Budget manifests will of the people on corruption | Daily News

Budget manifests will of the people on corruption

Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa arrives in Parliament with the Budget briefcase.
Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa arrives in Parliament with the Budget briefcase.

There is the usual proverbial babel of voices being heard about the recent budget proposals for 2022. Time was when a budget was looked at as the only policy document that has a bearing on economic policy for the year.

Not anymore. The fact is that the economic policy of most Governments is so broadly defined that nobody expects a single budget to make any significant changes. In this context, what is good about Budget 2022 is that while the MPs of the former UNP Government are making noises saying they are scandalised by the recent budget, there is one major initiative which should make howling critics such as Dr. Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne blue in the face.

Perpetual Treasuries is to be relieved of the billions it made illegally from the Bond fiasco of 2015. Presumably, Eran Wickramaratne does not have anything to say about it because after all the party he belonged to clung onto power in the 2015 General Election in large part due to the illegal funds allegedly siphoned off to the UNP in some ways from the largesse illegally raised from the Perpetual Treasuries Bond heist.

Political Will

It seems that for once, money that was lost to the people from an act of corruption is being recovered. In this context, it is important to consider that no money can be recovered from those who lay siege to the Treasury, if there is no political will to do it.

This vital ingredient of political will comes from the very fount of power — the people of the country who are sovereign, as per our Constitution. It appears the people have the intuition to discern what they consider to be large-scale corruption.

The Central Bank Bond Scam robbed the country of billions.

The people intuited that the tangible corruption with regard to the Bond issues of the Central Bank can be traced to 2015 and the Perpetual Treasuries fiasco. They were also able to sift through the disinformation that was peddled by the likes of Eran Wickramaratne who tried to draw a false equivalency between the 2015 Bond fiasco and what was supposed to have been done before that.

The people were able to intuit — despite the fact that they did not have much knowledge about the inner-workings of Bond issues — that there is a difference between intentional acts of robbery motivated by greed, and certain acts of omission and commission that are not deliberate but may cause some losses to the Exchequer nevertheless, such as the so-called hedging issue etc., bad as that was.

People’s intuition with regard to mega-scale corruption is what brings governments crashing down, and it is rarely that their instincts are wrong. The people intuited that despite what was being said about the 2005–14 Rajapaksa Government, there was no corruption of the scale that was being trumped up. It is why they returned a different Rajapaksa Government to power in 2019.

Voting Exercise

They also intuited the contrast between major acts of corruption — i.e. the Perpetual Treasuries Bond Scam and the politically-touted alleged acts of corruption such as money laundering etc. that they tried to stick to the Rajapaksas, but were unable to.

In a democracy, the entire voting exercise is intuition-based, particularly in peacetime and when there are no major people’s power movements that are in force.

It just seemed that the entire Yahapalana Government lost its legitimacy soon after the Bond Scam unfolded. One reason was that the people intuited very soon that they had been ‘had.’

Here was a Government that came to power on a good governance mandate having branded the previous dispensation as being corrupt.

But no sooner than a month after being voted in — the Government was embroiled in this transparently grotesque scandal.

The voters did not need to process anything — the facts were very clear, and in any event most people are literate and keyed in enough to understand the nuance of what was going on. Here was the Central Bank Governor (by proxy of course) and his very close relative doing the bulk of the bidding for a Bond issue. Nobody needed to say more.

In most other countries, such a grotesque scandal would have immediately dislodged the Government but it did not happen here.

One reason may have been the political culture, or alternately the culture and lifestyle per se of a Buddhist nation that has an ethic that is supposed to eschew attachment.

Latterly, this debate has been raging in some quarters in this country. Are people in Buddhist countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka of such a disposition that they react differently to policymaking — and to the blunders or successes of their respective leaderships?

In considering the issue, Thailand offers a very interesting example. Thai kings were venerated and were treated with god-like reverence.

Of course there were strict lese-majesty laws that subject the subjects of the Royal Family to severe punishment if the King was ridiculed or disrespected in some way in a public setting.

Social Media

Seemingly innocuous acts such as making a stray negative comment about the king on social media, has landed many a Thai in jail due to the strict lese-majesty legislation that was assiduously enforced.

The veneration of the king was supposed to be based at least partially on Buddhist values, as concepts of reincarnation etc. had much to do with it. Additionally the Thai people, being Buddhist, were more selfless than others and were able to subsume issues of self-aggrandisement i.e. thinking of themselves and the economy before venerating the king, it was theorised.

But those explanations wore thin when the previous king, the much admired Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away and his son succeeded him as monarch. The new King lived most of the time in Germany where he was used to a hedonistic lifestyle away from his subjects.

However, this aloofness and the many scandals or near scandals at least, involving the King and his playboy behaviour, did not meet with the approval of the Thai people, and lese-majesty laws notwithstanding, they reacted by showing their disapproval. It started as cursory displays of disapproval in social media etc. but ended with major protests and rallies that in a previous era were unthinkable.

It is therefore difficult to think that Buddhist values of tolerance would — even if they act as a brake on citizen vigilance against corruption — have a long-term effect on tamping down agitation against corruption. The fact that the Bond Scam was pursued to the bitter end i.e. to the point where Rs. 8.5 billion is we are told, being recovered, gives an indication that the citizenry is rising against corruption that happens with impunity.

It is the Eran Wickramaratnes and the Harsha de Silvas who are selective about ‘exposing’ corruption that causes the most damage to the citizen-vigilantism that is developing in this country as an antidote to rampant acts of blatant corruption, such as the Bond Scam.

Their insincerity and partisanship in being selectively outraged about corruption are not appreciated. It is one reason their political fortunes are on the wane. People do not appreciate the hypocrisy of any sort, particularly when it concerns matters that deal with their tax moneys being diddled.

It is a good sign that the Government went about recovering the Bond Scam money rather clinically in this budget. It is not as if everything has been done to apprehend the scammers, but recovery of ill-gotten wealth is the first step. Offenders should no longer bank on the fact that our tolerant culture would result in them being given a free pass.

As in Thailand, norms are being challenged at incredible speed in some parts of the world. It has hitherto been our people’s habit to wait until the elections to show the corrupt and the venal the door.

But the recovery of the Bond Scam money shows that slowly but surely, things may be changing. Politicians should no longer be secure in the thought that they can continually dupe a seemingly laid back and indifferent set of people.


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