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DEMOCRATIC DEATH-WISH: THE NMSJ’S WEIMAR CONSTITUTION

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by DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

Is anyone at the top, working closely with the Deep State, allowing the crisis to accelerate and even helping it exacerbate, so as to facilitate military rule (or presidential-military rule)?

Is the democratic opposition, from political parties to civil society, unwittingly walking into the equivalent of a well-prepared military ambush by unilateralist-sectarian political adventurism on the part of some, and Weimar Republic weak-state liberalism on the part of others?

The liberal and liberal-left Lankan democrats always had a tendency to cry “Wolf! Wolf”, when there wasn’t one, having never cried “Tiger! Tiger” when there was.

In 2015, they cried “wolf” and pointed in the manifestly wrong direction, having run the risk that there may have actually been a wolf lurking elsewhere. In January 2015 Mangala Samaraweera and Somawansa Amerasinghe of the UNP and JVP respectively led the charge, alleging that as electoral defeat loomed, Mahinda Rajapaksa had plotted to stay on in office with the support of the military. The whole country knew that to be untrue because MR quit before the final results had come in.

I knew it to be untrue more than most others did. At 3 AM on the day of the electoral defeat, while I was watching the results coming in at home with my wife, President Mahinda Rajapaksa spoke to me on Udaya Gammanpila’s or Dayasiri Jayasekara’s phone, told me that his gut-reading of the trend was that he was losing, that he was about to resign and thanked me warmly for my active support and participation on TV and the public platforms, in the campaign. (A campaign in which I knew MR wasn’t at an advantage as I told Opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena on Dec 8 2014 at Azath Sally’s house.)

Now the untruthful shrieking, about MR planning to stay on with the military, obscured another possibility, namely that there may have been others, not merely civilian, who were advocating such an option or toying with such a contingency, and found that the rug had been pre-emptively, and perhaps even unwittingly, pulled by MR who resigned, thanked his tearful staff and moved out at the crack of dawn.

If there were any such dark elements entertaining thoughts of putschist political Black-Ops we shall never know who they might have been or where they are now, thanks to the anti-MR hysteria of the victors at that moment. We can only speculate what such elements may be thinking now, with no MR capable of spontaneously hitting the democratic ejector button.

What one does know from comparative global history though, is that severe economic crises do not always give rise to one option, but can give rise to two options which battle each other until one succeeds. Economic crashes can cause a shift to the left, in policy (Roosevelt’s New Deal) or political outcome (revolutions, elected left-leaning governments). Economic depressions can also give rise to harsh rightwing authoritarian solutions, including forms of fascism and military dictatorships (classic examples are Italy and Germany in the 1930s and Chile in 1973).

Those who think this doesn’t apply to Sri Lanka because of its democratic heritage should know that Uruguay was called the Switzerland of Latin America and Chile was very proud of its democratic heritage.

Those who think that this doesn’t apply to Sri Lanka for another reason, namely that the Gotabaya option has been tried and has failed, and so Sri Lanka is past that point, have ignored the obvious, and best funded, most efficient institution in the country: the military.

Those who think that the economic crisis is beyond the military’s capacity to manage are almost certainly correct, but that doesn’t rule out harsh, sanguinary military rule which pounds democracy, political parties, trade unions and civil society into rubble, for a medium or short period.

Intellectual Absence & Abdication

The question is: what should be done and of this what can be done? Before that is answered, one has to be aware of what should have been done and has not been undertaken.

The basics have not yet been done. One of the pillars of Ceylon’s/Sri Lanka’s democratic two-party system, the UNP, electorally disappeared. It did so after a prolonged electoral depression, never having won a presidential election since 1988. It’s extinction was prefigured by the defeat it incurred at the hands of a new party, at the February 2018 local authority election. How many articles by the liberal or left intelligentsia—academic and/or activist–have you read analyzing any of that?

By contrast, when Trump won in 2016, the quality American press was filled over the next few years, not only with critiques of him but also with lacerating self-criticism of how the Democrats lost, including in areas and among social strata that had traditionally supported it.

The same goes for the SLFP, the second party in the two-party system, which now resembles Groot when he turned into a twig. How many analyses have you read of how and why it got there?

The Sri Lankan war ended in an internationally rare though not unique victory for the State over a powerful irregular army once referred to by Ron Moreau in Newsweek as the world’s toughest guerrilla fighters after the Vietcong (Moreau had covered Vietnam). How many explanatory essays have you read by the Lankan intelligentsia about the decisive defeat of the indomitable LTTE?

How many analyses have you come across on the reasons for the successive failures of peace efforts with the LTTE, by diverse Sri Lankan leaders, India and Norway?

For the record, I shall note that I have written and published on all these topics, but that is not the point I am driving at.

The first of my main points is that there is a surplus of opinion and absence of analysis on the major phenomena of contemporary Sri Lankan political history, either real-time or in retrospect. This gross dereliction of basic intellectual responsibility and academic duty constitutes a major indictment of the Sri Lankan intelligentsia after the turn of the century and millennium.

What this speaks to is the unwillingness or inability to carry out an honest post-mortem or audit. Given the inability for reflective critical evaluation, there is no possibility of accurate diagnosis. Thus, there is no prospect –or possibility? —of an accurate prognosis and prescription.

This has consequences. If there is no public postmortem on the electoral disappearance of the UNP and the truncation of the SLFP, or the victory in the war and the failure of the efforts at peace, there will be no sense of the state of fragility to which the Sri Lankan democratic system has been reduced today and no comprehension of the militarist project.

Without shining the light of self-critical lucidity, there is no chance of avoiding steps that would take Sri Lanka further into the labyrinth or down the abyss at the end of which is the Minotaur of militarism.

If the various streams of the Opposition do not move swiftly to a position which is proximate to that of the Pohottuwa voter and accommodates that which is legitimate in their grievances and aspirations, the majority of Sinhalese will find an alternative solution to the crisis that is closer to them in their grand narrative.

In 1988, faced with Sirimavo Bandaranaike as rival and the JVP as threat, Ranasinghe Premadasa was able to repackage the nationalist-patriotic and socioeconomic aspirational in a new, organic mix, and beat them both. This proved Ranjan Wijeratne correct when he told President Jayewardene that only Premadasa, not Gamini or Lalith, could save the UNP, democracy and the country. I am not making a pitch in this article for a party or a leader. I merely want readers to understand that unless the democratic parties shift in a certain direction, the suffering masses may accept—even if they do not actively opt for—the military as their savior.

What is the direction the democratic Opposition, including the civil society intelligentsia, should move in and which direction should it eschew? It is easier to start with the latter aspect.

NMSJ’s Constitutional Chernobyl

It must decidedly not move in the direction of the draft proposals for constitutional change of the NMSJ led by former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. The problem is not with Mr. Jayasuriya; it is with the content of the proposals. The segment on Rights is very good, but there’s something radically wrong at the very heart of the proposals: the Executive and Devolution. Even worse than in the matter of changing ratios of gases by gas companies, the NMSJ proposals mix two ideas which should never be mixed. One is the loosening of the definition of the state and enhancing provincial autonomy WHILE removing the directly, nationally elected executive presidency.

The new constitutional proposals are pretty much the same draft constitutional proposals that killed-off the UNP, viz re-naming the state as an “ekeeiya Rajya” in the Sinhala and English (!) versions while looking for ‘a suitable Tamil term’ appears like a loophole. The Supreme Court found in 1987 that the 13th amendment stayed barely within the framework of a unitary state and did not cross the line over to the federal solely because of the powers of the governor as representative of the executive president.

Delete the term ‘unitary’ in English and there is no ‘link language’ term for the character of the state. Delete the nationally elected Executive Presidency rather than dilute and distribute its excessive powers, and the Provincial powers slide into the realm of the arguably federal.

The NMSJ proposes that the President be elected by an Electoral College, but that has no kinship with the US presidential system because the NMSJ states unambiguously that it stands for a parliamentary system of Government.

Therefore, if you have a parliamentary system, provincial powers under an “ekeeiya Rajya” — which is given no exact translation/definition in any recognized international language—and a president who is not directly and nationally elected but is chosen by an Electoral College, what does it all add up to?

It adds up to a system in which the sovereign people taken as a whole, as a totality, have no office of an overarching character to which they choose the incumbent by election. The island of Sri Lanka with its diverse population will have no elected unifying symbol which represents the overarching, higher value of the whole over the parts.

The PM will be a leader who will only have the legitimacy of being elected by a parochial unit, not of having been elected by a majority of the whole citizenry. A legislature headed by such a leader – and a bicameral legislature at that, as the NMSJ has proposed—will be on a level playing field with the Provincial Councils, which will no longer have an overarching presidency to hold them in check nor a clear definition of the state as ‘unitary’. And this on an island only a few miles away from a neighbor which has the same ethnic composition as the North of Sri Lanka.

This is a model not of a strong, supple democratic state with a separation of powers as in the USA and France, but of a weak, multipolar state; a state in which the centripetal is structurally and systemically weaker than the centrifugal, and provides few safeguards against the latter. Simply put the NMSJ model cannot keep Ministers or Chief Ministers in check because it has no overarching elected Presidency.

Democratic Death-Wish

The Opposition parties should avoid the NMSJ proposals as they would the plague. Chandrika’s Constitutional ‘package’ stimulated the rise of the New Right, the JHU, and her PTOMS culminated (mercifully) in the Mahinda Rajapaksa candidacy. Ranil’s CFA sealed his electoral defeat. The Yahapalanaya UNP’s draft constitution –which the NMSJ recycles with slight modifications– coupled with the 2015 co-sponsorship of the Geneva resolution with its “international prosecutors, investigators and judges” commitment, helped mightily to catapult Gotabaya Rajapaksa into office and bury the UNP. The SLFP survived because it dissented.

Repeating the same thing and expecting a different result is indeed the definition of lunacy. The real problem is that every time you keep repeating it, the same thing happens but at a further point of the scale.

Listen carefully to what the people are saying even as they curse the policies of the Gotabaya government and rue the day they voted for him. They want a strong state, a leader who will care about them and take care of their material interests; will at the least not harm their livelihoods. They are not fans of a weak state. They want a social democratic policy from a social democratic state. They want a government that will deliver the goods and they want a System that can and will deliver those goods. That is not an overly decentralized, dysfunctional system in the name of liberal democracy, which will be unable to keep Ministers and Chief Ministers in check. This gives liberal democracy a bad name.

If the alternative that the democrats have to offer the people is a Weimar Republic, the people in their despair and anger may opt for or accept an aspirant Hitler, this time a combat veteran of the victorious last war in trademark black military uniform.



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Politics

President’s Dinner for his Old Comrades

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The President and Commander in Chief HE Gotabaya Rajapakse invited 186 of his old military comrades and their ladies for dinner at President’s House on Dec. 22, 2021. For a media that lives on gossip, this was manna.

A Sunday paper (not the Island) on 26 Dec reported the invitees numbered 1,050.The figure was specific. Many readers were, as expected, duped to believe it. Added on was that ‘drinks’ too were served as though that was news. No detailed description of the menu was given as has happened before for reasons that will be a revelation. Was it to show profligacy which was news? The Sunday Island of Dec. 2, 2021 had a news item by Dayan Jayatilleka that went one better. He increased the figure to a smarter 1,090. Those made a lie look like the truth. It was meant to be so. No questions were asked as to sources.

The Dec. 26 Sunday paper also had a dig at the organizers. Apparently a few had turned down the invitation. That was curious as the invitations were sent only to those who confirmed verbal enquiries as to their attendance. It may have been that after accepting the invitation a few old sweats, officers and gentlemen it is said they had been, were churlish enough to avoid attendance at the C in C’s dinner. Were they the same fellows, who being absent from the scene, did the counting of heads too?

Jayatilleka went further. He thought there was something odd if not sinister in the exercise. He believed 1,090 ‘senior military men, serving and retired’ attended. He asked readers not to continue reading if they did not believe that the invitations had been sent with some ulterior motive. The suggestion was that the dinner was not a ‘sociable, benign gesture of a year-end party’. It obviously worried him that good and normal men in SL would have thought differently and questioned the assumption.

To begin with his facts were absolutely cock eyed. The cooked figures he had been served (1,090) by someone who was possibly not at the dinner, clearly supported his fertile imagination. He probably thought a mere 186 officers at dinner would not be enough to invent a rollicking fairy tale.

The only serving officers present were the tri services commanders. With their spouses a round figure of 400 invitees could have been closer to the truth. All the others were veterans aged 70 years and above, some disabled. A few were 90 years old and were in wheel chairs.

Now what did Jayatilleka a former minister in the EPRLF that was a IPKF stooge that made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in the late1990s, think the doddering old and but still bold 186 could have been up to? It certainly helped to propel his latest onslaughts on the fanciful ‘militarization’ of the nation. Was it also to mark up points with the West, just in case?

So how did the ‘gala’ dinner go? First of all male guests in smart casual (tie), and their ladies in sarees, arrived well in time as is the norm among servicemen. They were given antigen tests by a team of medics before gathering in the manicured garden where the military bands played some lively music.

Old comrades reminisced with their friends, many after decades and two years of Covid. Everyone was refreshingly relaxed. Many recalled long forgotten incidents, hilarious mishaps mostly, and extraordinary characters they served with. Many heroes were present but stories of daring and battle were not recounted here. The missing was not forgotten.

As at any military social function, not a word of politics was heard. No one pulled rank. When the C in C came and graciously mixed with his guests, all older than him, no one in the best of service traditions and etiquette forgot who he, the C in C, was. He knew and called all of them by their first names. He seemed as happy as his guests were, to meet simply as old comrades, exchange greetings and enjoy themselves. There were no speeches.

A splendid buffet dinner followed.

Here was the first old soldier who had become the elected President and C in C of SL. He was now among old friends. They all thanked and wished him and his lady the very best in the challenging year to come.

People who will never know what military comradeship is should not waste their time trying to question the motives of a C in C in inviting his old comrades to dinner. It was the first ever in SL history. There was nothing ‘gala’ either, as anyone who was inveigled by his ‘informant’ may have believed. Such people should try not to judge others by their standards, be mean and gullible and should not to circulate worn out tales or have recurring nightmares about ‘militarization’.

Old soldiers never die; they only fade away, even from the President’s House. God only knows what happens to mercenaries and tale carriers.

Dinner guest

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DE-CODING THE AKD-JVP-NPP RELATIONSHIP

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DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

The JVP-NPP is prominent in the struggle against the presidential system–while permitting speculation that Anura Kumara Dissanayake will be the presidential candidate—and in the vanguard in the struggle against corruption.

Whether it realizes it or not, it is being hypocritical—not because of that duality–and so too are those who support them on those grounds.

The reason is simple and self-evident. Whether one is against the presidential system as such, or whether one is against the 20th amendment while being for the Presidential system, the reason is the same: the critique of over-centralization. To spell it out, the objection is too much power and too many functions in the hands of a single person and the remedy is seen as the separation of powers, which makes for check and balances.

In its practice, the JVP-NPP runs completely against that principle.

The next ‘signature issue’ is corruption. There too, the principle is the same: if one person holds more than one post and there is a possible conflict of interest, that is the potential source of corruption. Here too, the crux of the matter is that one person should not head several institutional or organization spaces. Interlocking directorates are the conduit of corruption. I am not accusing the JVP-NPP of corruption, but of violating the principle of safeguards or guardrails against overlapping and over-concentration.

The NPP was not founded by non-party activists or those of many political parties. Still less was it formed by academics. It was founded by Anura Kumara Dissanayake in 2015.

The NPP is not led by a non-party personality. It is led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake who founded it.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake is the leader of the JVP. He was the leader of the JVP when he established the NPP, and remains the leader of the JVP.

It is reasonable to assume that as the JVP’s leader, rather than merely a JVP member or second-level leader, Mr. Dissanayake would have founded the NPP as part of the JVP’s strategic vision.

Insofar as the NPP is the creation of the JVP’s leader, the NPP is the child of the JVP.

Latin American Left

The JVP has almost always had phases in which it had personalities and mass organization to which it gave a long leash. Indika Gunawardena and Sunila Abeysekara are two examples but not the only ones. Perhaps a more important one is HN Fernando the politically highly literate leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union which he had built up into a 30,000 strong organization. All of them were purged from the party when views that dissented from the changing party line, were voiced. (HN Fernando, who was Wijeweera’s brother-in-law was physically assaulted).

These seem to me the earlier prototypes of what is now manifested as the NPP. The NPP seems to me to be a new model of the same old template: a front organization of fellow-travelers.

If the NPP were to be an autonomous civic or mass organization or more ambitiously the formation which should be recognized as a contender to lead the country, the Latin American Left provides the architecture.

Uruguay’s Tupamaros and its Communist Party founded the Frente Amplio, the Broad Front, which lasted from the early 1970s through the decades of military dictatorship, to this day. The first leader of the Frente Amplio who remained so for many years, was General Liber Seregni, not the MLN-Tupamaro leader Raul Sendic nor the Uruguayan CP’s leader Rodney Arismendi.

In El Salvador, the revolutionary vanguard unified as the FMLN, with its politico-diplomatic partner being the Frente Democratico Revolutionario, the FDR. None of the FMLN’s leaders headed the FDR.

That is the model by which the autonomy of the civic front is ensured. In the case of the NPP, it is headed, not even by a JVP personality like Nalinda Jayatissa or Bimal Ratnayake, still less a respected progressive activist, intellectual or cultural-artistic figure but precisely by the top leader of the JVP.

As a disciplined leader who is committed to the strategy and decisions of the JVP, there is hardly a structural possibility of genuine autonomy for and on the part of the NPP.

Political Culture: Falsification & Opacity

A great many of us watched as Anura Kumara Dissanayake repeatedly emphasized on national TV that Kumara Gunaratnam was never a member of the JVP. Quiet apart from the insult to the memory of Ranjithan Gunaratnam, a real hero and martyr of the JVP leadership, it was a plain lie because it was widely known that Kumara Gunaratnam played the major role in rebuilding the JVP clandestinely after the repression was over.

The post 1994 JVP was built upon the foundation laid by Kumara Gunaratnam whom Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the nation was never a member of the party.

A few years ago, after Kumara Gunaratnam had been ‘disappeared’ and tortured in 2011, and was released only due to external lobbying and the intervention of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a throw-away public remark in response to Anura Kumara’s criticism of him on an entirely different matter, that the crackdown on Gunaratnam and his emerging new outfit (it wasn’t called Peratugamee at the time) was made on an alert from the same quarter that was now criticizing him. There was no answer from AKD.

If anything, a left alternative must occupy the moral high ground, and not only in its own eyes. The historical truth is the only path to the moral high ground.

None of this is meant as an indictment of or attack on Anura Kumara as a person. It speaks to the discourse, the political culture of the JVP and its opacity. The denial of Kumara Gunaratnam, his removal from the annals of the JVP, the sheer falsification of history, tells us what the JVP still is. This travesty is not something that has occurred, would occur or could occur in any other political party in Sri Lanka. The JVP was and is a party which is the most opaque in Sri Lanka.

It is the same Anura Kumara who leads the same JVP who also founded and leads the NPP.

Therefore, any influence that the NPP has on the JVP will be secondary, episodic and tactical, while the JVP’s influence over the NPP will be strategic and structural. The tail won’t be wagging the dog.

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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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