­hest of some in the cur­rent or pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment are le­gion. Whether true or not the only way to erase such im­pres­sions is to act and act de­ci­sively.

Ap­point­ing com­mit­tee after com­mit­tee makes lit­tle sense un­less and un­til what emerges from them are im­ple­mented. A clas­sic ex­am­ple of the worth­less­ness of com­mit­tee find­ings is the Welia­muna re­port on Sri Lankan Air­lines where the re­port of a com­mit­tee ap­pointed by the UNP coali­tion part­ner is dis­carded by the UNP ap­pointed Chair­man and other air­line of­fi­cials.

Ear­lier next month a Global As­sets Re­cov­ery Fo­rum (GFAR) will be held in Wash­ing­ton. The 3-day meet­ing start­ing on De­cem­ber 4 will fo­cus on as­sis­tance to four coun­tries in­clud­ing Sri Lanka. It would be in­ter­est­ing to know what Sri Lanka has to say on ef­forts at re­cov­ery so far and what the gov­ern­ment in­tends to do to keep its prom­ises as the de­liv­er­ables for GFAR will in­clude progress on cases achieved by the four fo­cus coun­tries, in­creased ca­pac­ity through tech­ni­cal ses­sions, re­newed com­mit­ment to ad­vanc­ing as­set re­cov­ery cases, and in­creased col­lab­o­ra­tion among in­volved ju­ris­dic­tions.

With lo­cal coun­cil elec­tions a lit­tle over a month away will the pub­lic be treated to an­other dose of po­lit­i­cal rhetoric and an ex­tra serv­ing of per­pet­ual prom­ises?

Pres­i­dent Sirisena: Pledged to end cor­rup­tion

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