The chimera of war dividends
Military advisors to successive Presidents may well have been unaware of the Chinese General Sun Tsu’s advice, about two millennia ago, in his The Art of War: “I have heard of military operations that were clumsy but swift, but I have never seen one that was skilful and lasted a long time”; he added, “It is never beneficial to a nation to have a military operation continue for a long time”. The reasons are well known: the nation will suffer loss of treasure, be burdened with increasing sovereign debt, debase its institutions that protect citizens’ rights and concentrate political power in a headlong rush to achieve military victory; and the populations habitual deference to the duly constituted political authority rapidly weakens as the military is increasingly recognised as the arbiter of power and peace. When the unravelling political system interacts within a sluggish economy, the cocktail is fatal for the rule of law.
The output in industrial economies , especially their military-industrial complex, respond well to war-induced demand, which fuels economic growth in the short run of say, under five year. The costs of longer wars invariably reverse the early gains and mire the country in social crises irrespective of the size of the country. The United States’ relatively mature political institutions began unravelling during the Vietnam War – second longest (1954-1975) in the country’s history. it culminated in corruption (Watergate), President Richard Nixon’s impeachment, repeated and deepening budget deficits, and the unprecedented, irreversible domination of State and society by the unelected and unaccountable military-industrial complex. The US deformed into the Permanent War Economy, accelerated by its longest war in Afghanistan – the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union (1979-1988) and subsequently the war against the Taliban (2001-2022). A consequence is the lurch towards a form of Neo-Fascism, powered by White Christian Nationalism and Donald Trump’s “MAGA communism”; it’s eerily reminiscent of the alliance between the Catholic Church and Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism. The fallout from the ongoing proxy war in Ukraine against Russia and associated sanctions has yet to be assessed fully.
In Sri Lanka’s agrarian economy, the ramshackle plantation system – a relic of colonialism – was and still is based on exporting primary agricultural commodities (mainly tea and rubber) to generate foreign earnings with which manufactured goods are imported; more recently inward remittances from expatriate workers and foreign earnings by garment assembling (not manufacturing) workshops have added to foreign reserves. On the other hand, peasant agriculture supplies wage goods for domestic consumption on plantations and the rest of the country. As is well known, output of agricultural commodities is governed by the rhythm of nature’s seasons; they cannot be grown any quicker in response to increased demand and rising prices; that is, they are supply inelastic. To make matters worse, the island’s agrarian economy is far more vulnerable to damage caused to supply chains by a longer war. The scale of operations and the destructive capacity of weapons is considerably less than, say, in the US wars across the world; however, the qualitative political and economic ruin are just as potent.
The four-decade long (1979-2009) war economy nurtured a new class of businessmen; the political class warped the rule of law to oil the war machine, entrench impunity and to emasculate accountability. Corrupt individuals subverted and corrupted the system to pursue and protect their ill-gotten wealth; inevitably they corroded the social fabric. They debase people’s values into accepting corruption as the norm and to time and again elect corrupt members of the political class to power. Together they degraded political and legal institutions into a “non-rule of law system”.
Meanwhile defence spending invested in non-tradable goods and services retarded economic growth and pushed up the sovereign debt.
The colonial plantation system reached a tipping point by the war’s end. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 2010 removed the limitation on president’s terms of office; the “impeachment” of the Chief Justice in 2013 and the 2018 “constitutional coup” further unravelled State institutions. The 2019 tax reforms sharply reduced government revenues; the organic fertiliser fiasco hobbled both plantation and peasant agriculture; and the absurd Modern Monetary Theory’s (MMT) prescription boosted money supply sans a corresponding increase in output and, consequently, pushed up consumer prices beyond the reach of average citizens. Rapidly decreasing foreign currency reserves curtailed petroleum imports and brought on an energy crisis. Some analysts cried “Crisis”, “Collapse” and “Catastrophe”; one lamented the country has lived on a “champagne diet with kasippu income”; still another agonised the country swallowed a “lethal cocktail of debt and decadence”. In short, the dilapidated plantation system could not withstand the body blows of the long war, endemic corruption, and virtual economic stagnation. Of course, the economy has not collapsed or ceased to work; it chugs along at a lower level of activity, rising levels of poverty and a compensating surge in corruption. The occasional economic growth spurts, for example between 1978 to 1983, were more than nullified by Pogroms that crippled the Tamil and Muslim entrepreneurial classes.
More to the point, enterprises of each ethnic group do not exist in a market bubble; rather they trade with business organisations of every other ethnic group and, despite competition, mutually reinforce each other within the integrated national economy. The destruction of one group’s economic activities has had a dreadful knock on effect on the rest and repeated Pogroms debilitated the national economic infrastructure. The attack on one is an attack on all.
The United States is discovering this elementary fact as the ripple effects of sanctions imposed on Russia throw EU countries into an economic recession and dislocate the highly interdependent globalised world trade.
Arguably Sri Lanka has yet to return to the level of output, growth and dynamism prior to the 1983 Pogrom. The much-promised war dividends have not seen the light of day.
A surfeit of scapegoats
The initial reaction is to pin responsibility on the Former Presidents Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR). Both, ethnically Sinhalese, were feted as “war heroes”; they are censured now by most of their own people as the proximate cause of the country’s myriad problems. The critics of GR and MR seem forget that both presidents were elected by highly literate Sinhalese citizenry. They placed the spoon in the hands of GR and MR who liberally served themselves and their kin; to help the process along their intelligentsia – public intellectuals, university academics and media professionals – did not strenuously oppose when the 18th Constitutional Amendment removed essential checks and balances on the Executive and the 20th reversed the fleeting gains of the 19th and further consolidated power under the Executive President. The 18th and 20th Amendments – democratically adopted by Parliament – removed numerous provisions for the constitutional oversight of government. The Sinhalese voters and their intelligentsia are not victims but accomplices in the systemic decline.
The more adventurous among the critics sought the roots of the systemic crisis in the policies of distant leaders going back to President JRJayewardene’s 1978 Constitution. Some reached further back to Prime Minister S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike’s narrow nationalism that drove a wedge between Sinhalese and Tamil peoples by enacting Sinhala as the sole official language (“Sinhala Only”) in 1956. Individuals no doubt matter; often historical phenomena are linked to the corresponding individual politicians as a useful shorthand. However, to reduce issues that evolved over time – spanning generations and influenced by numerous intersecting social forces both internal and external – to omissions and commissions of personalities is to miss the wood for the trees, an approach that obscures more than it reveals and the confusion is evident in analyses to get to the bottom of the country’s systemic crisis.
The confusion is obvious in relentless attacks on the current President Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) and cannot be masked by the inventing the “R-word”; it personalised the country’s predicament to his short rule, from 21 July, 2022 to the present. He is derided as an unelected “sham President” though, as Prime Minister, he was legally elevated to the post of President by parliament according to constitutional provisions that govern the replacement of a president (GR) who vacated office before completing his term. Criticisms also fault him for entering parliament as an unelected member through the National List, though that too is provided for in the Constitution. The responsibility for the persisting constitutional lacunae lies squarely with successive presidents who promised to reform the Constitution and abolish the Executive Presidency but, once in power, turned their backs on the undertakings. Sections of Sinhalese intelligentsia who defended the Executive Presidency because it concentrates power in the hands of their political class also share the responsibility.
The essence of arguments against RW is that his election as President by Parliament is legal-constitutional but not legitimate since he lacks the people’s mandate at parliamentary and presidential elections. Both Rajapaksa brothers and Maithripala Sirisena’s ascension to the Presidency between 2006 and 2019, as with their predecessors, was legal and legitimate. Have they enhanced the country’s economic and social development or strengthened the rule of law? Have they made the country a better place for all? Life’s dynamics dictate that conditions either improve or deteriorate; they don’t remain static.
A circle of life
Some members of the Sinhalese intelligentsia have expressed concern over the proposed Burau of Rehabilitaion Bill. In our view the Bill continues the work begun by the Defence Ministry’s Bureau of Commissioner General of Rehabilitation in 2013; the Bureau’s website explains: “[t]he government of Sri Lanka headed by HE the President who is guided by the Buddhist principles of forgiveness and compassion knowing the value of human life, thought that, as the terrorists are human beings whose minds were distorted, and hence misguided, could be reformed and could be rehabilitated to enlist their services as useful citizens of the country. For this purpose, he sought the assistance of the very Security Forces which led a humanitarian war against the terrorists.”
The “mission statement” of the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms reportedly “states that its main motive is to ‘disengage, de-radicalize, rehabilitate and reintegrate the misguided men/women and children, who were radicalized by the protracted armed conflict’ to be made into ‘useful citizens and productive members’” by providing training for former LTTE combatants in “detention centres…referred to as PRAC or Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centre, and carry out programmes for both children and adults alike.”
The law, institutions and procedures have been well established in the north and east almost a decade ago by the “war-winning” MR and GR; the Sinhalese intelligentsia in general did not systematically oppose their rehabilitation program and in effect condoned it despite the alleged incarceration of “peaceful [Tamil] political dissenters”. The Bill extends the precedent equally to the south.
In many ways the delayed reaction to the Bill is a replay of the reluctance to resolutely challenge the 1979 PTA at its inception, till it was applied in the south.
Our stand is that the Aragalaya’s obsession with dislodging the incumbent president and, collectively, the parliamentarians – however well intentioned – merely dilutes structural transformation to a game of musical chairs by personalities and, therefore, is hardly relevant to the much desired systemic transformation (which is different from a system change – a reform of selected institutions and related procedures). Descriptions of who-is-doing-what-to-whom on the political chessboard no doubt make entertaining reading; nevertheless they hardly explain the country’s trajectory nor reveal a hoped for light at the end of the tunnel. Similarly political astrology predicting configurations of alliances between parties and adjustments by personalities, an approach rooted in Sri Lanka’s folk culture, masks ingratiating with one faction or another.
Still worse, they detract from the unfolding reality: the Sinhala-Buddhist Hegemony Project has gone badly wrong. This brings to mind the wisdom of the ancients: those who seek to enslave others enslave themselves.
What’s required is to formulate strategies to dismantle the Project as the first and non-negotiable condition for a systemic transformation to establish a democratic State.
[Next: Waiting on IMF]
*Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan is an independent researcher who received the Ph.D. degree from the University of Cambridge. He was Assistant Director, International Studies in the Marga Institute, Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies and has taught World History at Karachi University’s Institute of Business Administration. He is an award-winning filmmaker and may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org