Sri Lanka's Inconclusive Corruption Investigations

Sri Lanka's new government was supposed to prioritize anti-corruption and improved governance. Corruption was arguably the principal reason why Mahinda Rajapaksa lost his bid for an unprecedented third term as president in January 2015.

Why aren't we hearing more positive news about ongoing anti-corruption efforts? The current coalition government, which is led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, still hasn't convicted anyone for high-level corruption. What's more, there have been relatively few indictments. Is the lack of movement cause for significant concern? Are domestic and international observers right to be worried about the pace of progress thus far?

This seems to be a real problem. Jehan Perera, executive director of the Colombo-based National Peace Council, has recently written a good piece, part of which ponders the fate of the nation's ongoing corruption investigations.

Here's a paragraph from the article:

Unfortunately in the past several months, the government [of Sri Lanka] appears to have run out of steam in regard to pursuing general crimes and economic corruption of those who held and who hold high positions in government. The zeal with which it was seen to be pursuing corruption has been seriously undermined by incomplete and partial investigations into past acts of corruption and due to allegations of new ones committed by those appointed by the new government also. In addition, Western diplomats stationed in Colombo have also begun to complain about apparently inexplicable government decisions relating to trade and investment which can have negative consequences on Sri Lanka's access to those markets and to investments from them.

Here's Perera's next paragraph:

One of the basic problems appears to be lack of transparency in the government's decision making, which is not a positive sign of good governance. The terms and conditions under which projects with China have been restarted are also not entirely known, which is not helpful in generating the trust needed for investments in the country. The other is the slow pace of investigations that is constantly given as the reason for the failure of the law enforcement agencies to act. Whether it is the care taken by the investigators to get all their facts right, or whether it is the entrenchment within the systems of government of those from the past who have a vested interest in stalling the investigations is a point to be considered. However, with the passage of time and the promotion of new persons into positions of authority, such as the new Inspector General of Police, there is the possibility of change.

A few days ago, I e-mailed the director general of Sri Lanka's Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption with a list of rather perfunctory questions about the progress of investigations and the outstanding concerns that people may have about how things have been going. After not getting a response, I reached out to another Sri Lankan government official who does not work on anti-corruption issues. I was subsequently informed that "they [people working for the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption] are not authorised to respond to queries and they don't have a separate unit to deal with the public/queries either." Evidently this has to do with the strict confidentiality laws pertaining to the commission's work. An annual report would be published "in the coming months" I was told.

While there are various entities working on anti-corruption in Sri Lanka, this information came as a bit of a surprise. If there were a piece of good news to report, how would people know? If there were smaller and more incremental ways for the commission to allay peoples' worries, how would those messages be conveyed? Would the public need to rely on hearsay, leaks and secondhand stories?

Aside from the lackluster performance thus far, across all areas of reform, Colombo's public messaging has been (at best) consistently underwhelming. Let's hope that things change for the better - and soon.