Recovering a special status through leadership
University students chat with a policeman during a protest against the economic crisis near the parliament building in Colombo on May 4. — Agence France-Presse/Ishara S Kodikara
There has always been something special in Sri Lanka. In 140 AD, the geographer Ptolemy drew a map of the island which made it much larger than it is. It was probably because of the stories he had heard about its diversity, where forests, mountains, oceans, and cities inhabited by diverse peoples could only exist in a much larger entity. At the time of independence from colonial rule, British colonial administrator Leonard Woolf was so enamored with the country and its potential that he described it as the “Switzerland of the East”. After independence too, the country retained its attraction for foreigners. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew wanted his country to emulate Sri Lanka well into the 1960s.
In the 1970s, Sri Lanka found a place in economic development textbooks for its low Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, and its high PQLI index, which measures physical quality of life. This is due to its social welfare-oriented economic and fiscal policies. It is no wonder that Sri Lanka enjoys considerable international goodwill. In 1976, Sri Lanka hosted the 5th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Colombo, and its Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike chaired the session which was attended by 86 nations, with an additional 30 observers and guests representing all continents of the world. China stepped in generously to provide the country with a world-class conference center, the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, as a gift that even today is unmatched for its beauty and facilities.
When Sri Lanka chose to chart a new economic course and embrace export-led development, the UK made a full gift of the Victoria Dam and other infrastructure. Japan donated the new parliamentary compound and the 1,001-bed Sri Jayawardenapura General Hospital. Smaller European countries like Norway and Sweden donated large sums of money for integrated rural development which sought to extend the benefits of economic development to all parts of the country. Today, as the country faces its greatest economic challenge since independence, it must regain the goodwill that once existed in the world and has largely lost in the aftermath of three decades of civil war.
THEN again there is an opportunity to regain the place we once had. The peaceful nature of the protests in Sri Lanka as well as the role of youth in them have captured the imagination of pro-democracy supporters around the world. In many other countries, including those in the west, mass protests against the government are often accompanied by acts of vandalism and looting. So far in Sri Lanka there has been none of this. Although the heart of the protest is right across from the country’s most opulent mall, One Galle Face, and despite the dire economic conditions facing the majority of protesters, they behaved with a sense of social responsibility. . The images of families camping at the protest sites and of people of all ages and social classes, ethnicities and religions taking part are noteworthy.
Sri Lanka clearly needs external support urgently. Even today, there are ships anchored in the port, laden with fuel, which fail to unload it due to the government’s inability to find the dollars to make immediate payment. While they are anchored, they incur demurrage charges which are in addition to the dollars that the government will eventually have to pay and for which the general population will also be burdened. The current unrest in the country is due to the economy running out of dollars to pay for imports and people suffering in queues and unable to buy what they need due to the shortage.
Several countries have already shown goodwill towards Sri Lanka in these difficult times. They are led by India, which has been by far the most generous and has promised to ensure that Sri Lanka has the food and fuel it needs to avoid the worst. There is also the generosity of China, Bangladesh, Italy and other countries. But Sri Lanka needs much more and on a larger scale if it is to bridge the gap between now and the IMF assistance that should put the country on a sustainable path to recovery. Government leaders’ calculation that they can stay in their seats and weather the storm is a misinterpretation of the lack of credibility they have. If the people of Sri Lanka are on the streets protesting government corruption and Sri Lankan expats are refusing to send their dollars into the country for the same reason, it is unreasonable to expect governments foreigners are spending their taxpayers’ money to support Sri Lanka.
UNFORTUNATELY, it seems that the direction of the government leadership is to seek victory in a war of attrition in which the casualties will be the people of the country. They seem to be hoping that the protests will subside over time and they can resume business as usual. If they think so, they are being misled, which is easily possible as they are now confined to their high security encampments with dozens of security forces around them. The evidence on the ground is different. The symbolic one-day general strike saw around 1,000 unions go on strike. Even government departments were not functioning. Protests are growing across the country, although numbers at Galle Face are lower than they were at the start of the protest campaign.
The leadership of government must end this senseless war of attrition by acting in accordance with the higher traditions of democracy. They must be candid in accepting responsibility for the disaster that has befallen the country under their watch. They can either withdraw or, failing that, agree on a roadmap in which they would lead the reform process according to a strict timetable. The first two steps, in this regard, would be the appointment of a new Prime Minister acceptable to the opposition in parliament and the repeal of the 20th Amendment which gives superpowers to the president at the expense of parliament. The last step in this sequence that would ensure the exit of the current leadership of government would be the abolition of the executive presidency.
Such a political approach to solving political problems, within the framework of the constitution and born out of the ethic of responsibility, would once again elevate Sri Lanka to the status of a special country. There will be the possibility of redemption that may well serve the next generation of government leaders. On the other hand, the longer the heads of government remain in place, as they seem determined to do now, the more the country risks sliding into a worse state of economic collapse. It will spell the end of any hope of securing the large-scale financial aid that a new government leadership that is untainted by past human rights abuses and corrupt practices could obtain from the world. It will also help to avoid the additional wrath of people suddenly plunged into unexpected poverty.
Jehan Perera is Executive Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.