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Recovering from Sri Lanka’s present crisis: Challenges and possibilities

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Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa delivering his budget speech

By Chandra Amerasekare

The recently introduced Budget for 2022 shows some of the reasons why Sri Lanka fell into the present crisis. The pandemic affected the entire world, but its impact was worse in Sri Lanka as the present government failed to take the right decisions, at the right time, to manage it. Thus Covid-19 contributed to the present situation as the Government closed the barn after the horse escaped. It was pure mismanagement of governance that pushed the country into this mess. This government failed to implement appropriate policies to stabilise the economy and upgrade the standard of living of the masses. On the contrary, by following contradictory and ill-advised policies that defeated the very goals the government was aiming to achieve, and failing to listen to the woes of the people, it made the situation worse for the people and led the country towards bankruptcy, besides selling valuable resources to foreigners. As a result, the entire nation is now on a survival mode: political parties looking for ways to survive and come back to power and the general public struggling to survive in a situation of exploding cost of living and increasing police brutality.

Even in 2015, the country handed over to the Yahapalana government, by the previous Rajapaksa regime was falling apart due to mismanagement of fiscal and monetary policies, from 2005 to 2015, which destabilised the financial system and emptied the Treasury, limiting the incoming government’s ability to run the country. Ill-conceived policies and vanity infrastructure projects created a huge debt burden. By borrowing expensive Chinese loans, with short pay back periods, to construct large projects with no return on investment, like the Hambanthota port and the, airport etc., the Rajapaksa government caused annual debt servicing obligations to escalate sharply, making it impossible for the incoming Yahapalana administration to meet debt repayment obligations from the resources available at the time. The government was forced to go for early elections, hoping for a stable majority in Parliament.

Sri Lankans expected the new Yahapalana regime to bring the culprits, who plundered the country, before the law, but the Yahapalana government failed to do that. Did the lack of co-operation between the two partners of the Yahapalana government lead to this failure? The public continues to blame the UNP for allowing the Rajapaksas, and their supporters, to evade the law, and other political leaders are trying to exploit this to win votes by discrediting the UNP and accusing its leader of deals with the Rajapaksas. The report of the Commission on the April terrorist attack shows how some public servants performed their duties to the detriment of the country and this report might be a guide to understand why the Yahapalana regime failed to bring offenders before the law.

The current Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime, concerned with staying in power, has not changed direction after regaining power in Nov 2019 and continues to tread the same path as before taking the country towards bankruptcy, and the people to despair, spending time in queues to obtain the daily essential at unbearable prices.

People waited for the 2022 budget hoping for some relief. Sadly, this Budget has not given any relief to the people. It contains policy conflicts, shortsighted decisions, weak fiscal measures, statements to camouflage the truth and no substantial proposals to change the direction of the economy, to set it on a growth path, or address the critical issues holding back progress. The budgetary allocations among the Ministries show lack of far sight and concern for the people. The Budget does not say how it will bridge the gap between government expenditure and income in 2022.

During the Budget speech, the Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksa, stated that the public service is a burden to the country, implying it is costly and bloated. Then in the same breath, a policy extending the retirement age for public servants up to 65 years and promising employment to all graduates next year was unveiled; is an example of blatant policy contradiction. Government has not learnt from its policy mistakes during the past two years. The number of gazettes issued and later withdrawn by this government is proof of this government’s shortsightedness, ineptness and inefficiency. Contradictory and foolish policies, such as import ban, including the ban on chemical fertiliser, price controls and then completely abandoning price controls of essential food items thereby creating blackmarkets, fiscal measures, like tax reductions, which reduced government income, while helping the politicians and government supporters to make money at the cost of consumers, are glaring policy mistakes proving this government’s inefficiency. The government is trying to survive by printing money, leaning more and more on China, selling valuable land to foreigners. All this make Sri Lanka’s future extremely bleak.

Almost 80 percent of the budgetary allocations are for Ministries under the Rajapaksas,including highways, and other departments with a lot of construction projects. The allocation for the military has been increased while the allocation for the Ministry of Health has been reduced in a situation where there is no war, but the pandemic is predicted to continue and become worse in 2022! Already the fourth wave of Covid has been noticed in China, Germany, Sweden, etc. In the US, an increase has been identified. Sweden is going for a country-wide lock down.

Education, too, is not sufficiently provided for, compared to the present need to improve online access to education for all children. Sri Lankan children have missed school for two years, and the majority of them have no access to online education as they are without internet facilities, phones, tabs or even the TV. Does the government realise that children are the future of the country and disruption to education for two years has enormous effects on this generation’s future and mental health? This Budget will not be able to make any difference in the country next year.

To bridge the gap between expenditure and revenue in the Budget, the government will probably resort to selling more and more valuable land, and other assets, to foreigners in the guise of bringing foreign investment. They might opt for more Chinese loans as other donors and multinational agencies are unlikely to support wrong policies that do not benefit the people and unproductive projects which only serve to boost the ego and fill the pockets of corrupt politicians.

Can Sri Lanka recover from this crisis situation?

As things are, it will take at least two years to turn around the economy by any government provided the next variation of Covid does not devastate the country and the world. The scientific community seem to believe that the new Omicron variant, now spreading, might be even more contagious. They also doubt the efficacy of the current Covid vaccines against new variants of the virus. It is difficult to expect a visible change for the better for the next two years if the Covid situation in the world does not improve. However, things could turn around for the better if people follow the instructions of the Health Ministry, and government acts sensibly. The chances of recovering from the current crisis depend on whether Sri Lankan voters succeed in bringing a leader into power who has the capability, experience and the overall knowledge required to manage the economy to get the maximum benefits from global trade and international aid programmes to stabilise the financial system while replenishing the reserves and finding affordable capital to finance development projects.

The challenges to economic recovery

1. The biggest challenge to recovery is the lack of dollars to do international transactions, be it private or governmental, and lack of capital to invest in projects to increase production. It is important to understand that Sri Lanka is an import- dependent country. There is no sector in the economy that can function without an imported input. Imported raw materials and machinery are needed for industries, agriculture, transport, construction and even banking. Dollars are required to import food and oil. The country depends largely on foreign employment, tourism, plantation and garment exports for its foreign exchange earnings. What are the prospects of an increase in income from these sources?

2. Impractical monetary policies that keep the rupee exchange rate artificially low for “show” are driving foreign exchange earners to use unofficial traders/brokers such as the Hawala system; thereby bypassing official channels and reducing the influx of badly needed foreign exchange into Sri Lanka. It is time to incentivise foreign exchange earners to transfer funds into the country through official means, and enact pragmatic monetary policies that balance all of the issues that are affected by exchange rates.

3. With disruptions to the global supply chains and low expectations of global economic recovery after the pandemic that stretched for two years, it is unlikely that global tourism will come back to the normal level, even in a year, since the fourth wave of Covid is already spreading in some countries. Local tourist hotels, except a few, need a substantial injection of capital to resume functioning smoothly. There is no capital available to revive this sector at the moment. Remittances from foreign employment in the Middle East, may not increase for another year or so because of the fears of another wave of Covid and the economies of these countries also have suffered due to global trends. Production in the tea plantations has already gone down due to the fertiliser policy.

4. Everybody knows what is happening in the garment sector. The threat of losing GSP + means losing the market for the garment sector and the industry will collapse. The market for apparels is in the west as most Asian countries and Latin American countries are garment exporters. The Middle East countries prefer branded western products and their traditional dresses. Hence the prospects of an increase in the dollar earnings from the present sources mentioned above are rather gloomy.

5. Attracting foreign investments is one way of overcoming the dollar crunch and lack of capital needed to finance projects that generate employment and exports. Investor confidence in the government of the country where their money is going to be invested is a precondition to attract investors. Enabling a policy environment which allows security for the investors’ profits, ease of doing business and political and economic stability in a country where there is good governance are the important considerations for investors to invest money in a country. This is the very thing that Sri Lanka lacks at present. Only an honest leader who commands the respect of the international community and has the ability to understand future trends in the global economy can succeed in creating such an environment to attract productive foreign investments (not casinos) to Sri Lanka.

6. Foreign aid in the form of loans with payback periods of 25 to 50 years at interest rates less than 2% and outright grants is the best way out for a country, like Sri Lanka, now burdened with external debt and lack of capital. China or Russia does not provide such loans. Only the West, international agencies and Japan provide such assistance. But a lack of good governance; a goal-oriented long-term development plan that does not contradict the donor criteria for giving aid; and a leader who is acceptable to the international community as reliable and experienced who honours international agreements; is preventing Sri Lanka from receiving such aid. Some politicians and opinion-makers, in Sri Lanka, who advocate rejection of help from “‘Imperialist West’ and the IMF and insist that Sri Lanka should depend on local resources, probably have no idea that even Russia and China have depended on foreign aid from the West to develop. US government and Japan still give aid to China considered as their potential geopolitical rival, to promote democratic values, such as free choice through Chinese voluntary organisations. China uses the aid at regional levels to overcome local opposition to some projects and for the technical knowhow that comes with the aid (Dr. Philippa Brant, Research Associate of Lowey Institute titled ‘Why does China still receive foreign aid’ and paper by Issac Stone Fish, both published in ForeignPolicy.com in 2013.)

7. The 20th amendment to the constitution created the possibility for a President to become a despot. The independence of the Commissions responsible for; a) conducting free and fair elections, b) disciplinary control, transfers and promotions of judges, c) transfers, disciplinary control and promotions in the public service, has been virtually revoked by the President by appointing his nominees to these Commissions. This amendment has given the power to militarize the administration. These Military men are in a position to override the decisions of civil administrators. These developments flowing from the 20th Amendment are not acceptable to donors or the UN as good governance is an important criterion for giving aid and democracies in the free world stand for human rights and rule of law.

8. Political culture in Sri Lanka is the last but not the least stumbling block to recovery. The voters responsible for making and breaking governments hardly consider policies or past performance of parties when they decide who should get their vote. They hardly think of the interest of the future generations. Their priority is to get an immediate benefit for the family. Sometimes they have a select memory that enables them to forget grave offences of some politicians while remembering the minor failures of other politicians. So, they keep electing the wrong people to parliament and rejecting better representatives. As a result, lawbreakers, sex offenders, thieves, drug dealers and even murderers go to parliament and its doors are closed to honest and educated people. Voters’ ability to take an enlightened decision is further stunted by the way politicians mislead them by lying and the way some electronic media houses playing the role of kingmakers, present their programs in a manner to mislead the viewers. Politicians know that most voters can be swayed by emotion at the last moment and they resort to using religion and race to sway the voters in their favor. Under normal conditions voter’s priority is to get immediate relief and the majority of them tend to vote for the candidate who promises employment for a family member or a free gift.

On the other hand, there is no visible alternative to this government at the moment. The main opposition has not presented a long-term plan to address the problem other than making promises. The JVP is acceptable to those who consider bringing the culprits who robbed the country’s wealth is the primary objective of changing the government. But JVP also has not talked of the ways to handle the ailing economy. On the other hand, they do not have even a limited experience in governance and economic development or dealing with the international community. Mere book knowledge of economics and organizational ability will not be sufficient to help the country at this juncture. This was proved by the mistakes of the current regime advised by Viyath Maga. The UNP has presented a skeletal plan and the leader is experienced and well received by donor countries and the international financial institutes. But the UNP has been rejected by the electorate at the last election. A coalition between the UNP, SJB and the JVP might be the last slim hope for the country.

(The writer is  retired CAS officer, who has served the country for over three decades working in the Finance Ministry and as a representative of Sri Lanka in the UN in New York (1991 to 94 )



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Decolonising education and critical thinking

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IN BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS (1952), FRANTZ FANON, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination.

By Darshi Thoradeniya

I would like to throw out some ideas on the importance of critical thinking in higher education especially in relation to history teaching by expanding the profound thoughts on decolonising education, expressed by Harshana Rambukwella, earlier in this column.

Just as educational institutions served to colonise subjects in colonial settings, the decolonising project also started through education. In the discipline of history, for instance, we constantly attempt to decolonise knowledge that has been created about the past and create new knowledge about the past through critical inquiry. In other words, critical inquiry is the tool that is used to decolonise knowledge. Thus, these two elements – decolonising knowledge and critical thinking – need to be linked in our discussions of higher education in post-colonial settings like Sri Lanka.

As Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argued, educational institutions are ideological state apparatuses used to promote and reinforce the ideology of the dominant classes. Through the national curriculum, government and private schools, in Sri Lanka, carry out this task meticulously. However, universities do not have a national curriculum; instead they have a subject benchmark statement that needs to be conceded to. Humanities and social sciences curricula are designed to generate critical engagement with key concepts, theories, texts and events. Thus, the school curriculum is unlearnt and critical thinking learnt at the university.

Critical thinking can take different forms according to the field of inquiry, but being able to question existing taken for granted knowledge is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. It is when knowledge is problematised by asking questions, such as who produced the knowledge, for whom it was produced, and by analyzing what sources were drawn upon to create the knowledge, do we become aware of the colonial mindset that we have developed and nurtured over the years through the school curriculum.

This is best illustrated through the way we teach and learn history in schools and perhaps even in some universities. Within the school curriculum, history is taught with an overwhelming emphasis on Sinhala Buddhist culture as if it is a pure, untainted culture sustained over 2500 years. This ideology is put forward mainly through uncritical engagement with sources. Mahawamsa (the great chronicle) is a key primary source that has shaped the history of Sri Lanka. At school level, we are not taught to question the intentions of the author, the sources analysed nor the audience for which the Mahawamsa was written. Sinhalese Buddhist culture became the dominant ideology with the involvement of colonial administrators, such as Alexander Johnston – the Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1811 to 1819 – who played an influential role in the translation of the Mahawamsa to English in the early 1800s. By neglecting these questions, we overlook the fact that this island has been situated in the trade route between the West and the East since the 12th century, and the possibilities of other narratives of ethnicity that could emerge by virtue of its location. Such possibilities are unfortunately not explored in schools because of lacking critical engagement on the historiography of Sri Lanka.

History writing in the colonies was essentially a production of colonial masters, hence a production of colonial knowledge. These histories were written by European travellers, missionaries, officials and administrators of trading companies, such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar charts how 19th century utilitarian and nationalist ideas in Europe influenced the Scottish economist and political theorist James Mill making him interpret Indian civilisation as static, leading him to divide Indian history into three sections – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period – in his work History of British India (1817). The static character of Indian society with its despotic rulers became accepted as “truth” in Indian history as British colonial administrators were mandated to read the text before taking up duties in colonial India. The idea of oriental despotism would also justify the introduction of the British legal and administrative system to India. This colonial historiography remained unchallenged until decolonisation of knowledge took place in mid-20th century India.

When looking at the historiography of Ceylon, we can see many parallels with Indian historiography. Colonial administrators, such as Emerson Tennant and Codrington wrote a somewhat linear, continuous history of Ceylon emphasizing a Sinhalese Buddhist narrative centered on the kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. By the 1970s, a group of Marxist historians started applying critical inquiry to the discipline of history and actively decolonising historical knowledge.

In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination. He believed that human imagination could only be truly expressed through native language and could never be accomplished through the language of the colonial master. Taking this language argument further, Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said showed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), how Eurocentric prejudices shaped peoples’ imagination of the Orient (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) as barbaric, backward and traditional, and how such understandings were ultimately bestowed the status of scientific knowledge.

Similar decolonising experiences and projects can be traced in Latin American and African settings. Latin American cultural anthropologist Walter Mignolo believes that formal educational institutions established by the colonisers must be dismantled in order to decolonise the mindset of the people. Otherwise, people’s imaginations are trapped within the knowledge that is produced by these institutions. If people are to freely imagine and experience epistemic knowledge, they should be free from formal boundaries.

The faculties of humanities and social sciences in state universities have a gigantic task in hand. How should we further the project of decolonisation? A first step might be to start teaching Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to all humanities and social sciences undergraduates to facilitate understanding the indigenous cultures in which a specific knowledge is produced. At present, history writing mainly takes place within bilingual settings, and very rarely in trilingual settings, because very few historians are trilingual in Sri Lanka. The inability to comprehend the third language (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil) limits the historian from understanding the mentality of the so called ‘other’.

If we do not know the ‘other’ colonial subject, how are we to write a history of Sri Lanka? Not knowing the other’s language means we can only produce knowledge about one particular segment of society. Historians conversant in Sinhala and English end up servicing the hegemonic discourse (i.e., Sinhala Buddhist ideology), while historians conversant in Tamil and English end up creating an alternative narrative that is very unlikely to reach main stream historiography. There lies a fundamental problem that we need to address in decolonising university education. One suggestion in this regard would be to initiate exchange programmes between departments of national universities so that undergraduates as well as staff will be able to engage with the decolonising project in a holistic manner.

(Darshi Thoradeniya is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It was a drama like no other! It is rarely that one and all involved in a saga ends up being a loser and that is exactly what happened with the ‘Australian Open’ fiasco. Novak Djokovic, his family, Tennis Australia, The Government of Victoria, Federal Government of Australia, the Serbian President and even the media have exposed chinks in their armour! Perhaps, the only people delighted would be our politicians who could now claim, justifiably, that incompetence is a trait shared by their ilk in the developing world, too!

Many, especially youngsters, would look up to sports stars for inspiration. Though many sports are no longer what they used to be, having undergone an unholy metamorphosis to be businesses, still a greater degree of honesty is expected of sports stars than from politicians. After all, sportsmanship is a term often used to express fair and generous behaviour. Considering all this, perhaps, the bulk of the blame should go to Novak Djokovic, the number one male tennis player who could have created history, had he won the Australian Open by being the Male Tennis player with the most ‘Grand Slams’. Perhaps, in his overenthusiasm to achieve this, he attempted to find ways to compete without being vaccinated for Covid. But it failed, and the 11-day drama was finally over when he was deported on Sunday evening.

In a way, it is very unfortunate that Djokovic had to make that sacrifice for the sake of a strong-held belief of his. Though he has not been directly involved in any anti-vaccination campaigns, his refusal to have the Covid-19 vaccine had been made use of by anti-vaxxers on social media. At the very beginning of the epidemic, he got into trouble by organising a tournament in Serbia, where a number of players, including himself, got infected. Though there were rumours that he was not taking vaccines due to medical contraindications, it is very likely the actual reason is his going by the opinion expressed by some specialists that infection gives better immunity than vaccination.

Though Djokovic’s vaccination status had been shrouded in secrecy for a long time, what transpired during this fiasco confirmed that he was not vaccinated and that there were no medical contraindications for vaccination. Whatever your beliefs or however important you are, one is still bound by rules and regulations. Australia is among the countries that imposed the strictest controls during the pandemic. In fact, many Australian citizens were stuck in many countries unable to return home, some for over a year. Even now, only dual vaccinated are allowed entry. If Djokovic had wished to stick to his principles, he should have done the honourable thing by staying out of the tournament, which is what some other players did.

It is surprising that Djokovic was given a medical exemption to enter Australia by two different independent health panels––one commissioned by Tennis Australia, the other by the state government of Victoria––after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-December, given that the rules are otherwise. Perhaps, they were more concerned about the success of the Australian Open tournament and were willing to bend rules! It is even more surprising that the Federal Government did not question this as immigration is not a function devolved to state governments. The moment Djokovic announced on Twitter that he would be attending, there was a hostile public reaction which may be the reason why Djokovic was detained on arrival but what followed could easily have been avoided had the Immigration Minister taken pre-emptive action. Whether the state government and the federal government being run by two different parties had any bearing on these actions is a moot point.

Djokovic made a false declaration that he had not been to any other country recently in spite of clear evidence to the contrary but later blamed his team for making the error. Surely, he should know that the responsibility is his, once he signs any form! When he had the infection in mid-December, rather than isolating himself, which even anti-vaxxers would do, he attended a number of indoor public events. And his explanation; he did not want to inconvenience the French TV team there to interview him. Serbian President overlooked all this, to blame Australia!

The state judge reversed his visa cancellation citing procedural issues. A BBC report exaggerated this by stating that the judge had allowed him to play in the Australian Open! Although the Immigration Minister could have taken immediate action, he chose not to do so, taking a number of days to cancel the visa on ‘Health and good order grounds. To hear Djokovic’s appeal the federal high court sat on a Sunday, just like our courts being kept open to grant bail to MPs! The three judges unanimously rejected his appeal, the Chief Justice stating that the court ruling was based on the legality of the Minister’s decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make. Interestingly, BBC implied that Djokovic’s efforts would reach fruition!

Perhaps, the federal government was forced to act by the injudicious press conference held, after the success of the first appeal, by Djokovic’s family in Belgrade, wherein they attempted to portray him as a poster-boy for choice. It had a disastrous ending by the family terminating the press conference when journalists questioned why Djokovic had attended functions soon after testing positive! After the deportation, Djokovic’s father has called it an assassination, of all things, failing to realise that he was hampering the chances of reversal of the three-year entry ban to Australia, Djokovic was facing! Serbian political leaders hitting out hard, calling it scandalous treatment was not very diplomatic, and did not help Djokovic.

The lesson we can learn, except that politicians play politics wherever they are, is that federated states have their own problems, as illustrated by this sad, winnerless episode.

There were varying shades of reactions to this saga. Perhaps, the words of wisdom came from Rafael Nada, who said, “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences”

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Historic task—a non-racist and human security ideology

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By Jehan Perera

The media has reported that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to Parliament at this inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago.   The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet, and as many countries which had done so following traumatic events.  President Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.

Indeed, it is unlikely that any other President could have faced the multiple crises the present government has got the country into and remained with its 2/3 majority intact, as it has done so far.  The recent announcement of the SLFP, headed by former President Maithripala Sirisena, that it would remain within the government alliance, while criticising it from within, is an indicator of the government’s stability.  This follows the similar declaration by the three leading cabinet ministers from the 11 party alliance of small parties within the government, who have filed cases in the courts against the government.  They too have said they would remain within the government and continue to challenge its decisions that they deem to be incorrect.

There are two key reasons why the government has a measure of stability despite the deteriorating economic situation that is impacting severely on the wellbeing of the majority of people.  The first is the pragmatic calculation of the government leadership that it is better to have its critics within the government than out of it.  It seemed possible that the sacking of Minister Susil Premjayantha for being overly critical of the government would be the start of a purge of internal critics of the government that could cause an unravelling.  But so far it is only Minister Premjayantha, who has had to pay the price for his independence.  This has been explained by the fact that the former minister was a member of the ruling party itself, unlike the other critics who belong to other parties.

SECOND STRENGTH

Due to the multiple perspectives within the government, and which represent the diversity of the government alliance, it has been able to reach out to the widest possible swathe of society.  At the same time, it is able to woo diverse sections of the international community, including the three big international formations that hold the key to the country’s economic progress.  These are China, India and the Western countries. China is continuing to provide economic resources on a large scale along with India.  Both of these big powers seek to improve their position of influence on Sri Lanka and ensure a physical presence in the country which is being granted. Dealing with China has been the easiest, as it only seeks to gain more economic and physical assets within the country to ensure its permanent presence.

Dealing with India and the Western countries is more challenging as they require political concessions as well. In the case of India it is a political solution to the ethnic conflict which involved power-sharing with the minority Tamil community.  In the case of the Western countries it is progress in terms of protecting human rights.  With Sri Lanka being a country of interest to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, this means that its human rights record is scrutinised every three months.  The forthcoming session in late February, which continues through March, will be especially important.  The Sri Lankan government is expected to present a written report on its progress in terms of issues of accountability, truth seeking, reparations and institutional reform.  The response of the majority of countries at the UNHRC can have a significant impact as it would influence the European Union’s pending decision on whether or not to suspend its GSP Plus tariff privilege which is a source of support to the Sri Lankan economy.

In this regard, it will be necessary for the government to rein in its champions of ethnic nationalism and national security that give emphasis to the perspective of the ethnic majority community alone.  This is going to be the great challenge as the second strength of the government is its ideology of ethnic majority nationalism and national security which it invokes at frequent intervals, and especially when it faces challenges.  These help to keep the ethnic majority’s loyalty to the government. But they alienate the minorities and also those sections of the international community who are concerned with human rights. The country remains deeply traumatised by three decades of internal war, in which acts of terrorism could strike anywhere, a separate Tamil state led by the LTTE was a short distance away and the centre itself was at risk of being taken over violently by the JVP.  These crises led to extreme measures that have left indelible scars and memories on the people that are easy to reinvoke.

BOTCHED ATTEMPTS

The botched attempt to explode a bomb in All Saints Church in Colombo and the botched police investigation into it have given the impression of a created event that has been questioned by the Catholic Church.  The bomb discovery, in which the Catholic priests did more to uncover evidence than the police, served to divert attention from the 1,000, day commemoration by the church of the 2019 Easter bombings, which killed over 280 persons, set the stage for conflict between Catholics and Muslims and reinforced the need for national security, and racists, to take the centre stage of national politics. On that occasion, as on this, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, played a crucial role in preventing an escalation of the crisis and in calling for the truth behind the bombings to be known. Like the prophets in the biblical tradition, he is increasingly powerful in speaking truth to the rulers, even truths they do not wish to hear.

Events such as the Easter bombing, and now this latest incident, give the impression of security failure that is detrimental to the country’s internal communal harmony and to the international image of the country as a peaceful and secure one for both investment and tourism. Sri Lanka is yet to emerge from the thrall of nationalist politics, and its falsehoods and violence, where political leaders make deliberate and purposeful use of communal differences to win votes and come to power.  They have succeeded time and again in this dastardly practice, but with it the country has failed to reach its full potential time and again.  The costs have been unbearable, whether in terms of lives lost, properties destroyed and economic growth stymied.  Sri Lanka has one of the largest standing armies in the world, with the number of its military personnel being five times larger than that of Australia, though the populations of both countries are about the same.  This means economic resources being taken away from development purposes.

The historic task for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government is to make a shift away from a mindset that emphasises the interests of the ethnic majority and national security being the preserve of the security forces to a new mindset that includes the ethnic minority and sees human security and wellbeing as the country’s need. The Sri Lankan state needs to consider all its people as citizens with equal rights, and not as ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities to be treated differently.  And it needs to give priority to human security and wellbeing where gas cylinders do not explode and people have food and education at affordable prices. Both religious leaders and political leaders need to come up with an ideology of the wellbeing of all in which solutions that are beneficial to all are found, where basic needs of all are met, and there is no divide and rule, which is a recipe for long term failure.

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