Corruption – the Issue of Major Political and Economic Significance

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Corruption has become an issue of major political and economic significance over the years. Corruption is, in its simplest terms the misuse of public power for private profit. However, the definition of corruption varies from person to person. Corruption does not always mean the same thing or has the same impact or motivation. According to the Global Corruption Report (2004) “Political corruption is the abuse of entrusted power by political leaders for private gain, with the objective of increasing power and wealth.” (Transparency International, 2004, pg.11) Politicians often apply the term corruption to the abuse of public powers; it describes a pattern of behaviour that can be found in almost every area of life.

Corruption scandals have brought the governments to collapse in both major industrial countries and developing countries. Through theoretical research, it is recognized that corruption can occur where rents exists (Mauro, 1996) Since the ultimate source of rent-seeking behavior is the accessibility of rents, corruption is likely to occur where restrictions and government intervention lead to the presence of such excessive profits.  Some examples include trade restrictions, industrial policies, price controls, multiple exchange rate practices and foreign exchange allocation schemes. Some rents may arise in the absence of government intervention, as in the case of natural resources, such as oil, whose supply is limited by nature and whose extraction cost is far lower than its market price. One would expect that corruption is more likely to take place when civil servants are paid very low wages and often must resort to collecting bribes in order to feed their families (Mauro, 1996) All the causes of corruption unavoidably have consequences for the whole society.  A major consequence of corruption is the reduction of economic growth, which also results from the lowering of private investment, lowering incentives to invest for both domestic and foreign entrepreneurs, political instability and weak legislative and judicial systems (Mauro, Paolo, 1998)

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            The main focus of this paper is to explain the corruption in Sri Lanka and determine the roots of political corruption in that third world country. Corruption appears to be commonplace in Sri Lanka because of the ethnic conflict, the ineffective law enforcement, the overall poverty of this third world country.

Ethnic conflict is a major factor that has caused and will cause corruption in Sri Lanka. The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is an ongoing conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Sri Lankan Tamils. . The Sinhalese and Tamils, each has their own ethnicity, language, culture, customs and religion. The ethnic conflict between the two groups started after the year of 1920. During this time, the Sinhalese outnumber the Tamils six to one, which scared Tamil politicians in regards to universal-suffrage. (DeVotta, Neil, 2002) Since in the early days the Tamils were more in favour by the British, Sinhalese community fought for power since they are the majority of the country. In the elections of 1956 the Sinhalese party won an absolute majority supporting the Sinhalese people only. The Tamil minority was in no position to influence any aspect of the new Parliament. The new ruling coalition introduced the Official Language Bill, which made Sinhala the sole official language. While the Bill was being debated in the Parliament, ethnic violence erupted in Colombo and Eastern Sri Lanka. The new government demanded that the Sinhala-Buddhist majority should receive the majority of public sector jobs. (DeVotta, Neil, 2002) And corruption paved a way for this to happen through nepotism and cronyism. That was not the end of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism: within months of the election, legislation was passed making the Sinhala the sole official language and the Tamils were not granted a bilingual status as a minority group. (DeVotta, Neil, 2002) Ethnic conflict leads towards discrimination and favoritism within the government and employment market, paved the way for corruption in the Country.

The Tamil populations were facing oppression in the first year when Sinhalese received independence. “With the enactment of the citizenship Act of 1948,denied million Tamils their basic right to citizenship, rendering them statelss.” (Ponnambalam, Satchi, 1983. p 6) The extremist Tamil groups began a series of terrorist attacks against all of those who did not support the creation of an independent Tamil state. The Sri Lankan government controlled by the Sinhalese majority responded by inflicting horrible slaughter upon the Tamil population. This brought corruption in Sri Lankan governmental system.  The emergence of conflict between ethnic communities was one of the most important characteristics of the political conflict in Sri Lanka. After the Official Language Bill the Sinhalese was being discriminatory and continued to be a critical issue to the Tamils. While there was some ethnic violence in these early years of independence, these disputes primarily remained political and the ethnic animosity remained as cynical rhetoric. (Johnson, Robert. 1998) This started to change as the government’s economic plan began to fail in the 1960s. The nation went bankrupt, and, by the end of the decade, fully 25 percent of the population, both the Sinhalese and Tamil, were unemployed. (Johnson, Robert, 1998)

The emergence of conflict between ethnic communities was one of the most important characteristics of the political conflict in Sri Lanka. Although major multi-ethnic political parties existed, the minor parties were based on Sri Lanka’s ethnic divisions. “The ethnic divisions in politics paved the way for conflict in political interests between Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups, which were reflected by the post-independent competition for political power.” (Abeyratne, Sirimal. 2004, p.1299) This division in politics was transferred in terms of corruption in government and public service sectors. However, it is still argued that the root causes of corruption run well beyond ethnic conflicts and that a problem, which looks like the result of an ethnic conflict, is rather a case where ethnic differences are only a mobilization device rather than the root cause of the problem. (Abeyratne, Sirimal. 2004)

Therefore, the current ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka demands the attention of the international community. The continued disagreement has caused turmoil and dramatic polarization within the Sri Lankan state. Acts of terrorism from both the Tamils and Sinhalese have escalated the situation, instilling fear and a sense of instability in all factions of the Sri Lankan population. This kind of corruption can be eliminated by the law enforcement being stable. The political instability in Sri Lanka complicates the peace process and impedes the determination of long-term political solutions. The Tamils need to be included in the government and have equal freedom as the Sinhalese.

Law enforcement is the insuring obedience to the laws. In general, lack of law enforcement leads to the corruption in society. One of the major causes of corruption in Sri Lanka is due to the ineffective law enforcement. There are countries that are able to punish those who does not abide the law and involve themselves in unlawful activities. This brings fear to people and forbid them from being corrupted and doing wrongful activities.  Whereas in Sri Lanka, law enforcement is ineffective. With ineffective law enforcement corruption becomes widespread and inevitably affects the country. A lawless society cannot construct the regulation needed for the functioning of basic economic and social institutions, which deliver the required services for a vibrant economy.

The duty of the law enforcement agency is to enforce the law according to the procedures established. The duty of the head of the police department is to ensure that the department enforces the law of the land. (Asian Human Rights Commission – Statement) But in Sri Lanka the main offenders of corruption are the police officers and the investigating officers themselves. (Transparency International, 2002) An example of this is the article “Sri Lankan police on rape charge” by Frances Harrison. A judge in Sri Lanka has ordered the arrest of four members of the security forces allegedly involved in the gang rape of two young Tamil women. (Harrison, Frances. 2001) And the major factors that influenced this type of corruption were discretionary powers of law enforcement authorities and the influence of powerful interest groups. (Transparency International, 2002) This shows how the police sector was seen as a major factor that leads to corruption in Sri Lanka.

The system of law enforcement in Sri Lanka is so weak that it cannot cope with any crisis situation. The only way that it can deal with anything more than minor crime is by the use of direct violence which is one of the reasons that corruption arises in a country. Poor people have to pay low or middle civil servants in order to get access to security, health, education, justice and so on. In Sri Lanka public services such as drinking water, education, and health.  Law enforcement should control the bribery by the public servants. Public services to people are supposed to be free but nurses, forestry guard, policemen and so on are constantly asking bribes and the law does not take any action regarding this issue. This shows the corruptness of the country.

If the law enforcement in Sri Lanka were more effective in that corrupt people, no matter what position in society they had, would be punished in accordance to the law then individuals would be deterred from participating in corruption.

Poverty is defined as the state of being poor and lacking necessary needs in everyday life. There are over 1 billion people living in extreme poverty today, defined as having less than one US dollar per day to survive on that is one-sixth of the world’s population. In the year 2000 World Bank concluded that poverty is multidimensional and the state has been largely ineffective in reaching the poor.  Poverty was viewed primarily as a problem of economic insufficiency, but its meaning has now been broadened to include material deprivation, human deprivation, including low achievements in education and health, powerlessness and exposure to risk. Poverty is one of the greatest factors that cause corruption in Sri Lanka. This causes individuals to become greedy in order to support a decent standard of living.

Although poverty is mostly studied as a consequence of corruption, it can also be a factor in contributing to corruption. Poor countries do not have sufficient resources to set up an effective program. (Mauro, Paolo, 1998) Another possibility is that poor people are more likely to abandon their moral principles. (Mauro, Paolo, 1998) According to the 1998 UNICEF report, “The Annual State of the World’s Children”, 50 percent of 15 to 18 year old Sri Lankan children droped out of the school system annually, and 12 percent of 5 to 14 year olds never attend school. In low-income areas the rate of children not attending school is as high as 30 percent. (Maddawaththa, 1999) This leads to the perpetuation of poverty because these children will have no access to jobs and acquire no skills or knowledge. Poverty is a distinctly rural phenomenon in Sri Lanka with nearly 90 percent of the poor residing in rural areas. Between 25 and 39 percent of the population can be classified as poor, depending on whether or not poverty is measured with a low or twenty percent higher poverty line.

Poverty can be eliminated in many ways.  Some of the ways in which this can happen is by donating aid to those in needs, responding to individual circumstances. A variety of measures have been taken to change the situation of poor people on an individual basis, through education, employment, and other means. Another way is having social protection for contingencies, where people who are most at risk of economic hardship, such as the elderly and people with disabilities, are assisted through the provision of resources or services. Two ways  in which poverty can be reduced is by eliminating school fees and having free heathcare. Therefore, poverty causes corruption, poor people are more likely to become corrupt but corruption also causes poverty, in that corruption will reduce the economic growth of a nation.

Sri Lanka is a third world country that undergoes many corruptions in the country.   Corruption in Sri Lanka is commonplace because of the eruption of violence within ethnic groups, the ineffective law enforcement, and the overall poverty of this third world country. Political competition is one of the mechanisms that will reduce corruption through the practice of honest government that is established with competitive democracies and markets. (Montinola, G. & Jackman, R.W., 2002)

If the costs of corruption are so high, why don’t governments get rid of it?” (Mauro, Paolo, 1998, pg.13) Well, once corruption has taken place with the majority of individuals participating in it, there are no incentives for individuals to change it or refrain from participating in it. (Mauro, Paolo, 1998) Countries that are more corrupt tend to be more politically unstable.

The problem of corruption is earning a lot of scholar’s attention. The ongoing debate is about what programs should be established and how to resolve the issues about ethnic conflict, law enforcement and the issue of poverty. Sri Lanka needs to grow and become economically developed and resolve its ethnic differences, fight poverty. As discussed above there are many ways in which poverty can be eliminated or reduced. The government instead of being a problem to the country should take part in bettering the country. Since the ethnic conflict brings the government to focus on the Sinhalese population and oppress the Tamils brings corruptions and problems within Sri Lanka.  The law enforcement should effective and anyone, including police officers or important public servants, should be prosecuted if involved in corruption.


Abeyrantne, Sirimal. “Economic roots of political conflict: The case of Sri Lanka”, Austirla National University. 2004

DeVotta, Neil. “Liberalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka” 1978

Harrison, Frances. “Sri Lankan police on rape charge” April, 2001. Colombo


Maddawaththa, P “Poverty on the rise in Sri Lanka” Feb 1999
Montinola, G.R., and Jackman, R.W. 2002. Sources of Corruption: A Cross-Country Study. British Journal of Political Science . 32: 147-170.
Paolo Mauro, 1996, “The Effects of Corruption on Growth, Investment, and Government Expenditure,” IMF Working Paper 96/98 (Washington: International Monetary Fund).

Ponnambalam, Satchi. “Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle”, Zed Books Ltd, 1983.

Robert Craig Johnson. “Tigers and Lions in Paradise: The Enduring Agony of the Sri Lankan Civil War”. Chandelle. November/December 1998

Transparency Internatinal”Corruption Perceptions Index” 2004


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Corruption – the Issue of Major Political and Economic Significance. (2016, Aug 15). Retrieved from

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