Interview + Ex-Corruption Investigator:
Civil Servants Who Speak Out ‘Isolated, Then Beaten’
Former senior member of the government commission into fraud and corruption, Lacille de Silva, says that in Sri Lanka civil servants can never act independently.
Senior Sri Lankan civil servant Lacille de Silva was the former secretary to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Serious Acts of Fraud and Corruption. He was dismissed from the Commission, also known as PRECIFAC, in March last year. At the time, the reasons for his dismissal appeared murky. His one-year contract would not be renewed, was the official reason. Others suspected he had been dismissed because he was too good at his job.
Over a year after his dismissal, de Silva talked to The Catamaran about whether civil servants in Sri Lanka can ever be truly independent and whether he believes the PRECIFAC is still doing its work properly.
Despite the fact that we should have freedom, everything happens the way the ministers want it.
The Catamaran: You were a senior public servant until your removal from the PRECIFAC. Do you think that in Sri Lanka, civil servants can work with any independence?
De Silva: In reality, the fate of any public servant depends on how the relevant minister behaves. A lot of political pressure is exerted on senior civil servants and their fates are decided depending on the likes or dislikes of political authorities. In other words, there is no freedom.
The deterioration in this situation can be traced back to the new Constitution of 1972. That was when the civil service commission was removed; previously that created a very strong civil service sector and it began to deteriorate after this.
The Catamaran: Would you say that it was better to be an independent-thinking civil servant on the 1980s and ‘90s?
De Silva: Under the present, amended Constitution ministers make all the appointments. So despite the fact that we should have freedom, everything happens the way the ministers want it. Nothing can be done independently.
The Catamaran: So in reality, there is still a lot of political pressure on bodies like the PRECIFAC, despite what we see on paper?
De Silva: Correct. The environment to empower the commissions still doesn’t exist. The people of Sri Lanka really believed that, after the last government was voted out in 2015, there would be space for independent commissions to work freely. But even in the first 100 days, the government breached that trust.
The Catamaran: There seems to be a real lack of enthusiasm among high ranking civil servants when it comes to implementing new laws, such as, for example, the Right to Information Act.
De Silva: That is true. The Right to Information Act is a huge step forward for the government. But when it comes to implementing it, things are the same as ever. I have made several requests – about how civil servants are recruited and about the commission looking into presidential corruption. All I have heard is that they have received my requests. But that is all.
The Catamaran: By rights, you can appeal…
De Silva: I appealed to higher-ranking officials there. But I’ve had no replies to those either. I don’t think the facilities are in place to make the law work properly.
The Catamaran: Previously you said that the government was taking a strong stand against fraud and corruption. What is happening now, in this area?
De Silva: When I was on the PRECIFAC, I felt like we had all the necessary facilities. If I needed something, I spoke to the president and got the facilities. In fact, a former president was brought before the Commission and the case against him was taken quite far. But at the same time there was a lot of pressure from government officials. One minister called me 31 times to try to get me to stop an investigation.
I don’t know what is happening there now. But I have not seen those investigations moved forward. A lot of insiders say the preparation of reports and other activities at PRECIFAC have slowed down.
The Catamaran: Often you seem like a voice in the wilderness, as though you are the only person being critical.
De Silva: Why are other civil servants silent? Why don’t Sri Lanka’s intellectuals say something? Because power is with the politicians. When somebody says something against him or her, they use that power.
Additionally there is no unity among civil servants or among intellectuals. That benefits the political machinery. The one who speaks out can be isolated and then beaten. The first time I spoke out, I was questioned. The second time I spoke out, I was fired. There are plenty of examples like that.