1 October, 2020

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A Bomb With Its Wick Lit By Greed

By Suren Sumithrarachchi

Dr Suren Sumithrarachchi

This paper presents a glimpse of how all aspects of Sri Lankan society have been engulfed by politicisation since independence, and how the quality of public life has eroded as a result. Politicisation is a manifestation of a political culture during the tenure of a particular ideological group (Elkins and Simeon, 1979 [1]), and leaves a lasting effect on the society. It is reflected in acts of political interference, pressure and patronage, and in actions of politicians and their henchmen, to further their political interests. However, in the Sri Lankan context, it is not one political group, but politicains of all hues that have resorted to politicisation. It has woven itself as a web, so intricate and wide, that it has the average citizen captured within its boundaries in an inescapable knot, to the extent that the average citizen has no life outside it. They are wrapped around by the patronage based web which is part of the politicisation, and are forced to seek the support of politicians for their mere survival, allowing the politicians to manipulate them at will, for their own gain. With the political environment in Sri Lanka being the preserve of two political groups, the politicised web is divided in to two clearly identifiable units, where the patrons look after their fold when in power, and political power is shared by the two groups alternately.

Politicisation in Sri Lanka is a product of the early post-independent political culture, which the ruling politicians used to ward off the growing influence of the Marxists groups. However, the contemporary wave is a direct result of the patronage based system introduced through of the Presidential system of government, enacted through the 1978 constitution. Since its enactment in 1978, the ruling groups infiltrated every aspect of public life with a patronage based culture. Successive government outdid their predecessors and with every new government a new wave of politicisation of a new high, arose. Progressively, this patronage based system got so entrenched that its influence began to mar the decisions of the ruling groups. This resulted in blinding rulers to other options and possibilities, which is characteristic to politicisation, leading to many sub-optimal decisions and inappropriate actions that affected the country. The country is poorer as a result and faces the danger of social upheaval resulting from mass frustration.

What happened in 1978 was that one of the contesting political parties received a landslide majority at the election in 1977. This brought about two opportunities for the newly emerged rulers. One was to change the constitution and vent their inherent desire to rule with an iron hand, and the other to disregard law and order and act with impunity to show their political might. While the paper work for a constitutional amendment was underway, the political henchmen of the ruling group began to assert themselves by exercising their political might, acting high-handedly in public. The first casualty was discipline. The public who were accustomed to stand in queues at bus stops and board busses in an orderly manner, began to converge at the entrances to busses and force themselves in, pushing out the weak and the elderly. This was clearly not by necessity, but was an expression of might, instigated by henchmen of the ruling party. Any opposition from those accustomed to law and order was dealt with violence and manhandling, leading to the culture of perpetrating violence on the public. This led to the public being segmented as the strong and weak. The strong represented the supporters of the ruling party and the weak, the law abiding public of the country, and included those of opposing parties who were at the time, unaccustomed to this form of behaviour. With time the strong became the majority and the weak the minority.

The constitution was amended and the Prime Minister became the President, creating a powerless position of Prime Minister. The constitution was drafted to allow the President unlimited power. He was also made above the law. He began to act in a high handed manner by obtaining the resignations of all parliamentarians. Opposition of any nature was disregarded, in fact crushed with impunity. The Chief Justice who stood up against the President was ousted. Homes of Judges whose judgements were unfavourable to the government in office were stoned. Respected academics who wrote or spoke about the unfavourable happenings in the country were brutally manhandled. After the initial term expired, a referendum was conducted to extend the life of parliament. The greed for power became explicit.

The economy of the country was upended by opening it out to imports. The existing industries were unable to compete with low priced imports from China. Progressively, the smaller industries, and later the bigger ones, began to wind down. With the closure of the local industries, employees were out of work, creating a new group of the poor, and progressively the money circulating with the masses began to shift to the hands of the importers, effectively from the masses to individuals. Importers began to indulge in unethical practices to enhance their profits. Soon, the practice of under-valuing imports got under way, leading to corruption and bribery at many levels in the administrative machinery. With bribery and corruption getting entrenched, only unscrupulous businessmen could do business. Those in legitimate business had to wind down due to enforced uncompetitiveness. The favourable income distribution which Sri Lanka enjoyed up to the end of 1977, began to widen, creating haves and have-nots. The rich began to get richer and the poor began to get poorer.

The government also embarked on a project to expedite the diversion of the Mahaveli river in order to create an agriculture based economy through irrigating the arable lands of the north-central province. This expedited Mahaveli diversion project was given unlimited freedom and bi-passing rules and regulations for the project activities became inevitable. Unlike large projects such as the Inginiyagala Reservoir and Senanayake Samudraya, which were handled by leading civil servants who accounted for every cent spent, the Mahaveli project was handled directly by the minister in charge, where accountability for expenditure faded into the background. While the project was completed at a faster pace, the damage to the ecology was never measured, and forest cover figures before and after never came in to the reckoning. Also how key people aggrandised themselves through the sale of the trees felled during the project never reached the public domain. Greed became the fundamental ethos of the rulers. 

Having set up a government based on disorder, political thuggery, hooliganism, disregard for the law and order, impunity, corruption and bribery, the rule changed hands, opening the doors for a new breed of politicians. The new leaders came to office criticising the Presidential system and the corruption it has led to, and swearing to abolish it. Within a short time, they outdid their predecessors, and the patronage based system continued unabated. The only difference was that the beneficiaries were different. They began to import luxury motor vehicles for themselves through a system of duty free vehicle permits, and invested in houses at high end localities. Another gimmick they were into was to dispose of state assets to the private sector. Some of these were disposed at ridiculously low prices, and often on patronage to friends and personal contacts. Most of the deals went through unquestioned, but one deal that was critically investigated was the sale of a prime plot of land in Battaramulla. This land was sold for a song to a property developer, who later turned out to be a political stooge, to build a golf course. 

The greed with which politicians pursued their agenda blinded them to the lot of the masses. The luxurious lives they led were diametrically opposite to what the masses had to do with. Some families still lived in wattle-and-daub houses with cow dung rendered floors[2], and not being able to feed their children or send them to school. Some village level schools did not have toilet facilities and no proper teachers in them, leading to a high drop-out rate of students, before they got close the GCE (OL)[3]. The greed continued and the rich got richer, while the poor, poorer. 

As stated earlier, successive government outdid their predecessors and the new government of 2005, went to extents unimaginable. Prime city property was acquired and the machinery to legalise them was put in place. Values of city property began to skyrocket as a result. Corruption became rampant to the extent that nothing could get done without a hand-out. Patronage reached its all-time high. Public servants were forced to cow down to politicians and sometimes even to their stooges. The few who stood up to them were dealt with hard blows. Some of the deals that took place were beyond the comprehension of the people. Only a few of them became known in the public domain and out of them, only a handful were challenged. Even in such cases, the rulings of the courts were disregarded. Public funds collected during national disasters were pilfered. Some members of the judiciary who heard these cases opted to support the political leaders and dismissed cases brought up against such misdemeanours. It was a case of “might is right” and “greed over-ruling sanity”. Progressively, the ultra-rich class grew.

After the war ended, the political leaders who had by then tasted power, revised the constitution to remain in power. A lifelong tenure in office, with power to act at will, and no questions asked was the dream of these leaders. Political opponents were hounded out and jailed on frivolous charges. The mishandling of the economy continued with political stooges investing in dead assets. They even used state funds such as the Employees’ Provident Fund to gamble with, to make money. These were never issues to the public who by then had been brainwashed to believe that the country was in good hands, through an aggressive propaganda machine. Even welfare measures such as the Janasaviya programme were designed to leak funds for politically motivated ventures.  High handedness on the part of the rulers reached an all-time high when they impeached the Chief Justice for refusing to support such schemes. Through all these, it was the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, with the plight of the poor being glossed over, and the rulers roaming the world at the expense of the tax payer.

A new government came into office in 2015, piggy-backing on the claims of misdemeanour of their predecessors, but within the first two months of their rule, were accused of robbing the Central Bank, as if confirming the Sinhala folk saying, Jammeta Vada Purudda Lokuyi ( Old habits dye hard). This was a case of a bond issue at the Central Bank, done without due transparency, leading to a private company having the opportunity to cash in. Though not proved yet, there is speculation that ministers of the government were beneficiaries in this deal, and it was patronage once again. However, to their credit, they brought about two significant pieces of legislation, the Nineteenth amendment to the constitution which removed the excessive powers of the President and the Right to Information bill, enabling the public the right to request information, hitherto denied to them. However, the government failed to deliver on their promises, and went on record as the worst and most inefficient government in the history of post-independent Sri Lanka. 

The President painted a sorry picture of a man who was completely out of depth in his job, and as Peter Drucker said, “Promoted to the level of incompetence”. He often went on record that he was not aware of the decisions of the Cabinet of ministers, of which he was the Chairman, and claimed that he got to know about them from the morning daily. He also had no clue about the constitution and went on to appoint an illegitimate Prime minister, and also dissolve parliament illegally, but his actions were deemed illegal, thanks to the independence of the judiciary, created after the passage of the Nineteenth amendment. However, he too was as greedy as all his predecessors, if not more, and established himself with all luxuries. Also his family’s greed was fully satisfied during his tenure. Having made a joke of himself at the expense of the tax payer, he finally stepped down, possibly not on his own will, but having been told not to make an ass of himself. 

A new President has been elected, who has to work with a minority government in parliament until the next election, due after mid-August. The minority status of his government has caused some constraints to the administration. The President dissolved parliament prematurely in the belief that he can get a majority at the next election and free himself from the constraints. He even set the dates for the next elections and had the nominations completed as per the election laws. Even though this decision was in line with his political aspirations, the timing was bad as it coincided with the onset of the corona pandemic. The fact that the corona virus had reached pandemic levels in several parts of the world was known at the time the decision to dissolve parliament was made, and gave the President the necessary evidence to make the correct decision. It appears that the decision was coloured by political persuasions, and this is clear from the speeches of his loyalists in the public domain. Once again it appears their greed to achieve goals supersedes the interests of the masses. The election has been postponed and the announcement of the next date for the election is pending in view of the uncertainty of the manner in which the corona virus is behaving. It is hoped that the authorities will act sanely without having their decision coloured by their political persuasions, and postpone the elections until the threat of the virus diminishes, so the public will have the confidence to move about freely. This will also allow the candidates to carry out their election related activities freely. However, based on media reports, it appears that the government is keen to have the election and are forcing the Election Commissioner to commit to a date. 

The corona virus has not only caused a health issue for the country. It has caused a social issue and also affects the economy. The main social issue arises from the effect the lock-down has on the daily wage earner and the self-employed, who comprise a large segment of the working population in the country. Whatever they had in their homes in terms of provisions and whatever they were able to purchase with the money they had, would be over by now. This means that a fair segment of the population will be forced to forego meals or settle for sub-optimal meals. I believe that they will bear it as long as they can feed their children, but if that too becomes an issue, then the country has a problem on its hands. 

The state is obliged to stand in at times such as this and avert a crisis. The state has also received sufficient grants to meet these commitments. The issue is not in the finances or the availability of the goods, it is in the disbursement of the relief packages. Having a well-structured organisation at district level comprising the Government Agent, the Divisional Secretaries and the Grama Sevakas, the ideal mechanism would have been to have them distribute the packages. With the superior knowledge of the Grama Sevaka of the people in his/ her division, the chances of the relief reaching the correct person is high. Unfortunately, greed has taken over even at this juncture, and this responsibility has been entrusted to the political representatives of the areas. With an election being called, they are now political aspirants and would do anything to collect extra votes. Hence they cannot be entrusted with the task of distributing such relief packages fairly. Political patronage would take precedence over fairness or justice, creating a group of people who would not receive the relief. It seems the government is insensitive and want to use even the relief granted to the public at a time like this, to their political advantage. This constitutes an advantage that is afforded only to the ruling party political aspirants, and thereby constitutes a violation of the election law. This has been emphasised by the Commissioner of Elections but can the political leadership be trusted not to do so?

The other aspect is the impact of the corona virus on the economy. As we all know, only six districts are affected by the virus. Therefore, while locking down those districts to prevent the spread of the decease to the others, it is necessary to harness the resources of the other districts towards resuscitating the economy. Therefore, the same institution of the state should be harnessed for it. If they are districts where agriculture is predominant, then all resources for agriculture must be provided to them. If they are districts where fishery is predominant, then all support must be given towards encouraging fisheries. This would also mean the maintenance of the channels for the producers to sell their wares. What has happened is that such channels do not exist. Even the cannels that existed, such as the economic centres of Bandarawela and Dambulla have been closed down, and political elements have been allowed to go direct to the farmer and purchase their produce, and the farmers are forced to give away their produce at rock bottom prices. Such exploitation of the farmer is a sure way of discouraging him, in fact destroying the farmer, which means that he will not pursue his activities, leaving no vegetables or fruits to purchase after the virus is over. This is once again greed superseding the public interest. 

The country has suffered continuously due to politicians mishandling of the economy as well as social issues, as described earlier on in this article. As of now, the economy is so unjustly skewed against the poor, with the rich 20% of the population enjoying 50.8% of the national wealth, the middle class which comprises 60% of the population enjoying 44.6%, and the 20% poor left with only 4.6%. I personally thought the corona virus would serve as a blessing in disguise to sort the social evils of politicisation. However, it seems that the greed that has overcome the breed called politicians will never leave them, corona or not, and the country is doomed for disaster. My fear as a free citizen is that the injustice that the masses have been forced to suffer silently will push them to rise against it. If that were to be the case, it will result in more suffering for the masses, while the politician will continue to be insulated from all hardships as evident even at this time of crisis. 

This article may have nothing new for the older generation who have experienced the politicisation all their lives, but the purpose is to remind ourselves of the damage it has done. The article also targets the younger generation to whom this information may be new. The paper concludes by highlighting the imminent danger the country faces if the current wave of politicisation is allowed to continue.

[1] Elkins, D. J. and Simeon, R. E. B. (1979), A cause in search of its effect, or what does political culture explain? , Comparative politics, Vol. 11, No. 2, 127 – 145

[2] 4.5% of houses- Economic and social statistics of Sri Lanka, 2019, Central Bank of Sri Lanka

[3] 68%-Economic and social statistics of Sri Lanka, 2019, Central Bank of Sri Lanka

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Latest comments

  • 0
    0

    a good analysis but i cant see a light at the end of the tunnel as the present situ will continue

  • 0
    0

    Suren, you are one of those who keeps desperately trying, to put some sense into the thick skulls of Lankans, who behave like pavlov,s conditioned dogs. But as Nalmen mentioned we have already passed the point of no return . In current analogy it is like being hit by pandemics one after another for past several decades, no respite to recover, sadly now on death bed and yet expecting more to come.

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