Ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa will no longer be hiding behind his couriers of the joint opposition (JO). Last week, he emerged from the shadows of Abeyaramaya to boldly announce at a rally in Nugegoda that after coming to power, he would recover billions that have allegedly been looted by the incumbent government. His rally at Nugegoda was said to be a very expensive affair: going by the expenses incurred for the number of buses used to transport protestors from distant places to Colombo, their pocket money, ‘bath packets’ and generous flow of booze to keep everyone fired up, his financers had to foot a hefty bill. It was his second coming party, so it ought to be a grand one. It was not so much about the numbers in attendance, but the maximum effect and appearance. Otherwise, why would organisers pick a place that got overcrowded even for a Vesak Bakthi Geetha show? This Nugegoda joint overflows with just a couple of thousand people, causing maximum traffic jam, chaos and inconvenience so that the entire city feels the protest vibes. Unemployed graduates knew the trick and now the former president is putting it to good use.
“Listening to xenophobic garbage in America and Europe, Mr. Rajapaksa at times looks like Mother Theresa, only that he was accused of white vanning in the past”
Time has never been better for Mr. Rajapaksa’s momentous return. Regressive populism has made a comeback with a vengeance everywhere. Demagoguery has become the standard form of politics. Bigotry, racism, xenophobia are no longer frowned upon. His art of politics has prevailed in more stable democracies, recently. Then, why not Sri Lanka? In fact, listening to xenophobic garbage in America and Europe, Mr. Rajapaksa at times looks like Mother Theresa, only that he was accused of white vanning in the past.
However, why Mr. Rajapaksa has got a new lease of political life is because the incumbent government has failed to live up to even the most basic promises it made: people think it is more corrupt than its predecessor, according to the latest Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International (According to CPI, Sri Lanka has dropped 12 slots in one year to 95).
The Rajapaksa regime was phenomenally corrupt, but compared to its predecessors, it was efficient. It did not negotiate for years to finally come up with some shoddy deal that could well be suspended again for a review. Instead, it entered into shoddy deals all at once, and completed the projects before their deadlines. Finally, at least you have some infrastructure put in place, even though at an inflated cost.
In contrast, the incumbent is plagued by the paralysis that was so commonplace in the two terms of Chandrika Kumaratunga administration.
Then, Mr. Rajapaksa did not promise to end corruption. He thought it was perfectly normal. His relatives, goons, acolytes, cronies, all of them had an opportunity to get rich. Whereas, this government pledged to fight corruption, and haul corrupt doers to court and recover billions that have allegedly been siphoned from the country. However, now it seems to be doing a Rajapaksa, even more egregiously than the latter did. The level of high-level corruption blamed on the incumbent government such as the Central Bank bond scam would put Basil Rajapaksa to shame. The government has suddenly developed an unholy interest to dig into bond deals dating back to 2008, only after the mega bond scam that took place right under its nose was highlighted by the Auditor General. The government’s tactics are a ruse to distort and distract the public opinion on the bond scam, which is by far the mother of all scams that ever happened in this country. Thus, the problem is not just corruption, but impudence with which corruption is whitewashed.
President Sirisena has belatedly appointed a Special Presidential Commission to investigate the bond scam. Unfortunately though, he spent too long pondering over his action — or perhaps waiting for the opportune moment, i.e. forthcoming local government elections, to score a point. However, by then, the damage will be done. Still, better late than never.
Also, Sri Lanka seems to be lacking laws to tackle sophisticated financial crimes, which the President himself implied when he revealed that the bond deal was being investigated under the civil law, whereas it ought to be treated under the criminal law. Sophisticated and politically-connected crooks exploit those loopholes to empty the government’s coffers.
“The Rajapaksa regime was phenomenally corrupt, but compared to its predecessors, it was efficient. It did not negotiate for years to finally come up with some shoddy deal that could well be suspended again for a review”
There was a stock market mafia that thrived under the former regime; Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe even read in Parliament a list of names of individuals who were implicated in pump and dump deals in the Colombo Stock Market. As expected, no follow-up action was taken. Now we have a bond market mafia. Mr. Wickremesinghe would not be reading names for the obvious reason. However, that would not negate the existence of the problem.
The election of President Sirisena and the unity government were once treated as a revolution. Revolutions, through the ballot or street protests, could only take a country so far. Sri Lanka at present may hold some distressing similarities with Ukraine, where several years back, mass protests toppled the pro-Russian Kleptocracy of Viktor Yanukovych, and brought to power the pro-European opposition. Now it appears that the latter is pilfering the State’s coffers more efficiently than its predecessor did, in addition to provoking a ruinous war with its powerful neighbour Russia.
Corruption, both real and perceived, would erode the appeal of recent democratic gains and endanger the future constitutional reforms that are intended to address the national question. Some time back, TNA MP Sumanthiran prophesied that if any it would be corruption that would derail a new Constitution. His prediction is menacingly coming closer to become a reality. High-level corruption would swallow up all the goodwill of this government and create a vacuum that would be filled by opportunistic charlatans who offer very simple solutions to complex problems, and govern the country by sowing divisions. That is where Mr. Rajapaksa comes in.