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Sri Lanka in 2023: Challenges and beyond?

Has the symbiotic interdependence between the political system, politicians and religious institutions been a major contributory factor for Sri Lanka’s economic bankruptcy? Do the current political system and the politicians it produces equipped to address challenges in 2023 and beyond?

6 mins read
Front view of the old Parliament now functioning as the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo [ Photo: Sri Lanka Guardian]

“A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker – It’s not what you say but what you do that defines you – Buddha

“Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.” – Buddha

The year 2022 will end as the year that turned Sri Lanka on its belly. It demonstrated that while some political leaders were well-meaning and did what they thought was good for the country, the collective effort of 75 years of independent governance had ended in the economic bankruptcy of the country and owing more than what it is economically worth. It has demonstrated that the country is good at living on borrowed money, and it had demonstrated that the country has functioned without a clear vision and a clear strategy as to how to achieve that vision.

It is not the time to dwell on the past unless one is doing so to learn lessons from the past. What is more important is the present, and what one could do to avoid mistakes of the past, create a new vision for the future and move to a better future. 

Not blaming politicians alone for such mistakes is one lesson one should learn as they are a product of the political system in place. Creators of the system and its participants includes the people who elect the politicians. So, collectively, the people, their representatives and the system in place have all failed the country. In saying this, the vast strides made in different sectors of the country are recognized, and so are some leaders who spearheaded such improvements. The achievements of the country are however looked at from the prism of where it is now, an economically bankrupt nation.

One may argue that after 75 years of independence, this bankruptcy extends beyond economic bankruptcy and to social, moral, and ethical standards despite the teachings of three major religions of the world, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam which are well entrenched in the country. Some would take the view that the strengthening of cultural, ritualistic aspects of these religions rather than practices based on the original teachings of these religions have contributed to the social, moral, and ethical bankruptcy that is being experienced. In this regard, it is the religious institutions that should look inwards and question themselves of the part they have played by just mouthing, but not living the teachings of the founders of the major religions.

Politics and religion, or rather the religious institutions and the political establishment has a symbiotic relationship of inter dependance. This is markedly so when it comes to the Sinhala Buddhist institution and the political establishment. Early in independent Sri Lanka, the leader who is hated and loved in equal measure, one who is recognized as the one who gave the Sinhala Buddhist community their due place, and at the same time who is recognized as the person who was the cause of the Sinhala Tamil rift, SWRD Bandaranaike, born a Christian, converted to Buddhism. Whatever the reasons for this conversion, there cannot be any doubt that this helped his political objectives considering that in post independent history, being the first citizen of the country has not been possible unless one were a Sinhala Buddhist.

In terms of the future, a question must be asked where this symbiotic relationship would take the country? More of the same? If the status quo continues, how could leaders of the two institutions, the religious and the political, work together to advance the country rather than themselves? This is one of the most important challenges for the future. While the Buddhist institutions argue that their role is to ensure the protection of Buddhism, their activities have gone well beyond this. Divisions within Buddhist Monks, the institutions they belong to, and their partisan preferences and actions as to who and which party should govern the country, have clearly indicated the real motive of some individual Monks and more broadly the   institutions. This motive being the desire to be a key stakeholder in political governance. In this context, as influential stakeholders, they have contributed in equal measure to the sorry state of the country today. 

The Buddhist clergy is supposed to abide by the Vinaya Pitakaya, the code of conduct applicable to them as Buddhist Monks. Today, this is a joke if one looks at the behavior of some Monks. The Buddhist institution is replete with various internal judiciary positions, all of which are no more than figurehead positions that do not seem to be performing their tasks as outlined in the Vinaya Pitakaya.

While it may be controversial to some, the role and power of the religious institutions and Buddhist Monks, their conformity with the Vinaya Pitakaya and their influence on political governance arising from their political partisanship is a challenge that the country will have to confront with. If their political partisanship, power and influence should remain, and their role as stakeholders in political governance continues, a truly bi partisan economic framework will not be possible to take the country forward. This political bipartisanship has not happened partly due to the actions of some influential members of religious institutions who have exerted a significant degree of influence with the voters who elect politicians and political parties to govern. In this context, such an influence factor contributes either to the success or otherwise of the country’s economic development. If the present status of bankruptcy is to be a yardstick, it can be taken that this influence factor has failed the country. 

Ideally, no religious institution nor its members should engage in politics, and if they wish to do so, they should leave their religious institutions and do so as lay persons. The ability to make this happen is in the hands of the people, and they should clearly and unequivocally send this message to all religious institutions.

Another key challenge for the country and its public is the need for a long-term development framework, at least the contours of such a framework. The very nature of the political system of 75 years has resulted in short term planning of not more than 5 years. There has never been a bi partisan development framework, even within a span of 5 years, let alone any period longer than that. The country needs such a framework of not less than 10 years, and it is heartening to note that the current President is said to be working on a 25-year framework. 

It is vital however for such a framework to have bi partisan (or multi partisan) agreement, and for such an agreed framework to be periodically reviewed and updated to keep it in line with global developments including technological developments.

Such a framework should include major economic drivers such as an export development plan, an import substitution plan, a tourism plan, an agriculture plan to assure food security, a plan to maximize land and water utilization, an industrial development plan that includes Port development, sustainable energy development etc., and an education plan that prepares the future generations to meet the challenges posed by such an economic framework. Besides these, the health of the nation is paramount, and the framework should include plans for long term primary and curative healthcare in the country.

It is questionable whether the people nor their representatives, and other institutions that influence governance planning and decision making will have the foresight nor the guts to make far reaching decisions for the benefit of future generations. Ad hoc planning has been the order of the day for 75 years, and sadly, it is quite likely that this situation will continue for another 75 years if not more. 

Sri Lanka has faced its gravest economic and social crisis since independence, and this has not been sufficient for the political leaders and their parties, in particular the Opposition parties, to work with the governing party and agree on an economic framework to lift the country out of its morass. Calling for fresh elections is the only plan they have offered to the country.  

Even if elections were held, history has shown that generally, the vote between the governing party and Opposition parties have been split in the ratio of 55 % to 45%. 

If this were to be the case at an election the Opposition is clamoring to have, what will suffer most will be the way forward for the economy as political partisanship, split in the manner described above will stand in the way of a commonly agreed economic development framework.

The country is bankrupt, and yet, the singing and dancing goes on. It has been reported that the appointment of more cabinet ministers is imminent. The Titanic is sinking, but more deckhands are said to join the captain. This may defy logic, but it does fit in with the reality that the morals and ethics of most politicians have already sunk far below the level of economic bankruptcy. 

Raj Gonsalkorale

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

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