Can Lankans make politicians pay the cost of economic ruin?

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Prasanna Ranatunga, made a controversial statement in parliament that the GalleFace protesters will be asked to pay for causing damages to the turf they were occupying  during the anti-government protests

  • Sri Lanka ranks 102 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. However, in terms of grand corruption, or the corruption at the highest level, and capable of distorting entire national policy, it rivals African kleptocracies
  • Gotabaya should be held accountable for his actions, which have now forced Sri Lankans to skip meals, and malnourished our children. Sri Lanka now ranks 6th in the world in child malnourishment

 Prasanna Ranatunga is the current Minister of Urban Development. He was also a convicted extortionist. The Colombo High Court in June found Minister Ranatunga guilty of extorting money from a businessman over a land deal and sentenced him to a two-year suspended jail sentence and a fine of Rs. 25 million. The court ruled that Ranatunga had threatened a businessman named G. Mendis, demanding Rs. 64 million to evict unauthorized occupants of a plot of land in the Meethotamulla area in Kolonnawa.

In a country where accountability and integrity of those in political office matter, Ranatunga would have been sacked from the Cabinet. Sri Lanka isn’t that country. Instead Ranil Wickremesinghe, the new president reappointed him to the Cabinet. Ranatunga is in the news recently for another reason. He told the media that the protestors who occupied the Galle Face Green would be charged for the cost of replanting grass in the former protest site. 

The cost is estimated to be Rs. 4.9 million, according to the Ministry of Urban Development.

Again in a country where accountability matters, this should be the standard practice. 
Again, Sri Lanka isn’t that country. That the Ranatunga saga and – also the fact that he got off with a pat on the back suspended sentence is only cherry on the icing of a grotesquely corrupted system.  Sri Lanka ranks 102 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. However, in terms of grand corruption, or the corruption at the highest level, and capable of distorting entire national policy, it rivals African kleptocracies. 
The rest of the world knows that. For instance, The World Bank has now demanded the import of fertilizer for the upcoming Maha Season as part of its US$ 350 million Emergency Crisis Response Programme should be audited by third-party auditors appointed by the bank. 

Some locals view this as a national affront. But, worse is when the funds that were meant to benefit the struggling farmers are pilfered like in every other state tender.

Many Sri Lankans would also dismiss the current government as a rule by rogues for the rogue. Most empirical evidence points to that end. But, it should not deter its citizens for dream better. Imposing a dose of accountability at the top would help. 

Perhaps following the precedence over the Galle Face Green, Sri Lankans should demand the equal implementation of law and, effectively, hold politicians and bureaucracy accountable for misrule and corruption. Like the democracy protestors at the Galle Face, demand that they pay back the loot of corrupt deals and the cost of mismanagement of the economy. Let’s start with Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s epic blunder of banning chemical fertilizer. The cost the of the decision is widespread, and Sri Lanka’s agricultural production declined by 30 – 50% during the affected farming season, setting off a cascading effect on the livestock industry and skyrocketing cost of living.  

Gotabaya should be held accountable for his actions, which have now forced Sri Lankans to skip meals, and malnourished our children. Sri Lanka now ranks 6th in the world in child malnourishment.  There are international precedents where the former leaders were held accountable for mismanagement and negligence. For instance, the Court in Thailand held ex-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra guilty of a controversial rice subsidy scheme that cost US$ 8 billion to the country and sentenced her (in absentia) to five years in jail.

Take another incident, the massive sugar scam, where Pyramid Wilmer, a trading firm owned by a Rajapaksa acolyte, scammed an estimated Rs.16 billion by exploiting an ad-hoc tax concession. The Government’s Audit Office recently recommended that the revenue loss be recovered from the importer.

Then Rajapaksa’s politically motivated extensive set of tax concessions cost an estimated Rs. 600 billion or (US$ 3 billion at the exchange rate) in revenue. Tax revenue in 2020 as a ratio of GDP fell to 8%, (the lowest in the world) from 12% in 2018. Rajapaksa’s gullibility should not be a mitigating factor. Like in Brazil, where ex-president Dilma Rouseff was impeached for cooking books to downplay the national debt, Rajapaksa should be held accountable. Instead, his acolytes are now calling him to be appointed the prime minister on his return to ‘redeem his esteem’. 

Culture of impunity

The absence of accountability has created a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka. Every state tender is a suspect of malpractice and corruption. CEYPETCO’s oil tenders are a regular case of grand theft. In its latest tender for fuel purchase for July, the purchase price is quoted as US$ 145 against the US$ 129 market rate, and the premium for the agents had shot from US$ 3 per barrel in March to US$ 21-29 for July.

The State-owned gas supplier earlier purchased gas at US$ 129 a metric ton, overlooking the lowest bidder who offered it at US$ 95 a MT. The management argued the lowest bidder could not provide the bulk supply it demanded. Notwithstanding paying a premium for 100,000 tons of gas, the country still is experiencing an acute shortage of cooking gas and supplies are ad hoc at best beyond the Western Province. Now the largest ever coal tender valued at US$1.4 billion has come under scrutiny for an inflated price.

Sri Lanka should confront the culture of impunity that fosters corruption.  Investigations into deals accused of large-scale corruption end up being a media spectacle and a show of a suspicious amount of technical incompetence, often ending up in mistrials or no trials at all. The integrity of the judiciary is also a matter of concern. 
Sri Lankans should break this pernicious hold. But, the stubborn truth is Sri Lankans alone can’t. The international community should take note that they are lending a helping hand to a country that is neck deep in corruption, and their well-intentioned help could well be pilfered by a nexus of corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and wheeler-dealers. Instead of feeding the children who are facing malnutrition, international help, if delivered without adequate reforms and scrutiny, would fatten the offshore accounts of the rent-seeking political class.  

Debt restructuring talks and any offers of bridging finance should also demand as a pre-condition that Sri Lanka set in place an effective anti-corruption framework, in cooperation with and monitored by the World Bank and IMF. Existential conditions have made Sri Lanka incapable of reforming itself. Therefore, effective international intervention is needed to prevent the country from being looted at its weakest hour.

In the meantime, the public should demand that politicians and bureaucracy who are collectively responsible for our misery pay back the cost and hold them accountable for our collective misery.

Follow @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter 

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Disclaimer: Can Lankans make politicians pay the cost of economic ruin? - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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