By Ameer Ali –
At the beginning of this month, while Sri Lanka’s Acting Permanent Representative at UN, Dayani Mendis, was urging, “all parties … to recognise the realities on the ground, and appreciate the approach of focusing on deliverable measures of reconciliation … instead of opting to continue with a framework driven externally that has failed to deliver genuine reconciliation for over four-and-a-half years”, the World Bank, almost coincidentally, reclassified and downgraded Sri Lanka from an Upper-Middle-Income to a Lower-Middle-Income country. A fall in GNP and GDP per capita from $3,968 to $3,741 and from $4,079 to $3,852 respectively between 2018 and 2019, and the currency crisis precipitating stagflation (simultaneous increase in unemployment and inflation) had been the reasons behind this demotion.
Although to a casual mind these two events may seem unrelated and independent without causal linkages, a perceptive observer would realise otherwise. The performance of an economy that is measured by experts in per capita terms of GNP and GDP is the product of a nation’s collective effort. In essence, no economy can prosper without an energised participation of people, and no community of people would be willing to participate energetically, when that community feels marginalised, denied of any role in decision making, dejected, dispossessed and deprived. This is why the issue of reconciliation becomes almost a precondition for future growth and prosperity of Sri Lanka. The inordinate delay in reconciling with the Tamil community after the war will continue to damage the economy. The question is whether the Buddhist-Sinhala-ethnocracy, in its current triumphalist mindset is prepared to compromise and make concessions by way of reconciliation.
Recognising the “realities on the ground” and “deliverable measures on reconciliation”, are two critical points in Mendis’ UN address; but they lack specifics and so far no leader from the ethnocracy has explained what those realities and deliverable measures are. President GR too has started speaking in generalities, especially after returning from his meeting with the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, promising Delhi that he would undertake full implementation of the 13(A) amendment of the constitution. On his return however, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) retracted and stressed economic development as the alternate route for reconciliation.
The obvious reason for GR’s back paddling is the intransigence of the Buddhist-Sinhala-ethnocracy, which is not willing to concede anything to the Tamils, just as the Jewish ethnocracy in Israel is unwilling to concede anything to the Palestinians. Instead, just as the Israeli settlements in West Bank are narrowing territorial space for Palestinians to agitate for a future Palestinian state, Sinhala Buddhist encroachment into the North and East, encouraged by Buddhist clergy and backed by the military, is transforming the demographic landscape of the two provinces. Nothing towards reconciliation with the Tamil community would therefore take place until such time when Sinhalese population in the two provinces reaches a critical threshold, enabling it thereby to hold at least a balance of power between the Tamils and Muslims. The situation is worsened by the ever-widening division, sometime deliberately promoted by ethnocrats, between the two minorities. Ultimately, the Tamils would be made so powerless that they would not be able to clamour even for a Bantustan, let alone a traditional home land. This is the “ground reality” and so called “deliverable measures of reconciliation” that the ethnocracy is trying to hide from the world.
President GR’s one way strategy of reconciliation through economic development is his only deliverable measure aimed not at satisfying the provincial aspirations of Tamils but hegemonic aspirations of Buddhist-Sinhalese. His strategy carries the danger of deepening the existing cleavages rather than smoothening the path for realising his much touted vison of “prosperity and splendour”. GR’s latest move to appoint a Task Force for the Management of Ancient Buddhist Heritage in the East, which immediately went into operation and almost immediately provoked protests from Muslims of Pottuvil should also be seen as part of a grand scheme to transform the demographic design of that region. A Buddhist-Sinhala-ethnocracy, headed by a Machiavellian President, is doing everything possible not only in theory but also in reality and appearance that Sri Lanka belongs to Buddhists only.
Given this context, victory with a two-third majority for MR-led SLPP at the August election would remove any impediment to realise the ultimate objective of creating a Buddhist state. Such a victory would make reconciliation a futile exercise with meaningless concessions. From the side of the ethnocrats reconciliation would be a matter of ‘we giver and you take’ and not a dialogical process.
In the meantime, there is also an emerging need for the etnocrats to reconcile with the second minority, Muslims, especially after what happened to them since 2014. One cannot hide the fact that Muslims too are feeling marginalised, victimised, dispossessed and dejected. After the Easter infamy last year, perpetrated by a misguided bunch of Muslim lunatics, and was immediately disowned and condemned by the entire Muslim community, Buddhist demagogues have taken that as an excuse to threaten the very existence of that community after more than a millennium of peaceful and productive coexistence. It appears that every Muslim of some standing in the community is now under scrutinising surveillance and harassment by the MR’s intelligence services.
The ultimate victim of the ethnocratic intransigence and protracted delay to reach reconciliation will be the economy. The prognosis for a quick recovery from post-Covid-19 depression does not look promising at all. Already, with imports and tax cuts, the budget deficit form the first four months of the year had ballooned by 24 per cent. Similarly, the increase in Balance of Payment deficit had taken its toll on the country’s foreign reserves, which has dipped from $7.5 billion at the end of 2019 to an expected $6 billion at the end of this year. Economists are warning that if it falls to around $4 billion or below that would be unsustainable. The prevailing wisdom within economic and financial advisors to the President is to seek moratorium over the country’s debt servicing, and call at the same time for further concessionary assistance from institutional lenders, hoping that the economy would pick up soon. Unfortunately, economic recovery of Sri Lanka is contingent upon similar recovery in her trading-partner countries. Even developed nations are preparing to manage with this depressive condition for at least another two years and until the end of 2022.
In Sri Lanka however, economic recovery has, in addition, a reconciliation dimension, which has sadly missed the attention of economists and other expert advisors to the regime.
It is almost a truism that a united society will recover faster from any calamity than a society divided and dispirited. However, that unity in a plural society cannot be forced upon through Machiavellian fear from the top, but should be achieved through spontaneous cooperation from the bottom of society, marked by a willingness to compromise and readiness to tolerate and respect differences. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist-Sinhala-ethnocracy has unfortunately become a stumbling block to achieve this unity, which in turn is frustrating even genuine efforts to pull the nation towards “prosperity and splendour”. In the meantime, President GR’s intention of creating a “disciplined, virtuous, lawful and safe society” has all the hallmarks of a Machiavellian approach to governance. Reconciliation requires a totally different approach to that of controlling a deadly virus through military apparatus. As long as intransigence prevails within the majority, the “option to continue with a framework driven externally”, as Mendis pointed out in her speech, cannot be dismissed easily. President GR’s bravado threat to withdraw from UNHRC and from other international bodies will hit the economy even harder, and make recovery slow and painful.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia