Dateline Colombo

Monuments Over Mortality?

09 Oct, 2017    ·   5380

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera presents his thoughts on popular mobilisation against corruption in Sri Lanka and the larger neighbourhood

At the time of Renaissance, a not-so-tall statue of a brave young underdog warrior David, standing just over 5m tall and weighing 6 tons, mesmerised the world. This masterpiece was set into stone with a hammer and chisel by Michelangelo.  On 8 September 1504, when Michelangelo unveiled his masterpiece in the city square in Florence, Italy, the crowd looked on in amusement since they had not seen something of this nature before. The takeaway from this anecdote is that sometimes it does not have to be the tallest piece of work to be the grandest.

In Sri Lanka, the Lotus Tower stands at 350m against the Colombo skyline; it is the tallest structure in South Asia with a cost of US$ 100 million. According to Professor Patrick Mendis, “For defense analysts, this elaborate complex is an electronic surveillance facility funded by the Chinese Export-Import Bank, constructed by the China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation (CEIEC) and the Chinese Aerospace Long–March International Trade (CALMIT), which are subsidiaries of the People’s Liberation Army of China.”  The tower is already an issue of concern for Sri Lanka’s neighbour, similar to the one raised in the past when Sri Lanka had the Voice of America transmission station.

Highlighting a tall crisis in Sri Lankan society, the former Auditor General SC Mayadunne stated, “From among 45 who exceeded one hundred thousand preferential votes, a considerable amount of individuals elected had a history of being corrupt. If the people favour corruption whichever government that comes into power will honour the aspirations of people. Therefore the public must have a sincere feeling that they wish to defeat corrupt candidates.” In the past two months, the foreign minister of Sri Lanka, former president’s secretary, and the former chairman of Telecommunication Regulatory Commission have been accused of corruption. The foreign minister resigned and the other two were imprisoned.

Corruption has poisoned many nations with weak government institutions and weak political cultures. As William Shakespeare aptly puts it in Hamlet, "It will but skin and film the ulcerous place/Whilst rank corruption, mining all within/Infects unseen". In present day Lanka, the former auditor general attempted an explanation in an interview for the Sri Lankan newspaper, Daily Mirror. The Audit Bill will assist this government that came to power with the central theme of fighting corruption and establishing rule of law.

A few weeks ago, a Symposium of Economic Crime was held at Cambridge University, with 700 senior legal experts, public officials and scholars. The author spoke at the symposium on the importance of strengthening Sri Lanka's regulatory body, including the auditor general's office. Professor Tim Morris of Oxford University explains, "To lead change in society, education and participation is key." Today, education and social consciousness have dramatically reduced the numbers of smokers when compared to smoking in the previous generations. In the same way, education on fighting economic crime and the involvement of all stakeholders are essential to root out corruption from society. The fight against corruption was at the heart of the Arab Spring and other large-scale protests in many countries, including Pakistan. The Panama Papers are still to be investigated in Sri Lanka. Due to the amazing work of whistle-blowers and a free media, global citizens are demanding greater transparency and accountability. A culture of impunity need not be the norm - greater social awareness can drive out corruption.

The general population is often uninformed about the extent to which corruption can impact communities. Civic education, activism, an investigative media, technology and social media campaigns can generate interest and engagement in national dialogues on corruption and how it affects the everyday lives of citizens. When people are better educated on how corruption burdens their society’s development and exacerbates inequality, poverty and conflict, they can mobilise to fight it. Education and awareness are tools for change, allowing for vocalisation of grievances and an amplification of public pressure on governments to call for greater accountability.

There is a lot that Sri Lankan policy-makers need to do before focusing on beautification projects. Projects particularly to improve the quality of life in urban and rural areas of the country deserve immediate concentration. While corruption is seen as a monster, there are many other issues that need to be addressed such as the high suicide rate in the country. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Sri Lanka has the highest suicide mortality rate in South Asia and probably even in the world, with 35.3 suicides per 100,000 of the population.

The Lotus Tower, albeit monumentally, symbolises ‘enlightenment’ and ‘purity’. The lotus flower grows in muddy water and lives to rise above the murk to bloom. It is the ones who set the rules (and hold the luxury permits) who need to emulate the words of Buddha in practicing impermanence in physical structures and political thought.