- Some of those investments out of borrowed capital have to date not shown any returns on investments, such as the Mattala Airport, the Sooriyawewa Cricket Stadium, the Hambantota Port
- Then during the last two years of the Yahapalanaya Government, Sri Lanka’s economy was gravely damaged
Sri Lanka is in the throes of a parliamentary election soon to be held on 5 August amidst challenges being faced like never before. These challenges come in the form of an inherited weak economy worsened by a global COVID-19 pandemic.
Adding to the country’s woes are foreign remittances from migrant labor, earnings from apparel exports, foreign tourism and traditional exports virtually coming to a standstill. A second wave of the COVID-19 infection is now threatening to surface and the present government is hard pressed to find ways to stimulate the economy. To add to these woes the costs of living has spiraled with daily essentials of food items consumed by the general masses like rice, dhal, onions and salmon having gone way beyond the promised prices. Daily wage earners have lost their livelihoods and unlike the richer countries the government is finding it difficult to provide social security handouts to those who have lost their jobs.
In the political front, the newly elected President who came into power over 8 months ago with a hugely popular wave due to bad governance has managed to maintain somewhat of the “new broom sweeps well” phenomena, despite all that is not right in the country, thanks also to a weakened opposition. The incumbent caretaker Government in the meantime is campaigning for a 2/3 majority in the parliament, on the pretext that such power is necessary to amend a Constitution which is being touted as not conducive to deliver the people from all evil and to take the country towards prosperity. However, such absolute power, if we are to go by past experiences, viz; 1970 - 1977, 1978-1988 and from 2010-2014 have been catastrophic. So, what choices are left for the people today?
When analysing the choices left for Sri Lankans an examination of the past and the present political situations would be necessary to underscore the perspectives for the country as a whole.
And to add to the waste and corruption were instances of assaults, murders and disappearances of journalists, burning of media houses, shooting of prisoners and protestors that all contributed to a general feeling of a lack of freedom during the period 2006 to 2014
Lost opportunities between 2010-2014
It is no secret that Sri Lanka had its best opportunities to lay the foundation for true peace and reconciliation and sustainable development soon after the civil war which cost the country dearly. Rather than consolidate the avenues for peace, the powers that were, dwelled mostly on the war victory and failed to unite all ethnic groups under a “One Sri Lanka” banner; allowing narrow minded political forces to further separate citizens by race and religion and to create power blocs.
And what actually took place was the then Government going on a spree of excesses, bringing in an 18th Amendment to the Constitution and doing away with the Independent Commissions, abolishing the time limits for the all-powerful Executive Presidency and bringing forth a rule of oligarchy, where massive development projects were undertaken out of borrowed capital and commissions there from shared with the oligarchs. Some of those investments out of borrowed capital have to date not shown any returns on investments, such as the Mattala Airport, the Sooriyawewa Cricket Stadium, the Hambantota Port, which has resulted in the Port being given to the creditor country, namely, the Chinese on a 99 years lease. Prime Land in the Commercial Capital of Colombo, such as a portion of the land filled up from the sea at huge costs for the new Port City and a big chunk of land, which traditionally housed the defense services were sold outright to Chinese companies. The power plant in Norochcholai commissioned at huge costs from China, broke down 29 times in the first year of commissioning. Many questionable deals, like the Petroleum Hedging, The Greek Bonds and the Central Bank Bonds that created the now notorious Perpetual Treasuries, the pump and dump investments in the Stock Market and other controversial deals such as the Sri Lankan Airlines Airbus deal, the, MIG Aircraft Deal, which is a carry over from the war period and many other instances of corruption and waste of public expenditures on tamashas, including the failed Commonwealth Games Bid which was shown mostly on a Virtual Platform, had all contributed to creating new rich breeds of oligarchs and wealth extractors, including from tenders bent. The real wealth creators who would contribute to sustainable development, could only have been deemed a handful.
And to add to the waste and corruption were instances of assaults, murders and disappearances of journalists, burning of media houses, shooting of prisoners and protestors that all contributed to a general feeling of a lack of freedom during the period 2006 to 2014. The murder of a foreigner and gang rape of his fiance in broad daylight by a local councilor and his associates in Tangalle was kept under wrap, until much pressure was brought to bear by the government authorities of the murdered foreigner.
The net result of this period was that although high economic growth rates were shown up mostly from the sudden spurt of foreign tourism post war, the migrant remittances and spending sprees on infrastructure development out of borrowed capital at relatively high interest rates, the economy could not be deemed sustainable due to lack of internal production and innovations for exports, huge debts and seepages due to high levels of corruption.
Although much promise was shown at the start of the Yahapalanaya reign, by having instituted the Independent Commissions and doing away with the unlimited term limits of the Executive Presidency as per the 19th Amendment, yet, as a regime that came to power to do away with corruption and bring about good governance, one of its first acts, even before 100 days had elapsed was to bring about the still infamous Central Bank Bonds Scam in March of 2015. The same scenario was repeated again in February 2016. One of the main culprits was the Governor appointed by the Prime Minister of the Yahapalanaya regime who continued to serve as an advisor to the Prime Minister even after he was forced to resign under pressure. Today, he is absconding in Singapore!
Many were instances where pending cases of corruption and misdoings by the previous regime were brought to light, but, were pushed under the carpet. Some of those cases are still pending and claims of innocence are being pronounced. Then during the last two years of the Yahapalanaya Government, both in 2018 and 2019, Sri Lanka’s economy was gravely damaged and its citizens made to bear the brunt of its ill effects, due to the callous disrespect of the Rule of Law by its very rulers.
Firstly, the country’s Sacred Constitution was violated in October 2018, where an incumbent Prime Minister and an existing Government were sacked by the President without having ensured a parliamentary majority, which action was unanimously dismissed by a seven member bench of the Supreme Court, which brought the country and its economy to a standstill for nearly two months. This was followed by the country having to face up to yet another huge disruption on April 21, 2019, when again, those responsible for the defence and internal security of the country, failed to take any action to prevent mass scale suicide bombings, despite having being provided with intelligence by many sources, both foreign and local of the impending attacks. The resultant ill effects were devastating. This was the last straw that put the nail in the coffin of the Yahapalanaya Government.
Yet, the irony of it all is that the then President and the Prime Minister of the Yahapalanaya Government still continue to remain as the leaders of their respective political parties and are vying for power at the forthcoming elections.
New President and caretaker regime
One of the main promises of the new President was to ensure a secure country. Yet, this promise was sacrificed at the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak by not closing the country’s borders well on time and delaying the closure until the 20 March 2020, in order to allow for the nominations for elections to go through on March 19, having dissolved parliament on March 2 when the pandemic was raging all over the world. Vietnam has only some 300 odd COVID cases as of date and zero deaths, because their borders were closed in end February 2020. The loss to the country’s economy could have been much softened, had the love for power and elections not taken over the love for health and security of the people of Sri Lanka.
There is also, no hope or possibility of recovering large sums of public funds stolen by the politicians in the recent past. The recovery of such looted funds and its re-investment in the country could be one major input to the greatly depleted states coffers and in overcoming the present financial crisis. But unfortunately, the politicians will only protect each other and not serve justice to the general public. Even the health guidelines strictly enforced on the people were not enforced on the politicians.
The country went in to shut down in mid-March 2020 and we all knew what effects there would be on our already fragile economy. We believed financial experts and the Government took steps to reduce the impact. But we hardly find business owners who have received low interest business loans and other benefits announced by the Government. Further, the Government ran a campaign called “Restart Sri Lanka” and yet it was merely a campaign with no proper strategy across key industries to bounce back or restart. Many job losses and or salary reductions have been reported in the private sector as of date.
Discussions are on to amend a circular which could make it easier for persons to acquire forest land for cultivation and mining etc. which is contrary to international accords and also, against the promise made by the President in 2020 to increase the forest cover to 30%. It is also hoped that in the quest of the Government to build roads and highways, including elevated highways, the regime would not destroy the sacred wetlands that contribute to biodiversity, water retention and flood mitigation and some of which are also gazetted as reservations and the destruction of which would mean the loss of such environment for ever and which limited resource can never be replaced.
In the light of the above and of the experiences of the periods 2010-2014 and 2015-2019 and also taking cues from the experiences of the past, such as in 1970-, 1978 and 2010-2014 when 2/3rd majorities in parliament were being enjoyed by the respective Governments of the times, the results became disastrous.
What Voters must do
Therefore, the voters must think twice when exercising their votes during these crucial times where the country has no other way out, but to unite to address the humongous challenges that lie ahead in the midst of a continuing global pandemic. It will be too risky for any one party to have unbridled power, particularly in these present circumstances where the same old faces that have contributed to the messes created in the country, are still vying for power. The voters must make it a point to not vote for individuals who have pending cases of corruption or have been shown to have misused their powers in order to bring in a sustainable and ethical culture in the governance.
Yet, the irony of it all is that the then President and the Prime Minister of the Yahapalanaya Government still continue to remain as the leaders of their respective political parties and are vying for power at the forthcoming elections
Unite or perish
A new Government must ensure that ‘National Reconciliation’ is pursued with vigor, the tri-lingual policy implemented as a matter of priority and social justice ensured for all communities alike. Law enforcing authorities and the Judiciary should be strongly encouraged and supported to discharge their duties strictly according to the rule of law.
A responsible government must invite economic experts, educationists, environmentalists and disaster risk reduction and risk management experts, as also, experts from all industry segments to form distinguished panels to make up a holistic and integrated way forward towards sustainable development in Sri Lanka.
Digitising of governance, education and promotion of e-trade and e-money would also be most beneficial in dealing with the post lockdown strategies.
In concluding and having regard to our past experiences, it will only be logical to conclude that the best way to ensure peace and sustainable envelopment for the country in the present scenario is to ensure that no one party gets a two third majority and that all communities and parties will be compelled to unite towards a common cause, particularly given that the choices left for the people to choose the good from the bad is still very limited in scope.