Good governance is a hard path to trek for any Government. For Sri Lanka it has been particularly difficult because decades of systemic deterioration of democratic institutions have resulted in blatant politicisation of governance at all levels. Repeated failures by Governments of different hues to probe corruption and empower law and order have resulted in massive lapses of judgement, rampant impunity and public disillusion.
Latest case in point has become the Avant-Garde scandal that saw Law and Order Minister Tilak Marapone tender his resignation to President Sirisena. It was also marked as one of the few occasions where the public became alarmed by the conflict of interest presented by the lawyer for the company also being a Cabinet Minister. This evolution of public consciousness and demand of appropriate action as well as the response from politicians is a noteworthy progression of Sri Lanka otherwise lackadaisical process of accountability.
This increase in attention pushed President Sirisena to pledge a fast-tracked investigation into Avant-Garde following a special Cabinet meeting on Monday where they met to discuss recent remarks in Parliament by Marapone and Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, who have absolved the private maritime security company in a defence corruption scandal involving tens of millions of dollars. Another UNP Minister, Vajira Abeywardane is also implicated in the scandal, which is threatening to create an implosion in the UNFGG Government that swept to office on an anti-corruption platform.
Auditors have found 320 automatic rifles with serial numbers scratched off to mask the entities to which the weapons were originally licenced. Similar weapons bearing the same tampering of serial numbers have been found on-board a floating armoury run by Avant-Garde Maritime Security.
Police raided the vessel in October on the instructions of the Commission of Inquiry Investigating Cases of Large Scale Fraud, and found it lacked the necessary documentation and clearances to dock in Galle, carrying its cargo of weapons and ammunition. Police are still in the process of determining for what purpose the weapons in RALL’s possession and found on board the Avant-Garde ship should have their serial numbers tampered with.
Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Chairman of RALL, a private security arm he set up under the auspices of his Ministry, which was then contracted to provide security to several State institutions including the Hambantota Port and universities across the island. The function of these companies had been questioned many times during the tenure of the previous Government and the public are still awaiting answers.
Corruption investigations by special bodies and Police should not be the only measure of good governance. While large-scale corruption investigations could be seen as delivering on pledges made by the National Government, it also has a responsibility to make sure the system of governance functions properly. In the previous regime conflicts of interest were common with bus owners given the Transport Ministry or prominent businessmen appointed to investment bodies but these are rarely commented on. Marapone’s conflict of interest being recognised so prominently is an indication the demands of the population has also reached a new benchmark.
The National Government has to root out its weak links if it is to accomplish the goals ambitiously set out by the Prime Minister just a few days ago.