Will Sri Lanka ever rid itself of corruption?

Saturday, 11 December 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Cheranka Mendis

Like the road sign on top of your road you see every morning corruption is something we come across constantly.

Be it the policeman who hides behind the truck and then blows your ear off with the whistle only to tell you that “if you want we can sort it out the other way” with Rupee marks only too visible in those gleaming eyes while conjuring all kinds of excuses for the whistle to blow off — “you jumped the red light. No? Then how come you were going to crash with the other car? You didn’t see a car — must get your eye sight checked. Seems to be in a hurry eh? Come to a side maybe we can do something about the ticket;” to the garbage collector who demands a little something for his work, to the shop owner who mumbles a false amount and pockets the rest, to the exorbitant fees of three-wheeler drivers; corruption is a daily occurrence in today’s society.

While some may object steadily getting into hearty fights others less gutsy would turn away quietly hoping that, one day things would change. Sri Lanka now rid of the decade old war which crippled many aspects of development must now ensure that all measures taken to uplift the fiscal growth of the country is sustainable. Where better to start than by reducing the level of corruption in the country!

In the annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) released by Transparency International, Sri Lanka is placed 91st out of 178 countries. In 2009 Sri Lanka was placed 97 among 180 countries. With a marginal increase of 0.1 points to the 2009 figure, the score is now settled at 3.2 points. Sri Lanka has been grouped together with six other countries, namely Bosnia and Herzegovina, Djibouti, Gambia, Guatemala, Kiribati and Swaziland where the corruption level is 3.2 points. The score indicates that these countries continue to have a serious corruption problem in the public sector.

Customs officer

The said sector is often accused of shameless corruption, especially in Sri Lanka. As such finding a fearless crusader who fought against corruption in the Sri Lanka Customs, an institution which has much room for corruption is deemed an almost impossible task in today’s society.

Late Sujith Prasanna Perera, a young Assistant Superintendent of Customs dedicated the better part of his life to track down commercial frauds and offenders of Customs law as well as against corruption happening within the institution. Perera who joined Sri Lanka Customs in August 1989, served in several divisions including the Intelligence and Investigations Division, Preventive Division and the Automated Data Processing division during the 13 years of his employment hitherto until his demise in 2001.

Perera, the recipient of the National Integrity Awards 2010 was no more to receive the commendation; however was much appreciated for his service rendered to the country through his department. Gunned down on the morning of 24 March, 2001 in Kelaniya as he left home after constant death threats — he left behind his wife and daughter who still cry for the loss of their loved one. “He didn’t think that something like this would happen,” his widowed wife Angela Perera says while tears, her constant companions after 2001 fall down her cheeks.

The death, a result of an ongoing case he was pursuing where a senior customs official was at fault was the ultimate price he had to pay for his honesty and integrity.

 The young man who is no more is deeply remembered by his colleagues and officers and is commended as an “officer who upheld the ethics of the public servant displaying the highest level of integrity.” Director of Customs Jayantha Kodikara voiced out that the void created by the loss of Perera has still not been filled by any other officer. “Customs is an institution designed to prevent smuggling, commercial frauds and all discrepancies in import and exports and baggage clearance. Perera did his duty with passion and with justice and I do not know if we will ever be able to fill the void created by his demise,” Kodikara said.

With an inborn instinct against deception or frauds, Perera who was said to have had much hope in society, worked his way through to reveal many officers and instances of corruption without giving into pressure — internal or external, and in a fair manner without letting power, position or relationship affect his decisions. Sometimes working 24 to 36 hours at a stretch to uncover the mysteries behind frauds, Perera, during inquiries into customs offences even fought against several defective orders by his superior officers favouring suspected parties. He even went on to convince the Head of Department to reverse such flawed orders and subject the accused to appropriate punishment.

Drawing out instances of his courage Transparency International Sri Lanka which spearheads the Award presentation, mentioned an incident where Perera exposed a Customs officer who illegally altered and deleted data in the computer system in order to favour a group of businessmen to cover up their fraudulent acts thereby preventing a post-audit being conducted. The officer was dismissed upon exposure. As such the enemies he earned in the course of his work were many and he once narrowly escaped an attempt to implicate him in a bribery allegation conspired by his enemies who were affected by his brave investigations.

In another instance he exposed yet another Customs officer who was helping a group of smugglers to smuggle several consignments of commercial goods in the guise of cargo brought in under duty free facilities, thereby denying the state of its due revenue. Perera acted as a key witness in court as well as the disciplinary inquiry against the said officer. His in-depth investigation also worked to expose another customs officer who had willfully assisted a group of smugglers to clear several imported consignments on forged customs duty payment receipts.

Kodikara stated that Perera was sent to the USA in the late ’90s on an investigative mission and returned highly commended and praised from the mission there. “He never let friendship affect his work. His judgment was impartial. He took the responsibility and he was special — a true asset to the department.”

Perera’s wife Angela received the award on behalf of her late husband at the award ceremony on Thursday.

A special mention

An award of special mention was awarded to Maulavi (Muslim priest) M. Y. Hathiyathuilah from Kinniya (Eastern Province) for his contribution towards the betterment of society in his area of residence.

Maulavi Hathiyathuilah serves as a school principal as well as the secretary of the Kinniya branch of All Ceylon Jemiyyathul Ulama (Council of Muslim theologians) promoting ethnic harmony and settling disputes among the Muslim population in the area. He uses his Friday sermons to touch on social and economic issues and to creating the much needed right to information.

His work towards integrity and anti-corruption is much respected in his village. Speaking to the audience at the awards ceremony, he recalled an instance in 2001 where the Quasi judge in Kinniya (a judge appointed by the Judicial Service Commission [JSC] to look into family disputes among Muslims) used his power to obtain bribes from those who went to him for their problems. Deeply appalled he then exposed the judge and his malpractices to court. “Upon arriving on an agreement we parted ways but I soon found out that his activities continued. I traced documents of proof and was able to remove him from the position. I was successful. I thank Allah that I could send him away,” Maulavi Hathiyathuilah said.

He did not stop there. Being a teacher for the past 14 years, Maulavi Hathiyathuilah soon found out that a principal in a certain school was practicing corruption by selling rice the school received from the World Food Programme in the black market. The ration rice meant to be distributed among poor families in the area. After following the said principal’s activities the Maulavi along with the Police was able to catch the principal red handed with 25 bags of rice (50kg each) being transported in a truck. Thanks to the exposure, the principal received a punishment transfer and was removed from the area.

“I want only peace and exemplary characters in the area I hold my sermons. I make use of the power vested in me to educate the people of what is right and what is wrong.” He distributes handbills, leaflets and organises seminars on the said subject.

 An international recipient

 Putting Sri Lanka’s name back on the international arena, investigative journalist Poddala Jayantha won this year’s Global Integrity Award becoming the second Sri Lankan journalist to be thus recognised. The first was won by the then Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickremetunge.

Poddala who fled the country following a brutal attack in June last year which incapacitated him for life, did not attend either the global awards or the national awards. The global award ceremony was held on 12 November at the International Anti Corruption Ceremony in Bangkok. The award was received by TISL Executive Director J.C. Weliamuna on behalf of the recipient.

On the request of Poddala the award was presented to his parents by the Chief Guest Writer, activist and founding Editor of Himal Southasian and Himal Kabalapatrika Manak Mani Dixit.

Poddala started his career in the 1980s by writing for ‘Ravaya’ and then the ‘Silumina’ newspaper under the Associated Press. His fame started with him revealing what was then known as South Asia’s largest VAT scam of 3.6 billion. He pushed his limits, voiced his opinion on media freedom and was soon a victim of the notorious white van. He won the award for National Integrity in 2004 under TISL.

 Points to ponder

 Chief Guest of the event Writer, activist and founding Editor of Himal Southasian and Himal Kabalapatrika Manak Mani Dixit speaking at the event stated that Nepal whose journey towards independence started on a later date has much to learn from Sri Lanka. Stating that only in a plural democracy could one fight for social and economical transparency, Dixit stated Sri Lanka now knows the way forward with pluralism very much alive in the country. “There is democracy in peace and non violence politics. It is easy to challenge a state if it’s being atrocious and is using ultra nationalism and brutal force however you have the power to speak pluralism,” Dixit said.

“Bangladesh has two party tribalism, Pakistan has creeping militarism; India is buffeted by too many scams, Nepal with so many problems on its own.” The only reason to keep fighting is that you have no choice, he said. Stating his own opinion and knowledge on what the country has learnt from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan etc. is that the fight has to be home grown. Neighbours can sometimes help, international community can help too but by and large they are side shows, he asserted.

The award presentation held on International anti corruption day — as claimed by the UN Convention against corruption TISL Executive Director J.C. Weliamuna stated that it is a day to reflect frankly whether as a state party, Sri Lanka has complied with international obligations to fight corruption.  “As an institution involved in anti-corruption discourse in Sri Lanka, we do not see any serious commitment to comply with international obligations,” Weliamuna said. Drawing an example he pointed out that the government’s present engagement in what is known as Gap analysis to ascertain compatibility of UNCAC with law and practice without any participation from the civil society.

“We probably do not have to look at international law or international obligations. The kings of the olden days did not tolerate corruption. However today as a well tested democracy we need to look at ourselves seriously. Basic democratic rights must be guaranteed soon in Sri Lanka. In my view the best way to practice is to guarantee freedom of expression in our own country. Unfortunately we spend more time and resources trying to guarantee freedom of expression in UK and in other countries,” concluded Weliamuna.

Pic by Upul Abayasekara