Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 2022

The crisis in Sri Lanka has now attracted global attention, and I gave some of the background to it in my post of 22 April. But, quite frankly, I quail when asked to explain to outsiders the suicidal bent in Sri Lankan politics. Our post-independence history is a succession of “lost opportunities”.

Yet, we are not the only relatively well-educated polity to elect to power megalomaniacal Presidents or Prime Ministers. And the political challenge we face today is somewhat similar to what my friends in the UK, for instance, face: How, in a constitutional democracy, do we remove an incumbent regime to which we gave a massive majority in the last parliamentary elections? The economic meltdown has belatedly opened the eyes of the electorate and put them now at odds with the people who still sit as their representatives in government.

On the 20th July, parliament votes to elect a replacement for the ousted President who was forced out by a popular uprising and fled our shores to Singapore. The acting President, only a little less popular, was elevated to the position of Prime Minister three months ago by his predecessor despite having received a meagre number of votes in the last general elections and being the only member of his own political party to sit in parliament. (His appointment was ratified by the former President’s servile parliamentary majority). Despite being a veteran politician, and having served six tenures as Prime Minister (a world record), he has not a single political accomplishment to his credit. Incompetent, but with a messiah-complex, he is determined to become the next President. And, given the dysfunctional nature of our parliament, will probably succeed.

However, to blame a single family or political party for our national misery is naïve. Sri Lanka boasts a high literacy rate and a better-than-average educational system. It is home to all the major religious traditions. Yet religion, like politics, is amoral, its practice driven largely by self-interest, fear, superstition or wilful ignorance. Violence, dishonesty and corruption have become embedded in daily life.

Such corruption, taken to new heights by recent regimes, has cheated the poor, robbing them of their life-chances. It has crippled public health, education, public utilities and state institutions. Corruption on such a scale cannot be blamed solely on one family or party. It would not have been possible without the collusion of many in the business, banking, judicial, medical, IT and legal sectors.

The people who, since independence, been the primary foreign-exchange earners (tea estate workers, garment factory workers, rural poor sent abroad as housemaids and construction workers) have received little of what they have given to the nation. Foreign exchange has been siphoned off by the rich elites for the sake of education or employment abroad. Public hospitals and schools have steadily deteriorated in quality of services, while state funds have been diverted to private interests with political connections.

While wanting to attract foreign tourists, Sri Lanka’s politicians and business elites have routinely destroyed everything that tourists come for. We have felled our rainforests, polluted our rivers and beaches, built airports on the edge of wildlife sanctuaries, and wasted foreign exchange on other “white elephants” such as multi-lane highways and an inefficient national airline at the expense of developing eco-friendly rail services.

These are problems recognizable in many countries today. What the world’s media call economic or political crises are, at root, moral and cultural meltdowns. Widespread lying, for instance, makes it harder for voters to make good choices, since they either cannot trust traditional sources of knowledge or work with false information. There is plenty of data showing that societies with high levels of trust (sometimes, misleadingly, called “social capital”) have much higher levels of social well-being and political maturity than others.

Economics and business are also founded on trust and are parasitic on the basic honesty of the majority; and when this is lost or squandered, economies and businesses fail. All the more reason why our socio-political activism must transcend the narrow cultural perspectives of conservatism, liberalism or Marxism and work with a larger understanding of humanness and what constitutes human flourishing.

The global media spotlight on Sri Lanka will fade soon. Hopefully, the popular struggle by civil society movements, and not least the local churches, will continue. Calls by the IMF and Western states for “political stability” don’t go far enough. China and Russia have political stability. Do we want to be become like them? Yes, we need foreign investors in economic projects. But we also need support in helping build just and responsive political institutions. And foreign governments who recognize and repent of their own immoral complicity in the failure of states like ours.



July 2022