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Sunday, 10 June 2018 08:50

‘CATCH ME IF YOU CAN’ : CORRUPTION WAVE HITS PARLIAMENTARIANS

For once, our politicians are on the back foot: they are running scared of the ‘list’. No one is certain whether such a thing in fact exists, but everyone appears to be scurrying for cover. This is the ‘list’ of Parliamentarians who are alleged to have received funds from companies related to Perpetual Treasuries Ltd., the company at the centre of investigations into the Central Bank bond scandal.

Matters came to a head when it was revealed that, that singularly unfortunate politician, Dayasiri Jayasekara had received a million rupee ‘contribution’ from a related company. Forced into disclosure, Jayasekara went into panic mode.

That was understandable. Jayasekara was in the group within the Government that was screaming from rooftops about the bond scam and demanding that the wrongdoers be punished and here he is now, suddenly revealed to be a beneficiary of the entire exercise.

Jayasekara did the next best thing. He admitted the ‘donation’ and claimed that he didn’t even know who the donor was. He also claimed that it was a ‘tradition’ in this country for various businessmen to contribute towards politicians’ election campaigns.

The latter is true, but to say that one does not so much as inquire where a million rupee donation came from appears to suggest that such an amount of money is small change for Jayasekara. Well, sometimes, the defence can be worse than the offence!

When former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake was caught out on the same issue and it transpired that the rent for his apartment was allegedly paid for by businessmen involved in the bond scam, Parliamentarians from both, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its Joint Opposition (JO) faction were baying for his blood.

There is nothing wrong with that- and Karunanayake did pay the price, forfeiting his Cabinet portfolio. However, that shrill cacophony of condemnation has been noticeably absent for Jayasekera. Therein, lies the hypocrisy that swirls around in our political circles.

At the time of writing, another Parliamentarian, State Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe has been named as a similar beneficiary while one other has come forward to acknowledge that he has received a donation from Perpetual Treasuries. That is soldier turned politician, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. Always one to call a spade a bloody shovel, Fonseka deserves kudos for his revelation. Unlike Jayasekara and Senasinghe, his was a voluntary acknowledgment, without waiting to be found out. Senasinghe too was an anti-corruption crusader during his days in the Opposition and will have a lot of explaining to do. He will no doubt have his version of events but it better be good- because he received three times the money that Jayasekara did!

Now though, the cat is out of the bag, thanks in part to Jayasekara. Livid at being named and shamed, he says, he is being selectively targeted and claims there are more politicians who received similar donations. Somehow, someone has added the magic number of 118 and now there is speculation of the existence of a ‘list’ of 118 Parliamentarians who received largesse from the disgraced company.

Many, including activists from non-governmental organisations have been invoking the Right to Information (RTI) Act provisions in trying to get hold of this ‘list’. Presidential Secretary, Austin Fernando has also come in for a lot of flak simply because he has done what any right thinking official would do: obtain a legal opinion from the Attorney General.

All this goes to confirm one vital fact: no longer is the bond scam the exclusive preserve of a few selected Ministers and MPs in the UNP. Instead, it is a cancer that has spread to our body politic, consuming its collective morality in that process. Also, the bitter truth is that this cancer is not confined to the bond scam only.

The people of this country agreed- by a majority of a half million votes- at the last Presidential Election that the previous regime was corrupt. That is why they booted them out. There was an expectation that the new regime would stamp out corruption. Lip service has been paid to this ideal but the results are disappointing.

Instead of expediting processes and catching the culprits responsible for the excess of the previous regime, leading figures of this Government are now embroiled in a corruption controversy of their own. That has killed any chances of this Government taking the moral high ground about corruption issues.

For a while, the SLFP faction of the government- or at least, President Sirisena- was lecturing both the UNP and the JO about corruption, claiming that the SLFP was the only party committed to corruption free politics. Now, Jayasekara’s admission takes away the gloss of that campaign.

The hullabaloo about this ‘list’ becoming public is an indication of how politicians are in the pay of big business. Jayasekara does have a point: it seems as if being sponsored by businessmen is the rule rather than the exception in the national legislature.

There was a school of thought that this was primarily because of the system of proportional representation and the preferential voting system to select Parliamentarians from within a political party. This meant that a potential candidate had to appeal to an entire district rather than a particular electorate. That required big money for campaigning and that is where the businessmen got involved.

That there is no such thing as a free lunch is a well-worn maxim. When businessmen throw away their hard-earned millions for a politician’s campaign, surely they expect a quid pro quo. Jayasekara, in his fit of panic, says that although he accepted money from Perpetual Treasuries, he never stalled investigations into its activities. Either he himself is extremely naïve or he believes that the voting public is extremely naïve to believe that. Even if he has done no wrong, it does not appear to be so. The same goes for Senasinghe too.

It was anticipated that the preferential voting system would be done away with during the tenure of this Government through a process of constitutional changes. That is now looking as unlikely as ever, what with the two SLFP factions squabbling with each other and the Government losing its two-thirds majority as a result.

It is a moot point whether this ‘list’ will become public. Even if it does, those who are named in it will adopt the ‘Jayasekara defence’; ‘I took the money but remained impartial’. There will be many words said in anger and disbelief but this being Sri Lanka, we will forget all about it when the next scandal hits the headlines.

Remember, ‘Helping Hambantota’? No one is talking about it now! 

(Sunday Observer)

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