By Ameer Ali –
After two years of (a) mismanaging the economy with unstructured and whimsical policies, arising mostly from thought bubbles, and blaming Covid-19 for the disaster resulting from them, (b) handling the pandemic itself with limited success, because of callous and arrogant disregard for expert advice, (c) bungling the country’s foreign policy with an ultra-Chinese bent, (d) destroying the nation’s parliamentary democratic heritage and freedom, (e) trampling human rights, and (f) militarizing civilian administration, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during the 72nd Army Day celebrations on Sunday 10th October, said, “the people may have a sense of displeasure towards me and the government for not delivering as they expected. I accept that. Not only me, but all ministers and MPs should accept it. However, I promise on behalf of the people that we will move the country forward with vigour … Everyone needs to work together for this purpose”. In whatever manner his henchmen may interpret this message, it was, in short, GR’s declaration of Mia Culpa.
More than the admission, the occasion he chose to confess that failure is significant. He did that after the annual promotion of 567 officers and 10,678 others in the army, which will surely keep the military happy and ready to respond to GR’s calls, while costing a substantial amount of budgetary allocation at a time when every other department or sector would be facing cuts. Earlier and on another occasion, he said that the military would involve in the development efforts of the government, which means even more militarization of civilian sectors. In comparison to the military, which is generously funded and pampered, education and health for example are neglected and underfunded. The ongoing agitation of the teaching community is chiefly the result of disparity in allocation of resources, besides other issues. As a result, standard of education, from kindergarten to the university, and quality of medical services in public hospitals are appallingly poor. Once upon a time Sri Lanka’s educational standards and health service were the envy of many Asian neighbours. The current neglect seems to be a deliberate policy to privatize these two sectors. With deteriorating conditions in public education and health, a thriving tuition industry with mushrooming private schools, and profit driven private medical practices symbolize “private opulence and public squalor”, as described by Galbraith. How will the President who wants to “move the country forward with vigour” reverse this trend and correct his other mistakes with a treasury on the verge of facing bankruptcy?
There are too many other failures which could be catalogued under each of the areas pointed out at the beginning. At the rock bottom of all is the grand failure in economic management. It is that failure, which is now causing public outrage against the regime. When the economy started contracting immediately after the pandemic and global depression it produced, a number of independent observers and experienced economists had been constantly reminding the managers that policy coordination and structural changes were vital to minimize the damage and be ready for a turn around when the pandemic threat eases. But economic policies became ad hoc and a matter of power play for the President and his Viyathmaga cabal. To implement their decisions GR even dictated to CBSL chief, Professor WD Lakshman to keep on printing money in the name of providing liquidity to counteract the contraction. The Modern Monetary Theory, which was devised for economies with hard currencies, seems to have provided the theoretical backdrop to this insane exercise. Professor Lakshman must have felt guilty for succumbing to political pressure and made the decision to resign before the end of his term. His successor, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, continues the same policy and downplaying its inflationary effects by resorting to statistical manipulation. The truth about inflation is told clearly by rising prices and empty shelves in retail stores. The full brunt of the economic cost of reckless money printing and whimsical economic policies is ultimately borne by millions of ordinary families whose household economies have been devastated and reduced to penury. Does the President genuinely think that these people would pardon him and his regime for this gross mismanagement? This is why he desperately needs the military on his side, and that explains the promotions. That was also made clear by Minister Sarath Weerasekara, who is reported to have warned teachers that the regime would not tolerate their agitation and he reminded them that it was this regime that defeated terrorism. What is the connection between the two Mr. Minister?
There is also another aspect in GR’s Mia Culpa. He promised the “people”. Which people did he mean? It is a fact that he and his regime were brought to power solely on the voting strength of a majority of Sinhala Buddhists. There was however, one section of Buddhists and the two minorities that did not support them. Although GR said that he would be governing on behalf of all communities his two-year record shows otherwise. He and his regime had totally ignored the interests of minorities and trampled on their human rights. That was one of the reasons that made Michelle Bachelet to present that hard hitting report on Sri Lanka, which became the subject of intense debate, criticisms and resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last year. There was also criticisms and a resolution passed at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. ECU has threatened to withdraw its GSP+ for imports from Sri Lanka. All this happened because of the regime’s domestic policies that affected the minorities negatively. Does GR really expect these communities to pardon him and believe in his promises? Even the voters who elected him and his government are now fed up with the status quo. Some sections of the Sangha have turned highly critical of the regime. Corruption, nepotism, patrimonialism and mafia rule have become the hall marks of this regime. Hence, asking for pardon and a new mandate from the people even through Provincial Councils Elections would be suicidal to Rajapaksas.
It is in this context that Army Day celebrations and President’s admission of mistake receive added significance. ‘Either you pardon the regime and allow it to continue for the rest of its term or I know how to continue with my military’, seems to be the real message by GR to the people. It was Mia Culpa with an iron-fist.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia