20 April, 2024


Sri Lanka’s Dilemma: Individual Liberties Or Economic Development?

By Damintha Gunasekera

Damintha Gunasekera

Currently, the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act dominates the headlines. After all, with the aragalaya and the subsequent ousting of the Rajapaksa government, isn’t this the type of crackdown Sri Lanka was hoping to move away from? However, amidst this proposed bill and other authoritarian actions taken by the Government, it is imperative that we get an understanding of the situation – in order to develop there will inevitably be trade-offs, and in Sri Lanka’s case the trade-off for development may be individual liberties. 

Delving into the details of the Bill is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, it will explore the compromises we as a people may need to make in order for Sri Lanka to develop and move forward for the ‘common good’. 

Civil Liberties or Economic Prosperity?

During the Cold War, the West emphasized civil and political rights, while the Soviet bloc prioritized economic, social, and cultural rights. Decades later, little has changed, with the West still promoting democracy and individual liberties as the blueprint for governance. However, this model hasn’t particularly resulted in economic prosperity for many developing countries throughout the global south. Instead, it’s resulted in the rise and fall of several military dictatorships, tyrants, oligarchies, and democracies that have failed to deliver adequate development. On the other hand, the ‘Chinese Model of Development’, which prioritizes economic growth and stability over individual liberties and freedom, has proven successful in many Asian countries.

This begs the question of whether we are on the right path or if an alternative model for development should be considered. Should individual liberties be traded off for economic prosperity for all? While the West is apprehensive of China exporting its development model, their proven track record shows there is some merit. Even Henry Kissinger, one of the world’s greatest diplomats, understood that in peacemaking efforts, there is an overriding problem of how to address ‘the sense of individual justice to the common good’. 

The Effect of Protests, Unions, and Free Speech on the Economy 

In many ways, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) brought in 1979, is outdated and does not adequately address the new forms of terrorism Sri Lanka may endure in the 21st Century. Thus, there is an urgent need to bring in legislation that is able to tackle the current forms of terrorism, but that may include trading off individual liberties. Even the Founder of Human Rights Watch, Arieh Neier, noted in his essay, “Rights of People,” that certain limits on rights may be necessary to protect the rights of others, ensure public safety, and promote military necessity. However, those opposing the newly proposed Counter-Terrorism bill in Sri Lanka, including left-leaning parties, journalists, trade unions, student activists, and civil society unions, argue that the bill aims to curtail free speech and the right to protest.

Despite this, a considerable portion of society believes that the ongoing strikes and protests led by the same parties impede the progress of the President’s efforts to rescue the economy. For example, for a rural farmer in Polonnaruwa, having the right to protest may not be as crucial as economic stability through access to affordable fertilizer or kerosene. Additionally, Sri Lanka has been held back for decades by the same leftist parties, trade unions, and student activists that advocate for protectionist policies and inefficient government-run businesses, which led us to bankruptcy in the first place. Is it reasonable to let them persist as an obstacle to the state’s development program?

Why an Alternative Development Model May Be the Way Forward 

Several countries in East and South East Asia including Taiwan and Singapore, are proof that there is merit to this development model. While economic development necessitates government intervention and regulation to guarantee stability, attract investment, and foster growth; individual liberty requires freedom from government interference, enabling citizens to make their own choices and pursue their interests. 

The trade-off between economic development and individual liberties is a significant issue for Sri Lanka, a country that has struggled to transition from a closed, socialist economy to a more open, market-oriented one. Unfortunately, nationalist and populist parties have often misled the population, resulting in a lack of reforms and isolation from the global market. This has caused Sri Lanka to fall behind other countries in the region, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Malaysia, that have embraced economic liberalization and connected with the world. 

Navigating Sri Lanka Forward 

Reforming the Sri Lankan economy is not without its challenges. The country’s history of a flawed democracy and ineffective leadership has left many citizens skeptical of market-oriented reforms. Nationalist, leftist-leaning groups continue to resist change, arguing that free-market policies will harm the most vulnerable in society and lead to inequality. Therefore, these groups insist that the government should continue to support loss-making state-owned enterprises and protect domestic industries from foreign competition.

To navigate this trade-off between economic development and individual liberty, policymakers in Sri Lanka should look to the Chinese Model of Development. While this approach has been criticized by human rights groups, it has undeniably led to rapid economic growth and lifted millions of people out of poverty. 

While some argue that economic development and individual liberty can be mutually reinforcing, as economic growth can lead to increased political freedoms and greater protection of human rights, it does not seem to have been proven successful for many countries in the global south. Even Kenneth Roth, former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, argues that the advocacy of civil and political rights and the advocacy of social and economic goals do not necessarily go hand in hand, suggesting that these two goals may be competing rather than complementary. 

It is evident that Sri Lanka is faced with a challenging trade-off between economic development and individual liberties. Finding a solution is not straightforward, and policymakers must make a conscious effort to weigh the pros and cons of various policy approaches. Striking a balance between economic growth and safeguarding human rights and individual freedoms should be a top priority unless there is no alternative option but to make a trade-off.

*Damintha Gunasekera is an independent researcher who holds a B.A in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts and an M.A in International Affairs from The George Washington University. He has worked in several government and non-government organizations in numerous countries. Damintha is passionate about promoting economic justice, reconciliation, and developing Sri Lanka.

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Latest comments

  • 7

    “During the Cold War, the West emphasized civil and political rights, while the Soviet bloc prioritized economic, social, and cultural rights….”
    “the ‘Chinese Model of Development’, which prioritizes economic growth and stability over individual liberties and freedom, has proven successful in many Asian countries.”
    The West did talk about all those things, but in practice practiced apartheid, destroyed millions of lives in places like Vietnam, even in Indonesia, and was directly responsible for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
    Be that as it may, the “Chinese Model” is not really Chinese. China only imitated the East Asian tiger economies, which, while they were growing, were far from being “democratic ” . Many were run by outright dictators, or autocrats like LKY in Singapore, though all had solid Western backing.
    Even though many claim that they want this country to be “like Singapore “, I doubt any of them know what it is like to actually live there.
    As the author says, there are trade-offs to be made on the developmental road, and the full spectrum of rights may not be compatible. Many who will lose their cushy jobs will complain.
    The author writes well, and is a cut above the “researchers ” we usually get on this forum.

    • 6

      Whatever the counter-terrorism bill may be, it should include a clause to say that when the so-called terrorist is released without charges they should be paid a compensation of One lakh per day they were in custody.

  • 1

    Individual Liberties Or Economic Development?
    ‘in Sri Lanka’s case the trade-off for development may be individual liberties’.
    This is exactly the battle between Capitalism and Socialism.
    I lean towards Capitalism.
    the Prevention of Terrorism Act does not adequately address the new forms of terrorism
    Here, there is a vast gap between my thinking and the writer’s.
    There was never any form of Terrorism in Sri Lanka, except for repression by the State.
    All acts of so called terrorism emanated from that cruelty.

  • 3

    “Individual Liberties Or Economic Development?”
    I don’t know whether the question is applicable to Sri Lanka? In Sri lanka Economic development is impossible because of the high level corruption at the top level of governance whether it is left or right, nothing to do with Captalism or Communism. You cannot compare China’s development with Sri Lankan development. In Sri Lanka the Capitalist power uses oppressive to hold in power but not to develop the country.

  • 2

    This type of third class tactics to rob people from their basic freedoms is deplorable.

    This will only serve the rich minority.

    For a short period.

    The it will be all hell let loose.

  • 4

    I think every country should choose policies that suit them the best.
    We have to define our common goals and determine the issues that are obstructing us achieving them.
    There are two things to consider here, the government maybe excessively harsh on the common man on one hand while the laws are completely different to the big wigs and corrupt politicians who could be the biggest stumbling block for progress.
    On the other hand the masses could take liberties for granted and abuse the liberties. This is a true and real threat to a country that is struggling to pick up its pieces.
    The idea of a sound judiciary balancing the two extremes should come to mind in such a case. The law should be applied equally to all, in fairness but firmly. Perhaps then everyone will see the need to be disciplined and everyone will willingly fall in line to be united in building a better nation.

  • 3

    I completely agree with you that every country should choose policies that suit them the best. However, it is important to keep in mind that policies should also align with the values of the country and be in accordance with international human rights standards.

    Regarding the issue of corruption and unequal treatment under the law, I agree that it is a significant obstacle to progress. It is crucial for a country to have a strong judiciary that upholds the rule of law and ensures equal treatment for all citizens. It is also essential to have effective mechanisms in place to investigate and punish corrupt officials, regardless of their status.

    At the same time, it is important not to undermine individual freedoms and liberties in the name of discipline and progress. It is possible to have a society that upholds both individual rights and responsibilities while also striving towards a common goal.

    In summary, a balance must be struck between promoting individual liberties and responsibilities while also ensuring that policies and laws are justly applied to all citizens. A strong judiciary, effective anti-corruption measures, and a commitment to upholding international human rights standards are all crucial in achieving this balance.

  • 2

    Do you accept the fact that our country will not be in the present state if it had not adopted Sinhala only and had adopted meritocracy. Anti-Tamil acts by the government of SL should be taken as the prime cause of all ills in our country. Individual liberties should not have adverse effect on country’s common GOOD. Buddhist clergy should not dabble in politics especially in actively promoting racial discrimination and violence. What is happening in Myanmar too should be condemned

  • 3

    It is good that the current unelected autocratic president is going ahead to suppress freedoms and make the country a police state. That environment is very useful to mount the next stage of the Aragalaya as a full-blown revolution from the millions of people that will sweep the whole rotten lot from the system forever, never to be seen in the news again. It must come like a twenty metre high tsunami against the corrupt, despicable parasitic scum that call themselves people’s reps or hold high office.

  • 2

    There is no clash between individual liberties and economic development. Unless there are individual liberties guaranteed in the Constitution are effectively enforced by the Government, without State Terrorism, it would pave way for robust economic development, especially with the overseas Sri Lankans’ strong participation. All overseas Sri Lankans, although they may be citizens of other countries, still have a strong relationship and feeling for Sri Lanka. It’s only the politicians in all parties, especially the crooks, rapists, murderers, and paga kings who are in power, knowing very well they will be not voted in again by the people, that have a conflict with provisions of the Constitution providing individual liberties.

  • 0

    Schools in the country should encourage its students at A/L to debate the topic Individual Liberties or Economic Development?
    Will the Education Ministry send out a circular to stop the debates?
    This would send out a message to all what is important ; Individual Liberties………….

  • 1

    What we all need is a brand new constitution that is acceptable to minorities as well as majority tethnic & religious groups. Instead of asking for any form of election, we should insist on a new constitution that is passed by REFERENDUM as soon as possible. The new constitution should have proposals to prevent uneducated thugs/murderers/ bribe takers holding any public posts. Everyone including President PM etc should be WITHIN the law. If justice had been incorrectly passed previously, they should be revisited especially TSUNAMI RELIEF FUNDS.

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