Corruption crippling Sri Lanka’s coalition government
Marred by serious allegations of corruption and mismanagement, Sri Lanka’s much-hyped coalition government appears to have very little to celebrate as it completes two years in power.
The coalition government under President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be slowly losing its grip as public confidence dwindles over its failure to live up to its pledges of good governance free of corruption, despite the rhetoric during the run-up to the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections.
This month alone, members of the public and civil society have taken to the streets in separate protest rallies demanding that the government start walking the talk. Both the elderly and youth are also using social media to demand accountability from the coalition, amid signs of instability.
Serious allegations of corruption, bribery and mismanagement have been leveled against top ministers in the government as well as bureaucrats.
Plagued by allegations of corruption, foreign minister Ravi Karunanayake was forced to resign from his ministerial portfolio early this month. During an inquiry by an independent commission appointed by Sirisena, it came to light that Karunanayake had allowed a person under investigation for irregularities in treasury-bond sales to pay for his luxury penthouse in Colombo.
While Karunanayake continues to be adamant on his innocence, Wickremesinghe termed the resignation of his minister an event that ushered a new political culture into the country.
But despite the resignation of his colleague, Wickremesinghe’s problems are far from over. The prime minister’s very close friend Arjuna Mahendran, who was appointed governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka soon after Sirisena took office in 2015, is also under investigation over the sales of treasury bonds. Mahendran allegedly gave preferential treatment to a company called Perpetual Treasuries, closely linked to his son-in-law Arjun Aloysius, the same person who had allegedly paid the rent for Karunanayake’s penthouse.
A parliamentary committee that investigated the treasury-bond scam found Mahendran guilty and called for legal action. Because of the irregularities, the country reportedly lost 1.6 billion rupees (US$10.4 million) while Perpetual Treasuries posted a 430% increase of in profit during the financial year that ended in March 2016. Subsequently, Mahendran made an undignified exit from his position as governor, and is currently under a separate investigation by an independent commission.
But Wickremesinghe’s camp is not the only group facing corruption allegations. Sirisena’s close ally Duminda Dissanayake, minister of agriculture and secretary of the president’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, has also being accused of being complicit in corrupt deals.
In one incident, Dissanayake reportedly signed a lease paying 21 million rupees a month for a building for his ministry in Rajagiriya, a suburb just outside Colombo. Although it has been more than a year since the lease was signed, he and his office are yet to occupy the building. The minister has claimed that there was a “delay” in calling for tenders to furnish the building complex.
Analysts are already lamenting that the current administration is no better than the previous government under ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose government was also accused of corruption, bribery and nepotism as well as human-rights violations.
Shiral Lakthilaka, a lawyer by profession and a member of the Anti-Corruption Front, terms the present situation “pathetic”. He also said it increasingly looked as if politicians no longer bothered about the pledges they made prior to the election, but appeared to be only interested in making quick money in a short span of time. “They don’t have a vision, strategy or a roadmap. They are a group of people who are running after a gold rush,” he told Asia Times.
Upul Jayasuriya, appointed chairman of Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment by Sirisena in 2015, announced his resignation last month, just weeks after reports of corruption against him surfaced, including in the state-run Daily News. The coalition government also suffered a serious embarrassment early this year when both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe laid what they claimed was the foundation stone for a Volkswagen vehicle-assembly plant, only to have the German automaker issue a rebuttal denying it had anything to do with the plant.
Meanwhile, in the latest development, the chief executive officer and managing director of the Information and Communication Technology Agency, Muhunthan Canagey, quit this week, claiming that Sirisena had asked him to resign after he openly questioned a deal involving a private television channel in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has also not being doing well in the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. According to Asoka Obeyesekere, executive director of Transparency International Sri Lanka, the country has not seen any improvements in its ratings, with the perception of public-sector corruption slightly worsening between 2015 and 2016.
“The slight decline in score (37 to 36), which is based on a 24-month data set, illustrates that even when looked at in the best light, the perception of public-sector corruption is stagnant – which is very concerning for a government that has a ‘good governance’ mandate,” Obeyesekere told Asia Times.
He also expressed concern over the government’s silence on important legislation that aims to enhance public access to asset declarations, which the government initially pledged to pass in Parliament by June 30 this year.
“Since January 2015, one of the foremost national-issues concerns alleged illegal accumulation of wealth by politicians. Sri Lanka is fortunate to have an existing system of asset disclosure, which extensively highlights politicians’ wealth. However, all these documents are guarded behind strict secrecy provisions.
“At the moment there is an amendment bill before cabinet to enhance public access to asset declarations, which the government pledged to pass by 30th June. But the silence on this is alarming,” he said, while highlighting that the legislation would significantly empower the public, as information being available in the public domain is a vital driver of accountability.
Charith Ratnayake, a marketer by profession, expressed his disappointment at how the government has failed to keep its promises.
“We had so much of faith, but even this government is turning out to be like the previous government under Mahinda Rajapaksa,” he said. “They keep saying the Rajapaksas stole, and because of that the government is in debt and we are being slapped with various tax increases, and then we see how these ministers who came to power with the promise to rid corruption [are] being corrupt themselves.
“So it is very disappointing. We have been let down even by this government.”