By Asoka Seneviratne –
The period of 1970 to 1977 in Sri Lanka was dark. The country was led by an inexperienced, ill prepared, ill-educated (on geo-politics, economics, managment and global affairs) Sirimavo Bandaranaike. After the 1971 JVP uprising was crushed, she aligned herself to bunch of radical and anti-western leaders like Kaddafi, Kim Ill Sung, Communist China and a few more. Her cousin, somewhat nutty Felix Dias Bandaranaike banned imports, nationalized profitable private and foreign owned companies, banned newspaper groups, severely censored media, curtailed emigration, introduced income limits, impose huge land ownership limits and essentially brought the country to a beggar-land. Mrs. B was taking a turn to full scale socialism, the Moscow style.
But media men never disappeared during her time which is worth noting and the country had no gang or drug cultures. But the only handfuls of newspapers were down to bare two pages if any.
Every essential staple was in short supply. Rice, sugar, dhal, flour, potatoes chilies, onions, bread milk powder, infant formulae and many more were only available at the local corporative store on ration. The local corporative store manager became all so powerful and became godly like. Even a simple wedding saree was available only through government only after producing evidence of a marriage. Whatever food was dished out via corporative were below par. Bread was full of insects and so was rice. Worse Mrs. B made even leaving the country a nightmare. One had to obtain an exit permit. This was aimed at preventing brain drain. A decade old Morris Minor car was a rare luxury. Travelers had to obtain a few dollars by cutting through a whole bunch of red tape. Black-market was on full swing…
This was Karl Marx 101. Our economy was on a nosedive!
Nepotism was at its peak. Mrs. B’s own family tree was running the land. Ran they did to the ground. As much as it was her belief that a centralized, inward looking economy was the way to prosperity, it was also a follow up on her late husband’s somewhat hate filled agenda to the British probably due to his own personal experience as an Oxford undergraduate. He may be right in hating British racism but running an economy should not have been driven by such hate. That would be unbecoming of a smart leader.
Sadly, this seven year socialistic agenda enabled our far Eastern poorer neighbors at the time like South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand who moved into an open free market model earlier on to get way ahead of Sri Lanka economically. Mrs. B should take the full blame for this lag.
I write all this for the befit of today’s generation who are very likely not aware of this dark period.
Westward looking, capitalistic UNP leader JR Jayewardene – Yankee Dickie – was swept into power by a landslide victory in 1977. He broke down all the foolish barriers, red tape, censorships, import bans etc. and reopened the country to the world with a capitalistic agenda. Free trade zones, free imports, tax holidays, heavy incentives for foreign investment was is agenda. He succeeded and SL economy started to grow again. There was an air of prosperity.
But all was not hunky dory for JRJ. He blundered and blundered big. He introduced a highly flawed constitution in 1978 and bragged about his constitution being a blend of American and French. He also bragged about how his smart constitution would stand on a solid three co equal branches of government; Executive, Legislative and Judicial. Nothing was father from the truth. There was nothing co equal about the legislature and the executive. This was due to one basic miss-step he did not foresee.
He appointed his cabinet and ministers from the legislature thereby high jacking its impendence form the Executive. Legislative and appropriations responsibilities lie within the legislature and the executive power is checked by this basic provision. But when a large swath of the legislative branch members become a part of the executive branch, this vital check disappears. Period.
Now we can see why all successive governments had truckloads of ministers. The executive bribed them with minister jobs and peeks and the public had to foot the huge bill.
This infamous 1978 constitution was the beginning of the rot of our political culture. It ruined our Democracy. It led the way to mammoth cabinets, executive overreach, and decay of our democratic institutions and for the first time after independence large scale corruption in the government set in. Some upcoming ministers who were very close to JRJ got very rich. When the wind of Kotte becoming the new Capital, the insiders grabbed then land in the area that were dirt cheap then. The hundreds of thousands of Mahaweli areas were to be inundated, precious timber were sold away to cronies and some even ended up in the private business offices of powerful ministers. The ugly side of unchecked Capitalism was setting in.
JRJ set the stage for robbing. And robbing they did in style. I would say Chandrika B was an exception.
Fast forward to 2021. Sixty nine million Lankans eagerly voted to bring Gota to power. They saw Gota as a Mosses who would save his people and reverse the degeneration of our nation and its rotten political culture. Probably having lived in the USA for two decades Gota was equipped with some fresh ideas. He looked like fresh thinker and earned some respect as a doer. But was he up to the job?
Right from the get-go Gota experienced head winds. Massive debt burden was his biggest, thanks to his older brother and later Ranil/Sirisena due who borrowed like drunken sailors. People witnessed highways, airports, harbors, sky scraping monuments and belived we were getting rich ! Nah. We were spending off of a credit card. Worse most of MR’s investments were poor decisions that would not self-sustain. He-misplanned, miss calculated and miss-invested on white elephants. Cronies had a hey day! Why because there was no check on executive power. MR left the tab to Sirisena/Ranil whose government also continued the plunder within a few months into office.
Later Covid hit over a year ago. Economy tanked. Tax revenue tanked. Forex remittances tanked. Health care costs sky rocketed. Social welfare costs sky rocketed, But loan repayment obligations stood tall or we would lose our credit rating. Gota got engulfed in a massive crisis and he had no time to focus on his fresh ideas and agendas. He had to constantly put off fires that came one after the other. Added to that was his lack of management experience in any reasonable level. Working under a big brother is no match to solid experience.
Gota blundered. As if the country does not have enough crises already, he started his green initiatives and banned chemical fertilizer. If there was any economic activity that was still keeping its head high during Covid era, it was our farmers. They kept the food supply chain moving. But to tell them overnight to switch to organic fertilizer was a death knell. They didn’t have the knowhow. This should have been a gradual transition.
Then came the talk of a few cronies cashing in on land grabs, unfit imports, import duty scams, and the worst which was circumventing of justice system to pardon a whole bunch of family and friends whose cases were moving through the normal judicial system. A fierce advocate in the parliament against corruption was jailed instilling fear.
A sure death knell to our law enforcement and carriage of justice was brewing.
When Sirimavo built a massive nepotism network around her family in the 1970’s people hated it. Nepotism always dilutes transparency and accountability and therefore Democracy. Rajapaksas have not learned a lesson. There are already four members of his close family as cabinet ministers or state Ministers and one non-elected member as a de-facto cabinet minister. The state minister came through the back door, thanks to JRJ’s national list blunder. National list was meant to introduce prominent members of society into the legislature in lieu of a Senate. But instead cronies and trash got in. See how JRJ did not foresee this too.
So today, we are a broken, sick, dead, sad, hopeless and angry people. Nothing seems to go right at the moment, even Mother Nature. As if people are not angry enough, there is a talk of fee million dollars we don’t have been spent to buy brand new luxury SUV’s for the MP’s. To me this is a bribe to keep the MP’s on the side of the government. But a bribe that the poor of Lanka have to pocket with no money in them.
So this is the long and short of the saga of mother Lanka’s sad journey from riches to rags! How one man in the 1970’s paved the way to the rot of an otherwise not so poor and once admired nation in our continent?