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Sunday, 8 November 2015

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Prosecuting corruption

One of the biggest complaints that Sri Lankans had about the previous government - no matter its veneer of patriotism - was its perception of unfettered corrupt practices by politicians of the regime. Thus, 'good governance' became the vote-winning slogan of the 'common opposition' alliance.

The alliance first won the presidency and, a few months later, the parliamentary elections, as the majority of Sri Lankans, across ethnic lines, voted in its favour. While ethnic equality issues and political repression were also major issues, the foremost expectation of the citizenry of the new government was, and is, the swift investigation and prosecution of all offenders in corrupt governmental practices and abuse of power.

Of course, the public does not easily comprehend the nature of the process of recovery of a State after a long period of flagrant abuse of institutions and the decay of institutional practices. The sheer scale and specific nature of the corruption and maladministration could not be known by the incoming government until it took power and began probing.

Since the change of power in January this year every week resounded with the news of yet another uncovering of corruption. The huge scale of some of the corruption soon became overwhelming, its complexity and voracity often difficult to stomach for Sri Lankans long nurtured in the conventions of strong parliamentary democracy, especially in the early post-colonial decades.

Equally challenging has been the whole process of investigation for the purpose of prosecution and conviction.

The world's experience of transitions from decadent autocracy to popular democracy has shown that redress of corruption is an important aspect of such national changes for the better. Just as much as the transition from the ending of war to a stable social peace involves elaborate processes of reconciliation, truth-seeking and justice.

There is already a history of such national 'clean-ups' ranging from the fall of the Ceausescu regime of Romania to the Marcos regime of The Philippines and, the toppling of the Latin American military regimes in Chile and elsewhere.

Crucial in such transitions is the capacity to investigate vast financial and administrative conspiracies and misappropriations that are camouflaged and often hidden by survivors of the corrupt regime yet holding posts in institutions.

Thus, the very slow process of investigation of the sins of the previous government is not surprising. Today, the relevant investigating ministries and agencies are tackling literally hundreds of cases at national level. And, it is feasible that, if all the numerous complaints of corruption made by citizens islandwide were to be probed, then the authorities will have thousands of more cases at the local levels of government.

While delays, even if frustrating to the common citizen, are understandable, the Sri Lankan public must remain assured that these investigations will take its course and the maximum effort is made to bring the guilty to justice. Indeed, as the delays in prosecution get longer, the public - who are paying for both losses due to corruption as well as the costs of the investigations - need to be reassured and, reassured again, if things drag on further.

Delays due to difficulties may not demoralize citizens long used to swift plunder and slow retribution and recovery - if at all. But there cannot be excuses for not proceeding with investigations and for not prosecuting.

Long used, as Sri Lankans are, to blatant lies to cover up misgovernance and plain plunder, they must be given the credit for the electoral effort to dislodge from power those plunderers. Having done so, the citizenry will certainly not countenance any perceived backsliding by the new regime. Delays due to difficulties, yes, but, deliberately backing away from meting out justice and redressing plunder, certainly not.

Any seemingly deliberate delay or deliberate avoidance of prosecution will immediately be seen by the public as a new wave of equally condemnable misgovernance, cheap trickery and plunder - only minus the pseudo-patriotism. Such a perception will not only disillusion the citizens but, will also instil in the public mind that Sri Lankan society and civilization is irredeemably corrupt, nepotistic and decadent. Only the most uncivilized leaderships will deliberately risk such societal misguidance and misdirection for the purpose of saving a few cabals of rogues from justice.

Sri Lanka is staggering under the burden of all the violence, the plunder, the unashamedly blatant trickery and pretence that has accumulated over decades of not just the previous regime but of regimes past as well. All the talk of 'civilization' becomes meaningless unless at least a part of the mess is cleaned up. Those who have promised to do so with such fanfare, must do so unless they wish to be tarred with the same brush. The current regime comprises some of the best hearts and minds in our political community. It is not just the intellectual capacities that have been brought together but the declared political intentions and, the expressed values, of the new leaders reflect the aesthetic spirit of our civilization. Whether this concentration of human capacities is indeed authentic remains to be seen, and the people are watching eagerly with hope for the future.

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