Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Mahinda or Ranil – What Difference to the Nation?

by Amrit Muttukumaru, November 12, 2005

“Most critically, unless there is a negotiated solution of the ethnic conflict and good governance with endemic corruption reigned in, there is absolutely no hope to place this country on the road towards peace and prosperity. “

One would imagine that, with all the thunder and bluster being generated in the run-up to the presidential elections by the two main contenders Messrs. Mahinda Rajapakse and Ranil Wickremesinghe, each of them are offering serious alternate policies to put this country on the path towards peace and prosperity.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Both their manifestos not only give the most superficial treatment to the issues bedeviling this country – wretched governance and corruption, the ethnic conflict, the economy and inequity, but also in a strange sort of way in word and deed give the impression that it will be business as usual under both dispensations, particularly in respect of our miserable governance.

Therefore, in essence, all the hullabaloo about which candidate is ‘superior’ is merely a ploy bereft of principle to attain the powerful office of executive president and for the sharing of spoils in its varied forms between their many sycophantic supporters and hangers-on, with largely  ‘shifting’ loyalties to boot! Of course, notwithstanding our much acclaimed 92% literacy rate, the vast majority of our population – the bulk of whom live in rural areas – are susceptible to regularly being ‘conned’ by the glib talk of our politicians.

It is the measure of the sorry state of affairs of this country that neither of the two main candidates have made an issue of any of the several specific cases of horrendous corruption and abuse of power under governments of which both were prime ministers, nor have the leaders of civil society demanded accountability with the objective of promoting good governance, at least this time around. It seems that all concerned are comfortable in mere generalities, while studiously avoiding specifics crying out for attention.

Is i any surprise that both manifestos are loaded with unsustainable promises, which are the antithesis of responsible governance? This state of affairs is so institutionalized that no lesser person than the elections commissioner has refused to make public the declaration of the assets and liabilities of the two main presidential candidates – Messrs. Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe – while the practice of the widespread use of State assets with impunity in campaigning by both major parties when in government continues apace, this time by prime minister Rajapakse.

Poor Governance

It is crystal clear that this country is tottering with its institutions of governance highly debilitated. This includes the executive, legislature, judiciary, regulatory agencies and administrative machinery. The rule of law also is in tatters. Corruption and abuse of power are systemic in the absence of any demand for real accountability.

The horrible state of corporate governance, with its endemic conflict of interest long kept under wraps, has now been exposed for what it really is, due to one individual with tremendous political clout aggressively thriving on this rotten system and breaking the unwritten rule among the elite corporate community of not ‘poaching’ in each other’s ‘backyard’! This case, which is merely the tip of the iceberg, exposes the ‘unholy’ nexus between the corporate sector, the political establishment and the regulatory agencies.

There is another controversy now raging in a key professional body in respect to allegations of its leadership succumbing to political pressure. 

It is the appalling absence of the demand for accountability that has enabled the retiring executive president to have the temerity to publicly state at a recent felicitation ceremony that “I can assure you that I am not going to take back home a red cent if it doesn’t belong to me and it gives me pride to say that I have not stained my hands with mud or blood,” in spite of several alleged  horrendous cases of  corruption and abuse of power during her presidency, which to date has not been seriously disputed. These include the virtual gifting of a vast extent of valuable prime land for the  Battaramulla ‘Golf Project’ to some of her cronies, who lost no time in disposing of the same at a handsome profit, highly questionable privatizations such as AirLanka,  locomotives with ships’ engines, ‘Thawakkal’ and the Queen Elizabeth Quay in the Colombo port,  and possibly the bloodiest chapter in the ethnic conflict,  which led to the deaths and maiming of tens of thousands of Sinhala and Tamil youth in the disastrous ‘war for peace’ campaign. This war allowed several alleged shady arms deals, which also involved the purchase of sub-standard arms and equipment that to date has not been seriously challenged..

To cap it all, the retiring president has received an unprecedented gift of one and a half acres of high value real estate by unanimous cabinet decision which included Prime Minister Rajapakse, a presidential candidate. By this yardstick, former Singapore prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew should have been given the whole of that island state and former Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed  at least the state of Selangor!  

Things were no better during the two year period when Wickremesinghe was prime minister in the post-December 2001 period, when there were irregular privatizations such as Lanka Marine Services, LIOC and Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation and the unprecedented and dubious blanket ‘tax’ amnesty. Even the report recently submitted to parliament by the auditor-general on the alleged Rs. 3.57 billion fraud in the VAT Division of the Inland Revenue Department brought to light by its trade union, remains dormant in parliament.

The same applies to the auditor-general’s report on serious irregularities in the handling of the billions of Tsunami donor funds. Rajapakse’s  role in the unauthorized shifting of official Tsunami donor funds to a private ‘Helping Hambantota’ bank account mainly controlled by family members and friends and the lid put on any inquiry certainly leaves a question mark on his integrity.  

It is the nature of the sorry state of affairs in this country that, not only are these issues of no interest to the main presidential candidates, but more worryingly even the leaders of civil society appear to be unconcerned. The only exception to this has been the ‘Helping Hambantota’ issue, which is currently under wraps.  

Ethnic conflict

Although a ‘song and dance’ is being made of the so-called vast difference in the approaches of Messrs. Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe to the ethnic conflict, in practical terms the chasm is not that wide.

Although a negotiated solution is only possible in the context of an extensive federal structure within an appropriately unified northeast entity, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s manifesto and pronouncements are not only hesitant to even use the term ‘federal,’ but also fail to define even the broad contours of the ‘federalism’ envisaged, while being silent on the unit of devolution.

Both candidates are reluctant to face up to the reality that, unless and until the stranglehold of Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism is tamed, there is little hope to resolve not only the long festering ethnic crisis, but also the more recent phenomenon of Christian bashing. How can Wickremesinghe ever dream of resolving the conflict through a ‘federal’ structure when he continues to pamper the Sinhala-Buddhist majority with intentions such as to “construct the largest Dagaba in the world in Sri Lanka”! It is also no accident that both presidential candidates are silent on the proposed anti-conversion bills which are now in parliament. When this is the track record, will Wickremesinghe be in a position to withstand strident and even violent opposition from extremist forces who are even against a mere aid sharing mechanism for Tsunami relief involving the LTTE?

It is also salutary to bear in mind that it was the UNP which consistently opposed the devolution proposals of President Kumaratunge in August 1995 and even its diluted versions in 1997 and 2000. 

Hence, it would seem that Wickremesinghe’s ‘federal’ stance is largely linked to electoral strategy to garner the bulk of the minority votes on top of the traditional UNP vote base, while the strategy of Rajapakse would seem to be to appeal to the overwhelming Sinhala-Buddhist majority at the same time expecting some break-up of the UNP’s traditional Sinhala-Buddhist vote base. In simple terms, both the ‘unitary’ and ‘federal’ concepts would seem to be largely electoral strategies used by the respective candidates. While Rajapakse makes no bones about pandering to the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, Wickremesinghe strives to walk a tight rope of balancing both the majority community and the minorities.

The Economy

The real difference between the policies of the two main contenders appears to be in regard to the economy. It is felt that the difference is significant, not only in terms of their manifestos, but more importantly in their postures and track records. While Wickremesinghe is for an ‘open’ (laissez-faire) economy which we can assume to be essentially on the lines of his previous ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ policy, which appeared to go to extremes to liberalise the economy, thus neglecting domestic entrepreneurship. Marked features of this policy included unbridled privatization of state owned enterprises with even sensitive utilities such as water being considered, and blind faith in the private sector in the absence of an effective regulatory mechanism.

In contrast, Rajapakse’s  stated policy is “integrating the positive attributes of free market economy…. in order to ensure a modern and balanced approach where domestic enterprises can be supported.”

While this may sound utopian, it appears to be worth striving for, as long as the doctrinaire Marxist policies abandoned even in China and Russia are not unleashed by his extremist partners. It is actually not impractical since countries such as Malaysia and India have successfully followed such policies, in tandem with factors such as political stability, industrial peace, infrastructure development, appropriate educational policies and a regulatory framework. India is an outstanding example of what can be achieved within a democratic framework with respect for human rights. It must nevertheless be stated that unbridled privatization of state owned enterprises which included the attempted privatization of water and blind faith in the private sector in the absence of an effective regulatory mechanism, were also features in administrations in which Rajapakse was a senior minister and prime minister.

However, what is worrying are the unsustainable populist policies being proposed by both candidates. Both Wickremesinghe and Rajapakse attempt to outdo each other in various handouts, as well as promising millions of employment opportunities in a hurry without actually disclosing their specific strategies to achieve the same. Even the now perennial structural weaknesses in the economy, such as persistent budget deficits, current account deficits in the balance of payments, ballooning debt, inflation, over dependence on remittances by housemaids and the garment industry for foreign exchange, unemployment and underemployment, high energy costs, labour indiscipline and weaknesses in the banking and financial sector, have received little or no attention.

Under these circumstances and other harsh realities such as galloping oil prices, one wonders as to how the candidates hope to achieve their projected high GDP growth rates – 10% for 10 years in the case of Wickremesinghe and 8%  for 6 years in the case of Rajapakse.

Most critically, unless there is a negotiated solution of the ethnic conflict and good governance with endemic corruption reigned in, there is absolutely no hope to place this country on the road towards peace and prosperity.