Sri Lanka – The sinner and the stone-pelter

 

N Sathiya Moorthy    Colombo     3 June 2018

As more skeletons keep tumbling out of the ‘bonds scam’ cupboard, it is becoming increasingly clear that very few political parties and fewer still of their leaders, especially elected representatives, may have dipped their fingers in the till than believed so far. If President Maithiripala Sirisena-led SLFP’s minister-turned-rebel, Dayasiri Jayasekara were to be believed, more than a majority in the 225-member Parliament had taken ‘tainted money’ from Perpetual Treasuries (PT) and Arjun Aloysius for contesting elections – and whatever more that the nation is unaware of still!

If nothing else, MP Dayasiri has not contested belated claims that he did take PT money for last elections, but has casually added that it is an existing practice in the country for politicians to take big money from big-spenders in industry. He has also claimed that he still did not back the PT on the ‘bonds scam row’ or any other issue in which the group was involved.

The latter part of his claims remains to be proved. From among them, Minister, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has been a honourable loner to admit in advance that he did accept AA money. Maybe, it owed to the fact that Fonseka did not have to contest the parliamentary polls, and became a UNP-nominated MP – or, maybe it had nothing to do with it – but the Rs 100,000 that he had conceded accepting is a ‘small change’ when compared to the big moneys and big fishes involved in the ‘bond scam’.

What should however surprise – or, not surprise (!) – the nation is Dayasiri’s claims that the bonds scam probe report had named close to 118 MPs as recipient of PT-AA largesse, and that the Government (read: UNP leader/partner) had ‘selectively leaked’ only his name. If the claims are true, then at least in half-jest it should be conceded that PT and Aloysius A may have more MPs than the ruling combine, or the SLPP-JO going it alone.

Thankfully, Dayasiri has also ‘claimed’ that he did not back the PT, and that he was also not on any bonds scam probe panel. Some MPs have claimed they were offered PT money but declined. The JVP, whether they were hurt that they were left out or were happy for it, has declared that they were never approached in the first place. Whether it applied to all party candidates or not is for the party to clarify.

Dayasiri has reported to have approached the authorities under the RTI Act, for the full report. As an MP, he and his party and their SLPP-JO sympathisers all could still demand – and have the full Report placed on the table of Parliament, as is invariably the custom. In the meantime, President’s Secretary, Austin Fernando, a constitutional authority in his right, is reported to be looking into the MP’s allegation/request.

According to media reports, Secretary Fernando had long since deposited the Report in the ‘National Archives’, where the normal lock-in period is 30 years. Why he did it, and under whose instructions would be another story that may needs to be told – or a subject for another probe panel, or parliamentary team or parliamentary debate at the very least, to uncover – as this is not the norm.

The norm instead was for the President as the one who commissioned the probe, should have tabled the same in Parliament, or publicise it otherwise. If anything, at the height of the parliamentary debate on the report, an impression was allowed to be created that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his UNP colleagues in the Cabinet might have stalled the tabling of the same. That it suited them fine, as long as the report remained inaccessible to the media and the JO is another matter.

Not security threat

The contents of the bond scam report cannot be construed as a ‘security threat’ for it to be denied full publication. Two, if Government Ministers are sworn to serve the nation so is every Member of Parliament – and the latter should also be kept in the loop. Three, between the two ‘classes’, if they are separate entities, there is a group of officials who may be studying such reports, who are sworn to nothing. Four, if there is a media expose on the contents of such reports, of which Dayasiri alone is now the target, all such possible claims to secrecy should go bust.

Credibility and integrity

The truth or otherwise of Dayasiri’s claims apart, the larger aspect of the scam is all about the Central Bank’s involvement in the scam, under then Governor, Arjuna Mahendran, now a ‘proclaimed offender’ and ‘absconder from the law’. The Central Bank is unlike any other arm or department of the Government, rather the Sri Lankan State – in terms of public perceptions of institutional credibility and integrity, possibly next only to the office of the President, the Supreme Court and the armed forces, and at times much more than all of them rolled into one.

By extension and more, the bond scam is also about the involvement of the Government and its leaders, if any, in the scam, starting with Mahendran’s very appointment. News reports first, and the probe report later on, have confirmed that the scam commenced in the very first month of the ‘reforms-centric’ (?) yahapalanaya Government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

Whether proved conclusively or not, then UNP Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake alone was left to bear the cross – that too, not necessarily in direct relation to the bonds scam and bond-money but for accepting Aloysius’ hospitality, that too in the very heart of the capital city of Colombo. There may be others, political parties and their leaders, who may have been directly linked to the scam proper – who either made big money as the Mahendran family is alleged to have made, or beneficiaries of the latter’s largesse going beyond ‘local hospitality’ of the Ravi K kind.

By extension, the likes of Dayasiri too should go, he especially having publicly confessed to accepting Rs 1 million from AA, for his election campaign. Dayasiri has accepted a cheque for this amount, which fact may be extended to argue that he did not have ‘evil intentions’ to return the compliment whenever the donor found him in a political mess. There may or may not be any information on those that had taken money in cash, even among the 100-plus MPs, who according to Dayasiri, have their names etched on AA’s beneficiaries in the bond scam probe report.

Innocence before the act

It is not clear if the probe panel did try and make any links between the early scam-date to the earlier appointment of Governor Mahendran, all in the first month of the new Government. The appointment may be in order, as the CB cannot do without a head, or cannot be expected to work under an acting governor after incumbent Ajith Nivard Cabraal had to go with his political boss Mahinda Rajapaksa, after the latter lost the presidential polls.

Mahendran’s appointment may have been innocent, even his choice or the short-listing of his name might have commenced well before the presidential poll results had become known. It is not uncommon for futuristic leaders (Ranil W, in this case) with a vision of their own, to look ahead for all those important choices, especially when they felt confident about an impending electoral victory of the kind.

What is uncommon however is the visible link that can be made to Mahendran’s appointment and his fast-tracking the bonds-float and consequent scam, which the probe has found unacceptable. Granting that the political leadership had no clue about the impending scam, convinced as they might have been about the urgent need for the CB to make quick-money to offset all the fiscal mal-decisions of the Rajapaksa regime, the question arises if Mahendran too could be credited with such ‘innocence before the act’.

If so, why, if not, why not. This is a question that future investigations, including police and possibly parliamentary probes, should be entrusted with – and should also be worried about.  If the answer is that Mahendran had accidentally fell upon the scam idea before the bonds possibility actually arose after the regime-change, then the political masters who appointed him could be spared at least a part of the liability/accountability part. But if proved otherwise, they would have a lot more to account for than under the probe report.

In this context, it may be worth the while of a parliamentary committee to probe it all over again, and for a particular reason. Police investigations under the law do not consider ‘crimes’ of the nature punishable under the law unless substantial proof of ‘evidentiary value’ becomes available, making the link. Under the British Westminster jurisprudential system in vogue in the country, an accused is ‘innocent until proved guilty’.

It is a different ball-game if it is a political probe of a parliamentary panel kind. There, probability, if not mere possibility, is alone the yard-stick. If the scamsters, politicians included, had set the ball in motion so early on after the new government assumed office, and thus implying that the preparations had started long before the presidential poll-date, if not its announcement, they would have also taken care to cover their tracks from that day on. Or, that should be the assumption.

There is however a new problem in the appointment of a new parliamentary committee, which for instance, could take off from where the probe panel had left already. Or, a new probe can also go back to the forgotten CoPE report from the previous Parliament that was ready for publication, when President Sirisena hurriedly dissolved the House, suddenly remembering an un-kept part of his poll-promise.

The problem is about Dayasiri’s unproven ‘confession’ that more MPs than one had taken ‘tainted’ AA money. If proved, the question arises if there would be anyone left in the current Parliament who would have escaped the taint to be able to honestly sit on any such future probe panel of the kind. The reference is to MPs who may be ‘qualified’ to address complicated issues of the kind that the probe would have to investigate, and may have the interested in getting ‘involved’.

It is then that the Lord’s saying, “He who has not sinned, cast the first stone”, will come under test in contemporary Sri Lankan political context. It is also this that this Government’s leaders seem to be hoping for to save at least their own skin, but then in the larger context of future elections, the voter would have gone far beyond thinking on such terms.

Known and unknown

At best, the voter would have been convinced that when it comes to corruption, all politicos are the same, and no politico is better than the rest, as he was made to believe, especially ahead of the last presidential and parliamentary polls. It may be so about many other aspects of governance, including law and order, inflation and prices, the common issues that affect and/or afflict the common man.

There is no denying that on the ‘freedom front’, the present Government has an advantage that its regime-rivals still suffer from. They need to decide, who between the duo, intends staking claims for the changed atmosphere, or if they will be together at it still when it comes to Elections-2020. Rivalling those claims, credit and credentials are L&O issues, both pre-2015 and afterwards, where the Rajapaksa regime had an upper-hand, be it fighting terrorism or the ‘Colombo gangs’. They still may have it, when the ‘freedoms’, like the ‘war-victory’ before it, ceased to be a political and electoral issue.

It is then that the voter begins looking for other issues, where he can compare and contrast the qualities of the politicos he has to choose from – and that is when the offers become murkier still for the incumbents than the rivals, both known and unknown – if there was another Sirisena in the hiding, still, but who can hold all the existing claimants to the throne, to electoral ransom and worse!

http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2018/06/01/the-sinner-and-the-stone-pelter/

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