Global vision and Lanka's ground realities

Now that the party is over, the prospects of a long and gruelling road towards economic prosperity for a somewhat impoverished though not entirely poverty-stricken nation lie ahead. Legitimate questions have been raised about the expenses incurred for the inauguration of the President's second term. Critics there are aplenty. Some ask how there could be a second term for the President when he pledged to abolish the Executive Presidency. Others query the wisdom of spending on what they call an extravaganza at a time when even Cabinet Ministers are calling for a reduction in the cost of living.

Friday's ceremony at the Presidential Secretariat was solemn enough if only the expenses that went into dressing up the area for such an elaborate show could have been curtailed. The country's first Executive President J.R. Jayewardene took his oaths on Galle Face Green with only two chairs for the Chief Justice and himself and a table to sign his oath of office. His second term was however marred with a breakdown of relations with the Chief Justice and he took his oath before a junior Supreme Court judge in private.

The Government made it known that this event was meant to signal, not merely the country, but indeed the world that Sri Lanka is now free of terrorism and is once again a united nation. The fact that the tri-services were able to participate in such a ceremony was portrayed as a message that peace has arrived and the nation is looking forward to an era of economic development. It is also good for a nation's leader to make periodic appearances before his people unlike in the cases of many dictatorial states.

There is little doubt that the people are looking for a morale boost. There is a need to spur their self-confidence and the President gave them that in no small measure when he urged them not to feel that this was a small country capable of only small things.

He seemed to understand the magnitude of the task before him - now that the 'war' is over - to grasp the moment to play 'catch up' on lost years of economic development that stalled somewhere around 1983 with the race riots and the plunge into fighting a deadly terrorist organisation that was backed by external forces. The rapid development of the country witnessed during the Jayewardene era from 1977-83 remains unmatched to-date.

The north and east insurgency, later coupled with the 1987-89 parallel insurgency in the south virtually crippled the country and 'retro-gated' the economy. It was a wonder that the nation survived. There was a Minister of Finance who was a 'prophet of gloom' at the time saying each year that the country could not afford the war for another year, giving oxygen to the terrorists to prolong the conflict.

The emergence from such a situation was a great and historic victory, but the President knows well that leaders who win wars don't necessarily remain in office for very long thereafter if the present needs and expectations of the people are not met. He would know that even if he did win the last election very much on a vote of gratitude from the people, that same vote will not come to him again for the same reason. He seemed to drop a hint about retirement - almost as if to assuage those who have bitterly criticized him for abandoning the two-term limit for a President to which most modern democracies around the world with a Presidential system adhere.

That there is a definitive plan for economic development in big infrastructure projects is evident. The making of the Magampura (Hambantota) harbour is arguably at the pinnacle of this plan.

There is, however, a need for greater transparency in these projects with the people kept informed of the financial IOUs they incur. Much of the funds being pumped into the economy are not outright grants as was the case with the Mahaweli scheme or the Japanese funded teaching hospitals, parliament complex or the Chinese funded conference hall and superior court complex of yesteryear, but based on loans.

The country is also taking soft loans from the IMF and commercial loans from foreign banks at high interest rates. There seems to be a juggling of our finances to such an extent that we are now considering giving the Maldives a loan.

The President said in his address to the nation the country was looking forward to this economic development surge with the help of 'friendly countries'. We have mentioned before the need for a review of the country's foreign policy now wantonly taking a hostile approach towards western nations with whom this country still has much of its trade links, and veering towards India and China that are competing for space and influence in Sri Lanka, and offering loans with gay abandon.

Negotiations continue with China for several unpaid bills for arms purchased during the protracted north and east insurgency. While China is offering to bail out collapsing European economies, it won't simply write off these loans from Sri Lanka as a bad debt. They will linger, like the loans that are being given for Sri Lanka's economic development projects.
On the other hand, India has been pressurising Sri Lanka to take charge of the economic development of the north and successfully got the Government to succumb to a long standing diplomatic push to open up a consular section in the north; not only that, to open one in Hambantota where they have no Indian citizens, but clearly to monitor increasing Chinese influence in the area.

It's a delicate role the President is playing in balancing these emerging super-powers, and it is therefore all the more unfortunate that the Government has completely ignored the functioning of an effective strategic studies think-tank to offer him the advice he will surely need in the future.

The Brahmins in New Delhi and the mandarins in Beijing and indeed those elsewhere are mulling over and mapping out the long term future of the world. We can't be thinking on the run and risk being caught flat-footed. The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for Strategic Studies set up for this very purpose is a 'dead duck' with no interest shown by either the President or the successors of the Minister in whose name the Institute was established as a highly professional think-tank. There is, nevertheless, a growing need for such an outfit to research, analyse and advise on future geo-political currents, commercial and national security concerns as the President has clearly announced the road map for Sri Lanka as one that would open this island-nation to the world with the good, bad and complexities all included.

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