By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Strong people don’t need strong leaders”
– Ella Baker (quoted in ‘Moving the Mountain’) –
Berlin, 20 February 1933 – 24 men, the crème de la crème of German industry, gathered to listen to the country’s brand new chancellor, Adolf Hitler. The meeting was a top secret, but posterity has the transcripts.
“Private enterprise cannot be maintained in the age of democracy,” Hitler informed his captive audience. Nazi rule was the only guarantor of stability, only bulwark against communism. Herman Göring, in whose official residence the meeting was held, assured that after this, there’d be no more elections for 10 years, maybe even 100. The Nazis wanted three million Reichsmark for their election war-chest. They got 2.071 million. Election was won, and Germany’s march to a cannibalistic future began.
“The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again,” wrote Nietzsche in ‘The Gay Science,’ explaining his concept and conception of Eternal Recurrence.
The 2018 convention of Viyath Maga was held at Colombo’s newest hotel, Shangri-La. Over 2,000 professionals and business leaders attended the convention, titled ‘An Intellectually Inspired Sri Lanka 2030,’ Daily FT reported.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man of the moment, began his speech by asking, “What do we need as a society?” and ended by exhorting, “Love your country, play your part in its future.” In between were the usual shibboleths about growth and investment, efficiency and discipline. Iron fists and hobnail boots were unmentioned, but formed the background music to paeans to strong leadership.
That was May. The Digana riot was just two months old. Did the 2,000+ attendees reflect on that conflagration, its causes and what it portended for the future? Did they remember Gotabaya Rajapaksa saying of Sarath Fonseka, the war-winning Army Commander, “That’s a treason. We will hang him if he do that,” in a 2010 interview with BBC HARDtalk? Did they remember how Gotabaya Rajapaksa responded when asked about the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge (again on HARDtalk): “In the whole world there are so many murders. Why are you asking about Lasantha? Who is Lasantha? He was someone who was writing to a tabloid?”
Did the bottom-line men and women in the audience at least remember that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his previous incarnation as the Defence Secretary, took the profit-making UDA and turned it into a lossmaking enterprise and that under his aegis the UDA lost more than Rs. 1.2 billion in five years? Here we are, almost two years into that ‘intellectually-inspired’ future. We have a President with more constitutional powers than even the one sitting in the Oval Office, and a Government enjoying a two-thirds majority. With three brothers occupying the Presidency, the Premiership and the Finance Ministry, there is fraternal unity at the apex of the power-pyramid. If promises are dollars, we should be a middle income country by now.
Instead, we have been reduced to begging and receiving a dollar loan from Bangladesh to make ends meet. Blaming the pandemic won’t do. COVID-19 has extracted a huge toll from Bangladesh as well with 1.55 million infections, 27,573 deaths. Still, as of 3 August, Bangladesh had a record $ 45.9 billion in foreign exchange reserves. The currency swap with Sri Lanka is Bangladesh’s “first-ever loan to any country” and a “good deal” for Bangladesh; “Sri Lanka will pay more than double Bangladesh gets from all its investments…” (The Daily Star – 19 September 2021)
As the foreign exchange crisis mushroomed into price hikes and shortages, and milk powder queues grew in length, the regime propagandists sought absolution by pointing to shortages and panic buying in the UK, blaming our plight and theirs on the pandemic. The pandemic is indeed causing breakdowns in global supply chains, but the UK’s shortages are mostly Brexit by-products. The UK voted to become an island unto itself politically, and is now bereft of migrant workers who drove lorries, picked fruits and killed turkeys.
A New Yorker cartoon depicts Boris Johnson saying, “The shortages are all British made and British owned, and that’s something we can be incredibly proud of.” In Sri Lanka too, the crisis is mostly Rajapaksa-made. President Gotabaya is doing to Sri Lanka what Defence Secretary Gotabaya did to the UDA. The Rajapaksas own the crisis. We own them.
Economy of snake-oil sellers
Just before the 2019 Presidential Election, the Economist Intelligence Unit warned that a Gotabaya Presidency could undermine political stability and economic development by mishandling ethno-religious relations and weakening democratic freedoms (http://country.eiu.com/article.aspx?articleid=1818220365&Country=Sri%20Lanka&topic=Politics). That warning is coming true, with one added cause – bad economics.
Today’s economy of snake-oil sellers was presaged in the only media conference candidate Gotabaya held. When asked how he will fund his various generous promises, he remained silent. Not a word. Nothing, a red light ignored in the stampede for a strong leader.
Among the attendees of the glittering Viyath Maga convention of 2018, there would have been some who read the Forbes magazine. In a 2016 piece on Sri Lanka, Forbes wrote how the previous Rajapaksa administration played a numbers game to underreport the country’s true debt burden. The Rajapaksa regime “utilised State-Owned Enterprises to take out additional loans on its behalf. While the full extent of this extracurricular lending seems unknown, current estimates peg it at a minimum of $ 9.5 billion — which is all off the books of the Finance Ministry” (Forbes – 30 September 2016).
Loans can be hidden. But they have to be paid, with interest. Statistics can be fudged but that doesn’t change reality. Import restrictions are said to have been eased, but with banks unable to provide dollars, the easing remains a lie and shortages the truth. Sleight-of-hand can image dazzling futures at conventions, but the dues pile up in real life.
The seeds of current economic dissolution were sown as soon as the Rajapaksas regained power, months before COVID-19 reached our shores. The tax-base was kneecapped in November 2019. In December 2019, the President and Prime Minister ordered all banks to implement a one year moratorium on SME loans up to Rs. 300 million. The order came out of the blue; no consultation with the stakeholders, no study of the impact on financial institutions already struggling under a slew of bank loans. Just strong leaders doing muscular things.
Then there were crazy spenders, like the programme to provide jobs to 100,000 young people from low-income families who have failed their O Levels. The military was given a role in picking suitable candidates and training them.
Burn the candle on both ends plus the middle. Sweetheart deals, like the sugar scam. Rampant corruption, like the garlic scam; the CWE reportedly sold two containers of garlic to a businessman at Rs. 135 per kilo and bought the self-same containers back at Rs. 450 a kilo. The whistleblower was a Rajapaksa appointee, Thushan Gunawardana, Executive Director of Consumer Affairs Authority.
The official response to the expose has been quintessentially Rajapaksa. Minister Bandula Gunawardana bemoaned his smudged reputation and went to the CID, just as he did with consumer rights activist Asela Sampath this April. The CID sprang into vigorous action, visiting the Lankadeepa office, wanting statements about the expose from Editor downwards. All the while, the EU delegation was in town, to determine whether Sri Lanka retained the necessary democratic credentials for the GSP facility.
When the media protested about the CID’s intrusion, the Government ordered the CID to cease and desist. The Police Minister ordered the Police to investigate the CID. Amidst this brouhaha, the alleged scam and its perpetrators are escaping a transparent investigation.
With the candle on fire, our ‘intellectually-inspired’ future would have required a money printing binge, even without the pandemic. The only real difference would have been in timing, a year or two down the road instead of early 2020.
Selling land for dollars seems to be the regime’s only real-life solution to the foreign exchange crisis. Quite apart from insolvency and instability fears, potential buyers might be repelled by the antics of the regime’s very own.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not only pardoned convicted murderer Duminda Silva, but made him the head of the National Housing Development Authority in July. Now the NHDA is facing a court case, for allegedly trying occupying a land it had sold to a private investor years ago. If this is how Government institutions led by political favourites treat investors, would there be buyers even in a fire sale?
Amidst all the capers, the dunce cap belongs to the fertiliser fiasco. The decreed Great Leap into an organic future may land Sri Lanka in a place with no fertiliser or the kind of organic fertiliser that may cause further damage to eco systems harmed by the abusive use of low quality chemical fertilisers. The plan to import ‘organic fertiliser’ from China (we will probably get a renminbi loan for the purpose, a currency swap perhaps) has hit a snag after the discovery of harmful bacteria in two samples. How will China react to a possible cancellation of the fertiliser order? Will the data about the bacteria vanish, just like the disappearance of the e mails between the Colombo port authorities and X-Press Pearl, before it exploded in our waters, creating the worst maritime environmental disaster in our history?
A new crematorium was declared open in Warakapitiya, Weligama last month. The plaque marking the occasion contained the names of 51 politicians, starting with the President and the Prime Minister. Perhaps that could double as an epitaph for Sri Lanka, someday?
Still the question remains. Who put the clowns in charge of the circus?
6.9 million is zero
There are times when Rajapaksa rule appears like a mega burlesque, playing out on the national screen day after day. A burlesque with fangs. A burlesque that can kill, on industrial scale, and sink the economy to unimaginable depths.
Like the case of Lohan Ratwatte. He was appointed State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoner Rehabilitation two days after the Mahara prison riot. Perhaps a suitable response, since his previous claims to fame were alleged involvements in the 1997 bar-brawl murder of Papua New Guinea rugby star Joel Pera and the Udathalawinna Massacre. The prison is obviously where the man belongs.
Or like the case of the colonel and the motorcyclist. On 29 September, in Kahathuduwa, an Army Colonel mercilessly assaulted a motorcyclist who overtook his jeep. Villagers prevented the colonel from leaving, and called the Police. According to internet reports, a Policeman got into the Colonel’s vehicle and left, supposedly to the Police station.
Discipline is a favourite Rajapaksa mantra, but Lohan Ratwatte still remains a Minister and the Colonel remains at large. No one is safe, other than the rulers and their kith and kin.
If Beijing had been willing to pay all the bills, the Rajapaksas could have given vent to their repressive inclinations, unhindered. But China is not willing, plus it has its own financial problems. Apart from the Evergrande meltdown, the country’s Local Government authorities are reportedly facing a looming debt crisis, having borrowed prodigiously for infrastructure projects to impress party bosses in Beijing. So the Rajapaksas are being forced by financial necessity to pretend to play nice and pick their targets with some discrimination.
President Gotabaya promised the visiting EU delegation to reform the PTA. Whether that will provide any relief to Hejaaz Hizbullah, Ahnaf Jazeem, Keerthi Ratnayake or other victims of the PTA remains to be seen.
If the use of repression is hindered by external pressure, what recourse remains apart from race and religion?
Something strange happened on 29 September. A group of Navy officers visited St. Nicholas Church in Bopitiya, warning of a possible Zaharan type attack. The same evening, they returned saying they made a mistake. The Defence Ministry later dismissed the intelligence as unverified. The Police Minister said it was an ‘exercise’.
On Monday, Suriyawewa Sumedha Thero claimed that temples too were being warned about a possible attack. He and the other monks who had come to lodge an official complaint with the IGP expressed fears of attempts by interested parties to incite a religious conflagration.
Another riot, whatever its genesis or nature, will deal a terminal blow to the Lankan economy, to dreams of corporate profits and stratospheric pay packages. The fairy tale of the strong leader and the country that lived happily ever after will lead to a cannibalistic future.
That too would belong to the Rajapaksas. And to those who handed over the circus to the clowns. (P.S. The title is a line from Joseph Brodsky’s poem, ‘MCMXCV’.)