Politics - Page 3

Sri Lanka: Wickremesinghe’s Machiavellian skills

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During the month, the government’s preliminary talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on structuring its economic recovery continued. However, debt restructuring continues to be delayed with China due to its preoccupation with the 20th NPC meetings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Even negotiations with India and Japan are moving at a slow pace. Perhaps, this is due to their lingering doubts about the Wickremesinghe government’s ability to see through the structural reforms.

In this context, President Wickremesinghe must be heartened by the show of solidarity for his actions by the US and some of the EU members, despite the use of high-handed methods to suppress public protests. Internally, the passing of the 22nd Constitutional Amendment (originally introduced as 21A) to improve executive president’s accountability, the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to curb Aragalaya activism and the launching of the Rise Together (Ekwa Nagitimu) campaign at the grass roots to recoup the image of the Rajapaksas were key highlights of happenings in October 2022.

The events leading up to these important internal developments showed existing differences, not only within the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its cohorts, but also within the opposition parties as well. Of course, during the month political leaders continued to ride their time-tested political hobby horses – new constitution, electoral reforms, call for general election and the not be missed late entrant “investigation and follow up into the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.” The government used the familiar gambit of appointing parliamentary select committees and presidential commissions to tackle the opposition moves. So, everybody continued to be busy doing something.

Strategizing economic recovery

However, President Wickremesinghe appears to be leveraging lack of unity within political parties to adopt transactional strategies to push through actions to achieve targets set in the 2022 interim budget for increase in government revenue and debt reduction. The actions taken so far, include reducing government spending, tackling public corruption, energy reforms to open retail distribution of fuel to private firms, privatise wasteful state-owned enterprises and promote foreign investment avenues. Normally, these issues are considered politically explosive. Despite paying lip service, political parties in power have seldom considered seriously implementing such measures. Given this dismal record of political parties, Wickremesinghe government’s actions do not seem to have animated the media. The Aragalaya movement has by and large eroded public credibility in political parties.

Inspite of the lack of credibility in the government, some progress seems to have been made in improving the business climate as indicated by the LMD-NielsenIQ Business Confidence Index (BCI) for October. Reporting on the state of business, Sri Lanka’s online business magazine LMD said the BCI provided “a semblance of relief; it has climbed a heartening 13 basis points to 89” during October from September’s 76. However, it quoted NielsenIQ Director-Consumer Insights Theirca Miyanadeniya’s assertion “concern over the socio-political status of the country is waning as business and people are in a race to survive against a backdrop of extreme hardships.”

With the major economies expecting a period of global recession in the coming months, it is essential that Wickremasinghe government survives to see the country through the period of economic privation in the coming months. Under such circumstances, the passing of the 22nd Amendment to the constitution 174 votes in favour and one against, may be considered as an indication of grudging acceptance of President Wickremesinghe’s leadership by over two-thirds members of parliament. The amendment was passed despite some pro-Basil Rajapaksa members of the ruling SLPP objecting to the clause on not allowing dual citizens to become members of parliament. This indicated two things: the decline of Basil Rajapaksa’s influence within SLPP and the Rajapaksas continued support to President Wickremesinghe.

The 22A is a compromise between the Yahapalana government’s 19A to curb the sweeping powers of executive presidency and Gotabaya’s 20A to restore the powers of the executive presidency. The bill was much debated by parliament members and the public and its present form represents a compromise solution reflecting some of the key elements from both the earlier amendments on the subject. For instance, it has retained the 20A clause on the powers of the president to dissolve parliament after two and half years, as against four and a half years stipulated in the19A.

On the other hand, 22A has reintroduced 19A’s clause prohibiting dual citizens from contesting elections which was allowed by the 20A. The 22A reduces some of the powers of the president enjoyed earlier under 20A, regarding appointments to high officers of the state including the Chief Justice, judges of supreme court and appeals court, chairmen of the election commission, human rights commission, and police commission and the IGP. The constitutional council created now has the power to make these appointments. The president and prime minister enjoy some influence in picking members of the constitutional council, which will have three members from civil society.

Conclusion

The writing on the wall is clear: Sri Lanka must achieve targets presented in the 2022 interim budget for increase in government revenue and debt reduction to overcome the worst ever financial crisis it is facing now. Otherwise, Sri Lanka’s debt will be unsustainable; international financial bodies like IMF and World Bank do not assist the economic recovery of such countries. Obviously, lack of understanding among the political parties in tackling long pending critical issues, has stood in the way of evolving a coherent national political and economic narrative to restore Sri Lanka’s credibility both at home and abroad. It will not be pragmatic to expect the political parties to give up their pettifogging and bury their hatchets to see through the crises. They are accustomed to using the economic crunch and hardship faced by the people to improve their poll prospects.

As a seasoned politician, President Wickremesinghe is using his Machiavellian skills to use factionalism existing within almost all the parties, to push through legislation to restore the economy. So far, political parties by and large are grudgingly accepting his rule for want of a better alternative. How long he survives this perilous journey will determine the future course of events in Sri Lanka. One advantage he only seems to enjoy is the moral, political, and even economic support of most of the major Indo-Pacific powers including India and China. But much would depend upon how President Xi Jinping will handle China’s economic downturn, that could have its fall out on Sri Lanka.

Tailpiece: Contact with BJP?

A columnist writing in the Colombo weekly Sunday Times said a group of former LTTE cadres identifying themselves after rehabilitation as the ‘Democratic Cadres Party’ were in New Delhi in India recently. They took part in “an event organised by a group that maintains close ties” with India’s ruling BJP. They are said to have had discussions with various influential political actors and policymakers in New Delhi. Their requests to Indian authorities included lifting of the ban on LTTE proscribed in India since 1991 and full implementation of 13th Amendment. The article said their allegations that Hindu shrines were being acquired by the Archaeological Dept and WildLife Dept under questionable circumstances seemed to have struck a chord with the audiences, “given the BJP’s aggressive campaigns based on Hindutva ideologies.”

[Written on October 30, 2022.]

Criticism and free speech not welcome

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Imagine former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee when alive or former Party President Rajnath Singh being removed from a BJP Chintan Shivir presided over by PM Modi. Unthinkable. Wrong. It is possible if Modi, as things are going, becomes the supreme leader of the BJP and the country’s ultimate ruler. But even then it will not be easy. In President Xi Jinping’s new China, under Emperor Xi (or Maximum Xi), anything is possible: from a warlike lockdown zero COVID policy where in some places COVID tests are held twice a day, to remove former President Hu Jintao (79) his predecessor from the closing day proceedings of the recent 20th National Party Congress. Journalists who were allowed into the Great Hall opposite Tiananmen Square have reported this event backed with video footage – many with more than one set of footage – of the stunning event which, but for this unprecedented incident, passed off with peace and tranquility.

The first reports of the tumultuous incidents appeared on BBC on 23 October which showed Hu’s ‘extraction’ with the explanation it was due to Hu being unwell. But the clips that have now become collector’s items, do not indicate an un-well Hu. He is shown remonstrating with the Emperor and also his protégé, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, sitting on Xi’s right. Nevertheless, he has whisked off the stage without a murmur from the 2300-odd delegates in the Great Hall.

The Hindu was the first Indian newspaper to report that something had gone amiss at the Party Congress. Ananth Krishnan wrote that Hu had attended the opening on 16 October and was known to be in ill health and sat beside Xi. Hu insisted on attending the last session despite health issues. On the closing day, he appeared to mistakenly take a white sheet of paper placed in front of Xi which the latter then removed away from him. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported that Hu was not feeling well so his staff took him to the room next to the venue meeting for rest. Throughout the Party Congress sessions, Hu was shown following behind Xi to indicate his hallowed status.

Meanwhile, on its Twitter handle, Xinhua’s reporter Li Jiawen reported the incident on the same lines as Krishnan. The event depicting Hu escorted out against his will when he insisted on attending the closing session has caused a stir. Anybody seeing the video footage will also draw this conclusion. Li’s tweet suggested that Hu should not have attended the session but he did so in defiance of Xi’s wishes. Observers that included several foreign media outlets interpreted Hu’s removal as preventing him from apparently expressing dissent on the removal of his faction (as part of collective leadership of the past) which represented their wipe-out from the leadership. With Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Wang Yang dropped and Hu Chunhua, demoted, (all from the Communist Youth League associated with Hu Jintao) the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee is now stacked with Xi loyalists.

Other video footage of the incident showed that twice Hu attempted to return to his seat: he was not permitted to return by his aides, fearing words of dissent from him. This supplements clips of how outgoing Politburo members Li Zhanshu, sitting to Hu’s left, took a file away from Hu while speaking to him. Then, Xi is seen giving instructions to the escorts who persuade Hu to leave not before he is seen muttering words to Xi and Le Keqiang. Krishnan had earlier reported that Hu’s removal was to ensure that he did not vote in the session where several sweeping amendments proposed Xi is “everything” in the constitution.

Richard McGregor of Lowy Institute Sydney described ‘truly extraordinary’ the incident that reflected a lack of basic courtesy to Hu while ‘wooden men elevated by Hu were frozen and dumbfounded in stony silence. Another video shows Hu going to look at the contents of the red folder in front of him only to be stopped by Lin. Hu later reaches for papers in front of Xi who puts his hand on them to prevent Hu from taking them. The footage read together tells the story: Health issues or not, one thing is clear; Hu could have created a big stir that was not in the script. Every event in the Party Congress is so perfectly choreographed that a misstep is almost impossible. Still Hu did it.

In the new Xi era, he is everything forever. His three aides promoted and chose military commanders in the Central Military Commission (CMC) only a powerful insider can rock the boat. Xi has ignored age caps, replaced rules with political standards (loyalty), and brought core interests (Taiwan, South China Sea, and Senkaku Islands) to the front and middle of the great rejuvenation. The video footage of the Galwan clash attracted applause. The image of the PLA commander, the injured Qi Fabio standing with his arms outstretched facing Indian soldiers heralded the start of the conference. Qi was one of the delegates. He was also the torchbearer during the winter Olympics. China has regaled Galwan heroes signaling longer winters in Ladakh. And rubbing salt on wounds PLA had earlier painted in red in 1962 on a stone at Nakula in north Sikkim. India has to show it is 2022, not 1962. But that will require using power.

The Mouse Squeaks in Bangladesh

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People in Bangladesh want the upcoming national elections to be held in a festive atmosphere and improve the atmosphere so that voters can vote for the candidate of their choice. And that will be sure as shooting.

But it is grossly offensive to decency or morality that foreign diplomats stationed in Dhaka are all rabbiting on over the next general election in Bangladesh, whereas their own countries are at colossus faults in many affairs including the election processes. So, when they want to prescribe us in our national matters, we can take them as if rogues supplant justice.

The next parliamentary elections are still more than a year away. However, like every other time, foreign diplomats are becoming involved in Bangladesh’s election process. But they must cease their interference in the national matters of Bangladesh. The government also does not take kindly to their criticisms and opinions on the election process and the internal affairs of the country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already informed the foreign diplomats working in Bangladesh to stop all these trumperies.

We remind them of the Geneva Conventions to observe etiquette. Besides, media representatives must not ask any question to the foreign diplomats about our election process.  

Last July, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reminded foreign diplomats working in Bangladesh to comply with the Vienna Code of Conduct. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sent a letter in this regard to the United Nations office located in Dhaka, all international organizations and all foreign missions located in Dhaka on July 18. But the statements of the diplomats and their continuous close interaction with the opposition political camps have not yet decreased.

In addition, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. AK Abdul Momen and State Minister Shahriar Alam also urged the diplomats to speak according to etiquette. The foreign minister also expressed his anger at the behaviour of diplomats.

Experts say the letter of adherence to the Geneva Conventions means the government does not want foreigners to interfere in the country’s internal affairs. Therefore, foreign diplomats have been warned ahead of national elections.

Earlier on June 13, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was told in the meeting of the National Committee on Security at the initiative of the Cabinet Division that the diplomats of various foreign missions located in Bangladesh should be requested to comply with the Vienna Convention. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina presided over the meeting.

And so, on July 18, the letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wishes the United Nations Office in Dhaka, all international organizations and diplomats and representatives working in all foreign missions located in Dhaka to follow the relevant rules and etiquette in conducting diplomatic activities.

In view of the recent events, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would like to respectfully inform everyone that diplomats at the public and private levels shall conduct their diplomatic activities in accordance with the proper diplomatic protocol as stipulated in the Vienna Convention of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Affairs of 1963.

In the letter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also stated that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs promises on behalf of the Government of Bangladesh that the Government will provide all the necessary support to all diplomatic missions, UN offices and all international organizations to work.

Several foreign diplomats working in Dhaka said that it is not their job to interfere in Bangladesh’s internal issues. They want everything in the country to go well and be peaceful. This is not true. They say one thing, but they do diametrically the opposite.

Investors from many countries have invested and are doing business in Bangladesh. For this, we want a stable environment and do not want any unstable situation to be created in Bangladesh.

German Ambassador Akhim Troster, Netherlands Ambassador Annie Von Leeuwen and European Union Ambassador Charles Whiteley held a meeting with Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader on July 24.

After the meeting, German ambassador Akhim Troster said in a tweet that it is the main responsibility of diplomats to keep in touch with the political parties and institutions of the host country. So, their temerity is irremissible under any setting.

A meeting was held with Awami League General Secretary, Roads and Communications Minister Obaidul Quader and his colleagues on July 24. The European Union and its member states are tested friends of Bangladesh. Ambassador of the Netherlands Anne Von Leeuwen said in a tweet that a diplomat always tries to communicate with all partners to understand the situation of the host country and to advance development. This abracadabra harangue is not worthy of acceptance or satisfactory.

On June 2, the US Ambassador to Dhaka invited five representatives of civil society to lunch at his residence on the issue of the upcoming national elections. Several representatives of the civil society who participated in the lunch at that time said that America and Europe have great interest in the upcoming national elections. Look at how much brazen-faced and insolent Uncle Sam is!

Former Additional Secretary and Ambassador of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mahfuzur Rahman said, the last July letter is a warning. Basically, ahead of the national elections, the government is warning foreign diplomats in advance that the government does not want to see any foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs.

Because, past experience has shown that foreign diplomats have also entered the country’s politics with their own evil agenda. If the government party and the opposition parties, i.e. all political parties, are responsible, there is no chance for foreigners to turn their noses up.

Foreign Minister Dr. AK Abdul Momen said that the foreign diplomats posted in Bangladesh are mature. We believe they will follow diplomatic etiquette. When asked whether the government can make a statement or protest to prevent foreign diplomats from commenting on Bangladesh elections, the minister said, “We believe that the diplomats in our country are mature. They are honorable people. We trust that they will follow diplomatic etiquette.”

Regarding the recent comments of the US ambassador Peter Haas about the upcoming parliamentary elections, the foreign minister told the reporters that because the journalists asked questions to the ambassadors, they commented on the internal affairs of Bangladesh. He said, “You force him. The poor man was forced to answer. It is better if you don’t go up to foreign countries.”

Come to us. They dare to speak because some of our people go to them. The foreign minister said, due to the colonial mentality, we still prefer something foreign. We have to get out of this habit.

Abdul Momen said, democracy is different in different countries. Bangladesh is the leader of democracy. We gave blood for democracy in 1971, 3 million people gave their lives. Where else in the world? We have struggled in this country when people’s voices have been stifled. When people’s right to democracy is taken away.

He also said that when the genocide was happening in this country in 1971, they did not even come close to us. When the genocide was going on in Myanmar, no one gave shelter to those people. Who did it, Bangladesh did it. Sheikh Hasina has opened the border. Protected human rights.

The foreign minister also said that the current government is committed to conducting free, fair and transparent elections and is not in favour of the death of a single citizen of the country during the election process. We are trying so that not a single person dies.

He said, there are good and bad in every country’s democracy. It is not always accurate. It’s a process. Democracy matures through efforts. We also have weaknesses. We are trying to work out how to fix the vulnerability. This does not mean that they are the best. They also have weaknesses, problems…

State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam said that foreign diplomats should not talk about the internal politics of Bangladesh. They should speak according to etiquette. They should mind in their own business. An old but significant proverb reminds us, “Let not the shoe-maker go beyond his last.”

-The End-

The Deracination of Western Civilization

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The English have an Indian Prime Minister. The Mayor of the British Capital City is Sadiq Khan, a Pakistani. Will there always be an England?

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosted a Diwali reception at 10 Downing Street, marking the return of Lord Rama from exile according to the Hindu scripture. Sunak said: “I will do everything I can in this job to build a Britain where our children and our grandchildren can light their Diyas.” Perhaps this will be an improvement. At least Hindus recognize the struggle between good and evil.

Apparently there won’t be a New Zealand for much longer. The government is considering changing the name of the country to Aotearoa and to replacing the names of all towns, cities, and places by 2026 with Maori names, despite the fact that only 3% of New Zealanders can speak the Maori language.

Similar developments are occurring in the US, Germany, France, Italy. As the West thinks so little of itself, what is the West defending with its nuclear weapons?

Industrialisation: Did Sri Lanka Miss the Bus for Ever?

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Even before the independence, most Sri Lankan political leaders believed that industrialisation was the solution to stand up as an advanced nation and create gainful employment for its citizens. To this end, the Industrial Corporation Act was passed by the State Council in 1944. Mr J R Jayawardena had moved a motion in the State Council requesting to prepare a Comprehensive Development Plan to industrialise the Country. These initiatives show that Sri Lankan Political leaders had conceived the idea of industrialisation and realised its importance for economic modernisation much before other developing countries. Most Asian countries, including the Indian Sub-Continent, imported a significant share of industrial goods from the West.  As industrialisation was initiated much before other developing countries, Sri Lanka could have replaced the imported goods in this region with “Made in Ceylon.” At that time, Sri Lanka had potential and comparative advantages, such as a solid foreign exchange reserve to import machinery and technology, locational advantages, including the best international seaport, relatively good physical infrastructure, educated labour force, and professionals etc., to industrialise

The Journey Towards Industrialization

The initiative for industrialisation paralleled the independent movement. British planters probably were not interested in diversifying their investment in Sri Lanka due to the uncertainty created by the independent movement. Most Sri Lankan capitalists had invested heavily in the plantation sector, a lucrative and well-secured investment. Also, the local capitalist class did not have much experience or exposure to industrial ventures. However, most members of the state council and the first parliament were from the capitalist class, favouring private sector ownership of properties and business ventures. The left-wing politicians, who were very active in Sri Lankan Politics, had exposure to the industrial economic environment in Europe. But they supported the idea of state ownership or the communal ownership of industries. Under these circumstances, private capital was not readily available for the industrial sector.  Hence, the first-generation industries, such as the Kankasanturai cement factory (1950) and the Valachchanai paper mill (1955), were started under government ownership during the UNP government, though they advocated for private ownership. Whatever the reason, since the inception of industrialisation, the establishment of large-scale enterprises has become the government’s responsibility.

Though industrialisation was on the national economic and political agenda, D. S. Senanayake, the first prime minister’s vision was to revitalise the glory of the golden era of the ancient Sinhala civilisation in the dry zone, based on agriculture, especially paddy cultivation. Therefore, the industrial sector and industry-related infrastructure did not receive much attention. And a significant share of resources was diverted to the Dry zone-colonization program and consumption subsidies. Dudley Senanayake, and Kothalawala, the successors of DS Senanayake, also did not change the above policy and continued along the same line till 1956.

Paradigm shift

In 1956 S W R D Bandaranaike became the prime minister who advocated for a middle path and a mixed economy. He believed in a planned development with the state ownership of major enterprises. Accordingly, a Ten-year Perspective Plan was formulated with the assistance of local experts and world-renowned economists, such as Garner Myrdal and Joan Robinson. Mr Bandaranaike’s Government’s upper echelon was a mixture of different political ideologists; the majority consisted of a breakaway group from the United National Party, who believed in capitalism, Members of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, who believed in communism, and various other patriotic groups. As such, his party had no consensus on many policy matters. Though Bandaranaike advocated for a socialist economic policy, the left-wing parties in the opposition considered him a traitor for trying to weaken the left-wing political movement. They did not cooperate with the government programs. Trade unions backed by left-wing parties were a pain in the neck for him. Due to his patriotic and racialist policies, minorities were also kept away from him. Against this backdrop, he confronted many issues between the groups of the ruling party and the opposition parties.

 Also, after 1957, the plantation sector could not generate adequate foreign exchange, and the trade deficit increased and started depleting the foreign reserves limiting the import capacity, which hindered the implementation of the ten-year plan.  Ethnic tension was also amplified simultaneously. Under these circumstances,10 Year Development plan was not implemented as envisaged. With the assassination of Bandaranaike in 1959, the development plan found its natural death. However, in line with the state ownership concept, the Colombo seaport, airport, and Passenger transport were nationalised.

If not for the problems created by trade unions, left-wing parties, and ethnic conflicts, implementing the 10-year plan and the industrialisation process could have taken off the ground as the local and world economic environment was conducive for that. This seems a significant loss of opportunity in our industrialisation and economic advancement journey. However, it has not been discussed much by politicians and economists.

In July 1960 general election, Mrs Bandaranaike led the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. She secured the required majority in the parliament to form a government without the support of the left-wing and other minor parties. But she also faced numerous issues with the trade union actions supported by left-wing political parties, hampering the performance of state-owned enterprises. As a compromise, in the latter part of her tenure, she formed a coalition government with left-wing parties, but it could not survive for long as the right wing of her party broke away from the government. However, during tenure, some of the activities included in the 10-year plan were carried forward, and Mr Bandaranaike’s’ pro-socialist vision and the policy of nationalising important ventures were continued. The nationalisation of the petroleum industry is one of the challenging activities during this period. Several new industries were also established with the assistance of the USSR and Socialist countries. Sugar, Steel, and tire are a few of them. Nationalised ventures, as well as newly established industries, were brought under state ownership. People’s Bank and Insurance Corporation were also found to fill the significant gap in financing facilities in the local economy. While large-scale industries and financial services were state-owned, assistance was extended to privately owned small and medium enterprises in this industrialisation phase. In 1964, a national-level industrial exhibition was held in Colombo to celebrate and demonstrate the achievements of industrialisation targeting the 1965 general election.

Ups and Downs

 However, the 1965 General Election did not give the required majority to Mrs Bandaranaike to form the government. Mr Dudley Senanayake formed the UNP government with the support of seven minor parties. During the period, ventures such as Ceylon Electricity Board and Sapugaskande Oil Refinery were commenced as state-owned enterprises. By this time, state ownership of large-scale commercial ventures had become an accepted norm and no debate on private vs public ownership. Even the UNP, the party that advocates for the capitalist mode of production, complied with this norm. However, Dudley Senanayake’s government’s highest priority was agriculture, especially paddy farming. In addition to the smallholder farming system, he attempted to bring wealthy individuals and the corporate sector into agriculture by alienating large blocks of land and supporting to import of agricultural machinery. This program was greatly influenced by the international movement of the green revolution. However, his government did not make significant structural changes in the economy and continued the industrialisation process with a low profile. 

With the collision of left-wing parties, Mrs Bandaranaike came into power again in 1970 and introduced a significant and far-reaching shift in the overall economic policy. Her government prepared a 5-year development plan focusing on the agriculture and industry sectors. However, before implementing the 5-year plan, the world price hike of petroleum and staple foods created a foreign exchange crisis. It compelled the introduction of import restrictions, much more than the usual tariff protection. Except for most essentials, all other imports were banned or restricted. It aimed to produce almost everything locally to substitute imports and save foreign exchange. This created a void in the market for essential food items and consumer durables such as electronic items, clothes, building materials, agriculture and industrial tools, toys, communication items, and many more. Although the government had followed the industrialisation policy for over a decade by that time, the country did not have the capital, technology, preparedness, and capacity to shift into a rapid industrialisation phase to keep abreast with the vacuum created by import restrictions. Also, it did not have sufficient foreign exchange to import modern machinery and plants to produce quality goods to fill the void.

 In addition to the global economic crisis, ever-increasing youth unrest also reached its climax in 1971 and revolted against the new government without giving a breathing space. In response, the government hurriedly launched several reforms and high-priority programs. One was the “Divisional Development Council” program to employ youths. Capitalising on the scarcity created by import restriction and tariff protection, this program implemented many small and medium-scale enterprises as cooperative ventures to produce consumer goods based on local raw materials endowments. This program did not benefit from modern technology and produced high-cost inferior goods.

This time, the government’s policy did not encourage private sector investments in large and medium-scale industries or foreign private investment. It may be due to the influence of the left-wing parties of the coalition. Running Hotels and restaurants, importing building materials, textile vehicles, tractors, fibre, yarns, and many more commercial activities came under the government monopoly or ownership.  Most of the Sri Lankan capitalist class were land-owned planters. Under the Land Reform Act, the government took over lands exceeding 50 acres. Very little compensation was paid much later, making them a capital-less class. Also, they feared the nationalisation of businesses. Despite the high demand, the local capitalist class have neither the capital nor the interest to invest in industries. As options were limited for luxurious life and lavish expenditure during that period, landowners could have invested in import substitution if; compensation was paid at market value immediately, a private sector-friendly policy was adopted, and the boundaries of nationalisation were explicit. Under this political and economic environment, the country lost the best opportunity for private sector participation in industrialisation.

Under these circumstances, mushrooming enterprises emerged in every nook and corner of the country as self-employment and small and micro enterprises, but many were unviable. These industries became highly inefficient, leading to low quality, high costs, scarcity and finally, misallocation of resources. These massive sacrifices of the producers and consumers could have been a long-lasting success if profit-motivated private sector participation was enlisted, and doors were opened for the technology transfer. Further, the support, including tariff protection, should have been limited to a specific period to selected industries with comparative advantages enabling them to pass through infancy without external competition. However above industrial policy created a greave dissatisfaction among the people, and the government lost the 1978 general election, rejecting the approach by most of the people.   

Out of Gear- The Trade Liberalization  

As discussed, the journey towards industrialisation in Sri Lanka commenced before independence, becoming a high priority from the 1960s to 1977. It got in top gear during 1970/77 but with poor strategies. Without using the lessons learned from that strenuous journey, the trade was liberalised entirely in 1978, making the three-decades journey into a U-turn.  All investments and sacrifices made by the government and people to become an industrial nation became futile. Some of those industries did not have the scale of economies as they were targeting only the local market. Some industries could not meet the local demand as their scale of operation was too small. The technology was archaic, and the raw materials were of low quality. Therefore, most of those local products could not compete with the imported items in terms of price and appearance. Without killing the entire industrial sector, the government should have supported a few more years to some infant industries with the potential for success in a competitive environment. But in the trade liberalization, the government considered only the political interest, neglecting the interest.

After trade liberalisation, import and trading became prominent and popular economic activities in the country. Consumer preference changed from local products to imported, while investors changed their role from producing to importing and trading. Furthermore, the agriculture and industrial workforce shifted to trade and service-related activities. Small and medium entrepreneurs also moved to service sector activities such as transport, petty trading, restaurant management, personnel service etc. The banking system also changed its focus from industry and agriculture to imports, the service sector, and trade activities, which are less risky and more profitable. The industry and agriculture sectors lost policy support and human and financial resources.

Producing locally involves complicated issues such as trade union problems, land problems, technology issues, approvals, permits, paying bribes to authorities, ransoms to hoodlums etc.  Some large-scale manufacturers converted their factory buildings and other assets into stores and showrooms of imported goods. Even the government-owned large-scale industries, such as tire, steel, textile, condensed milk and powdered milk, sugar, cement, paper, petroleum products, etc., also found it challenging to compete with the cheap, nice-looking imported items. Hasty and overnight import liberalisation killed not only the infant industries but also the traditional cottage industries, such as sleeping mats, mattresses, pottery, blacksmith, toys, handlooms, vehicle repairs, lorry bodybuilding, etc., which were there for many centuries. Those disappeared from the economy as cheaper, attractive alternatives/ substitutes were available.

Despite the trade liberalisation, the government followed the privatisation policy of state-owned enterprises. Furthermore, the government dismantled some ventures, such as the marketing department, paddy marketing board, paper corporation, steel corporation, Lanka-Loha, etc., which had been established to provide essential services and inputs to support local industries. If not for wilful dismantling, some of those ventures could have been sustained without government support, even after the trade liberalisation. If transparently done, privatisation could have been a good opportunity for the government to eliminate some nonessential enterprises established under the closed economy but could not run on a commercial footing under international competition.

But due to the various malpractices, privatisation became a horrendous exercise. It paved the way for some business cronies to loot public assets. Ownership of these assets was not transferred to genuine industrialists but to the hands of government supporters looking for some fortune to become rich overnight. Most of these factories were looted by new tenants/owners and abandoned. Even though a few became successful entrepreneurs, they acquired those assets without capital outlay or much below the market price. Some got running businesses for a nominal fee or rent and had access to free working capital such as stocks of raw materials and finished products ready for sale. Genuine entrepreneurs who were not fortunate enough to enjoy such free or cheap capital found competing with lucky investors challenging and discouraging.

Privatisation was an emerging concept to reduce the burden on the government budget, improve the efficiency and quality of products and introduce the latest technology and management style of the local and foreign private sectors.  At that time, markets were not saturated for most products but were expanding rapidly due to the open economy. Therefore, the government should have encouraged and supported the private sector to establish new industries instead of haphazard privatisation of existing running businesses or importing cheap substitutes.  Privatisation should have been done carefully and transparently without distorting the investment environment. The privatisation was mishandled so the country couldn’t achieve its expected benefits.

 Ranasinghe Premadasa became the president in 1989 and was interested in poverty alleviation and rural housing. He identified the apparel industry as the most appropriate tool for sustainable (employment generation) poverty alleviation. His government launched the 200-garment factory program with an attractive support package to private sector investors to establish garment factories in rural and backward regions. This facilitated the rural women to be employed in their hometowns without migrating to Western Province. Hence real income increased, and their standard of living improved to a considerable extent. However, due to logistic problems, investors’ cost of production increased, and they lost the convenience and the timeliness of delivering finished goods and raw materials. The cheap labour could have compensated for high overhead costs in rural areas. But the labour regulation and the pressure from trade unions did not permit reaping from the cheap labour. Investors were forced to pay the same wages as in the western province. Further, finding suitably qualified managerial staff was also a constraint compromising productivity and quality.

As many developing countries entered the apparel market during this period, the competition was very high. Therefore, quality assurance and compliance with tight delivery schedules and production at competitive prices became a considerable challenge for manufacturers and exporters, losing the global market share. Some factories established in remote areas have now been closedown and concentrated again in the western province.

Countries like Thailand, Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia used the apparel industry as a springboard to elevate as newly industrialised countries. They did not rely for many decades on the apparel industry. But even after 45 years, apparel remains Sri Lanka’s main export item because we have failed to use the apparel industry as the springboard to be a newly industrialised country. No other prominent industrial activity has emerged, at least to be on par with the appeal industry. Though many condemned it sarcastically, the dream of Mr Premadasa was for Sri Lanka to become a Newly Industrialised country by 2001. If not for the sudden assassination, he could have made a strenuous effort to achieve this goal.

 Since then, except for the privatisation of state-owned enterprises and support packages for foreign investment, there has been no specific policy support or programs targeting industrialisation. From 1994 to 2004, Mrs Kumaratunga’s government concentrated on poverty alleviation through the Samurdhi Program, peace negotiations with Tamil Militants, booting out state-sponsored terrorism, re-democratise the governance, promoting foreign investment in general without targeting any specific sector or sub-sector, or industry etc. Several state-owned enterprises were privatised during this period to reduce the burden on the national budget. In between this period, Ranil Wickremasinghe’s government, from 2002 to 2004, attempted to make far-reaching structural changes in the economy through its policy outlined in Re-Gaining Sri Lanka. Re-gaining Sri Lanka did not focus specifically on industrialisation but the overall restructuring of the economy and governing institutions, thereby reducing the government’s economic role only to regulate. However, people were not ready to face this shock of structural adjustments. The president dissolved the government at the beginning of 2004, and the Wickremasinghe government could not continue the process.

Immediately after the Tsunami catastrophe, Mahinda Rajapakse’ became the president in 2005. Due to the prolonged civil war, economic growth was slow for many years.  The power crisis was at the climax and road infrastructure was in very poor condition hampering industrialization. His immediate priority was finishing the civil war with LTTE and unifying the country. While fighting with the terrorists, he gave priority to resolving the power crisis and road infrastructure. Norochchoplai and upper Kothmale power plants projects commenced immediately and were commissioned to solve the power crisis.  A comprehensive road program, based on a 10-year plan was implemented. Three major expressways, namely the Southern Expressway, Outer Circular Expressway and Katunayake Expressways were commenced and commissioned. Further, Hambantota Sea Port and Airport were completed. In addition to the provision of infrastructure, the Strategic Investment Act was passed in the parliament to encourage foreign investments in a strategic nature. The Board of Investment was involved actively in promoting foreign investments. However, these physical infrastructures, legal provisions and institutional support have not been adequately used by investors. Capacity utilization of some infrastructure is still at a low level. Those are yet to be stimulants for industrialization. This shows that general support like BOI incentives, tax holidays and physical infrastructure alone can’t stimulate investment and industrialization.  There may be various other non-financial and non-physical constraints concerning the investment. Our position in the Ease of Doing Business index also needs to be improved.

  Conclusion and Recommendations

During the 1970/77 period, the economic crisis and scarcity of goods generated a great enthusiasm to produce many things locally. Small and medium-scale industries emerged as self-employment and small and micro enterprises in every nook and corner of the country. In contrast, though the scarcity created by the 2020/22 economic crisis is much more severe than the above, there is not much attempt by the government or the entrepreneurs to commence industries or invest in the production economy. Consumers are interested in maintaining the same lifestyle as before the economic crisis, thinking it is a temporary issue. The business community is anxiously waiting till improves the foreign exchange situation to resume import business instead of diverting the excess liquidity for local industries. The government is also focusing its strategies on improving the foreign reserves through debt restructuring and controlling inflation by contracting the economy, which may give breathing space to continue with the consumption-oriented economy as usual.

The government’s strategy seems guided by the notion that this is a short-term problem of servicing external loans, which can be resolved by artificial and temporary measures to strengthen foreign reserves.  Those immediate solutions are necessary for a breathing space to lay the foundation for structural adjustments. But it seems all stakeholders are pursuing an elusive path without considering the need for structural changes.  Instead of believing in a single answer, we must adopt multi-faceted strategies to come out of the ramified economic, political, and social situation. The country needs strategies to have a positive trade balance and a balance of payment through export-oriented economic growth and higher purchasing power of the people, for which industrialisation, based on comparative advantages, is a must. Suppose the country does not embark on growth-oriented strategies during the breathing space. In that case, the country’s economy may get settled at a low equilibrium level (low production and productivity, low demand, low income, high degree of unemployment /underemployment, low imports, and exports etc.) It would be challenging to re-energise because the economic base, such as professional and qualified human resources, international business linkages, systems, procedures, and institutional arrangements, could become fragile over a long period.

Considering the limited land resources, Sri Lanka will not be able to produce essential food items such as grains, pulses, and lentils for mass consumption on the world market or agricultural/natural raw materials for large-scale worldwide industries. Therefore, exporting agriculture products and raw materials in large volumes has little prospect for exchange earning and employment generation.  Our strategy should be: (a) gaining a higher value in the export market by adding a high degree of value to the limited supply of local raw materials. (b) Knowledge and skill-based industries. (c) high-value products for market niches. (d) tertiary sector activities targeted local and international markets, (e) Import substitution if the market is large enough to have the scale of economies. Otherwise, attempts to replace all imports with import-substituting industries will lead to high costs and low quality. It will deprive local customers of benefitting from the international comparative advantages and, finally, misallocate scarce resources (f) produce human resources of medium and high-level professionals for the global labour market. (g) Produce for the broader international market using imported agriculture and natural raw materials like the 200 hundred garment factory program.  Four or five strategic industries/ thrust areas shall be identified for this program with due consideration to the following aspects: (1) industrial products with a wider local and foreign market (2) Internationally comparative advantages in terms of access to the market, raw material and other inputs, skills, expertise etc.

 The Backward and forward linkages of selected industries must analyse and identify constraints at each point of linkages and design and implement necessary interventions including incentives, legal support, and tariff protection for a definite period. Perhaps, the electronic industry, leather products, jewellery, vehicle components, and cinnamon and coconut-based products would be good candidates.  Sri Lanka has missed many buses from dawn to evening. However, a well-designed program without ups and downs for political gains would catch a late-night bus.

Sri Lanka: 22 Amendment Passes

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The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was passed in Parliament with 174 votes in favour and one against while 49 were absent.

The second reading of the 22nd Amendment was passed with 179 MPs voted in favour while only one MP voting against. Sri Lanka Podhujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP Sarath Weerasekara voted against the amendment that proposed to trim Executive powers of the Presidency.

There were notable absentees as well including former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chief Whip of the House Prasanna Ranathunga.

Sri Lanka: Consequences of Conscious Ignorance and Genealogical Absurdity

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Another global recession is imminent. The US, UK, EU are all expected to have lower growth rates and China’s growth has slowed down. India stands alone. There has been no discussion about its possible effect on Sri Lanka and what mitigating steps should be taken to cushion its ill effects on a country that is already bankrupt. Some 9.6 million people are reportedly in poverty according to a study by Peradeniya University. Its malnutrition levels have increased sharply. Public hospitals still have drug shortages. Inflation has risen very steeply with the highest increase seen with food items. Foreign exchange reserves are still precarious and there is yet, no agreed way forward economically and politically with opposition parties harping on elections without offering any alternatives to proposals put forward by the President. For many ordinary people, the absence of queues for petrol and gas appears to be the mirage that is hiding the quicksand below the surface.

The impending global recession is expected to hit the economies of all major powers to varying degrees, except India. As stated in the article ”The global recession and its impact on India”, a slowdown in the US economy was bad news for India during the last recession because Indian companies have major outsourcing deals from the US clients. India’s exports to the US have been developed over the years, but they  successfully weathered the great financial crisis of September 2008”

The article examines why India suffered so little during the previous global recession that impacted some of the biggest economies of the West, quoting, ”There are many factors that saved the Indian economy from the bad consequences of the global recession. India is a nation whose market is majorly dependent on agriculture; hence it supported India from getting laid off like other affected countries. In those times Indian banks and financial institutions had almost entirely avoided buying mortgage-backed securities and credit which turned out to be toxic and felled western financial institutions. While India’s merchandise exports were hit by the recession, service exports did not fall as IT and BPO exports held up good. Foreign direct investment went high despite the global financial crisis. Financiers reversed flows into India, but long-term investors in plants and factories kept moving on their ongoing projects”, unquote.

In the context of an impending global recession, the Sri Lankan government should begin discussions with India about what mitigating measures could be taken to prevent the current bad situation from getting worse. In all likelihood, it is not the IMF, but India which would be in a better position to assist Sri Lanka. However, in doing a bilateral deal, India too would lay down some conditions, both economic and political, and it is best to begin discussions and negotiations now rather than when the country has reached the next precipice.

Need for contingency planning

The ADB forecasts Sri Lanka’s GDP to be around 2.3% in 2023. This forecast however was prior to assessing the impact of the impending global recession on Sri Lanka. While economists will argue and predict varying degrees of impact, it is best to identify the worst-case scenario and undertake contingency planning to address such a scenario.

A study has revealed that 9.6 million (or 42% of the population) people of Sri Lanka are currently suffering from poverty. This is no doubt a direct result of the economic catastrophe faced by Sri Lanka now.

Prof. Wasantha Athukorala of the Department of Economics and Statistics at the University of Peradeniya said this in an article. What could possibly be worse than this situation? And could it be allowed to get worse?

What are the likely effects of a global recession on countries like Sri Lanka?

It could impact foreign direct investments. What is meagre today could get worse.  Sri Lanka’s exports, its lifeblood, could get affected due to lower demand. Whatever plans the BOI has and the Port City commission could be adversely affected.

Some countries that employ migrant workers, may reduce such employment opportunities if they are forced to scale back on their projects as a consequence of a global recession, and this will impact remittances from overseas migrants working in developed countries. Sri Lanka has experienced this with the COVID pandemic, and the slow rise of remittances is bound to decline, strangling and suffocating the country  

Tourism, a critical input to the economy which has just begun to show marginal increases will decline to cause much hardship to the industry and those directly and indirectly employed it, in addition to the impact on the country’s coffers.

If the country’s life-blood trifecta of exports, tourism and remittances are affected any further, it is difficult to imagine how the country would survive. 

Unemployment will rise and so will social unrest as a consequence. The country will not have enough funds to support the most affected as government revenue will not be there to provide such assistance. The depreciation of the rupee has already caused much misery to the people and a further depreciation which might be inevitable is bound to aggravate social unrest.

It is in this context that a politically consensual approach to the nature and extent of contingency planning, mitigation measures and broad strategic planning of the future direction of the economy becomes imperative. If not for today’s generation, but at least for the future generation. Such a task could have been achieved by the National Governance Council if only the country’s interest was placed above the personal interests of politicians.

Contrary to the belief that Ostriches bury their heads in the sand to save themselves from predators, which in fact is a myth, the BBC science focus explains why Ostriches engage in this practice, quote “As flightless birds, ostriches are unable to build nests in trees, so they lay their eggs in holes dug in the ground. To make sure that the eggs are evenly heated, they occasionally stick their heads into the nest to rotate the eggs, which makes it look like they’re trying to hide – hence the myth. An ostrich trying to hide from predators in this way wouldn’t last for long, and it wouldn’t be able to breathe, either!” end quote.

In referring to the situation in Sri Lanka where many people seem outwardly oblivious to the clear and present danger to the country and its people like Ostriches purportedly bury their heads in the sand, it is an insult to an Ostrich who is in fact sticking their heads into the sand for a purpose, as that is where their nests are and for the sake of their yet to be born chicks. One wishes human behaviour was more like that of Ostriches!

Collectively, the attitude of many people and the politicians who represent them, and even many religious leaders and civil society leaders, appear to live the myth surrounding Ostriches rather than the truth.

The attitudes displayed in the wake of current and potential hardships and disruptions, even greater poverty levels and malnutrition do not give an indication that the safety and well-being of future generations are being considered a priority.

While the President has proposed several governance initiatives including the national governance council, grama sevaka level people’s committees, changes to electoral laws, and many Parliamentary oversight committees as checks and balance mechanisms, no Opposition politician has presented an alternative governance model. The President’s proposals are matters for discussion and debate and improvement if they are regarded as inadequate, but the irresponsible Opposition has not done this.

It is no wonder that the current Parliamentary system and those in it are a ridiculed lot. It is no wonder that a genuine Aragalaya began with very ordinary people’s participation to discuss and debate the future, as the past and the present have been failures. The concept of the original Aragalaya is no doubt in the hearts and minds of many and it should not surprise anyone if the movement resumes and becomes active in all parts of the country.

In this context, it is well worth it for readers to watch and listen to a broadcast made by Venerable Galkande Dhammananda of the WalpolaRahula Trust on the birth of the Aragalaya before political vultures descended on it to feed on its message and regurgitate a politically motivated, violent message simply to change the deck chairs of a sinking Sri Lanka. Venerable Dhammananda’s broadcast should be watched by those whose hearts ache for Sri Lanka, and for the future generations of the country whose lives will be adversely affected if the political status quo continues.

A national economic summit

The Opposition political parties and those splinter groups withing the ruling party, should demonstrate their concern for the country, not by calling for elections at this juncture, but by joining together with the President and the governing party to agree on a broad program to address immediate and impending economic disasters. Such a program could be developed at a National Economic Summit with the participation of the business community, union leaders, academics, professional organisations, women’s organisations and other key participants, to develop a bi partisan economic plan for the next 10 years that includes a fiscal and monetary policy, an export development plan, a tourism plan, foreign direct investment plan, a plan for local revenue raising including taxation reform,and in addition, very importantly, a plan for food security.

If politicians do not change and take the lead to do this, and make a concerted, genuine effort to reverse the current economic catastrophe and undertake contingency planning to avoid even a worse debacle, people should exercise their right to change not just the politicians but the system that produces them.

Truss’s U-turn and Rajapaksa’s Downturn

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“In a year of scarcity…Louis XV was hunting, as usual, in the forest of Sénart. He met a peasant carrying a bier and inquired… ‘For a man or a woman? A man. What did he die of? Hunger’.” – Jules Michelet (Historical view of the French Revolution)

On the sharp edge of the precipice, the UK halted, reversing back to relative safety.

A massive tax cut was the showpiece of the mini-budget of PM Liz Truss and chancellor of exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng. Reaction was immediate. Markets revolted. The pound crashed. The IMF issued the kind of rap-across-the-knuckles-statement it generally reserves for the Third World. The Bank of England pledged to buy UK government bonds worth 65 billion pounds (73 billion dollars) in a desperate attempt to reassure markets and save pension funds.

The prime minister and the chancellor of exchequer remained unmoved.

Then the Tory party’s dissent broke out into the open. With the annual party conference in session, more than a dozen MPs aired their disconcert in public. The naysayers included several Conservative grandees. Party chairman issued an implicit threat to deny nominations to those who would vote against the mini-budget. But the rebellion could not be staunched. Opinion polls showed that the tax cuts, especially reducing the top rate from 45% to 40%, and removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses were deeply unpopular with the electorate. More than half the voters wanted Liz Truss out.

Faced with the prospect of losing a parliamentary vote on the mini-budget and a general election, PM Truss backtracked. “We get it, we have listened,” said the chancellor of exchequer who had reportedly celebrated the tax cut at a champagne dinner with financiers. The worst was averted by throwing the most objectionable overboard – the slashing of the top tax rate. Democracy, and the dissent it enabled, saved the day.

Compare this with what didn’t happen in Sri Lanka when the Rajapaksas unveiled their own crazy tax cut. The objectors were few, the UNP and the JVP, some voices from civil society, international rating agencies. But from the ruling coalition, there was not a word of protest. Those who are now busy painting themselves in saviour-hues, from Dullas Alahapperuma, G.L. Peiris, and Charitha Herath to Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, and Maithripala Sirisena, were as silent as the dead.

Tory MP Damian Green said, “It’s a political no brainer that if we end up painting ourselves as the party of the rich and the party of the already successful, then, funnily enough, most people won’t vote for us and we lose,” (The Guardian – 3.10.2022). In Sri Lanka, the SLPP said nothing about the Rajapaksa-giveaway to the rich, because the Rajapaksas were the party of the Sinhala-Buddhists. The majority safely tethered with minority-phobia, the coming parliamentary election was as good as won.

The Rajapaksas could get away with manifestly disastrous policies for so long because they could count on the backing of a majority of the majority. Another key contributory factor was the absence of inner-party democracy, an autocratic plague common to all Lankan parties. There was also the bureaucracy’s entrenched habit of going along with politicians up to the precipice and beyond. In the absence of the necessary human factor, institutional guardrails became reduced to stage props.

A sovereign default and two popular uprisings later, very little seemed to have changed. The factors that pushed us down the precipice are impeding our puny efforts to crawl out of it, starting with the Rajapaksas and the SLPP.

Politics of hunger

Ranil Wickremesinghe began his premiership by telling the truth to the people about the country’s disastrous condition. That was perhaps his finest hour.

Today the opposite is happening. His ministers, Rajapaksa-acolytes to a man and a woman, have reverted to covering the soiled reality in clean linen. They deny the width and depth of hunger, of malnutrition, of poverty. Listening to them, a visiting Martian could be pardoned for thinking that nothing much ails this country. Most worryingly, even now, these know-nothing politicians can find bureaucrats to corroborate their lies.

This at a time when the FAO and the WHP have included Sri Lanka among the 48 countries identified as hunger hot spots. Recently the Health ministry rejected a UNICEF report on Denial not just covers up the problem. It removes the need to look for solutions, the duty and the responsibility to take action.

Sooriyawewa, that Rajapaksa pocket-borough, is currently in the crosshairs of a malnutrition spat. Medical professionals claim an 80% malnutrition rate. The SLPP part of the Government decry the statistic as calumny. In the meantime, in the Namadagaswewa Maha Vidyalaya in Sooriyawewa, the principal and the staff have set up a food bank to feed hungry children. Teachers bring an extra food packet or two daily and deposit in the bank; needy students withdraw the packets.

This innovative solution was possible because the staff noticed that many students fainted from hunger during school hours. If the staff went into denial, if they blamed the fainting on voluntary dieting or enemy action, the food bank would not have come into being; and increasing hunger would have resulted in mass dropouts.

We must acknowledge the abyss before we can escape it.

Denial is not just counterproductive. It is also stupid. You can lie about growth rates and foreign reserves. But you can’t convince the poor that they are rich or the hungry that their stomachs are full. Poverty and hunger can be hidden only from those who are neither poor nor hungry. And in Sri Lanka, that percentage is shrinking.

We are living in times of dissonance. The IMF chief has warned about people on the streets, again, a global problem. There’s nothing more dissonant than a small percentage of the populace living in the lap of luxury in a time of general want. In his tome on the French Revolution, historian Jules Michelet mentions that for centuries, observers were amazed at the patience of the French people, their acceptance of intolerable economic and political injustices. But there comes a day when even the most worm-like worm turns.

While denying the gravity of the economic crisis and the depth of public suffering, the SLPP is busy pushing for an expanded cabinet. They won the first round when President Wickremesinghe gave in and appointed 38 parasitic state ministers. If he expands the cabinet, he will fail the ‘smell test’ again and destroy his credibility, even among those who are grateful to him for ending fuel and gas queues.

More pertinently succumbing to Rajapaksa pressure will impede President Wickremesinghe’s capacity to implement his economic agenda, to the country’s detriment. After the appointment of that herd of state ministers, the Government has no moral right to talk about inefficient and overstaffed state sectors. Given the public funds squandered on maintaining this herd in a state of luxury, how can the people be asked to tighten their belts any further? The rot is already visible in a tendency to take the easy way out, eschewing the hard road out of the crisis, the one that will address the root causes, the one President Wickremesinghe keeps on referring to in his speeches. The reversion to a disproportionate dependence on indirect taxes and the abolishing of 15% interest rate on deposits by the elderly are cases in point.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a Rajapaksa clone as the more extremist or simple-minded elements within the opposition insist. The ‘Ranil Rajapaksa’ slogan may work as propaganda but it shouldn’t have become the basis of political analysis or strategising. For instance, if the opposition came to a short-term deal with President Wickremesinghe about a common political and economic program and a parliamentary election in 2023, the SLPP could have been deprived of their bargaining and blackmailing power. The Rajapaksas were able to make a comeback partly because the opposition and Wickremesinghe turned their guns on each other. Incidentally this comeback may be electoral as well, going by the SLPP’s huge wins at the Panadura and Gampola cooperative elections. The world provides other worrying examples. In Brazil, more than 43% voted for the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, bucking opinion polls, pushing the election into a second round.

When everything becomes reduced to survival, that very obsession threatens survival. The high security zone gazette fiasco could have been avoided with a little forethought. But the Rajapaksas are hooked on immediate gratification and their ethos is winning in government circles. In August, it looked like President Wickremesinghe with his economic sanity had the upper hand. By the end of September, he seems to be reduced to a voice in the margins, with the Government walking, talking, and smelling like the Rajapaksas.

In history, art can be omen. This year’s top winner at the Cannes film festival was ‘Triangle of Sadness’. A super luxury yacht filled with jetsetters is engulfed in a storm at sea. The turbulence outside creates an upheaval within. Power relations are upended, with a former cleaner gaining control. Real life is not that neat. The last may not become the first; cleaners may not win in the end. But the time before that revanchist end could become filled with violence, visceral and indiscriminate. The democratic narrative is undermined when injustice becomes entrenched. The virtues of stability and order sound hollow, when poverty and hunger overwhelm a populace.

Political illiberalism and economic neoliberalism: a lose-lose scenario

Tsering Dorje was an ordinary Tibetan man who discussed the importance of the Tibetan language with his brother on the phone. For that ‘crime’ he was detained for a month in a re-education facility by the Chinese authorities.

Re-education or rehabilitation centres sit ill with democracy. Irrespective of the name they masquerade under, these are Orwellian entities aimed at turning thinking citizens into mindless subjects.

After the high security zone gazette departed, in ignominy, came an attempt to set up a Bureau of Rehabilitation. Its targets, apart from the usual terrorists and extremists, would be drug addicts (turning drug dependence into a political crime) and ‘any other group or persons who require treatment and rehabilitation.’ Would the ‘persons who require treatment and rehabilitation’ include the thuggish son of state minister Prasanna Ranaweera? Or the ministerial goons who attacked petrol station attendants in Maharagama for refusing to violate the QR code? If not, why not?

The Bureau’s Governing council is to include the secretary of defence. The current holder of that title has a credible claim to the label extremism. At an October 2017 Viyath Maga confab in Gampaha, retired major general Kamal Gunaratna defined the backers of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s draft constitution as traitors who deserve death. They should be denied normal last rites as the JVP/DJV did to its victims during the second insurgency, he further stated.

Commenting on this pronouncement, Mangala Samarweera said, “We need not reply to filthy statements of racists, yet, I should voice the concerns of democracy-loving people who stand against the barking of those blood thirsty and power hungry political elements. If they can make such gory comments on a civil platform when they are out of power, people with some sense could imagine the crimes they had committed when they held ruling power.” To take his argument a step further, what kind of rehabilitation will such people implement if the Bureau of Rehabilitation becomes a reality?

Addressing a memorial meeting for Gowri Thavarasa, lawyer and human rights defender, the former director of CID Shani Abeysekara said, “I had produced so many before courts. But I understood what it meant only when I was produced before the courts”. When Abeysekara was persecuted by the Rajapaksas, he was saved by the commitment of civic-minded lawyers like Thavarasa and by a judicial system that retained the backbone. A functioning system of justice and an active civil society are protectors of the last resort for every one of us.

Whatever the faults of liberal-electoral democracy, it provides the best available protection – however inadequate – for the poor and powerless from the depredations of political and economic power-wielders. By keeping avenues of peaceful dissent open, it also functions as a proven safeguard against violent disorder and systemic instability. The UK may have escaped a fate partially similar to Sri Lanka because, unlike Sri Lanka, its electoral democracy is also quite liberal.

Instead of making the Lankan system more liberal, as he did during the 2015-19 period, President Wickremesinghe is initiating or permitting a return to the illiberal policies, practices, and ethos of the Rajapaksa era. By doing so, he is helping to stifle whatever corrective mechanisms and safety valves still exist. At a time a global economic and political storm is brewing, and more and more families are pushed below the poverty line nationally, this mix of political illiberalism and economic neo-liberalism cannot ensure order or save the Government (it can’t even maintain tourist arrivals; an outsized obsession with terror laws and repression is not a lure for tourists). By increasing societal alienation, it will just bring another day of reckoning closer, a more violent one.

Sri Lanka Politics of Protests

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During the month, Sri Lanka government made some progress in the measures it had initiated earlier for economic recovery. After holding the staff level meetings with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the government is hopeful signs of $2.9 bn loan materialising. However, some other measures it has taken like the formation of a bloated cabinet for political reasons, declaring focus areas of Aragalaya protests as high security zones (HSZ) and the use of draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to arrest some of the protest leaders have drawn flak both at home and abroad. These negative aspects have provided a rallying point for opposition political parties to come together and articulate their stand against the Wickremesinghe government.

Actions of the government to suppress public protests found a place in the report on Sri Lanka by the outgoing High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet made at the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) at Geneva. The session slated to end on October 7, is likely to extend the time given Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitments to the international body on the accountability for its human rights aberrations during the Eelam war. At the same time, it is likely to add negative riders in the resolution on the way the government has been handling public protests.

Former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa who fled the country for his safety on July 13, returned home to a warm official welcome on September 2. Though he had been keeping a low profile, his return has reinforced the belief that the Rajapaksas will continue to call the shots in the Wickremesinghe government.

Politics of protests

The Aragalaya public protests that had dethroned the Rajapaksas from power have shaken up the political parties of all shades as much as the government. Recovering from the shock effect of four-month long socio-political protests, political leaders seem to have realised the Aragalaya phenomenon as the expression of the unheard, unheralded and deprived citizens who are fed up with the existing political order.

Prof GL Peiris, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), in an interview in the Daily Mirror aptly described the Aragalaya as the alternative of ideas, of policies of freshness. “A new departure. The Aragalaya had a visionary aspect to it. Later it degenerated into violence. That is not to be condoned in any manner.” He found “a kind of renaissance about it.” The SLPP leader, who has chosen to sit separately in parliament from most of the SLPP members supporting the government, saw in the creations of protestors as “an expression of creativity and deep desire for a system change. To reorganise the system.” Prof Peiris, while acknowledging that some of the measures taken by the government to revamp the economy and ease the fuel and food shortages have yielded results, said a bloated cabinet cannot bring a systemic change. There were fewer public protests during the month. However, the ultraleft elements of the JVP and its student body seem to be using the Aragalaya to rekindle the embers of the protest movement to expand their political influence.

In June 2022, before Wickremesinghe was elected president, the Sri Lanka government had told the members at the UNHRC in Geneva that it was imposing a moratorium on the use of the PTA. Even a month later when protestors were forcibly evicted from “sensitive areas,” the newly elected president assured foreign diplomats in Colombo that the government will uphold both Article 21 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 14 (1) (b) of the Sri Lanka Constitution which govern the right to peaceful assembly. However, these promises seem to have been forgotten by President Wickremesinghe after his election. The President who had once called the Aragalaya protestors as fascists, seems to be trying to weed out their influence, using teleological methods. This was evident from the mass arrest of protestors under the PTA.

The detention of several activists of Aragalaya under the PTA including the convenor of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) Wasantha Mudalige was condemned by many political parties across the ethnic spectrum. This may be considered a positive outcome of the protests. This was seen in the participation of many leaders of the opposition parties, civil society and trade union activists and retired public servants, in the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK)’s mobile signature campaign against the PTA. When the protest launched in Jaffna reached Galle Facethe presence of former defence secretary Austin Fernando and trade union activist Joseph Stalin, apart from leaders from political parties like the ITAK, SJB and SLMC like Sumanthiran, Rasamanickam, Hirunika Premachandra and Rauf Hakeem, underscored its relevance in the present political environment.

Similarly, the government notification of several areas around key government buildings and their adjoining roads in Colombo as High Security Zone to prevent holding of public meetings and protest marches has also been condemned by large sections of society. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa called the setting up of HSZ as “acts of a dictatorship.” He said the cabinet had recently given the nod for setting up a committee to regulate and control media. Premadasa said it was a dictatorial move and warned the party “will take to the streets against all these moves in the future.”

President Wickremesinghe has sworn in a jumbo cabinet to satisfy the members from assorted parties, who support him. Apparently, he considers it only as a political exercise and not an effort to revamp the system in keeping with public sensitivities over the style of governance. Perhaps, conscious of this shortcoming, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena successfully moved a unanimous resolution in parliament to constitute a ‘National Council’ (NC) after three rounds of talks with all parties. The NC will be chaired by the Speaker with the PM, leader of the opposition, Chief government whip and not more than 35 MPs representing all parties as members. According to a statement the NC will determine the priorities for the formulation of national policies, agree on short and medium term common minimum programs to stabilize the economy. It will also organize special meetings with cabinet ministers, the NC, the chairpersons of special committees and observers from youth organizations.

However, for the present the public is likely to view the formation of the NC as a political expediency. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake speaking in the parliament said the JVP will not support the NC project. He called the NC as “a facade. It is another attempt to dupe the people and the rest of the world.” He said the NC would not help solve problems. Few would dispute the JVP leader’s description of the prevailing political culture as “tainted by corruption, no respect for the rule of law and politicians enjoying perks and benefits and placing themselves above the law.” Unless the NC can address these issues, it is likely to end up as yet another glorified commission, whose findings are confined to the archives. Sri Lanka’s problems are not merely economic or political but much more organic, reflecting the disconnect between the polluted political system of governance and the ordinary people. Aragalaya is a manifestation of this disconnect. Unless the President and the political parties can rework their equation with the people, politics of protests is likely to continue as the norm.

Dr Subramanian Swamy with former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa [Photo: Special Arrangement]

Tailpiece: Visiting BJP leader Dr Subramanian Swamy called upon Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after the former president returned home. In fact, Swamy was the first foreign visitor to call upon him. Swamy, a close friend of the Rajapaksas, was in Colombo to attend a conference on national security at the Kotelewala Defence University. He also met with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and attended the Navratri pooja at his residence. The Indian leader is well known for making shocking one-liners. In his twitter on July 11, he said the Sri Lanka crisis was engineered and India should ensure that later ‘this mob’ does not become refugees of India. What was he up to in Colombo? That is a question for twitterati and WhatsApp university to debate.

[Written on September 30, 2022.]

United Kingdom: Legal Basis for The Constitutional Monarchy

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Do not be fooled by constitutional theories (the ‘paper  description’)  and  formal  institutional  continuities  (‘connected  outward  sameness’)  – concentrate  instead  on  the  real  centres  of  power  and  the  practical  working  of  the  political system (‘living reality’).  Walter Bagehot (1867)

This article commences with profound appreciation of Her Majesty the late Queen Elizabeth II and her service to the Nation and concludes with every good wish for the reign of His Majesty King Charles III.

At this turning point in the history of the United Kingdom the most fundamental truth and point of clarity is that the King reigns (as head of nation) but does not rule.  This legal profundity is founded on the philosophy of John Locke ( 1632-1704) who propounded the concept of the “Moderate Monarchy” – a new political idea – that infused certain limitations of power on the Monarchy based on the principle that laws should be enacted for the common good of the citizenry.  Having introduced this approach,  Locke advocated residual powers for the sovereign, ascribing discretion to the sovereign to change or amend laws – again for the common good -a practice  now known as the Royal Prerogative. 

It is the Parliament that rules and the King is obliged to follow the advice of Parliament. The King has meetings once a month with his Privy Council – his advisory body – and approves Orders in Council that emanate from the consultations with and advice of The Privy Council.  The King also performs, with the advice of the Parliament,  several key functions such as appointing the Prime Minister and senior judges and  receiving  incoming and outgoing ambassadors. The King also signs State papers which he receives daily and conducts weekly meetings with his Prime Minister as well as other meetings regularly  with senior officials.

Additionally, the Monarch can declare war and peace; sign treaties; dissolve Parliament; confer peerages and knighthoods.

In 1689 co-rulers of England King William III and Queen Mary II signed into law the English Bill of Rights.  For the first time in English history the bill adumbrated explicit constitutional and civic rights and it is believed by many that it was the genesis of the constitutional Monarchy (where the monarch’s discretion is limited) and Parliamentary power over the Monarchy. Arguably, The English Bill of Rights greatly influenced the draughtsmen of the U.S. Bill of Rights. The English Bill of Rights came into being after the ouster of King James II who was largely considered autocratic and was subsequently ousted.  Ineluctably therefore the document identified the misdeeds of James II.  The English Bill of Rights clearly ascribed to the king or queen the exalted position of head of State but circumscribed some of his or her powers which were considered as limited by law. Some of the rights contained and embodied in The English  Bill of Rights were: freedom to elect members of Parliament, without the king or queen’s interference; freedom of speech in Parliament; freedom from royal interference with the law; freedom to petition the king; freedom to bear arms for self-defence; freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail; freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, without the agreement of Parliament; freedom of fines and forfeitures without a trial; freedom from armies being raised during peacetimes. The English  Bill of Rights also prohibited Catholics from becoming the Monarch and required that Parliament be convened regularly.

The Monarchy was obligated to rule under the consent of Parliament, with the recognition that the people had individual rights. Therefore, it would not be incorrect to say that in the  British constitutional Monarchy, the king (or queen)  plays a largely ceremonial role. However, the monarch stands out as the symbol and inspiration of national unity and earns the respect of the local and international community as an apolitical figure.  The famous former editor of The Economist Walter Bagehot described the monarch as the “dignified part of the Constitution”.

At law, there can be no civil or criminal proceedings against the sovereign. It’s par for the course that this exemption notwithstanding, the King or Queen (as the case may be) is careful to act within the bounds of law and tradition. The genesis of this tradition arguably lies in The Magna Carta Liberatum (Great Charter) signed between King John and a group of barons in 1215 laying out the freedoms of individuals.  The document was composed of 63 Articles, one of which said the king must follow the law and could not simply rule as he wished. The Magna Carta stands as the monument of the constitutional history of England.

One of the legacies, and indeed a blessing of the Moderate Monarchy as espoused by John Locke is that between the Monarchy and parliament, these two institutions effectively preclude the infestation of insidious and invidious autocracies in the community. A corollary to the harmonious blending of the two institutions is The Rule of Law.  One of the most significant features of the majesty of the law as the queen of humanities is the elegance of the Rule of Law as the foundation of humanity.  The Rule of Law is the hallmark of democracy.  Regrettably, at the present time, the aspirations people had of equal rights and representation by the people of the people for the people have gradually  eroded into a quagmire of ambivalent populism that is shrouded in mendacious and self-serving casuistry. A whole new phenomenon called illiberal democracy has been identified by the intelligentsia as a definition of this  phenomenon. The hallmark of illiberal democracy is the ignoring by those democratically elected by the people – in many instances those that have been re-elected or reaffirmed through referenda – of constitutional limits on their power, thereby depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedom.

The Rule of Law, which is entrenched in the unwritten British Constitution reflects the quintessence of Constitutional Monarchy. To this end Lard Bingham has attempted a definition of the Rule of Law thus: “all individuals and organizations within the State, whether public or private, are bound by, and entitled to the benefit of laws prospectively promulgated and publicly administered in the courts”.  This definition can be expanded to several corollaries. Laws should be intelligible.  They should not be couched in a plethora of pages in convoluted language and expanded to hundreds of regulations.  Nor should they be orally delivered  through speeches and pronouncements.  Any written amendment to a law should be brought to the attention of the people.  A society should be governed by law and not by discretion granted to or assumed by public officials.  Additionally, they should be equally applied.  To expand further, laws should not favour a particular category of individual.  Past examples are the depravity of slavery, servanthood  and the arbitrarily perceived  inferiority of women in some jurisdictions.

It can be argued that the sustenance of the modern-day British Monarchy and its dignified relationship with the Parliament would continue to ac as a buffer against populism, illiberalism, and autocracy.