By Ameer Ali –
IMF, World Bank, Moody, Fitch, Citi, and now S&P global rating: they all cannot be wrong collectively and simultaneously in warning that Sri Lanka’s debt burden is at an unsustainable level, and that the country’s economy is in a perilous state to recover from the pandemic-struck recession. Only the Central Bank Governor, who seems to have mortgaged his academic integrity for position and prestige, the State Minister Cabraal – whose own debacle over Greek bonds when he was the CB governor is still not forgotten – and the Ministry of Finance are continuing to deny and trying to wish away the danger by prematurely issuing a clean bill of health to an otherwise sick economy. How long can they fool all the people all the time?
No one wants to talk down the economy intentionally, and everyone who loves the country wishes for a swift recovery and achieve at least a minimum level of economic growth so that its people could live at least with a minimum of comfort. But the reality must be faced, accepted and should not be hidden from the public for the sake of political expediency. That however, does not seem to be the policy of current rulers, because in their race to capture, they promised their supporters too much too soon, and in trying to keep them happy caused financial havoc by sacrificing public revenue. Financial consolidation is today’s major challenge facing the regime. Even the budget submitted to the parliament last month was filled with empty optimism, and the recovery path stipulated in that document will require more borrowing or outright grants and massive foreign investment to implement. Because of a rapidly drying pool of foreign reserves, which has to meet the nation’s debt obligations first, funding through multilateral sources is now becoming increasingly problematic, and that is the underlying message coming from international monitors. Given this worrying situation, China in many ways has become the lender of last resort to the Rajapaksa regime. However, China’s largesse with its locally planted advisers o the regime is alarmingly turning the country into China’s virtual client-state jeopardizing the island’s territorial sovereignty, which GR promised to protect.
This is an economic war that cannot be won militarily like Gota’s war against LTTE. In that war, the general public was kept out of the fighting and was carried out exclusively by the expertly trained army, navy and the air force. In contrast, the economic war has to be fought by the people, and without their cooperation, support and sacrifices, GR’s military generals and his task forces will only worsen the situation. This fact should be understood by economists and policy makers who are backing this regime. However, that cooperation and support is being ruined by Gota’s other war, the one he is fighting against minorities. Therefore, there are two separate wars being fought simultaneously and they are based on a strange equation. GR and his regime seem to think that their failure to win the economic war, and criticisms arising from that failure could be contained and managed by showing success in the war against minorities. This a dangerous assumption that will eventually compel the anti-regime local elements to unite and take their battle to the international front.
The ongoing war against the minorities should be stopped to concentrate all the country’s energy to win the economic war. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resolve to solve the Tamil problem through economic development is a camouflage to hide his real motive of depriving the Tamils not only of any share in governance but even a share in the economy. His ultimate vision is for a country ruled by Sinhala Buddhists for Sinhala Buddhists. This is the underlying philosophy that has cemented the symbiotic relationship between Buddhist clergy and GR-led politicians. If national economic development is the true motive of GR, what is the need for concentrating more and more troops in Tamil areas when the armed threat has been completely eliminated, and why did he post an archaeological task force, filled with less archaeologists and more with army men and Buddhist clergy, to districts predominantly populated by Tamils and Muslims, where the task force is more interested in grabbing land than excavating ruins?
The history of Sri Lanka’s post-independence politics, from late 1940s to the present, has been one marked by a policy of selective communal inclusion and exclusion in all critical spheres of governance. Because the majority Sinhala-Buddhists has the power to make and unmake governments there is an unwritten understanding between the rulers and that majority that the public sector should remain an exclusive domain for majority Sinhalese. Historically, this seems to be an unwritten rule in several developing countries with a pluralist polity, except Singapore. Once the majority community by virtue of its number takes control of the public sector, minorities have no option but to depend on the private sector for survival and prosperity. In several countries, minorities do excel in professional, economic and commercial pursuits through sheer hard work, sacrifice and skill. Even in professional fields, minority communities seek to enter particularly the health, accounting, law and engineering sectors largely because it is where they could stand on their own without expecting any favour from governments. Obviously, not all of them succeed and those who fail to shine get pushed back and fall into the informal sector where economic survival is like cyclists peddling uphill. One has to continue peddling and to stop may even prove deadly.
Thus, the Tamils, because of that community’s head start in education opted to concentrate in professional fields, whereas Muslims, because of their late entry into modern education and an innate religious bias chose to prefer business and commercial ventures. Yet, in both communities, for every success story there were scores and hundreds of failures. But what catches the eyes of the majority is not the many failures but the few successes, and it is the latter that creates envy. Because of the opulence of a few, an entire community is tarnished and condemned as one of exploiters and robbers of the majority. Indians in former Burma, Kenya and Fiji, Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Jews in many parts of pre-Israel Europe were victims of this envy. In this country also, it was economic envy that originally sowed the seeds of anti-Tamil Sinhala nationalism, but when the Tamils pushed for a federal solution economic envy got entangled with politics and led to a civil war. Likewise, the current wave of anti-Muslim phobia is essentially the result of economic envy covered with an artificially concocted religious and cultural fear of Islam. There is therefore a parallel economic war fought against the two minorities and the ruling regime is leading that war based on the equation mentioned earlier. Even the regime’s prevailing intransigence on Muslim burial issue is part of a wider agenda to crush that community economically.
Thus, GR’s strategy of containing the political damage caused by his failure to win the economic war by winning the parallel war fought against minorities will bring neither splendour nor prosperity. It was Tamils yesterday, Muslims today and may be Christians tomorrow, but GR’s game of robbing Peter to give Paul will proceed.