Will the Blue and Green 2018 Budget wipe the tears of the voiceless poor majority in rural Sri Lanka!

When Sri Lanka ended the civil-war of almost 30 years in 2009, the government had not known how many of its citizens were killed and how they died in the war. What is even worse is that the rulers continued to rule without winning peace for six negative peace years and failed to hear the cry of the voiceless war victims, whose lives were destroyed to a point of no return; resulting in these war victims joining the rural poor to form the voiceless majority of the country. In 2015, when the people voted in the New Unity Government led by Blue and Green party’s, hopes of these voiceless poor, in particular those war victims were raised high for a change; but their hopes were dashed as nothing happened in the two years to answer the cry of these voiceless silent majority. While the defeated political elements and extremist groups around the country are trying to derail the government, the hidden obstruction to progress is the enemy within, the corrupt administrative machinery, left behind by the previous government. While the Blue Green leaders preached good governance, many ministers in the government for variety of reasons were not tuned for this change and even after few faulting ministers were released from their duties and sent to the back benches by their leaders to overcome this delay, it has not had the desired result and it was at this point the new finance minister has presented the Blue Green Budget in parliament.

Today with a clear vision the Unity Government has come up with the progressive Budget for 2018; consistent with long term economic policies promoting investments and encouraging exports to earn valuable foreign exchange; projecting above all political differences to support and foster economic growth while maintaining political stability to reshape the nation caring for those living in under developed regions and to wipe off the tears of the poor, including those war affected victims in North-East region. Earlier in 1948, Sri Lanka known then as Ceylon gained independence without a struggle and due to its strength in human capital and natural resources was projected as the “Switzerland of the East”, made possible by the British, who had introduced many judicial and civil service reforms including the ending of serfdom – a status of many peasants under feudalism, a condition similar to bondage developed during the middle ages in Europe and lasted in some countries until the mid-19th century. A currency board was set up in 1885 giving a fixed exchange and free capital mobility, allowing foreign companies in East Asia to raise capital in Colombo; British also abolished slavery in Sri Lanka, was a net importer of labour and free education introduced before independence; all helped to have per capita GDP of the country second only to Japan in Asia. Unfortunately, the Western Oriented Gentlemen (WOG) local elite, who took over from the British failed miserably to take full advantage of this sound economy forward. Instead they looked inward first reacting to the possibilities of losing power to leftist political parties that caused the plantation workers of recent Indian origin to lose their right to vote and were made stateless and were thus forgotten from 1948 to 1964. Thereafter, the elite rulers to overcome their colony phobia, pursued self-imposed restrictions with nationalistic policies and recreating controls on the use of land ownership through the Paddy Land Act that restricted the freedom of the minorities to live thereafter in isolation for most of their life. To make matters worse by the fifties, one among the elite leaders with his own plan to gain power left the ruling party to form a new political party and got elected to power by promising Sinhala Only language policy. This elite who too was a WOG, realised the irrationality of his action made an honest attempt to rectify the mistake, but it was too late the leader was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959; the unity of the country was broken to divide the communities permanently, leading to the three decades of bloody civil-war that lasted till 2009.

Earlier, with independence nationalism took off and perhaps due to growing Indian domination in the region the rulers were not seeking new ventures. As the people were kept in the dark like frogs in the well, had to continue with their subsistence farming; and instead of collectively working towards building the nation, failed to keep the momentum of growth to  create conditions of unrest and the country had a relapse and encountered the first violent insurgencies fueled by youth unrest . Then in 1978, Sri Lanka started liberalizing around the same time as China, but ahead of Vietnam and India; but the weakness of Sri Lanka’s liberalization was to depreciate the currency, creating foreign exchange shortages and inflation while helping deficit spending. Sri Lankan started fighting with each other on political ideologies based on ethnicity and religion preached by elite leaders; encountered the second violent insurgencies and to a three-decade long ruthless civil-war with dreadful consequences.

After the war ended in 2009, with some trade freedoms rolled back in the last decade, making the country a more closed economy and the Chinese loans kept the economy ticking, despite lack of private investment. There was a boom in infrastructure development for which the main infrastructure work was farmed out to contractor employees from abroad and there are many pockets of foreign workers on local sites, while our unskilled youth are taking jobs abroad instead. In the same way many professionals and trained staff were creamed off with very lucrative inducements to seek overseas employment. Today, after seven decades, the country is lagging behind most of the countries in the region; while all through this period the leaders allowed corruption, nepotism, politicisation of public administration and law enforcement that drained the rural economy to create a rich urban life, causing the paradise island to slip from a united wealthy nation in 1954 to a poor debt ridden divided country by 2014. In 2015, the Unity Government was elected inheriting an economy in a mess and it took a while to sort-out and has presented one of the most progressive reform drives seen in decades, with a budget with sweeping proposals to liberalize trade, shipping, labour, land and unlock the island’s locational advantages and growth potential which has been held back by controls and vested interests, since independence in 1948 and more so as the country started liberalizing in 1978. Unfortunately, the  Sri Lankans started fighting each other on political ideologies based on ethnicity and religion preached by elite leaders; and today the country is lagging behind most of the countries in the region, having encountered violent insurgencies fueled by youth unrest and a three-decade long ruthless civil-war with dreadful consequences.

The Blue and Green Leaders needs to shift away from being more protectionist and inward-oriented, to reawaken the dormant spirit of competitiveness in the workforce to liberalize and globalize Sri Lanka as a leading trading and the commercial hub in the region. Sri Lanka under poor governance had failed and missed the opportunities to prepare the nation, earlier in 1978 and 1987; cannot miss this third opportunity. The two leaders must listen to the cry of the voiceless poor in remote areas of the country, in particular those victims of the bloody civil-war caused by poor governance and guide their life back to normalcy to enable them to join the rest of the population on the economic roller coaster ride to fuel the engine of growth and take the country back to its top position held seventy years ago in the League of Nations in Asia.