By Kumar David –
The enthusiasm that yesteryear enveloped the president is much subdued, the mood at best is ‘give him more time, it has been a bad year, let’s wait and see’. On the other side detractors who feared repression, racism and family banditry seem mollified that events have hurled such heavy blows that he is unable to raise his head and cow down the masses, who in any case are so passive and need no cowing down. The sullen Sinhala-Buddhist mass broods but is resigned to its self-inflicted fate. Is this stillness before a storm? I don’t know. And who knows what’s going on in the President’s head? He must see that right now its point, set and game against him, and maybe it will be match-point in a year as there is no visible road to recovery. Does he want to run for a second term or will he cut and run – I don’t think even Gota knows the answer yet.
Here’s the reasoning for this pessimistic prognosis. Three factors which will decide the regime’s fate in the public mind: the unfolding pandemic, whether the government can turn the economy round and third how long is the arm China will extend to help if/when the Double-Paksa regime sinks. The gloomiest covid scenarios painted by some medical-professional and lay commentators are I reckon exaggerated. Nearly one million cases and many tens of thousands dead by years end! No there isn’t reason to fear such a catastrophe now that vaccination is in progress and lockdowns are tightening. The point however is the damage that has been done so far; culpability, fairly or otherwise laid on the presidency. That things will get somewhat worse in the next few months do not augur well for the boss. Taking everything past and probable future into account the pandemic experience will count badly against Gota. It will be an eagerly exploited propaganda tool in the hands of opponents and will leave the voter sullen and angry.
The economy is what I would be most concerned about if I were the government. Does anyone see a turn around, does anyone see light at the end of the tunnel? I have kept an eye on the utterances of Ministers and regime mouthpieces and can no longer find mention of vistas of prosperity and splendour. The government is with its back to the wall. The economy will shrink in 2021 (and maybe 2022), increase in prices off consumer essentials is inexorable. What improvement in productivity and output in agricultural and manufacture can one see that will reverse this trend? Where are trade deficit and balance of payments heading? I do not conceal my political inclinations but these rebukes are intended to be objective. If wrong I ask to be corrected.
This pessimistic reading of the economy is compounded by stupidities that are hard to forgive. I mention just two; the regime’s hara-kiri on fertilisers and the delusion of 70% renewable electric energy by 2030! Everyone with a modicum of knowledge about agriculture has shrieked that the president’s order to go 100% organic in fertiliser at once will entail huge falls in output. Therefore his instructions will thankfully be ignored. Though some scoundrel pseudo-experts serenaded from the rooftops pledging 70% renewable electrical energy by 2030 (a few donkeys even said 80%) the charade has been quietly dropped. Once again I confidently predict that electrical energy from renewable sources will, with luck, rise to 30% by 2030. The laws of physics are more immutable than the edicts of Gota. The general point is this: Yes we are facing hard times because of covid and the global economic downturn, but my god isn’t that bad enough! Must we compound it by making idiots of ourselves, must we grind food production into the ground? The economic adversity facing the country is more than half manmade; actually the manmade part is regime made.
Corruption is endemic, so no one will be surprised that two appointees to the Port City Commission have shady reputations. Colombo Telegraph says Priyath Bandu Wickrema was implicated by a Presidential Commission in large scale corruption and accused of a multi-million dollar tax scam in connection with Yoshitha Rajapaksa’s Carlton Sports Club. He is also facing charges for loaning Port Authority workers to Mahinda’s re-election campaign. Saliya Wickremasuriya was arrested and investigated in connection with the Tiran Alles led Rs.169 million RADA tsunami fraud, but the case was dismissed in 2020. What such people do in the coming year will fester Gota fatigue into wrath. Hasn’t he got enough crap on his plate as it is? Why, oh why, amass more dung? Such crappy names obviously were not forced on Gota by Beijing so the reason for their inclusion to be arranging for more larceny or recompense to cronies who helped with previous mischief.
In the period ahead, every decision of the PC Commission must be scrutinised with suspicion by public and Opposition in Parliament. Ambiguities are built into the Act such as, what land comes under the Commission’s mandate, provisions allowing PC investors to extend their reach into other parts of the country while still enjoying PC privileges, ambiguous concessions that are difficult challenge in courts, and other infringements. These are not drafting blunders but deliberately inserted to give leeway for mischief. The threat of scrutiny has to be publicised so that bona fide investors are forewarned that corrupt, illegitimate or undemocratic actions will be challenged or reversed. A consultative process needs to set up to fashion amendments to the PC Act or in the alternative how best it can be repealed altogether. This requires a fine and filigreed effort to work round potential contradictions with contracts that may have been awarded in good faith.
The Biden stimulus package is creating a boom in consumer spending. The Economist magazine says US disposal income per person has risen by 27% since February 2020, admittedly a low bar. It is visible everywhere; malls are crowded and queues at checkouts are long, beauticians and on-line orders are at a swell. This doesn’t auger well because inflation is surging (annualised at 4.2% in April from 2.6% in March) far above the Fed’s target of 2% to 2.5%. If the trend continues as seems likely the Federal Reserve (US central bank) will have to raise interest rates which will cut the ground under a surging stock market and property prices will escalate. Stocks slid in the US and around the world amid concerns that higher inflation would lead to higher interest rates. But that’s looking some months down the road, right now there’s a surge in demand, in capital investment, supply-chain bottle-necks and merrymaking among materials suppliers. But Sri Lanka seems to be missing out and its balance of trade hasn’t brightened. The deficit in April 2021 was $ 830 billion and the forecast for the next twelve months is downward (https://tradingeconomics.com/sri-lanka/balance-of-trade). Unless these forecasts are revised upwards they foreshadow more gloom for the government.
The storyline therefore moves to debt and rising debt, the desperation for a lifeline for a drowning man, and China to the rescue. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame the Chinese any more than I would blame any other customer of wares that a whore persists in offering. If Lanka is getting deeper into debt to China, it only shows that gentlemen from Beijing are more frequent flyers into the whore’s arms. Bluntly said, Lanka’s self-inflicted economic woes make it a global debt-harlot and her venal leaders cash in like pimps. It is unlikely that Beijing dictated the text of the Port City Act but China is promoting the project because it is in its own interest. Sri Lanka is becoming a client state of the Middle Kingdom and it is good for the master if the vassal prospers. Hence for its own good name Beijing would like to see Lanka do well, but does that mean China will back an authoritarian regime even if/when it is drawn into conflict with the people themselves? It is possible that Beijing has learnt from its mistakes in Burma, Pol Pot Cambodia and some African Dictatorships where it was the ally and stabiliser of ghastly dictators.
I hope the answer to this question is yes it has learnt; that Beijing will not repeat the mistake. We can help ourselves by invigorating ourselves as nonaligned and not as a threat to Beijing even as we rid ourselves of authoritarianism. By “we” I am referring to a hopefully unified, opposition that must be fused to prevent Gota and his clique from rescinding or subverting the next presidential election. If Washington, Delhi or Beijing can help us keep afloat, let alone become prosperous, that’s welcome so long as democracy is not subverted. True, beggars can’t be choosers but a little extra breathing space is not a lot to ask for. If the people of Sri Lanka and an authoritarian regime come to blows, Beijing must stand aside if not morally help the people. (Beijing’s declared principle of physical non-intervention need not preclude a moral stance).
One final point that we in Sri Lanka need to grasp is that our fate from time immemorial has been linked to the outside world because we are small. From our genes, to the arrival of the Buddha’s message, to 450 years of colonialism, to independence therefrom in 1948, we have been a footnote in subcontinental history. Likewise a dictatorship in Sri Lanka is impossible in modern times, though that won’t stop the Paksas from trying. People and to a degree governments in the liberal democratic West will sanction a Lankan dictator, India will strangle him since a democratic Lanka is safer for India. Why not China too while giving us lots of money (sic!), decide that there’s a red line it won’t cross? Paksas come and Paksas go but stable democracy should last.