By Austin Fernando –
The 31 March afternoon protest at the Jubilee Post against the high cost of living, various shortages, etc., initially caused by a dollar shortage, gathered momentum by the evening. By late evening it grabbed the headlines both nationally and internationally, the protesters’ slogans changed from a demand for redress to their grievances to a strident call for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation. By the following morning – on April Fool’s Day- the Presidential Media Unit (PMU) sought to make the protest out to be an uprising engineered by ‘extremists. It was no April Fool’s joke; the PMU was dead serious although their claim was laughable.
The intelligence services would have got wind of the 31 March event beforehand. This fact was borne out by special security arrangements at the Pengiriwatte Road environs that night. However, the man who lectured the police personnel and tried to motivate them to be tolerant of protestors, according to later reports, was found at the Kalubowila Hospital the following morning, proving that the doctors were gentler than the cops.
I have seen a video showing a person burning an Army bus when hundreds of military, police, and Special Task Force personnel were at the site. This man is a courageous ‘extremist’ for what he did in full view of armed police and military personnel. Hope he is in custody and has been indicted for destroying public property.
If not done, immediate action should be taken against the security personnel who were on duty at the time for two reasons; the destruction of public property is illegal, and it appeared to be done with the connivance of the security personnel, as suggested by social media. They alleged that the arson attack was aimed at facilitating the imposition of a curfew and the declaration of Emergency. However, the Emergency was challenged by the community by violating, and the government succumbed.
Most commentators gave either a political or economic twist or a combination of both to the incident. I consider it essentially a managerial issue concerning the President, and his government. Let me look at these issues from a different perspective.
Everyone, except the President and the ruling party, says that the dollar crisis is consequential to failed financial management by the incumbent government. The blame game continues with those in power holding their predecessors responsible for the economic crisis, and vice versa. As former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said, at the rate, the buck was being passed, the blame would have to be laid at the feet of Prince Vijaya. This showed lacking verification of real facts, an essential management ingredient.
If the crisis has developed under successive governments why didn’t people during the Yahapalana or Suba Anagathyak, or Ranil- Sirisena Alliance, Chandrika Kumaratunga, JR Jayewardene, and R Premadasa regimes storm Ward Place, Gunasinghe Pura, Horagolla, Temple Trees, or Paget Road? Even during Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s tenure (1970-77), the people experienced hardship, albeit not to the same extent as today, but they did not besiege Tintagel, at 65 Rosemead Place, shouting, “Sirima go home!” The Lady she was, might have chucked up if it happened!
The reaction of the government exhibits a lack of moral courage to accept guilt, accountability, and responsibility for its inefficiency and ineffectiveness. These are the pillars of good governance. If it had demonstrated such courage, the people would have appreciated the President’s strength of character. People expected that of the President, who claimed to be apolitical in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election.
Negative constitutional responses
Firstly, the government’s disregard for legislative control over public finance caused the breakdown of financial management. The President, his government, and even the Speaker of the House have shown a callous disregard for Article 148, which gives Parliament the authority over public finance. In a way, why hold All-Party Meetings (APMs) when all parties in the Parliament could discuss issues transparently in the House?
While the President would have had reasons why the Minister of Finance should not be exposed to Parliament, the half-witted responses from the State Minister of Finance Semasinghe only made an already bad situation worse. The President’s status is further weakened with Minister Ali Sabry (the man to deal with Article 148) resigning from the Finance portfolio within 24 hours of appointment.
The constitutional authority has a much larger implication too. The 20th Amendment enables the President to override other stakeholders including Ministers, State Ministers, any public official, or even the Prime Minister. The fear of the President or his powers has taken a heavy toll on the other state institutions and their performance. The government is faced with many competing solutions, with some demanding a referendum, and others demanding elections.
It is imperative that upon erasing the 20th Amendment, the 19th Amendment must be reintroduced with necessary improvements. Former President Maithripala Sirisena and Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa demanded this even on April 5th, 2022, in Parliament.
Respect for the rule of law is a cornerstone of good governance. The laws have not been passed by Parliament only to promote the interests of the governments in power. Successive governments have disregarded the rule of law, but that does not mean it should continue.
For example, the Opposition has been requesting a discussion of financial status, and agreements reached with foreign powers based on the sovereignty of the country. But the government did not respect tradition and the Opposition did not receive any attention. If securing the cooperation of other political stakeholders was uppermost in the minds of the government leaders, they should have cooperated by respecting parliamentary traditions and practices.
Secondly, the President’s military style of management – ‘Comply and complain’, which gives administrative leeway in decision making, does not fit the public administration systems, especially in a troubled situation when large numbers are affected, and consultation and consensus-making pay better. “Treat verbal orders as circulars” (Hindu 26-9-2020) is not the accepted norm in public administration. Probably this conflicting difference in approach must be creating irritation and anxiety in him when actions are not pursued on verbal directives. It created hierarchic system failure, evolving from Weberian times.
Thirdly, since it is a national crisis, there should have been planned solutions proposed by the ‘greats’ in Viyathmaga, which presumably had intellectuals who claim to be capable of ushering in prosperity. Unfortunately, this outfit has failed to live up to the people’s expectations. Those self-proclaimed experts should have had the courage to own up to their non-performance. For example, on the carbonic agriculture issue, serious studies ended with disdain. Litro Gas managed by a top Viyathmaga member failed miserably.
They should also have called for support from other stakeholders. It is managerial collaboration. The President and the government were elected by the people and all political parties should have given their best to solve the crisis because it is the people who suffered. I find this commitment lacking also in the critical Opposition. Both the government and the Opposition have put power politics before the interests of the people.
Fourthly, the crisis had existed for nearly twenty months, and an All-Party Meeting (APM) was held only a fortnight ago. Some in the Opposition boycotted it, probably suspecting the intentions of the government. At that event too, the approach of the Governor of the Central Bank Ajith Nivard Cabraal was antagonistic, and the President had to apologize to former Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. It only showed the Governor’s attitude towards coping with a national crisis, which requires a concerted effort by both the government and the Opposition.
I do not blame the President personally for such weaknesses because as publicly acknowledged by him, he lacks political experience and comparatively expediency, and probably PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and a few others in the government are au fait with APMs. However, what is demonstrated is a lack of focus, positive attitudes, and preparation as a team.
Fifthly. the Pengiriwatta protest was a response to the cumulative effect of several decisions of the government—the unplanned production and use of carbonic fertilizer, controversial tax concessions given in 2019, the mishandling of international sovereign bonds, the wrong prioritization of development projects, alleged disposal of public assets to foreigners, etc. Some of these were resisted even by former President Maithripala Sirisena, Opposition parliamentarians, economists, academics, and business tycoons. But their concerns were pooh-poohed by the President, government spokespersons, and by the Governor of CBSL. Therefore, it amounted to a failure in communication with stakeholders, reducing managerial cooperation.
The current wave of mass civil disobedience and public protests show what could happen when communication and the cause of natural justice (the right to be heard, a respected managerial/ legal principle) are disrespected. This will be a lesson for everyone, inclusive of the protestors who aim to bring a new set of ‘undeclared leaders/rulers’ at the end of their protests. The hilarity is that reasoning dawns on the President and the government only when youths take to the streets to reverse the decision to import chemical fertilizer. Many more must be in the pipeline.
Failed bureaucracy and advisors
Sixthly, senior bureaucrats and advisors have also failed. I remember how Presidents J. R. Jayewardene, R Premadasa, et al respected their advisors and senior bureaucrats. I had the personal experience with President Maithripala Sirisena heeding even very critical political decisions on representations made by me along with the then-Attorney General. This was the case even with President Jayewardene. There were instances where we failed to convince ministers and the President, but we must continue to represent. Overall, there was no retaliation as such, so much so, I was appointed a Secretary a short time after I had refused to carry out an irregular strong request made to me by President Jayewardene. That is how Presidents reacted too. There were also exceptions. Under Pohottuwa the best example of contradiction was how Secretaries of Agriculture were replaced, for reasons best known to them. We will hear about what the public officials are undergoing at present when they write their memoirs.
If views and proposals are not taken on board, it either shows their inability to convince the political authorities, or politicians’ unwillingness to heed wise counsel. Two cases in point are how financial experts advised the President and others on the need to restructure International Sovereign Bonds worth 500 million dollars and green agriculture carbonic fertilizer experiments. Both were disregarded. Experts, researchers et al were pushed away from the planning and management system, and a medical trade unionist and a politically affiliated priest replaced them in deciding on the fertilizer issue.
Seventhly, a coordinated approach to management is lacking. The best example is how solutions are adopted in an ad hoc manner. Conflicting views end with Ministers resigning due to weakened policy implementation. The Ministry of Finance and the Governor of the Central Bank, who has now resigned, used to make conflicting statements. The running battle in public between Ministers Lokuge and Gammanpila is another.
Although it appears that the government wishes to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and letters are probably being exchanged through our Mission in Washington, it is not publicly supported by relevant stakeholders. It is unknown whether groundwork has been done to suit the operation such as the appointment of an advisory experts’ committee in Sri Lanka, the hiring of international consultants, lawyers, approaching the Paris Club and the London Club (both informal groups of creditor nations who engage in finding workable solutions to payment problems faced by debtor nations), meeting a group of helpful countries for short-term bridging finance, and other relevant institutions that matter. Preparing a roadmap is of the essence.
The IMF operation will require tough fiscal management and foreign exchange rate management, undertaking serious reforms for which the government will have to find a consensus with the Opposition and negotiations should commence thereon.
It is easy for me to make these observations. I understand that these weaknesses are not easy to rectify. Besides commitment, the task requires other things such as managerial skills, serious study, etc.
Using accepted systems of planning, organizing, directing, staffing, coordinating, and reviewing, adjusting budgets to suit the best financial management must be adopted. Of course, deciding on the proposed program such as the “distribution” of nearly Rs. 220 billion to party-men a month after the passage of the national budget must end. However, hard decisions should be made, especially if a new IMF agenda is to commence. These issues are not easy to tackle.
They may include revenue generation, expenditure rationalization, reviewing the operation of loss-making state-owned enterprises, reviewing, and restructuring the public service, addressing the subsidies for the affected poor, coordinating with many institutions here and abroad, structural changes, and focusing on new inclusive financing avenues, etc. Hard times are projected and a united effort is required.
The public demand for recovering stolen public assets (i.e. Parliamentarian Sarath Fonseka and some protestors) may need new legal interventions under principles of recovery, for which assistance from the UN could be obtained. These are not very pleasant challenges and hence they require national interests to be prioritized over and above political interests.
The government must consider the importance of its obligation to its electors. The Opposition must also realize it will be its turn to face the guillotine if the country continues battling.
The problem is large and we should find ways to win the battle at hand. Essentially, we must depend on ourselves as efficient and effective operatives. As a Buddhist I may quote the Dhammapada – Stanza 160, to guide us.
Atta hi attano natho
ko hi natho paro siya
attana hi sudantena
natham labhati dullabham.
(One indeed is one’s refuge; how can others be a refuge to one? With oneself thoroughly tamed, one can attain refuge, which is so difficult to attain.)
In the wake of Pengiriwatte, let the government be urged to work on its managerial weaknesses. It is our responsibility- the Government and the Opposition, to work as a Nation together. Others cannot be a refuge, though they can be a prop. However, whether public protests continue or fizzle out, the government and other stakeholders must act fast to avoid disaster.