Graft busting: The action and the inaction
The dramatic, if heavy-handed arrest this week of a former cabinet minister on charges of corruption has come at a time when there is some renewed focus on tackling this evil, if tackling it is ever possible.

The manner in which the former Co-operatives Minister was dragged before a magistrate does not befit a democracy. In unleashing policemen the way it did, the government runs the risk of promoting a police state. This, however, does not make the offence, if later proved, any less offensive.

It was only last week that we urged the authorities concerned to indict the sharks - cabinet ministers, senior officials and big business that was corrupting the whole system - at the very apex.

Unfortunately, the arrest of ex-cabinet minister Abdul Cader this week smacks of a political vendetta of a government trying to distract the public's attention following some sharp price increases and also in the face of more imminent hikes.

And yet, let it be clear that corruption must be rooted out from the top. We have been told by the Bribery and Corruption Commission that it has more than a dozen complaints pending against cabinet ministers, past and present.

What should not be forgotten is that this government came into office in 1994. Apart from the interregnum from Dec. 2001- Apr. 2004 when the UNF Government turned a blind eye to their ministers riding on the gravy train, the balance period has been one where PA politicians ruled the roost.

Given that a once powerful PA minister was discovered with Rs. 50 million worth of certificates of deposit in a private bank vault by the same CID that arrested Mr. Abdul Cader and that the ex- minister had not put this money down in his Declaration of Assets, there are bound to be legitimate questions as to why Mr. Cader is in remand and not a Mr. Ratwatte.

These are the contradictions that need to be avoided. Thus, while we support the fresh initiative against the people who betrayed the public's trust, who helped themselves to monetary gains from public funds and the meagre resources of the State, we need to stress that this initiative cannot be selective. It cannot be partisan because then, the government is itself engaging in a corrupt practice of providing a protective shield for those who support it, while launching a witch-hunt against those who oppose it.

Transparency International is one public-interest group that is at least trying to make a difference. In its latest report, it states the obvious that corruption is rife in Sri Lanka, but goes on to say that there is more to combating this evil than through the Bribery and Corruption Commission.

In these very columns only last week we urged that the Commission itself needs reform on three fronts, i.e. a more dynamic commission, better trained staff (with more accountants in it), and the will on the part of the political leadership of this country to stamp out this evil.

Transparency International goes one step further, and rightly so. It says that to curb corruption, public administration reform must include the strengthening of parliamentary oversight and accounting bodies, a more forceful Auditor-General's Department, new laws like the proposed Freedom of Information Act with whistle-blower protection for those inside public institutions who expose corruption, and a proper declaration of political party funding.

A coordination of all these laws and agencies by an independent Anti-Corruption Authority is what it asks for. The existing commission was introduced during an unprecedented but happy moment of agreement by the divergent parties in Parliament when the people could stand the corruption no more - in 2001, at the tail-end of the PA's first stint in office. So, we have a commission already in place, with only some amendments required to give it the teeth to bite, instead of the virtual false-teeth it has now. The question is whether the government and the opposition can join hands and get the act together, again.

A Freedom of Information Act is already drafted, and we cannot see any political party opposing such a law aimed at transparency and good governance. There can easily be unanimity in this non-political piece of legislation. Unfortunately, the focus of our political leaders is elsewhere.

All this maybe too much to ask for, but that does not mean one must stop asking. Now that there is a renewed drive on this front, let there be a roll. Otherwise, tackling bribery and corruption will only be an act of political revenge while paying lip-service to the fight against those who cream off the fat of the land while the majority of our people have to pay dearly for the sins of their so-called leaders, and to live in a country now fast being left behind by the rest of the progressive world.

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