By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“It is apparent that the continued inaction to reintroduce and/or to raise taxes, and regain the government revenue that was lost, brought about an adverse impact on the economy which had a domino effect on the entire social fabric.” ~ Supreme Court of Sri Lanka
The Supreme Court judgement about the Rajapaksa culpability for Sri Lanka’s economic ruin couldn’t have come at a better time. The sense of hope generated by the ending of chronic shortages and the partial restoration of normalcy has waned. The forward movement of the economy has grinded to a halt, impeded by multiple malaises solidified through inaction and indifference into components of the governance landscape. The president is no longer walking the talk and the parliament is a demented kindergarten where most debates degenerate into a violent slanging matches.
Economic pain is no more a shared problem as it was during the months of crippling shortages. Now the affliction belongs to those occupying the bottom half of the income totem pole. In 2022, the shared hardships of fuel queues and power cuts brought about a rare sense of solidarity. At Galle Face, and across the country, the rich, the middle classes, and the poor stood shoulder to shoulder united in their common deprivation. Now that sense of being in it together is gone. There’s no solidarity any more. Only anger. Nearly a half of Lankans are hurting without hope, a condition that bodes ill for all.
The findings of a recent UNDP survey demonstrate the extent to which the public has lost confidence in the political class, in national institutions, in governance itself. The judiciary is one of two exceptions to this general disenchantment. 40% of respondents trust the judiciary. This week’s landmark supreme court judgement proves that that trust is not misplaced. The judiciary is not immune to the general attrition, but it is not broken. It remains a part of a solution rather than a part of the problem.
That the Rajapaksas have learnt nothing from the disaster is obvious from their reaction to the judgement. They don’t believe they did anything wrong. Therefore, they don’t believe they need to change. Maybe some superficial alterations to regain the lost sheen, a bit of a propaganda hype, but nothing substantial, nothing real. They – and their supporters – remain confident of their own inerrancy, and their infallibility. In their worldview, the only problem with Gotabaya Rajapaksa is that he ran away.
According to some legal experts, the judgement enables victims of the economic crisis to sue its perpetrators, for compensation. Those hardest hit by the crisis are too immersed in the daily struggle to survive to file lawsuits. The political opposition and civil society organisations can intervene to help victims (especially those who lost loved ones or livelihoods) to take the Rajapaksas to courts, but would they? The Supreme Court points out that “prolonged inaction due to arbitrary, irrational and/or manifestly unreasonable decisions and inadequate measures…heavily contributed to disastrous consequences.” A swathe of lawsuits against the authors of those arbitrary, irrational, and unreasonable decisions would send a much needed message to all current and future policymakers that playing fast and loose with society does carry some personal-financial risks.
The chronic innocence of the people
According to the Bible, Adam and Eve existed in a state of innocence until they imbibed the fruit from the Tree of knowledge. In Sri Lanka, voters exist in a never ending state of innocence, a forever unknowing. Every election is preceded by hyperbolic hope; in the immediate aftermath comes euphoria, followed by disenchantment, despair, and anger. Then begins the search for the next saviour. There’s no analysis of what went wrong and why. There’s no sense that no party or leader, however perfect, can get everything right and satisfy everyone. Or the acceptance that no leader or party can deliver everyone their particular utopia. Reeling from the last disappointment, we, the voters, clutch at the next infatuation, ad nauseam. In this never ending game, salvation and damnation are two sides of the same idiotic coin.
In the accompanying popular discourse, ironies jostle unseen. Take the oft-repeated assertion that post-Independence history has been a litany of crimes and errors, with nary a redeeming feature. The obvious conclusion is that colonial times were good times and we were better off as British subjects. Be that as it may, since all leaders since Independence were elected by us, what do those serial bad choices reveal about us as thinking beings? How come we are always wrong, always duped, never capable of learning anything from these mistakes, and always so confident we’ll get it just right the next time?
This chronic innocence of the voters is similar not to the ephemeral non-knowing of childhood but to the more permanent condition of not being of sound mind. For we, as voters, consciously turn out back on the tree of knowledge. Our voting is sola fide – by faith alone. Evidence plays no role in it, certainly not fact. Propaganda suffices, slicker the better. Some leaders can wash whiter than white; and make every dream come true. In 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was that man, Our Hero who Works. He and his brothers are culpable for the economic crisis. But they did not grab power. They were elected freely by 6.9million Lankans, almost all of them Sinhalese and most of them Sinhala-Buddhists. Even in January 2022, even after Gotabaya Rajapaksa decreed his abracadabra transition from chemical to organic fertiliser, he remained more popular than Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa or Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Had an election been held in January 2022, he would have won with a comfortable majority.
Why did nearly 7million Lankans vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa despite the littleness of his mind, the paucity of his understanding? Why did nearly 7million Lankans expend less critical thinking in voting than they do in their quotidian activities, like purchasing vegetables? The eternal cry of being befooled does not suffice. Why were we fooled by such an obvious fraud? Unless and until that question is faced and grappled with, how can we be certain that the same mistake will not be repeated in 2024 and beyond? If we refuse to know about mirages, how can we stop chasing them?
This week, the Supreme Court made another crucial ruling – that the 2020 arrest and detention of Ramzy Razeek had been unconstitutional. In early April 2020, Mr. Razeek, a retired government official and social media commentator, made a facebook post about the Rajapaksa-sanctioned campaign to blame the pandemic on Muslims. Muslims, for the sake of all Lankans, should counter these malicious lies, Mr. Razeek wrote, via an ideological jihad (struggle) for justice and democracy, waged with pen and keyboard.
The closely argued and superbly penned judgement also contains a copy of the original Sinhala post. It’s hard to understand how anyone could have been regarded this post as terroristic. But the details revealed in the various respondent statements indicate that Mr. Razeek’s demonization and arrest were a continuation of the broader anti-Muslim campaign which brought the Rajapaksas such rich politico-electoral dividends. As the Supreme Court judgement points out, the information about Mr. Razeek’s supposed criminality “was first received by the CID from the Ministry of Defence.” The informant was the Military Services Assistant to Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne (fourth respondent). “In fact, according to this B report, MGLS Hemachandra (third respondent) was the ‘complainant’ whose complaint to the CID dated 6th April 2020 had given rise to the investigation…”
The CID of Ravi Seneviratne, Shani Abeysekara, and Nishantha Silva would have taken one look at the supposedly offensive post and realised its innocuous nature. They wouldn’t have arrested an innocent man and kept him in remand custody for months. No wonder the Rajapaksas, soon after they returned to power, liberated the CID from the professionals and put it under the sway of yes men. What they did to the tax base, foreign reserves, rupee, and agriculture, they did to the CID first. Among the charges levelled at the CID’s most brilliant sleuths was that of being pro-Muslim, pro-Tamil, and in the case of one, a secret Tamil. Racism is a broad blanket under which much was – and will be – hidden.
According to the UNDP survey, the most trusted institution in the country is not the judiciary but the military. 60% of respondents trust the military (13% have no such trust while 22% are neutral, and 5% did not respond). It is not hard to surmise that the trust-in-military cohort would consist primarily of Sinhala-Buddhists while minorities would make up most of the have-no-trust and neutral categories. After all, Lankan military is Lankan in name only. In reality, it is a Sinhala-Buddhist military wedded to Sinhala-Buddhist interests. An anomaly in a demographically pluralist land, and a dangerous one.
Combine this (military being the most trusted institution) finding with others – 69% do not trust the parliament and a whopping 78% do not trust political parties – and the picture turns grimmer. Never mind that the despised legislature is composed of members the voters themselves elected freely and fairly. We vote for them while despising them. And in the military we trust. How that translates into democratic health is not hard to surmise.
Our continued love affair with the military contributed to the ongoing financial malaise in two ways. It helped prevent any reduction in defence expenditure, post-war (Against all reason, defence expenditure has moved upwards, post-war. We spend more on the military now than during the war.) It also helped Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s spectacular victory in 2019, a former soldier who would restore to War Heroes the honour and glory owed to them in perpetuity.
The military, other than the Sangha, is the only near-exclusively Sinhala-Buddhist institution in the land. The high-level of trust reposed in it arguably stems from this primordial identification rather than from proven facts of good management or financial probity (the military remains the opaquest institution in Sri Lanka). The military is seen as inerrant and uncorrupt the same way every current political saviour is idealised – based on belief.
Writing forty Years after Israel’s spectacular victory in the Six-Day War, author and columnist Meir Shalev described the deadly dead-end Israel finds herself in, thanks to the non-resolution of the Palestinian issue: “Forty years have passed, and Israel has indeed choked. The country is busy dealing with one matter: the occupation… Forty years have passed, and Israel has neglected everything that the Israel of 1948 wished to occupy itself with: education, research, welfare, health” (Los Angelis Times – 5.6.2007).
We too are in a similar bind. Not only did the war guzzle the largest component of national wealth. Post-war, right up to today, we spend more on defence than on any other subject, from education and health to agriculture, industry, and science and technology. Though we lament about the burden of the state sector, we say nothing about the fact that nearly half of the public wage bill is spent on the military. If state owned enterprises are overstaffed so is the military, and with even less justice.
No serious effort has been made and will be made to reduce this unproductive burden because doing so is not electorally safe in a land where the military remains popular. And no leader aspiring to the presidency would want to risk being tarred with the traitor’s brush by angry monks, war-heroes, and other patriotic actors. While Ranil Wickremesinghe’s pledge to reduce military expenditure needs to be considered with a pinch of salt, neither Anura Kumara Dissanayake nor Sajith Premadasa is likely to act any better. Military is the real sacred cow, to which even the Sangha defers.
When a key logical solution to financial crisis is ruled out a priori, what remains is the unreasonable choices – like as hiking taxes or reducing welfare expenditure. Such measures would leave the economic crisis unalleviated while exacerbating public distress, and therefore popular discontent. As voters blame civilian politicians, military’s popularity will increase. For any democracy, that is not an enviable place to be in.
When the Lankan economy collapsed like a pack of cards in slow motion under Rajapaksa rule, there was a possibility that past voting errors would be critically examined, resulting in more sensible voting practices in the future. But that possibility never materialised. Voting is still approached like an emotional deed, a love-hate relationship rather than a fact-based transaction. We cannot emerge from this rut unless we adopt a policy of voter beware (similar to buyer beware) in deciding how we cast our ballot. When we vote, we purchase a fallible leader/government for the next five years. All the rest is a mirage.