Omicron could be ominous for Sri Lanka’s economic revival

In the immediate term, all political parties in Parliament should bury their respective hatchets, and agree on a political truce for the next two years. They could take the next step and agree to form a national government or a national governance council for two years. The theme of such a government or entity should be responsible governance as the most important political activity now is responsible governance. 

by Raj Gonsalkorale

Sri Lanka’s dependency on export earnings, foreign remittances and tourist earnings for its survival has made it very seriously vulnerable to the effects of the latest COVID mutant, Omnicron. If it spreads and international travel restrictions become widespread, foreign remittances and tourism earnings will take a hit, and it could be a mortal hit for Sri Lanka which is already on the brink of bankruptcy.

The government appears to continue with its show of confidence that the economic situation of the country will be resolved. Increasingly, governance ineptness, infighting within the government, a seeming lack of leadership, is dashing the hopes of many people who bestowed their hopes on the President and the government. Government’s media strategists appear to be in a stupor as they have failed to pro-actively capitalise on the positive activities of the government. They have become a reactive, ineffective force.

The Opposition, like a set of Vultures, is sniffing a political opportunity thinking and hoping they will have a carcass to feed on soon. Some other politicians continue to wax their eloquence on everything that is wrong but never offering solutions as to how the wrongs can be made right. The TNA and some other North Eastern Tamil political parties act symbolically like the three Monkeys (the deaf, blind and mute) when it comes to national issues as they seem to be giving the impression they are interested only in the welfare of the Tamils in the North and East and not Tamils elsewhere, let alone the Sinhala and Muslim people.

The situation in the country reminds one of Sybil Wettasinghe’s children’s story “Labugediye Thoilaya”. Sri Lankan politicians of all hues appear to be inside the labu gediya, participating in a political ritual to ward off evil forces that have afflicted Mother Lanka, while the labu gediya has been swallowed by a large fish as described in Wettasinghe’s story.

In contemporary Sri Lanka, the labu gediya could beequivalent to the Parliament, and the fish, to the country’s foreign debt which could very likely and very soon, swallow the entire country along with the politicians and unfortunately, the people of the country as well. Some may say not so cynically that the Parliamentarians won’t be missed if so swallowed!

The naivety of the Opposition is only superseded by the reported reliance on personnel similar to devil dancers in the Labugediye Thoilaya by the powers that be, trying to ward off evil that have afflicted them and the country.

For the sake of the country and the future generations, one can only hope that this collective tomfoolery ceases, and immediate remedial measures taken to keep the country afloat until the global economic situation shows positive signs of a sustainable recovery.

Dire need for a political truce

In the immediate term, all political parties in Parliament should bury their respective hatchets, and agree on a political truce for the next two years. They could take the next step and agree to form a national government or a national governance council for two years. The theme of such a government or entity should be responsible governance as the most important political activity now is responsible governance. 

What should be the key tasks for a national political consensus when it comes to responsible governance? There are many. However, three key areas are mentioned here.

A stable economic management structure

In the current and foreseeable future, it is unlikely that Sri Lanka will be able to earn enough foreign exchange to sustain itself, unless the entire foreign debt repayments are delayed at least for two years by mutual agreement with the lending entities. Considering that 45% of the foreign debt is in the form of international sovereign bonds falling due in the short term, this is going to be hard task. However, mechanisms will have to be found to do this.

One avenue would be to seek IMF assistance to take over the short term foreign debt component with a longer term, low interest long term repayment arrangement. This alone may not be sufficient and IMF assistance may also be needed to augment foreign exchange needs for import of petroleum, food items and medicines.

IMF conditions for such support will be stringent, but Sri Lanka is slowly but surely heading towards a disaster and may not have any other choice left to take but to agree to such measures.

This is where a political truce becomes critical. All governments of Sri Lanka have contributed to the perilous situation the country is in, and today, the Opposition cannot afford to blow their trumpets saying they can do better, considering they contributed hugely to the perilous state of the country with their ineptness for four and a half years prior to the advent of the current government.

So, the problem is a creation of all previous governments, and therefore, the solution too has to be worked out by all political parties who have been a part of a previous government. 

A political consensus achieved through a two-year truce should engage in some high level priority policy settings on economic management, foreign policy, defence, food security, energy, environment and education. These key areas should not be treated like political footballs as they have been for the last 73 years endangering the hopes of future generations.

Measures to curb corruption

Secondly the political consensus must agree on measures to curb corruption, the bane of the country’s society and which has a direct impact on the much sought after foreign investments. The instability of the Sri Lankan rupee with official rate for a US dollar being Rs 203 while the black-market converting it at around Rs 240, and the real value of the US dollar suspected to be more than Rs 300, show the volatility and the instability of the Sri Lankan rupee and why many would be investors are not investing in Sri Lanka. Besides this, it is widely known that bribery adds another impost to any would be investor, and the suspected range of this impost is reportedly anything from 10% to 50% of the value of a project.

Corruption has become endemic in the country and curbing it is in the hands of politicians as they are the ones responsible for introducing it and propagating it to the heights it has come to now. They need to enact new laws if what is there is not sufficient, but very importantly, they need to leave the justice system and the law enforcement system to carry out their tasks and responsibilities WITHOUT interference. A strong anti-corruption body with strong teeth, including judicial powers, is needed to instil some fear in potential bribe takers that they and their families could be called upon to pay for the crimes committed and languish in jail even for the rest of their lives depending on the severity of the crime. Everyone from the President downwards must be subject to anti-corruption laws and punishable irrespective of whether they are in office or not.

Legal framework for media operations

Thirdly, some measures should be taken through such a political consensus to determine how the politicians and the public should act to facilitate responsible governance via the media. A consensus on a legal framework for media operation including, very importantly, the social media is needed.

Social media in particular has become the repository and the facilitator of genuine news as well as fake news. Some information that is circulated via social media platforms is highly irresponsible and harmful to the very society in which such platforms provide the avenues to proliferate information. 

While the intent should never be any curtailment of media freedom, responsible governance essentially has to be considered as a two-way process where those governing and those being governed should take equal responsibility about what they say and do. There may be many measures that could be taken to introduce a framework for all media operations without impinging on media freedom.

In this regard, Danushka Medawatte in an article titled Freedom of the Wild Ass 

states quote “Law is an ass” says Charles Dickens. This certainly seems to hold true in the light of the freedom that is enjoyed by media through the protections granted by both domestic legal systems and international law. While I am reaping the benefits of freedom of expression in making these claims, it needs to be highlighted that certain freedoms require to be curtailed and/or reviewed in order for the other rights to exist. At present, it is possible to note that some journalists exercise their freedom of expression in a manner harmful to the society. It is questionable whether such practices should be upheld in light of several recent circumstances. While freedom of expression is, without a doubt, one of the most important rights that perhaps functions as a premise for other rights, it is important to establish the framework within which one may swing one’s fist without striking another’s nose”

Medawatte encapsulates the view of all fair minded citizens about democracy and media freedom. 

Essentially, media freedom must be accompanied with responsibility as irresponsible circulation of unchecked, unverified, inaccurate and harmful information is not a characteristic of being responsible. Since politicians are tasked with the responsibility of reviewing and enacting laws, a political consensus becomes critical in ensuring that any media operation law including social media has across the board support and does not become a political football to be kicked around by political parties.

Major social media platforms are under scrutiny throughout the world, and bona fides of some companies are in question as they have created an impression that revenue and revenue growth is what matters to them and not the means they provide to the good, the bad and the ugly, to propagate information and misinformation, with noble intentions as well as ignoble intentions. The proliferators of irresponsible information using social media need to consider whether they are doing a service or a disservice to the society and the country they live in. 

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