Arjuna Mahendran, Sri Lanka's former central bank governor, appears be back in business. President Maithripala Sirisena appointed Mahendran as governor in January 2015, after Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency. Mahendran is a controversial figure whose tenure at the central bank was plagued by scandal; he still hasn't been exonerated. (Mahendran had expressed an interest in being reappointed to an additional term as governor and is close to Ranil Wickremesinghe, the nation's prime minister.)
According to Colombo Telegraph, a London-based news outlet, Mahendran will be working as "Head of the Sri Lanka Five Year Development Plan". A Sri Lankan daily has reported that he'd be getting "a top post" and that his portfolio would include negotiating trade deals and helping to create jobs. However, the Ministry of Development Strategies and International Trade subsequently released a statement noting that Mahendran would not be involved in trade negotiations. The prime minister's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Indrajit Coomaraswamy was recently appointed to replace him as governor. The appointment of Coomaraswamy has widely been interpreted as a positive development.
So what are we to make of this latest news about Mahendran? If the prime minister has tapped him for a new post, what might that mean?
Unfortunately, there are worries, both domestically and internationally, that Sri Lanka's new government may not be up for dealing with high-level corruption. Let's keep in mind that corruption was a key reason why Rajapaksa lost the presidency eighteen months ago.
Wickremesinghe's "preference is to work with a small circle who are personally close to him and are known to be efficient in their work" and Mahendran "falls into this category," says Jehan Perera, executive director of the Colombo-based National Peace Council. If the initial reports are accurate, Perera notes that it "would have been more judicious to wait [to offer Mahendran a new job] till investigations are completed."
Colombo has made some high-profile arrests this year. Namal Rajapaksa, the former president's son, was arrested over money-laundering this month. Another son, Yoshitha Rajapaksa, was arrested for money-laundering in January. Basil Rajapaksa, the ex-president's brother, was arrested this month too. He's been arrested on other occasions and has been indicted twice. His trial date (over the misappropriation of public funds) has been set for December.
Numerous allegations continue to hang over the Rajapaksas and a multitude of corruption investigations remain ongoing. Nonetheless, investigations and arrests are one thing; indictments and convictions another. Besides, corruption concerns on the former president's watch go well beyond his immediate family. Whether Sri Lanka ever roots out high-level corruption or not, the prime minister's apparent insistence on keeping Mahendran in government is not an encouraging sign.