By Meera Srinivasan
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is a consequence of the corruption over two Rajapaksa regimes, said former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, admitting she is “thrilled” by the aragalaya or people’s movement that overthrew them recently.
“When our systems have crashed and been destroyed consciously, how do you change things…the only way to change is through a socio-political upheaval, a revolution,” she told The Hindu, in an interview on the dramatic changes that Sri Lanka witnessed in recent months, amid a crippling economic crisis.
In her view, the island nation had reached the stage where, with two Rajapaksa regimes, “everything that was bad and hateful was stabilised in power…today we are bankrupt only because of the corruption of the [Rajapaksa] family and their acolytes,” said the two-term President and survivor of an attempted assassination by the LTTE.
Observing that she would “wait and watch” how President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who relies on the Rajapaksas’ party in parliament, fares, Ms. Kumaratunga contended that his government must opt for an economic model that combines a social welfarist model with a liberal economic logic.
While Colombo might have challenging foreign policy choices ahead, especially while negotiating external assistance, the government must opt for a “dynamic non-alignment” policy, she noted, accusing the Rajapaksa administrations of “veering too much towards one country”.
“I am personally very thankful that India has come in, giving us all this aid when they could have stood back and waited because they were not very happy with the Rajapaksa government’s policies,” she said.
For over 15 years now, former two-term President of Sri Lanka Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has stayed out of active politics. She re-emerged as a key player in the formation of the Yahapalanaya [good governance] coalition — of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe — in 2015, only to witness the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of the Bandaranaike clan collapse after the Rajapaksas carved out their own party from it. Speaking to The Hindu at her Colombo residence recently, Ms. Kumaratunga reflects on the staggering developments in Sri Lanka over the last few months, and the way forward for the country’s political and economic progress.
Q; As a senior political leader in Sri Lanka, what are your thoughts on the developments over the last few months – the Janatha Aragalaya (people’s struggle), the dramatic ousting of the Rajapaksas, the and the political changes since.
A; To start with, I can say I am thrilled by the Aragalaya. Not the violence that was perpetrated by the extremist minority there, but the whole concept of the Aragalaya, the way it started, and the vision of the good people leading it.
Because the country had reached the stage where, with two Rajapaksa regimes, everything that was bad and hateful was stabilised in power. Like corruption.
Today we are bankrupt only because of the corruption of the [Rajapaksa] family and their acolytes. There was no proper governance, no vision for the countryexcept to enrich themselves. They consciously turned everybody into crooks, be it the ministers, MPs, provincial council members, those in local government, as well as public servants, so that they could carry on robbing with no objections. Corruption had seeped from the top, right to the bottom, Vertically, horizontally, it had spread everywhere, whether it was in the public sector or private sector.
When our systems have crashed and been destroyed consciously, how do you change things? Even if you go for elections, the same lot of crooks get elected like they have for over 20 years. Then, the only way to change is through a socio-political upheaval, a revolution.For instance, the French Republic and the USA came into being by effecting radical change through revolutions, so with many other countries.
What about the aragalaya did you find striking?
What was really exciting and positive about the Aragalaya was that they had a vision. They were not just saying we want to chase out the Rajapaksas. They said this is not enough, we want an honest government, transparent governance, and that the robbers be brought to book. They issued a 10-point programme, which was quite good even if it needed further work, but the general direction of that programme was excellent.
I met a group of Aragalaya youth at a time they were chasing other political leaders out, as they sent me a message saying they wished to meet me.I jumped at their request. I presented my proposals to them.
I told them that I fully agree that all 225 MPs must go and a new government with new faces and the right kind of vision must come to power. I said that I have been saying the same thing for more than four years, having failed to change much under the Yahapalanaya government. However, I explained to them that the present Constitution does not permit anyone other than members of parliament to be appointed to the cabinet. I suggested an interim arrangement where the few good MPs from all political parties be selected to form a cabinet whilst a Council of State comprised of representatives from major civil society organisations, private sector professionals, academics, major NGOs as well as respected individuals,be created to review the work of the government.
40% of the total number should from among the youth, with a further 40% being women. All major policies and laws of the government would first be reviewed by this Council before implementation. The proposed constitutional amendments would include this concept.
They had taken on board my proposal in their 10-point programme and even gave it a much better name, calling it the ‘People’s Council’. They had a vision, they were brilliantly well organised, and they were honest about contributions coming in.
At least two surveys done at that time indicated that 90 % of our people supported them. I don’t know anybody who did not go to Galle Face [agitation site at Colombo’s sea front] except politicians like us who were scared to go.
The entire political stage has been swept clean by the Aragalaya. Now it remains for the people to collectively unite and formulate the contours of the new regime with new systems and procedures. I don’t believe for a moment that representatives of the old system, strongly entrenched in the destructive vision, attitudes, and practices of the regime that has been rejected by the vast majority of Sri Lankans, will ever wish or be able to effect any change in the system; the system that brought them to power and gave them unlimited possibilities of robbing the country dry, while employing state terror against anyone who challenged them.
I would say that the 225 MPs are hanging on by force. They do not have the people’s mandate anymore.Some people are idiotically arguing that they were elected for five years and that they should not be sent home early. They were elected by the people, and because those people were not given the opportunity to express their views at an election,they have expressed it in a democratic, peaceful manner. If there is no election, how are they supposed to voice their views if they don’t want to suffer the ignominy of a bad government? So, they expressed their views at Galle Face. I don’t agree with the violence, I am talking about the rest of it.
By that you mean the retaliatory violence by sections on May 9?
Yes, and later too. There is some idea of who burnt the MPs houses [on May 9], but there is much doubt about who burnt Ranil’s house [on July 9]. We don’t condone any of that in anyway. Honest politicians, if there are any left in the country, and there are a few, cannot ignore the entire essence of what happened in the Aragalaya. It swept through the whole country like a tsunami. We must take that into account, and factor that into our political vision and political programmes. I don’t know whether those in power right now are capable of doing it.
Sections within Sri Lanka see the election of President Wickremesinghe, a senior politician, through a parliamentary vote, heralding some stability for Sri Lanka. In your view, is Sri Lanka stable now?
It has definitely brought in a certain amount of stability. Fuel is being distributed in a logical and better fashion. The way the Rajapaksas did it was totally anarchic. Ranil seems to have understood, because he understands the economy and is an intelligent man, that the IMF programme is an absolute must. Even before that I have been saying we have to invite PPPs [Public Private Partnerships] into loss-making institutions.
My government initiated PPPs with Sri Lanka Telecom, Airlines, part of the port, part of power generation. We had a lot of objections, but I was able to handle it. Having worked with Ranil in two governments, I am waiting and watching. I wish him well, for the sake of the country.I really wish he can do it. But I don’t know whether he can translate his thoughts into action.
While the country is waiting to see how the government might set off economic recovery, there is also mounting concern from rights advocates who accuse this government of resorting to repression to stifle dissent, especially in the wake of the recent arrest of student leaders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Totally unnecessary. Leaders have to possess communication skills to engage with those young people. They said they would leave Galle Face one morning and that morning before they left, they were attacked. What they should have done was conversed with them. Ranil himself. But I don’t know whether he has the communication skills. He has not proved such a thing for a long time.In crisis situations like this, leaders must have a very generous heart. When I congratulated him, I said that. They must be able to open their arms, hearts, and minds, and talk to the people, look at the problem from the people’s point of view.
They are starving today. They have been standing in queues for 48 hours, with some people dropping down dead. We have to feel with them, suffer with them, and then talk to them. I think they willnot refuse if leaders communicate properly with them. Now he has already muddied the waters.
Your own proposal recommended forming an interim government under the Prime Minister with just 12 Ministers. Now the cabinet is being expanded and efforts to form an all-party government are yet to succeed, with the opposition appearing sceptical. Do you think the opposition is justified?
He [Mr. Wickremesinghe] has convicted criminals and well-known thugs and robbers in his cabinet. Only a few are convicted, the others managed to persuade a subservient judiciary to let them off during the Rajapaksa regime. If the many cases against the Rajapaksas had been handled properly, there would have been numerable convictions.The Yahapalanaya government went to courts with cases, but they were thrown out for reasons unknown to us.
In such a situation, the younger politicians don’t want to sully their names. And what some of them say is that they would like the President to prove that he can keep his word and bring in the 21st Amendment or at least restore the 19th Amendment [aimed at clipping the President’s executive powers and in turn empowering parliament], and then bring in honest people into the cabinet and implement laws, systems and procedures to prevent corruption. Then they will join the government.
On the one hand, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna [SLPP or People’s Front which the Rajapaksas carved out of the SLFP] appears divided. On the other, the SLFPis grappling with divisions within. Now that the Rajapaksas are out of power, do you see the SLFP having a chance to regroup and revive itself?
Sri Lanka, like India, had two major parties. A left of centre party [SLFP], and a right of centre party [United National Party or UNP]. Both those forces have now been decimated. The SLFP is in pieces, a major part of it went to the SLPP. A considerable number has left the SLPP again and are calling themselves independent. Others who would lie on the ground for the Rajapaksas to walk over them are now with Ranil, as his greatest supporters. I suppose Ranil cannot help it, if they vote against him in an impeachment motion, he is finished. I have been asked if I would help the government. I will wait and watch. I have not been hooted at, stoned, nor spat upon [by protesters]. My good name is all I have earned in politics I don’t want to lose that.
Did the President himself invite you to help him?
I have had messages sent. I wish him well, but I will wait and watch because the situation is so horrendous and those in power must prove they can change it. I have had several disappointing experiences working with them.
The UNP may not be as decimated as the SLFP, but it is split.Ranil was the party’s only MP, but he is now building up [support] because he has power. And then there are different groups within the SJB as well [main parliamentary Opposition that broke away from UNP]. So, it’s a bit of a mess.
You were heading the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation. Post-war reconciliation and a political solution to the Tamils are still pending, and some are demanding a new constitution now. The draft constitution of 2000, when you were in power, is often cited as the draft that went farthest in terms of devolution. Do you think it’s a good time to revisit that?
Definitely. I worked on reconciliation for a long time, even before I came into positions in politics. Never before have I seen the people, of their own will, people of different ethnic, religious communities, working like brothers and sisters together, like they did in the Aragalaya. That is another reason I am thrilled by it.
While we did all kinds of programmes to encourage reconciliation, and they were successful, here it happened spontaneously. So, this is the moment to go forward. However, I don’t see any thinking about it.
The political tumult in the last few months was essentially triggered by an economic crisis. In your view what economic model must Sri Lanka choose now to set the country on a path of recovery?
I would say something like what I brought in between 1994 and 2005. Retain the sort of “socialist” aspects such as free education, free health while reducing the excessive subsidies, and slim down and rationalise government because we are dead broke.
A lot of people who are well to do receive subsidies through patronage networks of MPs. Introduce Voluntary Retirement Schemes in government institutions where the workforce is excessive and encourage them to start enterprises by making cheap credit available.
On the other hand, we need to adopt liberal economic policies, in some sectors.The state cannot insist on managing enterprises especially in countries like Sri Lanka, where the public service is incapable of managing state owned enterprises profitably. They are not trained for it. A different set of skills are required to profitably manage enterprises. In addition, corruption reigns supreme in the public enterprises. I see no alternative to bringing in private sector management to state owned enterprises.The ownership remains with the state, while the management is done by the private sector investor. We need a social welfarist approach with the liberal economic logic.
You earlier mentioned that IMF support will be crucial, but it looks like the process will take several months. There are foreign policy choices and geopolitical dynamics that come into play when it comes to debt restructuring and international assistance. How should Sri Lanka navigate this complex terrain?
Sri Lanka, I would say has no other choice than a policy of non-alignment. Dynamic non-alignment, as was followed by all the Bandaranaike governments. I am not saying it because it is my family, but it was very successful. And when once or twice, my mother’s government went against some of our major friends, they suffered.The Rajapaksa government veered too much towards one country, which tried to eliminate every other country from the Sri Lankan scene, and we are suffering the consequences.
I am personally very thankful that India has come in, giving us all this aid when they could have stood back and waited because they were not very happy with the Rajapaksa government’s policies. Whether we like it or not, we are a small country. Our major assets are our strategic location and human resources. We can be a major services hub in the whole region, not only South Asia, but all of Asia.
I think we should welcome all the major players in the region into this country for investment. We don’t have to sell our country to them as some say. It is more important than ever before because the country is insolvent. We need their financial participation, we need their skills. We are losing our skilled people. Some 140,000 young people have left the country this year. It is very tragic. A lot of people will then come back because the quality of life in Sri Lanka, until this crisis, is usually better than in many other places in the world. We have one of the mildest climates the whole year, most beautiful natural surroundings, water, soil.
One of the responses of the government to this crisis, both when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in power and more recently under President Wickremesinghe, has been to restrict imports. This move, for many, invokes memories of the 1970s under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, when shortages and long queues were common. How do view this comparison?
Of course, we must be self-sufficient in major products, major food products at least, and maybe small industrial products. But to say we must stop all imports and produce everything in Sri Lanka is not realistic. We are not big enough to do that.
You know, we Sinhala Buddhists, who comprise 70% of the population, are a majority with a terrific minority complex. Right through history, we have had this. One must analyse why. I suppose one reason is that we have a massive neighbour,and we have had a conflictual relationship with that country since ancient times, we were invaded 52 times by Indian kings. When a majority has a minority complex, you try to put down everybody around you to feel that you are important. That is a collective weakness of our nation.
The roots of the ethnic conflict also lie there, then?
It is certainly one of the major roots.And there is also another reason, which is not related, is that somehow, since the 1970s and 1980s, the type of persons who came into parliament were rascals, I wouldn’t let through my gate under normal circumstances.Those who got their houses burnt, except a few of them, were the known crooks. I don’t say that was the solution, that should have never been done. But they are so shameless. When people don’t have one square meal a day, they shamelessly demand they be given compensation immediately. Every one of them has made enough money illegally to build themselves two, three houses, and a large number of them already have many other houses, I can vouch for that.
Earlier, we had decent people in parliament, with principles and commitment irrespective of their background or education. But little by little that changed, especially with J.R. Jayawardene opening up the economy indiscriminately. Unlike in the West where capitalism took centuries to evolve, allowing systems and structures to adjust, the change in Sri Lanka came so abruptly, all our social structures burst asunder.
So all kinds of rascals came into Parliament, uneducated, not skilled. Everybody doesn’t have to be educated. There are lots of top business peoplein Sri Lanka and all over the world, who don’t have much education but possess the skills and commitment to engage in honest business. Our present politicians come into parliament thinking that parliament is going to be the best business to earn the largest amount of money with the least effort.
As you said, President Wickremesinghe is reliant on the SLPP in parliament. Do you see this dynamic changing with the attempted all-party or multiparty government?
He is very keen to have all the political parties in government, but even if he gets all of them, SLPP still has the majority. Some in opposition are fearful that even if they join, the SLPP will dominate. So they don’t want to dirty their hands and be the target of public hate. It is a dilemma.
The President must bring in the new Constitution, ask the well-known crooks to move out, bring in better politicians, and present a people-friendly development programme. Then the whole country will support him.
What about the Rajapaksas? Do you think the game is over for them, as some say, or can they make a comeback especially since the opposition is still weak?
All those possibilities are there. If a government, not a Ranil-SLPP government, but a government led by Ranil and all other parties, an honest government, solves the country’s problems, history will put the Rajapaksas in their due place.That is also why I say the Aragalaya movement was brilliant and extraordinary. The Rajapaksas have harassed me. They did that in cheap, horrible ways. Mahinda [Rajapaksa] and Basil [Rajapaksa]. Anyway, those are details that do not influence my political priorities. I dislike them for what they did to the country and our party.
So I am delighted that the Aragalaya was able to chase them out in a peaceful manner I think it is a great thing that happened, otherwise they would never have gone. I am also surprised by their shamelessness, by the fact that they are still clinging on. I would have taken a straight dive into the Indian Ocean if the people had reacted one-tenth as badly against me.
Do you see yourself returning to active politics?
No. Definitely not.
I have done enough. Unlike most Sri Lankan politicians, I have a lot of other interests in life.
What keeps you busy these days?
I am enjoying writing vision statements for political groups who want help. Quite a few young politicians who don’t want to be part of the Rajapaksa cabal come and ask me for advice. I still chair a few foundations.Then, I have started a leadership academy at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies to train young people to be good leaders, not only in politics, but also for society at large. I take care of my personal finances. I have a lot more time for my friends. I love reading, cinema, and theatre. I was utterly frustrated when I was President that I couldn’t read enough.
What are you reading currently?
I read quite a few books in the last three years after I pulled out of active politics. Chimamanda Adichie, I love her. I actually met her once at the Galle literature festival. I like Kazuo Ishiguro; I have a lot of his books. I read some of the Indian authors. In the last few years, I have been fascinated with the Tudor period in England.
There are several female writers, all English, who are history scholars who have studied that period. They have written historical novels. Two of them won Booker prizes. Being a political person, I enjoy reading about political machinations, Henry VIII’s thinking, how they broke up the Catholic Church and started the Anglican Church,really fascinating!
Then there was a very good book on Marie Antoinette, also by one of those English authors. I read two, three books at a time and keep switching. Now I am into some books by Ben Macintyre. He is a good writer, who has studied documents about the Soviet spy system. One was called Agent Sonya.Another writer I enjoy is Sebastian Faulks, he writes fiction based on the two World Wars. Once in a way I read a nice funny book. Just nice things. I also paint, I used to. When I was living in England for a few years after retirement, I started painting again. But 2015 [efforts to form national unity government] sabotaged all that.
You are also trained in Kandyan dance, aren’t you?
Oh, I danced a lot. On stage too. When I was in Paris [as a university student] I went for modern ballet classes, Greek dance, and all that. I used to write poetry, but not anymore. For that you must have your mind at ease. And then when I get dragged back into politics, even if I am not actively engaged in it, I become too stressed to engage in nice activities. (The Hindu)
Prospects for NPP/JVP at the next election
by Kumar David
Several months ago I brought to my reader’s attention a straw-poll that I had conducted among my friends on the left of the political spectrum, university colleagues and liberal intellectuals on two matters; (i) their own voting intentions, (ii) what they perceived were the electoral prospects of the NPP/JVP. The replies were consistent. Most said that they would vote for the NPP/JVP or that they were mulling over it. Almost all declared that would not seriously consider Sajith or Ranil led outfits and that anything linked to the Rajapaksa-Porotuwa garbage heap was out of the question. Regarding whether the NPP/JVP could win an election most people in my straw-poll had reservations. While they were themselves satisfied that the JVP would never again repeat the madness of 1971 and 1989-91 they reckoned that the electorate at large was still anxious (minissu thaama bayai). I am grateful to all who wrote to me (actually everyone I contacted replied) for their frankness and careful evaluation of ground realities.
The National Peoples Power (NPP), an alliance of about 28 political parties, trade unions and grass-roots organisations conducted a public seminar on January 24, 2023, which was jam packed, not enough seating room. The keynote speaker was Anura Kumara Dissanayake (Anura hereafter) who was very clever in how he handled the seminar by declaring right at the start “People are concerned about our economic policies; they want to know how we will handle the economy”. Now indeed this is true, but it also let him off the hook about the insurrectionary folly of 1971 and 1989-91 and allowed him to skirt the concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities. I will touch on all three issues, economy, minorities and political adventurism in this short article while giving priority to the economic discussion in the light of the enormous success of the January 24 Seminar/Symposium/Consultation.
Yes, there is considerable interest in the JVP’s economic programme since it has never been explicitly spelt out in the past except as simple anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal slogans. Anura, as expected focussed on the great hardships the people were suffering because of the ongoing economic crisis, the unbearable increase in prices and the breakdown in public services – hospitals for example are short of medicines, dressings for wounds and beds.
I will begin by picking up six crucial economic issues that arose from the January 24 seminar without stating whether the questions were or were not adequately addressed by the panellists on the stage. It is the right answer to the questions that matters most not whether the panellists got it right or are still working towards adequate solutions. What’s the rush, the elections aren’t tomorrow?
Will an NPP/JVP government be friendly to private-sector businesses?
How will Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) be encouraged and financed?
What is the attitude of the NPP/JVP to loss making state enterprises?
How will foreign investment be encouraged?
What is the is the right approach to Free Trade Agreements with other countries?
How will digitisation of production and of enterprises be encouraged?
I will now proceed to comment on these seven economic issues without indicating whether my comments are the same or different from what the panel members said. There is lots of time more to the next election; we are in the midst of a discussion in progress. Let’s go step by step. Yes, the NPP/JVP should aim to consolidate a mixed economy and therefore the role of the private sector must the recognised. As will become clear when I answer questions lower down what has to be consolidated is a dirigisme economy where the state directs fundamental policy, emphasis being on the word fundamental. In Singapore, South Korea and above all in China (Deng Xiaoping onwards) the private sector prospered although the directive role of the state in the broad sense was retained.
Making resources available for SMEs has to be undertaken as a matter of policy. Certain banks must be identified for that purpose, policy instruments create and funding provisions made via the Treasury. Support for SMEs has to be a state responsibility.
In my view policy towards loss-making state enterprises needs to be well defined. White elephants like Sri Lankan Airlines should be sold off. Loss making state enterprises have to be divided between those who make a loss because they carry a huge consumer subsidy (electricity for example) and others which are fattening an excessive work-force (some portions of the petroleum industry). In respect of the former the NPP/JVP has to decide to what extent and for how long a subsidy is a political necessity, and in respect of the latter a ruthless but time diversified closure policy adopted. Time has to be given for people to learn new skills to find alternative employment avenues. Digitisation is a specialist topic and I was pleased with the response of the relevant member (I am unable to recall his name) of the Seminar Panel who spoke briefly on digitisation and showed an expert grasp of his subject.
From a left propaganda point of view to speak of the tremendous hardship that the sudden economic crisis and the post-Covid and post global-recession period, had created is straightforward. Anura drew attention to the great hardships of the masses, the need to provide additional resources and made a fairly straightforward moral argument. The practical point is how to get this done without cutting other contending demands and how to persuade China to restructure rather than defer (postpone) debt repayment. Though I am a member of the NPP and have been an electoral candidate on the NPP National List slate what I say in this article is not NPP policy, rather is an open-ended contribution towards the ongoing discussion and it is intended to help formulate NPP policy. There is a long way to go before the next election and the lot more water will have to flow under the bridge before the NPP finalises its positions.
It is in this spirit that I make the comment that the NPP needs to openly declare that its model can, broadly, be described as social-democracy. Obviously, it is absurd to focus on prescriptive details but alternatives such as a USSR type state directed economy or the outdated Cuba-Venezuela-Angola-Ne Win Burma models are out of the question. Pakistan with the tacit approval of the Imran Khan opposition, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Mongolia de facto, in the context of post-Covid, global recession threatened world, have explicitly or all but explicitly endorsed social democracy. The NPP must have the gumption and the courage to explicitly state that it stands for social-democracy. It must tell the JVP that the old model of in the Wijeweera days is all dead and useless.
“Pepe” Mujico (Jose Mujia) the 40th president of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015 is described as the world’s humblest head of state. He donated 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities. He was an outspoken critic of capitalism. A former guerrilla with the Tupamaros, he was tortured and imprisoned for 14 years by the military Uruguayan dictatorship (1973-85). Military dictatorships are the foulest and most abominable of regimes in the world. In Argentina for example the military dictatorship (1976-83) threw its opponents, alive into the sea out helicopters and that included pregnant women. Have no doubt that a military dictatorship in Sri Lanka will do the same. Have we not had enough experience of what unfettered military power can do? Sixty thousand young men and women perished when military power ran unchecked in 1989-91. But this comment is by the way, what I wish to say is something else; it’s about social-democracy. Pepe’s most famous quip is that if Uruguay was a big European country it would have become famous as the home of modern social-democracy. The point then is that in this complex and uncertain period the correct model to explicitly assert is social-democracy. The NPP must openly and explicitly declare itself a social-democratic entity.
I promised to comment briefly on minority concerns and the insurrectionary history of the JVP before I sign off. I would like to see the NPP explicitly reject the Wijeweera-Somawana storylines. That is reject Wijeweera’s fifth lecture and his general antipathy to plantation Tamils. Likewise, I would like to see the NPP dissociate itself from the Somawansa – Sarath Silva intervention that dissolved N-E provincial unity. More broadly I would like to see the NPP declare itself in favour of devolution to minority communities and to provinces. Obviously specific details remain to be clarified and that should be the topic of many fruitful discussions in NPP forums.
On the matter of apologising for the insurrectionary excesses and anarchist folly of 1971 my friend Prof Eich persuaded me that this is an unrealistic expectation and I should drop the matter. I agreed and remained silent for about two years. But as the NPP/JVP influence spreads more broadly into the Sinhala petty-bourgeois and rural classes the topic is raising its head again – (minissu bayai). An election winning strategy cannot plaster over that. The pathological madness that, as in the Cultural Revolution, the past has to be utterly destroyed in order to build the world anew may have influenced some in the extremist ranks of the JVP some decades ago. I have indeed run into many admirers of the Cultural Revolution in “those” times. However now the NPP must be uncompromising; there is no room for sympathy for any of this in its commitment to social-democracy.
75 Years: How a halcyon start became a horrible sorrow – A tale of two compacts and two economies
by Rajan Philips
Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, became independent in the best of times. Almost all contemporary accounts said so. A model colony was becoming independent unexpectedly soon with no struggle or sweat. No other emerging polity apparently had it so good. The economy was on a roll by the measures of foreign reserves and local consumption levels. As a small island it was easy to be overcome by modernization. Road and rail networks crisscrossed the island, telecommunications and postal services were bringing people closer. Public education was free and public health was looked after, the two anchoring a robust welfare system that was unique among comparator colonies. The population was under seven million and even though the vast majority of the people were relatively deprived, there was optimism that there was opportunity for everyone.
Universal franchise had been introduced 17 years earlier, in 1931, and the people had had a head start in experiencing electoral democracy – uniquely among non-western polities and well ahead of quite a few western ones. Independence arrived on the back of a new constitution, which was a simple text crafted by unassuming legal drafting and not the exalted product of a ponderous constituent assembly. Yet Sri Lanka’s first constitution, unlike its successors, was a compact document that possessed too many virtues and too few faults. Most importantly, it underwrote the communal compact that was the necessary and sufficient prerequisite for the colonial rulers to handover power to their local successors.
“Communal Compact” (AJ Wilson) is the idea that the (Soulbury) Constitution and the granting of independence were the result of a political agreement among the country’s constitutive “communal groups.” Put another way, the British had to either assume or believe that there was such an agreement among the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims before deciding on the timing and the terms of their departure. Before long, however, the communal compact came under stress and eventually broke.
After 75 years, the controversy is over a different and somewhat narrower compact – the ‘devolution compact.’ Equally, the seemingly salubrious economy that greeted independence in 1948, has now become a deflated and damaged economy requiring intensive treatment in 2023. Hence, the tale of two compacts and two economies. But how did we get here?
The answers go back to the circumstances in which Sri Lanka became independent. There was more to them than the rosy pictures painted by contemporary accounts. There were already economic fissures and sociopolitical fault lines. These fissures and fault lines defined the political questions of the day and the political alignments that arose out of them. How they unfolded is the story of Sri Lanka after independence. It is an overtold story, but there are always new takes on them as new generations come along to live through the same old problems.
For all its consumption complacency, the economy in 1948 was the “classical colonial export economy”. Plantation exports paid for consumption imports and left a not too small Sterling surplus as bonus. However, the situation was structurally unsustainable. A fast growing population and a politically demanding consumption culture could not be supported indefinitely by the export earnings from tea, rubber and coconut alone. Within a decade, foreign reserves fell from one year worth of imports to four months of them. There has been no looking back since, albeit the wrong way.
The decades following saw severely imposed import restrictions that did not, however, serve the textbook purpose of stemming consumption and accumulating aggregate savings for productive investments. Import scarcities also had to pay a heavy political price. Unemployment became the new scourge along with the chronic mismatch between the outputs of free education and the labour needs of the economy.
Free education expanded the imparting of academic learning and not the technical mass education needed for the development of industries. Industrial development itself was circumscribed by the small national market of the island, its total lack of non-agricultural raw material resources, and indiscriminate import restrictions. State led industrialization proved to be too capital intensive and addressed neither the unemployment problem nor the needs of consumers.
The open economy alternative did unleash the potential for private industrial development and shifted the economic base from its sole reliance on plantation exports. But skyrocketing consumption levels, privatization of education that serves no social or economic purpose, criminal neglect of and corruption in the vital energy and transport sectors, and economically inappropriate and graft generating infrastructure investments have brought the national economy to its current parlous state.
In the assessment of Sri Lanka’s current President, there is no economy left to be reformed! He is promising, among many other promises, a new take off for a better landing at the hundredth anniversary of independence, which neither he nor his followers and critics will be around to witness.
One beam of light that needs to be added to this rather bleak recounting is the story of domestic agriculture, which has been an impressive one in terms of overall growth, if not quite so in terms efficiency of input allocations and certainly not in terms of the distribution of its outputs. Whether comparatively advantaged or not, agriculture is the bulwark of livelihood for the majority of Sri Lankan households; and inclusive of the plantations, it also provides the main domestic base for local industries. Any government can ignore agriculture only at its peril, and the punishment for anyone choosing to monkey with it will be the swiftest and the severest. The organic fertilizer fiasco just proved that, and rightly so.
In 1966, concluding his monograph, Ceylon: An Export Economy in Transition, Donald Snodgrass saw only one certainty “from the historical perspective of 120 years of modern Ceylonese economic development;” and that was, “the search for an economic system that will provide a politically acceptable and economically viable replacement for the classical export economy will continue.” The economy now is far more diverse than what was there in 1948. But the point about the elusiveness of the search for a “politically acceptable and economically viable replacement,” is spot on, 75 years on.
Of the two, political acceptability and economic viability, it is the political part that has been playing the weightier role in Sri Lanka’s political economy. Politics itself has been swayed by non-economic pressures and compulsions than it has been informed by economic imperatives. The current debate over devolution would suggest that nothing might change even now. Economic doldrums, notwithstanding.
Political divisions along party lines were in their embryonic stage at the time of independence in 1948. The newest political party, the United National Party, had just been formed by DS. Senanayake to contest the 1947 parliamentary elections on a rightwing platform. GG Ponnambalam had formalized his Tamil Congress a few years earlier. And the country’s oldest political party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, that had just been freed of its proscription was already in two parts marking the second of its many splits. Rounding off the Left was the Communist Party that had come into being as the first splinter of the LSSP.
Many candidates ran as independents in 1947 and an unhealthily large contingent of them were returned as MPs. The UNP did not win an overall majority (50 of its 92 candidates lost in the elections) but was able to form the new government with the help of independents and Appointed MPs. The efforts of non-UNP MPs, through their historic gathering at Yamuna, the Havelock Road house of highly respected lawyer politician, Herbert Sri Nissanka, to present an alternative bid for power ended in failure, marking the first of many such failures to come. (To be continued).
Sri Lanka at 100
by Ram Manikkalingam
Sri Lanka’s future is hanging in the balance as we turn 75.
On its 75th birthday Sri Lanka is divided. There is a stand-off between the people and the political institutions. The people reject Parliament and the President. And Parliament and the President fear the people. This standoff cannot last indefinitely. It will lead to authoritarianism, anarchy or reform. The decisions made, not only by politicians who control our political institutions, but also by the people who want them changed, will determine where we end up.
If there is one person, who has a decisive role in where our country will be in 25 years, it is President Wickremesinghe. While parliament and the people can no doubt make a difference, their decisions must come through political persuasion and mobilization. But President Wickremesinghe can act on his own.
He was picked by the Rajapaksas to protect their interests. But he is not of the Rajapaksas. He protects the Rajapaksas indirectly, by protecting the system that they, and other politicians have benefited from. This system is a combination of rentier capitalism and majoritarian democracy. Businessmen make their money from permits, contracts and quotas provided by politicians. In turn, these businessmen fund the politicians, who run campaigns that favour the majority. Breaking out of this is not what the leading politicians of Sri Lanka want. When the Aragalaya peaked, and the Rajapaksas found themselves rejected, they looked for the next best leader. Someone who would maintain the system the Rajapaksas required for their survival. So Ranil Wickremesinghe was chosen. But he also has a choice.
He can hang onto the Rajapaksas and let the Rajapaksas hang onto him. Or he can begin a serious process of reform that by its very definition will require ditching the Rajapaksas and their ilk.
If he chooses the former option, he will preside over the rapid erosion of the economy and the gradual deterioration of democracy. Because the Rajapaksas very much represent the faction against both political and economic reform. This would prevent him from making the kind of economic reforms required to restructure our debt with the creditors, attract investors, promote equality, and improve public services. As anti reformists, the Rajapaksas would prevent Wickremesinghe from making critical changes required to move the country forward. Instead, they will act as a reactionary force, hostile to any democratic impulse and economic changes that reduce their corrupt grip on power.
This alliance between Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas would, in terms of policy, transform itself into an alliance between Sinhala extremism and neo-liberalism. This would precipitate political opposition, not just from political parties, but also from newly mobilized political groupings, including the youth, the students, the middle class, the trade unions and civil society. This opposition, in turn, can lead to state repression, as the government uses its control over the security forces to crack down on the newly revitalized Aragalaya, leading to authoritarianism or anarchy.
Ordinary people, spooked by threats and suffering under the burden of a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, would not even have the wherewithal to protest. They would be struggling to make ends meet, feed, clothe and educate their children, while taking care of the elderly and their struggling kin. The result would be a dispirited country, submitting, once again, to the authoritarianism of a narrow political elite, that unites in the face of popular mobilization.
Instead, the crackdown may also lead to greater mobilization, spiraling out of control despite the armed forces using excessive force. And in an echo of last year, gets rid of the President and this time the parliament, as well. In the absence of a sensible political programme, this systemic change brings neither reform nor revolution. Instead, Sri Lanka becomes saddled with a series of unstable governments that lack the capacity to advance democracy or the economy. Sri Lanka becomes a country where governments come and go, not because of fundamental political changes, but because an influential faction in or out of government is dissatisfied with a particular policy or leader.
This leaves Sri Lanka with a narrow path to political and economic reform that must be picked within the next couple of months.
At the end of February, President Wickremesinghe would have the power to dissolve parliament. He may fear doing so, because the new parliament will be dominated by political parties that are his rivals. He will then have to negotiate reforms with a prime minister who may have more popular support than he does. But does he really have the power to enact reforms, today? Even his positive efforts to release military occupied land and PTA prisoners, and implement the 13th Amendment are being met with hostility by his own faction in parliament. Moreover, any effort to balance the budget, strengthen welfare measures for the poor and vulnerable, raise taxes, restructure loss making State Owned Enterprises – would require a government that has the support of the people, not one that fears them. It is not too late for President Wickremasinghe to lead such a government that includes all political parties.
Sri Lanka has a narrow window to begin a process to deepen democracy and enact economic reforms that would bring us dignity and equality when we celebrate our centenary.
(Ram Manikkalingam is Director of the Dialogue Advisory Group. He was an adviser to then President Kumaratunga and was a Visiting Professor at the University of Amsterdam)
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