Urgent measures are needed to restore Sri Lankans’ rapidly diminishing faith in their new government, warns Neville de Silva
Those who appreciate Shakespearean symbolism – consider the tragedy of King Lear, for instance – might well be moved to view the recent floods and landslides that have ravaged Sri Lanka as an external manifestation of its turbulent and rancorous politics.
In parliament the opposition claimed all this was the wrath of the gods at a government that had failed the people. Responding to what were seen as wild accusations, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe placed the blame for the tragic events squarely on the opposition. Had they not gone round to Buddhist temples and Hindu kovils smashing coconuts to bring down the anger of the gods on the current government, this would not have happened, he argued – whether seriously or sarcastically, one does not know.
The coconut-smashing – a long-practised ritual to invoke the blessings or wrath of the deity, depending on what kind of assistance one is seeking – gave cynics a talking point, but people have been incensed by the unruly and boisterous conduct of parliamentarians inside and outside parliament, particularly since January last year, when Maithripala Sirisena was elected president. On one occasion, several members of the Rajapaksa-supporting opposition disrupted parliamentary proceedings and spent part of the night in the well of the chamber, eating and sleeping there in breach of all procedure. But worse still, from the public perspective, was the fisticuffs that erupted between government and opposition members in late April, leading to some seeking medical treatment and an MP ending up in hospital.
The irony is that just before parliament adjourned for the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New Year in mid-April, the Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, had provided each MP with a draft of the Code of Conduct which he hoped would be approved by members in the days ahead. Given their behaviour, would the code have any effect? That question continues to concern the public, who have witnessed MPs harassing and intimidating public officials performing their legitimate duties, as well as politicians of other elected bodies.
After an internal inquiry, MPs unanimously voted to suspend two members – one a deputy minister – from attending proceedings for two weeks. But since parliament was not due to meet for most of that time, the suspension hardly mattered. How little effect it appeared to have was illustrated some weeks later, when a minister was accused by the opposition of using abusive language against an opposition member, leading to the Speaker announcing an inquiry. A few days later the minister apologised, though with a rider: he was not the only one to use such language but, unlike some, he did accept responsibility.
When and if the code of conduct does come into effect, it will apply only to MPs. It exempts second and third-tier elected representatives such as provincial and municipal councillors, and members of the pradeshiya sabhas, at the bottom of the structure of governance. Yet some have been involved in corruption, intimidation, harassment, and even in cases of murder, and when later elected to parliament, have brought behavioural ‘traditions’ that have often become ingrained in them.
At the time of writing MPs were submitting their comments on the code to the Speaker. Those clauses that
require them to declare their financial interests and those of their close family members, as well as other relevant interests, are expected to cause a storm, particularly since this information would be made public. Many questions remain: who will decide what is “sufficient” information of MPs’ assets and business interests, or what is meant by “close family members”? Ill-gotten wealth could be held in the name of an extended family member, thus avoiding the code.
Enforcement of the code is another issue. If corruption, fraud and other financial crimes are to be eliminated, these provisions should be more strictly defined. Implementation of the code should be supervised by an independent body or individual with powers to act vigorously against serious violations. But it is expected that MPs will act as their own arbiters. It is not enough to permit public access to their financial declarations if grievances are being investigated by the MPs themselves, and complainants are in danger of being charged in court with false accusations.
More stringent rules should apply to declarations of assets by state officials as well. Officials have been named every so often as holders of politicians’ money, or depositors of fraudulently acquired wealth, but their annual declarations lie in various ministries gathering dust, hardly glanced at by anybody in authority.
Tackling fraud and corruption by law-makers and state officials was a major issue at the last elections. Several ministers and MPs connected with the Rajapaksa government are under investigation, or have been hauled up before the courts, but if real reform is contemplated, Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) provides a model. It has not hesitated to investigate and, where necessary, prosecute its own officers, as well as high ranking government officials, including one of Hong Kong’s recent chief executives, the equivalent of governor in the post-handover era.
While the Code of Conduct is intended to make MPs more accountable and their work and activities more transparent, the Right to Information (RTI) Bill, also before parliament, is wider in its impact and more significant. It has been a long time coming – several attempts have been made to get successive governments to introduce this important legislation.
Some of them have made the right to information a constitutional requirement, and Sri Lanka has done the same under the 19th amendment to the constitution, introduced by the present Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, instead of making the release of information statutory. But critics have argued that, despite the pledge to transparency, disclosure and accountability, the government is making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to obtain information even on some economic matters. It is said that the Central Bank is excluded from state institutions which are required to be open for scrutiny. What some politicians and officials fear is that too open a law will result in too many skeletons falling out of cupboards.
Information may be denied where its disclosure is not considered to be in the public interest, and would undermine the country’s territorial integrity, national security or economic stability. It has been said that the Attorney-General’s Department argued for a special clause to the bill that would exclude the department and its officials from provisions of the act. Critics say that to do so would be detrimental to the whole bill. While legal experts and observers have pointed to other shortcomings, some argue that even this limited bill is a step in the right direction.
Sri Lanka could produce a very good law, as expected by the public. But if its effectiveness is hampered by procrastination, lackadaisical implementation and official cover-ups, it will hardly serve the purpose for which so many have campaigned with vigour and conviction.