How’s a Hartal a Solution to an Economic Meltdown? 

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Sri Lanka is in the initial stages of an economic meltdown. Perhaps those who lived through the ‘70s may contradict but to most of us this is the worst economic crisis we had so far experienced. It is most unfortunate though that this economic crisis has been turned into a political crisis. 

Instead of uniting to resolve the growing crisis, the country is fracturing. The mischievous and the opportunists are taking maximum advantage of the crisis. The protests began by calling the Government to redress the growing shortages in essentials as fuel, gas, electricity, medicines and imported food items as milk powder. Since then, different factions have started making different demands. 

Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith was the first to join the protest rallies with an agenda of his own. He was agitating justice for the Easter Attack victims. Today we see groups with the Eelam flag, calling for the immediate release of imprisoned terrorists – both LTTE and Islam extremists – and advocates of LGBT rights. The reason for protesting has gone astray and now hopelessly lost. 

Protesters are not the voice of the nation

Hence, it is indeed a matter of grave concern that the ongoing protests, which are completing a month, are interpreted as the voice of the people. Even in the past, such absurd interpretations were made on many an occasion.  

When the LTTE terrorised the country, those who explicitly and implicitly supported the terrorists, ridiculously asserted that the LTTE was the Tamil’s sole representative. The stark truth remains that it was the Tamils who suffered more than any other community at the hands of the LTTE. The LTTE infiltrated every aspect of their ordinary life. As such, they extorted from the Tamils a portion of their earnings as well as remittances received from relatives abroad. Their failure to pay led to gruesome consequences.The worst challenge the Tamil’s had was preventing their children from been forcibly conscripted by the LTTE. A UNICEF survey in 2005, disclosed that the LTTE were holding over 5,000 minors as combatants. The exact number of children conscripted by the LTTE and their fate remains a mystery to date.

Another absurd instance when the loudest group was considered the legitimate voice of the people,  was when former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya ruled on a vote of confidence based on what he thought was from the ‘loudest’ group. He did not follow the traditional voting systems adapted in the Parliament. He merely claimed that he heard the loudest shout from the UNP and therefore they win the vote. 

Likewise, the current attempt to portray the protesters as the voice of the entire Nation is absurd. Only a proper vote or Election can prove that the protesters are indeed the voice of the Nation. Furthermore, such an Election automatically selects the replacement if the incumbent Government loses the mandate to rule the country. To try and send a sitting Government home without a replacement is either insane or foolish. 

It is noteworthy that political opinion by nature is volatile and rarely uniform. Even among the ardent Government critiques there are those who severely disagree with the protesters. Different people have different priorities, which dictate the solutions they envision. 

Hartal not a smart move

The hartal that took place on 06 May simply fed the frustrations of the people. Economically, we are not at a juncture where we can afford a hartal. Instead of grinding all economic activities to a halt, this is the time for us to aim for over production. For the past two years businesses struggled to stay afloat amidst three almost back-to-back lockdowns. We emerged from the lockdowns after successfully defeating the pandemic only to find ourselves without forex to import essentials or raw materials. 

Even though the Government facilitated businesses with moratoriums on loans from banking and finance companies from the onset of the pandemic and extended the moratorium periods several times, most businesses barely made it. Therefore, the lack of raw materials to get production back on track is having a crippling effect on the manufacturing sector. 

Organised attempt to keep us from solutions 

The political instability that has since taken centre stage has added to the entrepreneurs’ woes. The various demands made by different political factions from interim Government to the resignation of all parliamentarians including the president are not constructive. These are mere distractions from the crises root causes. Protests of identical nature simultaneously erupting across the country strongly indicate that a more organised central force is at play. 

A case in point was the manner protesters laid siege on fuel stations. The Rambukkana incident clearly highlighted the effort taken to drag the issue, without allowing it to be resolved. 

Our attention is effectively being shoved from one protest drama to the next. This takes our focus away from the economic solutions we must urgently strive to solve. As Finance Minister Ali Sabri noted in a special statement in Parliament last week, that among other issues, one of the main causes for the economic blackout is our penchant to spend beyond our means. 

Politicians have not been doing this on the sly, as protesters are led to believe. He observed that “successive governments without proper checks or balances spent more than what the  government earned “with the approval of this august assembly, as the responsibility for public finances comes under the Parliament according to our constitution.” 

Anura Kumara Dissanayaka’s pulling out files of other politicians’ supposed corruption is simply another distraction from this home truth. It is noteworthy the silence maintained in this regard by all government critiques, including the Opposition. Politicians and protesters have plenty to fault the Government over its action, inaction and policies, but almost zero viable solutions or alternatives. 

Instead of putting our heads together to find ways to adjust our lifestyles to live within our means, the trade unions participated in a hartal. Because of this the economic damage to the Katunayake FTZ that day was USD 45 million. If nothing else, this should tell us how far we are moving away from the solution. 

Signs of another violent era in the making

The ‘88-‘89 era of JVP violence was not in the too distant past. Thus, the pressure exerted on the businesses and public transport to join the hartal certainly tugs a beat in our memory. The Government appears intimidated by the protesters. What the Government describes as creative is simply hooliganism. Earlier last week, a woman protester held a placard with an obscene sign drawn on it. This is not witty, but crude. Two days later, protesters hung their undergarments on the barricades. This is not bravado but shamelessness. This kind of behaviour goes completely against the grain of our culture. 

As we are currently under the IMF’s and World Bank’s microscope, the Government may want to be seen as respecting democratic space. However, if this growing brazenness is not arrested soon and law and order restored, the dollar shortage or international opinion might not be our biggest concerns. 

This is the month of May. Thirteen years ago we were so proud to have eradicated terrorism from our soil. It is the Government’s as well as our responsibility to ensure that another violent era does not erupt. This is the best salute to our fallen heroes, heroes who lost their limbs, heroes who sacrificed their youth and heroes who stood up to terrorists by refusing to be expelled from their homes. 

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By Shivanthi Ranasinghe