HUMBLE UK & GREAT SL

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Thus far, this year has been extraordinary. Ranil Wickremesinghe became the Executive President of Sri Lanka. Prince Charles who was the longest-serving heir apparent in British history became the King of England. The Heads of the Sri Lankan and British Governments, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Boris Johnson resigned from position under duress over their poor management of finances. 

Perhaps, the only difference here is that President Gotabaya continued to do everything in his power to restore the supply chains until he signed his resignation letter. Prime Minister Johnson decided to holiday in Greece first before clearing his desk. 

The new Heads of Government of both countries were chosen, one by his country’s Parliament and the other by her party membership, but not by the people. Elections for either country is not in sight for at least another 18 months. 

Both countries are experiencing inflation at phenomenal rates. Sri Lanka, that became recognised as a middle -income country is now a self -declared bankrupt State. UK, that enjoyed the world’s fifth robust economy, is now described as an “emerging market economy”. Who ever thought that Sri Lanka and Great Britain would ever get painted using the same brush? 

All this before the year completed its halfway point… and we still got a few more months before seeing the end of this year. 

The virtue of persistence 

When the year began Ranil Wickremesinghe was hanging onto his political career by a straw. At the beginning of the year, the very suggestion that he could finally become the Sri Lanka’s President was laughable. 

Morally, he should not have even been in Parliament. At the last general election, held in August 2020, Wickremesinghe lost ignominiously. He took the reins of Sri Lanka’s oldest political party, the United National Party in 1994. Since then the party’s credibility had been deteriorating. At the last elections, UNP could not secure a single seat in Parliament and barely managed to scrape together enough votes to qualify for their one and only national list slot. 

Wickremesinghe certainly proved that when you hit rock bottom, the only way possible is up. As a lone MP he made more of a roar as the Opposition than the Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa with his 54 MPs. Whilst Premadasa takes his role literally, opposing everything the government says and does, Wickremesinghe showed immense political maturity and courage. 

Failure is said to be the best teacher and it appears that Wickremesinghe has been one of failure’s best students. As the son of a wealthy, prominent, political families and the nephew of President JR Jayawardena, the political ground for Wickremesinghe was already made. Nepotism may have landed him the job but it was through his own efforts that he won the business community’s confidence, especially during the Ranasinghe Premadasa government. 

Projects such as the Biyagama Special Economic Zone, that Wickremesinghe initiated, have proven to be a major player in earning forex to the country to this day. A series of tragedies engineered by the LTTE expedited his political career as UNP’s virile, stalwart leaders were assassinated in quick succession. 

One could say that it was during this time he ‘fell’ into bad company as in anti-national ideologists. As he became increasingly convinced of neoliberal policies and pro-western, he lost his credibility as a national leader. He contested for presidency against Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa and lost both times. 

However, it was not these defeats per se that disqualified Wickremesinghe from the presidential race thereafter, but his anti-war and anti-national stance. The LTTE, by forbidding the North and East from voting played a decisive role in defeating Wickremesinghe in 2005. Yet, he was opposed to the military intervention to finally end terrorism. After the war against terrorism was won, his own party could not support his candidacy, even though he was willing to face another election. 

Thereafter, the UNP was thus forced to support the ‘common’ candidates in the Regime Change agenda of the West. Hence, in the 2010 election the UNP had to support the Commander of the Army General Sarath Fonseka, who they had ridiculed less than a year before as he led his army to victory over terrorism. Ironically, it was this victory (unexpected by many quarters) that discredited the UNP.  

In 2015, he managed to turn events to his advantage by supporting another ‘common candidate’. During this tenure as the premier of the Yahapalana Government, Wickremesinghe lost the little credibility he had over the Central Bank bond scams. 

As Sri Lanka’s Executive President, Wickremesinghe is proving himself as a politician who will not brook any nonsense. Within days he restored order in the country. Likewise, he corrected those diplomats who are engaged in an undiplomatic mission to discredit Sri Lanka. 

With these actions, he had changed the public perception of him. Some analysts believe that if President Wickremesinghe continues along this line, he may have a shot at being elected by the people to be Sri Lanka’s next president. 

Great Britain losing its greatness

Sri Lanka is not the only country to find herself with empty pockets. Britain’s energy bills are expected to double in the next few months and then triple by next year. Rising energy costs is not unique to UK. However, due to the  current soaring cost of living in UK many fear that hardworking families would no longer be able to afford even basics as food. Contentiously, profits of corporates such as BP have tripled because of the rising energy bills. 

Inflation at record percentages not witnessed in the last 40 years and unbearable costs have seen anti-government agitation from the public. Essential services as public transport, sanitation and healthcare and those which are crucial to the UK’s supply chain are resorting to trade union action. 

The lockdowns during the pandemic are not helping the situation. It was the aviation industry that was hit the hardest as everyone closed their borders. UK dealt with the situation by contracting its aviation workforce. Today, the UK airports are without sufficient staff to ensure the smooth functioning of its business processes. This has led to severe congestion, which translates to huge costs. 

Both the British and Sri Lankan Governments are challenged to bring relief to the people. Each on the surface are pursuing different paths, but in actuality the effective strategy would be more or less the same. 

While Sri Lanka is working with the IMF and its bailout package, the new British Premier Elizabeth Truss is keen not to “send the wrong message” to foreign investors. As such, she refuses to tax energy companies; nor does she believe in handouts. 

This has already earned her the opprobrium of allowing her government to be run by corporates, who are earning profits at the expense of people’s survival. Furthermore, she wants to eunuch trade unions and reduce red tape dictated by EU law, especially those focusing on consumer rights and the environment’s protection. She also wants to ensure Brexit and even see out of the European Courts of Human Rights. 

Her priorities are clear. She will do what it takes to strengthen Britain’s wobbling economy – even if it freezes few Brits to death this coming winter. It is this kind of hard hearted approach the IMF would like Sri Lanka to follow. Sri Lanka did not have the stomach for such policies in the past 16 attempts. Whether the 17th attempt would be different remains to be seen. 

Sri Lanka’s small donation to UK’s wobbling economy

President Wickremesinghe’s decision to attend Queen Elizabeth’s funeral has annoyed many Sri Lankans. For one thing, UK’s historic relations vis-a-vis
Sri Lanka is not great. Sri Lanka’s current economic woes roots back to the systematic dismantling of Sri Lanka’s political and economic orders by the British. 

Britain continues to be belligerent towards Sri Lanka, leading in the attempts at the UNHRC to pin down Sri Lanka on war crimes. Sri Lankan sentiments cannot improve when these allegations are refuted by Britain’s own records. 

The other point of contention is that Sri Lanka is without sufficient forex. This has led to supply chain disruptions, anarchy, change of government and violence. At a moment when the economy is contracting to almost the point of collapse, the President’s decision to attend this funeral was a very poor one. President and his entourage’s travel and accommodation expenses would have to be met in sterling pounds and not
Sri Lankan rupees. 

This act is not about commiserating the loss of another nation. It is Sri Lanka continuing to kowtow to an aggressor who is bent on destroying us. Our only point of comfort is that despite our own dire finances, we in our own way continue to contribute to UK’s economy. 

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(The views and opinions expressed in this column are writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ceylon Today)

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe