Blessed are the peacemakers

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By 2017-12-14

By Nalaka Godahewa

Several decades ago Sri Lanka was a key member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which was formed in Belgrade in 1961.

Historical records say that the idea was mooted by the then President of Yugoslavia, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, the then President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the then President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, and the then President of Indonesia, General Sukarno.

These leaders believed that developing countries should not help either the Western or Eastern Blocs in the Cold War. Apparently, it was the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who coined the term 'non-aligned' during a speech in Sri Lanka in 1954. In 1976, Sri Lanka hosted the 5th Non-Aligned Summit at BMICH with the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the Chairperson.

As long as Sri Lanka remained neutral in the global power play, the interference by the super powers was also minimal. Hence, it was a good foreign policy for Sri Lanka to be non-aligned. Sirimavo Bandaranaike had understood this reality well. That's why her tenure is still considered one of the best examples for successful foreign relations.

However, the national leaders since Sirimavo Bandaranaike were not that effective in maintaining the spirit of being non-aligned.

From time to time our loyalties started shifting from Western Bloc to Eastern Bloc and vice versa, depending on the leadership. That was a serious drawback for our foreign policy as it demonstrated lack of consistency. This probably is one reason that we are today looked at with suspicion by various power players in the global arena.

For example, during the period of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the relationships with USA and Europe appeared to have deteriorated considerably.

Many people believe today that several Western powers supported the Opposition behind the scene to map out a campaign strategy and also in all probability supported the Opposition financially for a regime change. Whether these allegations are true or not, it is quite obvious that the West was happy to see the back of Rajapaksa. There is ample evidence to show that the West didn't trust his administration and preferred an alternative.

John Kerry

The Former United States Secretary of State, John Kerry was quick to welcome the successful conclusion of the January 2015 Presidential Election in Sri Lanka.

"I look forward to working with President-Elect Sirisena as his new government works to implement its campaign platform of a Sri Lanka that is peaceful, inclusive, democratic, and prosperous," John Kerry said.

Let us assume that the Western powers genuinely believed that a new government would eliminate corruption, ensure racial harmony, and restore law and order in the country. The question one has to ask now is whether the new government has lived up to those expectations. Is the country more peaceful, inclusive, democratic, and prosperous after 3 years?

The reality seems to be quite different. The country has become more violent. Armed gangs are engaged in mafia type shootings.

Suicide has gone up considerably. Drugs are freely available and much cheaper than a few years ago. There is not a single day without a public protest somewhere. Even when this article was written, the railway workers were on strike for the 6th consecutive day disregarding a special gazette declaring railways as an essential service. There is growing tension between different communities, Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims. 52 MPs who openly oppose the government are not recognized officially by the Speaker of the Parliament, whereas the formal opposition has only 16 MPs. The government held back local government elections for 2.5 years, depriving the citizens of one of their most fundamental rights - the right to vote. The economy is in turmoil and the government is selling national assets to settle debts. Obviously, the prosperity John Kerry expected in his statement hasn't reached the Sri Lankan general public.

Success stories

Lets us try to understand what has actually transpired. Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. That was 69 years ago. Most countries, which gained independence after us, have moved forward. Countries like Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia all have their success stories, but Sri Lanka is still a developing country. At this rate, Sri Lanka will remain a developing country for a very long period. Two things were always holding us back. One was the lack of political stability over a long period. Governments were changing frequently, resulting in policy inconstancy. The second was the continuous exploitation of ethnic issues by greedy politicians, eventually leading to a 30-year armed conflict.

When the armed conflict ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE, there was hope that Sri Lanka could move forward with a clear focus on economic prosperity under a strong political leadership. The main focus of the government became economic development, but for economic development the government needed funds. Investors wouldn't have come to the country if basic infrastructure wasn't in place. There were power shortages in the country and power was also very expensive. The road network was not good enough for efficient transportation. The country had only one airport and the construction of a Southern Port had been long delayed.

Government income was not sufficient to build the necessary infrastructure within a short period of time. Since independence, except for two years, 1954 and 1955, Sri Lanka has always had a budget deficit. These deficits were mostly bridged through local and foreign borrowings. When Mahinda Rajapaksa became the 5th Executive President of the country in 2005, the total national debt stood at Rs 2,222 billion, but when he left the presidency after 9 years, the national debt had grown to Rs 7,391 billion. That means Rs 5,169 billion had been added to the national debt within those 9 years at an average rate of Rs 575 billion per year. To understand what happened to this money, let us look at the accomplishments of the government during this period.

• The 30-year long internal conflict ended in 2009 with the complete elimination of the LTTE.

• A large number of development projects were completed, while many others were already in progress.

• Colombo City was rated the fastest growing city in Asia in a survey conducted by Mastercard.

• The Colombo Stock Market was rated the most sustainable stock market in Asia by Capital Finance International of the UK

• The Sri Lankan economy had grown 4 times from US$ 20 billion to US$ 80 billion

• Unemployment had reduced from 8.3% to 4.3%

• Poverty had reduced from 15% to 8%

• The total national debt as a percentage of the economy had reduced from 102.3% to 70.3%

• Inflation had reduced from 9% to 3.3%

• Household electricity availability had increased from 73% to 98%. Availability of clean drinking water had increased from 72% to 90%

• The budget deficit had narrowed from 7.5% to 5.7%

• The economy was growing at an average of 7% for three consecutive years

But then the government changed in January 2015, and a new set of rulers assumed duties.

Almost 3 years later, where do we stand?

• National debt has been rising at an alarming rate. By June 2017, national debt stood at Rs 10,163 billion. That is a 37.5% increase in 2.5 years. Debts amounting to Rs 2,772 billion has been added in just 2.5 years. It is like increasing the national debt by Rs 3 billion every day

• The previous government had borrowed Rs 5,169 billion over 9 years, whereas the current government has borrowed 54% of that amount in just 2.5 years.

• Today, the per capita debt burden of a citizen stands at Rs 462,000 and Rs 126,000 of this per capita debt has been added by the current government during the first 2.5 years

• The debt to GDP ratio is now over 83%. It was only 70.3% in 2014.

• The GDP growth rate has fallen below 4.5%. Inflation has risen above 8.6%. It was only 3.3% in 2014. Unemployment has risen from 4.3% in 2014 to 4.6% by mid 2017

• Bloomberg has rated Sri Lanka as one of the most dangerous countries for investment. The global ranking of Sri Lanka in the 'doing business index' has fallen from the 85th position in 2014 to the 110th position by 2017.

New government

The new government, which came to power promising that they would eliminate corruption, is now accused of the biggest financial fraud in the history of Sri Lanka. The cost of the infamous bond scam is estimated to be more than Rs 1 trillion.

The public has accused almost all the key ministers in the government of corruption.

It is unlikely that anyone who supported bringing the current government to power can take pride in its performance over the last three years. This applies to the foreign powers as well. If they genuinely wanted good governance installed in Sri Lanka, it is highly unlikely that they are a happy bunch now.

A country like Sri Lanka geographically located in a highly sensitive place must not become a threat to anybody. We have very little to gain by taking sides.

Therefore, the current opposition as a government in waiting should demonstrate that they would revert to the non-aligned foreign policy that worked so well for Sri Lanka in the past. At least that will help them to fight future political battles on a level playing field with less external interferences.

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