By Mohamed Harees –
‘We have a circle of corruption and impunity that is too strong’- Josefina Vazquez Mota
Despite his vast power, totally corrupt Indonesia’s Suharto’s seemingly unassailable regime collapsed with surprising speed when the Asian Financial Crisis hit in 1997. Suharto, regarded as a bulwark against communism in Asia, stole as much as $35bn from his impoverished country during his three decades in power, before being deposed in 1998 in a popular uprising that was triggered by the Asian economic crisis. Despite Suharto’s vain attempts to rig elections in March 1998, people persisted in their call for him to stand down. Younger generation, mostly students occupied the legislative building, demanding “reformasi”, and amid growing political he resigned in a live TV broadcast.
Much of the blame for the crisis Indonesia faced, focused on the nepotism and corruption that became the hallmark of Suharto’s later years in power and which saw family members and close associates amass fortunes and come to dominate Indonesia’s economy. Suharto, who ruled Indonesia with an iron hand, was however lucky to get away without a fair trial for his human rights abuse and corruption. Many had expected the former dictator to face trial and die in ignominy. The governments that have ruled Indonesia since 1998 however lacked the will to bring the general to justice. Though he was formally accused of embezzling billions of public money, he never spent a day in jail. A court ruled in August 2000 that Suharto was physically and mentally unfit to stand trial. Gota – named the Hitler and the ‘Terminator’ now hangs on as protests evoke last days of Suharto, when the country faces Lebanon-style economic meltdown. However, if Suharto example is anything to go by, will impunity again reign high as it happens in Sri Lanka and let off the corrupt Rajapaksas from the law’s hook?
Political corruption undermines the hopes for prosperity and stability of developing countries, and damages the global economy,” said Transparency International chairman Peter Eigen. “The abuse of political power for private gain deprives the most needy of vital public services, creating a level of despair that breeds conflict and violence. This is exactly what the corrupt Rajapaksa dynasty did to Sri Lanka! For proof of how populist politicians, once in power, their decisions, often ill-conceived, can create grave problems for the very voters they purport to champion, look no further than what has befallen the people of Sri Lanka. In recent months, life in the island nation has turned into a grinding, ever-worsening ordeal. What started as a government debt crisis has devolved into broader economic turmoil, marked by critical shortages of basic products, widespread poverty and spiralling inflation. Sri Lanka is rapidly descending into a political and economic crisis. The impacts of Sri Lanka’s financial meltdown have barely left a corner of the country unscathed. But nowhere can the seismic shift in the country be felt more than out on the streets. The wrath of the protesters across the country has mainly been targeted at the corrupt Rajapaksas and their poisonous nationalism and bad governance
The last few weeks have been nightmarish in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the energy and unity of the Galle Face protestors has been ecstatic. It has already shaken the powerful Rajapakse bastion to its core. Galle Face Green become the ‘Berlin Wall’ and the ground zero for the protest against the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government. People across all economic strata and racial and religious divides, came together to build a common alliance, breaking the divisive proverbial ‘Berlin Wall’ built around them by the Rajapaksas – the most corrupt and inept administration in recent history, and their likes. Protests at the iconic 5-hectare strip which now includes an area popularly called the ‘Gota Go-Gama’ are drawing similarities to Egypt’s Tahrir Square during Arab Spring.
Analysts say the protests have been so hard to contain because they stem not from an organised movement but from a collective rage, prompting many to describe it as “Sri Lanka’s Arab Spring”. Protesters mostly young who are part of the ‘Occupy Galle Face’ movement have one simple message to the country’s once most powerful man – “we will not go home unless you and your family do.” With the people worried about their country deep in debt, and lost its dignity, the only thing left for them will be risk their lives and raise their voices to make sure at least their future generations have a better life. Beyond Galle Face, across the country of 22 million, citizens of all ages and faiths are holding the Rajapaksa dynasty—who has ruled the country for most of the last two decades—responsible for the emerging sordid state of affairs. They are coming out onto the streets, who have never protested before. It’s happening organically, very youth-driven and there’s no mastermind or political party behind this movement.
The future thus appears bleak for Sri Lanka, as it faces unprecedented turmoil as a deepening economic crisis triggers raging street demonstrations while a political impasse plays out as Gota defies calls to step down, complicating efforts to alleviate the situation. The public calls to hold Gota and his family accountable for alleged corruption and other crimes grow louder. The Rajapaksa family can no longer be able to rely on post-war patriotism for popular support. This enthusiastic national call asking the government to resign, may just have saved the country from further damage by stopping the destructive Rajapakse regime in its tracks, but the latest political noises and moves from the Gota Regime suggest there is a long way to go. Sri Lanka is stuck in a political standoff. Yes! any move to remove or sideline the President is likely to take weeks, if not months, though Gota and his government have lost their public legitimacy. They are clinging to power like a leech. Even the opposition has failed to develop a coherent plan for removing him or for ruling the country if he leaves.
As analyst Alan Keenan says, Gotabaya’s authoritarian, centralised and non-transparent decision-making is central to the crisis. Surrounded by cronies and oblivious to criticism, his administration rejected repeated calls for a course correction as the crisis deepened. ….Whatever happens over the next few weeks and months, Sri Lanka’s recovery from the current crisis is likely to be difficult and could last years. If the Rajapaksas hold onto power, they will be governing an angry, restless populace without the public support needed to impose the painful measures Sri Lanka must take to restructure its international debt. If they do not, a string of unstable and short-lived governments is a distinct possibility, as few politicians will be eager to design or administer the new social and economic policies that creditors will require as part of any bailout package. Sri Lanka will warrant close international attention and support throughout the difficult years ahead.
With public anger running high and the government trying to control the protests, reporting on the events from the site of demonstrations has become a challenge. It is a matter of extreme concern that the government has chosen to act with a very heavy hand at the first chance they get. There is the troubling phase of increasing curtailing freedoms and arbitrary arrests. Public nervousness is visible. The Rajapaksas aren’t known for their democratic credentials. What should be borne that any attempts at repression by this disintegrating government will only increase the determination of the protesting masses.
This is a very dangerous situation. Today the inconsistent policies of a clueless and incompetent President of this proud Island nation have alienated the suffering citizens and plunged the country into a deeper imbroglio. Unfortunately, it would appear that in the days to come, the country is set to face further intensification in both its vitiated political environment and the emerging economic turmoil.
Perhaps the current turmoil in parliament and the public’s growing recognition of the cause of the crisis will be what catalyses a political consensus for reform that has eluded Sri Lanka for so long. Although the political situation remains fluid, with the lack of clear leadership from the opposition parties contributing to the delay in finding a way out of the crisis, the current crisis has demonstrated that Sri Lanka’s political leadership, both government and opposition, seems unable to grasp the gravity of the issues at hand. Sri Lanka’s economic problems are daunting, and unless firm steps are taken to restore confidence and stability, things could spiral entirely out of control and lead to a Lebanon-style meltdown.
Post Rajapaksa exit!, will those corrupt family be brought to justice and mad accountable for plundering the national wealth of Sri Lanka? What are the mechanisms to recover them for public benefit? In Sri Lanka, impunity is in crisis proportions. Many examples abound, which are only indicators of the many setbacks in the justice system in Sri Lanka. The multiple failures of the system beg the question as to why victims should trust a system that continues to betray them; this, when politicians and others aligned with the ruling party have on several instances been able to subvert justice with total impunity. Many of those in Rajapaksa family indicted has not been set free by the courts in Sri Lanka. Many criminals including a hate monk have been pardoned using Presidential powers. All this speaks to a system that is rotten to its core. It is a system that has corroded under successive governments, with an elite that has abused the system to suit its own needs and protect its own.
In Sri Lanka, impunity has over the years become institutionalized and systematized: mechanisms to hold state actors to account for their actions have been eroded; checks on the arbitrary use of power have been diluted, if not dissolved. In Sri Lanka, multiple governments have contributed to the crisis of impunity. But the Rajapakse governments have been notable in its systematic approach to weakening the judiciary and other mechanisms for establishing State accountability. Even Presidential Commissions of Inquiry have been used in the past to target political opponents, distract from calls for accountability, and even distort evidence. The process followed by the Commission of Inquiry to Investigate Allegations of Political Victimization chaired by Upali Abeyratne was neither fair nor just and was a joke, acquitting those who were at the helm of power.
Sri Lanka’s pattern of impunity also violates international law and poses great threats to the human rights and wellbeing of Sri Lankans. Imposing a stricter rule of law in which all citizens meet equal punishment for equal criminal offences is a necessary step towards a safe and just life in Sri Lanka. In this context, it is important that a proper mechanism should be set in place to re-examine all those cases ‘closed’ by the courts suspected of foul play or under impunity. Many Rajapaksas, and their cronies have had the privilege of being ‘Nidhoskota Nidhahas’ (acquitted and set free). A special law enforcement mechanism should be established to investigate all those at the top who have allegedly looted the State wealth and stashed in overseas secret locations, punish the offenders as well as recover the stolen wealth. Moreover, it is also imperative the constitutional safeguards be put in place to avoid those in public positions from engaging in corrupt deals by abusing and misusing their power and also to ensure transparency and accountability in public transactions.
Panama Papers only reveals an iota of the enormous damage the likes of Rajapkasas have done to countries like Sri Lanka, by stashing public money looted through shady deals in foreign locations. For shady businesspeople and long-serving political leaders, the offshore ecosystem provides impunity, cloaking capital and shielding wealth. Unaccountable and often untraceable, the system ensures that prosperity remains the preserve of the few. It is imperative that with the support of everyone, civil society and specialised international institutions, initiatives to combat money laundering, as well as to recover assets that have been set up with public resources… (or) been illegally transferred… outside the country be implemented.
Perhaps experiences of other countries, where ‘Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative’ has been undertaken successfully would help. Examples are Peru, Nigeria, Philippines. In Pakistan’s case, former Premier Imran Khan has literally been pleading on global platforms like the United Nations-led high-level panel on “International Financial Accountability, Transparency, and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Development Agenda” that stolen assets of developing countries, which have been deposited with safe offshore tax havens particularly, must be returned to the poorer nations that have been robbed with impunity by their rulers and other powerful men. Perhaps, if done soon, this would enable the nation to recover from the foreign currency crisis it is facing, though it may be a distant dream!
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