Hoisted in a Penthouse: Forty years of Open Sesame
Posted on August 5th, 2017

by Rajan Philips Courtesy The Island

The evidentiary revelations about the leaser-dealing over a Colombo penthouse could not have come at a worse time for the government. It has pushed the wedge between the President Sirisena and the Prime Minister even deeper, as there is bound to be disagreement between them about what to do with a ‘minister terrible’ like Ravi Karunanayake. The penthouse saga has also marred the sycophantic celebrations of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s forty years in public life. Perhaps, it is poetic comeuppance for the government’s brazen sordidness. What the Rajapaksa brothers could not complete in ten years, the present scallywags have done in two. If it was farce under the Rajapaksas it is also farce with the present government.

The people voted to stop the earlier farce from turning into tragedy, like what Venezuela is now going through. Only the voters can stop the current farce becoming a different tragedy, unless the president whom they elected has it in his guts to stop it sooner. President Sirisena will have a lot to answer if Ravi Karunanayake were to continue as cabinet minister on the poppycock premise that he was innocent of what his family was doing in first leasing and later buying the luxury penthouse with the support of their perpetual benefactors. If what was reported yesterday was correct, the President has indeed asked for the Minister’s resignation. The advice was purportedly given during the dinner at Temple Trees to felicitate the Prime Minister. We can only wait to see if the advice is taken, and if more than one head will start rolling.

There is also amoral message emanating from the storied penthouse for the fortieth anniversary of Sri Lanka’s open economy. For what has been hoisted in the Colombo penthouse is nothing less than the moral decadence and cultural debauchery emblematic of the crony beneficiaries of the open economy and their political benefactors. It is not the open economy that is to be faulted, but the cronies who hijacked it and the politicians who aided and abetted the hijacking. Beneficiaries and benefactors play alternating roles in the open economy and the rotten politics that goes with it. Those who benefit from the economy look after their political guardians, and the political guardians protect their cronies from laws and regulations that apply only to ordinary people.

And the political message is no less sickening. Apart from being asked by the President, and seemingly not at all by the Prime Minister, the minister has shown no intention, let alone shame, of resigning because he is electorally secure under the proportionate/preferential voting system, and he can bully his party to give him a safe top spot on the candidate list. Imagine the long gone days of energized parliaments. Day in day out the opposition would have been screaming for answers from ethically faltering ministers or government members. Now there is only a half-hearted no-confidence motion, with minimum signatures, and brought up after the fact, so to speak – after everything was brought out at the Commission of Inquiry probing the Central Bank bond scam.

One great merit of the parliamentary system is that it provides a daily forum for holding the government’s feet to the fire. Donald Trump and the United States are the perfect example of what happens in a country when there is no forum to force the head of government to rise on his feet and be accountable on a daily basis before his elected peers. Imagine, Donald Trump as Prime Minister in the British House of Commons Question Period. What an incoherent spectacle Mr. Trump would be in a fiery parliament, where he will have to speak full sentences and not just type 140-character tweets. Sri Lanka now provides the perfect example of an emaciated parliament where hard questions are avoided and serious answers are not needed.

If the Minister resigns, as he has supposedly been asked to at long last by the President, that will be the end of the matter for one and all. There will be an audible sigh of relief within the UNP higher-ups and among the Rajapaksas. But the relief could be short-lived if the Commission of Inquiry is given the time and support to complete its probe and present its findings without fear or favour. It is the best chance the country has to at least start dismantling the web of quid-pro-quo culture of corruption that binds our political and financial establishments.

The evolution of corruption

To go back another thirty years, the years soon after independence, it was all about the UNP being the Uncle Nephew Party and about joining the UNP (not the Navy) to see the world. The Left, especially Pieter Keuneman, was having the time of its life coining phrases to mock the UNP for its nepotism and favouritism. Those were the days of ‘Old School’ bonds and ‘family bandyism’. They have not attenuated or disappeared but have morphed and magnified into a complex web of new families, newly mushroomed international schools, and bonds of many kinds. The web of relationships and ties and bonds is now stretched far and wide. It is perpetual in more sense than one.

“Loyal to Royal” is the title of a salivating hagiography published in the Daily News last week to mark the PM’s 40th anniversary of entering parliament. It is also forty years since President Jayewardene ushered in International Schools as a counter to native schools producing and reproducing the ‘children of 1956.’ Now we have the alumni of international schools wheeling and dealing over their parents’ and grandparents’ hard-earned wealth. Two of the more illustrious of these alumni took centre stage in the penthouse drama of 2016, adding a new dimension to the original bond scam.

The scale of transactions is as mind boggling as the undocumented sources of bags of money moved by cars and stored in unaudited company safes. A fifth floor penthouse is as low as you can get in the new global market of competing high rises. But the casual mention of US$ 8,000.00 as its going monthly rent shows how very casually the property assets have been inflated to keep up with the global Joneses and to the detriment of local Silvas and Sinniahs. The urge for keeping up is also the source of corruption that pervades individual and institutional transactions involving tenders, contracts and purchases of goods and services of all kinds.

Far from shrinking government involvements, the open economy in Sri Lanka has expanded them. Before 1977, it was the era of state corporations inefficiently producing consumer and capital goods. There was plenty of political jobbery in the corporations but little surplus to foster anything like penthouse corruption. The floodgates were opened quite literally, after 1977, with the state impetus being directed to mega infrastructure projects. The UNP invited international contractors and their state sponsors to implement the far flung Mahaweli projects. The Rajapaksas turned to China for developing Hambantota and the Colombo Port City, and more disastrously to Iran to divert Uma Oya. The accelerated development blast created a fertile terrain for all manner of corruption involving contractors, commission agents, money lenders and of course the political masters.

There is no letting up in spite of all the promises of yahapalanaya. In fact, the new Minister of Finance, who gave up his old Foreign Affairs portfolio to the old Minister of Finance, completed the forty-year open economy circle when he declared Hambantota as the new Mahaweli. By that token, Mahinda Rajapaksa could be the later-day JR Jayewardene. After all, the Rajapksas find much common ground with the UNP. Their antagonists are Maithripala Sirisena and Chandrika Kumaratunga.

One has to only listen to President Sirisena as to why no one from the old regime is being prosecuted. And one can only feel sorry for the daughter who is bewildered as to why only her father is being singled out for public ridicule and political punishment. We can also blame it on the open economy and the penthouse cravings it created among its crony beneficiaries.

One Response to “Hoisted in a Penthouse: Forty years of Open Sesame”

  1. Ananda-USA Says:

    Ali Baba and his 40-Thieves SHOULD GO!

    They have DONE ENOUGH DAMAGE to our Motherland!

    Anichchawata Sankara, Yamapalanaya!

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