President with a project | SJB’s chief economist | Moral spotlight: Cardinal Ranjith | No justice for Dinesh
“In our part of the world, Adam Smith needs Mussolini”
— Eduardo Galeano
The doyen of international economists familiar with Sri Lanka, Emeritus Professor Mick Moore OBE, has broken the facts of financial life to us gently. The IMF deal can’t do much because most of our debt is outside of the Paris Club, in the hands of two new players, China and the holders of ISBs. The latter may become a real problem, beyond the capacity of the IMF, if the case against Sri Lanka in the US courts go against us.
“…Sri Lanka’s debts, like those of many other contemporary distressed governments, principally take the form of either loans from Chinese banks or international sovereign bonds (ISBs). ISBs were originally sold on international financial markets by the Sri Lankan government…The Paris Club no longer includes or has much direct leverage over the organisations to which the governments of many poorer countries, including Sri Lanka, owe the most money. The dispersion of the ownership of Sri Lanka’s ISBs could become a problem if the current court case in the US goes against the government of Sri Lanka. American law in this area remains murky and subject to re-interpretation…” (Making the IMF Work for Sri Lankans: Part 2 – Groundviews)
Now, which “Sri Lankan Government”, meaning who, went on a binge selling ISBs and when? Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP which handled finance and economics during the hybrid Yahapalanaya administration.
Who is touted by the free-marketeers as our saviour from the crisis? The same Ranil Wickremesinghe and his colleagues who created its knottiest nodule.
What is the path out of the labyrinth indicated by the rightwing economists of the Government and Opposition? Implementing the IMF program which will spruce up our ratings which in turn will enable us to go back to the private money markets and raise more money, while the money we already owe them is the most malignant part of our current debt crisis.
So, the same guys who created the worst of the problem have/are the solution to the problem, and the way out of the debt-trap this time, is identical to the way in to the debt-trap last time? How many of us drink this Kool-Aid?
Killing media freedom
The open letter from columnist DBS Jeyaraj to President Ranil Wickremesinghe appealing for the replacement of the draft Anti-Terrorism Act by a substitute which could secure unanimous support in Parliament was suffused in poignant irony.
“I write to you in my professional capacity as a journalist writing on Sri Lankan affairs for newspapers published in Sri Lanka about an issue of deep concern to all members of the fourth estate in Sri Lanka.
…What is of particular concern to me are the provisions relating to the media. The ATA if passed in its present form will drastically affect and restrict the freedom of expression in general and the day-to-day functioning of journalists in particular. The ATA will be a Sri Lankan version of the sword of Damocles that would hang over the desks of journalists.
As a journalist who was compelled to leave the land of my birth due to victimisation by the state for my reporting and political commentary, I am fully aware and extremely sensitive about the ramifications of this issue. I know from experience that Sri Lankan Police officials are capable of misinterpreting the writings of journalists adversely in order to please whichever Government is in power. As such I am fearful that if the ATA is passed and implemented, it may very well ring the death knell for free and fair journalism in the country…”
Jeyaraj is quite rightly agitated by the deadly threat to media freedom posed by the Anti-Terrorism Act presented by the Wickremesinghe agitation. The free press in Sri Lanka /Ceylon was largely founded by D.R. Wijewardena. No other family has been so closely associated with the cause of press freedom. Jeyaraj has had to petition President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the grandson of D.R. Wijewardena, against the deadly threat to press freedom posed by a piece of legislation the latter has sought to implement. The press freedom pioneered on the island by D.R. Wijewardena is in danger of being throttled by his grandson. You can’t get more darkly ironic than that.
Historians have long observed that the enlightened values championed by a social class during its nascent and ascendant stages, are reversed, trampled upon and buried by the same class during its decadence and decline. The values which were championed by the Ceylonese bourgeoisie during its rise, are now being trampled upon by its contemporary representatives in its moribund stage.
The President is not consigning his universally criticised Anti-Terrorism Act to the shredder. He has only hit the pause button. Why not earn a round of applause, clinch the GSP Plus and earn more applause for that achievement by dumping the dictatorial ATA? This is because the ATA is not, as many leftwing critics say, chiefly a means of preventing agitation and protests against the implementation of the agreement with the IMF. It is for a deeply political project rather than merely or primarily for economic purpose
ATA and political strategy
The President is not consigning his universally criticised Anti-Terrorism Act to the shredder. He has only hit the pause button. Why not earn a round of applause, clinch the GSP Plus and earn more applause for that achievement by dumping the dictatorial ATA? This is because the ATA is not, as many leftwing critics say, chiefly a means of preventing agitation and protests against the implementation of the agreement with the IMF. It is for a deeply political project rather than merely or primarily for economic purpose.
While an emeritus professor of political science characterised the regime’s political behaviour in relatively mild terms of remonstrance as “semi-authoritarianism”, His Eminence Cardinal Ranjith followed the tradition of the prophets by using unvarnished language and grasping the crux of the current or emergent reality: “dictatorship”.
‘The Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith says he along with the victims of the Easter Sunday attack cannot place their trust in the current leadership to deliver justice… “Today dictatorship reigns in the country. We cannot place our trust in the current leadership that has taken steps to dismantle the people’s sovereignty,” he said. The Cardinal made these comments while addressing those gathered at the St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade to mark the fourth anniversary of the devastating Easter Sunday bombings that took over 260 lives and injured scores more.” (Easter Attacks: Cardinal says cannot trust current leadership to deliver justice | Daily FT)
An IMF program does not require despotism and is perfectly compatible with the holding of elections on schedule. Examples abound from Greece to Argentina to Lebanon. An IMF program isn’t incompatible with democracy, but with the continued incumbency of a ruler or ruling party implementing an austerity program. That’s President Wickremesinghe’s problem. It is compounded by the fact that he is striving to re-make Sri Lanka in accordance with his economic ideology which he tried in 2001 and 2015 but failed to complete precisely because of democracy. The IMF process doesn’t require dictatorship, but the Ranil model does. That’s the logic behind the ATA.
Opposition options and obfuscations
Sri Lanka’s Opposition is currently divisible between:
Those who oppose President Wickremesinghe’s economics and his politics.
Those who support his economics but oppose his politics
Those who support his economics and support his politics.
The first and third categories have logic on their side. The first opposes both his economics and his politics and the third supports both his economics and his politics. The middle category is illogical, because Ranil’s politics and his economics are inseparably linked. I re-emphasise here that I am not referring to a process with the IMF; I am referring to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s well-known, long-standing and recently reiterated economic doctrine.
If one opposes his economic doctrine it is perfectly logical and necessary to oppose his politics, because his economics cannot be implemented without his politics.
Conversely if one supports his economic doctrine one must support his politics because nowhere in the global South has that doctrine been implemented with and through electoral democracy, and without dictatorship.
To put it in theoretical terms, the ‘regime of accumulation’ – call it the economic model–long proposed by Ranil Wickremesinghe (and his father Esmond and BR Shenoy in 1965-66) and sought to be implemented as an intervention – billed as ‘solution’– in the current economic crisis, constitutes a ‘base’ or ‘substructure’ which requires a non-democratic political model as ‘superstructure’.
Therefore, it is illogical to support Ranil’s economics and oppose his politics. As the Frankfurt School philosopher Max Horkheimer famously put it: “if you don’t want to talk about capitalism then you had better keep quiet about fascism”. Similarly, if you don’t want to oppose Ranil’s economic model, you should keep quiet about his political model which is the necessary corollary of that economic model. Conversely, if you do want to oppose his political model, you should be willing to oppose the economic model which requires and undergirds it.
The great Uruguayan journalist and writer Eduardo Galeano described the economics-politics nexus with brilliance and bitterness:
“The only thing that’s free are prices. In our part of the world, Adam Smith needs Mussolini. Freedom of investment, freedom of prices, freedom of exchange: the greater the freedom for business, the more people are imprisoned.” (‘Cemetery of Words’)
To illustrate, Dr Harsha de Silva recently criticised the Ranil administration for tardiness in introducing new laws to facilitate foreign investment. His Economic Blueprint makes clear what he means: opening the labour and land markets, i.e., scrapping existing labour and land tenure laws. President Premadasa never needed to do so in order to attract foreign investment through his decentralised, export-led industrialisation drive, the 200 garment factories program.
Labour laws cannot be scrapped without a major confrontation with organised labour. Land reforms were introduced by the Sirimavo administration as a response to the 1971 insurrection and were supplemented by President Premadasa’s Task Force on the Redistribution of state lands to the landless, after the second (1986-1989) insurrection. Reversing those laws and facilitating corporate agriculture on a small island creates pressure on the land, generate landlessness and sows the seeds of rural rebellion.
All this adds up to dictatorship as a corollary, which President Wickremesinghe is well aware of. So was his father Esmond, who adopted and promoted B.R. Shenoy’s free-market agenda while applauding the ‘Indonesian model’ of Suharto’s monstrously bloody military dictatorship. My father, returning from Jakarta with my mother and me just before the September 1965 coup after the Afro-Asian Journalists Conference marking the 10th anniversary of Bandung, excoriated the coup and the dictatorship in the Lake House papers. Esmond’s ‘Suharto model’ prompted Rohana Wijeweera to pre-emptively arm his fledgling party.
Politics follows economics. As the process of implementation of Ranilnomics proceeds, society will polarise between a national socioeconomic majority that is adversely affected by it and a minority that benefits from it. This will inevitably polarise ideology and politics as between (a) a Rightwing bloc that supports his economic model and (b) Left and (c) Center-Left perspectives that oppose it.
Politics follows economics. As the process of implementation of Ranilnomics proceeds, society will polarise between a national socioeconomic majority that is adversely affected by it and a minority that benefits from it. This will inevitably polarise ideology and politics as between (a) a Rightwing bloc that supports his economic model and (b) Left and (c) Center-Left perspectives that oppose it
2024: Not election year?
With a Presidential election constitutionally on the cards next year, a Ranil reluctant to hold local authorities elections won’t risk an alternative power-base arising in the form of Opposition-run Provincial Councils. He knows how Chandrika made President in 1994 with the Western PC as base.
The main danger facing Sri Lanka is that for the first time ever, the holding of the presidential election on schedule next year is no sure thing.
“An unelected and illegitimate president, who managed to even lose his own seat in the last general election” is the description of the incumbent in the latest response to him by the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA), the collective which represents the most educated segment of Sri Lanka.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is ruling a country he hasn’t earned the consent of and a citizenry he doesn’t represent. If the Presidential election is not held on schedule next year, there will be a Revolution. Given Dr. Ravi Ranan-Eliya’s IHP/SLOTS tracker which shows 49% for Socialism and 17% against, and only 22% for Capitalism with 44% against, that Revolution will, for better or worse, be ineluctably Socialist.
Rotten, rancid establishment
Something is far rottener in the state of Sri Lanka than they ever were in the state of Denmark. A horrific death of a man who was hardly unknown, took place in broad daylight in the main cemetery in Colombo. Dinesh Schaffter was found in his car tied in the most gruesome manner and died shortly after in hospital. He was to leave for London that evening. He was a well-liked son of a well-known family in the corporate world in which his father was and is an iconic figure.
It has been months and we have not yet been told officially how he died– what of—let alone at whose hands. There is no word of the killers because the state hasn’t yet concluded that he was killed. The scenario of suicide would be difficult to re-enact: he tied his neck and his hands and then injected himself with cyanide? If it wasn’t suicide, the details in the public domain indicate a degree of professionalism and sadism: this wasn’t a shot to the head. Who with that deadly skills-set might have been in town?
In Colombo at any other time but this, and in any other capital city in any other country at any time, a violent death of someone with Dinesh Schaffter’s social background would be a high-profile case and a top priority. There would be pressure from above to produce results. So far, none of that seems to have happened here. The case is no longer high profile. It has disappeared from the newspapers. What or who, located at which level and with what connections, could act as a deterrent, disincentive or retarding factor, countervailing the factors that would have ensured a determined drive to crack the case as horrific and socially shocking as this?
Cardinal shines spotlight
On the fourth anniversary of the Easter Sunday massacre, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the leader of Sri Lanka’s Catholic community placed powerful remarks on the public record:
“Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, yesterday asked whether there had been any investigation into the possible dealings between intelligence agencies and Zahran Hashim’s National Thowheed Jamath.
Addressing an event to mark the fourth anniversary of the Easter Sunday attacks, the Cardinal said that the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, on the Easter Sunday attacks, had revealed that the intelligence agencies had been aware of the seventh bomber involved in the attack, Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed.
“He went into the Taj Samudra Hotel, and came out without detonating the bomb for some reason. The intelligence agencies even went to his house and spoke to his wife. That means the intelligence agencies knew him well. Why wasn’t he arrested; why was he allowed to take his life. He was walking about in Dehiwala for hours. Did he blow himself up or was the bomb detonated by remote control?” he said.
“If he had been arrested and questioned, a lot of information could have been ascertained. Why wasn’t he arrested?”
This stunning question is an indictment by the most highly situated Sri Lankan personality in the global institutional order, of the moral-ethical rottenness of this country’s establishment and its processes.