Dark world hidden wealth exposed
Tuesday 5th October, 2021
The Pandora Papers investigation into about 12 million documents leaked from financial companies around the globe has shaken the world. A large number of global elites have been exposed for their questionable financial deals that helped ring-fence their wealth and evade taxes with the help of offshore companies. Among them are some of the world’s most influential people including political leaders, billionaires and others. Journalists numbering more than 600 from 117 countries have been analysing the data obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington DC.
The Pandora Papers investigation has already made many big names squirm and they include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Jordan’s monarch King Abdullah II. Russia has vehemently denied Putin’s involvement, insisting that neither he nor any member of his inner circle has been named. As for Sri Lankans, former Deputy Minister Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband are among those named in the Pandora Papers for running shell companies and acquiring properties overseas; they have reportedly refused to answer questions posed by the ICIJ, but their alleged involvement in the controversy is sure to become a huge political issue here, given their links to the ruling family. This revelation could not have come at a worse time for the government facing multiple crises and various allegations.
It is not possible to figure out the exact amount of funds stashed away in tax havens worldwide, and therefore we have to settle for ballpark figures. The ICIJ is of the view that the amount could range from USD 5.6 trillion to USD 32 trillion. The International Monetary Fund has said the losses that tax havens cause to many countries around the world could be as high as USD 600 billion a year. The existence of the offshore world aggravates global poverty and inequalities because it deprives the developing nations of some of their tax revenues. Besides tax dodgers and corrupt politicians who have amassed colossal amounts of ill-gotten wealth, criminals such as drug lords and terrorists have also benefited from tax havens, where they park their illegal funds. Strangely, none of the developed countries that promote transparency and fight against the scourge of black money, have taken any action against the tax havens. The practice of opening companies in tax havens is considered unethical rather than illegal!
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka has been warned of the possibility of a money-laundering haven coming up off its west coast. In April, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Alaina Teplitz, cautioned that Sri Lanka might face the unintended consequences of ‘nefarious actors’ who may try to misuse the Colombo Port City’s easy business rules as a permissive money laundering haven. Prejudiced as the US Ambassador may be, owing to America’s aversion to Chinese projects anywhere in the world, her warning should not be taken lightly, and extreme care should be exercised to prevent the Port City from becoming a tax haven like Monaco.
Worries that the Pandora Papers probe has caused to those who possess enormous amounts of hidden wealth in tax havens are far from over. Journalists continue to sift through the leaked documents, and many more startling revelations are expected in time to come. Many wealthy Sri Lankans, especially politicians, must be having sleepless nights, fearing the prospect of their shady deals, too, being exposed.
Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan has rightly undertaken to probe all Pakistanis named in the Pandora Papers. Hundreds of Pakistanis have reportedly been exposed for having offshore accounts. Among them are some members of PM Khan’s Cabinet.
Pressure should be brought to bear on the government of Sri Lanka to emulate PM Khan and conduct investigations. Transparency International Sri Lanka has already called for an investigation. It is up to the Opposition to pressure the government, but the question is whether the hands of its top guns are clean enough to do so. Whatever the government’s or the Opposition’s response may be, the Sri Lankan public are now in a position to guess where the money stolen from them has ended up.
Lanka’s Augean Stables
Thursday 1st June, 2023
The Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) always makes the headlines for the wrong reasons. Reams have been written about various deficiencies in its service standards, and various rackets such as baggage pilferage, all these years, but no remedial action seems to have been taken. Stinking to high heaven, it has become Sri Lanka’s Augean Stables.
A local television channel has exposed a foreign currency racket at the BIA. According to hidden camera footage telecast on Hiru TV, on Tuesday, racketeers approach passengers in the arrivals area, where the counters of commercial banks and authorised money changers are located, and buy forex at black-market rates on the sly.
The BIA forex racket is not of recent origin, we are told. It is believed to have been there for a long time. The racketeers are so influential that they are seen moving about freely inside the airport. They would not have been able to do so without political backing. This blatant violation of foreign exchange control laws under the nose of the airport authorities belies the government’s claim that it is doing everything in its power to channel the forex inflow through the local banking system. Millions of dollars, pounds, etc., must be finding their way into the foreign exchange black market annually through the racketeers at the BIA.
It will be interesting to see the government reaction to the exposure of the BIA forex racket. The leaders of the SLPP and the UNP are adept at cover-ups. They have earned notoriety for trying to defend the indefensible and trotting out atrocious excuses which insult human intelligence.
One may recall that in 2014, Hambantota Mayor Eraj Fernando was caught on camera brandishing a small firearm and running behind a group of UNP MPs menacingly, in Hambantota. When journalists asked then President Mahinda Rajapaksa what action would be taken against the violent Mayor, he claimed that Fernando had been carrying a toy pistol! No sooner had the first Treasury bond scam come to light, in 2015, than the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had the audacity to claim, in Parliament, that there had been no wrongdoing on the part of Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. He flayed the Opposition MPs who took up the issue. So, unsurprisingly, the current SLPP-UNP government refused to order an investigation into an allegation that Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva had asked for a bribe from a Japanese company. The complaint against him was made by a Japanese diplomat and then taken up by the Opposition in Parliament. The government appointed a committee to conduct an inquiry, had de Silva cleared of the charges, and reappointed him the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation! Now, it is requesting the Japanese to invest their hard-earned money here! If it is serious about attracting foreign investment, without which its efforts to straighten up the economy are bound to fail, it will have to have a Cabinet consisting of capable men and women of integrity. But the question is whether it will be able to find more than a handful of honest MPs in its ranks.
A country can never achieve progress unless it establishes the rule of law and battles corruption with might and main. The IMF is reportedly cranking up pressure on the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government to introduce tough anti-corruption laws. Even the bitterest critics of the IMF have welcomed this initiative. But it is one thing to make tough laws; it is quite another to enforce them properly.
The BIA is a microcosm of Sri Lanka. When the government in power reeks of corruption, and openly protects the corrupt, how can an airport be expected to remain clean. A fish is said to rot from the head down. Perhaps, one should stop worrying about its stinking tail. The entire putrid fish has to be discarded. Hence the need for elections.
Bogus religiosity and political legerdemain
Wednesday 31st May, 2023
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government is in overdrive purportedly to protect Buddhism and preserve religious harmony. A comedienne has been arrested and remanded for making some derogatory utterances about Prince Siddhartha, and an unruly Buddhist monk notorious for spewing out streams of profanities via social media has been similarly dealt with for propagating incendiary messages and promoting religious disharmony. A controversial pastor, who is currently overseas, is to be arrested upon his arrival here, for insulting religions including Buddhism.
Whether the police have remained within the confines of the law in arresting the suspects they consider a threat to religious amity, or the offences the latter are said to have committed are so serious as to warrant such stern action, is a matter for the learned judges to decide. It however needs to be stated that all those who try to stir up the people with inflammatory rhetoric and thereby jeopardise religious coexistence have to be severely dealt with according to the law. Mired in an economic crisis of epic proportions, the country needs ethno-religious trouble like a hole in the head.
Curiously, the police, who lost no time in arresting the aforesaid suspects, lack such high-octane performance when the transgressors they have to deal with happen to have political connections. They have baulked at arresting State Minister Diana Gamage, who has been charged with violating the immigration and emigration laws even though the judiciary has held that there is no barrier to her arrest, and the CID does not have to seek court permission to take her into custody. Is it that the government thinks that all people are equal before the law but the ruling party politicians are ‘more equal than others’? The police would have gone flat out to handcuff Diana and haul her up before court in full view of the media if she had not crossed over to the government, which has sent a clear message to its political rivals by protecting her: the Opposition MPs who fear or are facing legal action for their past misdeeds will be safe if they join the ruling coalition.
Former Minister Mervyn Silva has also bellowed some combustible rhetoric, vowing to risk even his life to protect Buddhism. That he is trying to gain some media attention and political mileage is obvious. He has to be kept in check, given his violent past. He is a demolition expert, as it were, and has a history of storming places of worship and media institutions. Will the police explain why they have not taken any action against him for rabble-rousing?
Interestingly, some members of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government, which has embarked on a much-advertised mission to protect Buddhism, are tilting at temples, so to speak. Hardly a day passes without Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera taking a swipe at Chief Incumbent of Mihintale Raja Maha Vihara, Ven. Walawahengunawewe Dhammarathana Thera, who has taken on the government for reneging on its promise to allocate funds for this year’s State Poson Festival at Mihintale. Wijesekera has gone to the extent of asking the Nayake Thera to manage temple funds frugally so that there will be enough money for future religious functions.
One cannot but agree with Minister Wijesekera that the practice of overtaxing the national grid for festive illuminations is no longer affordable and has to be stopped. But the government has to fulfil its pledge to allocate funds for the Poson Festival at Mihintale. It should make a policy decision thereafter to stop sponsoring such events.
Whenever a Sri Lankan government finds itself in trouble, its leaders make a public display of their religiosity to regain popular support. Stories of rays emanating miraculously from statues are circulated; relic expositions are held and the self-proclaimed patriots in power launch crusades to protect Buddhism. It is hoped that the public will not be distracted by their gimmicks.
Death-row prisoner’s undying quest
Tuesday 30th May, 2023
Prisons are gloomy places devoid of hope, and hardly anything uplifting emanates from behind their tall walls. In this country, they are veritable hellholes. In the developed world, the structure of prison life is re-engineered as a parallel universe, as it were; prisoners are trained to behave responsibly like the members of society at large, as part of their rehabilitation programmes. This novel approach is reported to have yielded very encouraging results, but hopelessness continues to reign in death row cells, especially in the countries where capital punishment is carried out. But amidst a national feeling of doom and gloom, an ennobling story has been reported from the Welikada Prison, of all places. It is about a death row prisoner’s undying quest for learning!
Ten prisoners are sitting the ongoing GCE O/L examination, and among them is a death-row inmate of the Welikada jail, we are told. Despite his criminal record, this particular prisoner could be considered a poster boy of sorts for the promotion of the value of education in a country where the school drop-out rate is disconcertingly high. Researchers have pointed out that a large number of students drop out in Grade 11 before sitting the GCE O/L examination or after failing it; the drop-out rate among boys is believed to be as high as 46.7%, and it is said to be 33.3% among girls. There are many causative factors, which have gone unaddressed by policymakers all these years.
We learn that the much-maligned prison authorities are considerate enough to encourage the inmates who are desirous of pursuing studies to do so and provide necessary facilities. They deserve praise for that, and one can only hope that more inmates will avail themselves of the opportunity to study and sit examinations.
Some lawbreakers having thus sought to enrich their lives with education, which enables one to acquire knowledge, broaden one’s understanding of the world and gain tools to achieve progress, the question is why not all lawmakers are not keen to do so.
The task of carrying out legislative duties and functions requires a certain level of education; a person without basic mathematical and language skills cannot read and understand vital documents such as the appropriation Bill, much less analyse economic data and make decisions based thereon. The fact that many MPs do not understand the annual Budget at all becomes obvious from their behaviour during the debate on it; they cannot have any serious discussion on the Budget; they resort to hurling abuse and filth, instead, to cover up their ignorance. In 2015, the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe declared in Parliament that most MPs did not know a Treasury bond from James Bond!
Parliament has not favourably considered media requests that the educational qualifications of the MPs be made available officially. Journalists have had to settle for what is provided by the MPs themselves voluntarily, and there is no guarantee of the accuracy of such information. How can we expect the national legislature to act in a transparent manner when it refuses to reveal the educational qualifications of its members officially?
Some Ministers look as confused and funny as Donkey, the deuteragonist in Shrek, the animated comedy film, when they meet experts, especially foreigners. They cut very pathetic figures, and their behaviour is cringeworthy. A country is known internationally by the representatives it elects, and foreign investors may not take Sri Lanka seriously so long as jokers remain at the levers of power. No wonder other countries such as Singapore have overtaken us.
Ranjan Ramanayaka set an example by sitting the GCE O/L and A/L examinations to obtain necessary qualifications for higher education when he was an MP. This is the right attitude that all adults who have missed opportunities early in life to complete their school education should adopt. His example is worthy of emulation, his theatrics notwithstanding.
It looks as if our honourable lawmakers who are refusing to reveal their educational qualifications for obvious reasons had to learn from the aforesaid lawbreakers who have realised the value of education.
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