ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 33
Columns - Thoughts form London

Diaspora has its say and the minister slips away

By Neville de Silva

That was the great escape. If I borrow the title of a book based on a war time story it is because it truly encapsulates the manner in which Enterprise Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama wriggled out from a head on meeting with a group of Sri Lankans in London.

Minister Bogollagama here to participate at a Wilton Park Conference on "Investing in Peace," thought he would invest some time with a multi faceted section of the Sri Lankan community for an exchange of views.

Basically, an idea because Sri Lankan communities abroad, whether Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or other- have their own hotheads who, like the Roman gladiators of yore, live in a world of blood and guts, gore and gory.

While sections of the Tamil community who believe in the cause of Eelam or are emotionally moved by their perception of the plight of the Tamil community, do contribute in money and kind in support of their beliefs, the patriotic blow heads among the Sinhala egg on whoever is in power to knock the stuffing out of the enemy, but contribute only verbal support to the course they advocate.

Such support from the sidelines- or to use the argot of the Colombo bajjaar, side support- might serve as a palliative to salve the conscience of the tenacious verbal warriors abroad whose weapons, by and large, are wagging tongues.

But as a counterpoise to the commitment- rightly or wrongly-shown by the Tamil community the Sinhala hotheads offer little but hot air to keep us warm in this cold and blustery winter.

This Manichean declaration of war on evil was again in evidence last Wednesday when Minister Bogollagama met with a cross section (some very cross indeed) of persons from all communities at the London high commission. It was the mix as before. Some of us at least have heard this before. Surely the minister himself too has during his extensive travels ( mostly at state expense, one presumes) when he interacted with other Sri Lankans in other places.

While there were a couple of interesting questions on foreign investment in the Trincomalee area and the security of such investment and why an important mineral resource in that area is not being exploited, the questioning finally came to what I thought was one of the crucial issues of the day.

This is not to say that meeting the terrorist threat is not one of the great- if not the greatest-issue facing the country. But there are many who would consider that investing in peace does not mean only finding a lasting solution to terrorism and its pursuit of secessionist goals.

Peace does not necessarily bring development to all the people if government policies are not directed at a better and fairer use of available resources. One important aspect of this is to consciously and deliberately act to clamp down on bribery and corruption. While pursing the quest for peace, the elimination of bribery and corruption from our society should be a primary objective. Like charity, this should begin at home not only because it resides close by but also to convince people of the administration's genuineness.

The country, and indeed the world, knows only too well that Sri Lanka's position in the international index on corruption is on a slippery slope and sliding like boiled bandakka.

Actually there is no need for a Transparency International index to tell the Sri Lankan public of the ever- growing menace of bribery and corruption that infests society. Almost everywhere they go to transact business- from getting their building plans passed to getting a loan from some branches of state banks, obtaining copies of important documents from departments to passports without the necessary papers, greasing is the unfortunate order of the day.

In the business world where the stakes are much higher even more oil is necessary at times at Customs and now tragically at the Inland Revenue Department.

And when it comes to even bigger matters like state tenders and business projects corruption goes climbs still higher. So when one of the Sri Lankan participants complained about acts of commission and omission by government including the current one and said there were so many stories floating around about Mr Five Percent and Mr Ten Percent, the participants had arrived at a truth that is troubling all, even if they are not living in Sri Lanka.

Only last Sunday this newspaper editorially raised the issue of bribery and corruption and what appears to be this government's fiscal profligacy at a time when constraint and accountability are solely needed.

The editorial comment came in the wake of President Rajapaksa's call to the tax department to collect more revenue by squeezing even more the already hard-pressed.

Had the general complaint by the participant been less wordy- a problem that seemed to afflict many of them- and more pointed, Minister Bogollagama might have been less able to imitate the slipperiness of a bandakka on a fork.

When all was said and done Bogollagama called it a "major indictment" and said that "corrupt practices cannot be condoned."
That is all very fine. But I am sure all there wished the minister would have said what concrete measures the government would take to fight and cauterise this canker that is increasingly criminalising our society.

He did not and nobody asked him to do so leaving him with a better exist strategy than George W. Bush in Iraq.

Asking the income tax department to squeeze more cash out of the taxpayer is like asking bank robbers to deposition the money they steal in the same bank. It is well known that bribery has spread into a department that was once respected and run by honest and incorruptible persons.

On increased salaries for ministers and MPs, Bogollagama took the escape hatch saying they get only about £200 a month. What he did not say and was not asked, are the perks that ministers and MPs get other than the salaries, not to mention the hundreds of security personnel attached to them who think they own all the roads and their environs, if not the country. Not to mention the fact that some of them have been involved in brawls and fisticuffs at hotels and nightclubs when they accompanied the children of politicians.

Who is to pay for this colossal waste of money and resources? Surely before asking the taxpayer to cough up, the president and his official household, the ministers, MPs and sundry politicians and hangers-on should set a public example of fiscal rectitude and accountability.

The minister did not, probably because he could not, point out any concrete instances where the government has acted to stop bribery and corruption. The minister has been in two governments run by two different parties. If he could not provide illustrations from the one he serves now he might have engaged in some political archaeology and produced evidence from the past.

Consider the BOI which comes under his purview. Its chairman Lakshman Watawala reportedly conceded that the BOI approved within 24 hours the proposal for a budget airline called Mihin Air which is going to be financed by public funds including money from the Employees Trust Fund, according to media reports. How much trust employees will have in this hereafter is another matter.

But what is of concern is not just the speed with which the BOI acted in this case-foreign investors (if there are any left) might hope that they too were treated with such expedition- but that it was said to have been done even before cabinet approval was granted for such an airline and possibly even before authority was obtained from the Civil Aviation authority which is mandatory.
Minister Bogollagama told the audience that anybody could express opinions and there would be "no repressive measures against exposure."

He might have had second thoughts if he had been in Colombo. While he was investing in peace here the peace was disturbed in Nugegoda where an opposition meeting was disrupted by thugs.

Whose name cropped up in parliament in connection with that? Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva, who was awarded some kind of doctorate recently! For what, one naturally wonders.

An international phrenological institute might be interested in whoever conferred that on him. Somebody said the other day that Keheliya Rambukwella has been awarded one too. What price doctorates!

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.