By Mohamed Harees –
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, Couldn’t put Humpty together again..
Wow! How effectively this nursery rhyme sums up the disaster awaiting this Paradise Isle in the not too distant future. A hollowness of a government which came to power with much promise and hype to assuage a broken nation, specially an insecure majority community, stands exposed, with the Emperor’s clothes being laid bare, before a much disappointed electorate and the international community. The Gotabaya government, just under two years in government have reached new heights of unpopularity, never seen before, with even the same slavish electorate which voted them to power, showing their open discontent particularly both on social media and streets , despite many onslaughts on the freedom of expression in this country via draconian laws, arbitrary Police action and PTA regulations. Well! If there is one lesson to be learnt from this national debacle, Sri Lanka appears to be not learning any lesson from history, amid the bitter realization that racist politics as well as fantasy election promises and election fads have been bringing nothing but much immense destruction to the nation over the past seven decades.
What type of Sri Lanka is being shaped by these events in the recent past ,and what type of image of Sri Lanka is being carved out in the international arena? It will be too late when the nation realizes that cosmetic changes like a ‘broken, corrupt Humpty Dumpty’ like Basil being co-opted, will only add to the nation’s misery, created by a vile Rajapaksa rule. Divine Justice has it that no regime built upon and polluted by nepotism, dictatorship, autocracy, corruption, impunity, breakdown of rule of law, and racism will ever succeed. True the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre once wrote, “Every country has the government it deserves’. But, this Status quo cannot continue and the people at the grass roots levels should force the hands of the government it elected, to do what it must – to create a united, credible, prosperous Sri Lanka with international recognition, where all communities will lay claim to alike and the future generation will be proud to inherit.
Reputed monk Elle Gunawansa Thero in a recent TV interview invited all nationalities to come together to wage the second Independence struggle, underlying the reality that even the so-called last hope -the present politicians who were brought to power with their patronage, have made it worse – making ‘Independence’ a mere mockery. In this context, the idea of a second, renewed Independence struggle, against the class of corrupt Brown Sahibs in power today, is not just inspiring, but need of the hour too. The myth of independence (which Sri Lanka ‘won’ in 1948) lies in the fact that the independence amounted to merely a change in the optics. The only change that occurred was in the faith and in the colour of the skin, between the old and the new rulers, while the content and character of governance remained the same; nay much worse putting even the White colonialists to shame.
In Sri Lanka, ‘stupidity’ of the people at elections has thus been creating dictators, narcissists, crackpots and corrupts in the past. Electorate unfortunately decided once again who will rule them. As if ‘providing ladders to jumping monkeys’, the present incumbent has also been given dictatorial powers under the 20A too. Today, Sri Lanka stands in need of deliverance from the wretched Rajapakse hoodoo. Sri Lanka woefully needs a second Independence struggle from the local Brown Sahibs and political leaders who have taken the nation towards oblivion and economic pitfall as Ven Elle Gunawanse referred to, and called for an ‘All-community’ alliance to save the country from an impending doom. In short, the Rajapaksa Genie need to go back into the bottle or else if the collective conscience of our nation waver and allow this regime to rule Sri Lanka like another Somalia, then the days are not far away when this Paradise Isle will turn into a Banana Republic.
There is the perception about Independence as an essential marker of our Lankan-ness. However, at the risk of repetition, it need to be stressed that even after seven decades of Independence, to our utter disappointment, independence did not however bring socio-political freedom or economic progress; only disaster after disaster in these areas. There is a poignant lament expressed by writers and analysts about the collapse of the vision of equality and prosperity which inspired the Independence struggle. But no one has questioned the validity of the Independence Day and exposed its cultural, political and psychological underpinnings and associations as false. Yet, this falsehood has been maintained year after year over the Post-Independence period in our history.
The myth of independence from colonialism has been shattered in many developing countries by recurring instability of governments and continuing poverty, illiteracy and indignities of daily life, even after decades of securing independence. The reason that the fruits of independence and democracy have not reached the people in countries like Sri Lanka is that people have been hit with a double- whammy. The struggle for independence was waged in the name of the people and securing their democratic rights. But the vacuum created by the departure of foreign colonialists was filled by the stalwarts of the local medieval culture of entitlements, special privileges and social and structural inequalities – Brown sahibs and their associates in the religious lobby. The laudable initiatives like permanently removing the scars and inequities of colonialism through constitutional provisions, inter-alia ‘rule of law’ and ‘equal treatment and equal opportunities’ for all, failed when the post-colonial rulers instead, continued to rule the country under their own arbitrary, authoritarian and undemocratic policies and thus deepened these scars. The power of ideas like the social contract, human rights, democracy, distinction between state and government, separation of powers and no-power-without-accountability embedded in the Constitution were openly flouted and were confined to paper specially after 1977 to date (from JRJ to Gota).
For too long, corruption has been tolerated. For too long, Sri Lankan voters have moved along two party continuum. For long, they have opted for a personality-based politics and moved away from policy based politics. Seven decades later, Sri Lanka is in the cesspits of history as a result of this self-centered political class of both sides of the divide. Far too long inequality and poverty are tolerated. Sri Lanka continues to be an eternal developing country. Just look the dismal so-called record of Sri Lanka! How Independent and non-aligned the country is! Today, Sri Lanka is being quoted worldwide as an ideal example of country in economic slavery and dependence. Kenya, Bangladesh and Malaysia openly referred to Sri Lanka as a lesson which need to be learnt to avoid the so-called Chinese debt trap.
Examples galore. In 2017, Sri Lanka has formally handed over its southern port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease, which government critics have denounced as an erosion of the country’s sovereignty, when the Yahapalana government was in power. PM Mahinda then blamed the then rulers thus, ‘If things continue in the present manner, Sri Lanka will not have any national assets left by the time this government ends. The people should band together and organise in the villages, towns and workplaces to oppose this government’s quest to sell Sri Lanka off to foreign buyers’. Constantino Xavier, a fellow at foreign policy think-tank Carnegie, said: “This is part of a larger modus operandi by China in the region. Beijing typically finds a local partner, makes that local partner accept investment plans that are detrimental to their country in the long term, and then uses the debts to either acquire the project altogether or to acquire political leverage in that country.” For Beijing, the Hambantota project is a linchpin of the “One Belt One Road” project, which aims to build a new Silk Road of trade routes between China and more than 60 countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. New Delhi became so concerned about Beijing’s plans at Hambantota that it has entered talks with Sri Lanka to operate the Mattala airport nearby.
Today, under Gotabaya regime, more parts and national assets of Sri Lanka have gone on global auction with bidders vying for its piece of cake, particularly China (having the major share) as well as India, and the West too. Gotabaya government now looks set to sell hundred acres of prime land to Chinese companies in the Colombo Fort and Slave Island areas, as Beijing continues to seize strategic control of Sri Lanka’s capital city, its major highways, and ports, Virtually complete management, administration and jurisdiction of the Colombo Port City, has fallen into Chinese hands too. There was much opposition to the sale of the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Harbour to the Indians. However, in his government’s first admission yet of Indian involvement in developing a container terminal at the strategically coveted Colombo Port, in January 2021, Gotabaya used different terminology when he said 49% of the investment will come from the “Adani Group and other stakeholders”, after assuring the unions that ‘East Container Terminal will not be sold or leased’. Both leading Buddhist monks and Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith warned that Sri Lanka is in danger of becoming a “Chinese colony” if the government rushes bills through without consulting the people. Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera, also stressed, ‘We have handed over the country to the politicians for five years only to rule and people are the owners of the country. At present there are many geopolitical issues in the country. China is on one side, India and the United States on the other side.
As per global analysts Bloomberg, Asia’s highest default risk spotlights Sri Lanka debt worry. Saddled with heavy debts, and facing a financial crisis on by the corona virus, Sri Lanka appears to be doubling down : piling on more Chinese debt despite having to pay millions of dollars to service its current obligations. China has bailed out Sri Lanka in many instances in the face of dwindling foreign reserves. Sri Lanka is also borrowing large chunks of loans from Chinese banks to finance its road development projects too, amid the pandemic. Even Bangladesh has come to Sri Lanka’s assistance in this regard, with the move injuring the ‘pride and dignity’ of the nation, as reflected in many social media posts. Sri Lanka’s global credit ratings too have got downgraded. Sri Lanka’s monetary settings remain a credit weakness. The Central Bank yesterday printed the highest amount of money recorded in a single day to bridge a budget hole, amid shrinking tax income. Sri Lanka printed a whopping Rs.208.45 billion on Monday, after printing Rs.23 billion in June, taking the total treasury bill stock held by the Central Bank to over a trillion rupees. Sri Lanka triggered the biggest balance of payments deficit in history of 2.3 billion US dollars in 2020 by printing over 650 billion rupees. Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardane was recently quoted as saying that the Sri Lankan economy is in its worst crisis since independence, as there was no tax money left for other expenses after the state sector workers and pensioners are paid every month. Thus, in this context, to claim that Sri Lanka is an independent nation is a misnomer.
Another disaster which struck the nation was the scourge of racism besetting the governing mechanism. Rajapaksa camp specially, have allowed racial prejudices and communal divisions to gain a foothold in the psyche of our younger ones, instigated two communities which lived side by side for generations in trust and friendship to start harbouring mutual suspicions and fears while pushing Sri Lanka to be hounded internationally as a country fast transforming itself into a ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ majoritarian state with decreasing space for the ‘other’. Today, Sri Lanka is crying out not just to become an inclusive nation, but also ensure the fruits of its progress are equitably shared by its sons and daughters beyond racial or religious divides, in addition to live in a country free of economic debt shackles.
When then can the people of Sri Lanka expect a regime that governs not in reaction to the past but in preparation for the future and see the seeds of a new possibility, of a world that is neither colonial nor postcolonial? Not until the people and the intellectuals in particular stand up and speak up demanding decisive social changes in society and force the hands of leaders to have the sense to build an inclusive nation founded on the bed rock of national reconciliation. A corrupt political culture stinking to high heavens needs to be cleaned and the fallen international credibility need to be mended. Still, those who seek to promote the vision that Sri Lanka belongs to all who have made it their home are under attack by hawks on either side of the ethnic divide. Dialogue and discussion, not bloodshed and destruction, will prove to be final arbiters of our destinies. The current situation is depressing but there is certainly a light at the end of the dark tunnel. Sri Lanka needs to be re-structured and re-invented for its inevitable tryst with destiny. Otherwise, the challenging task of building a new nation will still be unfinished business even a century after Independence. Finally, constitutional guarantees will prove toothless tigers, as the implementation ultimately depend on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the people who elect it.