By Jehan Perera –
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s declaration that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.
Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.
It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.
In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.
The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about 4 percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.
As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.
President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorized protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”
It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.
Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections to minimize their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.