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Globe trotting with Le Meridien: CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY

Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
chandij@sympatico.ca

I am most thankful to Le Meridien hotel company for the invaluable exposure they provided me over the years. Le Meridien was very generous in developing my international hotel management career. During my two stints with them in the 1980s and in the 1990s, Le Meridien invested the time and funds to send me for training in France and job experiences in their five-star hotels in different countries.

Between 1986 and 2001, I stayed at over 20 Le Meridien Hotels in a dozen countries. In addition to being a Director of Food & Beverage, and General Manager, my other brief roles in these Le Meridien sponsored travels were: shadow general manager and management observer. I was also the quality assurance ‘mystery guest,’ or simply a guest observer during corporate sales trips, general manager conferences with Le Meridien corporate teams from Paris and London, and on holiday.

SINGAPORE

Soon after my first annual performance review as the Director of Food and Beverage of Le Galadari Meridien hotel in Colombo, my boss, the General Manager of the hotel – Jean Pierre Kaspar agreed to send me to Singapore for Le Meridien exposure. I knew that he saw some potential in me as a future international hotelier, although in the mid-1980s there were hardly any non-European expatriate managers with Le Meridien. Most of them were French.

My main assignment in Singapore was to be a Management Observer at Le Meridien in fashionable Orchard Road. Having spent two weeks at the nearby Goodwood Park Hotel in 1982, as the guest executive chef for a Sri Lankan food festival, I was familiar with Singapore. In 1987, I was amazed by how much Singapore had advanced in five years. I shadowed the Director of Food & Beverage of the hotel while being a silent observer at all meetings and events he attended. I spent some time at all their restaurants and special banquets.

I also spent some time observing their sister hotel – Le Meridien Changi located very close to my favourite airport in the world – Changi Airport. It was the first occasion that I was exposed to the management of an airport hotel. Most of the guests at this hotel stayed for short periods and the service offered had to be faster than city centre five-stars. As there was not much to see around the hotel, the few guests who stayed longer than one night usually took taxis to down town Singapore.

Compared to Colombo, Singapore had a much more active and modern night club scene being around two years ahead in nightclub trends compared to us. I wanted to duplicate some ideas as I was working on upgrading certain aspects of Colombo 2000 night club. Towards the end of my assignment there I invited the lead singer and the manager of our main band, Sohan Weerasinghe, to join me in Singapore. Our wives joined us and spent most of their time shopping while Sohan and I visited many night clubs and also recruited a Singaporean female singer to perform at Colombo 2000 on a limited engagement.

BANGKOK

Prior to my wife and I travelling to Thailand in 1988 on a vacation, I arranged our stay and a short ‘unofficial’ guest observer period at Le Meridien Bangkok. By then I had realized that a lot can be learnt by simply observing different hotel operations, although many hoteliers did not do so. I was familiar with Bangkok. In 1979, Bangkok was the first city outside Sri Lanka that I visited, when I stayed at the then famous Hotel Narai. In 1993, through a personal contact, I arranged another guest observer period for myself at the Bangkok Hilton.

After spending time at the Grand Palace and visiting the Floating Markets by boat, our tour guide had arranged an after dinner ‘Bangkok by Night’ tour for us. “I will meet you at the hotel lobby in two hours. I will take you to a unique restaurant for dinner, before the ‘night’ tour,” he promised to keep us excited. We found Thai people to be very friendly and respectful. The only things we did not like about Bangkok were the traffic and the humidity. After a refreshing shower we were ready for our adventure evening in Bangkok.

During a 45-minute car ride, our guide, Narong was proud to talk about the restaurant to which he was taking us for dinner. “Tum Nak Thai is the largest restaurant in the world. It is in an eight-acre park just outside Bangkok. It is owned by a cousin of our king. You will love the food, service, entertainment and everything else! They serve 6,000 dinners every day!” he boasted. Narong was telling us the truth.

Sitting there and looking around the beautifully landscaped and well-lit gardens of Tum Nak Thai, I understood how they handled such a large operation. They basically had six identical restaurants and six satellite kitchens led by six managers, but with the same menu. What baffled me was how they were able to market the complex so successfully to ensure a full-house for every meal.

The tropical trees, flowers, water ponds and lighting in the gardens all enhanced the ambiance. Apart from the musicians and dancers we were well entertained also by the servers/runners. They moved at lightning speed while balancing heavy trays of food and beverage. They were on roller blades and used exclusive wooden corridors, making exciting sounds, as they acrobatically moved to our amazement.

PARIS

“Congratulations, Chandi! Le Meridien head office in Paris and the regional office for Asia in Singapore have approved my recommendation to send you to Institut International Meridien in France”, Mr. Jean Pierre Kaspar happily announced. It was soon after he had finished my second annual performance appraisal.

I knew that Le Meridien chose a dozen divisional heads from their hotels around the world for an advanced program at Le Institut, twice a year. It was called: ‘Séminaire de Meridien Management’. I also knew that chosen managers had the potential for promotion as General Managers in time to come. I was proud to be the first from Sri Lanka to be sent for that special hotel management, education program.

However, there was one thing that I did not know at that time: that Mr. Kaspar had spent something more than my total annual salary at Le Galadari Meridien, to educate me on the Le Meridien management concept in Paris and in Tours, where the main campus was located. After France, he had arranged for me to spend some time in London at Le Meridien Piccadilly, as a management observer. He did this by contacting a friend of his from France, who managed that hotel.

I arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1988, with great optimism. The 12 delegates were accommodated at the 1,000-room Le Meridien Montparnasse in

Air France established Le Meridien Hotels in 1972. The chain’s hotels initially offered accommodation mainly for Air France flight crews and passengers in their major airport hub cities around the world. The first Le Meridien property was a 1,000-room hotel in the heart of Paris, the Hotel Meridien Paris, today known as Le Méridien Etoile. Our welcome sessions with the President and senior Vice Presidents of the company were held at Le Méridien Etoile.

Born in Paris during an era of glamorous travel, Le Méridien Hotels & Resorts always celebrated cultures around the world through the distinctly European spirit of savouring the good life. Le Méridien’s engaging mid-century designed spaces coupled with chic signature programs putting a playful twist on art, coffee, sparkling cocktails, summer, family, and inspire creative-minded travellers to explore the world in style. I was happy to immerse myself in that unique hospitality culture.

LE MERIDIEN INSTITUT IN TOURS

After a couple of days in Paris we were taken by train to Tours. The beautiful colours of the falling leaves made that two-hour ride very pleasant. During the training program, we all lived at Le Meridien Tours which was a smaller regional hotel. We all became good friends and kept in touch for years after our training. As a university town, Tours was a good location for our management studies.

Once a Gallic-Roman settlement, Tours possesses one of the largest amphitheatres of the Roman Empire, the Tours Amphitheatre. Tours is also a traditional gateway for exploring the chateaux of the Loire Valley region. Major landmarks include the Cathédrale Saint-Gatien, whose flamboyant Gothic facade is flanked by towers with 12th-century bases and Renaissance tops. In 1988, the population of Tours was around 130,000.

I simply loved that program at Le Institut. It did not cover much about hotel operations, but the professors covered in depth, hotel finance, hospitality marketing, psychology and organizational behaviour. Our French professors were knowledgeable, friendly and one of them also liked to join us in pranks.

We enhanced our knowledge of French cuisine, wines, cheeses, service and culture during our daily, extra-curricular activities. Every evening we visited a different winery and a different gourmet French restaurant. Every weekend we did tourist things — going on tours and visiting chateaux. While gaining valuable knowledge, we also gained too many calories! When my wife saw me in London, after my training in France, she was surprised. “Chandi, you have put on at least ten pounds during your time in France!” she said.

LONDON

When I arrived at Le Meriden Piccadilly in London I was warmly welcomed by the General Manager — Michel Novatin. He then entrusted the hotel’s Director of Food and Beverage — Olivier Louis — to look after me and fully expose me to his division. “I have heard great things about you from my boss — Jean Pierre Kaspar,” I said to Olivier. His response was, “Ah, I am a fan of Jean Pierre! I worked under him in my hometown – Paris — when I commenced my career as an apprentice in a pastry kitchen. He was the Food & Beverage Manager and he promoted me to the Food and Beverage Controller.”

Olivier then invited me to attend a celebration: “Come with me to a very special event with all the managers in my division,” he said. Like many five-star London hotels in the 1980s, their food and beverage operation maintained very high standards and proudly ran an operation which added value and prestige to the overall hotel product. However, the profits were in rooms. Le Meriden Piccadilly Hotel’s fine-dining French Restaurant ‘Oak Room’ had earned a Michelin star, an honour unique to a hotel restaurant at that time.

The managers were celebrating making 1% departmental profits in the Food and Beverage division, for the first time. Having done in-depth research on the Food and Beverage operations of all 16 five-star London hotels in 1984 for my master’s degree dissertation at the University of Surrey, I was not surprised by their low level of profits.

After sharing some champagne with me, the Executive Chef, Maître d’hôtel/Restaurant Managers, Olivier asked: “How about your Food and Beverage operation in Sri Lanka? In the midst of a civil war, do you make any departmental profits at all?” When I said, ‘Yes”, he was surprised, and was quick to ask me: “What percentage?”

When I said “30%”, there was pin-drop silence. The next day after having checked the group statistics, Olivier congratulated me. “Chandi, in your absence from Colombo, your team has made a record 31% Food and Beverage departmental profits for the past month!” Then he shook my hand and said, “I think that instead of you shadowing me, I should shadow you, to learn from you about making good profits!” We both laughed.

Olivier Louis was friendly, hard-working, smart and ambitious. I knew at once that he would do very well as an international hotelier. In 1996, after a 24-year career with Le Meridien in several hotels around the globe as the General Manager, Olivier left the company after it was sold by Air France to the largest British hotel company – Forte PLC. He then settled in Dubai, UAE, working for Kerzener International Limited – a leading international developer and operator of destination resorts, ultra-luxury hotels and residences and innovative entertainment and gaming experiences.

Today, Olivier is the Managing Director of two ultra-luxury iconic resorts owned by the royal family of UAE – One&Only Royal Mirage and The Palm. In 2016, he won the prestigious ‘Best Hotelier’ award at the 17th Worldwide Hospitality Awards event. I gained a lot by spending time with this legendary hotelier, during his mid-career, in 1988.

BACK IN COLOMBO

I was happy to be back in Colombo. I was also eager to share all that I had learned at the Institut International Meridien, as well as at the four Le Meriden hotels in France and England, with members of my team. Soon after my return we were busy with Christmas and New Year’s Eve events. I delivered a series of seminars based on my new learning after the festive season in early 1989.

Prior to my departure to Europe, Mr. Kaspar asked me to be ready for a promotional transfer to a Le Meridien hotel in another country as an expatriate Director of Food and Beverage, within a year. After two years of not filling this post, we decided to fill the vacancy of my deputy with a succession plan. I asked: “What type of person do you want me to hire?” Mr. Kaspar said: “I want someone just like Chandi!”

Before my trip to France, I recommended someone who was much better than me – Lalit De Silva — as my deputy. Lalit was three years older than I and a year senior to me at Ceylon Hotel School. Unlike me, he had won many academic, excellence awards including a two-year scholarship to West Germany.

Lalit was equally fluent in French and German, and spent most of his career specializing in Food and Beverage operations. At Le Galadari Meridien, Lalit understudied me, with the understanding that he would succeed me within a year. He was supported by our Banquet Manager – Ananda Warakawa.

MORE ADVENTURES WITH LE MERIDIEN

In 1994, as part of a cost-cutting measure, Air France sold its controlling interest in Meridien Hotels Inc., to the UK-based Forte PLC (my employer at that time). The French government wishing to keep Le Meridien French-owned, favoured a bid by Accor Hotels. However, with some support from the European Union, Forte was eventually successful in taking over Le Meridien. Having realized that Le Meridien maintained very high standards, Forte upgraded a selected few Forte Grand hotels and re-branded those as Le Meridien.

After Air France, the ownership of Le Meridien moved hands to five different companies – Forte in UK in 1994, Granada in UK (after a hostile takeover) in 1996, Nomura in Japan in 2001, Starwood in USA in 2005, and Marriott in USA in 2016. All five owners of Le Meridien in the post Air France era from 1994 to 2023, maintained the unique French style of Le Meridien.

In 1997, I was appointed as the General Manager of Le Meridien Jamaica Pegasus, the largest business hotel and the premier five-star hotel in the Jamaican capital city – Kingston. This hotel was previously a Forte Grand hotel and I led the re-branding to Le Meridien. In that process, the training I received at Institut International Meridien in 1988 became a great asset. For the next four years I stayed at many Le Meridien hotels for different purposes.

Prior to re-opening Jamaica Pegasus as Le Meridien, I took most members of my management team to Le Meridien New Orleans, USA, for a week. There, each of us shadowed our counterparts. After working very hard during the re-branding period, I spent a memorable, one-week holiday with my elder son, Marlon, at Le Meridien Guadalupe in the French West Indies. That hotel was a charming resort and was very different from all other Le Meridien hotels that I had experienced.

In 1998, when Marlon and I went to Japan in search of our martial art connections (Marlon earned his Karate black belt when he was 15), we stayed at Le Meridien Tokyo, which was the most expensive Le Meridien I experienced. I stayed at the Famous Le Royal Meridien King Edward Hotel in Toronto, Canada, a couple of times, attending general manager’s regional meetings and shadowing the General Manager. I was identified to become the General Manager of that great hotel in 1999, but to my chagrin, that did not materialize.

As an occasional visitor to corporate office in London, I continued to stay at a few Le Meridien Hotels there – Piccadilly, Westbury, Waldorf, Heathrow and Gatwick. During corporate sales trips to USA, I loved staying at Watergate Le Meridien in Washington D.C. and Le Parker Meridien in New York.

In October 1998, Le Meridien considered me as the hotel opening General Manager for Kathmandu, Nepal. When that project was delayed, Le Meridien was surprised when I requested two years of sabbatical leave to complete my doctoral studies. After some negotiation, they approved the leave with one condition – I have to accept any post they would offer me after the two years.

During that two-year period, Le Meridien continued with complimentary accommodation for me at Le Meridien Hotels when I travelled to attend academic conferences etc. in Georgetown (Guyana), London, Dubai and Toronto. In return, my wife (who was also a hotelier for some time) and I did comprehensive quality assurance mystery shopper assignments for my general manager colleagues of Le Meridien hotels in Dubai and Toronto.

After my two-year sabbatical leave, Le Meridien offered me a choice of two excellent posts – General Manager of a 750-room Le Meridien Hotel by the Red Sea, Egypt, or Regional Training Director for South Asia. By then I had decided to continue in academia, and settle with my family in Canada. Therefore, I did not accept either of the offers. I reluctantly left my favourite international hotel company. After 23 years, I remain friends with a few of my former Le Meridien colleagues.

In a world of standard operational international hotels, with its unique style and class, Le Meridien holds a special place in the world of hospitality and hoteliering. Given the generous support in my career development, Le Meridien also holds a very special place in my heart. Merci beaucoup, Le Méridien, and Monsieur Jean Pierre Kaspar!



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Prospects for NPP/JVP at the next election

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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.

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75 Years: How a halcyon start became a horrible sorrow – A tale of two compacts and two economies

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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?

Broken Economy

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.

Broken Politics

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).

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Sri Lanka at 100

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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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