How did President End Up Holding the Entire Bucket of Faeces?
Posted on April 16th, 2022

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe Courtesy Ceylon Today

In record time Sri Lanka’s most beloved Presidential candidate had become Sri Lanka’s most hated President. This transformation took place despite being one of the few world leaders who had successfully managed the Covid-19 pandemic. Those who congregate in the streets today with placards of ‘Go Gota Go’ forget that they are able to assemble without a second thought because of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s timely response to the pandemic. 

When the pandemic hit the island in March 2020, we did not have the kind of economy that could afford a lockdown. Yet, after much debate and consultations with both health and finance experts we entered our first lockdown. Pakistan refused to lockdown their country for they feared that such a move would impoverish the poor even more and that would kill more than the virus itself. 

Conversely Sri Lanka appointed a number of task forces that ensured ‘essentials’ such as food and medicine reached every household, economically challenged were supported and those suffering from various mental duress’s such as alcoholism, depression and other disorders were looked after. 

Countries with stronger economies like India forced the State sector to accept a reduced pay. Sri Lankan Government servants received their full salary despite the country losing almost all its forex revenue with the main avenues directly affected by the pandemic. For the import dependent nation, this is the equivalent of being unemployed, that is we were basically a country without an income. 

The third lockdown was definitely one we could not afford. In fact, the Cabinet decision too was to ride the wave than shut down the country yet again. However, when a section of the Government, that included Cabinet Ministers, pressed the President for the third lockdown, he complied that same day. Addressing the Nation, President Gotabaya spelled out the gravity of the situation and warned that we may all have to make sacrifices in the near future. 

Our vaccination programme was better than even the vaccine producing countries. With the West hoarding the vaccines without sharing, certain countries were unable to obtain even one anti-Covid vaccine vial. Yet, notwithstanding the difficult relations the Gotabaya Administration has with the West Sri Lanka managed to fully vaccinate her population, which includes the booster shot as well. 

Today, these magnanimous services count for nought. It is not only the youth, who do not know any better, that are agitating for the President to leave Office. Their call is directly or indirectly supported by illustrious religious and social leaders. Even business tycoon Dilith Jayaweera, who was very close to the President as a personal friend and as such worked tirelessly for the campaign, has taken cudgels against the President. 

Roadblocks and Pitfalls to Stumble President 

Almost from day one, there were elements hell-bent on making President Gotabaya’s journey a difficult if not impossible one. The ‘Sir Fail’ project began even before he became the president. 

1) The Ailing Economy

President Gotabaya inherited a trade deficit of USD 56 billion. Out of this, 37 per cent was International Sovereign Bonds (ISB). The Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration had borrowed USD 5 billion, most of which were already repaid. From foreign countries less than USD 10 billion had been borrowed as capital borrowing for development purposes. The Yahapalana Government had taken USD 12.5 billion to cover the trade deficit wrought on by daily expenses than development projects. 

The problem with ISB is that it is not issued by multilateral organisations as ADB, IMF, WORLD BANK or bilateral loans from countries as China or India. Instead, ISB are from equity and capital funds from private organisations around the world. As such, it is very difficult to restructure such loans. In essence these are short term loans – maximum five year period. At the end of the period the full loan has to be settled. 

These bonds are now maturing and Sri Lanka must pay. Last year we settled a one billion USD bill just as we were entering the third lockdown. This year we have already paid six billion USD. Another one billion USD is about to mature in few months time. 

The careful plans with which President Gotabaya entered Office to strengthen the ailing economy went awry due to the unanticipated pandemic. The Easter Attack in 2019 from which we lost most of our tourism revenue also did not help the situation. The loss of income due to the pandemic and the maturing ISB in quick succession is making a hard job harder for the Government to resolve and get the economy back on track. 

2) The Swiss Drama

The Swiss Embassy attempted to frame the newly elected President into a kidnapping case. Though that project failed miserably the vibe was clear: by hook or crook, the West will discredit Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

3) The Boisterous Trade Unions

The Covid vaccine is the world’s only hope to return to any sense of normalcy. When the vaccination programme was satisfactorily underway the health sector embarked on trade union (TU) action. Undeterred the vaccination program was handed over to the military, who proved to be far more systematic, efficient and humane than the health sector. 

Throwing a spanner into the smooth resolving of the pandemic, the principals and teachers took to the streets demanding the Government to address the salary anomalies that have been festering for the past quarter century. This proved to be a serious setback with increase in Covid infected and related deaths. Consequently, the lockdown period too was extended. This had a debilitating effect on the economy. 

Surprisingly, President Gotabaya tolerated these TU actions. Furthermore, he caved into the demands and agreed to settle the anomalies that worked out to a whopping 

Rs 30,000 million. This ill timed decision at a juncture when the country’s finances were in dire straits created a cash crunch that directly affected the other State sectors. 

President Gotabaya’s boy scout-like actions neither helped the country nor soothed the TU. Instead, this emboldened them further. Today, all hues of organised protests are taking place across the country without fear or reservation. When protesters gathered in front of his residence on 31 March evening, he did not allow the Police to use force to disperse the crowds until they began subterfuge activities such as setting buses on fire and vandalising public property. 

The Wrong Turns in the President’s Road Map

One might presume that President Gotabaya’s unravelling was his ill timed and grossly mismanaged organic fertiliser programme. This however, was not the genesis of the catastrophe. This whole mess began on the eve of President Gotabaya’s presidency. Unbeknown to all his ardent supporters, who were busy celebrating his victory, a darker force had already taken control of the presidency. 

It cannot be stated with certainty whether Basil Rajapaksa is actually the ‘ugly American’ with a self serving agenda to sell the country to the US, as claimed by former Cabinet Minister Wimal Weerawansa. Of course the manner the dots and its sequence get connected supports Weerawansa’s accusations. These charges get further cemented by the sheer silence maintained by both the President and his media. 

However, the fact remains that Basil Rajapaksa is at odds with President’s core team. As the leader, President Gotabaya should have been more sensitive to the tensions between his most loyal supporters and his younger brother. As such, he ought to have kept them separate. 

Instead, he allowed Basil Rajapaksa to select his team from private secretary onwards. This team too does not get along with President’s supporters. The Government rebel team led by Udaya Gammanpila, Wimal Weerawansa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara did not crop up overnight. From the beginning they were harassed by Basil Rajapaksa’s team. When the fuel prices first increased Sagara Kariyawasam – a Basil Rajapaksa loyalist – tried to pin the blame on Gammanpila. 

At the same time, they found certain proposals favoured by the President as the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, East Container Terminal to India and the Yugadanavi Power Plant Project unacceptable. The nationalists too disagreed with these projects. By and by, President Gotabaya began to heed the advice of those installed by Basil Rajapaksa over the wise counsel by the team that had already proven their loyalty to him. 

The President’s official team either do not know or care about the President’s image. The President’s special address to the nation clearly demonstrated this fact. The omission of President’s signature I am proud of my country, I love my country,” was very ominous. The purpose of the speech was to announce his decision to seek assistance from the IMF. 

The IMF is not favoured by many 

Sri Lankans for the austerity measures and structural reforms the organisation insists upon to receive its continuous support. Therefore, these concerns ought to have been addressed by the President sensitively and sensibly. 

Instead, the President appoints Indrajith Coomaraswamy as an adviser in the Presidential Advisory Group on Multilateral Engagement and Debt Sustainability. Coomaraswamy as the Yahapalana Government’s Central Bank Governor is largely responsible for the debt that is throttling the country. Therefore, President’s confidence in a man who was part of the problem to resolve the issue is questionable. 

There is no discernible reason for the President to make such an appointment. He has the backing of Viyathmaga – the largest think tank of professionals. State Minister Dr. Nalaka Godahewa is one such personality. He played a pivotal role to expose the Central Bank bond scams that took place in 2015 and 2016. 

Treasury bonds are a complex subject. In fact, the Yahapalana Government PM Ranil Wickremesinghe was confident that the general public would not know the difference between the treasury bond and James Bond. However, the former Securities Exchange Commission Chairman, under whose leadership the stock market grew in leaps and bounds, explained the complexities of the scam in easy to understand and digest format. 

Bypassing such personalities for those who created the current economic woes has severely discredited the President. Those who supported the President on principle find it difficult to stand by him with people like Coomaraswamy at his side. 

The President, who took timely action to negate the Swiss drama and the pandemic, has been surprisingly lethargic on the financial front. When Ajith Cabraal replaced Dr. Lakshman as the Central Bank Governor, he made a presentation to the Cabinet on 20.10.2020. He predicted the economic disaster that we are facing today and presented a six-month roadmap to address these issues. 

Though the Cabinet approved this plan, as the Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksa simply sat on it. Eventually, Cabraal had informed the Cabinet that despite nine requests to meet the Finance Minister, he had not received an appointment. The Opposition too complained that the Finance Minister had not attended Parliament for three months. Those who supported the President loyally are bitter that their repeated warnings and friendly advice were callously and arrogantly disregarded by the President. 

President Gotabaya was elected to power to instil discipline in the country. His refusal to discipline his younger brother and allowing his brother’s team to push away his own team, has left the President very much alone today. Cardinal Ranjith’s angst against the Government is also because of the manner he had been snubbed over the Easter Attack inquiry. 

The President is not without supporters. However, he has not made an attempt to reach out to them. Instead, he is turning in circles trying to link with the TNA and the Tamil Diaspora. The olive branch he eventually offered to the Government rebel group comes too late. The rebel team too have lost control of the situation as the hyped up protests organised by invisible forces have laid the country vulnerable to an Arab Spring like operation.

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