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Liberal dogmatism and Sri Lanka’s future



by Uditha Devapriya

At the height of the first wave last year, the JVP and the FSP requested the government to look to Kerala. Led by the Communist Party, the Kerala administration responded well to the virus, deploying State resources and ensuring no one was left behind. It was a litmus test of what governments ought to do during a public health crisis. Although Colombo opted for a different strategy that combined army officials with medical professionals, the second, third, and fourth waves have made us realise the flaws of sticking to it dogmatically.

Colombo’s liberal intelligentsia, as well as the MPs they are attached to, predictably focused more on the West. In Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic and the tensions it generated, they saw a confirmation of their worst fears. Yet while prognosticating about the dangers of populist politics at a time of a pandemic, very few of them acknowledged that left-of-centre and leftist administrations, Kerala included, had handled it better than most. Indeed, they even failed to note that Jacinda Arden, heroine of countless liberal narratives here and elsewhere, hailed from a centre-left administration.

Supporters of the present government have of course been disdainful of socialist and liberal concerns and recommendations. Thus, they have been as contemptuous of Kerala’s record as they have of Arden’s. Although the government’s handling of the pandemic has obviously seen better days, they stick adamantly to their belief that, as the president himself put it, he and his men are doing it the best. Even if they admit to the flaws of the government’s plans, they would point out that the virus does not always respond to the measures that countries like Kerala have enforced, and that, in many ways, we have performed better.

While the regime has downplayed liberal concerns and socialist recommendations, its liberal critics have been no less apathetic about the latter. This is to be expected. Liberalism in Sri Lanka has almost always been in the economic domain, not the social. Calling for reductions in government intervention, Colombo’s liberal intelligentsia has, for the most, been blind or myopic to the contradiction between their economic paradigms and the social discontent those paradigms have generated elsewhere. That is why you hardly come across free market ideologues mentioning Kerala much less commending it, and why they praise New Zealand’s pandemic response only on the grounds of its leader’s gender.

These ideologues continue to spin their narratives about the need for lesser governments and greater globalisation, failing to note that it is in countries where states have taken less proactive measures that have yielded higher cases and fatalities. It is also in regions worst affected by vaccine inequalities, a result of untrammelled globalisation, that have produced and continue to produce viral variants, perpetuating the pandemic and thereby reinforcing those inequalities even more. Anyone who thinks that globalisation and integration can save us from the pandemic, accordingly, is only seeing half the picture. Clearly, for the virus as for the economy in general, a different paradigm is the call of the hour.

Western governments have already realised this. For all its flaws, Joe Biden’s economic programme is taking the US back to the New Deal days. In the run up to the elections last year, Jake Sullivan rang the alarm on neoliberalism, calling it a failed policy. Even though I am sceptical about whether Washington can pull off a New New Deal, it is true, as a recent interview in Jacobin puts it, that Biden is emphasising a bigger role for the State. In foreign policy his administration remains as predictable as ever. But during a pandemic of this scale, domestic policies are what count more. Hence, while clearly not socialist, the president and his men have committed themselves to a new, different programme.

Yet Sri Lanka’s political liberals, who are in reality economic liberals, remain blind to these developments. Then again, they remain blind to the link between the sort of policies they advocate and the discontent those policies have provoked. They also choose to ignore how the countries they look up to have gone back on those policies.

Despite its Third Way Giddensian roots, the Democratic Party understood the rightwing surge which decades of neoliberal globalisation had unleashed in the American heartland. Though stopping short of conceiving a radical programme, the younger, more progressive part rank-and-filers realised that continuing with such policies, and placing their advocates at the helm, would damage their prospects for an electoral comeback. Revisiting, revising, and revamping old strategies, they adopted new tactics which could win them working and middle class constituencies, without caving into the rightwing fringe.

I don’t know why Sri Lanka’s liberals don’t get this, but I can guess. Among the themes that Rajiva Wijesinha explores in his fascinating book Representing Sri Lanka is what he calls “the death of liberal Sri Lanka.” The title is tongue-in-cheek: he’s not talking about what liberals in the country dread, namely the rise of authoritarian regimes and specifically those led by the Rajapaksas, but what they ought to be dreading, namely the death of liberalism among liberal ranks. Wijesinha is characteristically candid about how liberals operate in the country now. In particular, he points to three developments within Colombo’s liberal and intellectual circles: the tribalism entrenched in their organisations, their affiliations with individuals one just cannot associate with, and their obeisance to foreign interests.

Wijesinha reveals how the very same liberal institutions set up to counter authoritarianism ended up going back on their foundational tenets. This has largely been on account of the presumption, ridiculous to me and I believe to Wijesinha himself, that to be a liberal in Sri Lanka is to be a card-carrying member of the United National Party.

Of course, the UNP remains the only national party allied with the International Democratic Union, that very distinguished organisation which has, to the best of my knowledge, failed to see or note the contradiction between the UNP’s commitment to the tenets of liberal democracy and its strangling of them within the party hierarchy. Yet, even more ironic have been the hosannas lavished on it by self-defined liberal cosmopolitans, a point Dr Wijesinha notes in his devastating unravelling of their paymasters, associates, and acolytes. Underlying his critique from the perspective of a saner liberalism, he strikes a deeply regretful note. His reading of these developments does not make for happy reading, though I think it should be read, for the simple reason that no one else has written on those developments.

Perhaps the biggest mistake any political commentator in Sri Lanka can make is to define himself or herself negatively in relation to the rightwing fringe. Yet self-defined liberals, who would probably not be classed as liberals elsewhere, insist on describing themselves as such on account of their opposition to (predominantly Sinhala) nationalist politics. Here, as I have mentioned several times in this column, they fail to distinguish between their championing of economic freedom on the one hand and their tacit acceptance of a government that can “bring about” such freedom, even at the cost of civil liberties, on the other. This is hardly the ideology espoused by the likes of Chanaka Amaratunga and Rajiva Wijesinha, but it is in line with the sort supported by their less than brilliant successors.

The bottom line to all this is that nationalists of the most tribalist sort are no different to liberals of the most tribalist sort. Unfortunately for the country, nationalists and liberals alike tend to be more tribalist than most, a point that might come as a surprise for those who associate nationalism with its worst excesses, yet compare it favourably with liberal politics of whatever persuasion. It does not take one much, however, to realise that both have been caving into the same kind of insularity, which lends credence to the point I have made frequently in this column about neoliberals and neoconservatives occupying the same space. Indeed, to rethink Benjamin Barber’s very flawed essay, McWordlists have become the provocateurs and, inadvertently, fellow travellers of the Jihadists.

I don’t see why we have to continue with such a state of affairs. As recent developments in Chile, Peru, and Mexico show, dissatisfaction with rightwing neoliberalism and centre-left reformism has fed into radical formations offering alternatives to both. While many of these formations express an antipathy to politics of all shades, as René Rojas in a recent piece to Jacobin Magazine puts it, it is when the Left has banded together, without letting itself be splintered on personal and factional lines, it has been able to organise the broadest possible resistance against authoritarian regimes and their purported oppositions.

Sri Lanka’s cosmopolitans just don’t possess this kind of moral firepower, partly because they have become toothless against more powerful political movements and ideologies, but also because they themselves have, while opposing the prospect of a Rajapaksa presidency, contributed to a state of affairs which made such a prospect possible. Of course, Sri Lanka’s liberal and left-liberal circles continue to regurgitate old ideas, proving themselves to be no better than their nationalist-populist counterparts. Yet rising social discontent, and dissent, threatens to render their best laid plans insignificant, if not irrelevant. Far from bemoaning such a development, I think we should pay close attention to it.

The writer can be reached at

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Economic crisis: SLPP MPs who endorsed tax concessions also responsible -Kiriella



By Saman Indrajith

The SLPP MPs who did not oppose President Gotabaya Rajapaksa granting a 681-billion-rupee tax concession to big companies were also responsible for bankrupting the country, Chief Opposition Whip and Kandy District MP Lakshman Kiriella told Parliament yesterday.

Kiriella said that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had granted tax concessions to big companies that funded his election campaign and that had contributed to the country’s bankruptcy. “The Supreme Court determination has pointed out that the decision to please mega companies resulted in a loss of Rs 681 billion to the national economy. The MPs who were in the SLPP then should have opposed it.

They did not do so. As such they too are responsible for this crisis.

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Godahewa says President by his erratic behavior has become misfit to run country



Dr. Nalaka Godahewa

Member of Parliament Dr. Nalaka Godahewa says that even in this budget, the President’s plan to break a part of the opposition has failed. He said so at a recent press conference held at the Nawala office of the Freedom Janata Sabha on the budget and the current political situation.

“We are in temporary relief like a debtor who hides until the police catch him for not paying back the debt to the creditors. To tell the truth, we are on top of a volcano. Even if the future is not planned properly, even if it happens in early 2022, this crisis is going to explode in a more terrifying way.

Therefore, basically, what we expected from the budget was:

* How can the government reactivate the economy and push for growth?

* How can the government bail us out of the debt trap?

Here are the answers to these problems.

But instead of a budget that will reduce the debt burden of the country and reactivate our economy, the President presented a budget that will increase the country’s expenses further. Instead of reducing the debt burden of the country, which consists of some kind of election gundu (handout) to please the people, it will greatly increase the debt burden. In short, this was presented not as a budget but as a series of loans.

The estimated expenditure of next year is 6978 billion rupees. Let’s say roughly Rs 7000 billion.

It was during the last year before we faced the crisis that is 2021. The actual annual expenditure was 3851 billion rupees. Let’s say approximately 4000 billion rupees.

So, the government is waiting to spend 3000 billion more than before the crisis. The cost increases by 75%.

But the country’s economy has not developed during this time. It has continuously contracted in these three years. We said that we increased taxes and increased government revenue, but we got that tax revenue by robbing the people and businesses of the country.

According to the government’s estimates, the income that can be earned this year is only 4000 billion. In that case, another 3000 billion will be added to our debt burden.

So in such a situation, can the government’s economic differentiation be justified?

That is why we voted against the budget.

During the presentation of the budget and afterwards, the President said several times that 2024 is an election year. He hinted that not only the presidential election but also the general election is likely to be held. I believe that when Chanda Gundu prepared the budget, he might have been waiting to do so. But the final result of the budget was not what the President was waiting for.

He waited and waited to see if a certain group of the opposition would be able to join the government during the budget poll. He also hoped that a large number of the opposition would be abstain from the vote. We have heard that some members of the opposition had discussed this with his agents. But in the end, the government received fewer votes than it received during the previous domestic debt restructuring. Many MPs from the opposition who did not participate at earlier votes came that day and voted against the budget.

This is a kind of personal defeat for the President. He hoped that this time SJB would split. In order to go to the polls without the Rajapakses in the future, it is essential for him to gather a certain group of MPs from opposition. But this final vote proved that it is still just a dream.

Now he cannot bear this. He can see that the SJB team is very strongly with the opposition leader today. He thinks that is because of the influence of the independent groups in the opposition. He thinks that the main opposition, which abstained from voting against the IMF agreement when it was first brought to parliament, is now continuously voting against his economic program because of our influence. That is why yesterday he insulted me and Mr. G.L. Peiris by name in the Parliament. As the opposition leader said, we understand the President’s mental discomfort. He is in a difficult situation. But we have nothing to do with it. We continue to advocate for the economic philosophy we believe in. Fortunately, it seems that the leader of the opposition also stands for the social democratic economy that we believe in. That is why his group has taken a strong stand against the budget without falling into the trap set by the President.

Recently, the President came and spoke twice in Parliament. The first time he got into an argument with the leader of the opposition and left the debate midway. He came to Parliament again yesterday and got into a long argument with the leader of the opposition. In my opinion, the President suffered a defeat on both occasions. So I wonder why this President comes to the parliament in this way and gets involved in debates demeaning his position.

Perhaps as the person who has continuously represented the Parliament for the longest time, he is bored without coming to the House. But I think that he misses a lot of work that needs his attention. As the President is also the Finance Minister and Defense Minister of the country, he has a lot of work to do on a daily basis. But what he is doing is enjoying himself like the retired presidents of America by giving lectures on all necessary and unnecessary topics inside and outside the parliament, traveling all over the world. If this is what he wants to do, then he must appoint a full-time finance minister.

The problem of this government is its inability to implement the policies, more than the fault of the policies.

On the one hand, the government is talking about the need to develop industries, while on the other hand, by increasing the electricity bills, it is making it difficult for industries to function.

On the one hand, the government is talking about the development of small and medium enterprises, while importing even eggs from abroad.

The people are not able to bear the cost of health, and at some time they are preparing to introduce the 18% VAT which will affect the health sector as well.

The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. Look at the cricket board dispute. The minister says one thing, the president says another.

Now, this country needs an honest agenda.

What we need now is an integrated economic development plan. This country cannot be rebuilt with unrelated proposals like throwing stones at the mango tree, thinking that a mango will fall by some luck.

This country needs proper leadership. It is not a government that depends on a single person, but a unity of a group of skilled leaders is needed. We need an honest, skilled, and experienced group dedicated to rebuilding the country.

We need a team with an understanding of economics. We need a team that understands the ground reality. We need a team that understands the strengths and weaknesses of the government as well as the private sector.

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MR blames economic crisis on Yahapalana leaders



Mahinda Rajapaksa

SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday (28) hit back at critics, claiming that a robust economy had been built under his presidency. He said the UNP-SLFP government which ruled the country during the 2015-2019 period should be held responsible for the current economic crisis.

The following is the text of a statement, titled ‘the origins of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis’ issued by former President Rajapaksa: “A heated discussion is now taking place about those responsible for the present economic crisis. The Central Bank reports will show that during my nine years as President, economic growth averaged 6% a year during the four war years, from 2006 to 2009, and it increased to 6.8% in the five post-war years, from 2010 to 2014. Hence Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP increased threefold from USD 1,242, at the end of 2005, to USD 3,819 by the end of 2014. The contribution that my government made to Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP was well over twice that of all other post-independence governments, from 1948 to 2005, put together. Though the per capita GDP came down to USD 3,474 in 2022 as the pandemic caused the economy to contract, that statement remains valid to this day.

The debt to GDP ratio was a very healthy 69% at the end of 2014 having being brought down from 90% at the end of 2005. The All Share Price Index rose from 1,922, at the end of 2005, to 7,299 by the end of 2014. This economic boom was achieved despite the war, the global food crisis of 2007, the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the highest crude oil prices in world history. Crude oil cost an average of USD 74 per barrel throughout the entire period from 2006 to 2009 and an average of USD 103 from 2010 to 2014. The IMF Country Report No. 14/285 of September 2014 stated firstly that Sri Lanka’s “Macroeconomic performance has generally exceeded expectations”. Secondly that “Sri Lanka has made notable advances in recent years, and appears to be on its way to joining the ranks of upper middle income countries”. Thirdly that “Sri Lanka’s economic growth has been among the fastest in Asia’s frontier and developing economies in recent years”.

Hence the fact that I left behind a very robust economy in January 2015 is well documented. After I was voted out, the economic growth rate dropped to 4.2% in 2015 and ended up in the negative range at 0.2% below zero by 2019. Sri Lanka’s total outstanding external debt had increased by nearly 28% from USD 42,914 million at the end of 2014, to USD 54,811 million by the end of 2019. The debt to GDP ratio which had been brought down to 69% by the end of 2014, had increased to nearly 82% by the end of 2019. The All Share Price Index declined from 7,299 at the end of 2014 to 5,990 by the end of October 2019. Yet during the entire five-year period from 2015 to 2019 the average price of crude oil was USD 60 per barrel – the lowest in recent history.

There were no external reasons for Sri Lanka’s economic decline between 2015 and 2019. India and Bangladesh experienced average growth rates in excess of 7% and the Maldives over 6% during this period. Even developed countries like the USA and Germany experienced robust economic performance during those years. However, Sri Lanka’s average growth rate between 2015 and 2019 was just 3.5%, equal to the growth rate recorded in 2021 at the height of the pandemic. The accumulation of foreign commercial debt between 2015 and 2019 particularly in the form of International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs) was by far the worst disaster to befall us during that period.

When I was defeated in January 2015, outstanding ISBs amounted to USD 5,000 million and it was amply covered by our foreign reserves of USD 8,208 million. However, between 2015 and 2019 outstanding ISBs increased threefold to USD 15,050 with borrowings of USD 2,150 million in 2015, USD 1,500 million in 2016, USD 1,500 million in 2017, 2,500 million USD in 2018 and USD 4,400 million in 2019. Of this, USD 2,000 million was used to rollover ISB’s taken during my tenure, thus the total amount in new ISB’s issued between 2015 and 2019 is USD 10,050 million. Despite the build-up of the stock of outstanding ISBs to USD 15,050, Sri Lanka’s total foreign reserves was just USD 7,642 million at the end of 2019.

Thus, when I became Prime Minister again in November 2019, our government inherited an economy that was already on its last legs. It was in this weak and vulnerable situation that the Covid-19 pandemic hit Sri Lanka in early 2020 – the consequences of which needs further discussion. In any discussion of the economy, it is vital to note that the per capita GDP is the most fundamental economic indicator used to judge the economic situation of a country and the contribution of my 2006-2014 government to increasing Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP is more than double that of all other post- independence governments put together. The people of this country should base their decisions on proper data and facts and not on noise, lies and propaganda. Sri Lanka cannot afford another political mistake like that of January 2015. “

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