By Jayadeva Uyangoda
As the media predicted last week, alluding to an off-guard comment made by a junior member of the AG’s legal team of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Central Bank Bond scam, a star witness has turned the public discussion on the Central Bank bond scandal into a major political drama.
Ms. Anika Wijesuriya, a young woman entrepreneur from an extraordinarily rich business family in Colombo, has done what the Joint Opposition of ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, or Anura Dissanayake’s radical JVP, has failed to achieve in more than two years. In half a day of evidence before the presidential commission comprising Supreme Court judges and a retired Auditor General , she has rocked the very foundations of the current yahapalana regime. She has also changed the terms of the political debate between the government and the opposition. All these unwittingly though.
Ms. Wijesuriya’s evidence provided a detailed account of questionable financial deals between the family of Ravi Karunanayake, the former Finance Minister and Arjun Aloysius, the young businessman whose name has figured as the main actor in that massive swindle. Karunanayake claimed innocence before the commission through pleading ignorance of those deals over the renting of the penthouse apartment. Those explanations were not only unconvincing, but also appeared to be out and out deceit. Denial of any knowledge of the penthouse deal, by attributing the responsibility to the company run by his wife and daughters, has made his case most indefensible. And now the yahapalana government finds itself in its most serious crisis since it was formed in January 2015. The UNP’ led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has fallen victim to its own false promise of good governance. When Wikremesinghe went lackadaisical about the corruption inquiries into the dealings of the big wigs of the Rajapaksa regime, he now faces what one may call the poetic justice.
Unless Karunanayake resigns or is sacked from the cabinet, the UNP will be in deep trouble. Even then, problems for the UNP will not be over. Attempts to recover the lost moral high ground by making claims to renewed yahapalanaya spirit will not help Prime Minister Wickremesinghe or his UNP. People, even those who supported him and his government, are now totally disenchanted with his politics of deception on the bond scam from the beginning.He is facing a truly serious crisis of credibility before the citizens. Re-building that lost trust between the prime minister and the citizenswill require a wholesale clean up of the UNP section of the present coalition government. That process might even put his own position at risk. Ranil Wickremesinghe, like his mentor J. R. Jayewardene, is perhaps not personally corrupt. But, again like his uncle and his successors, Wickremesinghe is presiding over and facilitating corrosive practices of business and political corruption, politically benefiting from it, treating it as the new democratic normal.
Meanwhile, under normal circumstances, democratic politicians who lose public trust so badly, because of their own faults, tend to look for authoritarian alternatives. Wickremasinghe has no access to that option either, thanks to the much-maligned system of diarchy introduced by the 19th Amendment.
Who is the immediate beneficiary of this crisis? President Sirisena or the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, or Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the JVP leader, or Gotabhaya Rajapaksa? The latter is unlikely to benefit much, even though joint opposition will try to make political capital out of the UNP’s crisis. Rajapakse brothers and sons have not replied to the allegations of massive scale corruption in any manner that can bring back any political credibility to the former first family. The JVP will certainly benefit from it, since their MPs have been in the forefront of the anti-corruption campaign, particularly exposing the Central Bank bond scams. The new development might be seen by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as an unexpected opening for him to promote his image as Mr. Clean with an Iron Fist, the antithesis of wavering RW. We can certainly expect a new wave of media blitz by his public relations promoters.
But, the person who can benefit most from the UNP’s crisis in the short run is President Maithripala Sirisena. Unlike the Prime Minister, President Sirisena has not got his own Mr. Clean image badly tarnished by defending, and attempting to cover up the misdeeds of the former Central Bank Governor. But President Sirisena does not have a totally clean slate either. He is also surrounded by people with little credibility when it comes to the question of corruption while holding political office. Some of his colleagues, who worked for his defeat at the last presidential election, joined him either to avoid investigations and prosecution on corruption charges, or because of the material allure of political office.
It is against such a backdrop that the citizens and anti-corruption activists should show immediate interest in the meticulous investigations conducted by the lawyers of the Attorney General’s department. The latter are professionals who have not been known for being so efficient in their normal corruption investigations and prosecution during the past so many years. Yet, suddenly they have found a new spirit of professional pride and commitment. In what particular way the yahapalana agenda has contributed to that change is not yet clear. However, before the investigating agencies and public prosecutors become fatigued or intimidated, citizens through President Sirisena must ask them to investigate all those whose names figure in the 5,000 odd items of transcripts of Mr. Arjun Aloysius’s short messages, which the AG’s department has produced before the Commission. Obviously, Ravi K is only one among many political and bureaucratic names mentioned in those messages. Moreover, Aloysius’s phone messages with incriminating data might have a history going back to days well before January 2015, as should his Central Bank bond business too.
Such a demand by citizens, the media and civil society groups for full disclosure of Aloysius’s messages should not be motivated by partisan politics. It should not aim at proving the mere point that all politicians are corrupt. Our citizens already know it. What is not known to them are the data, evidence and concrete information about how the nexus, or the unholy alliance, between the business and politics works to the detriment of democracy, good governance, and public welfare. Just briefly look at Ms. Anika Wijesuriya’s evidence. She gave the Commission some startling details about how businessmen and politicians make and operate mutually beneficial deals involving public money as well as hoarded private funds of enormous proportions.
These businessmen and politicians are also close family friends. They have school ties through themselves, their spouses, lovers, and children. In Ravi K’s case, the alliance is between the alumni of the Royal College and the Colombo International School, the two most elitist schools in Sri Lanka. These are not the Sinhala or Tamil speaking godaya type mudalalis. They are men and women from a small class of the unbelievably rich and the privileged. All these men wear expensive suits, and are being driven in, most expensive cars. They also freely loot the public wealth as if it is their right and privilege to do so. They are children of the open economy and globalization. They represent a new class of businessmen and politicians, with insatiable greed for accumulation of money and material wealth. Some of them began to capture the state institutions, political parties, the media, and political process during the Rajapaksa regime. By owning media houses, they also try to control and shape the public opinion. It is no accident that Arjuna Aloysius, accused of making exorbitant and ill-gotten profits from his businesses with the central bank, wanted to start his own media house. He has obviously seen the encouraging example of others.
Under the yahapalanaregime, the same processes and structures seem to continue with a few new names replacing the old.
When a big minister in charge of the ministry of finance is looking for a house, a businessmen volunteers to donate a rent free penthouse apartment. The minister accepts all this generosity of the businessman with no idea of conflict of interest or the principles of governance he himself promoted when out of power. Obviously, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Young Ms. Onella Karunanayake, Ravi Karunanayake’s daughter, is absolutely right. Why only target her father, when there are so many who have been doing it?
Now this is time for the citizens, the media and civil society groups to demand from President Sirisena to continue these probes through more presidential commissions on previous bond scams as well. There is this now forgotten Greek bond issue which the UNP leaders told us those days that it cost the country billions of rupees. Obviously, there have been many Aloysiuses in Colombo who made a lot of money on the bond business. And also politicians and officials who amassed ill-gotten wealth through these deals. Targeting a few individuals like Karunanayake, Aloysius and Mahendran is not enough. The entire system needs to be cleaned up. That is the yahapalana promise. That is what the citizens expect from President Sirisena. That is also the only way he can prove himself to be a statesman, qualitatively different from the Rajapaksas and the Wickremesinghes, while also making a sharp distinction between the two.
Meanwhile, citizens of Sri Lanka should thank the Presidential Commission for providing a forum where concrete details about the unholy alliance between business and politics are exposed. These are details that cannot be obtained under the RTI Act. Neither have such details been discovered by the government’s investigating agencies about highly publicized corruption allegations against the powerful individuals of the previous regime. Now we citizens have some concrete data about how domains of business and politics allow themselves to be interpenetrated and how businessmen capture individual politicians, political parties and even the government’s decision-making process.
This is also the time for the gods of small things. We now have a slightly better idea of how our democracy gets distorted by this dirty nexus between business and politics. Obviously, Sri Lankan citizens can now begin to re-think their political loyalties, electoral strategies and expectations.