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I was sent recently a link to a bizarre article headlined ‘Retired MI5 Agent Confesses On Deathbed: “I Killed Princess Diana”’. It appeared on a site called ‘YourNewsWire.com’ and was supposed to be written by someone called Baxter Dmitry – about whom there seems to be some controversy, in that there are claims that he is the same person as writes under other names too.

The article itself is not very plausible, though it is accompanied by a splendid photograph of an old man in a hospital bed. And another website called ‘www.snopes.com’ claimed ‘There was no truth to the story, which originated with YourNewsWire, a fake news site. As is often the case with fake news, the article lacked critical details such as when and where the confession occurred or how the purported assassination took place, and no other credible news outlet (or even tabloid) reported the story.’

This last is not quite true in that the ‘Daily Star’, a tabloid founded to match the ‘Daily Mirror’ and ‘The Sun’, did report the story though it claimed that the story was found to be fake. But it gave no reason for this last assertion save stating that Snopes had said so.

All this is of a piece with the manner in which news is manufactured, not just for sensation and denigration of individuals, but for political purposes. We are all now aware of the lies that Tony Blair perpetrated so that he could support George Bush over the Iraq war. We are aware of the way in which Gaddafi was vilified with false allegations that he was planning a bloodbath in Libya, a pack of lies that was used by the West to perpetrate its own continuing bloodbath all over the Islamic world. We know of the false claims about Assad using chemical weapons some years back, when the UN made it clear that the likelihood was that these weapons had been used by the rebels the West was then backing.

More recently there was another allegation against Assad which led to Trump bombing Syria – even though now it is clear that it is the rebels who have access to chemical weapons, as a very recent article on the BBC makes clear. Quentin Sommerville records notes by a fighter in which ‘in the munitions section and in his own handwriting, he lists “chemical munitions” as a weapon. There’s been much debate over whether IS has used chemical weapons in Mosul. Here at least, we know they are trained and prepared to use them.’

But there has been no demand for accountability with regard to the public lies that have created so much mayhem in the world. Read the rest of this entry »

I must confess to a sense of déjà vu in reading about the disappointment Kabir Hashim has expressed about the recent changes in Ministries. Two articles on the subject present very different perspectives, which together suggest that he is being the classic spoilt child, upset about his own powers and dignity – since he ‘cannot suffer the ‘indignity’ of an emaciated Ministry’. Typically, he lies like a Trojan about his situation, claiming indeed that, when Sirisena’s first Cabinet was appointed, ‘Ranil Wickremesinghe thought that he could be more useful in Skills Development’.

That Kabir Hashim tells lies with no shame has been clear to me, from the time he demanded that Kshanika Himburuwegama resign as Chairman of the UGC with the claim that the President had instructed this. Sirisena assured me that he had done nothing of the sort, but he did nothing to undo the damage that had been done.

Contrary to his current grand claim about why he was given Skills Development, Hashim told me when he was made Cabinet Minister that he knew I was the expert on education, and he would leave everything to me – since in any case, as both Chairman and Secretary then of the party, he had to concentrate on the forthcoming election. And in fact making him Cabinet Minister of Higher Education was an afterthought, since initially he had only been made Minister of Highways – which was of course where he could work on the election, given the manner in which his Prime Minister awarded contracts for unsolicited bids at much higher rates than those paid during the Rajapaksa days.

Hashim was made Minister of Higher Education – along then with Highways, a ludicrous combination that still continues, with an even more incompetent though perhaps less deceitful Minister in charge – after Chandrika Kumaratunga threatened me when I refused to summarily dismiss Kshanika Himburuwegama as she demanded. She told me to wait and see who would be put on top of me, a metaphor that accords with her assumption that government is about power rather than productivity.

Initially Hashim pledged not to interfere, but soon enough he started pushing the envelope, beginning with trying to collect evidence against S B Dissanayake. I suspect that was not his idea, but rather thrust upon him by Chandrika and possibly Ranil, given their technique of trying to ensure submission by threatening prosecution. Of course, once S B joined the government, he was let off scot free, and typically the first thing Kabir did after I resigned was requisition some of the 14 vehicles S B had used (of which I had returned 12 to the pool). Read the rest of this entry »

I wrote last week of the corruption that this government has engaged in, quite contrary to the President’s commitment to stop mega corruption and wastage. This week I would like to look at how the manner in which this government is working on that commitment has stopped the development activity the President hoped to increase.

They have done this by terrifying public servants out of their wits, in penalizing them for the excesses that occurred. Some weeks back Dr Nalaka Godahewa, in writing convincingly about problems in the government’s development strategy, noted how a particular tender was not awarded because the person responsible wanted someone more senior also to sign. That person in turn wanted to pass the buck higher up, and of course in each of these stages files sit for ages on a desk without being attended to. The upshot is that no work has been done.

I thought he exaggerated, but the story did remind me of the mess Ranil caused in education during his last stint as Prime Minister, when he appointed a hopeless Secretary to the Ministry. In fact the committee he had entrusted with the task of proposing names had recommended Lalith Weeratunge who had been an excellent deputy to Tara de Mel (and though I could understand Charitha Ratwatte gibbering when I suggested they reappoint Tara, because she was associated too closely with Chandrika Kumaratunga, even Chari had agreed that Lalith would be a good choice).

But Ranil had a personal problem with Lalith, and instead sent a character called V K Nanayakkara. Lalith promptly moved on to other things. I asked him to stay on, but he said working with Nanayakkara was impossible, for if you went to him with four signatures recommending a course of action, he would ask for a fifth. Read the rest of this entry »

It is now clear that one expected outcome of the regime change of 2015, namely a more helpful approach to Sri Lanka on the part of the West, is not going quite as expected. Though the European Union has finally granted us GSP, against some significant opposition, its decision makers are going on and on about the need to implement those aspects of the President’s manifesto that they consider important. In the process they ignore elements in the President’s manifesto more important to our nation, and concentrate instead on those commitments to the West made by individuals and organizations funded by the West.

The latest to pronounce, without ever I suspect having read the President’s manifesto, is the new German ambassador to Sri Lanka. He seems to be a throwback to the ambassador of the war period, Jurgen Weerth, whose patronizing lectures astounded even other Western envoys.

Fortunately he was succeeded by a young man who moderated that approach, and then a charming very positive individual, who has been now sent to Mumbai, doubtless for not being tough enough. In his place we now have an individual who talks of the changes ‘promised by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in 2015’, if the newspaper report is accurate.

He obviously does not understand that the change happened because Maithripala Sirisena was elected President, and that Maithripala Sirisena owes it to the people to fulfil his promises to them, not promises made by others, to others who did not contribute (except perhaps financially) to his electoral victory. In particular he said categorically that ‘I will allow no international power to ill-treat or touch a single citizen of this country on account of the campaign to defeat terrorism.’

Even as the West resorts to extreme measures to deal with the terrorism that they have inflicted on the world, in their haste to effect regime change – supporting the Taleban initially in Afghanistan, and then fundamentalists in Libya and Syria – they continue to insist that our forces be punished. They have been supported in this by our Foreign Minister, who has at least been consistent, in obviously having resented during the war period the successes the forces were achieving. But government policy is made by the President, and this should be done in terms of his commitments to the people.

Why he continues to tolerate a Foreign Minister who strives to undermine what the President has promised baffles me. Perhaps he thinks that Mangala should be allowed to bark, since he will not be given the teeth to bite our war heroes. But at least now the President should realize that, by allowing Mangala full rein, he leaves room for those who want to control us to continue to make veiled, and not so veiled, threats.

Sadly the German ambassador has not considered the fact that the issue which carries most space in the President’s manifesto is corruption. It seems he does refer to corruption, but he has twinned it with impunity, which in the general understanding of it as having to do with war crimes is of much less concern to the people. That was not central to the President’s vision. In that regard, while it is clear that the ambassador recognizes that corruption continues, he ignores the fact that it is promoted by the failure to fulfil other aspects of the President’s manifesto that were much more important to the people. In particular, the Right to Information Act was totally inadequate, and when it is implemented in the breach, with the Prime Minister’s Secretary finding excuses for refusing to hand over his Assets Declaration, one realizes that we have the mixture as before, only worse. Read the rest of this entry »

Paul Scott, the British writer I admire most of those active in the second half of the last century, was adept at exploring how people let each other down. In one of his novels, he refers to the various betrayals his protagonist engaged in.

I was reminded of that in thinking, as we reach the half way point of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency, of the various betrayals he has been forced into. I do not say he has perpetrated these, for I still see him as a passive onlooker, but that does not absolve him of responsibility. After all he was elected President, and he should have worked towards fulfilling as many as possible of the promises he made in his manifesto. Instead he has allowed the country to sink into more corrosive corruption than ever before.

Last week I wrote about perhaps the most expensive mistake he made, namely allowing an exception to the pledged constitutional change to limit the size of the Cabinet. He, or rather those who make decisions in his government, have now exploited that provision with the utmost cynicism, so that we have 45 Cabinet Ministers apart from the President, and another 45 State / Deputy Ministers.

Each of them is entitled to private staff, many of whom have little to do, and little understanding of what should be done beyond expanding the influence of the Minister. They have innumerable vehicles and personal security, and they all have offices, many of which have been redecorated at vast expense. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.30357119Many allegations are now being traded with regard to corruption, but sadly there is no discussion about measures to get over the problem. We seem more inclined to concentrate on allegations for political purposes rather than institutionalizing preventive measures, remedial measures and also measures that will give early warning.

I am very sorry about this since one of the reasons for my leaving the last government was perceptions of increasing corruption. Though now I realize that this government too is engaged in corrupt deals, this was not a reason for my resignation from the Ministry, nor yet for my crossing over. But what seemed the institutionalization of nepotism was a reason, the requirement that jobs and perks be provided for one’s supporters, as exemplified by the takeover of Ministry vehicles by Kabir Hashim’s henchmen after I had left.

Measures to prevent all this could easily have been taken as soon as the new government was set up. I had high hopes because the responsibility for reform to promote Democratic Governance, by which I thought Good Governance was also meant, had been entrusted to Karu Jayasuriya. I thought he was sincere, and he certainly seemed so at the start, but it was soon clear that his heart was not in it.

Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.30091392While Good Governance also must include adequate provision for the security and developmental needs of the governed, the terms is more widely used with reference to what might be termed the moral aspect of government. Having myself supported the candidature of Maithripala Sirisena because of what seemed to me increasing authoritarianism and corruption in the last two years of the previous regime, I am of course particularly concerned with our commitment to get rid of these latter aspects.

Unfortunately we seem to have instead abandoned both ensuring security and promoting development, whilst engaging in corruption and authoritarianism, albeit in more subtle ways. Utter contempt has been shown for Parliament in the last four months, illustrated most obviously by the failure to have meetings of Parliamentary Consultative Committees (the Schedule given me by the Committees Office on May 20th indicated that only four had thus far met, four months exactly after the day on which we had pledged that ‘Oversight Committees will be set up comprising members of Parliament who are not in the Cabinet’.

The Prime Minister had in fact insisted, according to Priyani Wijeyesekera, that proposals about the Oversight Committees he wanted should not be presented until after the 19th Amendment was passed. I suppose he had lost interest in the President’s manifesto when the change he wanted, to commit to handing over powers to the Prime Minister, was omitted. But even so, he should not have allowed the existing Consultative Committee mechanism, which should also be strengthened, to have fallen into abeyance. His lame excuse, when I brought the matter up, was to say that he planned to have a meeting of his own Consultative Committee soon – well over four months after he took office. Read the rest of this entry »

Reform 9I come now to what seems a contentious issue, unnecessarily so. The manifesto on which the President won the election clearly pledged that ‘An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality.’

This commitment, in the 100 day manifesto, was fleshed out in the commitment to a Compassionate Cogvernment and a Stable Country, as follows: The existing electoral system is a mainspring of corruption and violence. Candidates have to spend a colossal sum of money due to the preferential system. I will change this completely. I guarantee the abolition of the preferential system and will ensure that every electorate will have a Member of Parliament of its own. The new electoral system will be a combination of the first-past-the post system and the proportional representation of defeated candidates. Since the total composition of Parliament would not change by this proposal, I would be able to get the agreement of all political parties represented in Parliament for the change. Further, wastage and clashes could be minimised since electoral campaigns would be limited to single electorates.’

This makes clear the urgent need for change. Sadly, the United National Party, having scented power, seems determined to continue with a system that practically demands corruption and violence. And while it will not openly promote corruption, the manner in which it is trying to grab vehicles from Ministries to give Members of Parliament shows that it will command resources without hesitation to promote its victory.

Fleets of vehicles naturally seem essential when candidates have to work in whole districts. So do millions of posters and hundreds of people to paste them. That in turn leads to violence that is more intra-party than between parties, since one’s immediate rivals are those in one’s own party. But presumably that matters nothing to the Prime Minister who belongs to the Divide and Rule Jayewardene philosophy in the UNP rather than the more inclusive Senanayake tradition.

The main argument against a First Past the Post system is that it distorts the will of the electorate. We saw this in both 1970 and in 1977, when governments had massive majorities in Parliament even though they had just bare majorities. But that is why the Maithripala Sirisena manifesto says very clearly that there would be mechanisms for plurality, and even more significantly, ‘the total composition of Parliament would not change by this proposal.’ Read the rest of this entry »

good governanceSuggestions sent to members of the committee to assist the Minister for Good Governance, set up at the Government Group meeting on March 3rd 2015.

A – Preventing Corruption

Schedule

1.  The Assets Declarations of Ministers, Parliamentarians, Provincial Councillors and those heading government institutions that have entered into contracts of above a particular value should be made public. They should be uploaded on institutional websites within two weeks of laws / regulations to such effect being introduced.

I am aware that there may be some diffidence about this inasmuch as some Members of the government may not have declared their assets as required. The law/regulation should specify that no action will be taken with regard to such, provided the declaration is made available to be made public at the due date. They will also be requested to make declarations for each of the last five years.

2.  A Commission should be empowered to go into these Declarations, and instituted investigations if the assets of any individual have grown disproportionately in the last five years.

The Thai concept of people being ‘unusually rich’ could be brought into play. The Public should be invited to provide information if there is reason to suspect inaccuracies in the declaration of assets. Such information should be investigated, with provision that assets not declared may be frozen, and confiscated if legitimate acquisition cannot be proved.

3.  Individuals who hand over assets which they cannot prove were legitimately acquired may be given an amnesty, on condition of taking no part in public life for a specific period.

It could be argued that this is a form of impunity, but we should not engage in what could be perceived as witch hunts. Regaining for the country anything that has been plundered, and debarring further such activities for a fixed period, should be enough.

4.  Any information provided by the public about inflated tenders, undue costs for contracts with national and international suppliers, acceptance of shoddy construction work or equipment supplied, should be investigated. Individuals handing over assets obtained improperly through such instances may be given an amnesty, on condition of taking no part in public life.

I would urge in particular that attention be paid to the information supplied by Mr Kodituwakku, formerly of the Customs, who had to flee the country because of threats against him arising from his outstanding integrity and efficiency.

5.  Officials who felt obliged to acquiesce in abuses should be given impunity for the provision of information with regard to such matters. Provision should be made for such information to be given in confidence.

 

B – Promoting Responsiveness

Schedule

  1. Consultation mechanisms should formally be set up at Grama Niladhari level, chaired by the GN but with clear responsibility for another official to maintain records and minutes and ensure follow up.
  2. The minutes of Grama Niladhari Level meetings, with decisions / action points noted, should be shared with the next level up of government. Responses must be conveyed to participants at GN level, along with the minutes, at the subsequent meeting.
  3. At Divisional Secretariat level, there should be coordination mechanisms for groups of subjects, such as Social Services and Women and Children, Education and Training, Agriculture and Irrigation, Forests and Wild Life, Health and Nutrition. Officials should work as a team, and ensure attention to all GN Divisions. Individuals can be given responsibility for particular GN Divisions, with the coordinating committee at DS level looking into all issues and providing feedback.
  4. There should be regular consultative meetings of department heads at Divisional level, chaired by the Divisional Secretary. To facilitate this, all government departments should treat the Division as the basic unit of administration. This will require restructuring of a few Departments, ie Education and the Police. This has been pledged in the manifesto of the President, and making the necessary structural changes will be simple, and can be swift if there is sufficient will.
  5. Regular discussions between the Divisional Secretary and the elected head of the Local Government Unit are necessary. Ideally the proposed Local Government Act will lay down specific responsibilities so overlap of responsibilities will be minimal, but coordination and agreement on priorities is essential. Making the Divisional Secretariat and the Local Government Unit (or Units) coterminous will facilitate coordination.
  6. All government officials must understand the need to respond promptly to requests from the people. They must also ensure that records are kept. Telephone commitments should be kept to a minimum, since these can be forgotten. Officers who delegate tasks must ensure that these are performed promptly.

 

C – Removing politics from recruitment

Schedule

  1. All government institutions should have clear criteria with regard to recruitment, and such recruitment should be the responsibility of state officials, not politicians.
  2. All Ministries should have an Appeals Board to deal with allegations of unfairness in recruitment, to all institutions under the purview of the Ministry.
  3. Ministries should not issue lists of individuals from which recruitment is to be done.
  4. Politicians wishing to recommend individuals for employment should do so on the basis of qualifications and suitability. They should not mention loyalty to party as a qualification. Recommendations should be addressed to the appointing authority.
  5. Politicians and others who feel there was unfairness in recruitment procedures or decisions may bring these to the attention of the Minister, with a copy of the appeal to the Appeals Board.
  6. Ministers should not make recommendations for jobs which are within any institution under their purview. In case of alleged injustice, they should forward appeals to the appointing authority or the Appeals Board, and request a prompt report and remedial action if appropriate.
  7. Making appointments to boards or other bodies directly under the purview of the Minister should be in accordance with clear criteria. Where the Minister has discretionary powers, he should make clear the reasons for appointments where public funds are involved.

 

D – Limiting use of the Executive for political purposes

  1. Members of the Executive shall not use their offices or the equipment and services they are given for electoral purposes
  2. The personal staff of Ministers shall be limited to only such numbers as are essential for the fulfilment of their executive responsibilities. All such staff will be required to provide monthly reports on their productivity to the Secretary of the Ministry which pays their salaries.
  3. However, given the personal and political needs of all Parliamentarians, their personal staff may be increased as follows –

2 coordinating secretaries instead of 1

1 research officer as now

1 private secretary as now

2 drivers instead of 1

1 office aide as now 1

This gives them a total of 7 instead of 5.

They should also be given a vehicle for their use. This should take the place of the permits which are now readily abused.

4.  The personal staff of Ministers should be reduced as follows, and they must all be expected to report to work in the Ministry unless the Minister had given them leave, as informed to the Secretary

1 private secretary as now

1 coordinating secretary instead of 2

1 public relations secretary

No media secretary, the work should be done by the Ministry media personnel, who should be selected in accordance with clear criteria

2 drivers, without provision for a driver for a back up vehicle. If needed, such a driver should be taken from the Ministry pool.

1 office aide instead of 2, since the Ministry staff can be allocated if needed.

2 management assistants instead of 5. At least one of those should be functional in the Official Language which is not that of the Minister. Any further assistance may be provided by regular Ministry staff.

This gives them a total of 8 instead of 13.

The Minister should have at most 2 vehicles. Personal staff should have at most 2 vehicles rather than the 5 that are now available.

The qualifications of all personal staff paid by government Ministries should be made known to the public, along with the responsibilities entrusted to them.

 

E  – Restricting violence

Schedule

  1. The LLRC lays down areas as to which it believes further investigation is required, and this should be undertaken promptly. A separate Commission should be appointed for this purpose, with international observers as with the IGEP that functioned for the Udalagama Commission.
  2. The work of the Disappearances Commission should be expedited, and action taken on its interim reports, which should be published at 3 month intervals.
  3. Provision should be made for gathering of further information to expand the work of both these Commissions. Information may be sought for this purpose from the ongoing UNHRC investigation.
  4. The report of the Udalagama Commission should be published and action taken on its findings.
  5. A Commission similar to the Udalagama Commission should be established to look into incidents of Disappearances in the post-war period, or others that occurred after the Commission was established, including the cases of Pattani Razak, Pradeep Ekneligoda and the FSP activists. Prosecutions should be instituted if sufficient evidence emerges.
  6. In fairness to the last government, since otherwise it would be assumed that excesses took place only under its watch, a fact finding Commission should be established with regard to incidents such as the killings of Wijedasa Liyanaarachchi, the JVP students in Ratnapura, Richard de Zoysa, those found in the Diyawanna Oya and Kumar Ponnambalam. It should be clear that judicial action will not be taken on such matters, and an amnesty will be given for incidents that occurred more than ten years ago, but government owes it to the people to establish the truth of what happened.
  7. A Commission should be appointed to investigate the relative impunity with which the LTTE operated, in particular the failure of Sri Lanka and the international community to prevent child conscription, arms acquisition, and the taking and use of hostages in the last stages of the conflict.

Good Governance 2In a speech last week to the Rotary Club, I was asked to speak on Good Governance for Building a Nation. I based my speech on five principles which I can see are now being ignored. The lack of attention to two of them on the part of those supposed to be in charge of taking the business of government forward came home to me graphically last week, with regard to the mess over responding to the concerns I had put forward.

But I will leave these for the moment, and instead look at principles which are challenged because of the electoral system we have. I find it appalling that we seem to have neglected the promise in our manifesto to change the electoral system, since that lies at the heart of much prevalent abuse. I think Rev Sobitha was absolutely right to point out that we should not rush into elections without fulfilling our promises, and in particular the promise regarding electoral system change.

The 100 days programme is a means to an end, and I hope it will not end up being only propaganda that was used for the Presidential election. If we cannot do important things in 100 days, there will be nothing wrong in taking some time more to do them, as the Prime Minister himself said in Parliament in justifying some delays. But to see early elections as a necessity, and indeed to cry ‘Wolf’ and call for even earlier elections when challenges arise, is not a mature way to proceed.

One of the main reasons the present electoral system needs to be changed is that it promotes corruption. Honesty is one of the basic principles of Good Governance, but the system we have demands funds on a level that is almost impossible to command. Several years back, the editor of a leading newspaper told me that there were only 3 honest members of the then UNP Cabinet (and I have no doubt things were not much better in previous and in subsequent Cabinets). When the next election was held, one of them lost, and it seemed this was because he could not match his rivals within the party with regard to propaganda material. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2017
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