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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2793

Good Governance, Corruption and Wealthy Politicians in a Poor Country: Sri Lankan Style

Dr. Siri Gamage, Australia

Good governance, accountability and transparency in the affairs of the state are cornerstones of a vibrant democracy whether they are located in the west or east or indeed north or south. When the masses are going through economic and social hardships due to increasing costs of living and the burden of internal war, fiscal discipline and prevention of corruption in the government ranks assume heightened significance. The parliamentary watch dog appointed to look into the operations of public enterprises in Sri Lanka called COPE has been highlighting a rather significant number of cases of possible corruption involving identified enterprises in its reports recently. In some cases the involvement of politicians currently in the government has been exposed. The sums involved run into billions of rupees.

The cross over by the chairman of COPE Mr. Wijedasa Rajapaksa to the opposition this week and the demands he has made from the government including the reduction of the cabinet to 30 from the current 100 plus number shows the frustrations of this body having to work in an environment where the necessary support from those in authority are not forthcoming. The incredible difference of sums allocated to the parliament and the Samurdhi -the welfare for the poor program- as against the sums allocated to the President's office and the ministers speak volumes about the imbalance of priorities placed by those in authority in addressing the burning issues of the country. At least another well-known MP has made similar demands from the government if he is to support the budget, i.e. In relation to the sporting area.

These events do not auger well for a government to maintain public trust. Public trust is an important factor when it comes to making or breaking governments. During the 1970-77 government led by Sirima Bandaranaike also there were public cries about corruption. So was afterwards. If an officially appointed committee such as the COPE is complaining about the lack of government action in regard to the potential cases of corruption and misuse of public funds, what can we say about the political and governance culture in the country today? Many intellectuals and other commentators have repeatedly written about the need for a change in this 'political culture and questionable governance practices' over the years with no visible concrete steps taken to address such concerns.

An elected government is only there to manage the affairs of the state on behalf of the people. When elected representatives in the parliament, particularly through a key body like the COPE, make recommendations for action in regard to potential cases of corruption after investigation, the government of the day needs to take swift action if it is to maintain credibility -not only in the eyes of the local population but also the international community and donor agencies. It seems that the Sri Lankan government is not acting swiftly to address the concerns of the COPE, thus highlighting the concerns of its chairman -a member of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

At a time when the country is going through a very difficult period involving the internal war, increased cost of living, and waste of public money on a very large cabinet, a country like Sri Lanka cannot afford to act in this way. Generally we hear about the embezzlement of public money for private gain in countries where there are dictatorships and crony capitalism. A country like Indonesia suffered a similar situation during Suharto years. People usually talk about other failed states such as Zimbabwe when it comes to rampant corruption and the poverty of the general population. Sri Lanka can do better than what is being displayed in public in regard to matters of corruption in the government and its enterprises at the moment. It needs to combat corruption head on irrespective of who is involved.

However I doubt whether this is possible given the existence of 'patronage politics' as the main means of securing and retaining power by the political class(see my previous contributions to the Asian Tribune). Informed citizens of the country from all quarters need to develop a 'social/popular movement' against the kind of embezzlement of public money reported by the COPE if they are to see a day when the country is run according to democratic principles of good governance and equal application of the rule of law. I believe currently there is an organization of professionals who are working along these lines. It is also important to establish an independent commission of corruption with adequate powers and resources like in other countries such as Australia to address the issue of corruption. It ought to be able to punish those who are involved in corruption. It is only when such steps are taken that the people in the country can consider its leaders as truly patriotic -not via the slogans uttered through the media day and night.

Dr. Siri Gamage, Senior Lecturer, School of Education, Education Context Teaching & Research Group, Acting Coordinator - Master of Education (International Education), Affiliate Fellow-UNE Asia Centre, University of New England Armidale, NSW 2351 Australia.

- Asian Tribune -

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