Sunday, August 08, 2010

Sri Lanka: Corrupt to the core

By Frederica Jansz | The Sunday Leader

We have been a nation that had been ruled by pink faced colonialists. As a result we have learnt to be submissive. Absolutely. Since the last of the colonialists left (the British in 1948) the locals positioned to take over governance and administration including public service mimicked the colonialists. The people (read most of us) by nature therefore have been submissive and deferential towards the hierarchy.

Despite the fact that Sri Lanka since 1948 has gained notoriety in not just producing good tea and excellent cricketers but in having also to her detriment and disgrace produced some of the most corrupt politicians this side of the Western hemisphere. With a growing track record of human rights violations Sri Lanka has had to employ or seek foreign expertise by paying for expensive lobbyists in the UK and US for her public relations exercises vis-a-vis the West namely to help clear her fractured record. The PR firm Bell Pottinger’s campaigns to defend the worst and most corrupt politicians and governments in the world including those in Sri Lanka is a case in point.

Bell Pottinger hired Qorvis Communications as a subcontractor for its work with the government of Sri Lanka, starting December 1, last year, according to a filing with the US Department of Justice. Qorvis is providing media relations and monitoring, crisis communications planning, and stakeholder representation in the US. The budget is approximately $483,000.

Groundviews in March this year carried an interesting article which spotlighted Bell Pottinger as one of the UK’s largest public relations firms, spin doctors par excellence for those who can afford them, including amongst many others, the Government of Iran, members of the Government of Saudi Arabia and in the past, General Augusto Pinochet. The British oil company Trafigura was also a key client, yet despite this was named and shamed in the media for uncontrolled dumping of hundreds of tonnes of highly toxic oil waste around Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, in August 2006. Though contested, there are media reports that suggest Bell Pottinger is also involved in lobbying the EU on behalf of the Sri Lankan government, perhaps primarily on the issue of the GSP+ extension.

As the news report above indicates, they do not come cheap. The sum of $483,000 noted in this report is for a sub-contract, and comes to around Rs. 55 million today. Details of the original contract awarded by our government to Bell Pottinger remain undisclosed, and involve expenses probably much higher than this figure.

Can Sri Lanka spare this money? How was the process of selecting and awarding the tender to Bell Pottinger arrived at? Who was involved? Given that these are public expenses, have they been tabled in parliament to date? If not, why not?

Though freely available on the web since January this year, this information has not been prominently featured or robustly questioned in mainstream media to date.

The foreign rulers having left saw Sri Lankans taking over the political and administration of our day to day lives and it has now eroded with politicians taking full control of our day to day lives – resulting in a nation of bystanders who starting with the Fourth Estate lack the initiative or the gumption to ask what this government is doing with tax payers monies?

The case of Bell Pottinger is a classic case in point. As Groundviews quite rightly asserts that in the books of Bell Pottinger these may be relatively small sums of money, but these are huge sums of public finances spent under successive governments, with little or no accountability and transparency. Individuals, both in Sri Lanka and in England, have clearly benefited from these outrageous contracts.

These issues clearly cannot be swept under the rug.But sweeping issues under the carpet is a national past time in Sri Lanka particularly so among those of the Fourth Estate who for reasons unknown to their readers continue to practice a huge amount of self-censorship that is consistently but surely eroding freedom of movement, freedom of speech and human rights in this country.

Those who believe that the country’s justice system treats everyone equally is living in a fool’s paradise. This may be true of all justice systems in the world. While some countries try to make it more fair than the others, let us accept the truth that there will never be a system that is entirely fair.

A good lawyer has a better chance of keeping one out of jail than a bad one. The only problem is that good lawyers cost a tidy some. So by that yard stick alone, the poor starts with a major handicap. Add the influence peddling of the elite and bribery and corruption , the system is highly tilted in favour of the rich and famous. However, the system gets some sort of credibility when once in a while a rich or a famous person ends up at least in remand prison despite of his wealth and connections.

The credibility of the justice system takes a huge knock when the rich and the famous even after being sent to prison end up in the relatively luxurious Merchants Ward of the General Hospital.

When tens of thousands of people are incarcerated in prisons for petty crimes, the man allegedly behind the biggest ever white collar crime, Deshamanya Lalith Kotelawala spent his time in a hospital room. To add insult to injury his wife, Lady Dr. Sicille Kotelawala, a co conspirator in the multi billion rupee fraud with an open arrest warrant had an even better time — in Singapore.

The fixing is so blatant that it is just ugly if not out right disgusting. The Kotelawala couple were both living it up until the collapse of the Golden Key company. Neither of them had such great health issues that they needed to be permanently warded in hospital.

In fact, when Deshamanya Kotelawala was out on bail, he did not need immediate and full time medical treatment. Neither did his wife who was gallivanting in South Asia spending her ill gotten wealth.

Of course, if either needed urgent full time medical care one can be assured that neither would have selected the Merchants Ward. It would have been an expensive hospital overseas. After all, the bills would have been paid by the not so smart investors in the Ceylinco Conglomerate.

It is this kind of “in your face” fixing of the system by the elite that lays the seeds for armed rebellion. A person who steals a few hundreds of thousands of rupees spent time in a dirty prison cell with another 20 or 30 people. But people who steal billions end up in hospital — that too in a private room or even better in a nice comfortable five star hotel in Singapore.

All this was while thousands of depositors are still in anguish unable to pay for their groceries, medicine and rent. What struck me at the time was why the depositors instead of demonstrating in street corners did not just break into the Merchants Ward and physically carry Deshamanya Kotelawala back to the remand prison.

So I come back to the point I made at the beginning of this copy. We are a nation of bystanders – submissive and subservient.

It says a lot about the people of this country. That there is no rioting taking place in all of Sri Lanka’s prisons right now with the inmates demanding urgent medical treatment in hospital. Surely they would sound reasonable enough to settle for the relative comfort of the prison hospital for the rest of their prison term? Even more stunning is that there aren’t tens of thousands of fundamental right cases being filed by prisoners asking for immediate transfer to the General Hospital ( non paying ward). Surely an absolutely healthy person would end up sick after spending a few months in the hell holes we call prisons.

The truth is that the tens of thousands of inmates languishing in prison were not clever enough to take thousands of people for a hike and use that money to grease the palms of politicians and high officials or and when the game is up, still beat the system.

The fact is that Sri Lanka does not need prisons. We should turn all the prisons into comfortable hospitals for the inmates with paying wards for the rich. By doing so, we can at least provide equal treatment to those who break the law. Now that would be justice for all – fair and equal.

© The Sunday Leader

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