Vinoth Ramachandra

Spotlight on Sri Lanka

Posted on: July 16, 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.

5 Responses to "Spotlight on Sri Lanka"

An nice and incisive read. On the paradox of a regime, which the other day was voted for overwhelmingly, being toppled by the same people is quite understandable. When the basic stuff become a luxury, then there is no business of a regime existing irrespective of how popular it was the other minute.

I would like to know the role of China in all these as the Western media, and your northern neighbour, India, have really made to believe she is responsible for this mess.

The issues you have raised are quite identifiable with what is happening in Kenya: hyped and inflated mega-infrastructural projects – highways, ports, rails, etc. – funded through loans, unending bailout of airline that is on a loss-making spree, state capture, skyrocketing commodity prices, the political class promising heaven during election campaigns and the populace ignorantly buying the fake promises.

Global debt crises, especially in poor nations, are ignored by developed Western nations and the churches. It is a massive social injustice issue forgotten by the evangelical church in the West. “Borrowing is bad” is a cloyed financial advice given by financial gurus within the church. And it is perversely and ignorantly applied to the poor nations. I wonder how much of Sri Lanka’s successive corrupt political rulers/climate, ethnic issues, and financial voes could be traced back to being engendered by its colonial past.

China is not responsible. Nor our colonial past. The “blame game” is part of the moral and cultural failings I referred to. Collectively and individually, we seem unable to confess wrong-doing, ask forgiveness, etc.

China only bankrolled our ill-conceived development projects and short-sighted policies. And very few of our highly-educated professionals ever protested.

“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.” This is very profound because as much as the political leaders have a greater responsibility every citizen also has a responsibility to build a more just country, especially the elite professionals. I have been thinking of you and your country and praying for a lasting solution.

Re Diana’s point, the problem is not every citizen has equal access to the levers of power. As the article points out, it’s those with institutional clout who bear collective responsibility. However this goes beyond individuals. It’s systemic, which I believe the article acknowledges and leads to my next point.

Re colonialism: I agree that it can be easy to blame all current ills on colonialism when there are very contemporary reasons for the decline. We shouldn’t infantilise ex-colonies by denying politicians and populations their agency. However, the rapacious excesses of colonialism do have a role. We can’t draw a neat line between the historical and the modern and declare a cut-off point. Colonialism set a template. That’s not to say exploitation and avarice did not exist before imperialist expansion but their current iteration -plutocrats expropriating the country’s wealth, extractivist and ecologically damaging projects for example – borrow from the colonial playbook. We see it in ex-colonies all over the world. Of course, it’s up to the post-Independence political classes to do better, putting first the needs of the majority over the elite few. At the same time, visionary politicians who promulgate more compassionate politics are often shot down – whether literally or figuratively by the establishment – both in developing countries and the West (Sanders, Corbyn etc). I’m not fatalistic about it, however. We see from the latest permutation of the so-called Pink Tide in South America that change is possible. It starts and thrives with sustained organised mass movements. I hope and pray Sri Lanka can translate this current momentum, propelled by ordinary citizens, into something long lasting and transformative, despite the obvious challenges.

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