Sri Lanka has gone astray since independence – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
I am not an economist or a financial expert, but as a political analyst and a critic who has carefully followed the dynamics of the State of Sri Lanka and its socio-political system, three years ago, I was able to predict that Sri Lanka was heading towards bankruptcy.
In several interviews and discussions, I warned my audience that they should not be surprised if, all of a sudden, they hear when they wake up in the morning after a goodnight sleep that the country has gone bankrupt.
Similarly, in 2010, after the end of the internal civil war, I warned that there would be a major collapse of the socio-political system of the country, and Sri Lanka would be plunged into a state of anarchy.
It is not difficult for anyone who observes critically how things happen in Sri Lanka to comprehend in advance that the country has been moving towards a great abyss. Sri Lanka can be considered as a country that has gone astray since independence.
Consequent to the Indian independence struggle, Sri Lanka was able to achieve independence without any freedom struggle. But a sufficiently developed and mature society required for sustaining a system of advanced democratic self-governance has not emerged in the country.
Compared to the Indian counterparts, the political leaders we had in Sri Lanka can be considered immature and backward. They did not possess the knowledge or discipline required to maintain effectively the democratic system of governance which they inherited, within a democratic framework.
The period of 73 years from independence to date can be divided into two main phases as the period of parliamentary rule and the period of presidential rule. Of the 73 years, parliamentary rule prevailed during the first 29 years. For almost 44 years now a presidential system or, as some theorists have interpreted it, a semi-presidential system, has been in operation.
By the time the British left the country after granting independence, Sri Lanka remained one of the most advanced countries in Asia. In terms of per capita income it was second only to Japan. The value of foreign assets stood at Rs. 1,200 million which was equal to one year’s cost of imports. But our leaders did not know how to use the surplus balance of foreign exchange effectively for the progress of the country. The cost of food subsidy including rice was significantly higher than the cost of education and health.
From the beginning, the cost of lifestyle maintained exceeded the income. From the beginning there was no discipline or decency to act in accordance with the Constitution. They failed to realise the importance of internal unity for the progress of the country; so much so, from the outset, they have turned the issue of ethnicity, caste and religion into a fermenting crisis.
After the adoption of a presidential system in 1978 in which all the powers of the State were vested in one person and keeping him above the law, the momentum of the simultaneous journey towards both the progress and destruction was intensified and the country was plunged into a path of protracted violence replete with overwhelming bloodshed.
Following the induction of the new presidential system which stood above the law, an unscrupulous system in which the president and the ruling party MPs used to gang up and plunder public property came into being. This putrid practice caused the State and its institutions to fall into a state of rottenness and systemic corruption. This led to a drastic reduction in government revenue.
The scale of the plunder by successive governments which ruled the country gradually escalated to the point where the country’s economy has been turned into a hapless waste. In the end, Sri Lanka has reached a level of a failed state which is bankrupt and anarchic; and not only the economy but also the socio-political system has collapsed completely.
On the verge of a catastrophe
Now Sri Lanka is facing the biggest or the most massive crisis it has ever faced since entering the modern era. Now the crisis has reached a point where it is clearly visible and tangible and can be felt by the people.
Restrictions imposed on imports will invariably serve as a factor which will further weaken economic activities on a large scale. The ban on chemical fertiliser could lead to a rapid collapse of the country’s overall agriculture and may even lead to a famine. A situation might arise in which restrictions on import of fuel could be imposed soon. Such an eventuality will have a devastating effect on electricity supply as well as transportation. Also, there could be a huge shortage of drugs and it might have a demoralising effect on the lives of patients who depend heavily on drugs for their health.
The Government is in a situation where it has allowed the crisis to pass by and then to wrestle with it. It has not been able, at least, to mitigate the intensity of its flow, let alone stalling it successfully. Regrettably the Government does not have a strategic plan to overcome the crisis before it leads to a catastrophe. Even Opposition parties do not seem to have a vision for that. Perhaps, they must be thinking that, the more the crisis intensifies, the sooner the Government will collapse, and power to rule will soon fall into their lap.
If the Government fails to stall the momentum of the crisis soon, inevitably the country will have to pay an unbearably a large price and it will cause irreparable damage to the country. Of the problems facing the Government there may be certain issues the Government cannot solve alone, requiring an all-party or even a pan-national approach to solve them.
The Government or the ruling party possesses the power to enact laws, but it cannot have the capacity to make a constitution. There are things that both groups can’t do without the support of the people. Both parties can legislate simple constitutional amendments that do not require a referendum. A constitutional amendment requiring the approval of a referendum cannot be enacted without the support of the people.
The crisis faced by Sri Lanka can be considered as one that cannot be solved by the Government alone or jointly by the Government and the Opposition; it indeed needs the active support of the people as well.
The path to be chosen
Only by identifying the causes of the crisis will it be possible to understand the solutions needed to overcome it. It is very rare that a country will get into such a crisis. A country will not usually fall into such an unfortunate and miserable situation due to one or several mistakes. It could happen only when hundreds of serious mistakes have been ignored persistently and allowed to continue without rectifying them.
The anti-democratic, arbitrary and reckless manner in which the country has been ruled by those who held the ruling power since independence can be considered as an important factor influencing this situation.
The policy of perpetual oppression of minorities adopted in violation of the Constitution has invariably led to the weakening and fragmentation of the social order thereby destroying the unity and cohesion, the essential features of a sound social system. Also the democratic political system inherited from the British was maintained contrary to the guidelines laid down in the Constitution.
Consequently the political system has reached a level of maximum decay and disintegration with concomitant collapse of the economy of the country following the adoption of a system of governance in which the head of State was placed above the law and a system where the head of State has ganged up with the members of the ruling party and plundered public property on a large scale has been established.
If an audit is made to ascertain the value of projects launched by Sri Lanka on loans obtained from the international debt market at high interest rates, undoubtedly it would not be difficult to realise that a large chunk of them have been squandered. It is not surprising to see a country that has degenerated to such a level falling into a miserable situation like this.
A painful surgery which includes structural reforms is essential to overcome this crisis. It is not a surgery that the Government can perform alone. It is an operation that needs to be performed based on the support of all parties and the public. There must be a pragmatic plan for it and it must be accepted by the Government, the Opposition and the people. The plan should be formulated on a democratic program participated in by all stakeholders concerned.
The Opposition movements and the people must urge the Government to move towards a common national program to resolve this crisis soon. If the Government embarks on such a program, and it is a progressive program that includes genuine and pragmatic reforms, then the Opposition movements and the public should sincerely extend their support for its implementation.
However, if the Government refuses to pursue such a program, considering the devastating effect on the future of the country, the Opposition parties and the public must work together and formulate an alternative reforms program to overcome the crisis and insist on the Government implementing it.
The draft of this program can be adopted as the basis for a peaceful people’s struggle aimed at electing a new government for implementing a genuine reforms program in case the incumbent Government fails to do it.