By Mohamed Harees –
“They had become a nation of traders.”- Petina Gappah, An Elegy for Easterly: Stories
Sri Lanka is never short of political comedies and political comedies, amid continuing tragedies. Sometime back, SLPP had a series of meetings with Mahinda’s involvement, under the slogan ‘to rise up with Mahinda’, when the Rajapakse family was mainly blamed for Sri Lanka’s economic collapse. It was abandoned half way through, as people are becoming wiser. The world may be suppressing a laugh looking at our array of Ministers and advisors being put in charge to put the broken economy back on track. Sarath Weerasekara is the latest Presidential advisor appointed to oversee food security. Then again, it was top news the other day, that the former Central Bank Governor, Ajith Nivard Cabraal has released a new book in Sinhala titled “Among Economic Killers”, priced at Rs.2500, diverting the blame for Sri Lanka’s economic collapse away from him. Cabral was widely blamed as a main culprit for leading Sri Lanka into its worst-ever economic crisis.
Cabral was released on bail on a surety bail of Rs.10 million by Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court over a private plaint filed against him. When asked by reporters how he could sleep peacefully at night knowing what he had done to the country and its people, he calmly responded “I can sleep very well. I have not done anything against the people. I am the one who acted and saved the country from bankruptcy. People can say anything”. (my foot!). Recently Supreme Court also allowed proceedings of a case filed by Transparency International alleging that former President Gotabaya, his brothers Mahinda and Basil, Ajith Nivard Cabraal and top finance ministry bureaucrat SR Attygalle were directly responsible for the economic crisis. It was ironic that a prominent economic killer rises among the killer gang to write a book, pointing fingers at others for taking Sri Lanka to bankruptcy.
In fact, while being the State Minister of Money and Capital Markets, Ajith Nivard Cabraal opined that there was no relationship between money printing by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and the depreciation of the local rupee in the foreign currency market. “We know the reason why the price has been increased for many goods. It is not due to the money printing that has taken place in Sri Lanka,” Cabraal said in response. Any student of economy knows about the adverse impact of uncontrolled money printing on the economy. He also reiterated in 2021 that Sri Lanka does not have a necessity to approach the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for economic support. The rest is history. Reality did not take long to set in. By the end of 2021, inflation hit record highs. Interestingly, Sri Lanka is the first country in the world to reference Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) officially as a justification for money printing.
As Bloomberg wrote, ‘as in common in populist regimes, critics objecting to the elevation of crank theories to official policy were painted as foreign agents, or elitist, or nattering nabobs of negativity. Any advice from outside the Rajapaksas’ charmed circle was rejected. Unfortunately, that included advice from mainstream economists — and, by extension, the International Monetary Fund. The fact is Sri Lanka showed how things go wrong when crank theories become official policy and how within two years, they brought the country to the brink of default and ruin. There’s a reason only cranks promote such ideas’. Cabraal was one of the main culprits, if not the only one.
Thanks to the Aragalaya which came about due to the island wide demonstrations by thousands, amid tear gas, water cannons, baton-waving and knocking of heads and other parts of the anatomy, one good thing happened, Nivard Cabraal announced that he was resigning. He refused to do so, when genuine economists were tearing him to shreds. He also cheekily managed to hold onto the top Central bank post which was made on par with a Cabinet Minister, and also squeeze the Government for a reported 400,000 rupee monthly salary when his predecessors had received a comparative pittance, and also organised a pension to boot. Today, being the joker of sorts he always has been, Cabraal is on a mission to mislead the nation by publishing his distorted version of the sell-out of the nation, hands in gloves with the Rajapaksas and PB Jayasundara.
It was recently Thilan Wijesinge, Investment Banker, and Entrepreneur delivered ‘Olcott Oration 2022’ titled “Bridging the Ideological Divide that Caused Sri Lanka’s Economic Situation”, which should open the eyes of the people of Sri Lanka to the dangers of allowing a set of totally inept and corrupt set of political hooligans to run the country for so long. He particularly drew the attention of the audience to the disastrous economic crisis precipitated by the likes of Cabraals and his political masters. He also criticised the short sighted warped political decisions taken under the rule of his fellow Anandian Gotabaya. Another leading intellectual also expressed the same views at the Sri J’pura University Convocation too. Simply put, the roots of the crisis lay in the government’s failure to address its fiscal and trade deficits. There was more spending than earning, and more imports than exports. A series of bad macroeconomic policy decisions, including tax cuts, made it harder to borrow from international lenders. Sri Lanka is in need of radical economic reforms, ones that liberate and emancipate, as opposed to entrapping its population under the shackles of bureaucratic ineptitude and kleptocratic governance.
Sri Lankan activists have long been demanding accountability and investigations into the Rajapaksa family’s income and corrupt dealings of their government. Resignations by themselves do not amount to genuine accountability, seen often as “a mere tactical retreat”. Deeper institutional reforms are required to counter the entrenched political systems. There is greater demand from citizens for laws that strip politicians of excessive power and find a way to stop them pulling strings behind the scenes. This is not only in Sri Lanka, but a common scene even in most South-Asian nations, where there are sham cabinet reshuffles, politicians who resign and are re-elected or those who rule through dummy family members when banned from contesting elections. Rarely do power arrangements change, and until they do, all of this is merely theatrical, as many analysts opine. Most of the legislature are packed with those with dubious track records. I wonder how many legislators will make honest disclosures about their incomes and their dual citizen status. Diana Gamage’s fiasco is an ideal example of political deceit.
In terms of international accountability, Sri Lanka continues to treat calls for accountability as an existential threat to the state. In doing so, it threatens the survival of the nation since it refuses closure to the victims, allowing for faith in the state to dwindle. In addition, it strengthens the nationalists’ stranglehold on the nation and, perhaps more importantly, it perpetuates cycles of violence because those responsible are allowed to continue unchecked. Besides, as ICJ reports, Sri Lanka is facing a crisis of impunity. It has become a cliché to speak of a ‘culture of impunity’ but the phrase is entirely apt in describing the situation in Sri Lanka, where impunity has over the years become institutionalized and systematized: mechanisms to hold state actors to account for their actions have been eroded; checks on the arbitrary use of power have been diluted, if not dissolved; institutions to protect the independence of the judiciary have been eviscerated. It is increasingly difficult, in fact nearly impossible, for people who have suffered serious violations of their human rights to receive justice and accountability. The absence of justice removes an important deterrent to future perpetrators.
There may be legal or constitutional legitimacy for Ranil W. and his SLPP backed government. The crowds pouring onto the streets despite the risk of state repression and huge military presence suggest the political leadership lacks popular legitimacy. The government has been using emergency regulations to harass and arbitrarily detain activists seeking political reform and accountability for the country’s economic crisis. The government’s crackdown on peaceful dissent appears to be a misguided and unlawful attempt to divert attention from the need to address the country’s urgent economic crisis. Even few women carrying placards and walking on the streets were taken into custody.
It was not strange that Ranil Wickremesinghe, given his past, has in his two months as President, turned to the use of the obnoxious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which the Rajapaksa governments undertook to amend, promising the UNHRC a moratorium on its use. He authorised use of the PTA to arrest student leaders and other activists and has now utilised another antiquated and irrelevant law to curb public demonstrations. As analyst ICG’s Alan Keenan says, ‘the emergence of a broad popular movement demanding deep political reforms, an end to corruption, and accountability for theft and other alleged crimes by the Rajapaksas and other politicians has created an opening for Western governments and the UN Human Rights Council to reframe their longstanding calls for “accountability” in ways that are more clearly in sync with public opinion, especially among the Sinhala majority’.
In fact, democracy has many definitions, implications and consequences, but accountability is one of its most important components. Citizen participation, political equality, civic consciousness, self-realization, decent treatment by authorities, sense of individual political efficacy, respect for constitutional norms, protection of human rights, responsiveness to public opinion, social and economic levelling and, of course, “freedom” have all been associated with this form of political domination – either as a defining feature or a likely product of it – but they are all contingent and vulnerable if citizens cannot reliably hold their rulers accountable for the actions that they take in the public realm.
Regardless of the setbacks and uncertainties, people of Sri Lanka have an opportunity to build on this moment and create a new vision for their country, without falling into a slumber, allowing those who took the reigns of power without a public mandate because of their struggle, to suppress their voices and ultimate mission.,They should continue to pressurize the establishment to address structural inequalities and violence while demanding social and economic justice, political accountability, and a new culture of governance. This task will not be easy, nor will the results be immediate. However, the changes brought about in the last few months give hope that sustained, innovative, and inclusive citizen mobilization has a chance to transform Sri Lanka.
It is important to build on the signs of optimism arising from Pos -Aragalaya. Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have been saying ‘Don’t be like Sri Lanka’. Thus, unfortunately Sri Lanka has become a case study and a cautionary tale..As Pragya Narang, New Delhi based researcher in an article on Sri Lankan crisis says, ‘when democratic institutions are built on the foundation of votes based on identity politics, communalism, and ethnonationalism rather than an evaluation of policy, governance, integrity and political acumen, such crises are but an eventuality. Other nations and international agencies may be able to help the Sri Lankan economy recover, but the systemic and political issues at the root can only be resolved by the citizens themselves. Voters must stay persistent in holding democratic institutions and elected officials accountable. Until that happens, more of what happened in Sri Lanka awaits across the globe’.
As stated, the government has responded to protests by trying to suppress public activism. As a result, worldwide trust and confidence in public and private institutions and their leaders have been persistently low during the past decade, Be it as it may, the Sri Lankan people deserve a real and proper say. Educating people on how the government runs financially is needed to make people understand that populist policies will be detrimental to long-term recovery. The people are not to blame, but those who wield cultural and media influence are. As public activism expands, governments will be compelled to respond to maintain stability—either by accommodating public demands or by taking harsher, repressive actions— but may be unsuccessful because tactical measures often do not address the underlying grievances. But, increasing public activism can be an indication of democratic health for the future and offer the prospect of more accountable leadership, but this dynamic also comes with risks, including restricting the range of available policy options.
Sri Lanka is a victim of its own crumbling and politicised institutional foundations. As Lahore-based feminist activist Khawar Mumtaz says, ‘the crisis in Sri Lanka reminds “the rest of us in South Asia about the potency of people’s power”. The disastrous ways how Rajapaksas and his Cabraals managed the economy , plugging Sri Lanka into a failing system, were just the canary in the coal mine, for any discerning analyst. It is a national imperative that the culprits responsible for the economic disaster and political instability should be punished without being allowed to go on lecture circuits and earn more (ill-gotten ) money, after selling the nation for a song. They lack moral authority. War criminals like Bush and Blair are still at large, going round doing lecture circuits cashing in through their criminal mission. Cabral with his book is also in a similar mission. An awakened people have a major role to play to ensure Cabral and his cabal are destined to face trial in the courts of justice.