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Corruption and Complicity perceptions from across Sri Lanka

Photos and text by Raisa Wickrematunge

Discussions around corruption and its prevalence often focus on the highest echelons of power. In Sri Lanka, irregularities around the Central Bank bond issue continue to make the news – with the President most recently extending the term of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry until December 31. Fewer people would think of the Rs 1000 slipped to a policeman during a routine traffic stop – and the vicious cycle it creates. In 2017, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (CIABOC) received over 2000 complaints, the majority of them corruption-related. Yet, of the cases that went to Court, 42 of the 62 cases filed were related to bribes. Groundviews set out to ask people a simple question: What did the word corruption mean to them? Following on from this, did people recognise their own complicity in corruption when, for instance, paying a bribe? The responses, compiled across Jaffna, Ampara, Colombo, Deniyaya and Maskeliya, illustrated the many forms that corruption could take. In some instances, there was resignation, even a certain wry acknowledgment of complicity, in others, fear, reticence or anger.

Jaffna

Unsurprisingly, many in Jaffna were initially reluctant to speak about their personal experiences of corruption. However, a few questions revealed a variety of perspectives which provided an insight not just into people’s perceptions around corruption but also into persistent social issues such as narcotics, alcoholism and underworld crime.

“This government is indifferent. Corruption is well-organised, and done in a covert way. Recently, funds were allocated to rebuild the structures of the market… but up until now, this money has not reached the common Jaffna man.”

“Around 8 months ago, I went on a motorbike without a helmet. This policeman stopped me and demanded Rs. 2,000. I wanted that money in order to drink arrack, so I refused to pay. I was taken into the police station, and then I was asked to pay Rs. 4,500. If I had paid the bribe, I could have got away with that extra Rs. 2,500.”

“Corruption is an on-going issue here. If someone hits a pedestrian on the road with their motorbike, he will go into remand. Two or three months later he’ll be released because he paid a bribe. Even those who kill people will be released. Innocent people are not safe on the road. Sometimes, at night, people come and cut passers-by with swords (Editor’s Note: a reference to the underworld Aava gang operating in Jaffna). A youth who was working in a textile shop closed up and was going home when eight or nine people came and cut him with swords. The police are aiding and abetting these criminals. Youngsters are involved in drugs here, in an immoral way. For that reason, narcotics, including marijuana should be confiscated and burned in public. Young girls are raped and done to death on many occasions. All those responsible should be rounded up and given stringent punishment – that includes those who aren’t careful when driving.”

“This government was voted in on the promise they would put an end to bribery and corruption. This is part of the reason why people in the North and East voted for this Government. Yet it’s found everywhere in Sri Lanka, and I can’t say appropriate steps have been taken to tackle these problems. There is a wide gap between the urban and rural areas. In many cases only the urban areas are developed, and the people are prosperous, whereas the rural folk are suffering. Recently, the Governor of the Central Bank Indrajit Coomaraswamy came to Jaffna, with the purpose of helping female-headed households. The money-lenders here offer loans at an exorbitant interest rate – and many of these women are unable to pay them back. Then the collectors approach these women and ask them to repay the loans at odd hours. The women are treated in a shabby manner and dishonoured in their own homes.”

Colombo

There were some common issues highlighted in Colombo and in Jaffna – specifically, the corruption of police and inequality. Many in Colombo were equally unwilling to admit that they paid bribes. Those who did were resigned to the fact that this was part of a vicious cycle they had to participate in.

“I see the police chasing away innocent people. How can people make an honest living when they do this? Even I make only Rs. 300 a day when I sell lottery tickets. I too am struggling and sometimes get harassed by police. At times, when homeless people sleep on the road, the police comes and take them away. They haven’t done anything wrong. If someone commits a crime, then certainly they should be in jail. But these people are innocent people who have fallen on hard times. Isn’t this a type of corruption?”

“Yes, corruption is a problem – especially at a Government level. As a three-wheeler driver, I can say the police are corrupt too. They stop us even if we haven’t committed an offence and ask for a bribe. We have to pay bribes even to get our licenses. Everywhere it’s the same. We know that it’s wrong, but we do it. If someone tells us we can pay Rs. 500 to get some task done, then we just do it. That’s the way this country is.”

“Three years ago, a thief jumped into the supermarket I work at and stole phone cards. The police traced him to Nuwara Eliya, where he was trying to sell the cards. Yet when he was caught, he bribed the policemen and the courts. They released him. The courts are supposed to be about justice. Instead, they bribe so that the thieves are released, while the case drags on for two or three years, affecting innocent people.”

Maskeliya

The testimony of S Rita* an estate worker from Maskeliya, revealed another aspect of corruption that is so accepted it now barely raises an eyebrow – the act of donations. Despite the fact that Sri Lanka claims to have a ‘free’ education system, most of the larger, prestigious Government schools accept substantial “donations” to ensure children get a place.

“Often, I only have about Rs. 4,000 or Rs. 5,000 remaining from my salary at the end of the month. I have to make do with this to somehow pay off school expenses. Meanwhile, everyone talks about free education, but you still have to make donations, to get your child into school."

On top of this, Rita has to pay for her younger children to travel the 6 kilometres to school by trishaw – and that alone costs Rs. 1,000 a month, let alone the bus fare which she must pay for her eldest daughter, who is sitting for her Advanced Level examinations at Norwood school.

Ampara

Recently, Groundviews visited Ampara, at a time that the area was stricken by drought. Questions around corruption in this area revealed that for these people, water remained of paramount importance, and in some instances, could only be provided at a fee.

“The Pradeshiya Sabha will provide only half the water supply for free. They then take the other half and sell it to the shops for money, instead of giving it to the people who really need it. We have complained everywhere about the lack of water. Every election, they come, listen to us and ask for votes in order to solve this issue… but the situation remains the same.”

“In front of the Kannagipuram Divisional Secretariat office, there is a tank. Many of us have to walk for a kilometre just to get water. Right now the Government is providing this water free since it is a drought. Yet despite that, the officers sometimes tell us that if we want extra water, we have to pay.”

Deniyaya

In the low country estates in areas like Deniyaya, sandwiched as they are between majority Sinhala settlements, a slow erasure of Tamil identity is taking place. Due to a lack of quality educational institutes in the Tamil medium, many of the estate worker’s children study in Sinhalese. Many of the Government workers also speak in Sinhala. In Deniyaya, the language barrier too can lead to corruption, as a field worker from Community Development Service for Plantations (CODESEP) said.

“Sometimes we have seen, the Grama Niladhari is Sinhalese and can’t understand Tamil. When registering a baby, he might ask the mother for the child’s name, and the mother, confused, gives the sex of the baby. That ends up being the child’s name as the Grama Niladhari registers it on the birth certificate. They only realise this mistake, when they try to claim their EPF or ETF money. Then they have to go and change their names, and the process is very laborious. This is when unscrupulous middlemen take advantage of the workers by charging them substantial agent fees.”

As Groundviews discovered, corruption manifests in different ways and appears to mean different things to people across Sri Lanka, depending on context and other factors. While the initial reaction of most people is to point an accusatory finger at the Government, a little conversation (and introspection) had others admitting their own complicity in contributing to corruption. Most of those who did, did so with an air of inevitability, and the idea that this was an established norm. There is some hope. 2017 saw more convictions by the CIABOC on corruption cases, compared to previous years. Yet, the variety of perspectives and experiences shared speaks volumes to how pervasive corruption is across Sri Lanka and how normalised it is in all our lives, rich or poor.

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