What made Sri Lanka a failed and bankrupt nation? Who is responsible?

Friday, 30 June 2023 00:15 –      – 46

The rule of law necessarily constitute the basis of the modern system of governance


In this article I venture to analyse how Sri Lanka has become a failed and bankrupt nation and who should be held responsible for that? So far no one has endeavoured to make a rational political analysis about it.

Sri Lanka remained a stagnant, underdeveloped nation when it became a British colony in 1815. Then, after 133 years of colonial rule and when the British left the country in 1948, Sri Lanka had made amazing progress. In terms of development, Sri Lanka was ranked second only to Japan among Asian countries. However, the outcome of 73 years of home rule ensued since independence was such that the country which was so advanced at the time of independence had become a failed and bankrupt state. Why did the indigenous leaders who ruled the nation after independence, the bureaucracy that worked with them and the Sri Lankan society in general fail to continue the progress that the British had bequeathed on them? The lack of vision and operational ability of the rulers, the bureaucracy and the society in general could be attributed to be the main reason for this deplorable situation. However, a brief but an in-depth analysis would offer a picture as described below.

We inherited from the British a proper system of institutions and a modern Constitution which enshrined the principles to be adopted in maintaining a democratic society to a large extent while protecting the framework of freedom, equality, fraternity and the rule of law which necessarily constitute the basis of the modern system of governance. But our rulers, government officials or the society at large did not have a vision or a sophisticated modern mind to maintain those conditions. Despite the fact that most of them appeared to have become modern to some extent from outside, their inner core remained feudal in character. They did not have a proper understanding of liberal concepts like individual freedom, equality, brotherhood and the rule of law. Their main concern was the ethnicity, caste, religion and culture to which they belonged. They even didn’t recognise the need to respect the Constitution, the supreme law of the country.

The Soulbury Constitution received from the British lasted only until 1972. The Citizenship Act in 1948 and the Official Language Act in 1956 were enacted violating the Soulbury Constitution. Then the First Republican Constitution was enacted in 1972 in a manner that led to the deprivation of the language rights of the Tamil people. Thereafter, in 1978, the Second Republican Constitution was adopted placing the power of the executive president above the legislative and judicial power. This caused a breakdown in the basic democratic foundation of the state and deprived the judiciary of the power of judicial review, the process under which executive, legislative and administrative actions were subject to review by the judiciary. Instead, the review of the constitutionality of a Parliamentary Bill was made a thing to be made within a short time before it was passed by the Parliament. So far, the removal of the power of review of the judiciary does not seem to have caused a matter of concern of the legal community. By placing the executive above the law, the presidents have got the ability to act without regard to the law with immunity and opportunity to earn wealth illegally, if necessary. Also, this led to the emergence of a system in which the valuable resources of the state were allocated to the political cronies of the ruling party. This also allowed the parliamentarians to transact business with the government despite it was contrary to the law by preventing the law being enforced against the MPs engaged in such activities. Consequently, some MPs have become landowners by acquiring estate land belonging to the government at a very low price, and others have ended up being businessmen transacting business with the government. According to a statement made by Dallas Alahapperuma to Aruna newspaper, 2000 of the 4900 liquor stores in the country are owned by the MPs. This situation has changed the image of the public representatives. In addition to giving the key positions in government corporations and boards to political cronies, it has led to create a system that allowed them to earn wealth illegally from those institutions. The number of government employees grew faster than the required number; and the cost incurred in maintaining them became an unbearable burden due to the irrational policy followed by politicians in recruiting employees for government service with the objective of strengthening the voter base instead of maintaining the optimum number of employees actually needed to run those institutions efficiently.

The growing corruption in the government institutions has led to a drastic decrease in the government’s income. The nationalisation policy pursued from time to time after 1956 and up to 1977 led to driving away a number of powerful foreign investors from the country thereby weakening the economic activities of the country. After Sri Lanka’s transition to a free market economy, the export earnings had gradually increased and by the year 2000, it had reached 33.3% of the GDP. Thereafter, it continued to fall to a level of 13%.

There was no strong effort to overcome the serious setback in export earnings. It contributed to creating a serious balance of payments crisis. After becoming a middle-income country, Sri Lanka lost the ability to obtain loans at concessional interest rates. Under the circumstances, borrowings from the international credit market at high interest rates for economically ineffective large-scale projects, the burden of foreign debt also had been growing rapidly. This situation also has weakened the country’s economy and exacerbated the balance of payments crisis.

The ethnic, caste and religious issues also acted as crucial factors that aggravated the socio-political and economic crises in Sri Lanka. After independence, the Sinhalese majority and their rulers wanted most of the benefits gained from independence to be shared among them, the Sinhalese people. Although the Burgher community did not have conflicting issues with the majority Sinhalese, they left the country in large numbers before and after independence, realising that there won’t be a future for them in Sri Lanka. They were looked down upon with contempt and sarcastically nicknamed as Karapothu Lansis, the cockroach Burghers. We wanted to chase them out mostly because we wanted to grab the cluster of high positions they held.

The Burghers constituted the backbone of the public service. They also had a prominent representation in the judicial service. Following their departure, Sinhalese and Tamils got a chance to occupy the positions held by them. But the resulting vacancies were often filled by candidates who were less experienced and sometimes less qualified, which led to a great decline in the quality of public service and judicial service.

If they could have been integrated into the Sri Lankan nation as a permanent component of it, the benefit to the country would have been immense. After that, the plantation workers became the next victim of the state. On the subject of citizenship, the policies implemented on plantation workers were so harsh that the Tamils of the plantation sector who were able to secure seven seats in the first parliamentary election in 1948 were compelled to wait for 29 years to secure a parliamentary seat after the enactment of the citizenship laws.

The Tamil people of Sri Lanka were the third victim of the Sri Lankan state. The language policy implemented in 1956 to deprive them of their language rights and the policies followed in relation to them during the 1972 constitution can be described as two instances where Sri Lanka has displayed a maximum level of incivility in the political sense.

The intrigues used after Prabhakaran was defeated to create hatred and disgust among the Sinhalese people towards Muslims can be considered extremely violent and vile. The feudal caste system that divided the society as high and low is also a powerful factor that pushed Sri Lanka into the path of violence. Even after recognising that the caste system has played a significant role in the rebellions that broke out in the north and south, no effective measures have been taken to eliminate this oppressive situation. This chaotic situation prevails in the social system and has acted as a factor that has aggravated the socio-political and economic crises in Sri Lanka. A significant number of Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim diaspora who have left Sri Lanka and settled down in foreign countries have done so because of issues related to ethnicity, caste and religion. The chaotic situation rooted in the social system has destroyed the unity that should have been maintained in the country which in turn had become a reason leading to the outburst of riots and violent struggles from time to time.

The communal and religious riots that occurred from time to time, in addition to causing loss of life, caused huge damage to property and acted as a factor that weakened the political system as well as the economy. Especially, Black July ‘83 did not stop at causing a lot of loss of life and property; the anger and shock it caused in the Tamil people served as a crucial factor that pushed the Tamil youth into a violent rebellion.

The occasional riots that broke out targeting Muslim people also created a huge pressure on those people. In addition to that, the role of violent rebellions in making Sri Lanka a failed and bankrupt nation is huge. The JVP’s second insurrection like its first up rise in ‘71 cannot be considered a war launched to seize power. The party (JVP) implemented a system to disrupt the state machinery and seize power by killing a large number of people who were considered as their big political enemies in such a way that the assassinator could not be identified. It could be described as the most uncivilised method of fighting that could be found among violent fighting strategies. At the outset, this strategy of fighting extremely stunned the government; and then the security forces also adopted the same strategy of fighting against the JVP, and it turned into a brutal and competitive battle between the two parties where people were killed in large numbers. In that process, the amount of cruelty unleashed on the society by the rebels and the government forces was enormous. When about 50,000 people of the Sinhala society were killed, the rest who survived were turned into a society which was spiritually dead or sick.

The rebellion caused a huge destruction to property also. Thereafter, the destruction caused by the LTTE insurrection was several times bigger than the damage caused by the JVP rebellion. In the end, the suicide attack made on Easter 2020 by a Muslim extremist group targeting Catholics and Christians was relatively not very big, but its ruthless character and the shock it made on the entire society was enormous. These violent rebellions caused an enormous destruction to life and property. A large part of the dead were educated youth. The damage caused not only to the political system, but also to the economy by the loss of such a group of educated young people was huge. It is as a result of these violent rebellions that Sri Lanka has become a desert land devoid of leaders. These rebellions also led to increase the size of the security forces thereby increasing the defence expenditure to a level not manageable by the state. The large-scale purchase of weapons from abroad also acted as a factor that aggravated the balance of payments problem. The increase in defence expenditure also aggravated the country’s economic crisis. The rebellions that followed and the campaigns launched to suppress them led to debilitate the state and aggravate its decay.

All political parties that ruled the country and all the other political parties representing the parliament which have contributed in many ways to those administrations, the government officials, academics, all the parties that have attempted to seize power through armed struggles, the media people and mass media institutions, artists, professional, religious priests and the whole society are all guilty and responsible to a greater or lesser degree, for the crisis associated with the failure and bankruptcy of the country.

Hardly there could be a single adult who would not become a defendant in one way or the other in this case. All of them are guilty of the crime of pushing the country into an abyss and state of failure and bankruptcy by committing various mistakes by themselves, aiding and abetting those committing them and remaining silent without opposing, thus allowing themselves to be duped. If the political parties and all the people of the country will be able to realise this situation and perceive the crisis facing the country from such a realistic viewpoint, certainly all defendants could come together and rectify the serious mistake that they have collectively committed to the nation. Except the JVP, all the other political parties admit that their party has committed a mistake in one way or another.

Of the recognised political parties, it is only the JVP that has failed to achieve this kind of self-reproach and sense of humility. The JVP appears to think that it is the only political party which is free of stealing public property (As reported in his book by Dharman Wickramaratne, a journalist who played the role of a supporter of the JVP during its second insurrection, the JVP has committed 62 bank robberies during that period. In addition to that there had been 131 incidents of stealing money when being transported to pay the salaries of institutions and more than 1000 incidents of burglary of houses.

These could be considered as things done when they virtually ruled the country by issuing chits. The JVP claims to possess the most right to form the next government. There is no doubt that theft is an offense which should be condemned with contempt.

However, even according to the criminal law, murder is considered as a more terrible and serious crime than theft. The JVP has not expressed its sincere regret for the murders that it had committed. If they have genuine regret, how could the comrades who killed people be celebrated as heroes? The JVP will be able to move forward confidently only if it could muster the self-confidence to put down its ugly and blood-stained legacy that it carries proudly on their shoulders. Not only the political parties and the system but also the JVP must change.


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