Greek drama and mythology are intertwined. Daedalus, a remarkable Athenian craftsman, designed two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus. He warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, because the heat would melt the wax. Overcome by the excitement of flying, Icarus forgot his father’s warning and flew too high. His wings were destroyed, and he fell into the sea and drowned.
In a bitter parallel the Sri Lankan rulers have for the past four decades soared into the sky, their wings made up of money that came from borrowings to live beyond their means. All due to lack of proper planning, any planning in the past was not all inclusive planning to get agriculture produce to export levels to create earnings to meet the cost of massive welfare payments. Agricultural exports have been from the colonial days been limited to Tea, Coconut and Spices, while the bulk of the rural farmers have been doing subsistence farming growing essential crops like paddy and vegetables. The state filled the shortfall in production by imports, had there been proper planning to bring rural farmers out of subsistence to export oriented farming the country would have developed.
Taking loans is nothing new to the rulers of Sri Lanka, a practice that began in 1951, when the country was drifting aimlessly after independence at a time issues such as the current complex relationship between the majority Sinhalese and the main minority Tamils were visible, along with rising nationalism in the country. After almost a decade of near static policies that brought much of the economy under State control the long-dormant economy of post-1977 was liberalized, made possible with IMF loans, the markets were active, new ventures were coming up rapidly. To the traditional exports were added first fisheries and later garments export bringing in valuable foreign exchange. Small and medium businesses opened up everywhere while the larger firms were busy supplying the ongoing Mahaweli project, originally planned for 25 years, now telescoped and accelerated, depriving any benefits by it to minority Tamils living in the North and East. Rulers got carried away by the awakening economy, resulted in a sense of exclusion on the part of the minorities in the making of the Republican Constitutions, an increasingly unprincipled political culture, deteriorating standards in nearly every field, politicization of the machinery of the State and the repeated failure on the part of succeeding governments to lead the country out of near systemic economic stagnation, undoubtedly played their role. The power-greed politicians burned their wings, insensitive to the grievances of the minority Tamils, dared “if they want war they can have war”, that broadly took the form of a racial riot.
Then came the Black July riots of 1983 and the three decades that followed the tragedy of that July were perhaps the most painful years of our recent history nearly undid this small country of limited resources. What began with isolated acts of violence by a tiny group of militant youth eventually, and mainly after July 1983, grew into a full-scale war with an entrenched liberation army. Until 1977, the Tamil leadership unfailingly comprised of learned men and professionals. When the war started in earnest, it was not a problem that could be solved by the politicians; with the rise of the armed bands, a different leadership, a complete contrast in attitude and background, came to the fore. No nation can go through three decades of such insecurity and violence without scars and damage. Naturally, the most affected community in the inferno was the Tamils and the areas where they predominate, the north and the east of the country, were devastated by the fighting. It is not only property that were damaged, but more crucially, the social structure of that community turned completely topsy-turvy. With the civil war, country had deteriorating foreign inflows and caused a massive trade deficit.
In 1987 the rulers in desperation allowed India to interfere with a view to resolve the conflict and signed the Indo-Lanka pact that resulted in formation of Provincial Governments country wide as a desperate attempt at appeasing the perceived demands of the militant groups. In reality these have only added to the already cumbersome bureaucracy and the corruption of the officialdom. These provincial entities are tiny and run on small budgets and each Provincial Government has important sounding offices such as Governor, Chief Minister and subject ministers, apart from the additional bureaucracy. It failed to solve the conflict and only helped to intensify the war. As war the progressed the best of able bodied and capable Sri Lankan youth from either side of the ethnic divide substantial in number were not involved in any economic activity or value adding service but were getting into uniform for the bloody war; tri-forces, police, security guards, and body guards on one side all opposing the Tamil youths was terrible for a small island nation.
During the long years of conflict a very large number of Tamils, generally the more educated, migrated to mainly Western countries; have prospered in the new environment and their support has helped those left behind immensely to maintain a reasonable standard of living. But as these new immigrants in the rich countries assimilate with the adopted culture, their ties with the land of origin are bound to weaken. It is not only the Tamils who migrated in those 30 years, many Sinhalese, and again, the more cosmopolitan, frustrated with life in an endlessly war-torn country, looked for greener pastures. Having seen a larger world, very different ways of thinking, better standards; they may now baulk at coming back to the uncertainties, dilapidations and the deprivations they left behind. For the State, the war posed a challenge of unusual scope and complexity. In attempting to caulk the gaps in the much-needed security net, huge investments were made in men and material.
After the end of war in 2009, there was a window of opportunity for the rulers and the previous regime received large amount of funds including US$ 2.6 billion standby arrangement from IMF. Once again the rulers failed to take advantage to uplift the economy of the country and made the country reliant on debt, including foreign commercial borrowings during the six years of negative peace. The rulers who brought the bloody civil war to a close, failed to address the root cause of it or taking care of the people directly affected by the war, instead concentrated their efforts more to stay in power than to take the country forward. During the period, Sri Lanka became a troubled country, with dim prospects, a product of history and a particular way of thinking. In 2015 people who for this and other reasons got rid of that regime, after more than 30 years since that fateful July of 1983. In fact both the President and the Prime Minister as leaders of the two leading political parties in the country have made it clear of their intentions to take the country forward for the benefit of all Sri Lankans. With positive peace prevailing under the present Government, the stagnated wheels of economy have started to roll slowly forward in the first year of its rule; no doubt it is an uphill task specially using the same old state machinery of the previous regime. The new government is also concentrating its efforts on reconciliation efforts and reforms, all these are taking place with the same administrators who were there year earlier; most of whom benefitted from the corrupt practices of the old regime continuing to be loyal to their old masters, damaging the integrity of the present government; rest of the administrators who were then inactive to keep their jobs intact are now struggling to get back to real work. Most of the legislators from both political parties in Government are old hands used to previous regime ways of governance are taking time to adjust, while in opposition are the legislators of the grieved Tamil community are pre occupied to resolve the ethnic issue and related problems of their people and the JVP are serving well as a positive critique of the government. Unfortunately, the former President leading the dissident members in parliament have opted to be in opposition as a separate unit and are working against the new government doing everything from within and outside the parliament finding fault on every move made by the government.
The people in the country are suffering from the economic debacle and the government laboring under a loan burden of Rs. 9,000 (US$62) million left behind by the former government. The present rulers are looking to obtain US$ 1.5 billion as extended fund facility from IMF, in addition to US$ 650 million already obtained from ADB and WB to overcome the mess inherited and to take the country forward. Current rulers too are living dangerously after failing to take advantage of the best window of opportunity in decades for much needed reforms and have taken a breathing space given by International Monetary Fund (IMF) relief. The present cohabitation of power between the President and Prime Minister with a top heavy unity government are flying in excitement like Icarus in the Greek mythology; did make some impact with political liberalism and has restrained ethnic tension; but have only made symbolic gestures without addressing underlying issues to resolve the ethnic problem. To overcome the loan burden, the government had to take more loans; therefore there is the definite need for the increase in production to find money for subsidies. No matter where and under what condition ordinary citizens are able to get on with live in Sri Lanka; it is an accepted fact that end of the day, there needs to be an increased economic activities to lift the country out of the mess it was placed by the previous regime a year ago. This is the main task Government has to handle, while meeting other obligations to the people. To achieve and to serve the loans taken at high interest by the previous regime they are forced to take more loans. The Government is forced to take measures and increase taxes to meet the IMF imposed conditions to obtain these loans. Unfortunately, the situation has been made more difficult by the dissident members in parliament led by former President exploiting these conditions to their advantage to slow its progress of the new government. The rulers with two very bad budgets in eighteen months have failed to take the warning from the rural self-improving productive class who voted for the government who remains unhappy with broken promises. By catering to the needs of elite and middle class in Colombo to enable them to live beyond their means would get the money wings destroyed without uplifting the economy of the country.
Last week the past regime politicos were seen yelling, singing and dancing on the streets telling fairy tales. Remember they and their colleagues in the present government have not dropped from the sky they were there from the days of civil war and the seniors among them from the days country was made a republic with exclusive constitutions created and modified by them many times due to stupidity of their politics. It pushed the country to a bloody civil war that lasted for three decades that put back progress of the country by five decades. The President himself has admitted that there has been a great deterioration of financial discipline by the State as funds have not been utilized properly due to corruption and mismanagement resulting in a financial crisis.
People must not be fooled by all the fantasy for Icarus forgot his father’s warning and flew too high. His wings were destroyed, and he fell into the sea and drowned, similar fact will come to Sri Lankan if we miss this window of opportunity under the leadership of the current President. True the President too was a member of the past regime and is the most reformed of the old brigade; but still has to face lot of problems from his camp and yet gives hope to those who want a better Sri Lanka to live. In the meantime people should get on with their own profession to help the nation – farmers to pick the plough to prepare the land, fishermen to pick the net and go to sea and those in factories to pick their tools to increase the productivity and so on to help the nation to live within its means. That will enable the President to resolve the ethnic issue and associated problems caused by the civil war make reforms in all sectors and a new constitution to take the country out of the mess to prosperity. Yet when the time comes to vote at the next elections, people must use your vote right and ditch the bad legislators on either side of the chamber and select better persons to Parliament.