Photo courtesy of The Guardian

Sri Lanka’s economy has collapsed due to years of mismanagement. Now heading for a political showdown, the country is officially bankrupt, unable to service the debt-ridden economy. This has been further exacerbated by external factors such as the Covid outbreak and the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Some were surprised by the events. People with little economic training who know how to handle a household budget or a small business would know that the writing was on the wall due to years of budget deficits and balance of payment crises. Without meaningful inflows when some in the society, including key politicians, want to maintain their lavish lifestyles, money must run out sooner or later. What has happened is self-inflicted, sheer incompetency in financial management.

It is important to understand what has led the country to its current situation. It is time to ask why, when some countries do well even without basic resources, a country like Sri Lanka has failed economically, politically and socially and why economic management is an important element of any country.

The country was occupied by three European invaders for over three and half centuries before gaining independence in 1948 from Britain. Although all colonial powers looted Sri Lanka’s wealth, the British handed over the country’s economy to a chosen few in reasonable shape. The country was subsequently governed by two parties, both with political dynasties, a pattern that continues until today. The patriarch of the Rajapaksa family was in the first legislative assembly in Ceylon, hence governing of the country has been a family affair nearly 74 years.

The first challenge to family rule came in 1971 with a youth uprising, an armed struggle followed by a second uprising in late 1980s. An ethnic conflict between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil youth in the North that lasted nearly thirty years. All these conflicts cost many lives, suffering and were a huge burden on the economy.

One thing that’s common to all these conflicts is a demand for a just society for all to have the same opportunities irrespective of ethnicity, social status, religious beliefs or political affiliation.

Although youths were influenced by communist ideology at the time, many were driven to fight against injustice of the system dominated by a few families and their cronies. Both youth uprisings were quelled by the ruling dynasties with the help of the military where family members were dominant in high ranks.

The current uprising is unique, not driven by any known political party but by Millennials and Gen Z, inspired by the Arab spring uprising in the Middle East. There are thousands of citizens in the street protesting day and night condemning nepotism; they have no leaders but everyone is a leader, a real people’s movement.

They have demands but no leaders to negotiate with. Their demands are very straightforward – they want all politicians, who have been involved with corrupt practices and looted the country for 74 years, to relinquish their powers and hand the government to the people.

The constitution of any country determines the relationship of citizens with the government, which is now broken. People do not trust any elected representatives, irrespective of their political persuasion. The constitution specifies limits of power of the government and rights of citizens that are essential to create a harmonious society.

If the constitution is weak, a toothless tiger where there are no provisions for individual liberties, checks and balances, accountability or transparency but allows a few people to rob the country’s assets and move overseas, then it has serious flaws.

Sri Lanka needs meaningful constitutional reforms. The current executive presidency has been misused by every head of state who has come to power for personal gain since it was first introduced in 1978. They all agreed to abolish executive presidency close to elections but once in power, have not bothered to act.

Executive powers were further strengthened by the 20th amendment. People voted for the government with a two thirds majority, so it happened with the blessing of the general masses; the public also must take some responsibility for the crisis.

The current system must be uprooted, given its last rites and cremated. Sri Lanka needs to go back to the two tier parliamentary system where power is decentralised. The second chamber (senate), should be given the right to scrutinise all bills so that checks and balances are in place and one individual, his cronies and family members cannot bring a nation to its knees.

Citizens need to have faith in the system rather than the person. Sri Lankans should not look to a single person as their saviour and expect miracles at the end of the electoral cycle, then be disappointed and elect a different person every few years.

All political parties should declare the source of their funding and be subjected to an independent audit. Systematic corruption and misuse of public assets by people who enjoy powerful positions within the government and in the bureaucracy is a well-known fact. It is time to end these practices. A cultural shift is required to turn this tide through education. The corruption that has infiltrated every facet of society needs to be completely uprooted. Whistle blower laws should be tightened to encourage investigative citizen journalism to expose corrupt practices of individuals and institutions.

Independent democratic institutions are the backbone of a functional democracy. Political parties and politicians come and go every few years but institutions stay. They should be headed by competent professionals with subject matter expertise. Unfortunately, they are now highly politicised, only serving the agenda of the political party of the day.

The public sector is very large and inefficient. The two major political parties promised people government jobs, expecting easy votes, and avoided hard decisions. This has created the mentality that a permanent job in the government sector was employment for life. This has passed from one generation to another, hence the huge, inefficient public sector, which is a financial burden to the country. It is time to re-think the whole governing structure.

There are many white elephants, State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) such as Sri Lankan Airlines, that are loss making monopolies propped up by the treasury. These enterprises are managed by family members of the ruling elite, another example of jobs for boys. They need to be closely scrutinised if the country wishes to turn the tide.

The best way to empower the general masses is through education. Countries such as China, with a population of over a billion, have managed to push millions of their citizens out of poverty and create a wealthy middle class within a short period of 35 years through education and economic reforms. Today, their universities are ranked with the best universities from the west. Sri Lanka needs an education system that can meet the demands of the 21st Century.

The primary objective of any education system is to produce law abiding citizens who pledge to uphold the country’s constitution, ethics and morals to the highest level. The current system has produced skilled professionals with paper qualifications but not many with integrity, moral values or leadership qualities.

The system should empower young people, encourage critical thinking and challenge the status quo so leaders will emerge. Challenge to the status quo should not be interpreted as disrespect to elders but as challenging perspectives and looking for an objective point of view. The new system should encourage young people to choose a profession they wish based on individual skills and desires, and should not be driven by economic necessities.

The reforms will take time. The country needs a short term solution to overcome current impasse so supplies can be restored and people can get back to their normal lives. An interim administration must be put in place to allow this to happen.

It is time to give a fresh beginning with meaningful reforms in all sectors – economic, social and political. Although a painful austerity period is ahead, it should be considered as an opportunity for real change; it’s time for all citizens to be united under one banner and re-start. Every crisis has a silver lining, never to be wasted.