Photo courtesy of Rediff

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition. But certainty is an absurd one.” Voltaire (Letter to Fredrick the Great – 28.11.1770)

Sri Lanka’s road to ruin was marked by miracles.

The story, born in mystery, spread across the land at the speed of light. Luminous rays were emanating from Buddha statues. For three days in August 2006, people thronged temples, media provided live coverage, work stopped, roads clogged and international flights pushed back. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was ecstatic that the first sighting happened in a temple in his hometown of Tangalle. His supporters hailed the “miracle” as a sign from on high that their leader was divinely mandated to restore Sri Lanka to her ancient glory.

The Rajapaksas, swept out of office electorally in 2015, would return triumphantly in 2019, on the wings of another “miracle”, this one sent from the Cobra Land (Naga Lokaya). Authenticated by the chief incumbent of the ancient Kelaniya temple, the “miracle” hailed the appearance of yet another divinely mandated hero-leader to save the motherland, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Now the Rajapaksas are planning a third coming. Namal Rajapaksa is the new king-in-waiting, shepherded by Uncle Basil, he of seven brains, according to Rajapaksa devotees. Whether a new “miracle” will appear in this election cycle is uncertain. Even if it does, the voters are unlikely to be susceptible.

Not to the Rajapaksas. Their time is over, at least for now. But the attitudes, the long ingrained habits of expecting magic in politics and leaders with capacities beyond natural survive and thrive. Faith brought us to ruin. Even as we rail at the main authors of our misfortune, we continue to elevate blind belief over reason or facts.

In the general election held immediately after the Second World War, British people opted to elect a leaders suited to the peaceful present than to the warring past. They understood that, post-war, the task was not to save the empire or battle enemies real or imaginary but to build a fairer society. So they picked the uncharismatic, non-heroic Clement Attlee and the Labour Party over the war-winning prime minister and living legend Winston Churchill.

We in Sri Lanka did not have the same sense. We believed that the war-winner could win economic battles as well. We also believed that, like in the fairy tales, he should be rewarded with sovereignty over us for defeating the Tiger. The opposition, instead of reframing the election in socio-economic terms (who is more capable of delivering the peace dividend), acceded to the Rajapaksa’s patriots-and-traitors frame by fielding Sarath Fonseka. Perhaps, given the blind belief of Southern voters, there wasn’t much of a choice.

In the battle of the “patriots” in an election focusing on defeating perennial enemies rather than creating a new and fairer social contract, Mahinda Rajapaksa won and Sarath Fonseka lost. The outcome was preordained; after all, could any – or all – of dasa maha yodayas (the ten great warriors) beat King Dutugemunu?

The South voted for the unreconstructed war-candidate and waited for the peace dividend. It never materialised. Mahinda Rajapaksa focused on consolidating familial rule, his dynastic ambitions covered by soaring rhetoric about national and international enemies. Indirect taxes were hiked up to cover the costs of a high living ruling family with a penchant for showy projects and an expanding military with a voracious appetite for men and hardware. As budget deficits widened, borrowings filled the gap.

By 2014, Most Lankans did not earn enough to make ends meet. Fifty three percent of the urban population, 73% of the rural population and 81% of the estate population did not receive the minimum income necessary to pay for food and other basic needs, according to the Department of Census and Statistics. “A family of four in the urban sector needed an income of Rs. 59,000 for their monthly food and other basic requirements, while a family of four in the rural sector needed Rs. 37,560 and a family of four in the estate sector Rs. 29,000.” And the absolute majority of families in all three sectors did not earn this minimum monthly income, despite the absence of war and the Rajapaksa “development” binge. For the government, that lack was not a problem. In 2012, Minister Bandula Gunawardane had assured the nation that a person could manage comfortably with just Rs.2,500 a month. The government seemed to agree.

As want grew, disenchantment followed. As CPA surveys revealed, in 2011, 70% of Sinhalese thought the general economic situation will improve in the next two years. In 2013 only 38.5% of Sinhalese thought the general economic situation will improve in the coming two years. The Rajapaksas continued to churn the barbarians at the gate narrative but in 2015 the magic failed.

Mahinda economics and Gota economics

In 2014, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a ministerial subcommittee to study the state of the economy. In its confidential report, the subcommittee identified two critical problem areas: the continued declining of government revenue as a percentage of the GDP and extreme reliance on indirect taxes to generate even that inadequate revenue.

In 2011 government revenue was 14.3% of the GDP; in 2012 it declined to 13%; an even sharper decline happened in 2013 when the ratio fell to just 11%. The government’s revenue estimates for 2015 were “unrealistic and unachievable,” the subcommittee opined. The report also pointed out dangers inherent in the excessive reliance on indirect taxes: “It is not prudent to continue our over-reliance on indirect taxes and must rely instead on a direct tax effort. We must ease taxing of goods for consumption and services regardless of the people’s income levels and avoid placing burdens on the poorer households” (Daily Mirror 23.8.2015).

It was a warning that the UNDP had sounded earlier. Commenting on Sri Lanka’s abnormally distorted direct/indirect tax ratio of 20:80, the UNDP pointed out that a country which is dependent on indirect taxes for 80% of its tax revenue cannot achieve financial stability or inclusive growth, for it “shifts the burden of taxation on to the poor” (Sri Lanka Human Development Report – 2012). The report also commented on the need to reform this highly iniquitous tax system and “to spread the burden of taxation more evenly, to improve revenue collection, to achieve better governance and accountability and to ensure that revenue is in line with growth” (ibid).

The point should have been self evident. No country can have guns, butter, low taxes and no borrowing at the same time. Something has to give in. Had Mahinda Rajapaksa won in 2015, Lankan economy might have fallen apart long before 2022, though the landing would have been less hard. For no one but Gotabaya Rajapaksa could have believed that the entire agricultural sector could go from chemical to organic in one season. And Mahinda Rajapaksa, with more common sense, would have gone to the IMF early, instead of waiting until the economy caved in. There were limits to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s irrationality, none to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s.

Keeping direct taxes low, military expenditure high and covering the deficit with indirect taxes and loans were and are integral to Rajapaksa economics. It was this voodoo economics, taken to its logical extreme by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, which pushed Sri Lanka over the edge in 2022. Unfortunately, the likely winners of the upcoming presidential election – the SJB and the JVP/NPP – do not seem to have broken with Rajapaksa economics entirely. Both parties – at least enough decision makers in both parties – seem to think that Sri Lanka can have guns, rice, low taxes and low borrowings if corruption and waste are eliminated.

Corruption is ingrained not just in the Sri Lankan system but also in Sri Lankan life, as much as chemical fertiliser is ingrained in Sri Lankan agriculture. Going green is good and necessary. But it must be approached realistically and not the Gotabaya way. Ditto corruption. Unfortunately, the JVP/NPP’s approach to ending corruption bears a worrying similarity to the abracadabra way Gotabaya Rajapaksa approached organic agriculture – an irrational belief that a near-visceral vice can be eradicated, fast food style, quick and easy.

For most Sri Lankan voters, none of this seems to matter. The hard choices unavoidable in a land clawing its way up from the depths of bankruptcy are not discussed. Nor is the all important question of who will bear the cost of that recovery and to what extent. The implied answer is that once the Ranil Wickremesinghe government is out and the thieving Rajapaksas and their cronies are in jail, corruption would vanish and there’d be enough money to pay for everything without burdening anyone. That is as much of a fairy tale as the ones the Rajapaksas told and continue to tell us.

Rajapaksa politics; JVP politics

As a recent and much discussed television debate makes clear, the SLPP has not changed. Has the JVP?

The conduct of SLPP parliamentarians Tissa Kuttiarachchi and Weerasumana Weerasinghe at the recent Hiru Balaya debate was execrable. There’s no argument about that. But the most important point about that brouhaha is not so much the (predictably) uncouth behaviour of the two SLPPers but the comment by the JVP’s Nalin Hewage that preceded it.

Asked about the killings done by the JVP/DJV (Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya was the military alter ego of the JVP during the second insurgency) in the 1987-89 period, Mr. Hewage said, dismissively, “That time, it’s like this, (people) died, mostly rapists of women and brewers of moonshine (kassipu), and thieves in the South died.” That is a direct translation. What Mr. Hewage said was that the JVP’s killings did not matter because the victims were criminals.

There are three problems with this statement and the mindset behind it.

Firstly, it is a lie. The JVP’s targets belonged to many spectra, from fellow left and left-of-centre leaders and activists to UNPers, SLFPers and ordinary people who disobeyed the JVP’s various orders, be it not to vote or not to sell kassipu. As Prins Gunasekera, a JVP fellow-traveller, wrote, during the supposed anti-IPKF struggle “…the hawks of in the JVP/DJV combine appear to have been busy planning the assassination of their political dissidents – university professors, university students, media employees, Buddhist monks in sympathy with the government, and trade unionists who disagreed with them” (Sri Lanka in Crisis, A Lost Generation, The Untold Story).

Secondly, Mr. Hewage’s statement confirms that during the second insurgency the JVP did indeed take the law into its own hands, deciding who was guilty of criminality and who was not, who should live and who should die. In 2024, the problem is not so much what the JVP did then, but the JVP’s defence of that conduct now. After all, what is the difference between this and the practice of killing criminal suspects in police custody pioneered by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and continued by Tiran Alles? Recently Minister Alles was quoted saying “Eliminating criminals from the country is not a sin. Don’t be afraid to use the weapon in your hand for the right thing and we’ll stand by you”. What is the difference between this atrocious statement and what Mr. Hewage said during the Hiru Balaya debate?

Thirdly, the JVP’s attitude to its conduct during the second insurgency seems no different to the Rajapaksas’ attitude to the Fourth Eelam War. The Rajapaksas called it a humanitarian offensive with zero-civilian casualties. By denying the possibility of civilian casualties, the Rajapaksas turned every dead Tamil into a Tiger or a Tiger supporter. Similarly, Mr. Hewage’s statement that the JVP killed only criminals turn every JVP victim of those years into a criminal by definition. The outcome of such attitudes cannot but have a deadly impact on democracy and rule of law. Not to mention the basic rights without which we are subjects.

The JVP today is not the JVP of the second insurgency in many ways. Today’s political arguments must focus on what the JVP is now and not what it was more than 30 years ago. If Mr. Hewage withdraws his statement, if the JVP/NPP officially rejects that statement and affirms that killing even criminals outside the law and without due process is wrong, then the matter should end there. But if the JVP doesn’t make that clarification, if the NPP is either fine with Mr. Hewage’s justification of murdering criminal suspects out of hand or lacks the political will/capacity to question it, if those thronging to the Malimawa (Compass) have no problems with witch trials and arbitrary killings, then Sri Lanka is in for another disaster. And the latest fairy tale, with Anura Kumara Dissanayake as the liberating/avenging hero, will turn out to be yet another counter fairy tale which begins with Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island, and ends with no one living happily, even when they survive.