By Jehan Perera
There are multiple signs that the country is in a major crisis that is most visibly manifesting itself in the economic downturn but also in the moral sphere, law and order and international relations. The reopening of the country after the 40-day lockdown saw lines of people forming outside of supermarkets in their attempt to purchase milk powder for their families. There were accompanying media reports of a shipload of milk powder being diverted to another country’s port due to the inability of the Sri Lankan importer to obtain the foreign exchange necessary to pay for the containers they had ordered. It is not only that imported goods are unavailable, their prices have also shot up. Social media has shared visuals taken from the early 1970s when queues formed in Sri Lanka for rice and basic staples during the time of the world food crisis. It happened due to external forces on that occasion, which cannot be applied at this time. It happened, therefore it can happen again.
The weekend media headlines were also about the huge loans that the country is being forced to obtain from other countries to pay for fuel and other basic imports. Even though these loans will ease the immediate problems and transport will not be disrupted, they will not prove to be a long term solution as these loans have to be repaid with interest. There was also a report of another huge loan from the World Bank to improve the road connectivity system. It evokes memories of a similar road connectivity project that was to be supported by the MCC grant offered by the US government but which was rejected on the grounds that it would be detrimental to national sovereignty. Some of those who govern the country today warned that this project would divide the country into two by means of an electrified fence and US visas would be needed to travel to the holy sites of Anuradhapura. It is such attitudes and distortions that contribute to divide the country.
There was also the shocking news that the country was about to accept organic fertiliSer with harmful bacteria in it. In the past, travellers returning from abroad have had their apples and other fruits brought for personal use confiscated by customs on grounds that they might bring in micro-organisms and pests from abroad that would be detrimental to local agriculture. In this case samples of organic fertiliser imported from abroad proved to have harmful bacteria. Initially those who wanted the fertiliser said it might be the sample that was flawed and not the container load that followed, but when this too was found to be infected, the entire consignment was rejected. There has been no adequate answer to the farmers and associated field advice regarding how to continue the cultivation in these circumstances.
Underlying the economic and other travails of the country are two key factors. The first is the pursuit of private gain by those entrusted with public responsibility. In this regard it was not a foregone conclusion that the shipload of contaminated organic fertiliser would be turned away. The problem is that it might find its way back. The agricultural authorities now say that the company that produced the infected organic fertiliser will send a batch of fresh fertiliser to Sri Lanka without the harmful bacterial pathogens. The usual practice would be to blacklist a company that sent harmful pathogens in their shipment. But considerations of private profit or loss can make this an exception.
The second key factor is that decisions are made without sufficient understanding of the inter-connectedness of all life, whether political, economic or personal. This may be seen in the decision to ban chemical fertilisers without adequate preparation. Experience has shown worldwide that victories have been won after years of preparation and learning from mistakes in which the decisions are made by veterans who have become experts in their fields. The decision to ban chemical fertilisers without similar years of preparation and participation of experts in the field needs to be reconsidered. There needs to be much awareness creation and advocacy on the ground before it really happens and in stages. In particular, the import of infected organic fertiliser may cause more damage than the chemical fertiliser which it replaces.
As a result of the ban on chemical fertilisers the price of the stock that remains has gone up and crop yields have dropped due to the unavailability of adequate fertilisers and herbicides on time. This was the deficit that the organic fertilizer that was imported and sent back was meant to fill. The reduction in production would mean there is a need for more imports of food grains and other staples for which the country has limited foreign exchange as the milk powder shortage has shown. The Planters’ Association of Ceylon has urged the Government to immediately to avoid major loss of foreign exchange earnings and further worsening the crisis with reduced crops and possible wipe-out of rubber plantations due to the fungal disease. They also estimate a 40 percent drop in tea exports next year.
There is a need for an independent group of experts to review the situation. The intentions of the government may be good, but the process of decision making needs to be changed so that private profit and self-interest does not take first place. The present constitutional arrangement is for the president to have the final power to appoint persons to key institutions of state be they in the public service, judiciary, police or even statutory bodies. This needs to be modified to ensure the independence and integrity of those selected to these high positions. There is a need to bring in the opposition and civil society into the selection process along with the government to ensure that the system of checks and balances works with integrity. All institutions, including the presidency, need to be subjected to the principles of accountability and checks and balances.
When problems are not solved by the state institutions that are set up to solve problems it will be the case that people, organisations and communities seek solutions outside the state. Today, whether it is in the Attorney General’s Department, which is being accused of irregular appointments, the police department, which is being accused of not doing their investigations into cases in which government personalities are involved, the prisons department, which permitted a minister to enter with a pistol, the education department which is failing to resolve a protracted dispute with teachers, or the elections department that has failed to hold provincial elections for over three years, there is a loss of confidence in the state.
The most recent example is the Catholic Church which has been asking for investigations into the Easter bombing to yield results after two years and many promises by the government’s leaders. It is time to know the truth and it is only truth that will help Sri Lanka to become free of this burden. Ominously at a time when the Church leaders have said that they are not satisfied with this type of investigation and they will go to the international community, they have been warned that another attack on churches is possible. Instead of identifying the culprits and those behind them, the government system is filing action against those who were clearly not behind the bombings, such as the former Defence Secretary and former police chief against whom 855 indictments had been filed with the prosecution naming 1,216 witnesses which will ensure a very lengthy trial process. This can send a worrying message to those within the state system that they may be scapegoats for actions and omissions that were beyond them.
“It happened, therefore it can happen again” –Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor and writer. It seems that for Sri Lanka, ‘’It happened and it will happen again and again” will be the case until we have the leadership that will bite the bullet and change course.
Will RW go ahead with online security bill?
by SALIYA WEERAKOON
and Prof. ALEX LIN CHEE LOK
In 1914, Cambridge-educated D. R Wijewardena, arguably one of the most recognised entrepreneurs in the country, bought the Sinhala daily Dinamina. History also records that he purchased the English daily, Ceylon Daily News, in 1917. Consequently, Wijewardena is known as the press baron of the pre-independence of Ceylon. He fought for Independence from the colonial masters and was an early mover of the organised press. His son-in-law, Esmond Wickremesinghe, often referred to as one of the best political strategists in the recent history of Sri Lanka, masterminded the editorials of Lake House, the D. R. Wijewardena newspaper group.
Due to one person, even in 2023, the above names are still relevant in the media. He is Ranil Wickremesinghe, the eighth executive president of Sri Lanka. The grandson of DRW and son of EW has a deep understanding of the media business. It is, therefore, an irony that under his presidency, a new online security bill has surfaced. There is an uproar against the bill as, on the face of it, it is Draconian. There is little or no defence for the bill.
No doubt, the bill is lengthy and well-crafted. However, it is less than pragmatic, given how the internet and online world operate. Our view is that it is one-sided. Much more should be factored in if the government earnestly and with good-faith wishes to implement a bill of this nature that affects society so broadly.
Since he entered parliamentary politics in 1977, President Wickremesinghe has held all conceivable positions to have a rounded perspective of the country at large. Since 1994, he has received continuous attacks from politicians, civil society and the media. Even his family newspapers mercilessly attacked him without a pause. A man who withstood all these attacks does not have to be in a hurry to implement such a significant bill, especially when a presidential election is on the horizon. This bill seeks to grant a five-member committee appointed by the President sweeping powers to decide what is wrong and right. In a country known for gossip, lies, manipulation, corruption and nepotism, it is a recipe for disaster to enforce a bill of this nature. Imagine an executive president like President Maithripala Sirisena, whose character, integrity, and intelligence were doubtful to begin with, deciding right from wrong. President Wickremesinghe should know this better than most. If Mahinda Rajapaksa had been given the power to determine what’s right or wrong, many would have been in jail by now!
Will President Wickremesinghe sanction this bill? Or, will he use this opportunity to emerge as the champion of free speech? He is capable of both, as he plays his cards close to the chest all the time.
There are many defences for an online security bill. National security, pornography, blackmailing, character assassination, corporate espionage, media ethics, Ponzi schemes, and the list goes on. Sri Lanka has a history of all of the above. The recent pyramid schemes were promoted and activated online. Thousands of people lost billions in total. Given the country’s problems pertaining to national security, it is essential to keep a tab of the online space. Sri Lanka has earned notoriety for fake news. Sri Lankans love gossip, rumours, half-truths and lies. What most of the Sri Lankans don’t like is hearing the truth.
Forget the online activity, and consider how much mainstream media has propagated lies and fake news. Word of mouth is still the most terrific news tool in the country. There are many cases of fake news that end up in character assassination against not only political leaders but also ordinary citizens. In a country that has seen so much bloodshed, especially over the last 40 years, many have damaged minds. Suicide rate is at an all-time high, and the recent economic downfall has made people extremely vulnerable.
Understanding the digital media landscape in Sri Lanka is difficult. National security is of utmost importance. Providing a safe place for the public is essential. This could have been the underlying factor for this bill unless the government had a sinister plan to switch off public opinion. The country’s Constitution protects the freedom of expression under Chapter 3, section 14. The online security bill can be contested easily in the Supreme Court, and indeed, interested parties will move the courts to stand against this bill.
Online media, in one form, is an outlet to let go of frustration and anger. Why wouldn’t people be frustrated and angry, given how this country has been run since 1948? As one of the oldest democracies, Sri Lanka should allow decent public discourse. The public should have an opinion. The proposed online bill will fail even in a developed country with strict application of laws. However, we are confident that this bill will not be able to be implemented in the present form. If the existing system and regulations have been flawed over the years, we don’t see how this bill can be enforced. There are practical and technical issues of the proposed legislation as well. The global digital platforms cannot understand what is right or wrong. Right or wrong is highly subjective and all based on individual agendas or intelligence levels and life experiences.
Bills of this nature appear everywhere for governments that want to control the conversations. It is inevitable as the media proliferates.
George Orwell in 1949 wrote the book ‘1984’. He was talking about Big Brother watching all, and it was prophetic. It was a science fiction but now a reality. The proposed online security bill goes way beyond Big Brother watching. In a country which lacks transparency and integrity, the system should not try extreme measures of this. The context is essential, and the government should open up public discourse and defend this case if they are accurate to the course.
Politically, such bills are often used to suppress online voices. It advantages the ruling group often but is disguised as protection for the weak (who usually are not online).
If a country has a workable criminal law, and the government understands the technology, then all such “crimes” can be prosecuted under the existing legal framework. There is no need for additional bills or bureaucracies.
Of course, the ability to investigate (i.e., understand the technology and access the data from the Telco) is critical to the policing of the online space.
Since the media is what the population usually trusts, by applying the law to an alleged online falsehood violator, the plaintiff or prosecutor can quickly start a “trial by media,” which can put the person at a credibility disadvantage for whatever he may say later.
Knowing such bills will be violently pushed back in a democracy that enjoys the freedom of speech, one has to be careful about the intention of instigating an uproar. If the government does not communicate clearly and gradually introduce the bill, as people need time and coaxing to understand and accept “what is in it for me”, it will undoubtedly add to the unsettled state of the nation.
Sri Lanka is at a crossroads. The last couple of years have been painful, and people are suffering. With the next presidential election on the horizon in 2024, it will be politically suicidal to anger further a 6 million voter base of people between the ages of 18 and 40. Civil society leaders and a few political leaders have voiced against the proposed bill, and many will join the bandwagon. The public discourse on this will be nasty, unless the government’s objective is to distract the public with the initiative. So why take a risk? What’s the end game?
With the AI revolution upon us, no one can understand the digital world. It’s evolving daily and changing the way we live, work and behave. The deep fake is reality, and the dark web is powerful. Today, without anyone’s knowledge, your pictures are being captured. The surveillance of humans is beyond anyone’s imagination. The un-erasable digital footprints and extreme eyeballing levels are enough to catch any wrongdoers, provided there is a robust legal system and laws. The punishment for wrongdoers should be visible, but importantly, it should be fair. Fairness is not something Sri Lanka is accustomed to.
The government authorities should start by enforcing the existing law. If acted upon with fairness and equality, people will recognise the gravity of fake news. However, fake news cannot be eliminated. It is a losing proposition to assume what people think, grasp, say, and share can be controlled. The only way to combat fake news is to tell the truth. Told correctly, the truth will always win.
President Wickremesinghe has a grand vision for the digital economy. Sri Lanka should move with the world, not against it. The global corporate giants are too big to adhere to local regulations. No one understands where the world is moving, therefore, Sri Lanka should be open to learn from other case studies. No doubt, online security is important, but not in the proposed form.
(Alex is active in the Digital Government, Fintech, Trade Logistics, and Decentralisation industries. In addition, he held exco positions in regional think tanks and working groups with international organizations. He obtained his Electrical & Computer Engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and a Doctorate at Stanford University. Saliya and Alex, together advise governments, corporates and leaders.)
Full implementation of 13A – Final solution to ‘national problem’ or end of unitary state? – Part II
By Kalyananda Tiranagama
Lawyers for Human Rights and Development
(First part of this article appeared yesterday)
Ten-point Accord for Regime Change arrived at Singapore in 2013
As disclosed by a report published on the Tamilnet website on 23 Jan., 2015, the TNA and the Tamil diaspora with the objective of achieving their goal of creating a federal state in the North-East played a key role in bringing about a regime change at the 2015 presidential election.
As revealed in this report, an LTTE front organisation in South Africa ‘In Transformation Initiative’ organised a conference in Singapore in 2013, and it was funded by two European countries. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera, TNA national list Member of Parliament M. A. Sumanthiran, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, who was an Adviser on Constitutional Affairs to two Presidents, representatives of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) representing the Diaspora Tamils, Colombo University Law Professor Thamilmaran and a lawyer from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress were among the participants at that Conference, according to the Tamilnet report.
Samaraweera, who represented Ranil Wickramasinghe, urged Tamils for support for regime change and abolition of executive presidency, promising in return to grant all demands of the TNA such as the release of all LTTE prisoners, changing the Governor of the Northern Province, removing Army from Jaffna, and the full implementation of 13th Amendment.
The report claims that the understanding reached in Singapore in 2013 formulated a conceptual framework on abolishing the executive presidency which is a fundamental obstacle for the Tamils to create a federal state in Sri Lanka based on ten basic principles described as the ‘‘Singapore Principles’’.
When Tamil aspirations were taken up for discussion, Sumanthiran wanted to avoid use of terms such as Nation and Right to Self-determination in the document. Thamilmaran remained silent on this matter.
Only the voice of a human rights defender, a Sinhalese representing the civil society, was in favour of a formula based on the recognition of nationhood of Tamil people with their traditional homeland in the North-East.
Thus, the Tamil aspirations went missing in the proposal. Instead, the document was drafted with the intention of being nondescript.
Sumanthiran, who represented the TNA took care not to include anything in the document that would result in arousing fear in the minds the Sinhala population in the South.
The Ten Point Singapore Principles agreed in the Accord:
In describing the nature of the State what is important is the substance; the labels are secondary.
(While maintaining ‘unitary state’ label, they can have a full federal rule in the North-East)
The Constitution shall be based on basic constitutional principles and values including sovereignty of the people, participatory democracy and supremacy of the Constitution which shall form an unalterable basic structure.
Power sharing shall be on the basis of self-rule and shared-rule within an undivided Sri Lanka.
(This is Sampanthan’s united, undivided, indivisible Sri Lanka; They have taken care not to use the terms ‘self-autonomy’, or ‘self-determination’; they mean the same thing when they use the term ‘self-rule’ and ‘shared-rule’.)
The executive presidency shall be abolished and the form of government shall be Parliamentary.
(Executive presidency was the main obstacle for the full implementation of federalism at that time; Now with Ranil Wickramasinghe as President, executive presidency has paved the way for full implementation of federalism.)
The pluralist character of Sri Lankan society as well as identities and aspirations of the constituent peoples of Sri Lanka shall be constitutionally recognized. (This will have the effect of diluting the identity of the majority Sinhala population in the country.)
There shall be a strong and enforceable Bill of Rights consistent with universally accepted norms and standards.
There shall be a separation of powers and an independent judiciary which includes a Constitutional Court.
Important institutions shall be independent and accountable. Appointments to these and High Posts shall be through a transparent mechanism that provides for a national consensus, example Constitutional Council.
Institutions of the State shall reflect the pluralist character of Sri Lankan society. (This will have the effect not only of diluting the identity of the majority Sinhala population in the country, but also of making appointments to important state institutions not on the basis of merit and qualifications, but on the basis of ethnicity and religion.)
The Republic of Sri Lanka shall be a secular state. The foremost place to Buddhism and equal status to other religions shall be assured.
Giving Effect to the Understanding reached in Singapore
The Yahapalana government, which came to power following the presidential election of 2015, took several steps to give effect to the understanding reached with the TNA and Tamil diaspora in Singapore in 2013:
Within 100 days of coming to power, on 28 April, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in Parliament, curtailing the executive power of the President to a great extent and enabling the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to take the effective control of the government into his hands.
In the new Parliament elected at the August 2015 general elections, R. Sampanthan, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance with 16 MPs, was appointed the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, ignoring the claim of the United Opposition with 51 elected MPs.
In January 2016, the government took steps to draft a new Constitution with Parliament sitting as a ‘Constitutional Assembly’ and with several Steering Committees well represented by Tamil groups appointed to draft different chapters.
TNA Proposal submitted to the Steering Committee contained the following points:
SL a federal state within the framework of a united/undivided and indivisible country. Centre and Provinces to exercise exclusive power in the areas of their competence.
North-East to constitute one state> N-E historically inhabited by Tamil speaking people;
The powers and functions to be assigned to the provinces shall be in conformity with the Recommendations of (a) Mangala Munasinghe Select Committee; (b) with shared sovereignty, 2000 Constitution Bill, etc.
Province to have power to muster financial resources required;
Governor not to have powers to interfere with the exercise of the executive power of the Province;
Sampanthan’s Speech at Matara in September 2016
When one goes through the Speech made by Sampanthan, as the Leader of the Opposition, at the Samurdhi Development Community Foundation Meeting held at Matara on 02 Sept., 2016, one can clearly see how the Tamil National Alliance is pursuing the same goal of setting up a full federal state in the North-East of Sri Lanka adopting new strategies so as to allay the fears of the people in the South about the division of the country. He attended the meeting at the invitation of Mr. Buddhika Pathirana, UNP MP. This is what Mr. Sampanthan said:
“We are not trying to divide the country. We are only trying to share power, the country will be one united, undivided, indivisible country which cannot ever be divided.
“All the powers required to ensure the unity and indivisibility of the country would remain with the central government. The powers that would remain with the central government in a power sharing arrangement that was being envisaged – defence, foreign affairs, finance and currency and immigration and emigration would be vested with the Centre. All the powers required to ensure the unity and indivisibility of the country would remain with the Central Government.
“Other powers would be devolved to the provincial councils which would have enhanced powers, and devolution would allow people of a particular region to exercise more control over the issues relevant to them through elected representatives of those areas. – Daily Financial Times of 05 Sept., 2016.
13 demands of TNA forwarded to Candidates of 2019 Presidential Election
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) of Mr. Sampanthan forwarded 13 Point Demands to Candidates of major political parties that contested the 2019 Presidential Election, extending their support to the Candidate who accepts these demands.
“Having realised that the final solution to the long standing Tamil Ethnic issue, which has remained in the Island of Sri Lanka as an unresolved National Question for several decades and been the cause for the war which extended for over three decades, would be the – (1) Acceptance of the political aspirations of the Tamil Nation; (2) Recognition of the Northern and Eastern Provinces as the historical habitat and the traditional homelands of the Tamil Nation: (3) Acknowledgement of the Sovereignty of the Tamil Nation and (4) Realization of the fact that the Tamil People under the provisions of International Law are entitled to the right of self-determination, accordingly the creation of federal rule in the merged Northern and Eastern Provinces would be our considered stand-point.
‘‘ With the hope of finding a final solution to problems of Tamil People the following demands are presented to Presidential candidates of major political parties:
A solution to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue must be found by setting up a new federal constitution rejecting the heretofore unitary constitution, accepting the nationhood of the Sri Lankan Tamils and recognising its sovereignty and accepting that Tamils under the provisions of the International Law are entitled to the right of self determination.
Full-fledged independent impartial International Mechanisms through the International Criminal Court / International Arbitration Tribunal must be set up to inquire into the War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity and Genocide committed during the final stages of the war:
The Prevention of Terrorism Act must be withdrawn:
(Consequently) All Tamil Political Prisoners must be freed unconditionally:
Justice must be found for those affected by the enforced disappearance of persons through appropriate international mechanisms.
The Governmental Forces occupying private and state lands / buildings in the Northern and Eastern Provinces which were occupied by Tamils before the war must be withdrawn, the lands released and resettlement process must be immediately set in motion.
Sinhalisation, Buddhistization and Sinhala Colonisation in the Northern and Eastern Provinces presently with state assistance must be stopped immediately.
Since the Mahaweli Development Authority is engaged in planned Sinhala Colonization in the Northern Province under the pretext of redirecting of the Mahaweli River to the North, the jurisdiction of the said Authority must be forthwith terminated. Also the planned Sinhala Colonisation taking place in the Eastern Province under the Mahaweli Development Scheme must also be terminated.
The Moragaskanda Irrigation Scheme recently introduced is indulging in planned Sinhala Colonisation in the Vanni Region. All such Sinhala Colonisation must forthwith be terminated.
The expropriation of lands and areas of religious worship by Government Departments including Archaeology Department, Wildlife Department, Forest’s Department must forthwith be stopped. Those lands and places of worship already expropriated through these Departments must be freed from the effect of the Gazette Notifications which so expropriated them.
Those affected in the Northern and Eastern Provinces by the war, wanting to economically improve themselves or youth wanting to enhance their job opportunities receiving direct investments from our Diaspora and elsewhere must have all legal obstacles faced removed so that handling lands and finances here would be easy and quick.
Priority must be given to those belonging to the Northern and Eastern Provinces in Governmental and Private sector job opportunities in the said two provinces.
An independent mechanism must be set up under the supervision of elected Representatives of the People of the Northern and Eastern Provinces to handle all finances for Development in the said two Provinces after proclaiming the Northern and Eastern Provinces as areas affected by war.
(To be continued)
Repression not a sustainable option
by Jehan Perera
The country to which President Ranil Wickremesinghe returned after his international successes in the Americas remains in dire straits. In both Cuba and New York, the president made his mark at the podium holding his own with giants on the world stage. Addressing heads of state at the G77 Summit in Cuba, the president spoke of the significance of science, technology and innovation in shaping the future of developing nations. He referred to the new technological divide emerging in the 21st century, necessitating the adoption of digitalisation and new technologies, such as Big Data, IoT, AI, Blockchain, Biotechnology and Genome Sequencing, to bridge the gap. He also reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s commitment to supporting the new Havana Declaration and called for the collective voice of G77 and China to be heard in international fora.
Addressing heads of state at the UN General Assembly, the President drew upon his experience in peacebuilding when he called for the expansion of the UN Security Council’s composition as essential for world peace. He also highlighted the reforms he initiated in the economic, financial, institutional and reconciliation fronts as being directed towards rebuilding trust and confidence between the people and the government and as laying the foundation for economic stabilization and recovery. However, the president faces formidable challenges in this regard. The country’s economy, which shrank by over 7 percent last year and by 11 percent in the first quarter of this year, continued its downward plunge with a further shrinkage by 3 percent in the second quarter. The much touted absence of shortages and queues is not due to the economic performance picking up but because people have less money to spend.
With inflation in the past year having halved the real income of people, and high taxation of those in the tax net further impoverishing those in the middle income and professional categories, they are leaving the country in droves leaving behind gaping holes in various sectors of crucial importance to the economy. But the tax reforms that have impacted on the middle and professional classes directly and the increased sales taxes that have impacted on the poor are still not covering the gaping hole in the country’s finances that need to be filled for IMF support to be forthcoming. Government revenue has seen a shortfall of Rs. 100 billion as compared to the revenue target agreed with the IMF. There is a clear need to utilize tax money in a more streamlined way without it being misallocated or pilfered on a large scale which is widely believed to be a continuing practice in the country.
The indications are that further economic hardships will need to be placed upon the people. The problem is that the government is placing the burden disproportionately on the poor and not on the rich. Dr Nishan de Mel who heads the Verite Research think tank that has been doing in-depth analyses of Sri Lanka’s encounter with the IMF disagrees with the government’s position that banks would collapse if the banking system had to bear some burden of domestic debt restructuring. He points out that this conclusion had been reached without any analysis. “All the other countries that restructured debt shifted part of burden debt restructuring on to the banking sector. There are ways of protecting banks during debt restructuring. The government has placed all the burden on the pension funds and says that the impact on these funds are limited. It also claims that banks will collapse if they are affected by domestic debt restructuring. So, which claim is true? Why can’t the banks share part of the burden?”
There is a general consensus that the burden of economic restructuring is falling disproportionately upon the poorer sections of society. Dr de Mel has also pointed out that the government has been privatising profits while socialising losses because of the lack of accountability. “When those in power work for the benefit of themselves and their friends, they ensure that a small group of people enjoy the benefits of growth or implement policies that benefit targeted groups. However, when things go wrong, for example, when we have to restructure domestic debt, those in power make sure that the people in general bear the losses. This is what we have seen in Sri Lanka.” This view is also to be seen in a Civil Society Governance Diagnostic Report produced by a collective of civil society organisations and authored by Prof Arjuna Parakrama which states that “The current growing sense of economic injustice has been exacerbated by the fact that the architects of the economic crisis do not bear any part of the burden of its proposed reform, which has been, again, firmly thrust, without any public dialogue, on the victims of this very crisis.”
Making the situation more prone to instability is the fact that this inequitable burden sharing is being done by a government that has little political legitimacy. Barely a year and a half ago, those who are currently ministers in the government were on the run, hiding from the wrath of vast multitudes of people who were demanding that they be held to account for having bankrupted the country through their corrupt and venal deeds, whether real or imagined. All of those who are now ministers (with the exception of a handful who have crossed over from the Opposition) were compelled to resign from their ministerial positions. They were legally reappointed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe after he was legally elected president by the votes of 134 parliamentarians. But a legitimacy deficit continues to haunt the government and makes it an insecure one though presently firmly ensconced in power. The way to gain legitimacy to bridge the trust deficit is to be fair and just in making decisions that impact upon all the people.
Unless remedial steps are taken the government’s current engagement with the IMF may be difficult to sustain. This is not only because the government is failing to meet the targets set by the IMF. There is also a lack of confidence about the IMF programme among the general population. A public opinion survey conducted by Verite Research has shown that about 45 percent of Sri Lankans believe the IMF will make things worse for the economy in the future. Only 28 percent of the population believes Sri Lanka’s ongoing programme with the IMF will make things better for Sri Lanka’s economy in the future. The mounting difficulties faced by people in coping with their economic circumstances can lead to protests and agitation campaigns. The logic of competitive electoral politics can also come into play with different political parties making their own promises to alleviate the economic hardships on the people even at the cost of the economic reform programme agreed with the IMF.
There appear to be trial balloons put out by government members that safeguarding the IMF programme may require a moratorium on elections. The government has shown itself willing to take this route ostensibly for the sake of the economy. Even before the agreement with the IMF, the government postponed local government elections that had been set for March of this year citing the need to focus on economic recovery rather than hold elections. Recently, MP Vajira Abeywardena, chairman of the UNP of which the president is the leader, has stated that the government would not be able to meet the economic needs of the people if funds were allocated through the 2024 Budget for the presidential election which is due in a year. The emergence of two controversial laws that can restrict freedom of expression and the ability to engage in public protest may need to be seen in this context.
The draft Anti-Terrorist Act which seeks to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act is wider in scope and gives the government the power to arrest persons who are engaging in public protest or trade union action. Those who are charged as “intimidating the public or a section of the public” can be arrested under this law. The Online Safety bill has the potential to curtail the use of the internet for political communication purposes. It will establish a five-member commission, all of whom will be appointed by the president, and they will be tasked with determining the veracity of online content. The commission appointed by the President will be able to proscribe or suspend any social media account or online publication, and also recommend jail time for said offenses. The Bar Association has said that both these draft laws seriously impinge on the liberty and freedom of the people, will have a serious impact on democracy and the rule of law in the country and called for their withdrawal. If these two laws are passed by parliament, they will make it more difficult to challenge the government even when it is going on a wrong path. But with the economic situation continuing to get worse, and the suffering of vast masses of people increasing, repression through the use of law and the security forces will not be a sustainable option.
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Nirmal Saverimuttu Chief Executive Officer Virgin Voyages
News4 days ago
Expect more Easter Sunday type attacks: minister