A bad workman, it is said, never finds a good tool. So do politicians and their top bureaucrats. They are never short of excuses for their failure. It was only the other day that Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama urged the media to expose frauds in the public sector as if the fault lay in the failure of the media to do their duty. Close on the heels of that ministerial exhortation comes the news that Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga has suggested that the State intelligence services be used to tackle corruption in public institutions.
Perhaps, corruption is a worse form of malignancy than terrorism in a society. It is an insidious killer of democracy. But, successive governments have done precious little about it. Political leaders wake up to the problem from time to time and pay lip service to solving it. This they do having rendered the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) toothless. In the early 1990s, politicians of all hues united as one in Parliament to strip the CIABOC of its powers to initiate investigations on its own without waiting for complaints. (Now, they are lamenting the absence of more draconian laws to muzzle the press on the pretext of preserving the supremacy of the national legislature!)
President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his National Victory Day address (on June 3), stressed the need for eliminating corruption. "This country cannot be betrayed to drugs, corruption, fraud and overwhelming laziness," he said. He put his executive finger on what prevented national progress.
Corruption has to be battled with might and main exactly the way the country's war on terror was fought. Desperate situations may call for desperate measures. But, the remedy that the Secretary to the President has suggested is, in our book, as bad as the malady. Having won a bloody war at a tremendous cost, the country is limping back to normalcy. After thirty long years, it has had an opportunity for demilitarisation and revitalisation of democratic institutions.
State intelligence services, no doubt, are to be commended for their outstanding contribution to the country's victory over terrorism. But, using them to cleanse State institutions may be likened to training multi-barrel rocket launchers on an illicit brewery! The forces that are unleashed in response to a threat must be proportionate to it. Else, the 'solution' ends up being part of the problem.
Weeratunga's proposed remedy is fraught with the danger of leading to the creation of a totalitarian state like Oceania in George Orwell's dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
This country, we believe, can do without a Big Brother. (We have enough and more Rajapaksa Brothers–– Rajapaksas to right of us, Rajapaksas to left of us, Rajapaksas in front of us, Rajapaksas behind us and Rajapaksas above us!)
We don't think Weeratunga, the suave bureaucrat, is advocating totalitarianism. But, his solution if implemented might pave the way for the emergence of an outfit like the much dreaded Gestapo.
In battling corruption, what this country lacks is the absence of a political will to deal with the sharks in the game. There is no point in lamenting the public sector corruption so long as ministers are allowed to disport themselves in fraudulent activities to line their pockets. How many members in the present Cabinet have declared their assets in keeping with the law? Can the tax man ever descend on any of them without fear of a white van ride or any other form of reprisal?
In a country where ministers, ordinary parliamentarians, provincial councillors and members of the local government institutions––save a few––are corrupt, campaigning against corruption is only a Sisyphean task. Worse, the bureaucracy is also corrupt to the core! Corruption does not end there. The private sector is said to be the engine of growth. We venture to say it is also the engine of corruption, as evident from its involvement in the corrupt deals shot down by the Supreme Court during the past few months. Corruption has not spared even the media and the so-called civil society.
We have failed to eliminate corruption or at least reduce it to a bare minimum as we have never attempted to strike at its heart. We have been scratching its other organs all these years. We could not defeat terrorism for thirty years as we did not make an all out effort to destroy its leadership. When we did so, victory was ours within less than three years. A similar attempt is called for in dealing with corruption, one of the biggest impediments to national development.
It is incumbent upon President Rajapaksa, who says he does not want to betray the country to corruption, to make his ministers, MPs and other people's representatives at lower levels declare their assets and account for their wealth as the first step towards ridding the country of that social evil. Other political bigwigs including the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe must follow suit. Charity, they say, begins at home. Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, it may be recalled, revealed his material assets to the public some time ago. He is worthy of emulation.
The CIABOC is a toothless watchdog and it is up to Parliament to give back its powers and turn it into vibrant institute without letting it continue to be an elders' home for retired judges and police officers. There is also a dearth of strong anti-corruption laws and the government can take the initiative to introduce them and strengthen the existing ones.
The best antidote to corruption is a host of institutional safeguards coupled with a political culture that does not promote its cancerous growth.
Meanwhile, the government must take action against those responsible for fraudulent deals like Waters Edge, LMS, Sri Lanka Insurance and CPC oil hedging, which cost the poor people of this country billions of rupees. There is no need for the deployment of State intelligence services to find culprits. Their names appear in the Supreme Court judgments on those rackets and in reports issued by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and Public Accounts Committee (PAC).