Witch Hunt Going Right: Sri Lanka’s Corruption Bust

The most recently birthed Sri Lankan government with President Maithripala Sirisena heading the squad, has finally made headlines under the most anticipated department: corruption. On 11th July 2016 Mahinda Rajapaksa’s (Sri Lanka’s former president) son was arrested on money laundering charges, mildly satisfying the thirsty expectations from the new government. Sirisena’s platform involved promises to carry out rigorous investigations on corruption allegations and nepotism against the previous administration. The current president has been making a name in the cause by attending Anti Corruption Summits and participating in events such as the Walk “A Bribery and Corruption Free Country”. Efforts like these indicate a deliberate attempt at show casing the agenda of the government, only increasing the quest for real execution against such high-end corruption.

The President has already been taking administrative steps such as welcoming amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act, which would effectively enable the Commission to Investigate Allegation of Bribery or Corruption to work freely and independently. However what has been missing for most is real cracking down on individuals who have been involved in fraudulent nepotism, tarnishing the image of the country worldwide.

Although over the last 18 months several high-ranking members of the Rajapaska family have been indicted on corruption charges, critics have said that authorities are slow to act, with never ending interrogation and bail applications leading to few actual prosecutions. The details of the recent arrest can be found here.

What needs to be acknowledged is that although this is the right step being taken at the right time, a lot more is on the agenda that deserves serious and urgent attention. The President’s claim of reducing the power of the executive presidency was at the forefront of his pledges, but what is also extremely important is the situation of the Tamil North, the return of refugees from India and the notorious land and property rights.

The civil war in Sri Lanka had around 130,000 people migrate to Tamil Nadu, Southern India. As a result of the 30-year conflict, a significant number of families and land-owners lost their lands along with the rights attached to them. Since then, third parties, including the army, have occupied their lands. The Prescription ordinance is a law that allows anyone, who can prove 10 years of uninterrupted possession to claim ownership to property. The LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) has urged an amendment to this ordinance, as there are hundreds of people who could not enjoy their land rights for reasons beyond control. This law institutionalizes the marginalization of the returned refugees and IDP’s, effectively rendering them handicapped when it comes to attaining land, lawfully. As per the recommendation, the Prescription Bill, which actually seeks to restore the rights of landowners, is yet to pass.

Majority of the people want to stay in India because they have fears about the security environment of Sri Lanka and the civil liberties they would have. The Tamil population has increasing fears for their security amidst the still-alive ethnic hostility. A survey by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) found that 67 percent of the 368 respondents wished to stay in India, quoting insecurity and lack of primary factors and jobs are their main concerns for returning home. Political instability and military presence in civilian life is a prime reason many have been deterred from returning to Sri Lanka. Though on the state level the new government may be making impressions, on the domestic front they are still failing to recognize issues that deserve attention. "The government has done much in terms of physical development - rebuilding roads, bridges and the railway system. But it has not prioritized reconciliation to help win over the hearts and minds of minority Tamils," said one Western diplomat in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital.

It should be noted that corruption happenings do not end at ex-prime ministers and former political leaders. In March 2016, Coalition against Corruption (CAC) alleged that authorities were not taking the necessary steps to conclude the fraud of 169 million Rupees that happened at Reconciliation and Development Agency (RADA). The lack of energetic legal action has delayed the conclusion of the enquiry for those accused. This led Saman Rathanpriya, joint convener of the CAC, to question whether the “reason for the government not to take necessary action is because the accused are allies of the government.” Whilst one could be blamed for being overly cynical under-shining the importance of recent steps taken by the Sirisena regime, being critical is one of the only lessons taught to us by a history of repeatedly damaging policies. And yes, the question arises: will the government continue to take action against corruption only against its adversaries? Or will we see concrete steps hard lined by nothing but transparency, even against the allies of the current government and its members?