Generally, the first loyalty of an MP is to himself. Next in line are his close relatives and political supporters. One would expect that at least the third preference should go to the people who elected them. But that is not the case. Almost invariably, in the order of an MP’s priorities, the welfare of all other MPs, including those of different party affiliations, comes well before the interests of the people. It is just a matter of cautious insurance.
It is no secret that, whilst Government MPs get the big slices of cake, they do not forget to go to considerable lengths to help MPs in the Opposition – in the interest of long-term goodwill. After all, there may come a day when Government MPs find themselves out of power and, hence, they consider it prudent to show discreet generosity while they are in the driving seat to assure themselves of a little protective cover and succour from their former opponents if and when a regime change occurs.
With few exceptions, Government MPs belonging to the UNFGG made a lot of noise in Parliament and outside about the waste, corruption and nepotism by the preceding regime. The cacophony has now subsided greatly because a goodly number of members of the last regime have become part of the Government and most investigations against them have been slowed down, presumably intentionally. The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has been forced to the conclusion that party leaders have gagged most of the fairly-independent-minded MPs who, before 17 August 2015, were actively pursuing those who they knew had violated the public trust and enriched themselves wrongfully.
There will soon be an opportunity to see how sincerely Parliament intends to fight corruption. We shall come to know this by the calibre of the persons who will be recommended by the Constitutional Council (CC) to be members of the Bribery Commission, keeping in mind that Parliament insisted that politicians in the CC should outnumber even the most distinguished and upright civilian members by 7 to 4.
Between 800 to 2000 files, hitherto sidelined, wait to be processed by the Bribery Commission. Its officials, as opposed to its members, are impatient to get on with this task. Rapid progress may be expected if the new members appointed to the Commission are chosen for their proactive reputation and unquestioned integrity rather than for their willingness to be accommodating to off-the-record requests of those in power. Otherwise, we face a bleak future.
We have been bombarded increasingly for several years with credible allegations about corruption in the form of illegal commissions in foreign exchange collected by politicians on major government contracts and by their intermediaries who have helped to launder these ill-gotten gains. Sizeable sums have also gone to foreign lobbyists and consultants, chosen and paid in a non-transparent manner. One does not have to be a cynic to conclude that substantial portions of the fees paid to these persons have found their way into numbered accounts held overseas by those who authorized these payments. The media are full of shocking revelations about the personalities involved. Instead of probing these infractions seriously, as the people are entitled to expect, what does our Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake say he plans to do?
He is reported to have revealed that there are 6-8 billion US dollars or so of undeclared deposits stashed away by Sri Lankans in Switzerland and that an amnesty or something similar will be given to the crooks who have accumulated these funds if they will bring them back for investment in Sri Lanka. The funds will remain the property of those who repatriate such assets. The benefit to be derived would only be a book-keeping increase in the foreign exchange reserves of Sri Lanka. For the cooperation extended by the thieves concerned, Karunanayake will offer them immunity from investigation by the Department of Inland Revenue, Controller of Exchange, Police, Director-General of Customs and all government institutions charged with the control, detection and eradication of corruption!
If there are 6-8 billion dollars in Swiss banks, there are bound to be many more billions in other banks in the Australia, Cayman Islands, Dubai, Hong Kong, Luxembourg, Monaco, Seychelles, Singapore, UK, Ukraine, USA, West Indies and other safe havens, as well as billions invested in gold, property, ships and commercial investments in many parts of the world. Why should only those with moneys in Switzerland be offered an amnesty and wide immunity? A shrewd guess would be that the bulk of unlawfully acquired assets are, in fact, not banked in Switzerland but invested elsewhere. Repatriating 6-8 billion dollars would leave the undeclared bulk untouched and confer blanket immunity from any further investigations. This stratagem would represent excellent business sense for the perpetrators of these crimes.
How will the Finance Ministry discover whether the holder of known foreign accounts has no other, possibly even bigger, secret funds all over the world? Is it not worried about how these moneys were earned? Would it not have far-reaching implications if one is successful in identifying whether any of these undeclared assets were acquired with the proceeds of the smuggling of gems, gold and currency or slave-trading or narcotics?
We cannot forget that the LTTE collected vast sums of money and gold from the people. This gold has almost certainly been spirited away overseas and is stored in bank vaults mostly outside Switzerland. Sri Lanka will have to abandon all inquiries into these monstrous crimes as the price paid to bring back 6-8 billion dollars, which is without doubt only a small fraction of the total amount robbed over just the last decade alone.
If any members of the present government rob the people, as we fear a number of them will do in due course, we would not be surprised to hear that they, too, would be given a similar amnesty and wide immunity as time goes on. There is more than a distinct possibility that there is already an understanding that the precedent to be created in the forthcoming Budget will be the basis for future amnesties as well.
It is reported that Karunanayake has indicated that he will “detail out the categories of people who would benefit” from his amnesty. In other words, there would be one class of crooks who will be benefitted by the proposed amnesty legislation and others who will not be treated equally. In any case, it would be most interesting to see whom Karunanayake will favour and whom he will not. We would be gratified to be given a precise statement setting out what he plans to offer to members of his chosen groups and an explanation as to why the others will be left out. Otherwise, we may have to face the embarrassing situation where the swindlers who are discriminated against by Karunanayake file FR applications claiming equal protection under the law!
If the proposed legislation is forced through, there would be a bounden duty, at least subsequently, on the part of the authorities to reveal to the public the particulars of who brought back money, how they carried out their thefts, and whether solemn declarations will be secured from them to the effect that they have no other undeclared funds elsewhere. We anticipate sadly that nothing on these lines will be enforced.
Having got his hands on a one-time jackpot of 6-8 billion dollars, Karunanayake may be able to present a budget this year with satisfactory foreign exchange reserves. Is that all that is going to achieved by this amnesty, which, in our view, constitutes a fundamental betrayal of public trust? We say that because the immunities granted will end all investigations regarding past, present and future offenders and that this will surely result in losses that will amount to many times the one-time recovery of 6-8 billion dollars.
An interesting aspect of the amnesty proposal is that, if and when the aforesaid 6-8 billion dollars are recovered, and the promised immunity conferred on our master swindlers, and another balance of payments crisis occurs, there will be hardly any way by which any unlawful accumulations of funds overseas can be traced and brought back to prop up future budgets.
The assistance of Indian, UK and US government fraud investigation units was sought and is said to be of great value. By introducing this amnesty, GOSL would be blandly telling these countries that all our requests for help in our investigations were exercises in play-acting to mislead the public.
In the light of the concerns that we have referred to above, we call upon all citizens to oppose strongly the ill-advised and ill-motivated proposal to declare any amnesty that would confer wide immunity on unblushing robbers of the assets of the poor people of this country.