The Right Way Forward

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Sri Lanka, 74 years after her independence from colonial rulers, is now experiencing the worst-case scenario politically, economically and strategically, after having been governed by chauvinistic, self-seeking and short-sighted ‘democratic’ people’s representatives and consequently transforming the prosperous ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean’ into a teardrop. Ceylon, the present Sri Lanka, was adjudged in the few decades after independence as the best democracy in the region, its standard and percentage of education also the best, the per capita income the highest in the region, and the rupee also the strongest.

Sri Lanka was so prosperous with rare gems available in Ratnapura, many minerals available in many parts of the country, the best climate with bountiful and non-failing harvests of paddy and other crops, many perennial rivers, never-ending fountains, and a hub of tea gardens producing the best tea in the world, the country was known as ‘land of the God of Wealth.’ Businessmen, traders and those engaged in other crafts and professions from other countries in the region sought Sri Lanka, lived here, and amassed their wealth to become affluent in their own motherlands.

Today, travelling to any part of the country what one sees with a heavy heart is miles-long queues of motorbikes, trishaws, vehicles ranging from small cars to large lorries and buses and men and women of all age groups waiting long hours, with frustration, fatigue and uncertainty in their eyes for getting the elusive fuel even at the very exorbitant and unimaginable high cost. There were shocking incidents of people collapsed dead while waiting in these long queues.

And occasionally one will see large gatherings or demonstrations of angry people demanding reduction in the fuel prices or protests and demonstrations insisting on the ‘Gota Go’ campaign and notices put up on walls and everywhere else on this demand. Police opening fire at protesters in Rambukkana who demanded reduction in fuel prices and the tragic death of a youth on the spot, followed by the deaths of two other critically injured people also drew angry protests from virtually all parts of the country with banners of condolence and protest banners put up everywhere.

Fast-unto-death protests are being waged by some persons, especially by Buddhist Monks, demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, together with the Rajapaksa clan in power to quit immediately, paving the way for an alternative group of Parliamentarians to take over the rule. These are repeatedly broadcast in news bulletins of all TV and radio channels. With the many-fold increase in the prices of essential food items, and the prevailing heavy demand on the mostly unavailable cooking gas, some people of the low-income group can be seen roaming streets or marketplaces to buy what they can such as young jackfruits, yams, or cheap vegetables to fill the starving tummies of their children and themselves. To worsen the situation, curfew was imposed repeatedly in several parts of the country, lately in Rambukkana in the Central Hills, to avert mass gatherings to protest against the Government.

Picketing by Buddhist Monks, Catholic Priests, Nuns and people were held in many parts of the country to protest and seek justice for the victims of the 21 April 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in three churches in the country. They demanded that the Government uncover the real conspirators behind the attacks.

Every sector affected

With months of lengthy blackouts, for want of fuel and also the drought that prevailed, virtually every sector is affected, be it the hospitality industry, service sector, manufacturing industry, the fisheries industry, businesses, the tea industry and also the academic sector. The Government had to spend large sums on preventing and controlling measures, including on vaccinations at many stages for the entire population, against the coronavirus pandemic that ravaged the country for about three years. Foreign reserves dwindled and the tourism sector was severely affected due to the pandemic. The country has to pay billions of dollars in foreign debt for infrastructure projects that are not making money.

The draconian Constitution that was formulated and introduced in August 1978 by the then President J.R. Jayewardene, giving the Executive President sweeping powers to the extent of dictatorial powers, appears to be the root cause of all the curse on Sri Lanka. In the hands of the politically hawkish, undisciplined, and uncultured Rajapaksa clan these powers have been misused to the maximum in all political, national, regional and international matters to accumulate wealth for the clan, to promote nepotism and corruption among family members, party members, without any far-sighted plans and approaches towards national welfare. Buddhist Monks on fast-unto-death protests have openly accused that the Rajapaksas accumulated millions and millions of ill-gotten dollars, concealed some of them in banks in Uganda, and purchased properties overseas, with a 40-storey building constructed in such a property in Australia. Former President and present Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is not known to have taken action against any family members or party members for corruption, malpractices, or even criminal activities.

From top to bottom, it was corruption all round and the executive powers of the President are beyond the jurisdiction of the Judiciary and the Legislature. The only way to remove the President is through impeachment with a two-thirds majority, which is absolutely impossible in this country, where even parliamentarians can be bought over with money, which has happened on many occasions in the past in similar other cases. With the introduction of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, they took away the little powers that were left with independent government institutions.

Nepotism and the creation of large circles of the family clan and giving them a free hand in accumulating wealth at the cost of deterioration of national wealth and economic stability probably has been the main contributor to the current “going round the world with the begging bowl situation,” political analysts say.

In fact, Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power with the mandate to abolish the Executive Presidency, but later deviated from that assurance for the benefit of his family clan. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa has handed over a proposal to abolish the presidential system, several other parliamentarians have suggested various other methods to overcome the crisis, including a request to President Gotabaya to quit. But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not budging and he has appointed a new Interim Cabinet. The four Mahanayake Theras of the Maha Sangha have written him a letter that if he did not heed to the request and proposals of the Maha Sangha, the Maha Sangha will be compelled to issue a Sangha Order on him which cannot be bypassed by anyone.

For the economic recovery or rather for the bailout from binding loans India is in the forefront of extending assistance on a substantial scale. China, the biggest creditor to Sri Lanka, has to cooperate and extend assistance, but so far an assurance on large-scale financial assistance has not been committed by China, although she has promised humanitarian assistance to the people of Sri Lanka which has not arrived. India, very recently extended a US$ 1 billion credit facility to Sri Lanka. The ‘short-term concessional loan facility’ is to be provided by the State Bank of India, under an agreement signed between the two Governments during the visit of former Sri Lankan Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister of India S. Jaishankar were present at the signing.

While Sri Lanka has drawn on Indian credit lines amounting to US$ 1 billion for essential imports, in addition to other lines for fuel imports, the Indian Finance Ministry made a representation to the IMF on behalf of Sri Lanka for the Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI). It was “a humanitarian measure to help the Sri Lankan people during a difficult time,” according to an Indian official statement. With this, Delhi has provided a total financial assistance of US$ 2.4 billion to Sri Lanka since January, but this will only partially help mitigate the country’s economic meltdown. It has also been reported that India has agreed to assist Sri Lanka in its negotiations with the IMF or a bailout.

During a meeting with Sri Lankan Finance Minister Ali Sabry in Washington, D.C., Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also affirmed that support will be offered to Sri Lanka with the IMF, to expedite an Extended Fund Facility (EFF). A stock of 40,000 MT of diesel from India under the Indian credit line has reached Sri Lanka yesterday and a total of close to 400,000 MT of various types of fuel have been delivered with Indian assistance in two months. India is to provide an additional US$ 500 million in financial assistance to Sri Lanka to purchase fuel.

India also offered support yet again by extending the duration of the US$ 400 million currency swap facility to help Sri Lanka ease the economic burden. India is willing to commit up to US$ 2 billion in financial assistance to Sri Lanka, while also supporting the Island Nation with food and fuel, according to latest reports. India’s unstinted and multifaceted support to Sri Lanka will be continued and, as the ongoing currency support, the Reserve Bank of India has extended the duration of the US$ 400 million currency swap for the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, which was concluded in January this year, the Indian High Commission in Colombo said. Along with India’s emergency financial assistance, Delhi has also conveyed to Colombo that Indian investments in renewable energy, ports, logistics, infrastructure and connectivity will help Sri Lanka build capacity “holistically,” rectifying its economy.

India to the rescue

India has come to the rescue at this difficult time, as she had done not only once, but on several occasions in the past, as the pages of the long history of neighbourly ties, brotherhood, and lineage bear witness. According to a latest report, 101 types of medicine and surgical items donated by India will reach Sri Lanka next Wednesday, while Rs 340 million worth of medicine donated by Indonesia will also be received within a week. The World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have also promised help in the coming days to get over the crisis to a certain extent, according to reports.

Whether or not the country will extricate itself from the current crisis in the coming months or years is a matter to be determined on the manner of response of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the ruling party and other stakeholders to the public outcry to quit and the consequent political moves in the right direction to abolish the presidential system which has placed powers on one single individual. The wrong decisions of the Executive Presidents of the past and the present certainly have led the country to the current helpless situation.

Starting from President Jayewardene’s refusal to impose a curfew immediately when the July 1983 violence broke out, President Premadasa’s decision to demand India to withdraw the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from Sri Lankan soil immediately and his clandestine support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), President Maithripala Sirisena’s inaction to avert the Easter Sunday bomb attack on churches and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to ban the import of chemical fertilisers and his procrastination in approaching the IMF for a bailout are standing examples. President Rajapaksa is now apologising to the people on these two issues like a small schoolboy after doing the worst damage to the country. Sri Lankan citizens believe, the democratic world, especially our closest neighbour India, will support in the recovery process if the parliamentary system of good governance is restored.

By Most Ven. Dr. Waskaduwe Mahindawansa Thera