Raj Gonsalkorale

Raj Gonsalkorale is an independent health supply chain management specialist with wide international experience. Writing is his passion.

Sri Lanka: Aragalaya has a message — Don’t shoot the messengers

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6 mins read

During a meeting in Anuradhapura recently, President Wickremasinghe, deliberately, or inadvertently and/or innocently touched on a core issue that is at the heart of the dissatisfaction people have with the political system and what it has produced over the years. He mentioned that the original spring (or ulpotha) that gave rise to subsequent political parties, (authors remark, Sinhala Buddhist oriented parties) was the United National Party (UNP). He mentioned late SWRD Bandaranaike who was in the UNP, and who subsequently formed the Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP), a section of which has since evolved into the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party (SLPP) under the leadership of the Rajapaksa brothers, Chamal, Mahinda, Basil, and Gotabaya, and whose father late D A Rajapaksa had broken away from the UNP along with SWRD Bandaranaike to form the SLFP, and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), a breakaway from the UNP, had their origins in the UNP.  In making these observations, President Wickremasinghe extolled all these parties to come together now in the country’s hour of need as they all had a common source of origin.

While all political parties must come together at this hour of need to forge a future together from the ashes of the economic debacle that the country is in, President Wickremasinghe must realise that such a coming together cannot be and must not be for a return to the status quo and to perpetuate the system that has existed since independence, as it is this system that has brought about the economic bankruptcy of the country.

The system that political leaders and political parties established and managed since independence had some successes, but many failures. The weaknesses outweighed the strengths.  In hindsight, the country can see this and should learn lessons from past mistakes. The bankruptcy of the country in economic terms is a result of the system and those who the system produced and who then managed it. Policy flip flops, absence of strategic thinking and action, huge debt based investments without assessing costs and benefits and return on investments, systemic corruption at all levels of the society, absence of a  coherent and consistent foreign policy, have all been inherent features of the political system that has failed the country. The reluctance and/or inability of political parties to get together to develop a governance policy for the next 12-18 months when the country is at the bottom of the pit is an indication of the dynamics of the political system. The next election and who acquires power is more important for the constituents of the system, than the interests of the country. This is the reality.

In this context, whatever other motives Aragalaya or some within it may have had and still have, the fundamental premise is the need to change the political system. And why? Simply, because it failed the country.

The spring or ulpotha that the UNP was, and all the rivers and rivulets that flowed from it no doubt would have had good intentions overall, but the stark fact is that they all failed. The present and coming generations do not see any light at the end of the tunnel. All they see is the system that failed them, making all possible attempts to resurrect itself.

Rather than arresting, detaining, and charging some who were associated with the Aragalaya, it would have been far more strategic and politically more prudent to have begun a discussion with the Aragalaya and encourage it to have discussions with the broader public rather than attempting to silence its voice. In saying this, there is not even a hint made that any violent action should be condoned and tolerated. However, some would view the use of the PTA, detention, and court action against protestors as nonphysical violence against them if one were to consider these means as part of the status quo, system-wise.

The following excerpt from the Daily Mirror is quoted to support the contention that the system had failed. Quote “the list of creditors in the $81 billion economy ranges from Western sovereign bondholders, who together account for the largest $14 billion slice of debt, to bilateral players such as China, Japan, and India. Then there are the multilateral lenders — the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. The country’s outstanding foreign debt is a staggering $51 billion, with some independent economists estimating that China’s lending to Sri Lanka from 2001 to 2021 amounted to nearly $9.95 billion. Sri Lanka had a foreign debt bill of $6.9 billion that it had to service in 2022 but defaulted in April after it ran out of foreign reserves, a first in the South Asian nation’s history.

The country of 22 million currently has $300 million worth of usable foreign reserves, not enough to ensure a steady flow of food, fuel and pharmaceutical imports. The latest figures from the Department of Census and Statistics show that food inflation in July soared to 82.5% on the year “unquote.

The country’s economic bankruptcy cannot be clearer than this. It is a country surviving on debt, and with almost no assets in the form of foreign exchange reserves to buy its essentials.

When mentioning systems, it is not only the political system that is the subject of the discussion. Many parts of the administrative system, the judicial system, the law enforcement system, the prison system judging by shocking and disgusting revelations made by a recently released high-profile prisoner, are also in a state of dysfunction, with bribery and corruption permeating to these as they have to the political system.

Sinhala Buddhist hegemony has become even more evident and a stronger influence in the outcome of elections leading to who governs and who does not. There is increasing evidence of Muslim extremism from a Sri Lanka perspective, with more fundamentalist Wahabism taking hold in in the country and amongst Muslims. Christian church groups outside of the more traditional Catholic, Anglican and Methodist groups have spread and have become stronger. One needs to question whether strengthening of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony has been a consequence of other religious denominations veering more towards orthodoxy and fundamentalism or whether it has been the other way about. There is confusion as to where the Egg is and where the Chicken is.

The political system, and in a general sense, the politicians it has produced, one inextricably linked to the other, and the unquestioning attitude of voters, their expectation of maximum governmental interference in economic affairs of individuals and society, the opposite of a laissez-faire system, has contributed to short term politics and who gets their vote in return for small handouts. The political literacy of the public, in a general sense, has been questionable as they have been averse to considering and accepting a middle ground economic model.

In this climate, and context, unless the politicians of today take the lead to metamorphose themselves and the system, and learn lessons from the likes of the Aragalaya, the system could well be replaced by something else which everyone may come to regret later. Persecuting people associated with the Aragalaya is not the answer. Listening to their message, and the message of many who are very likely a silent majority, is the answer.

In effect, the current political system distances people from governance, and pays only lip service to the adage that democracy is about electing governments for the people by the people. No doubt there are no perfect democracies, and some might agree with the Churchillian adage that democracy is the least bad system of governance.

The purpose of mentioning these dysfunctional state of affairs is to pose the question where Sri Lanka is with human rights, moral and ethical conduct in all aspects of governance despite its 74 year post independence history, and the much publicized Sinhala Buddhist majority heritage.

If one takes the view that the political system is at the pinnacle of all systems considering its role in political governance, it would not be out of place here to conclude that the root of the cancer has been and still is the political system. Unfortunately, this cancer appears to have spread to all other parts of overall governance, and it is questionable whether it is possible to excise the cancer from the primary source of the eventual spread, the political system. Even if it were possible, leaving such a task in the hands of politicians themselves would be stupid and a guaranteed failure.

A new Aragalaya, comprising of as many non-partisan political bodies and personnel functioning as opinion facilitators amongst the public, should lead the task of exploring a new political system for the country. While some are calling for elections, it will not address the critical need to change the governance system that has brought the country to where it is now. Without a change to the system, it will continue to produce the kind of politicians who have governed the country so far and brought it to where it is today. The political literacy of the public too needs advancement, and this should be led and facilitated by a new breed of politicians as well as by religious and society leaders. The same machine will produce identical sausages. The machine must be changed to produce different sausages. A crude analogy, but a logical one.

A new system that focuses on long-term planning carried out by experts in economic, agricultural, energy, health, education and social areas, which provides equal rights to everyone, including women, which recognizes the ethnic and religious diversity of the country without any one segment of the society labeled as more equal than others, which ensures all citizens are equal before the law and which ensures that adherence with the law of the land entertains no compromise, which has strong punitive measures against bribery and corruption, and which provides for a political governance council drawn from all levels of the society and which devolves administrative governance to peripheral levels, are some features that a future governance model could consider.

One does not need to be an Einstein to say that it would be foolish to expect different results if one continues to do the same thing.

Sri Lanka: All talk and no action

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6 mins read

Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results – Albert Einstein

“Where are the protestors, the system has drowned them. Where is the system, it is where it has always been. Where are the people? they’re all back in the hole they have always been” – paraphrasing the lines taken from the traditional Cossack folk song “Koloda-Duda”, by Pete Seeger for his famous song “Where have all the flowers gone”.

Pete Seeger was a legend in his own time. As the New York Times notes, this musician, songwriter and song collector-historian “helped spur the politically tinged folk music revival of the ’50s and ’60s. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and has remained an activist, notably on environmental issues.”
No one condones violence, and unruly, undignified behaviour. The original Aragalaya movement was the opposite of all this. It was a breath of fresh air, and for once, an embryonic discourse began about changing the system of governance. Unfortunately, it was hijacked by political opportunists who sensed there was a wave they could ride. They rode that wave and marched and occupied the President’s house, the Prime Minister’s house, the Prime Minister’s office and burnt the acting Prime Minister’s (now the President) private residence. A President and a Prime Minister were forced to resign. Some ministers resigned. Many who could not and still do not differentiate the original Aragalaya from the subsequent one, and many disgruntled members of the public cheered. They thought it was the dawn of a new era.
Systems are hard to change, and the hijackers action has managed to restore the status quo, and the breath of fresh air has turned stale. Self-serving politics is back. Deck chairs may have changed, but the farce lives on.

Rightly, questions are being asked whether the Aragalaya was akin to a Soda bottle, and whether the system has subsumed the fizz. Opposition parties led by the SJB are trying to cross every “T” and dot every “I” and there is no agreement in sight as to the kind of interim governance model they would support. The JVP has decided to oppose any kind of all party governance system. Plenty of talk, but no action on the all-party governance front.

Since Ranil Wickremasinghe, Sri Lanka’s accidental President ascended the chair, political parties have been brawling and struggling like schoolboys, each group trying to outdo others. All eying the next election, whenever that is to be held, rather than being empathetic to the plight of the ordinary people of the country and the dire economic situation in the country. Motherhood statements clog the media and airways, and yet no party is yet to come up with some specific immediate, medium, and long-term strategies to overcome the dire situation in the country.

Availability of fuel, even on a rationed basis, and cooking gas, has sent the country to a state of complacency, not realizing that this situation can only last if there is foreign exchange to purchase fuel and gas. No political party has stated how they would find that vital influx of foreign exchange to the coffers. No political party has come up with specific proposals as to how Sri Lanka could make the situation last even if some foreign exchange is found in the immediate term.

No political party has come up with specific proposals as to how the country would find rupees to foot the salary bills of public sector and private sector workers and for health, education, and other essential services

No political party has come up with proposals as to how numerous commercial sectors like the construction sector and the tourist sector, major contributors to the national economy could be revived.
The list of things not done is endless. Yet, there is much talk.

The president’s call for an all-party government, which all parties seemed to agree with in the past, has turned into many diversions. Some are supporting the concept, but are not willing to join one. Some are on the fence and wondering what their future political fortunes would be, should they join such a government.

The ordinary folk of the country are very likely sick and tired of this farce. They are concerned about their children’s schooling which has been disrupted for more than 2 years due to the Covid pandemic and the economic catastrophe. They are concerned about their jobs and how they will make ends meet if they lose their jobs. Those without jobs are struggling to find jobs as there are no jobs they can apply for. They are concerned about the high cost of living and spiraling prices of essentials, including medicines. To add to their frustration and sense of despondency, they are fearing what their next electricity and water bill would be considering the steep hikes in rates announced recently.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel for most such ordinary people of the country, while politicians argue about matters that affect them and their political future. They could have at least agreed on a common plan of action for the next 12 months, with some specific courses of action as to how foreign exchange is to be found for import of essentials, on measures as to how the country’s rupee income could be increased, and how the most affected citizens of the country could be compensated to relieve them at least of some pressure on their living expenses.

They could have agreed on some strategies to ensure how school children could continue their education in their schools. Transportation is a major issue for them as well as for those who use public transport for work or business as there are less buses on the roads and they are crowded to the brim as a result. It is no wonder the covid spread has increased. Without making this a political issue, political parties could have agreed to provide more fuel for buses and reduce the minimum quantum of fuel for motor cars, and increase diesel imports and reduce petrol imports, as most buses run on diesel.

Train services too could be increased combining bus services to and from rail stations so that more people could make use of train services. A similar arrangement could have been done for distribution of goods using train and a lorry service. Food distribution would have benefited greatly if such an arrangement was in place. There are many measures that could be taken to bring relief to the hardest-hit segment of the population and to revive the economy for the benefit of all. Under normal circumstances, if there was no crisis, one would have expected the incumbent government to take such necessary measures. However, the situation is not normal, and the incumbent government is an accidental, interim one. This is where governance must be a shared responsibility as an interim measure until the time is right to hold elections and test the will of the people. The time is still not right for that to happen.
It would benefit the country and its ordinary citizens if all political parties could agree on a few fundamental courses of action and take partisan, self-serving politics out of some crucial areas of governance. Some possible strategies are noted below.

  1. Agree that a general election will be held say in 12-18 months
  2. Agree to form a governance council with the leader of each party being a member of such a council
  3. The governance council should agree on a governance plan for 12-18 months and the President and a cabinet of ministers, with a maximum of 15 ministers tasked to implement the plan and report to the governance council.
  4. Collectively agree to vacate a total of 5 national list parliamentary positions to allow the President to nominate 5 technocrats with a proven record in economics, finance, education, commerce and agriculture as national list MPs and thereafter as cabinet ministers.
  5. Agree to combine foreign policy with international trade policy and appoint one cabinet minister for the combined portfolio. Investment promotion, the BOI, the Port City Commission, and the Export Development Board, among other relevant entities should be within this portfolio. It is strongly suggested that overseas consular activity should be outsourced to suitable private agencies and many of the overseas consular missions closed. Foreign Affairs should be about foreign policy, and Sri Lankan diplomatic missions should be located only in countries where the country could effectively project and promote a non-aligned foreign policy. High Commissioners and Ambassadors appointed should be persons who can promote such a policy and who can promote investments in Sri Lanka.
  6. Agree to have a Constitutional Council comprising of representatives from all political parties in and outside Parliament, representatives from the business sector, the academia, unions, women organisations, etc to seek views from the public, conduct discussions and present a blueprint for a new constitution.
  7. Agree on a blueprint for the economic revival of the country and measures to attract, and conserve foreign exchange, and measures to increase rupee revenue.
  8. Agree on a donor consortium and a meeting of members of such a consortium to extend long-term funding and/or credit facilities for essential imports such as petroleum, gas, medicines, food,
  9. Agree on a restructuring plan for entities like Sri Lankan Airlines, Petroleum Corporation. A Public/Private partnership model, complete privatization should be considered.
  10. Agree on appointing a nonpolitical expert committee to study and submit a plan of action to transform Sri Lanka into an export-oriented, import substitution industrial economy, with self-sufficiency in food to ensure food security.
    Politicians may not know it, and they may not wish to know it, but they must know that public confidence in them is at the bottom of the barrel like the economy of the country. They have an opportunity to take some concrete action now to restore even a modicum of confidence. If they do not do this, and the country’s situation gets worse, as many are predicting, the next Aragalaya will result in total anarchy. International vultures will descend on the country then and its sovereign status will become a just memory of the past.

Sri Lanka: Lest we forget, not Gota, but the political system failed the country

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5 mins read

Gotabaya Rajapaksa made mistakes as the President of the country, and grave ones at that too. Some of his decisions were ill timed and ill informed. Some decisions he should have taken, were not taken. The country is witnessing the aftermath of these decisions and non-decisions.

However, he cannot be held solely responsible for the disastrous economic situation in the country. He did inherit a nation in debt and low GDP growth. His predecessors too are at fault for the economic policies they followed. One of them has now become a pontificator of good governance although he did not even offer an apology to the country and to the families of hundreds who died a preventable death, let alone taking responsibility for a major security lapse that he, as President and Defense minister, should have taken responsibility for. That President, along with the current President who was then the Prime Minister, presided over a decline in economic growth from around 7% to 2.7% during their tenure, and a rise in foreign debt from 70% of GDP, which itself was a very high figure, to 96% of GDP at the end of their tenure.

Many in Sri Lanka have now become experts in politics, economics, budget management, and you name it, virtually everything and anything. Mostly with the benefit of hindsight. Some of these expert voices were not heard when the country progressively hurtled down the path of unsustainable debt. There was no sign of an Aragalaya then, although the issues that were brought to the forefront by the various shades of Aragalaya, were there then, as they are there now.

Not many questioned the unaffordable availability of luxury consumables, all imported with borrowed money. Not many complained about the avalanche of vehicles imports. Not many seemed to mind the loss-making State enterprises like Sri Lankan Airlines and the Petroleum Corporation, as long as the planes flew, and subsidized fuel was provided in abundance. There weren’t many who voiced concern about the huge amounts spent to provide subsidized inorganic fertilizer. All these were funded with debt, foreign and local.

It is not one leader, whether in politics or business or academia, or in civic society, who failed the country. It was a collective failing on the part of many. It is the political system, the governance system, and the leaders it produced that failed the country.

In this context, it is unworthy of Sri Lanka to label Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the sole villain who allowed the country to fall into the abyss it has fallen. While other contributors roam free, some, somewhat disgraced, others have risen as saviors.

In this context, it is a sad reflection on the part of Sri Lankans in particular the media, to provide headline grabbing news items portraying the former President as having nowhere to go. Gotabaya Rajapaksa must come back to Sri Lanka and be afforded the security and facilities that an ex-President of the country is entitled to. If as alleged, he has committed other misdemeanors, whoever who is accusing him of such misdemeanors should take legal action and Gotabaya Rajapaksa should face the court decisions. However, he is innocent until he is proven guilty, and it is an insult to Sri Lanka and all Sri Lankans if he cannot return to the country and be protected as a former President.

He should be afforded the opportunity to provide his own defense against accusations of misuse of power, mismanagement, and any other misdemeanors.

Many seem to have short memories. They have forgotten that the country is free of terrorism and a separatist war thanks to the contribution made by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to end terrorism and war. His task was a Military one, which he achieved. Others had the task of introducing peace and reconciliation, and they were not able to achieve that lasting peace amongst the communities.

There is no question that family politics and all the negatives that come with power drunkenness reached its zenith with the Rajapaksa political family. The people and the system allowed this to happen. It is time that all Sri Lankans questioned the political system that has prevailed since independence, and perhaps find answers to some questions and find the way forward.

  1. Have the constitutions that the country has had so far, including the current one with its amendments, been beneficial to the country and its progress, economically and socially.
  2. Economically, the country is nearly bankrupt with debt levels suffocating it, with income streams severely impacted due to COVID. Do the readers think this situation is only account of COVID? If not what else?
  3. Socially, minority issues, especially aspirational issues, equality and equity, women’s rights, language issues, accountability issues, corruption, unethical conduct, etc., etc., still beset the country. Is it the constitution that is at fault or the politicians which the constitution produces?
  4. In reality, while one can boast that people, through their representatives, decide on policies that successive governments have introduced, is this so or is it a fallacy? Except at the time of casting their votes, at what point till the next election do people participate in policy determination? Even during elections, do people really discuss, debate, and decide on policies contained in manifesto’s or are they purely looking for some immediate benefit from one side or another?
  5. Do people have a choice in who is standing for elections from a political party?
  6. Are political parties democratic and is there a people-oriented process to elect their leaders?
  7. Does the system in place facilitate the effective participation of experts in economics, business, agriculture, health, education, fisheries, and other key areas of the economy in policy formulation, or is this process limited to a few “yes” men and women who say what politicians wish to hear?
  8. The cost of conducting elections is very high, with the last Presidential Election costing around Rs. 5 billion and the General Election around Rs. 10 billion. To this cost one has to add what candidates and their supporters spend on elections. The issue is not necessarily the overall cost, but whether there has been a justifiable return to the country on the investment made because of the elections, and whether the return has been more for the candidates and their sponsors.
  9. Buddhism, as defined more and more by the Buddhist institution from cultural practices rather than by the doctrinal practices introduced by Buddha, has been given pride pf place in the constitutions while other religions have been more or less “accommodated” in them. One should ask whether societal values, ethical behaviour on the part of the people as well as the elected leaders, and indeed on the part of some members of the Buddhist institution have progressed to towards the Buddha’s doctrinal teachings. The question to be asked is whether the State should be secular, and all religions treated equally, and their role limited essentially for spiritual practices as per their respective religions.
  10. Finally, while there would be many more questions that are bound to posted, challenges to what has been stated here, the objective behind posing these questions is for one to contemplate whether, despite whatever achievements of the past, the coming generations will be served well in years to come with a constitution more or less in the same vein and only cosmetically changed, or whether it is time to think outside the box as it were, and consider a constitution that will produce better outcomes rather than what 70 years of independence has delivered to Sri Lankans, then and now.

The author posed these questions in an article titled “Contours for a new constitution with a difference, for the future, not the past”