President Sirisena’s unfulfilled promises Traducing right to information
Posted on May 20th, 2019

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha Courtesy Ceylon Today

I was astonished by a news item that appeared a couple of weeks back, to the effect that the Presidential Secretariat was to appeal against the order of the Right to Information Commission that it reveals the Assets Declaration of the Prime Minister. Given what seems to be continuing bad blood between the President and Ranil, this seems odd.

Several possible explanations come to mind. One is that the hostility is an elaborate hoax, designed to fool the country and the Opposition. If Ranil is not nominated by his party for the Presidency, or if it is clear he has no chance of winning, as was the case last time round, he will ensure that Sirisena is nominated. The man is obviously more malleable than anyone else, so Ranil and his poodles, having shut out Sajith, can continue to enjoy the fruits of office for another five years.

The second is that Sirisena thinks revealing Ranil’s assets will bring Ranil credit, since he has so little. I have previously pointed out that I do not think Ranil’s declaration will reveal any ill-gotten gains, for the simple reason that Ranil’s schemes for making money are not for himself, but rather for his party. This is a simple mechanism to ensure that his less perceptive supporters continue to think of him as clean, while he enjoys the fruits of his nefarious activities (and those of his chums) because all his expenses are met by the party. After all, though luckily unlike other influential spouses, his wife does not revel in jewellery and vulgar show, she like him and his acolytes, enjoys luxurious hotels, and someone has got to fund them.

My view is that what will emerge as the paucity of Ranil’s actual assets will make it clear why he has clung so desperately to the leadership of the party, namely that without that he could not continue to enjoy the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. But such an argument would be beyond Sirisena, so, he thinks it best to conceal what he sees as Ranil’s impressive record in not having acquired excess assets during his over 20 years in power.

Forward defence line

Related to this may be Sirisena’s view that Ranil is his best forward defence line. If Ranil’s Assets Declaration is made public, it would be even more difficult for Sirisena to hide behind his right to conceal his own assets. After all, the Commission, while registering that the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law does not include the position of President” noted that the increasing trend among Heads of State is to proactively disclose their assets and liabilities to foster a practice of transparency and public accountability.”

Unfortunately, the President is in a position to play games with the People’s Right to Information because the Act itself is designed to suppress information when the Government wants to be secretive, rather than fulfil the purpose of transparency for which it was conceived. A Right to Information Bill was prominently featured in the 100-day manifesto, with a commitment to introduce it on 20 February 2015 and pass it in three weeks.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. With Ranil only anxious to take over presidential powers, and Sirisena actively subservient to him – as opposed to passively, which is the case now, except when it comes to his own position – hardly any promises were kept, and none on schedule. The draft Right to Information Bill, prepared by Ranil’s little coterie of loyalists, was circulated only in April, and there was no opportunity given to discuss it before Sirisena’s hasty dissolution of Parliament in June.

I do not think anyone else bothered to respond to the draft, but early in April I sent several suggestions to Ranil, and also copied these to Nimal Siripala de Silva, the then Leader of the Opposition. Needless to say, there was no response from either. And of course, despite the hype in the manifesto about the strengthening of Parliament, there was no question at this stage of the Bill being discussed in a parliamentary committee.

What the Prime Minister was up to, in fact, seemed clear enough, now that he had got ready to present to Parliament what was, despite the Supreme Court verdict, largely his version of the 19th Amendment. I concluded the letter I sent him about the Bill with the hope that he would not forget what the country had been promised, once he had had his way about bringing the President under his control – I hope other Members of Parliament also respond. However, it would be best, to ensure adherence to the norms of Parliament, that this draft be submitted to the relevant Consultative Committee of Parliament. It is sad that only a couple of Consultative Committees have thus far met, even though the Cabinet was constituted three months ago. Also I trust your Party will not exercise undue pressure with regard to immediate dissolution of Parliament, since it is important that this Act and the Act on strengthening accountability are passed.”

Premature dissolution of Parliament

Nothing more was heard about the Bill in the next couple of months, and Ranil got his way in June about the premature dissolution of Parliament, Sirisena breaking his promise to the UPFA Parliamentary group in soliciting their support for the 19th Amendment, that he would not dissolve Parliament until the electoral system had been changed. Obviously, the commitment in the manifesto that I guarantee the abolition of the preferential system and will ensure that every electorate will have a Member of Parliament of its own” meant nothing to him. And though earlier I thought he meant what he said, but allowed himself to be swayed by those who pressurised him, I have now realised after his antics with regard to the terrorism we have suffered from recently that he lies like a Trojan for his own benefit.  

One of the basic principles I wanted incorporated in the proposed Act was that information should be a right the public enjoyed, not a privilege bestowed by those in authority. Thus, I wanted the reports that the Act enjoined every Ministry to prepare to incorporate at 8 (2) b (vii) the Declarations of Assets of Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Secretaries of Ministries, Chairs of Public Authorities and all officials responsible for contracts or expenditure over the value of Rs 1 million. Such declarations should be posted electronically. Gifts over the value of Rs 500,000 received by such individuals should also be recorded.

I had put a similar suggestion to Karu Jayasuriya, who was then the Minister for Democratic Governance as well as Public Administration, believing then that he was actually committed to transparency and the eradication of corruption. I proposed to him that:

1. The Assets Declarations of Ministers, Parliamentarians, Provincial Councillors and those heading government institutions that have entered into contracts of above a particular value should be made public. They should be uploaded on institutional websites within two weeks of laws/regulations to such effect being introduced.

I am aware that there may be some diffidence about this inasmuch as some Members of the Government may not have declared their assets as required. The law/regulation should specify that no action will be taken with regard to such, provided the declaration is made available to be made public at the due date. They will also be requested to make declarations for each of the last five years.

2.  A Commission should be empowered to go into these declarations, and institute investigations if the assets of any individual have grown disproportionately in the last five years.

The Thai concept of people being ‘unusually rich’ could be brought into play. The Public should be invited to provide information if there is reason to suspect inaccuracies in the declaration of assets. Such information should be investigated, with provision that assets not declared may be frozen, and confiscated if legitimate acquisition cannot be proved.

3. Individuals who hand over assets which they cannot prove were legitimately acquired may be given an amnesty, on condition of taking no part in public life for a specific period.

It could be argued that this is a form of impunity, but we should not engage in what could be perceived as witch hunts. Regaining for the country anything that has been plundered, and debarring further such activities for a fixed period, should be enough.

4. Any information provided by the public about inflated tenders, undue costs for contracts with national and international suppliers, acceptance of shoddy construction work or equipment supplied, should be investigated. 

Individuals handing over assets obtained improperly through such instances may be given an amnesty, on condition of taking no part in public life. I would urge in particular that attention be paid to the information supplied by Mr. Kodituwakku, formerly of the Customs, who had to flee the country because of threats against him arising from his outstanding integrity and efficiency.

5. Officials who felt obliged to acquiesce in abuses should be given impunity for the provision of information with regard to such matters. Provision should be made for such information to be given in confidence.  

Karu did try to have a meeting with other parliamentarians he thought keen on public decency, but no one came and he gave up. He told me that his hands were tied, as the Prime Minister did not trust him. Sadly, he spent the next four years trying to win back the Prime Minister’s trust, at the expense of the country.

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