Sri Lanka: The Phoenix rises from the dead


Can a failed State be resurrected by the same wine in different bottles?

by Raj Gonsalkorale

If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools - Plato

The phoenix is an immortal bird associated with Greek mythology (with analogs in many cultures) that cyclically regenerates or is otherwise born again. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. Some legends say it dies in a show of flames ... Wikipedia

Today, the country’s debts are more than the value of what it produces. The income cannot pay for the expenses and the budget deficit has steadily climbed over the years. Expressing the deficit as a percentage of the GDP is misleading considering that the country’s debt exceeds the GDP. The country keeps borrowing to bridge this gap. It even borrows from Bangladesh now. 

There is no power for half the day and indications are that this will get even worse. Besides the damage to the economy, the impact of these power cuts on the health of people and their basic economic needs is ignored. There is a gas shortage and shortages of food and medicines. The cost of living has reached heights it never has. The devaluation of the rupee against the US Dollar has been more than 50% in two weeks and it is falling further. The current trajectory is frightening, and it will not be surprising if there is a flood of people from Sri Lanka seeking refuge elsewhere. 

In this climate, Sri Lanka is witnessing a Phoenix experience with some political leaders. Rejected by the people for their inability to have led the country when they had the opportunity and having been drubbed at elections, they have risen to lecture the country about what it should do to overcome the current unprecedent economic crisis. Consider the recent history of the UNP and the SLFP.

The UNP had an unheralded and unprecedented demise. Failing to win a single seat in any district, it secured a dismal 2% of the total vote, or approximately 250,000 votes country wide and only approximately 30,000 odd votes in Colombo District, signalling that the UNP is now a historical monument rather than an electorally viable political force – Ground Views 7th August 2020 

While it is no personal reflection on past leaders of political parties and of the country, those who had opportunities to introduce essential economic structural reforms, and did not do so, it would be unwise for them to be brought back to be part of a process to introduce the vital economic reforms that are critical at this juncture. One leader who managed less than 249, 000 votes for his party at the last election, a colossal party at one time, and only one national list seat for himself, and who had several opportunities to show his mettle as the Prime Minister of the country, is now heralded as an “intelligent” leader who should play a major part in the resurrection of the country. It is the height of cheek for this leader to rise from the ashes like the mythological Phoenix and lecture to the country about an economic solution for the country. It is even more insulting for him to be given a platform to do his lecturing by the media. Some in the media may believe a dead Donkey is clever in the company of Morons.

Joining him is the leader of the SLFP who as the President of the country, after four and a half years of substandard and ineffective leadership, led his party to an equally dismal ending and managed to get a few members elected to the Parliament thanks to its alliance with the SLPP. The SLFP on their own polled 66, 579 votes nationally and won one seat in the North. He too has begun lecturing the country on economics!

At the same time, those currently in government, also having had prior opportunities and the current incumbency to structure the economy for it to meet unforeseen situations and at least have measures to mitigate a fall out, continue to manage the economy without a restructuring plan that has immediate, medium, and longer-term measures. While the serious impact of Covid cannot be understated, one cannot also understate the degree of inefficiency and ineffectiveness of measures taken by the government to alleviate the hardships being experienced by the people.

To make matters worse, rumors that are circulating in social media about the level of corruption within government ranks including at high levels is shocking. The government could have taken the lead to strictly enforce the requirement for all Parliamentarians to file tax returns and disclose their assets and liabilities every year to the department of inland revenue. Buying luxury houses, substantial company shares, even rare and expensive paintings, and other unsavory information have been doing the rounds in social media. Disclosure of one’s income, assets and liabilities would have been a way to dispel these rumours, indeed, if they were just that, rumours.

Collectively, politicians have failed the country over the last 74 years and the voters have failed the country as they have repeatedly elected politicians who have failed. 

In the circumstances, the President, who prided himself in saying that he is not a politician has the opportunity, maybe his last, to demonstrate he is not. If he seriously wishes to get the country out of the morass it is in, he will have to take some drastic steps and distance himself from partisan politics. It is high time that he enlisted the support of leaders in industry, business, academia, and professionals who have demonstrated their abilities not just in Sri Lanka but also in international bodies, and in other countries, to take a greater interest in Sri Lanka and its future and to get engaged in the process of resurrecting the country. If he is not willing to do so, then he may have to, or may be forced to, relinquish his office.

Sri Lanka and its future generations have no hope if failed politicians are given a new lease of life to lead them out of the mess created by these very politicians. If this happens, falling from the cliff into the precipice is certain. The blind may lead the blind and fall into an abyss, but those who can see should not allow the blind to lead them to that abyss. One can only hope that the public are not blind.

A five-point fundamental structural revision of governance to overcome the perilous situation in the country and plan for the future is suggested for public consideration. What is mentioned are not measures for the immediate period but more for the medium and longer term.

Firstly, it is time to bring in competent technocrats as cabinet ministers from outside the Parliament and give them the task of developing an economic plan and executing it. The appointment of new people with new ideas to chart the future economic direction of the country.  Today’s politicians are not capable of doing this nor should they be entrusted the task of doing it unless there is some strange desire to jump into the fire from the frying pan. The economic plan should be based on an export oriented, import substitution footing, energy self sufficiency through renewable energy sources and hydro power, and measures that ensure food security. 

Secondly, accompanying such a change should be the restoration of the independence of the public service and entrusting Secretaries of ministries the task of executing the plans developed by the new cabinet of ministers without the interference of politicians.

Thirdly, and very importantly, establishing a clear distinction between monetary policy and fiscal policies and the central bank made independent of the government through necessary legislation and assigned the responsibility for monetary policy, to act independently and free from political involvement or interference. 

Fourthly, changing the constitution to incorporate all above, and devolving people’s representation to the grass roots. A strong local government structure that brings people closer to governance, a regional council governance model with people’s representatives not exceeding 100 members each for a maximum of three regional councils, and a central governance model, a national parliament, with not more than 100 members elected by the people. A President elected by a council of people’s representatives comprising of the members of local government councils, members of the regional councils and members of the national parliament, should head the cabinet. The President and the cabinet of ministers should report to the national parliament every three months and to the council of people’s representatives every six months. In this structure the post of a Prime Minister becomes redundant.

Fifth and perhaps the most important, a police service and a judiciary service totally independent of the government and reporting to a Judicial Service Commission and a Police Commission respectively. The importance of this independence cannot be stressed again and again considering the level of corruption found within these two services. The blatant disregard to the rule of law, to law enforcement, and the notion that some are more equal than others and the unethical societal value, “it’s who you know and not what you know” pervading to all levels in the country, has made Sri Lanka one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Introducing whatever constitutional changes, whatever governance structural changes will be of no benefit for the country unless there is a rule of law applicable equally to anyone and everyone in the country and the law enforcement agencies and the justice system functions impartially and are allowed to act impartially.