What went wrong?



Joining us today in conversation to know more about the recent history of Sri Lanka and how it has led us to the mess we are facing today, we contacted an expert on this subject, Kaushalya Abeywickrama, who is a journalist, author, and researcher on Political Communication. She is also a woman and child rights activist, a motivational speaker, and a life coach. She holds two post-graduate degrees in Mass Communication, and Conflict, Peace, and Development Studies.

Below is the conversation we had with her:

After 1960, many significant changes took place in Sri Lanka politically, socially, culturally as well as economically. When the British left us, we had a collapsed economic system. Sri Lanka also became an economic victim of the capitalist countries of Europe.

The new rulers of the newly established Ceylon were looking for new strategies to rebuild the fallen country. Many measures were taken by the local politicians; many failed and some succeeded.

Some of the economic policies of the 60s – 70s

In 1960, strict import restrictions were introduced for the first time in Sri Lanka due to the adverse trade account and the sharp decline in foreign assets. The focus was on increasing local products while controlling imports.

The garment industry and large and small scale industries were given priority during this period.

One of the notable economic policies during this period was the nationalisation of private sector assets. In 1962, insurance companies and the distribution of petroleum were nationalised.

A seamless economic policy was introduced with an export-oriented industrial policy, easing some of the strict controls imposed on foreign trade and exchange.

The Leader of the United National Party, Dudley Senananayake, was in power from 1965 to 1970. During his tenure, the focus was on providing more opportunities for local production and in 1967 the rupee was devalued and a dual exchange rate system was introduced. Also, action was taken to apply the price and market mechanism to production and distribution.

Another significant development that took place during this period was the focus on the development of local agriculture based on the global Green Revolution.

Under the Business Acquisition Act of 1971, 24 private enterprises were taken over by the Government.

The Government had the power to take over any private enterprise with more than 100 employees.

The Government also introduced a grant that provided financial assistance to estate owners with less than 20 acres to develop their property.

It was also during this period that the Minor Export Crop Assistance Scheme was introduced to diversify exports with the objective of providing low-interest rate loans and subsidies for minor export crops.

The State Gem Corporation was established in November 1971 to promote the gem industry and the gem export trade.

Officially Sri Lanka

The dawn of the 1970s, marked an important period in Sri Lanka’s history.

The Samagi Peramuna, founded by the wife of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, after his death, who came to power in 1970, in 1972 liberated Ceylon from British sovereignty and established true people’s sovereignty in the country. She is the world’s first woman Prime Minister and her time can be considered an era in which Sri Lanka’s economic, political and foreign policies gained international attention. In fact, many of her economic and foreign policies laid the paving stones toward an economically sustainable country, yet failed due to social and political issues in the country.

On 22 May, 1972, the Constitution of Sri Lanka was adopted by the Constitutional Council of Sri Lanka and the 1972 Republican Constitution marked the sovereignty of the country. According to the Constitution, the National State Assembly is the supreme body of the Republic. It activates the legislative power of the people. The executive power of the people, including the security of the country, is exercised by the President and the Cabinet, and in addition to its own powers and privileges which may be exercised by the National State Assembly in accordance with the law the National State Council also exercises the judicial power and law of the people through the judiciary or other institutions.

The President is the Head of Government, the Head of the Executive, and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed services. Accordingly, the Constitution states that Sri Lanka is a free, sovereign, independent republic as well as a sovereign unitary republic. The 1972 Constitution, which removed all obstacles to the 1947 Constitution, can be interpreted as a constitution that gave revolutionary features to an autonomous government and gave full independence to the country. In 1972, Buddhism was given prominence among the Sri Lankan religions.

Bridging the past and the present

It is not an easy task to summarise the complicated and long history of Ceylon and Sri Lanka. This is a mere attempt to take you on a brief journey to understand the recent history of the country. However, many interesting details are not included in this brief article series. Therefore, to know more, one can read books, journals, and newspaper articles written on Sri Lanka’s recent history.

We are coming to the end of our article series. So far we have understood that after independence and after becoming a republic, local leaders have made attempts to stabilise the country economically and socially, after the Portuguese, Dutch and the British left the island in a wretchedly exploited state. Especially, the massive agriculture work by the Senananayake father-son duo and agriculture and industrial developments of Sirimavo Bandaranayake would have surely sustained the country if it had not been interrupted. Party politics, class conflicts, and racism played a huge part in pushing the country toward the grim state it is in today.

During the Govijanapada projects by D.S. Senanayake, the dream of a federal Sri Lanka or a separate state of Eelam was demanded by Tamil politicians and interrupted the Govijanapada projects saying not to settle Sinhalese people in the North-East which had always been the homeland of the Sinhalese. Separatism grew and the Eelam dream grew bigger and bigger.

During the 1950s the State Language issue rose to create more and more rifts between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.

During the time of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, civil unrest broke and political stability was threatened. A few years later, the Liberation of Tamil Tigers for Eelam (LTTE) movement happened and Sri Lanka entered a doomed period of 30 years, forever dragging the country into a dark tempest.

We still wonder, if not for interruptions by separatists, rebels, riots, and the war, what would have been the fate of Sri Lanka? What went wrong with the economic policies introduced in Sri Lanka after 1948 and how did the Open Economic Policy create negative impacts? Why were successful social and cultural reforms not taken in Sri Lanka after the British left a nation with a lost and confused identity?

To be continued…

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy