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Battling the blues

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by Uditha Devapriya

Older than the Ashes and one of the oldest encounters of its kind, the Royal-Thomian kicked off three days ago amidst a gloomy spectacle of rain and thunder. This is one of the longest running school cricket matches in the world, clocking 142 years. It is also one of the most celebrated, certainly one of the most hyped. Its reputation rests in the fact that, as some of its more avowed spectators and fans would say, “It stops for nothing.” Having survived the rigours of two world wars, a 30 year civil war, and much political turmoil, the boast is well-earned: few school events have been held up anywhere as highly as this.

The match almost stopped last year, and almost never happened this year. That it came to be held on both occasions, even as the much older Eton Harrow encounter had to be put on hold due to the pandemic in England, underscores its importance for ardent old boys. For Lankans in general, it signifies a sense of continuity, the need to move on.

It’s a different story with the country’s politics. The Royal-Thomian is also called the Battle of the Blues, because of the colour blue in both schools’ flags. For the government and its opponents, and even its allies and supporters, by contrast, it’s been a case of battling the blues. With one crisis following another, only to be followed by yet another, the regime is pitted against too vast a set of forces – social, political, economic, and cultural – to think of surviving until the next bout of elections, let alone winning them. We are seeing the most acute clash of ideas to hit the streets in a long time. This is the most polarised we have ever been in living memory. The government is going through the biggest crisis of legitimacy any administration here has seen since the 1980s. And we are feeling the heat.

Three years after it came to power promising peace, prosperity, and stability, what has the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government got to show for itself? Largely owing to the pandemic, very little. To be fair, the crisis we are seeing through now has not entirely been its doing; this is why whatever judgement we can make of Mr Rajapaksa will have to wait until 2024. But for the people, what might have been offers little consolation for what is happening.

For three years the government has been trying to address problems afflicting the country and the economy, as well as the people. That it has failed to resolve them, and managed at the same time to tangle itself in numerous standoffs, does it no credit.

Its problems began with the constituencies that the governing party, the SLPP, pandered to and won three years ago. Postal votes are a good indicator of election results in Sri Lanka. They are a gauge of middle-class sentiment and they offer a hint as to election outcomes. In November 2019 Mr Rajapaksa won a majority of these votes: from Colombo to Hambantota, government bureaucrats and workers voted against a regime seen to have compromised on development and national security. Coupled with the peasantry, sections of the country’s minorities, and Colombo’s upper bourgeoisie, they formed part of the largest electoral bloc any administration had seen since 1977. As C. A. Chandraprema was to say of parliamentary elections six months later, they gave the SLPP “the mother of all landslides.”

The problem with landslides is that they are easy to win, but easier to lose. In 2015 a not-so overwhelming majority pushed Mahinda Rajapaksa out of power in the belief that replacing his family with another set of politicians would usher in development and progress. It was a rude awakening for many. Besieged by its contradictions, the yahapalana regime dissolved quickly into a battleground of factions and sects, dissolving further into squabbling within parties. By the end of the second year, a consensus had grown that if all it took to prop up the country was to keep away the Rajapaksas, their successors had failed spectacularly and a return of the Rajapaksas wouldn’t be so bad. Fears of policy turnarounds and of bartering no less than the island’s sovereignty, epitomised well by the controversial MCC agreement, stoked much discontent. A thudding defeat was in the air.

Paradoxically, the yahapalana government made it possible, not merely for a Rajapaksa restoration, but for the election of the former president’s brother. Parallels with Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew notwithstanding, there was little that stood in Mr Gotabaya’s way. He had a world to win and a country to preside over. In November 2019, then, almost every community, including sections of ethnic minorities, gave him support. Even political commentators who had penned diatribes against him raised the possibility of better days ahead. Very few thought otherwise: among them, Dayan Jayatilleka stood out. This was as it should be: no one wanted to back a dead horse, and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP, for all its history and heritage, seemed like a relic of some distant, dark past.

It all looked like a good dream then, but the dream has dissolved since. Besieged and belittled by one set of contradictions, the yahapalana regime spawned another. This time the contradictions cut into the heart of the new government’s constituency – an amorphous mixture of exploiting and exploited classes, of peasants and workers, of small producers and corporate bosses, of media magnates and petty scribes. It could not last for long. It certainly could not survive a crisis, still less one of systemic proportions. The first wave, and of course the government’s handling of it, has ensured a massive majority. Yet this is a majority it may not get again. Like Baltimora and Mungo Jerry, it will remain a one-hit wonder.

Not surprisingly, the Rajapaksa administration’s wide coalition has now proved to be its slipperiest slope and biggest stumbling point. Whatever policy it implements, attempts to implement, or reverses – and reversals have been part of the new normal in Sri Lanka – one group invariably pits itself against another: peasantry against traders, middle-class against hoarders, citizens against MPs, it’s all been one big mess. And now, amidst teachers’ strikes, trade union protests, and the dismal prospect of the country “going dark” for two days, the regime’s own coalition partners, about 11 in all, have begun to rebel.

Commentators are at most half-correct in the link they draw between the quagmire the government finds itself in today and its restoration of what Jayadeva Uyangoda, in a recent piece to The Hindu, calls “Sri Lanka’s personalised model of executive authoritarianism.” For all the dangers it represents, the 20th Amendment did no more than reverse the gains of the 19th Amendment; it did not do so to the extent of returning to the 18th. In other words, it did entrench executive authoritarianism, but not so much as to revive the untrammelled powers the president’s brother enjoyed between 2011 and 2015. The crisis, in that sense, goes much deeper than what liberal columns and critiques would suggest.

What most analyses miss out is that the government is being held hostage by the very economic paradigms it tried to impose on the population. I disagree with commentators who compare these paradigms with the austerity measures imposed by the United Front government in the 1970s – because those measures were informed by far more strenuous external circumstances, indeed less by the United Front’s socialist credentials than by the need to adjust to global food and fuel shortages – but I do agree that these involve what Dr Dayan Jayatilleka calls “a savage capitalism, including abolition of price controls on essential items.” Hardly anyone, except perhaps the most neoliberal of neoliberal commentators and free market advocates, would welcome imposing such measures on people.

These policies have distanced the government from every possible front, including the peasantry, the working class, and the middle-class. Dr Jayatilleka contends that a peasant uprising is in the air. This may well be. But what is more interesting is how a once dormant class, traditionally associated with the politics of populism, has been abandoned by a party led by a family whose political journey began from peasant strongholds. The working class was always the first to go during a crisis like this, but the middle-class is more interesting, in that a group hardly known for its radical credentials has now banded together with radical movements: not just trade unions, but also student activists.

It goes without saying that none of this bodes well for the regime. To be fair, nor does it bode well for whatever party, or alliance, that comes to power next time.

The Royal-Thomian went off well enough, except for the rains. A former prefect, a friend and a student of mine, argued with me about whether it would be held at all. “It’s better to say it will be rescheduled,” he said. “It will be held no matter the barrier, it hasn’t stopped for 141 years, and it has to be there this year too.” I thought otherwise, but seeing it take place despite the biggest pandemic since the Spanish Flu, I can’t help but notice the contrast it offers with the government’s own battles. There is a sense of continuity, but also a sense of change, throughout the country. There is also much frustration and much despair. Sooner or later, it’s bound to rise up, in far greater proportion than any school match.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Politics

Foreign exchange, foreign policy, and economic roundtables

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by Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lanka’s Central Bank will be settling a USD 500 million bond the day after tomorrow. Earlier this month, Ajith Nivard Cabraal tweeted that the Bank had set aside the required amount from its foreign reserves, reiterating the country’s commitment to honouring its debt obligations. Perhaps in response to this development, bondholders appear to have regained confidence about our prospects: latest figures show that bond market prices are converging with face value, though this may well be a temporary gain.

The January 18 settlement is the first of two that will have to be made to our International Sovereign Bond (ISB) holders this year. The second, amounting to USD one billion, is due on July 25. The Central Bank’s strategy is one of doubling down on these debt obligations while renegotiating loans from other governments. This strategy isn’t as muddled up as it is made to be by its critics: unlike governments, ISB holders don’t negotiate, and if they are asked to, it’s usually on the eve of a default or severe economic crisis.

In strategising a way out, then, the Central Bank has identified its priorities: it will pay up on its ISB commitments and devote foreign exchange to little else.

It’s difficult to predict how that will affect our foreign relations in the longer term. The country is presently governed by a party that promised never to sell or lease out its assets. Yet, today, officials are travelling everywhere, negotiating with this government and that, hoping for more lifelines. We have clearly exhausted other options: we can’t raise anything from bond auctions, and we are rejecting the IMF line. Since governments are easier to talk with, we are hence talking with as many of them as possible. It’s doubtful whether this is the only option available, but it’s probably the best shot we can give.

In giving that shot, however, are we exposing ourselves to the pressures of regional and extra-regional power pressures? Consider the countries we have gone to so far: Oman, China, and India. Negotiations with India have been successful, with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar stating that Delhi is ready to stand with Sri Lanka. Though his government has remained quiet over requests for credit lines, these may well come our way.

On the other hand, Beijing has responded to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s call to Foreign Minister Wang Yi to restructure its debts, with Cabraal declaring that a new loan is on the blocks. As for Oman, though negotiations have stalled over requests to explore the Mannar Oil Basin in return for interest-free credit, this too is a window that remains open.

These developments are, all things considered, intriguing. In the face of the worst global health crisis in over a century, our foreign policy has taken a massive beating. The fertiliser imbroglio with China and the withdrawal of Chinese projects from the North over alleged Indian pressure, as well as the visit of the Chinese Ambassador to the North, are cases in point here. All these point to an increasingly complicated foreign policy front. The question is, will the country’s foreign exchange problems complicate it even more?

Perhaps more so than the 1970s, when it faced a severe balance of payments crisis, Sri Lanka is gradually giving way to a foreign policy dictated by depleting foreign reserves. The administration’s dismissal of W. D. Lakshman and appointment of Cabraal, in that regard, accompanied a shift of focus, during the fourth quarter of last year, to the country’s foreign exchange situation. This has spilled over to our external relations.

Here the Central Bank has had to reckon with a contradiction: between its insistence on not going to the IMF and its assurances about meeting ISB obligations. Though it’s debatable whether the Bank has addressed, let alone resolved, that contradiction, it’s clearly making use of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy to pay bondholders their due.

For their part, economic experts have shifted in their response to what the government is doing. While earlier they warned about impending defaults, now many of them have turned to questioning the current policy of repaying bondholders no matter what.

Nishan de Mel of Verité Research, for instance, points out correctly that defaulting is not the same thing as declaring bankruptcy. Suggesting that the former is preferable, he contends that the government should do what it can to renegotiate its debts. On the other hand, as Dushni Weerakoon of the IPS rightly observes, restructuring debt may be easy for a country with a reputation for defaults, like Ecuador, but it is unviable, lengthy, and costly, at least in the short and medium term, for a country like Sri Lanka.

What of the IMF line? It’s obvious that Sri Lanka can no longer negotiate for more breathing space from the IMF without conditionalities being imposed on it. The only way it can obtain such space, in other words, is by succumbing to those conditionalities.

Now, defenders of the IMF line may argue, justifiably, that there’s no give without take, and that if we go to that body we will have to eat humble pie, gratefully. But the question to ask here is, who are we asking to take on these burdens? Who are we asking to endure more of the same? Have IMF advocates considered these problems?

The IMF is not a charity: it has provided financial assistance to almost 90 countries on condition that fiscal discipline be enforced in the long term. If we go down that road, we will need to give back something, like public sector retrenchment and fuel price formulas. These have generated enough backlashes elsewhere. Are we ready to risk them here?

So long as the government fears an uprising from the people, it will not choose the IMF line. To say this is not to defend the powers that be. They have contributed to the mess we are in. But to admit to that is not to deny that, whatever that mess may be, to opt for structural adjustment, when social pressures are peaking, would be politically inadvisable.

That is why Basil Rajapaksa’s billion rupee economic relief package, tabled earlier this month despite much criticism, is intriguing: among other things, it promises a LKR 5,000 allowance to 1.5 million government workers, pensioners, and disabled soldiers. Its underlying thrust is not less money, but more: not spending cuts, but spending hikes.

The urban and suburban middle-classes have responded to the package with characteristic ambivalence. While demanding for relief from the government, they are also questioning the efficacy of printing money. What they have failed to realise is that that printing money is the only resort the government has to grant the kind of relief being demanded. It’s a classic either/or scenario: you get the relief with printed money, or you don’t.

Though economists don’t spell it out exactly in these terms, they do observe that printing money can only lead to greater inflation, implying that the only alternative is to stop doing so. But what are the socio-political costs of such measures? What are the knock-on effects they will have on economic relief for the masses? To ask these questions is not to split hairs, but to raise valid concerns that have not been addressed by the other side.

That is not to say that the government’s measures have been farsighted. They have not. Though Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) policies, which the regime is advocating, may get us space in the short term, it is not the type of reform we should be enacting in the longer term. The policies we need require radical reform and radical action. However viable it may be, printing money should not be considered a substitute for such reform.

To suggest one option, one of Sri Lanka’s most brilliant economists, Howard Nicholas, has advised that we industrialise, noting that the historical record has been better for countries which opted to do so. The example of Vietnam shows how even a sector like textiles can be used to propel industrialisation. That is an example Sri Lanka under Ranasinghe Premadasa followed, at least according to Dr Nicholas, but it is one we have since abandoned, in favour of orthodox prescriptions of fiscal consolidation and untrammelled privatisation.

Sri Lanka needs to consider these options without caving into stopgap measures and orthodox alternatives. How do we do that? As Dayan Jayatilleka suggested some time ago, we should convene an economic roundtable. Such a roundtable will likely prevent economic discussions from becoming a monopoly of elites, thereby helping the government, and the opposition, to align the interests of the economy with the interests of the masses.

This has been a long time coming. Both the government and the opposition have tended to view economic priorities as distinct from other socio-political concerns. Yet the two remain very much interlinked. In that sense, caving into economic orthodoxy while ignoring social reality would be detrimental to the future of the country and the plight of its people. To this end, we need to think of alternatives, and fast. But have we, and are we?

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Lanka has always supported the one-China policy unconditionally – Dr Kohona

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CGTN interview with Lankan ambassador to China

2022 marks the 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Sri Lanka. To know more about the development of that relationship, CGTN reporter Su Yuting sat down with Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to China Palitha Kohona.

Kohona said the relationship between China and Sri Lanka is very warm and is built on a solid foundation, adding that it is a relationship that has lasted over 2,000 years. Sri Lanka and China have moved closer to each other in recent times, and the two countries have supported each other at multilateral fora on many occasions.

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to recognize the newly established People’s Republic of China and the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1957.

“Sri Lanka has always supported the one-China policy unconditionally and was a vocal advocate of China’s readmission to the United Nations. So, it could be said that the relationship between two countries is on a very solid foundation,” said the ambassador.

CGTN: Sri Lanka is one of the important countries along the route of the Belt and Road Initiative. What are your expectations for future cooperation in this regard?

Kohona: Sri Lanka has warmly welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It has also benefited from BRI-related investments. The Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port with its adjoining industrial zone resulted from the Belt and Road Initiative. We are now seeking more investments from China, for the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port area. These investments should be a catalyst for businesses from other countries and regions for the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port. The BRI is expected to result in $4-8 trillion of investments. Some countries and regions are already doing extremely well economically as a result of the BRI investments. For example, African countries. Sri Lanka looks forward to more BRI-related investments. With judicious management of such investments, Sri Lanka should also be able to share in the future of common prosperity envisaged under the BRI.

CGTN: Sri Lanka is one of the five countries Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is visiting at the start of the year. What’s the significance of this trip and what outcomes do you expect from it?

Kohona: Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit is the first visit undertaken this year. This by itself is significant. We believe that he will discuss a range of matters of mutual interest. China has been extremely helpful to Sri Lanka in managing its current financial difficulties. It is expected that during the visit, the parties will discuss enhancing Chinese investments in Sri Lanka and encouraging a larger number of Chinese tourists to visit Sri Lanka once the pandemic-related restrictions are relaxed. Sri Lanka is hoping that China and Sri Lanka would be able to create a bubble for Chinese tourists to visit Sri Lanka. Furthermore, we hope that more Sri Lankan products, agricultural, fisheries and industrial (goods) would be able to gain access to China’s lucrative market.

CGTN: How has China contributed to Sri Lanka’s fight against COVID-19?

Kohona: China has been the main supplier of vaccines to Sri Lanka. Three million doses were gifted to Sri Lanka by China and 24 million were supplied commercially. Sri Lanka is currently managing the COVID-19 pandemic reasonably well. It is largely due to the use of the Chinese Sinopharm (vaccine) that Sri Lanka has been able to achieve this level of success in managing the pandemic. We are currently talking to Sinopharm about the possibility of establishing a vaccine plant in Sri Lanka. We Sri Lankans will remember the Chinese generosity for many years to come.

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The international plot to force Sri Lanka into the USA’s trap is thickening

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by PROF.TISSA VITARANA

With the dawn of the Year 2022 I wish you all happiness, good health, and fulfillment of your needs and targets. But I cannot wish you prosperity, because only the rich are enjoying that privilege. The maximum tax on the rich including multi billionaires still remains at 14%. The average maximum in Europe is 40% while that in Scandinavian country is over 50%. Thus it is clear that the burden of the present economic crisis is being placed on all the people including the poor, but not on the rich.

The economic crisis according to MRI reports has forced over 50% of family incomes to drop below the poverty line. The malnutrition rate has gone up to 18.3% (which means that one in five children under five years of age will be thin, stunted and mentally deficient, while the others too will be adversely affected to various degrees). While hunger and starvation is the immediate impact, the future generations too will suffer badly. Therefore my wish for the New Year is that the Government will identify all those who are hungry and ensure that these families get free dry rations to prevent the spectre of starvation. This must be the priority. Highways and some development projects can wait.

This was the change that the people expected after this new Government was put into power with a huge majority, in Parliament. Daily the people are getting more and more angry in the face of their plight due to the steeply rising price of goods and gross mismanagement of the economy. While we welcome the package of relief measures provided by the Finance Minister to usher in the New Year, we regret that it has been given only to a small section of the population (for instance the government servants, but here too it is not clear even whether this will be confined to permanent employees alone or whether it will be inclusive of all temporary employees as well).

This type of uncertainty also applies to other recipients of the package. The large majority of the people employed in the private sector are not benefited. Even the Samurdhi recipients who are really the needy group are only getting an increase of Rs.1,000/-. Sixty percent of the employees are in the informal sector and they too are left out. Majority of those working in the plantation sector are yet to receive the Rs.1,000/- pay rise, thus flouting agreements arrived between the Government and the companies, together with the unions. But the basic cause of the economic difficulties faced by the people, the steep rise in the prices of all goods including essentials, has not been addressed.

The international plot that I referred to in an earlier article seems to be getting implemented with the rapid explosion of the forex (dollar) crisis. The Foreign Reserve has fallen to USD 1.6 billion from its normal value of around USD eight billion. The import through Letters of Credit (LCs) has now become impossible, specially after Fitch Rating dowgraded us to CC. This low rating has convinced the world that we are a poor risk country for Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). There is even a danger that there may be a shortage of essentials, like medicines and food items.

The poor state of the country and the people which is due to the economic crisis and the pandemic, is exerting a huge pressure on the economy and its hope of revival. The pressure to return to the post 1977 neoliberal policies which led to our economy facing the danger of an American takeover with its conversion into a military base during the period of the Yahapalanaya Government rule has now emerged with greater force. The dollar crisis and the collapse of the economy is forcing Sri Lanka to go on bended knee to the IMF and accept their neoliberal terms. In this context the present Government which resisted going to the IMF as well as the pressure to sign the disastrous MCC and SOFA agreements may be forced to give in. This must not be allowed to happen.

During the most severe economic crisis that occurred in 1972-73 the above problems which are mainly due to the uncontrolled profiteering by unscrupulous traders and others such as big mill owners was tackled by the SLFP/LSSP/CP coalition by expanding and strengthening the cooperative movement. Direct dealings between the producer via multi-purpose cooperatives, inclusive of the small farmers, and the consumers, through the consumer cooperatives minimized profiteering by the middleman. This not only ensured low prices to the consumer, specially of essentials, but also a fair farm gate price to the cultivator.

The LSSP again appeals to the Government to revive the cooperative movement and other Government agencies like the Marketing Department and Paddy Marketing Board. The other major factor responsible for the price rise is the problem of inflation. Inflation which had increased to 9.9% in November 2021 rose steeply in one month to 12.1% in December. This is largely due to the printing of currency notes which has reached massive proportions. For instance in October 2021 the Central Bank printed Rs.130 Billion (equal to USD 65,000,000 ) but this is only the tip of the iceberg. From December 2019 to August 2021 Sri Lanka’s debt increased by Rs.2.8 Trillion – a massive 42%. The claim that this was to maintain a low interest rate is advanced but whether it is correct is questionable. If correct it may help the entrepreneur but it is a severe blow to those who depend on interest from their saving deposits to survive, like government pensioners and other retired persons in the private sector.

Another factor is the drop in the availability of vegetables, fruits and rice mainly due to the lack of chemical inputs. The latter will really be an important factor after the February/March harvest. Which is likely to be, according to some estimate, 30% below the normal average. But the price of vegetables and fruits which are generally harvested at two monthly intervals has been badly affected by the lack of chemical fertilizers and other inputs. This in turn has led to the middleman seeking to retain his profits in the context of the drop in the supply of vegetables and fruits. There is a chain of exploitation by traders which spreads from the farmer to the Dambulla market, then the Manning market and from there to the economic zones and finally to the boutiques.

During the 1970’s crisis this chain of exploitation was eliminated through the Marketing Department, which should be restored and strengthened.

The gradual shift to organic agriculture is both the short term and the long term answer. This process requires time and a planned scientific approach. The seed varieties which were suitable for chemical agriculture must be replaced by indigenous natural varieties improved through further research. It is necessary to ensure that all the inputs like Nitrogen, Phosphate, Potassium, Calcium and Magnesium etc. are freely available for organic farming. Nano particles with 43% Nitrogen have been developed by the SLINTEC Nano Technology Centre. Pilot studies have been successful with both rice and tea.

The large scale production requires considerable investment and a private-public partnership should be achieved. The phosphorous should be converted into triple phosphate by establishing a long felt need – a sulphuric acid plant which must be set up soon. This would also lead to the chemical industrialization of the country. Potassium can be a local product at village level as well as provided by a larger scale industry utilizing plantain trees and leaves once the fruits are plucked. The promotion of the poultry industry will increase production of egg shells which could be the source of Calcium. Few items like Magnesium may need to be imported. Once these inputs are available organic farming can take off with practically no dependence on imports.

While the above measures should help Sri Lanka attain self-sufficiency in food a major weakness is the lack of industrial development. Well before States like Andra Pradesh in India captured the digital software market, Sri Lanka had the opportunity to go ahead of India, but this opportunity was unfortunately missed (a loss of USD 7-8 Billion) due to bureaucratic bungling. Nevertheless local players like Virtusa and HCL Technologies have grown and could be followed by others. The Vidatha movement which I happened to initiate can be developed to a greater extent to provide the science and technology required by the SME sector.

I am happy to learn, that beside finding a wide local market, over a thousand products are now being exported. The hi-tech institutes like SLINTEC and SLIBTEC which I initiated as centers of research and development have unfortunately veered towards playing an educational role. It is important that they should be the source of research for hi-tech industries that can effectively compete in foreign markets. In this way Sri Lanka can become not only self-sufficient in agriculture for food, as well as a centre for commercial agriculture, but it can also become a developed economy with greatly expanded export capability. This is the way out of the present “sinister” crisis which threatens our future. We can remain a truly independent sovereign nation which is no longer a poor country, but become a developed industrialized nation.

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