Life may have resumed as normal for many. But the poor are squeezed just that little bit more and worse is anticipated, all in the name of economic reforms to return Sri Lanka from bankruptcy. On its part, the State has regrouped, predictably using all the formidable weapons in its arsenal.


By

Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

For a President once feted as a war hero, to creep back stealthily to a country that he fled from in panic as the angry public roared outside his gates less than two months ago, is classic filmfare.


Losing the dignity of citizenship

But this is not the stuff of celluloid. Rather, it is the grim and ugly reality of the Sri Lankan State reasserting itself in full measure. This time around, the ire of the State is aimed at the citizenry in full rather than selected targets in the majority or minorities as is its wont.

Households implacably slipping below the poverty line and unable to afford basic nutrition according to estimates by the World Bank, realise that truth to their painful cost. Once human beings disappeared in Sri Lanka, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim.

Now, the thread of social existence, the dignity of earning one’s daily bread through humble but honest toil, indeed, the fundamental pride in citizenship itself has disappeared. How can there be any earning of daily bread when the price of a loaf of bread itself has quadrupled in the last six months?

Eggs have disappeared from public view much like the middle class itself has disappeared and basic utilities have risen to unaffordable levels for a quarter of the population.

This link between public suffering in daily nightmares of existence from the North to the South and stupendously corrupt politics which brought the nation to its bankrupt knees, had been shouted out by enraged protestors over the past several months.

It was this which propelled mass protests, bringing ordinary people in their thousands to Colombo to surround houses of the politicians who had ruined them.

The Wickremesinghe Presidency’s protection

Finally Ministers fled their posts and the several Rajapaksas left their Prime Ministerial and Presidential perches. The justification for that outrage remains, let it be said plainly.

On its part, the State has regrouped, predictably using all the formidable weapons in its arsenal. Protestors are rounded up en masse, labelled as drug addicts and thieves even as political crooks and murderers go free. The existence, departure and return, (let us stress, under the comforting blanket of protection by the Wickremesinghe Presidency) of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, speak loudly to that paradox.

Life may have resumed as normal for many. But the poor are squeezed just that little bit more and worse is anticipated, all in the name of economic reforms to return Sri Lanka from bankruptcy.

Yet this crisis has been precipitated by the very men who still enjoy the luxuries of political privilege without any accountability for their actions. This is a rich irony beyond measure. There are more ironies that confront us, some a tad funnier than others.

As the reforms package of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) looms with a heavy focus on the integrity of the Central Bank and the Monetary Board, the commonly plugged narrative is that the staff level agreements reached will be the miracle rejuvenation of bankrupt financial systems. That is far from the case.

Rejuvenation can come only through self-correction, seriously addressing political corruption and imposing accountability thereto. But what do we see? Just the opposite. Political crooks heavily implicated in the Avant Garde floating armoury scandal from the party of President Ranil Wickremesinghe hold forth on the independence of the Central Bank.

Papering over the cracks of corruption

These very same crooks were in the forefront of robbing the Central Bank in broad daylight during the ill-fated ‘yahapalanaya’ regime, not once in 2015 but twice in 2016. This is papering over the cracks, the re-grouping of the same ugly men who routinely exchange seats on the floor of the House to destroy the country. Are there any bets as to what will happen to the numerous cases filed against these ugly men, on corruption, murders or other crimes?

A few days ago, former Malaysian first lady Rosmah Mansor was handed down a jail sentence of 10 years after being convicted for soliciting and receiving bribes.

This was close upon the heels of her husband, former Prime Minister Najib Razaak commencing a jail term of 12 years on conviction for graft, criminal breach of trust and abuse of power in relation to a state investment fund.

Details during the trials revealed shocking accounts of money laundering, luxuries paid for by bribes and tax evasion. These crimes were highlighted, written about, exposed and reported by the Malaysian media, activists and lawyers for years.

It took the mills of justice time but finally, under the hand of the country’s first female chief justice who was unmoved equally by political pressure and political dramas to force her hand.

Once regarded as ‘untouchable’ in the country, the former Prime Minister and the first lady faced legal accountability. There are unnerving similarities in the path to perdition that Sri Lanka and Malaysia took, particularly in regard to the degeneration of its judicial systems.

Like Sri Lanka, Malaysia had inherited strong legal and judicial traditions and rules from British colonial rule. Both maintained some measure of integrity until political rulers destroyed the independence of the judiciary. In Malaysia’s case, this became particularly obvious when power struggles resulted in the summary ousting of the country’s Chief Justice by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Sri Lanka remains enveloped in darkness

Restoration of public confidence in the Malaysian judiciary has been slow but steady. Much of Sri Lanka’s travails are also traceable to the failure of legal systems to bring about accountability for gross corruption as well as for systemic human rights abuses. It was because these systems failed that people’s protests took place. Until the failures are rectified, nothing much will change.

The Rajapaksa return this Friday, under cover of darkness much like a ‘thief in the night,’ is only part of that impunity.That darkness was metaphorical as well as literal.

Each act, each decision by his Presidency, whether in relation to monetary policy, agricultural policy, et al, was driven by ignorance coupled with the most sublime arrogance. The result was to make this land, not the splendorous Sinhala-Buddhist State that he had promised his blinded constituents but one of the most miserable in the region.

And to turn Churchill’s ringing sentiment of praise to British airmen who fought the German Luftwaffe, on its head, ‘never in Sri Lanka’s history had so much destruction been done by so few to so many, in such a short period of time.’

It was as if, the Rajapaksas having claimed their birthright for ‘winning the war’ also chose to destroy it, by virtue of that same poisonous birthright. No doubt, this reality also illustrates our fundamental failings as a citizenry in electing leaders of tinfoil who use xenophobic nationalism for their political ends.

Why did industry chambers, professional and academic associations maintain a deathly silence even as the country was dragged towards the abyss, until the country’s young raised their voices?

Currently that same self-serving silence prevails.

So there is little surprise as eagerly servile political minions of the Sri Lanka Podujana Party jostle to welcome the former President at Colombo’s airport this Friday night.

It is, of course better that he seeks safe haven here rather than traipsing like a gypsy from one country to another, enduring gross humiliation of being refused entry into many others. That humiliation, let it be said clearly, visits not only him but Sri Lanka itself.

That is the price that we have to pay for culpably racist stupidity in the leaders we choose.

This point cannot be made more strongly.

Courtesy:Sunday Times