Corruption scandals seem to be following Sri Lanka’s national unity government like an afternoon shadow, growing with time. The first blow came in relation to a bond sale at the Central Bank in February 2015, barely a month after the government was formed on an anti-corruption platform. Former Governor of the Bank Arjuna Mahendran, who was hand-picked by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for the job, was accused of sharing confidential information with his son-in-law’s firm, and helping it pocket profits worth millions of dollars from the bond auction.
Through the bid, the Bank intended to sell 30-year bonds worth 1 billion rupees ($7 million), but the value subsequently grew by 10 times as the country’s borrowing needs soared even as it struggled to finance a weak economy. More than 50% of the issue was sold to Perpetual Treasuries, a subsidiary of a company owned by Mr. Mahendran’s son-in-law, Arjun Aloysius. While Mr. Mahendran and Mr. Aloysius have denied the allegations, the scam became a reference point for corruption in the time of ‘Yahapalanaya’ (good governance).
More recently, a witness testifying before a commission probing the bond scam, accused Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake — who was Finance Minister until May — and his family of accepting lease rental money from Mr. Aloysius. Her accusation put the government in a spot again. “Given the hope and expectation raised in 2015 regarding the restoration of good governance and the rule of law, the failure of Minister Karunanayake to resign and the failure of the government to ensure his resignation will risk unfavourable comparison with its predecessors,” Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, said in a statement.
With pressure mounting and a likely no-confidence motion in Parliament, Mr. Karunanayake resigned on Thursday. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was quick to hail his stepping down as a “new political culture” in the country, and many members of the United National Party (UNP) he leads echoed the sentiment. Critics, however, challenged this narrative. They recalled the resignation of former Law and Order Minister Tilak Marapana in 2015, after he reportedly defended a controversial private maritime security company linked to another corruption case. In May, Mr. Marapana made his way back into the government as Minister of Development Assignments. And now, his name is reportedly being considered for the post of Foreign Minister.
Crisis of credibility
Political observers have been unsparing in their analyses of the developments. Even those who supported PM Wickremesinghe are totally disenchanted with his politics of deception on the bond scam from the beginning, according to political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda. “He is facing a truly serious crisis of credibility before the citizens. Rebuilding that lost trust between the Prime Minister and the citizens will require a wholesale clean-up of the UNP section of the present coalition government,” he wrote in a recent column.
Many Sri Lankans were already frustrated with the government's apparent foot-dragging on corruption cases linked to the Rajapaksa regime and the recent scandal threatens to push its ratings further below. While stepping down on Thursday, Mr. Karunanayake denied wrongdoing and said he was resigning “with pride”, to protect the government and the UNP. His colleagues in the party praised him for starting a “new chapter” in politics. Amid all the noise of these self-congratulatory messages, some wonder if the government is hearing what the people are saying.
Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo