By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“…the Greeks never said that the limit could not be overstepped. They said it existed and that whoever dared to exceed it was mercilessly struck down. Nothing in present history can contradict them.” – Camus (Helen’s Exile)
The Commonwealth was the last sigh of the British Raj, the consolation price the British awarded themselves when they were forced to abandon their global political holdings.
This embodiment of imperial nostalgia never had much relevance on the international stage. The British need the Commonwealth for political and psychological reasons. It is the most tangible heirloom from their ‘glorious past’; it is also a façade which helps them to forget their rather reduced global status as a smallish island on the outskirts of a growing Europe.
Britain’s former colonies remain in the Commonwealth not because the organisation confers any material advantages or international prestige but because its membership is not burdened by real obligations. There may be a lot of talk about new Commonwealth values and Latimer House principles. However laudable these may be, they are largely unenforceable. The British have no way of ensuring that the Commonwealth member countries play by these rules. The former global hegemon is not rich enough to offer sufficiently generous blandishments nor powerful enough to wield a sufficiently punitive stick.
The desperation with which the Rajapaksas of Sri Lanka yearn to host this internationally irrelevant construct cannot but be somewhat flattering to the British. Nobody really makes that sort of a fuss about the Commonwealth anymore. Usually the Commonwealth and its gatherings excite very little global interest. It is thanks to the Rajapaksas’ execrable reputation the Commonwealth is enjoying an unprecedented albeit ephemeral topicality these days.
Imagine the excitement of a feudal-minded peasant of the middle ages at the impending visit of his liege-lord – that is how the Rajapaksas are behaving vis-a-vis the Commonwealth Summit. Colombo is being turned upside down; pavements are uprooted, roads re-done, walls painted, trees root-planted, homeless people and homeless dogs evicted and fountains constructed in a desperate effort to create a façade of wealth and prosperity totally at variance with our everyday reality. Even the ‘Temple Trees’ is getting a makeover with its front perimeter transformed into a vertical garden/green wall.
The Rajapaksas might be on the way to becoming Chinese stooges but their heart belongs to the White-West in general and Britain in particular. If the British (and the Americans) are willing to cut the Siblings the same slack they did for other notable human rights violators (such as Augusto Pinochet), the Rajapaksas will be perfectly happy to ensconce themselves in Western arms. The embarrassing eagerness they are displaying vis-à-vis the Commonwealth is only the latest indication of the Rajapaksa desire to gain the favour of London and Washington.
The Colombo Commonwealth is not about bringing honour and glory to Sri Lanka. It is about giving the Rajapaksas the impression that they too are global somebodies.
The entire hullabaloo might be funny – especially coming from a bunch of self-proclaimed anti-imperialists – had it not been for the cost it will impose on an already overburdened people and a nation tottering on financial ruin.
The regime hiked import taxes on potatoes by Rs.15 per kilo and import taxes on Bombay onions by Rs.5 per kilo in August.
Sri Lanka has a dangerously lopsided tax system which favours the haves and is punitive towards the poor and the middle classes. Lanka’s direct/indirect tax ratio is an abnormally distorted 20:80. A country which is dependent on indirect taxes for 80% of its tax revenue cannot achieve financial stability or inclusive growth. As the UNDP pointed out, this abnormal system “shifts the burden of taxation on to the poor”[i].
The UNDP suggested that the Lankan government might want to reform this highly iniquitous tax system “to spread the burden of taxation more evenly, to improve revenue collection, to achieve better governance and accountability and to ensure that revenue is in line with growth”[ii]. The Rajapaksas will do nothing of the sort. On the contrary, post-Commonwealth, they will increase indirect taxes at an even faster pace in order to cover up some of the beautification and conference costs.
The Siblings seem well aware of the devastating effect their Commonwealth Extravaganza will have on the ordinary people. That is why they are planning to hold presidential – and probably parliamentary – elections in early 2014. According to media reports, the Supreme Court has been asked about the legality of early elections. Given the nature of the de facto CJ, that query can have only one answer. The regime will be given the legal clearance to have any election they fancy whenever they want.
Once that hurdle is cleared, the burdening of the people – including the very voters who cast their ballots for the Rajapaksas – can begin in earnest.
And if aggrieved people dare to protest, peacefully and democratically, they can be administered a dose of ‘Weliweriya Treatment’.
This week Minister Sarath Amunugama revealed in parliament that the richest 20% of the country account for 54.1% of the national income while the bottom 20% receive just 4.5%[iii]. The ILO has already warned that Sri Lanka’s income inequality is on the rise. Another worrying indicator is youth unemployment. According to the ILO’s Asia Pacific Labour Market Update of April 2013, “…in Sri Lanka youth unemployment rate was more than four times the overall unemployment rate….”[iv]
The ILO has also cautioned that our employment growth is sourced mainly in the informal and not formal sector, with particular preponderance of day labourers and household (domestic) workers. This is a highly volatile situation, both economically and socio-politically. To make matters worse, the Rajapaksas often favour policies which have a devastating effect on this vital informal sector, especially in the name of urban development. In a rare – and welcome – display of sympathy for Rajapaksa-victims, Ranil Wickremesinghe drew attention to the plight of 455 Slave Island families who are about to be evicted from their legally occupied homes (especially the fate of the children who are supposed to sit for OL exam in December) and the fate of 99 small businesses which will be removed: “A city must develop. Still the city dwellers should never undergo any punishment nor their lifestyle be disrupted in the process…”[v] (Hopefully the ‘something-old-something-new’ UNP will move from words to deeds, and do something to protect the basic rights of Colombo’s poor who also happen to be bedrock UNP supporters).
The Commonwealth bash may give the Rajapaksas the glory and acceptance they so desperately and childishly desire. But for the people of Sri Lanka, this Extravaganza will be an unmixed curse. Prices of essential products and services will increase even further and less money will be available for vital public services as a result of the regime’s limitless spending on an economically unproductive and politically irrelevant venture.
The interrelationship between hubris and nemesis was a constant theme of Greek tragedies. The Rajapaksas can reach for the stars, but the price will be equally steep, for them and for us.
[i] Sri Lanka Human Development Report – 2012