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Jackboot cannot salvage Sri Lanka

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Dictatorship will deplete institutional, social, financial and human capital

Kumar David

Gota knows no other way than to talk tough, hand authority to Army Silva and military brass, undermine confidence of civilian authorities and via 20A erase the democratic ethos that has caught on in Sri Lanka since Independence. Mind you, it is true that democracy has landed us in pretty much of a mess; it has empowered racism and been the midwife of economically damaging populism. Yes, Sri Lankan democracy has been a disappointment – look at the composition of Parliament, if we can’t do better than that, I shudder. I will not repeat the all too well-known riposte ‘Democracy is the worst of all systems except for all the others’ because it smacks of smartarse.

I argue Gota’s post-20A authoritarian status and the prospect of it evolving to dictatorship will undermine public Institutions (the military excepted); it may damage relations amongst communities, undermine political stability, drive corrode finance and deplete the nation’s human capital which I call expertise (intellectual base, innovation, expertise and free exchange of ideas). I attempt to show this in as table. We could conveniently place Institutional, Social, Financial and Expertise as four vertical columns and use four sharply concretized contemporary goings-on as rows to depict how authoritarianism will bring Sri Lanka to so a sorry pass. The events or goings-on that I propose to use are COVID-19 (CV), Direct Post-20A outcome, Rebuilding the Economy in the medium term of three to five years and fourthly Political Stability to build my direction-finder Table.

Clearly CV is the dominant issue now and will remain so in 2021-22 and I was intending to make an evaluation when Dr M. M. Janapriya published “Corona Resurgence ….” In Colombo Telegraph on October 31. I have not known of Janapriya but he speaks with the authority of an expert so he must be one though I wish he had offered a sentence or two to help readers locate his professional role. His case can be summarised thus: Victory in the first leg of the fight against CV was commendable but lulled the authorities. A military task force cannot comprehend or lead against so complex a challenge. “Seemingly the task force did not meet for two months”. The spread of CV in India posed a hazard that was neglected. Janapriya then makes two technical points “Viral genome sequencing of the second wave virus seems wanting” and “Realistic numbers of random tests are not being done”. The implication of this critique is that political preoccupation with 20A trumped national interests and furthermore the public is not being told the truth. I endorse the first censure without hesitation but I don’t know enough about the second.

Moving along the first row of my Table, Institutional scores D (poor) to F (failure) because militarisation of the Task Force undermines civilian norms and institutions; Society scores a B in that not much harm will done to relations between communities by CV and there is no visible social unrest against tough anti-CV measures and will remain so unless the second-wave leads to debacle. CV will harm the economy so Finances should score an F but for a reason I will explain later I compromise at D. Since I don’t expect the CV mess to drive away intellectuals or harm innovation in businesses, I leave the last box on the first row at a harmless C. This is the logic behind the first row of my table.

Potentially, rankings on the table can range from A to D and F; don’t dismiss the exercise as a children’s game since it is useful as a compass or as a direction-finder. Readers can change entries, or change the columns and rows to reset the table and reflect their own priorities. The point is to make assessments of the impact of authoritarianism objective and less arbitrary. True the entries are not hard numbers or statistics but filling out the table enforces mental discipline and forces people on whichever side to reason with care.

Having spelt out the barebones of a methodology I can proceed to fill out the rest of the table. The second row considers the direct effects of 20A within the next two years. I rate its Institutional impact (influence on state and corporate institutions, judiciary and apparatus of state repression) bad. The de facto military seizure of the top echelons of decision is Institutionally harmful – vide Egypt, Burma and the Banana Republics. The people of this country are now not capable of mass movements – except pogroms abetted by the police and military against minorities. In the foreseeable future there is no reason to believe the bourgeoise domestically, or internationally China, India or US will abandon Sri Lanka because it is authoritarian or a potential dictatorship. For these two reasons, I rated it B along the second row in respect of both Society and Finances. The C for Expertise at the end of the row is a shot in the dark; honestly, I am not sure whether innovation, smart-business, broad-human talent and intellectual excellence will desert the country in fear of putative dictatorship. On the third row the across the board C rating for the Economic Factor follows from my negative outlook for economic recovery under a dictator; talk of a tough Gotabaya executing wise economic programmes is partisan myth. Finally, every worm will turn one day hence my across-the-board D index on the last row; that is to say, the people will protest against dictatorship at some point in time and then the guns will come out. The D is meant to signal not current but I fear unavoidable future unrest.

It seems that the Gota autocracy which we much fear will be stillborn because of the two points I make in the next paragraph and also because, despite the Sajith Circus bungling the parliamentary vote, there is strong and deep opposition to 20A in the country. Religious orders, civil society and almost the entire intellectual classes have deplored the amendment and condemned its provisions point by point. There is more fear and opposition within the government than the parliamentary vote indicates. Many opportunist ministers who have sold their souls and sold themselves for a portfolio which is their highest aspiration in life are perturbed by 20A for the reason that it tilts the balance against their personal interests or political implications. All this adds up to two opposite possibilities; either the attempted autocracy will be weak and have little clout, or alliteratively driven by its own weaknesses the regime will lash out in ever more pernicious directions.

I would like to close with broad brush remarks about prospects for the post-20A authoritarianism regime in Sri Lanka. The regime’s supporters are over the moon about two expectations: (a) public services will be reorganised, disciplined and put right, (b) economic development of the nation will take off. This is where a simple matrix like the table gives a snap-shot overview of the lay of the land and the direction in which things are likely to go. My take on both accounts is discouraging. There can be no dispute that though the public service inherited from colonial times served Ceylon and the classes that mattered in the post-independence decade, it is now inefficient, dysfunctional and corrupt. Modernising and restructuring the public services and changing the mind set of public servants is a daunting task; it is easy to say Gota and his military cohorts do not have the visions and that the legislature and judiciary (some cases have been dragging on for a generation and the bottleneck in the courts is a nightmare) are useless but the task is gigantic. In the two Asian territories that have top-class government administration, the colonial administration was obliterated by Japanese occupation in WW2 and a brand-new model was burnished and installed in the 1950s and 1960s. Not only is Sri Lanka but in India, Pakistan and all across Africa the public service seems irreformable.

Economic renewal and growth on a capitalist basis, that’s what we are talking about is also a daunting task at the best of times. We need “creative destruction” (Schumpeter), a lot of useless activities, processes and even jobs have to give way. New product lines, new ways of integration into global supply chains, stronger ties with regional economies and the uphill tasks of raising productivity and benefiting from the digital-economy are gigantic challenges. More sharply, at this juncture Sri Lanka is tossed by surging seas and buffeted by stormy winds. The ocean on which ship Lanka is tossed hither and thither is a restless sea of Chinese, Indian and American agitation, and to make things worse no one can be sure how this second and future waves of the corona virus will pan except to say that year 2021 is likely to be another year of little achievement for nation and government.

There is no need to expand on either because so much said about both and the razor thin margin in the presidential election will not change US foreign policy much and will not reduce the intensity of the “Thucydides Trap” that is containing the rise of China as a parallel world power. Gota is unlucky to be buffeted by these two tidal waves so early in his presidency. But it is also an opportunity; if he overcomes both and rises to high presidential stature he would make a mark, but I have argued in this essay is that by showing a mindset much dependent on command thinking and relying on the military Brass as his delivery vehicle, he has lost the plot in advance. Then, we the people, would have given away our democratic freedoms in exchange for nothing.



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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