Although the power vertical of the executive president has not yet condemned Sri Lanka to absolute state failure and civil unrest, there is no dispute as to whether the extensive powers assure the growth of corruption. From the tolerance of crony embezzlement and the distribution of patronage to making kickbacks in public procurement and ensuring state-control of mainstream media, corruption has pervaded every level of government and civil society as per the wishes of the powerful executive. It is not without the potential to destabilize the nation. However, as there is money to make and lavish lifestyles to fulfil in closed quarters, corruption is well organized and managed for its survival. If the observation is that corruptible power avoids and sustains the corrupted for its own gain, the questions that follow would be how it is achieved and who is involved in the process.
Achieving corruption without the corruption of power
Corruption in the public sector rose after the 2004 Tsunami and skyrocketed after the civil war in 2009. The incidence suggests that corruption trickled down from the abstract national opportunity for reconstruction and later development. From the license of the unsuspecting victors to create a strong economy, what followed was the ambition to carve a legacy in the new century out of national trauma, state benevolence, increased foreign investment, and nepotism. If the victorious civil war was the sales pitch, local leaders and entrepreneurs could bandwagon by joining and supporting the ruling party, ministerial positions, government tenders and state-owned enterprises at the fore of public-private cooperation were the incentive and reward. This model of neo-patrimonialism also controls the executive’s exposure (i.e., the president and the cabinet) to the circumstances of corruption and sustains privileged access to information and state resources from within and outside of a bureaucracy. The logic of hiring others to do unpleasant deeds when it is an option is hardly a new instruction of the authoritarian playbook.
In plain sight, what system permits this model in the first place is a flawed democracy. This system is built on unregulated election campaigns and vague party programs. According to Transparency International, Sri Lanka, states that systematically enforcing campaign finance regulations have improved their situation of perceived corruption. In Sri Lanka, there are no limits to campaign donations and no restrictions to the utility of state resources by incumbent officials, guaranteeing their reelection as the new challengers are outspent. Turnover in parliament and other electoral bodies has been the historical mainstay of checking corruption and authoritarianism. However, it is also hindered by the state’s control and private media by rulers and their politically connected groups. While it is evident that resources and money place a head start for the corrupt, the lesson is that they survive by the absence of relevant regulations on such matters.
The absence of a tradition of dialogue and transparency is also foundational to pervasive corruption. It mirrors the preference of the entire moderate political class towards weak checks and balances on legislative and executive functions in the constitutional Amendments and Acts that they pass. An opposition that overlooks this concern and promises more competence and loyalty before elections is also ultimately seduced by power and its exploits by extension. The evasion of press conferences, national debates, and international forums links well into this absence, being careful not to be questioned by watchdogs and critical citizens. The symptom and product of this absent tradition are the tentative nature of the principles and programs of nebulous ruling parties.
The players in the game of corruption
Corruption would not be as endemic if only crony representatives and their complacent bureaucrats gained. Behind the mask of the state, there is an asymmetric network of government branches, law enforcement agencies, oversight institutions and non-state actors. The power dynamics in this insulated game are finally catching public attention as events of grand corruption, after more than a decade of three turbulent presidential regimes, inform us that it is not just the politicians that cause anger at corruption.
In 2015, it was revealed that the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) and a primary dealer in government bonds caused billions to the Employees Provident Fund after the Prime Minister appointed a governor of his choice without the president’s consent. In 2021, the Finance Ministry exorbitantly profited a food importing company with a history of campaign financing by reducing taxes on coconut oil and sugar, imposing heavy losses on a state-owned enterprise in affordable essential goods. It must be acknowledged that these events did not spur at the moment but had gestated with prior coordination and remain unresolved for much longer.
Both scenarios capture the role of the private sector, the complicity of state power and the ineffectiveness of anti-corruption mechanisms. However, only more questions surface from the aftermath of these scandals, bringing in the other players. Did Singaporean authorities turn down the Sri Lanka Defense Ministry’s request for the extradition of the former governor because the Attorney General’s Department is unwilling to file criminal charges on other tender board members? The current governor, Nivard Cabraal’s sister, was a directress at Perpetual Group, the dealer in government bonds. Pyramid Wilmar, the food-importing company, is a shareholder of Shangi La Hotel projects. How independent was the Election Commission before the 20th Amendment if it could not act against the use of hotel premises by a presidential candidate that later also repaid the deed through a sugar scam?
Since it is clear who the players are from this rabbit hole of recurrent scandals and investigative questions, what avenues are present for lasting change must now be seen.
Corruption prevails when those who hold power rule by law, violate the rule of law and rely on the absence of regulatory law. This is because corruption is not isolated from other practices of authoritarianism, such as undermining the independence of the judiciary, harassing journalists, infringing human rights, and repressing political participation. Corruption is as much about the frustration of fighting corruption by authority.
From the unlawful impeachment of the chief justice in 2013 by the collusion of both parliament and president, it is evident that there is no separation of powers to administer justice independently. This is because the Public Security Ordinance and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) override civil liberties whilst draft amendments to the constitutions are not subject to referendums. With the independence and spirit of the new Parliamentary Council from the 20th Amendment in public apprehension, civil society representatives, trade union leaders, religious/social leaders and (retired and current) government officials are embroiled in an exhausting battle upstream against corruption. It is abundantly clear to all that one-off reforms will not deliver the reconciliation and justice sought passionately for so long by waves of emerging national consciousness.
In the space of the last two years, Sri Lankans resisted the blatant misdirection of the public over many events. One was the delay of criminal proceedings against twenty-five suspects for plotting the Easter Sunday Bombings and two state officials for the dereliction of duty in the state-wide catastrophe on the Catholic community. Another concerned the underhanded privatization of national infrastructure. The handover of the Western Container Terminal of the Colombo Port to an Indian conglomerate and the sudden award of the Kerawalapitiya Yugadanavi power plant to a US-based energy company was appalling. They are a testament to the contrary of a neutral Sri Lankan foreign policy and, above all else, a sign of accelerating corruption.
However, concerning these events, the religious communities and the trade unions were categorical in speaking truth to power. Despite the suppression of their cause by popular media and the stakeholders to these investments, their message resonated amongst teachers, farmers, and civil rights activists because the government ultimately responded to some expectations and demands of the victims and the port workers. The mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy concurrently was a catalyst for this as well.
Suppose there is still no visibility of lasting change under resolute leadership. In that case, the will to build responsible and responsive people’s power is compromised by the timing of the next general election and the restrictions in place for public gatherings. However, a revival of the political left can nurture as a social movement for momentum in demanding transparency in the legislative process, more rights of participation and consultation on development projects, the decentralization of state power and the independence of the judiciary and the oversight commissions. It should culminate in the contextualization of socialist democracy in practice to realize the constitution’s preamble. It would mean that the overdue revision of the PTA must follow alongside the commitment to fair elections with campaign finance regulations. This way, we can ensure the integrity of elected bodies, civil service, and public capital.
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