Sri Lanka: Lest we forget, not Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, but the political system failed the country
Posted on August 11th, 2022

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa made mistakes as President. However, he should not be treated like a Pariah. There are other opportunists riding the wave of discontentment, who should wear the hat of a Pariah before Gotabhaya.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa made mistakes as the President of the country, and grave ones at that too. Some of his decisions were ill timed and ill informed. Some decisions he should have taken, were not taken. The country is witnessing the aftermath of these decisions and non-decisions.

However, he cannot be held solely responsible for the disastrous economic situation in the country. He did inherit a nation in debt and low GDP growth. His predecessors too are at fault for the economic policies they followed. One of them has now become a pontificator of good governance although he did not even offer an apology to the country and to the families of hundreds who died a preventable death, let alone taking responsibility for a major security lapse that he, as President and Defense minister, should have taken responsibility for. That President, along with the current President who was then the Prime Minister, presided over a decline in economic growth from around 7% to 2.7% during their tenure, and a rise in foreign debt from 70% of GDP, which itself was a very high figure, to 96% of GDP at the end of their tenure.

Many in Sri Lanka have now become experts in politics, economics, budget management, and you name it, virtually everything and anything. Mostly with the benefit of hindsight. Some of these expert voices were not heard when the country progressively hurtled down the path of unsustainable debt. There was no sign of an Aragalaya then, although the issues that were brought to the forefront by the various shades of Aragalaya, were there then, as they are there now.

Not many questioned the unaffordable availability of luxury consumables, all imported with borrowed money. Not many complained about the avalanche of vehicles imports. Not many seemed to mind the loss-making State enterprises like Sri Lankan Airlines and the Petroleum Corporation, as long as the planes flew, and subsidized fuel was provided in abundance. There weren’t many who voiced concern about the huge amounts spent to provide subsidized inorganic fertilizer. All these were funded with debt, foreign and local.

It is not one leader, whether in politics or business or academia, or in civic society, who failed the country. It was a collective failing on the part of many. It is the political system, the governance system, and the leaders it produced that failed the country.

In this context, it is unworthy of Sri Lanka to label Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as the sole villain who allowed the country to fall into the abyss it has fallen. While other contributors roam free, some, somewhat disgraced, others have risen as saviors.

In this context, it is a sad reflection on the part of Sri Lankans in particular the media, to provide headline grabbing news items portraying the former President as having nowhere to go. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa must come back to Sri Lanka and be afforded the security and facilities that an ex-President of the country is entitled to. If as alleged, he has committed other misdemeanors, whoever who is accusing him of such misdemeanors should take legal action and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa should face the court decisions. However, he is innocent until he is proven guilty, and it is an insult to Sri Lanka and all Sri Lankans if he cannot return to the country and be protected as a former President.

He should be afforded the opportunity to provide his own defense against accusations of misuse of power, mismanagement, and any other misdemeanors.

Many seem to have short memories. They have forgotten that the country is free of terrorism and a separatist war thanks to the contribution made by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to end terrorism and war. His task was a Military one, which he achieved. Others had the task of introducing peace and reconciliation, and they were not able to achieve that lasting peace amongst the communities.

There is no question that family politics and all the negatives that come with power drunkenness reached its zenith with the Rajapaksa political family. The people and the system allowed this to happen.  It is time that all Sri Lankans questioned the political system that has prevailed since independence, and perhaps find answers to some questions and find the way forward.

1. Have the constitutions that the country has had so far, including the current one with its amendments, been beneficial to the country and its progress, economically and socially.

2. Economically, the country is nearly bankrupt with debt levels suffocating it, with income streams severely impacted due to COVID. Do the readers think this situation is only account of COVID? If not what else?

3. Socially, minority issues, especially aspirational issues, equality and equity, women’s rights, language issues, accountability issues, corruption, unethical conduct, etc., etc., still beset the country. Is it the constitution that is at fault or the politicians which the constitution produces?

4. In reality, while one can boast that people, through their representatives, decide on policies that successive governments have introduced, is this so or is it a fallacy? Except at the time of casting their votes, at what point till the next election do people participate in policy determination? Even during elections, do people really discuss, debate, and decide on policies contained in manifesto’s or are they purely looking for some immediate benefit from one side or another?

5. Do people have a choice in who is standing for elections from a political party?

6. Are political parties democratic and is there a people-oriented process to elect their leaders?

7. Does the system in place facilitate the effective participation of experts in economics, business, agriculture, health, education, fisheries, and other key areas of the economy in policy formulation, or is this process limited to a few yes” men and women who say what politicians wish to hear?

8. The cost of conducting elections is very high, with the last Presidential Election costing around Rs. 5 billion and the General Election around Rs. 10 billion. To this cost one has to add what candidates and their supporters spend on elections. The issue is not necessarily the overall cost, but whether there has been a justifiable return to the country on the investment made because of the elections, and whether the return has been more for the candidates and their sponsors. 

9. Buddhism, as defined more and more by the Buddhist institution from cultural practices rather than by the doctrinal practices introduced by Buddha, has been given pride pf place in the constitutions while other religions have been more or less accommodated” in them. One should ask whether societal values, ethical behaviour on the part of the people as well as the elected leaders, and indeed on the part of some members of the Buddhist institution have progressed to towards the Buddha’s doctrinal teachings. The question to be asked is whether the State should be secular, and all religions treated equally, and their role limited essentially for spiritual practices as per their respective religions.

10.Finally, while there would be many more questions that are bound to posted, challenges to what has been stated here, the objective behind posing these questions is for one to contemplate whether, despite whatever achievements of the past, the coming generations will be served well in years to come with a constitution more or less in the same vein and only cosmetically changed, or whether it is time to think outside the box as it were, and consider a constitution that will produce better outcomes rather than what 70 years of independence has delivered to Sri Lankans, then and now.

The author posed these questions in an article titled Contours for a new constitution with a difference, for the future, not the past” (https://www.ft.lk/columns/Contours-for-a-new-constitution-with-a-difference-for-the-future-not-the-past/4-723830)

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