Making Independence Meaningful

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Independence Day speech, made at the Independence Square in Colombo on Friday (4), revolved around three salient points. They were investments, human rights and “leading by example,” respectively. 

He further said a country’s freedom is most meaningful when it is strong in the social, political and economic spheres.

This, therefore, means that independence of a country from the dominion of a foreign power alone, like what Sri Lanka celebrated on Friday, is not true independence, unless buttressed by the three ingredients of also being strong socially, politically and economically independent as well.

However, currently, Sri Lanka’s economy is weak, exemplified by a US dollar shortage besetting the island, a phenomenon last seen 45 years ago and spanning over a seven-year period from 1970-77, replete with shortages of essentials, queues, rationing, a black market, bribery and corruption, not dissimilar to now, thereby threatening the country’s stability itself.

The cause then was a closed economy; the cause now, fiscal profligacy made worse by shortsighted investment policies, beginning with a regime change that took place on 17 November 2005.

Rajapaksa in this context said, “Investment is an essential factor in the development process of our country. Foreign investment is especially important for large-scale projects, industries requiring modern technological knowhow and new ventures that open up global market opportunities for us. People need to be more vigilant of those who attempt to propagate incorrect public opinion against foreign investments, based on political motives.”

In this connection, The Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s latest data showed that foreign direct investments (FDI), including foreign loans taken by such enterprises in the first nine months of last year, year on year (YoY) increased by  an infinitesimal 4.42 per cent (US$ 24 million) to US$ 567 million, just a drop in the ocean compared to Sri Lanka’s external needs and commitments, such as having to meet an annual import bill of US$ 20 billion currently, and foreign debt servicing commitments of a minimum of US$ 4 billion annually, in the backdrop of merchandise export receipts of a mere US$ 12 billion annually. 

The crux of the matter is low investor confidence in Sri Lanka’s political economy, reflected by parsimonious FDI inflows, which needs to be urgently addressed if Sri Lanka is to overcome its present economic and political morass.

Some of the causes for this were the Rajapaksa Government itself. Those included pussyfooting in accepting a US$ 480 million US grant to develop the country’s road system leading to its cancellation in 2020, ie a year after Rajapaksa was elected to power and rejecting a US$ 1,500 million soft loan from the Japanese Government at a low interest rate of 0.1 per cent and repayable over 40 years with a 12-year grace period to develop Colombo’s transport infrastructure. This is no way to strengthen investor confidence. 

Therefore, Rajapaksa’s Independence Day statement, “People need to be more vigilant of those who attempt to propagate incorrect public opinion against foreign investments based on political motives,” is more applicable to himself and to his Government, rather than the masses or to anyone else per se.

President Rajapaksa has to first set his own house in order before pointing his finger at others.

Other salient points in President Rajapaksa’s Independence Day speech were, “I ask all ministers, MPs and other politicos to act in an exemplary manner for the country at all times, If you set this example to the people, then the majority of the people will follow you.

We are a nation that safeguards the rule of law and respects international conventions. Although some parties have attempted to make various allegations against Sri Lanka for narrow motives, the government has not condoned any type of human rights violations, and will not leave room for such incidents in the future either.”

In the recent past we saw a number of State Ministers acting with impunity, where one even entered not one but two secure prison complexes in the country, allegedly intoxicated and brandishing weapons, threatening prison staff as well as prisoners. In one instance, the State Minister had allegedly made several persons detained under the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) kneel before him, and put his gun to their heads, and threatened to shoot them. This appalling incident brought much international disrepute to the country. 

The only repercussion the State Minister received up to date is losing his State Minister portfolio. The people are yet to learn the outcome of the investigation into the incident. 

A few days ago, another State Minister resigned from his portfolio, as his son was remanded in connection with a clash inside a university hostel. According to eye witnesses, one of the vehicles involved in the attack belonged to the Coconut Development Authority, an institution that came under the Minister’s purview. What will become of the investigation into the incident, or the misuse of public property, or even the Minister’s resignation, only time will tell!