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Sri Lanka State is undergoing its most dangerous existential threat to constitutional democracy – Kishali Pinto Jayewardene

Undoubtedly there is a bizarre vibe in Sri Lanka’s air these days.

The IMF’s magic key and our expectations

Cheering ‘old boys’ gripped by nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ jostle each other at the capital’s once forlorn cricket-playing fields. Festive schoolboys overcome by ‘big match’ fever ‘invade’ girls’ schools to show their ‘colours’ in puberty-inspired displays of distinctly ridiculous testosterone. Celebrations in the city’s choicest hotels to packed audiences in showy entertainment venues and privileged clubs continue without a pause.

Indeed, a casual visitor to the country may be forgiven for scoffing at dire warnings of angry public restiveness beyond Colombo’s fun and games. But appearances are deceptive, it must be said quite decisively. The glittering elite of the city, it seems, exists in a cocoon. Most ignobly, they revel in doing so. They are secure in their belief that the President of their choice is ensconced in the seat of the highest office of the land.

The Rajapaksas who excited such contemptuous disdain on the part of many, are not (at least publicly) holding the reins. ‘This President is the man’ they chant with gusto. Moreover he is now able to bring home the proverbial bacon in the form of the International Monetary Fund’s USD 2.9 billion Extended Fund Facility with Sri Lanka being poised this week to unlock the magic key to what promises to be an end to all the troubles.

Commitment to clean the political stables is absent

The only cloud on the horizon appears to be these pesky strikers, from nosily clamouring trade unions to the unwashed hordes of the ‘public’ who persist in spoiling the country’s ‘recovery.’ But these are illusions if not delusions. Framing the questions before the country as ‘unpopular tax increases’ or ‘IMF forced increases’ in utilities like water and electricity is to miss the point.

The fact of the matter remains – and has been all along – the commitment of this Presidency to eject corrupt scoundrels from ruling ranks, to enable governance mechanisms to enforce the law against gross corruptors and to show direct results in ‘cleaning’ the Augean stables of the political establishment of which he is firmly a part. Without that, there is little point in bringing new anti-corruption laws or to promise transparency to the IMF, as President Ranil Wickremesinghe did this Tuesday.

The Sri Lanka Government’s recognition that, ‘transparent’ debt treatment terms to all the creditors is the most important commitment as the IMF’s Fund Facility is awarded, (see Sri Lanka’s Open Letter to Bilateral Official Creditors, Tuesday, March 14th 2023), is no doubt welcome. That is essential, after all, as is the assurance that the comparability of treatment principle will be followed in respect of the creditors.

Transparency to the IMF but not to the citizenry?

Even so, to promise transparency to the IMF while meting out precisely the opposite of ‘transparency’ to the Sri Lankan electorate is ‘just not cricket,’ Mr President. That Open Letter under the President’s hand, speaks to the fact that, in all the 75 years of Sri Lanka’s post independence history, ‘there has never been a more critical period for our economic well being and future development.’ The Letter outlines a ‘robust reform agenda aimed at achieving debt sustainability, strengthening governance… et al.’

It concludes by hoping that the assurances will ‘comfort’ the creditors of this troubled nation. But the point is, as to what will ‘comfort’ the afflicted people of this land? The pincer grip of State authoritarianism under the hand of this President proceeds to crush public dissent on the one hand while moving with coercive force against the Constitution’s independent oversight institutions, including most troublingly, the Supreme Court

As discussed extensively in these column spaces last week, outbursts by Government parliamentarians that the recent Supreme Court interim order to the Secretary, Ministry of Finance preventing him from withholding allocated funds in the 2023 Budget for the local government polls, is a ‘breach of the privileges of Parliament’ stands Parliamentary Privilege on its head.  It is undeniable that these uncouth noises will not emanate from government ranks without approval at the highest levels.

The threat to democracy is as great as the economy

Such coercion of the Court is (again) certainly not cricket, Mr President. These reminders are apt as frenzied rejoicing takes place over the ‘big match’ cricket win of Mr Wickremesinghe’s alma mater, Royal College on Saturday, with the trouncing of St Thomas’s College. Regardless of the heedlessness of Colombo’s privileged, the Sri Lanka State is currently undergoing its most dangerous existential threat to constitutional democracy since independence.

That comes not from strikers per se (who perchance are motivated by political agendas) but from the iron hand of the State who sees no wrong in subverting constitutional institutions and using excessive police force against even peaceful protestors. An assurance that the State will refrain from such violent tactics should have also found pride of place in the President’s Letter to the IMF earlier this week. This is not to be wholly sarcastic, to be clear.

For the ripple effect that such State actions bring can cripple the positive impact of any bailout package that Sri Lanka receives. The burden is not only on protestors to refrain from violent protests but also on the State, to use force with measured and minimum effect. That means, not to charge into university premises and attack students who were studying or going about their academic work as the fracas at the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo recently highlighted.

An economic crisis by the rich, for the rich

Above all, and this is a point that cannot be repeated enough, as long as the President keeps gross political corruptors in his Cabinet, there is little hope in bailout packages or in pinning expectations on increased revenue through tax reforms. That money will go the same way that it has done all these decades, to be stashed away in offshore accounts of the powerful, to be used to fund their grossly obscene lifestyles and the futures of their progeny.

We must not forget that the economic crisis that has propelled drastically increased costs of food, water and electricity supplies and destroyed families and communities fragment in the rural hinterlands which had hitherto been (largely) self-sufficient, was brought about by endemic political corruption combined with bad governance. If that is not properly tackled, we will simply lurch from one crisis to another with little pause.

These are cautions that come to mind even as Sri Lanka’s rich, cushioned by their privilege, remain nakedly and callously impervious to the hungry and the poor who crowd Colombo’s slums, eke out miserable existences in sardine packed lodgings or risk life by going home, perching on the roofs of the few trains that continue running in defiance of strike action.

Unpleasant surprises in store for Colombo’s ‘glitterati’

These are not salubrious conditions for equitable national life. As public resentment grows, that will be directed not only towards the mainstream political establishment responsible for the nation’s plight but also towards the privileged. These are ripe fruits for the plucking of ‘radical’ parties whose modus operandi in using Sri Lanka’s youth for their own ends, has been established in two ‘insurrections’ in the seventies and in the eighties..

It is not enough for Colombo’s ‘glitterati’ to chorus that ‘the President is our man’ and to chortle, that his ‘strong arm tactics’ will keep the unwashed barbarians who broke down the gates of the President’s House last year, at bay. Unpleasant surprises are in store for such wishful thinkers.

At that time, there will be little pleasure to be found in cricket victories or in merry celebrations.

Original caption: This is just not cricket, Mr President.

( Sunday Times 19/03/23)

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