By Hilmy Ahamed –
Politics and governance in the land of lotus eaters will never be the same again. The unprecedented protests in the last three weeks by youth that triggered off mass support from men and women of all ages, religions and cultures across the country will change the politics of Sri Lanka. For the first time since Independence, the high riding political ruffians have been forced to kneel in front of the people’s power. Many are dreading the thought of even visiting their electorates. The once mighty legislators in government have been humbled to seek a dignified exit fearing the worst for their lives and ill gotten wealth. A government that had the highest mandate in history of 6.9 million voters just two years ago is now being kicked out of office by very ordinary people with absolutely no political bias.
The failure of the government to provide basic needs to ordinary people has spurred the innocent bystander to take to the streets to kick out the inefficient government that has mismanaged the economy. This government has brought the country down to even beg from countries and entities we wouldn’t have imagined a few years ago. There are no political conspirators who facilitated or bank rolled this new found awareness of the need to ensure good governance and transparency. There has been no external political interference or money pumped in for regime change. The protesters at the “Gama” (the village) are ordinary people who are supported with voluntary contributions of food, water, tents and other logistics by ordinary people. The commitment to support is only increasing by the day. Politicians of all shades and colour have been barred from entering the protest area. They are itching to join the bandwagon, but wise counsel has prevailed within the protesting thousands who have ensured that their struggle is non-partisan.
The threat of withdrawal of international support faced by Sri Lanka became evident even before the 49th regular session at Palais des Nations in Geneva from 28 February – 1 April 2022 of the Human Rights. Sri Lanka’s continuous broken promises of delivering on the demands of The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) relating to human rights, governance and justice issues, carried with it the possible ostracisation of the country in international fora. Draconian laws, especially the abuse of the Prevention Of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the selective use of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on religious and ethnic minorities became major issues of concern for the international community. Sri Lanka’s hopes of support from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were lost last week, unless immediate reforms are undertaken to streamline Government financial polices and support to the vulnerable population, to receive immediate support.
The threat of losing the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) concessions offered to Sri Lankan exports weighed heavily on the government. The Generalised Scheme of Preferences, is an annual trade concession worth over 500 million US dollars that boosts Sri Lanka’s exports to EU member states. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs engaged Sri Lankan civil society and offered to address the core
issues related to rights and democracy. The government in good faith amended the PTA and other draconian laws but was far below the expectations of Sri Lankan and international civil society. They demanded the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and reforms to various other laws in the country. The government is seen as attempting to address some of the core issues that the international community has highlighted and hence have managed to buy some time. But with the current unrest in the country, any hope for this government has evaporated.
The stubborn economic policies of the Rajapaksa government and its former Central Bank Governor became the noose around the neck of Sri Lanka. Flirting with geo-politics of India and China forced the country to accept loans and sovereign bonds without seeking assistance from the International Monetary Fund spelled doom. The failure to reform governance and strict financial management expected by international lending agencies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank led Sri Lanka to play with sovereign bonds that Sri Lanka could not afford. Now, with the failure to settle them, it has driven the country to the bottom of financial credibility levels amongst rating agencies.
Our failure to repay the sovereign bonds earns us the label of a bankrupt nation. A sovereign bond is a debt security issued by a national government to raise money for financing government programs, paying down old debt, paying interest on current debt, and any other government spending needs. Failure to service them leads to bankruptcy of the nation.
The totally mismanaged economy due to stubborn economic polices has led Sri Lanka to unprecedented economic turmoil. There have been no medicine, fuel, cooking gas, milk food or other basic necessities including food. The Government claims that they do not have the foreign currency needed to import these basic necessities that are in high demand. Forcing people not to use alternate methods of remittences through Hawala or Undial is an ill thought out strategy. Most of these remittences come from our RATA VIRUWO (Expats) who send money to their homes for household expenses. Very few will forgo the approx. Gain of rupees fifty on every dollar by this alternate financial system. There is no way the government can control this unless foreign currency is made available for remittence for imports by the alternate markets.
The absolute majority of the population are disgusted with the legislators who have failed to manage the country’s economy and are demanding that the entire parliament and the President resign. There is total disgruntlement against the entire parliamentarians and public officials who most citizens feel were political stooges during the last three to four decades. The demand on the streets is for progressive change, and that is not just against the government only but all 225 legislators who people believe are a drain on the economy with absolute abuse, allocating perks and privileges to themselves unknown in any other democracy. The protests around the country have ignited the peoples awareness to demand accountability by our legislators. A welcome sign indeed.
Light At the End of the Tunnel
This crisis is probably what Sri Lanka needed to become a prosperous and vibrant democracy again. The politicians will never again be able to act with impunity, corruption and abuse of power as we have seen in the last few decades. The quality of representation in parliament changed after the provincial councils were introduced. Those goons, chain snatchers and Kassipu vendors who became provincial councillors filled the vacancies in parliament when their political bosses faded away.
The peoples’ struggle and agitation should continue until the corrupt are hunted and the loot recovered. The meagre funds required for the country’s recovery will be available in the vaults in Switzerland, Seychelles, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine and Uganda. The Crypto currency balances of some alone should be enough to pay most of Sri Lanka’s debts. Further, additional focus needs to be paid to what has been revealed in the Panama Papers and those named in the Offshore Leaks Database. All we need are top Intelligence hunters to go after the financial looters, similar to the Nazi Hunters who have unearthed unimaginable evidence. There should be no place for our financial criminals to hide on earth. The investment on these experts will not only help to recover most of our loot but will also deter any politician in the future to siphon off state and ill-gotten wealth through corruption. International experts in addition to our top investigators should be commissioned to undertake this task as a priority. Tracking down ill gotten wealth may not be all that difficult as social media has already revealed much.
It is time to shed all political differences and biases and step forward as true patriots to save our country. To achieve this, we need to have a government that would have addressed these many moons ago, yet there is hope. There is no time or money for any immediate election or referendum. The best option remains in Parliament where every member should commit to form a government that will prioritise financial recovery and ensure that the basic needs of the population are met. This interim government could have a fixed term of one year. The first responsibility of all the current parliamentarians should be to introduce the 21st Amendment which should also include a time frame to abolish the executive presidency and make parliament supreme. Thereafter, a Prime Minister (a non Rajapaksa) should be selected by parliament and a cabinet not exceeding 15 should be appointed. The best of the MPs in parliament should be selected to the cabinet. In addition, at least 5 national list MPs should resign and pave the way for technocrats, financial and administrative experts to be appointed to parliament and take over the key ministries as cabinet ministers in the recovery process. All perks, privileges and welfare support to parliamentarians and state sector and corporation employees should be immediately frozen. Austerity measures should include major retrenchment of public sector employees. The remuneration of corporation chair persons should be reduced to a maximum of Rs. 300,000. Perks and privileges should be limited. All loss making state enterprises should be auctioned off to the private sector through a transparent mechanism. A board of management should be set up to monitor and control partisan media outlets.
If parliament and the general public support the austerity measures needed, we can recover as a country within the next three years and bounce back as a vibrant economy in the region. If the loot from corruption is traced and recovered, Sri Lanka should easily be able to maintain her dignity and ensure a bright future to our children.