Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
When a ‘full time member’ (or its head, have it as you will) of Sri Lanka’s Consumer Affairs Authority records receiving death threats following his resignation over disclosures of multiple corruption scandals at Sri Lanka Sathosa, ranging from rigged sales of garlic, flour, undu and sugar to millions spent on the consumption of tea (and cheese) by Sathosa officials, there is little to be surprised at.
From the Central Bank bond scams to ‘garlic scams’
Let us examine this case as it is both unique and mundane at the same time, symbolising at once, what is perennially wrong with Sri Lanka and why patterns of governance (or rather non-governance) will never change unless citizens themselves change. This was a worthy who apparently once had belief in a Government which he helped to bring to power. Now in his disillusionment if not fury at the frauds that he has uncovered, he courts public attention, loquaciously speaking to the media at every turn and naming Ministers whom he alleges was behind the rackets.
He may join the ranks of the ‘yahapalanaya-disillusioned’ who also believed in the regime that they brought exuberantly into power not so long ago and watched in horrified silence for the most part as the frauds hit one after the other. From bond scams of the Central Bank to ‘garlic scams, from ‘posh’ white collar criminals wearing thousand dollar suits to Sathosa officials skimming the cream (and most of the milk) off the sale of basic food items allegedly with ministerial backing is no big step after all.
What was different then was that, no death threats were leveled against the whistleblowers who exposed the Central Bank bond scam. And to be fair, the CID did not haul up journalists for questioning or visit the offices of editors to take statements on newspaper reports. That fact must be acknowledged however much we may hold our noses at the odour of political/public sector corruption emanating from both. A ridiculous attempt was made by that Government to have ‘friendly’ committees and commissions recommending a lot of hot air that dissolved into nothingness as men in suits fled overseas to live in clover thereafter.
Grand ironies of Presidential promises
Meanwhile Ministers pontificated bug-eyed, pleading innocence, threatening legal action against ‘slander’ and rogues got away scot-free. This is exactly the same drama that the unimpressed public presently sees from the sidelines. Here of course, this official of the Consumer Affairs Authority and many others who have resigned from public positions pleading that they cannot function independently are not silent. Instead they speak out vociferously about the subversion of decision making by politicians, how public moneys are squandered and how resistance is met by a show of political force.
There is moreover a grand irony that becomes quite apparent. For a Presidency which promised the production of rice uncontaminated by chemical fertiliser for which policy we probably may all have to pay the price in undergoing a rice shortage next year, the surfeit of poisons in every food stock available to the unfortunate denizens of this land is mind boggling. This is precisely what happens when the Rule of Law breaks down. Individual resignations from public positions only capture the media space for a short while.
What we need to see is the law being enforced against those responsible, whether this may be a gun toting minister who threatens prisoners allegedly ‘under the influence’ as they say or politicians and public officials who purloin public moneys. We do not need courts of law to say, as an example, that a gargantuan sum of money signed off by a public servant and then used for party political purposes, to buy ‘white cloths’ for their faithful to obtain their votes at a forthcoming election was moneys spent on corporate social responsibility.
Death threats and gargantuan corruption
In this case too, the official of the Consumer Affairs Authority has gone on record in stating that he incurred the displeasure of the powerful when he had entered a caveat to approval sought to expend a sum of Rs. 400,000 on ‘World Consumer Rights Day’ by stipulating that this money should be used ‘strictly for consumer awareness, not political’ (see ‘Stink of corruption is so nauseating for top CAA official that he quit in disgust’, Sunday Times, September 26th 2021).
Certainly the extreme privations that we are undergoing now are only partly due to the economic consequences of the global pandemic. Mostly this has been brought about by the sheer inability of this Government to control the (Ministerial) arch robbers in its midst and the public servants who act in shameful league with them as the basic cost of living soars beyond unprecedented limits, pushing the middle class into destitution and the poor into the starvation of the gutter.
Consequently death threats and gargantuan corruption are par for the course. For one person who speaks out to the media getting enormous attention as a result, there are tens more who (less publicly) expose corruption in their respective fields and are threatened with immediate retribution. Just a few months ago, a health professional who used existing laws to obtain information on arsenic poisoned salmon tins dumped on Sri Lanka was given phone calls threatening both him and his family members with death.
Living in a state of ‘non-law’
And there is an interesting question in all of this. Are there periodic conferences of the ‘not so great’ and the ‘not-so-good’ to decide on what juicy corruption titbit should be fed to the public each week, for the media to saliver over, for Jamis Appu to rub his starving belly as he gazes fascinated at the television screen? What we see before us, enacted in grisly sequences are the throes of a nation embroiled in chaos, not at the lofty heights of the Constitution perchance which may be at least thought provoking but in scandals as terribly mundane as dhal, rice, sugar and garlic, not to mention poisoned coconut oil and salmon tins.
Is all this for the masses to forget that we are living in a state of ‘non-law? What we are experiencing now is what Nietzsche warned about long ago when he prophetically observed that, ‘if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ For too long, Sri Lankans have been battling with the profound evil of the State as reflected through each political establishment as bad as the other, with the end result that this evil has also entered our collective being. We only grimace at the follies of politicians and the grotesque charade that passes for governance and do little more.
That is true of the judge and the lawyer as it is of the public servant, the professional and the journalist. All this should teach us not to give unlimited power to political regimes in
Sri Lanka or to blindingly support one’s favourite politician, be that from Colombo 3, Medamulana, Horagolla or Polonnaruwa, however much it may be promised that ‘things will be different’ this time around. The point is that ‘things’ will never be different as long as interest groups, whether from the business community, civil society or the professional classes align themselves to political parties, all of whom are to a lesser or greater extent, both corrupt and venal.
That is a painful lesson, not yet properly learnt