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Editorial

Will exposés become fish wrappers?

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Journalists the world over are familiar with an expression worn thin over decades and more: ‘yesterday’s news is only fit to wrap the fish in!’ That’s exactly what’s happened to the Pandora Papers that made big news a few days ago in this country and many others globally who’s leaders/citizen had been fingered. A week later, with three weeks yet to go for the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption to respond to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s one month’s deadline for a report, the whole business is nearly forgotten. Hardly a bleat is heard. Readers would remember that the Panama Papers where a massive data base of some 11.5 million files from Mossac Fonseca, the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm made global waves; and a number of Lankans and companies incorporated here were named. But this is now less than a dim memory. That was over five years ago and, as far as we know nothing much has happened since, anywhere, about that exposé, also by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Will that material, and this, eventually become fish wrappers?

However that be, there are many matter that arise that deserve attention not only from governments but also from the wider public. All of us are aware of the numbered bank accounts that have made Swiss banks both rich and famous. Such accounts, with multi-digit numbers known only to the client and selected bankers, add another layer to banking secrecy. But they are not completely anonymous. That’s because the name of the client is still recorded by the bank and is subject to what’s called “limited warranted disclosure.” Such hiding holes are widely sought by the wealthy to stash away both legitimate and ill-gotten wealth from the prying eyes of governments, law enforcement agencies, taxpeople and sometimes even spouses. Lesser known is the fact that such facilities are no longer the exclusive preserve of the Swiss. They are now available in over a dozen countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. Apart from numbered bank accounts, there are many tax havens in several parts of the world widely used for both money laundering and tax avoidance. They are useful not only to those anxious to exploit their possibilities but also to the service-providing countries to enrich national coffers.

Since the Pandora Papers hit the headlines, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has made several noteworthy speeches into the expose` which linked hundreds of Pakistanis, including members of his cabinet to wealth secretly moved through offshore companies. Khan has promised action if wrongdoing is established just as much as our own president has done. Ownership of offshore holding companies is not illegal in most countries including, we believe, Sri Lanka. But they are frequently used to avoid tax liability or to maintain secrecy about large and shady financial transactions. Even before the smelly stuff hit the fan with the publication of the Pandora Papers, Khan addressing the UN International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity Panel called upon countries he termed tax havens to “adopt decisive actions” and return wealth looted from developing countries. Saying that the figures were staggering, he estimated that perhaps a trillion dollars were siphoned off in this manner and much of that were bribes received by corrupt white collar criminals. Demanding that the bleeding of poor and developing countries must stop, he urged that stolen assets of developing countries including proceeds of corruption, bribery and other crimes must be returned immediately.

Where Sri Lanka is concerned, the liberalization of the economy in 1978, not 1977 as commonly stated, resulted not only in devaluation of the currency and the stupendous increase in the money supply, but also the commencing of massive and expensive infrastructure and other development projects of which the Accelerated Mahaweli Development was perhaps the largest. This resulted in the award of gigantic contracts on a scale previously not known in this country. Such contracts also meant commissions, and what these were and who collected them was largely unknown. Since then we have had many other very large projects. While the country knows what the taxpayer paid for these as revealed in the figures presented to parliament and budgeted for, what kind of commissions were paid and to whom, is information largely outside the public domain. While decision-making politicians and perhaps bureaucrats are widely suspected to have been beneficiaries of such loot, companies, some well known and others less so, have been identified as agents of various contractors. Whether such funds were duly accounted for and the taxes thereon paid remains unknown.

Whistles have been blown here but we have unfortunately not been able to obtain the cooperation, for example of the Government of the United Arab Emirates about loot allegedly stashed in Dubai. Nobody can expect companies providing haven to ill-gotten gains to cooperate with bloodhounds on their trail. Imran Khan’s appeal to tax haven providers can only fall on deaf years as has happened before and will continue to happen in the future. Third world countries claiming to pursue criminals who had bled their economies will only do so if the quarry belongs to an opposing camp. Governments will only chase opponents and when they change, investigations already undertaken, not without influence of ruling powers, will be abandoned as we have too often seen. As the late Sunil Perera of the Gypsies so memorably sang, Lankawa ehema thamai, I don’t know why!



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Editorial

O, Democracy!

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Thursday 9th December, 2021

US President Joe Biden’s much-advertised ‘Summit for Democracy’ commences today with the participation of 110 nations. Sri Lanka is not among them. Some political commentators here have called the exclusion of Sri Lanka an indictment of the Rajapaksa government, which is undermining democracy.

The incumbent Sri Lankan government may be hauled over the coals for attacks on democracy, but one should not make the mistake of recognising the US as the global standard-bearer of democracy.

Among Biden’s invitees are Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. The Human Rights Watch has this to say about Brazil under Bolsonaro: “President Jair Bolsonaro is threatening democratic rule in Brazil … He is pursuing campaigns to intimidate the Supreme Court, signalling that he may attempt to cancel the 2022 election or otherwise deny Brazilians the right to elect their leaders, and violating critics’ freedom of expression.” But Biden has had no qualms about inviting Bolsonaro to the summit and enlisting his help to ‘set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies’! The less said about Duterte, the better. So much for Washington’s concern for democracy.

Prominent among the invitees to Biden’s Summit for Democracy is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom the US refused an entry visa, for years, over the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which more than a thousand Muslims were massacred. The Obama administration reversed the US decision, and now the White House rolls out the red carpet for Modi, who lectures other nations on minority rights and the virtues of ethnic reconciliation, etc.

What about the report card of the host of the Summit for Democracy? The US, which has undertaken to promote global democracy, has failed to lead by example. The Freedom House World Report (2021) reveals that over the past 10 years the United States’ aggregate ‘Freedom in the World Score’ has plummeted by 11 points; the US is among the 25 countries that have suffered the largest declines during this period. Its current score is 83. Shouldn’t the US inspect the beam in its eyes, first?

The Biden administration says the goal of the Summit for Democracy is to rally the nations the world over against the forces of authoritarianism. But it is obvious that the US is trying to shore up its crumbling international image and counter China’s increasing global dominance. Biden’s summit has little to do with democracy; it is aimed at furthering Washington’s geo-strategic interests, as evident from the invitation extended to Pakistan. The US has no way of dealing with the Taliban without Pakistan’s help.

If the US is so averse to authoritarianism, as it claims to be, will it explain why it has backed evil dictators such as Pinochet of Chile, Marcos of the Philippines, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi  or Shah of Iran, Batista of Cuba, Somoza of Nicaragua, Seko of Zaire, Suharto of Indonesia, Rhee of South Korea, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq? Pinochet’s Caravan of Death, which hunted down Opposition activists in the remote parts of Chile did not cause any concern to the US.

The US has taken upon itself the task of ridding the world of authoritarianism and terrorism but it strove to save LTTE leader Prabhakaran, during the closing stages of the Eelam War IV, in 2009.

If Sri Lanka had signed the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with the US and allowed the stationing of American forces here, perhaps it would have been invited to the Summit for Democracy in spite of the various allegations the Opposition and civil society groups are levelling against the incumbent government.

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Editorial

Expensive jokes

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Wednesday 8th December, 2021

What the government has been doing in Parliament during the past few days is like smashing up pots in a desolate house, as a local saying goes. The SJB is boycotting the budget debate in protest against an alleged incident where one of its MPs, Manusha Nanayakkara, was roughed up by a government member on Friday. Denying the allegation, the SLPP has accused MP Nanayakkara of threatening the Speaker. Thus, the government and the Opposition have been trading accusations liberally much to the neglect of their legislative duties.

It serves no purpose to have a budget debate without the participation of the main Opposition party therein; the position of the government on its own Appropriation Bill is already known, and none of its members can be expected to criticise it. Therefore, it is the duty of the Opposition to analyse the budget, highlight its flaws and suggest improvements or changes thereto.

Yesterday, the government MPs were heard making sardonic comments at the expense of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, MP, and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, who was absent. Their utterances had nothing to do with the budget. They seem to have taken the SJB’s protest very lightly if their wry sense of humour is anything to go by. They may have been amused by their own jokes, which however went down like lead balloons where the public is concerned. Those who cared to watch yesterday’s parliamentary proceedings were left nonplussed. The public may not have minded the government MPs’ jokes in the House, but for the fact that they are very expensive; parliamentary sittings cost about five million rupees each. Public funds are being wasted in this manner while many people are skipping meals, and vital sectors are experiencing fund cuts.

One may not buy into the government’s claim that MP Nanayakkara flew across the House, as it were, to threaten the Speaker. But both the Opposition and the government must ensure that none of its members sprint towards the Chair, in a huff, or otherwise. There are ways and means of registering an MP’s protest against the Speaker’s rulings in a civilised manner. There have been instances where some MPs almost harmed the Speaker. In October 2018, a group of Opposition MPs who are now in the SLPP government, almost gheraoed the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya in protest against his rulings.

The Opposition has faulted Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa for being absent in the House during the budget debate. Former PM Wickremesinghe yesterday reminded the government that the Finance Minister was duty-bound to be present in the House, and President Chandrika Kumaratunga and President Mahinda Rajapaksa had done so as Finance Ministers. Those who are au fait with parliamentary affairs and traditions will agree with the former Prime Minister. Some government MPs have sought to justify the Finance Minister’s absence, but their line of reasoning sounds absurd. They are trying to defend the indefensible.

The opponents of the executive presidency want it scrapped and powers of Parliament fully restored. But what is the use of enhancing the powers of a Parliament whose members do not carry out their legislative duties and functions to the satisfaction of the public?

Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella told Parliament, the other day, that the MPs should be able to gain admission to the Law College and universities by virtue of their legislative experience. Going by the behaviour of some of them, it looks as if they had to be sent back to kindergarten.

Meanwhile, the protesting SJB MPs have chosen to make their speeches on the budget via social media platforms. If the budget debate can be conducted without the presence of the Finance Minister and most MPs, with the Opposition using the Internet to comment thereon, the question is why Parliament should not opt for virtual sessions so that its costs can be kept low, and debates held without interruptions or fisticuffs.

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Editorial

New laws alone won’t do

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Tuesday 7th December, 2021

The government is keen to amend the election laws to provide for restrictions on campaign expenditure, and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has given the Legal Draftsman necessary instructions in this regard, Media Minister Dallas Alahapperuma has reportedly said. It is hoped that the new laws to be made will also make it mandatory for candidates and political parties to disclose sources of their campaign finance, and the amounts of funds they receive by way of donations.

Laws to regulate campaign finance are long overdue, and the government initiative is therefore welcome. However, one should not be so naïve as to expect all problems related to campaign expenditure, etc., to disappear with the introduction of a few more laws. It is one thing to make laws; it is another to enforce them properly. We already have enough and more laws to prevent election malpractices, but the problem is that they are not applied correctly and fairly.

Politicians are adept at circumnavigating laws and compassing their political ends. When the 19th Amendment was introduced, it was widely expected to enable key state institutions to emerge independent and strong. But the Constitutional Council tasked with depoliticising those outfits became a mere rubber stamp for the Prime Minister, who manipulated it to further the interests of his government. This is the fate that befalls all laws in this country.

The problem with the election laws is not that they lack teeth; instead, it is that the authorities concerned lack the courage to enforce them strictly. The results of several elections, and the 1982 referendum should have been cancelled, given widespread rigging and violence that marred them. What was witnessed before and during the presidential and parliamentary elections in the late 1980s was the very antithesis of democracy; polling agents were chased away and ballot boxes stuffed openly while the police looked on. The North-Western provincial council polls (1999) were also affected by large-scale violence and rigging, but the results were not declared null and void.

Minister Alahapperuma has said the laws to be made will help usher in a new political culture. One should not be faulted for being sceptical about the possibility of such a radical change happening in Sri Lankan politics simply because of a few more additions to the country’s huge body of laws. If the government is genuinely desirous of changing the existing, rotten political culture, it ought to follow Alahapperuma’s example anent electioneering.

The media has been watching Minister Alahapperuma’s election campaigns with interest over the years. He has had the courage to spurn the conventional campaign methods; he does not use posters, banners, bunting, etc. When he chose to swim against the tide and take the high road, not many expected him to succeed in dirty Sri Lankan politics, but he has received a very positive response from the electorate. He has thus been able to keep the cost of electioneering very low. If he can conduct decent polls campaigns under the existing election laws, and get elected, why can’t others? There are several other politicians who also conduct clean election campaigns, and the onus is on the public to appreciate their courage to be different and reward them with votes. Sending the right men and women to Parliament is half the battle in draining the swamp.

It is heartening that the government has realised the need to regulate campaign finance at last and reportedly taken steps to introduce new laws for that purpose. If the SLPP had cared to set an example to others by keeping its campaign expenditure low, it would not have had to go out of its way to scrap duty on sugar imports in a questionable manner, some moons ago, to please one of its main financiers, thereby causing a huge loss to the State coffers. This scam has damaged its image irreparably.

Now that the government has evinced a keen interest in regulating campaign finance, will the ruling SLPP disclose, suo motu, the amounts of funds it received for the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary polls, the sources thereof and actual expenditure.

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