30 September, 2020

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Sri Lanka At Cross-Roads

By Suren Sumitrarachchi

Dr Suren Sumithrarachchi

At the time of independence, Sri Lanka was a country with a well-established democracy under a constitution based on the Westminster system. In the 71 years since independence, the political environment in Sri Lanka has been dominated by two political parties, both conservative, with Marxist, religious and communal based parties occupying a minor presence. These two main parties or coalitions based on them have ruled the country alternately for varying periods, and in the process, have let every aspect of the Sri Lankan society deteriorate. During this period the politicians changed the Westminster system of shared accountability by a Prime Minister led cabinet, to a system with vast powers concentrated in an executive president. This presidential rule, in force since 1978, has not reversed the trend in deterioration, but instead has accelerated it, and created a highly politicised climate, which has exacerbated crime, bribery and corruption, and inefficiency in the public service. The concentration of power in the President has led to greed in the incumbents to seek re-election to office over and above the period specified in the constitution. This has led to power struggles, and a host of related unethical practices. This self-seeking behaviour of the president and other politicians has created an unjust society where power and privileges are concentrated in the hands of a few, with only the crumbs left for the large majority of the people. Today, Sri Lanka is at crossroads, and in a position to decide whether to perpetuate this rot or to get rid of it. 

Key issues for consideration

Even a cursory look makes clear the following: (1) Throughout the 71 years the priority of the political class has been to remain in power at any cost, with every action oriented to achieving that purpose. (2) Though seen in public to be attacking one another, the two parties protect themselves and cover up for each other’s crimes, leading to chronic corruption. (3) No politician has had a proper vision for the country. (4) Most decisions are taken based not on scientific criteria but on political expediency, leading the country to always get the second or the third best option in every project. (5) Accountability for public funds has been lacking and politicians have no fear of misusing public funds. (6) No basic standards are specified for entry to politics, resulting in uneducated and uncultured individuals, often criminals, entering politics, causing mayhem and chaos in parliament. (7) Public servants are not allowed the autonomy to carry out their functions without political interference.

Continuous rule by two political groups

The two parties or their coalitions have regularly tried to outdo one another to remain in power. Accordingly, they have resorted to placating the voter, resulting in an unnecessary burden on the state finances. Providing assistance to the needy is fine, but the issue here is the politicised nature of these decisions, having long-term ill effects on the country. Without dealing with the entire gamut of such practices, I will give two examples: (1) Making the salaries of the public-servants tax-free while the rest of the country’s workforce has to pay tax, a clear attempt to add the public servants to their vote base.  (2) Giving free school uniforms and books to all students in schools, even to those who can well afford to pay. The longer we have this political class in power, the more of these irrational decisions will be foisted on us.

Fostering corruption by protecting one another

At election time, these two groups attack one another with accusations about the corruption during their tenures, but once the elections are over, they get together, forgetting all the accusations. The people, whose political group fails to get the majority, readily join the winners to form the necessary majority, forgetting all the accusations, and this see saw continues every five years. The alleged corruption, whether true or false, goes under the carpet until the next election, when the voter is once again bombarded with these harangues as part of the election campaigns. Successive governments have shown an increase in the incidences of corruption, and the voter is helpless. Should we not do something about this?

No proper vision

In the 71 years of rule by these two main parties, the country has not had a clear strategy and plans for the key areas of the economy. It is clear that the leaders have had no vision and therefore not had the ability to prepare a clear plan for the development of the country. As such, every successive government has amateurishly meddled around with key aspect of the economy and the society. This has rendered the country rudderless and visionless. Consequently our country that was ahead of all South Asian countries at the time of independence, is now lagging behind, and is in the company of the poorest economies in the world. A few illustrations are: (1) Sri Lanka which had a positive balance of payments at the time of independence, is today in debt in the range of trillions of rupees. (2) The Sri Lankan Universities whose degrees had so much recognition that our graduates could get into PhD programmes in the best universities of the world based on their first degrees, is today far down in world rankings. (3) The University system has not been properly managed to produce graduates to meet the needs of the country resulting in hundreds of unemployed graduates parading the streets, some with their kids. Also, there is a dearth of skills in key areas of the economy, requiring the country to depend on foreign experts, meaning that the resources in the education sphere have not been properly directed. (4) Of the approximately 150,000 students who pass the GCE AL examination, only 30,000 are absorbed onto the universities. This leads to frustration among the youth who are unable to pursue the subjects of their choice, and the loss of valuable foreign exchange when the well to do send their children abroad for studies. (5) The employment market has not grown to meet the needs of the more capable and better trained graduates, who are thus compelled to look for jobs overseas. 

Decisions based on political expediency deny the country of the best options

One of the most recent decisions that deny the country of the best options was when the government chose coal in preference to solar as the power enhancing option. This decision has no basis in common sense. Coal is environmentally harmful. It is more costly. It has a long term recurring cost component where solar does not have any such. However, the recurring process of procuring coal provides ample room for corruption. The decision makers only had to consult experts on solar production to get the answers to the problem of how to solve the peak time demand for power using solar, and the decision preferring coal to solar could never have been justified. But political expediency and space for corruption prevailed and coal was preferred over solar, despite all its negatives.

There are many more absurd decisions that successive governments have made for these unethical reasons. One glaring example is the investment on highways as opposed to investing the funds to improve the rail transport system and converting more passengers to rail travel as opposed to using road transport. In constructing highways, the fact that the highest traffic congestion is within the city of Colombo has been overlooked, and priority given for constructions of highways for inter-city travel.  As a result, a citizen living in a suburb, 10km from the city centre, still takes one and a half hours to commute to work in the morning and another one and a half hours in the evening. Another absurdity is the decision to construct a highway from Colombo to Matara, a destination with less traffic intensity than the Colombo Kandy stretch, which connects Colombo with virtually the rest of the country. Though the politicians justify these decision, the public can see the motives behind them. Should we continue with this comedy?

Lack of accountability for public funds

Politicians simply do not feel accountable for the funds they (mis) manage. There are numerous examples. I will mention a few: the hedging issue when purchasing petroleum in the world markets causing a severe loss to the country; investing in Greek bonds; The misuse of Rs. 600m to purchase ‘sil redi’ using state funds; the Central Bank bond issue.  MPs being regularly granted car permits to purchase high value vehicles knowing very well that these will be sold; the former President chartering planes belonging to Air Lanka and going on jaunts with his entourage, with no concern for losses caused to the airline; and the Ministry of Agriculture renting office space at Rs. 20m per month. 

Uneducated and socially unfit people, often criminals entering Politics

No basic standards are specified for entry to politics, resulting in the parliament being open to criminals and uneducated people. The role of parliament as the institution that creates policy for the nation is in the hands of these inadequate people and it is not surprising that the policy framework is in disarray. Leave alone understanding the contents of the drafts of policy documents circulated among them, many of them are not capable of even reading through them, yet they remain our policy makers. The poor attendance in Parliament, causing the frequent abandonment of proceedings for lack of a quorum is ample proof of their inability to understand their role. Even when present at parliamentary sittings, they sleep in their seats as seen in regular live coverage, confirming that they are not concerned about the proceedings. The only thing they are groomed for is to create mayhem and chaos in the chambers, which they do with great aplomb. The public had the privilege of being entertained by their live performances during the October 2018 crisis, once again a creation of this unruly group. Do we need more of this?

Interference in the work of Public servants

Interference in the work of Public servants is the next item that I wish to mention. The public servants are the administrators of the governance of the country. They are selected from the educated in the country and placed to do a job of work. The barely literate political leaders interfere in their work, giving instructions to them based on their personal or politicised agenda and obstruct their work. Unfortunately, these public servants are helpless and have to put up with the politicians. This process is an obstruction of the public servant’s work, and has a negative effect on  their morale. Under these circumstances the public servant cannot perform their duties efficiently. Should this state of affairs continue?

Over to you, voter

Elections being in the horizon, the voter is once again being bombarded with choices of potential candidates to vote for. The first is the election for the position of President. Later it will be for the Provincial Councils and Parliament. Given their track record of the past 71 years and the exceptionally horrific performance of the present lot in the last five years, would it matter to the voter which politicians sits where? Should the voters once again let themselves be duped by their sugar coated promises or be reminded of the horrific past and the sad plight the country is in as a result? Should not the voter remind him/herself of the regular self- aggrandisement of the politicians and the virtual crumbs that have been the lot of the masses? Should not voters count the number of blatant lies that have been foisted on them? Should not the sirens of the car convoys of the politicians that have irritated the voters in the last several decades continue to vibrate in their heads? Should not the voters remind themselves of the harassment they go through to admit their children to schools? Should parents not worry about their son or daughter when they try hard but fail to get admission to the university? Do we need these politicians to perpetuate these sufferings on us? Can we trust them to do anything other than the abuse of their position they have excelled at in the past?

This is our time to make the necessary changes. What we need is not a change of heads or change in the colours of political parties, but instead a complete change in the system that is so seriously degenerate. By this I mean is a complete change in everything, the constitution, the method of election, the quality of the representative, their remuneration policy, the accountability mechanism for public funds, the fairness of the judicial system and the confidence that the public can have in it. I believe that no party or individual unable to provide these far reaching changes should be even considered for elevation to power. Our wish-list must be made known to the politicians and we as voters must insist that these be made the priorities of those seeking election. We must reject the parties, or individuals who are unable to promise these changes. We must also ensure that the promises such are real and tangible, and not false promises as before. It is within the power of the voter to do these.

*Suren Sumithrarachchi is a retired businessman with an earned Ph D degree from the University of Colombo. He is an activist concerned with the social and economic well being of the country.

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Latest comments

  • 13
    1

    A man made disaster is in waiting. Sorry to say that Sinhalese people have not yet learned the arts of politics . All what they have is internal fight between themselves or with other communities..Now they stop killing Tamils and tuned into Muslims and next one will be Christians : Knowing this the wise Cardinal R. Malcolm said the Easter Sunday attack could be internal or external dirty politics. If it is done with the knowledge of some politicians what kind of leaders are they?This will tell a lot about Sri Lanka. Can you expect a leader in any other country will support such an attack on their soil. Cheap politicians are out there. Look how Ranil fights with Sajith? Look at MS and Look at MR. all are greedy for powers. We needs someone who can get of all these people.

    • 8
      0

      The poor Sinhalese are waiting for their “Diyasena Kumaraya” to liberate them from minorities and make this country into a Singapore. The bottom line in Sri Lankan politics has always been identity and it can’t be redeemed; seeing the rise of Gota and the Nationalist-Chuvanistic wave, the country is far from any form of reconciliation.

      • 1
        1

        You will never dream to get rid of minorities.
        People like you need to see a good mental Dr. Because of people like to the country is Go in down

    • 1
      0

      As a nation we are not united as Sri Lankans. We divide ourselves along lines of religion, race and or caste. We may be an educated and very literate people but we do not share a common humanity; our pulse does not beat in unison as Sri Lankans. Until we believe in and work sincerely in uniting ourselves as one nation, Sri Lankans, we will never get it right as voters. Our vote should be for a policy of a united and secure nation, safeguarding democracy and equal respect for all citizens, procuring economic development and ensuring facilities and systems for developing educational and health services and not for the candidate’s race, religion, or caste.

  • 11
    0

    The writer Suren has very eloquently presented the terrible plight Sri Lanka has experienced due to flawed system of governance and the mindless, self-seeking, and often corrupt political leaders.
    People in Sri Lanka have been happily endorsing this disastrous process for many decades in a robot-like fashion.
    How do we convince the average voters to flip their slave-like mindset into endorsing radical changes which in reality would vastly benefit them?
    This is the million Rupee question? To bring about such a transformation in thinking has been proven to be an extremely difficult task. Until people have the wisdom to understand the problem and clamor for a better solution, we will be destined to accept the disastrous status quo year after year.
    We definitely need a better politically smart voting population.

  • 1
    1

    Indirect endorsement for the Kodituwakky Pallewatte combine. HURRAH.

  • 2
    0

    Sr Lanka has always been at crossroads.

    So what’s new?

  • 4
    0

    Neville, What is wrong with our voters. Most of them are literate and seem to have the mental competence to vote. They sure are not ignorant or retards. I believe the voters have been gradually conditioned by politicians, over years , they too have become intolerant and immoral. They are politically savvy (may be too savvy) but full of hatred, resentments and jealousy. We just did not have two party rule , we had family dynasties. Even a country like India has come out of family politics (Nehru dynasty) where as we Lankans have no intentions to change. How can anyone explain the family rule we had since independence ??? Senanayakas, Bandas, JR/RW and now Rajapaksas and Premadasas. There are few like Suren, Neville , Anushka, Satchi,Koddippili, Grusha, —-etc , have presented true facts on Lankan EMPTY politics but yet , expecting voters to think different. I blame our voters for enabling these crooks and keep bringing them back. Lankans settle for “less evil “, and never for decent leader.

  • 4
    0

    In the first half of Lankan Politics there was manifestos , future plans and empty promises (where the leaders were actually working against their own manifestos or allies). But in latter half there was no need for any manifesto or plans because the civil war was good enough to get them elected. So after war the public was expecting a better and brighter future , which turned out to be just a dream. Almost 10 years have passed without any civil war. So how will our crooked leaders get elected in future ???? “BANG” comes the answer on Easter Day. Without conflicts our shit heads have nothing to sell to the public, they were dependent on war for 30 years. (no need for any thinking, sweating, planning or try selling to public) . We can see Lankan politics slowly disintegrating into emptiness. SLFP is no more. Replaced by a party formed just a few months ago. UNP has multiple party, within party. Because there is no set goals/manifesto/vision , now it is all about “compromise politics”, where many with self serving purpose, getting together in forming government. Politicians keep shifting from party to party as they wish. Some were in SLFP/SLPP/JO/Government all at the same time. The rogues now in SLPP, who were in government as SLFP , were working against government. President is working against PM/Govt. Result of 30 years of “empty politics”.

  • 2
    0

    Family politics is gaining ground. A.Sally in a speech mentions that Gota will be
    out at Nomination time when MR The Great Sinhala Leader (!) will plant Shirani
    backed by his Sinhala intelligentsia cohorts, with him taking over as Executive PM in this agenda – the limits of SL Family Politics!!!!!

  • 2
    0

    The author had failed to mention about the political appointments to the different grades in the Public Service. Merit and qualification are not given due recognition. The standard of Public Service had deteriorated during the last several years that the Government decisions conveyed by Public Circulars are not carried out properly.

    I would like to quote just one example. The Minister of Finance proposed to rectify pension anomaly of Government Pensioners and pay increased pension to all pensioners from 01st July, 2019. Wide publicity was given by the Ministry and Circulars were sent by the Secretary of Public Administration and Department of Pensions. How many pensioners were paid their dues in July 2019? I understand that only one A.G.A’s Division in Jaffna had done this. How many had been paid at least in August? Again I understand that some other A.G.As’ Divisions in Jaffna and a few in other areas had been paid. Almost 80% of the pensioners in Sri Lanka had not been paid. What is the reason? Inefficiency of the Officers and the administration.Again what is the reason? politics.

  • 5
    0

    While he brings out many valid reasons for the down fall of Sri Lanka, the author cleverly skirts around one of the main causes of the downfall of the economy – the periodic riots and pogroms against Tamils, and now against Muslims and the resulting war against Tamils.

    If the Sinhalese leaders have the vision to make the country peaceful and prosperous they would have shared the national cake with Tamils and Muslims. You can’t develop the economy by punishing and exiling a vibrant, productive minority – Tamils. More than a million Tamils driven away by Sinhalese atrocities help boost foreign economies.

    Sri Lanka is in the process of driving Muslims out now.

    Sinhalese politicians who rule the country for 71 years did not fall from the sky: They are part of the society with the malignant cancer of the Buddhist hierarchy.

    If you are honest to yourself, you would see the road Sri Lankan rulers have taken: To make a homogeneous Sinhalese Buddhist society. May be after they achieve that, they will think of the economy, ethics, and vision for a Sinhalese-Buddhist country.

    Voters are from the society, and the society as a whole is now immoral and corrupt to the core.

    Sri Lanka is not At Cross-Roads, it is in a spiral vortex going down a sink hole.

  • 2
    0

    I’m telling that Sinhalese greedy politics will bring destruction to SL. Looks UNP does not know how to elect a presidential candidate; Have a contest among UNP MPs and see who is getting more votes if it Sajith or Ranil. If Ranil does not have support tell him to go to Hell. he is spoiling the national interests

    • 0
      0

      Hail to thee, “A true Sinhala Man..”
      .
      Having seen your name in the list of “Latest Comments”, I came here, then took a quick look at what reads like an excellent article by Dr Suren Sumithrarachchi, in which he sees not only the Sinhalese, but all of Sri Lanka is at the cross-roads. A new article, but already twelve comments.
      .
      I’ve been focussing on the system that will be in play when we go to the polls for the Presidential Elections which will be the first to come within months. Actually, that “first” also is only a common-sense conjecture.
      .
      https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-birth-of-a-movement/comment-page-2/#comments
      .
      We, the citizens are just not in control of anything that is happening at the moment. I think that we must start by admitting our individual limitations and work together. So, after I had long ago hogged the most straightforward description of my identity, you have chosen not the imperious definite article for yourself, but the humbler article that there can be others.
      .
      Yes, it is as that entity called “Sri Lanka” that we must now select new leaders, whom we must have under our control as “servants’.
      .
      Chiv, above, claims literacy for our people; while that is true they lack the Education to make the correct choices. So, we’ve got to start not by deciding whom to vote for, but by seeing what system is in place to enable us to send our authentic wishes to the aspirants for leadership. The system foisted on us in 1978 is a donnée. We now have to use it to vote strategically. So, not for one individual, but three. That’s just the place where we must necessarily start.

  • 0
    0

    These comments have no depth only a repetition of stating symptoms. See why muslims attacked on 21st April whether because of their extremism or fault of sinhala people. It is sad to notice that same old thing is repeated as our politicians do. Nothing new. No practical way is mentioned to get out of the problems.

  • 0
    0

    Dear Suren what you have written is right. I hope you will write a another explaining what should voters do? What options are available for them. What suggestions you can make for them? Most people think only two major parties and alliances can govern the country. That myth has to be properly addressed. Other barriers
    1.Most of the news agencies are owned by major political party supporters.
    (how do we tell truth to the voters and introduce new politicians or parties)
    2. Many priests of all religion accept and encourage politicians who break laws.
    3. Is there a opportunity for true politicians and new parties?
    4. How to encourage new politicians and new parties?
    5. How do true politicians come out without fear?
    6.Many voters consider only short term gains?
    7. How do voters be enlightened with positive attitudes toward new opportunities, think out of the box, the mistake of” doing the same thing and expect different result”. Vote the same parties or politicians and expect better results.
    8. Religion and nationality.

    We need to abolish the executive presidency. We need true politicians. We need a constitution that make every one equal in front of law and all people”s representative responsible for their task and whoever misuse their position or can not perform what people expect from them can be removed from the parliament.
    We all are human being.We have separated in religion and race. There is no truth behind that. We all hungry and thirsty whatever the race or religion. We all die whatever the race or religion. We are fighting for unknown truths and myths. We are not fighting for real needs ( equality, just and fair)

    Dear Suren I hope you will keep writing .

  • 0
    0

    Well written analysis about the blunders committed by all the politicians of all parties. Politicians wanted to develop the parties than their country as every party acted like a bunch of organized gangs. All these gangsters and the henchmen were given portfolios and awarded government tenders and contracts. These bunch of people were planted in positions in the government to carryout sabotages and trade union strikes mainly for political gains. Even education institutions such as universities, technical colleges and schools were spared. What Dr.Suren said is a reality, in today’s context Sri Lanka is at cross roads.

  • 0
    0

    An excellent, well written article. A serious omission though was the continuously shabby treatment of Tamils that began soon after achieving independence and that is still ongoing. As one example, just look at the fate of the political prisoners who are incarcerated in jail indefinitely without proper rhyme or reason!

  • 2
    1

    See the statement given by MR to media. Brother will be next president and “I will be next PM”. How on earth a person can come up with such statement. Obviously its not just arrogance or being cocky. This is ENTITLEMENT . MR,s true belief that he and his family inherently deserves privileges and special treatment. He is talking about premiership, as though buying vegetables in market. Who is responsible behind this entitlement is the voters. These are politicians, voters prefer, in leading the nation .(since independence). When asked to clarify MR repeated the same yesterday by adding “it is the people who wanted my brother as Presidential candidate, and me as next PM”?????

  • 1
    0

    Thank you Dr.Suren Sumitrarachchi! You have well identified and written in nutshell the continuous mismanagement of mother Lankan affairs for the last seven decades. Voters are little mouses. They need a strong individual or an organization to get rid of their fat cats.

  • 1
    0

    Congratulations Dr. Suren Sumithrarachchi on this well thought out and lucidly presented article. I wish this could be translated into Sinhalese and Tamil and published.so as to educate the masses of the predicament that is facing them. I’ve been trying to write such an article in Tamil and have been thinking along these lines for the past couple of weeks to advice the Tamil electorate to take their voting seriously and to educate themselves on Sri Lankan History.

    Once again, Sir, we need people like you striving to educate the masses of all the available historical facts and to draw the right conclusions.

  • 0
    0

    Sri Lanka is not at cross road.
    Sri Lanka is in a cul de sac for the last 78 years
    …and unable to move forward …it’s being only move back wards to hit another cul de sac

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