Friday 5th August 2022
Sri Lanka’s struggle to shore up its crumbling economy continues, and there are no signs of promised foreign assistance materialising anytime soon. The Cabinet has just retained the services of some foreign firms for external debt restructuring, which is one of the main conditions for the IMF bailout package. When the country finally decided to ask for IMF help, after months of dilly-dallying, which took a heavy toll on its foreign reserves, it expected some bridge loans to tide it over until the finalisation of IMF assistance. But it has been left to fend for itself; only India has extended some tangible help, which has stood it in good stead. At this rate, the IMF is likely to take a month of Sundays to deliver promised assistance, and the economic situation here is sure to take a turn for the worse, further aggravating social unrest, which inhibits economic recovery.
Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe has expressed displeasure at the manner in which local exporters are handling their dollar earnings. Taking part in a recent Hiru TV discussion, he said Sri Lanka’s export proceeds amounted to about one billion dollars a month, but only 20% of them were converted to rupees, and exporters claimed that loan repayments and raw material imports, etc., accounted for 80% of their foreign earnings. Disputing their much-publicised claim, Dr. Weerasinghe said that according to the CBSL data, those percentages were not realistic, and about 50% of export proceeds should be brought into the country through the banking system and converted to rupees. If the exporters did so, the country would have enough dollars for fuel imports, he added.
Everyone knows that most Sri Lankan exporters park a sizeable chunk of their foreign earnings overseas while the country is desperate for forex. The question is how to ensure that the country benefits from its export proceeds the way it should. Many economic analysts have been asking this question during the past several years, but there has been no satisfactory answer, much less meaningful action to prevent forex rackets. Jayampathy Molligoda, in his article, ‘Why is the Singapore dollar strong and the SL rupee weak?’ published in this newspaper on Wednesday (03), discussed some vital issues pertaining to export earnings. Pointing out that the private sector had benefited from low interest rates, and the float of the rupee, he asked whether the country was getting export proceeds in keeping with the applicable regulations and, if not, whether the CBSL strictly enforced penalties for noncompliance.
As for the government’s efforts to boost the forex inflow by removing impediments thereto, the so-called moral suasion alone will not do. There are some exporters who really feel for the country and play a straight bat, as it were, but sadly they are only a microscopic minority. The need for tough laws to curb forex rackets cannot be overemphasised. Some loopholes in the Exchange Control (FE) Act have enabled unscrupulous exporters to leave most of their dollars overseas while the Sri Lankan economy is screaming, and they have to be closed as a national priority.
Leniency breeds irregularities in the world of business. This is what has happened since 2017, according to the Opposition, which says the original FE Act, which was designed to prevent questionable forex outflows, was replaced with a new one in 2017 under the Yahapalana government purportedly to liberalise the flow of foreign exchange. The move was obviously aimed at helping the UNP cronies, some of whom had fallen foul of the law. The new Act, according to the Opposition, did away with provision for the mandatory confiscation of assets of the forex law violators; under the previous Act, such violations were criminal offences.
The FE Act, which is said to have benefited forex racketeers, has to be changed and remedial action taken to regulate export proceeds, which are a sine qua non for resolving the current economic crisis. Ironically, the aforesaid questionable changes to the FE laws were introduced when Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister in the Yahapalana government. Its ill-effects are being felt under his presidency!
Now that it has been revealed that the exporters’ skulduggery costs the country a huge chunk of export proceeds, and has stood in the way of efforts being made to raise dollars for fuel imports, etc., the government has to do everything in its power to strengthen the foreign exchange laws. Fairness demands that the wealthy exporters who benefit from a host of concessions and the rupee depreciation, make a significant contribution to the ongoing efforts to revive the economy and ameliorate the suffering of fellow citizens. Exporters themselves will gain hugely from the availability of dollars for imports, especially fuel, which is essential for economic recovery and socio-political stability.
To dock or not to dock
Monday 15th August, 2022
Sri Lanka is like a storm-tossed bark struggling to remain afloat in an ocean of economic trouble; it is lucky to have avoided a head-on collision with a massive Chinese vessel, Yuan Wang 5 (YW-5), a ballistic missile and satellite-tracking ship, which is on its way to Hambantota. Colombo has finally stopped dillydallying and decided to allow the vessel to make a port call. India and the US have softened their collective stance on the Chinese ship’s visit. It was thought that the YW-5 issue would lead to a bitter diplomatic row with India, and if what was feared had come to pass with New Delhi cranking up pressure on Colombo to deny YW-5 permission to dock, it would have been a double whammy for Sri Lanka, which is dependent on the restructuring of Chinese debt to secure the much-needed IMF bailout package, and cannot afford to antagonise India, which is propping up its economy. All’s well that ends well.
There are lessons to be learnt from the ship controversy. Colombo was initially all at sea. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government seemed divided on the issue with vital information one needed to figure out the provenance of the issue being suppressed. So, the arguments and counterarguments anent the issue were based on surmises, hunches, assumptions, hearsay, etc. Thankfully, the Foreign Ministry has put the record straight albeit belatedly.
It behoves Sri Lanka to be mindful of India’s security concerns in handling maritime affairs. Perhaps, it is not the scheduled arrival of YW-5 as such that New Delhi was concerned about but the possibility of China continuing to use the Hambantota Port to berth more such vessels in the future. (China would not have secured a port in a strategic location in the Indian Ocean for nothing!) It is only natural that India and its QUAD allies think China is testing the water.
It is the voice of the QUAD that one has heard through the critics of the YW-5 voyage. There is reason to believe that they are promoting a US-led drive to isolate China internationally. YW-5 embarked on its current voyage amidst a Chinese naval exercise near Taiwan in response to US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent controversial visit to Taipei notwithstanding objections from Beijing.
Colombo has acted tactfully by reportedly asking India and the US to specify the reasons for their misgivings about the Chinese vessel’s port call. However, it defies comprehension why Colombo requested Beijing to defer the arrival of YW-5 at Hambantota for replenishment, after granting permission.
Meanwhile, the argument that China is sending its survey vessel all the way to Hambantota to spy on South India does not sound tenable. In fact, it reflects naivety on the part of those who make that claim, for China is equipped to spy on its rivals without taking the trouble of deploying its ships and drawing international attention to such missions unnecessarily. In this day and age, technology is so advanced that information about even what lies at the edge of the universe, as it were, could be gathered without any craft ever getting anywhere near it.
Sri Lanka is already battered and bruised enough economically and certainly does not want any diplomatic rows to contend with. It has to get its foreign policy right. It had better take steps to avoid issues like the docking of YW-5 in the future lest it should become a victim of the big-power rivalry, which is intensifying; it ought to decide what types of ships will be allowed to berth at its ports, formulate a policy to that effect and make it known to the rest of the word so that unnecessary controversies could be averted, and hegemonic nations bent on projecting their power on a global scale will not be able to flex their naval muscles at the expense of Colombo.
Unarmed but not peaceful
We run on this page today an article written by a retired Major General of the Sri Lanka Army who argues forcefully that the Aragalaya protesters were NOT repeat NOT peaceful. Over the weeks and months of the protest, which now appears to be fizzling out, although contrary claims that it will continue persist, the Aragalaya was described by the media, human rights activists, politicians, diplomats and many more as a “peaceful protest.” That label stuck. A protest it was, and an unarmed protest to boot, but nobody can claim that it was “peaceful” especially during its concluding stages when barricades protecting President’s House and the Presidential Secretariat at the old Parliament building were repeatedly stormed.
The whole country was privy to these all or nothing charges, where large groups akin to human battering rams, unrelentingly and repeatedly stormed the barriers surrounding the seats of government. They did so with the clear knowledge that there would be no shooting. These scenes were beamed over national television news bulletins widely viewed countrywide. Police and troops manning the barriers used tear gas and water cannons and on a few occasions fired into the air. Fortunately, thanks be to whoever was responsible (some say that outgoing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa so ordered before he fled the country), no live bullets were fired. Thus no lives were lost. All to the good. The retired military officer, Major General Lalin Fernando, who has titled his contribution “Peaceful and Unlawful Assembly” has, to our mind, by quoting sections of the Criminal Procedure Code conclusively established that the assemblies under reference were totally unlawful. There is no second word about that. Unarmed yes, but peaceful no.
Another curious and coincidental occurrence regarding the Rajapaksas’ departure and what many believe to be the end of the Aragalaya has occurred within exact one month intervals over a three-month period beginning May 9 this year. On that day Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa responded to the “Go Home Mynah” demand. Exactly a month later, on June 9, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa went home although there was no “Basil Go Gama.” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa eventually caved into the “Gota Go Home” demand and fled the country like a thief in the night, flying first to the Maldives, then to Singapore and now to Thailand. And last week on August 9, the Aragalaya which pushed all the Rajapaksas out of office also seems to have ended. Those who thought that the country has seen the back of the Rajapaksas when GR swore a cabinet minus all of them except his aiya who installed him on the throne, was forced to call for MR’s resignation, and thereafter to resign himself, will have to think again. The Pohottuwa still calls the shots in parliament as clearly demonstrated by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as prime minister, then as acting president and finally his comfortable election by parliament as president to serve out the rest of GR’s term.
Remember Mahinda Sulanga after MR who had engineered a constitutional coup ending the two term limit on the presidency suffered a stunning loss to Maithripala Sirisena, the former general secretary of MR’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, while seeking a third term. A combination of forces led by the UNP and including former President Chandrika Kumaratunga ensured Rajapaksa’s defeat. But he did not lie down and die. Within days and weeks of what seemed an unbelievable end to a remarkable political career, Mahinda Rajapaksa was being feted and greeted by tens of thousands of his supporters at his Tangalle home. Before long, with the help of his brother Basil and the founding of his Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) best known by its Pohottuwa election symbol he was able to demonstrate that he was no spent force at the local government elections of February 2018. This was the biggest ever election in the country and his new party was able to gather 40 percent of the popular vote. The UNP and SLFP ran a poor second and third.
But reckless, ill- managed government, rampant corruption and sheer incompetence led to the Rajapaksa nemesis and Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy. Never has Sri Lanka, ranked a middle income country, reached the depths to which it has plunged today. The majority of the people, mostly the poor, are facing untold hardship. Food prices have galloped through the roof. The latest World Food Program (WFP) assessment reveals that 86 percent of Lankan families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and in some cases skipping meals altogether. Before the economic crisis and the pandemic, malnutrition rates across the country were already high. There is no need to labour over the cascading effects of the fuel crisis and the kilometers long queues for diesel and petrol. The present improvements can last only as long as we can borrow the dollars to continue supplies.
There is no signal from the president or the government that a serious effort at course correction will be made at least on the political front. The attempted All Party Government is certainly not going to be lean. Abject failures and suspect personalities are back in office and the country fears there will be more of it. Those within the incumbent parliament, judged by the knowledgeable as competent, are unwilling to take political office. President Wickremesinghe is doing his best, but will that be enough?
Get down to brass tacks
Saturday 13th August, 2022
The government’s high-octane performance is really amazing although the Opposition has accused it of doing nothing by way of problem solving. It has already solved many problems since the appointment of the new President and the new Cabinet, and is in the process of tackling many others.
The UNP has overcome many problems, thanks to the current dispensation. It has come in from the cold, at last. It was in penury following its disastrous electoral loss in 2020, but is showing signs of recovery. Some of its seniors who were in hiding after defaulting on bank loans to the tune of billions of rupees have crawled out of the woodwork. Their problems, too, have been solved.
The SLPP also had numerous problems; it faced the prospect of being ousted. But the government has solved all of them. The Rajapaksa family is out of danger; it is calling the shots in the government, again. The SLPP MPs who fell out with their party bosses, and were sidelined, are back in the Cabinet.
Some ambitious Opposition politicians have realised their dream of becoming ministers. Having crossed over to the government, they no longer have any problems to contend with, and can now make up for lost time to their heart’s content. Many more ministerial posts are expected to be created when the 22nd Amendment Bill with provision for the appointment of a jumbo Cabinet is steamrollered through Parliament, and the problems that most MPs are facing will be solved in the event of a national government being formed. At this rate, all the problems of the UNP, the SLPP and others who are willing to switch their allegiance to the government will be solved once and for all.
But the problems that the people are beset with remain unsolved, nay they are worsening. There’s the rub. The foreign currency crunch continues, and precious little is being done to ensure a steady forex inflow, which is the be-all and end-all of economic recovery. The fuel crisis is far from resolved; rationing is no solution however efficient it may be. The economy is thirsting for oil. Extremely high petroleum prices have led to an increase in production costs and the prices of essential goods and services. Inflation is soaring. Bread now costs as much as cake did about two years ago. People continue to skip meals. Doctors are complaining of drug shortages in the state-run hospitals. The school system is not fully functional yet due to transport issues. The Ceylon Electricity Board has jacked up electricity prices unconscionably, and the Water Board is expected to follow suit soon. Tax increases are said to be in the pipeline. Businesses are closing down due to escalating production costs and for want of imported raw materials. Many people have lost their jobs. The situation is bound to take a turn for the worse when the adverse effects of the conditions for the IMF bailout packages kick in. The government does not seem keen to address these issues. The Opposition is all at sea.
The government and the Opposition have been busy talking instead of making a collective effort to pull the country out of the present economic mire. They are blowing hot and cold on the formation of an all-party government, which has come to mean different things to different people. The Opposition insists that the proposed joint administration should be an interim one, but the SLPP has some other plans; it wants to cling on to power by sharing ministerial posts with the Opposition. If President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the SLPP and the Opposition are serious about joining forces for the sake of the country, they ought to stop wasting any more time on endless talks, get down to brass tacks, set goals and formulate a definitive plan to reach them in the shortest possible time.
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