A nation’s coin of credibility is judged by the stability and value of its currency. The depths to which this nation’s economy has plummeted, the pits of economic perdition to which it has sunk is graphically brought home when its Finance Minister presents to its citizenry the nauseating and humiliating spectacle of an anonymous Belgian [...]


Phantom Belgian star in Lanka’s Beggar’s Opera

Capital barons turn dream merchants to fund nation's economic miracles

A nation’s coin of credibility is judged by the stability and value of its currency. The depths to which this nation’s economy has plummeted, the pits of economic perdition to which it has sunk is graphically brought home when its Finance Minister presents to its citizenry the nauseating and humiliating spectacle of an anonymous Belgian dropping a billion dollar note into sovereign Lanka’s begging bowl.

Soros with President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil: The man who broke the Bank of England arrives to give free advice and to make a possible $300 million investment

During her 68 years of independence, never has Lanka stooped so low to keep the wolf away from her door. Many a time has this country been driven to the wall and many a time have successive Foreign Ministers been caricatured knocking on affluent western nations’ doors with begging bowl in hand. Many times have Finance Ministers gone on bended knees to international donor agencies funded by economic power houses and grovelled before career bureaucrats for aid to keep Lanka’s home fires burning. At least then it was a government-to-government appeal or a begging prayer made by the Lankan government to a multi-government funded institution like the World Bank or IMF.

But never before has any Finance Minister – albeit paying for the sins of his predecessors – been forced to fling the final vestige of national pride to the winds and desperately seek a loan from a private citizen of a foreign country to defend the floating rupee and keep it buoyant.

And the bad news is that he is on the lookout for another three or four loaded shadowy sugar daddies of the same kind willing to give the Lankan starlet a questionable beggar’s handout. That the sovereign state of Lanka must genuflect before private wealth, that an independent and proud nation should lie prostrate at the feet of a private citizen of a former Roman province less than half the size of Lanka; and beg for cash to save her from going bust, is an indictment not only against this government but against all previous governments whose lack of foresight and economic planning, whose propensity to squander the national wealth have brought her to this terrible and shameless pass.

And who is this mystery benefactor, this unnamed man from Brussels? From where do his billion bucks come from? Is it drug money, is it a devious way of using Lanka as the laundromat of the Indian Ocean to dry clean the loot? Is it a part of the 18 billion dollar booty the previous regime supposedly stole from the country as alleged by the Government? Don’t the people have a right to know the identity of this mystery Belgian, this phantom that has miraculously appeared to prop the Lankan rupee? Why is it kept secret?

A senior finance ministry official was quoted this Monday in the Government newspaper that “Sri Lanka will not question any investors who want to remit the money. It was the responsibility of the remitting bank in Europe to check the source of funds and to know their customers.”

Furthermore it is not only a ‘no questions’ asked loan he is giving but one that can be called back without notice. The Government will allow the mystery Belgian to withdraw it at anytime. The extent of the Finance Minister’s desperation is revealed by the fact that he is prepared to accept money from anyone without inquiring whether it is drug or illegal arms sales or even ISIS or LTTE money, without revealing the name of the lender to the public, paying two percent interest on the loan to him and guaranteeing him the right to withdraw the money at a moment’s notice. Don’t you think that this set up has transformed Lanka overnight to a money laundering paradise? And to whom will this two per cent interest or 20 million dollars be paid to? Or is that, too, a secret?

But one must forgive his desperation to get a few chaps to offload their excess dough and park it here for safe keeping while getting a handsome return for it compared, as he says, to the otherwise negative return they would get if they invested in Europe.

Just take a look at his predicament
Lanka is now facing a growing balance of payments crisis. A large budget deficit has put further pressure on the rupee. The political upheavals in the Middle East are expected to reduce the $6 billion income earned by Lankan housemaids and others working in the strife torn region. Out of the $ 7 billion foreign exchange reserve Lanka had on January 1, $ 5 billion will be used to repay existing foreign loans this year. On top of that the large budget deficit has compelled the Government to borrow heavily from normal official sources and though Lanka is now the world’s best friend, foreign governments have not rushed with bags of cash to aid Lanka in her crisis. In such dire circumstances, what else can the Finance Minister do but turn to rich billionaires and scrounge a soft loan from them on their hard terms?

And while the Finance Minister is trying to figure out whom to sponge off next, the rest of the Government are busy with assembling a bonfire to burn the existing constitution in the grandiose hope that from the old Dharmishta constitution’s ashes, a new Yahapalana phoenix will rise. This exercise will marshal the energies and commandeer the attention of the nation for months on end. There will be debate after debate and dissension after dissension.

When amendments to the present constitution would have sufficed to remedy existing ills, this radical decision to completely abolish the way this country has been run for the last 38 years is one that has not been spawned by any present public clamour but seem to have been self born in the minds of the present leadership. However no valid reason, except to say that the executive presidency must be abolished, has still been forwarded to justify the abolition of the entire constitution.

Last week Parliament was turned into a constitutional assembly to labour birth to an unwanted child. Already the ground work is being laid for polarisation to take place, to cause a divide in the national government itself and to provide a heaven sent cause celebre to those booted out of power to emerge from the woodwork.

The question as to what to do with the 13th Amendment to the present constitution will be subjected to endless discussion as will certain other controversial topics. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa who introduced the atrocious 18th Amendment and gave the 1978 constitution an evil twist until President Maithripala Sirisena repealed it with his 19th Amendment, has already been invited by certain members of Parliament to help draft not a few articles but the entire new constitution. With such an ironic start what is the guarantee that the Government will, at the end of the expensive day, be able to come up with a constitution that will be better than the one it will be replacing. Is it an exercise the nation can afford to be engaged in at the cost of myriad other important issues? Why buy a new Rolls Royce when the old tried and tested Rolls with a few tinkering work done, will give the same ride and take one to the same destination? And of course, there will be the referendum to ask the public to give their yes or no to the new constitution as if one could be in agreement with all its articles or in disagreement with all its clauses.

But perhaps it is best for the people’s mind to be suspended on the trapeze watching the constitutional circus and get their thoughts off bread until crunch time. And whilst the public must perforce dwell upon the unfolding flubbing acts, a quantum of hope will be provided by the vision galore afforded. Now instead of Rajapaksa’s vision to make Lanka the Miracle of Asia is Wickremesinghe’s ambition to make Lanka the Global Mega City.

Speaking at the Sri Lanka Economic Forum 2016 last week, the Prime Minister declared, “Our objective is to make Sri Lanka the most competitive nation in the Indian Ocean and to develop the island as a mega city for the region that will go between Singapore and Dubai thus make it competitive. And the time has come for us to think how we are going to do it. Sri Lanka would have to take stock of the global economic situation and its own shortcomings and opportunities and would convert the economy into a manufacturing based one. Sri Lanka did focus on agriculture in the past when it launched the Mahaweli Development but unfortunately it was not possible to go forward from there. We can’t continue as a low income country and should decide how we could go ahead.”

We live in exciting times, don’t we now? Politically we are in the process of throwing out the present constitution lock, stock and barrel and preparing ourselves to place our faith in a new good book that promises to dawn the miracle of ‘real change’. Economically we are about to change the focus from agriculture on which the nation has survived for so long to manufacturing and compete with the rest of the world for our products. Phew! What a challenge! Two revolutions on two fronts! But before we start thinking whether we are about to bite more than we can chew, have we first got the dough to tuck into?

Enter Soros. The Hungarian-born Jew who escaped the Nazi death camps to become one of the biggest international financiers and the 27th richest man in the world. According to Forbes magazine, his net worth was estimated in 2014 at $23 billion. He is also known as the Man Who Broke the Bank of England after he short sold $10 billion worth of pounds during the 1992 Black Wednesday UK currency crisis. This calculated flutter at British expense earned him a profit of $1 billion. The 86-year-old billionaire is also a great philanthropist and is said to have donated $11 billion to various causes through the years. But he is a ruthless exploiter of any currency’s weakness and will take utmost advantage of a situation to further his interest even if it brings financial collapse to money markets. In 1997, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir accused him orchestrating the Malaysian currency crash, though nine years later Mahathir absolved him of being responsible.

He arrived last week to participate at the Sri Lanka Economic Forum and also as a potential investor. “My investment person is also in Sri Lanka to look for opportunities,” he declared in his speech. “Sri Lanka is a bright spot and I think there is great opportunity in tourism.”

His presence in Lanka gave hope that he would be so impressed with the country’s potential he would invest $300 million in solar, IT and tourism sectors. Though it is still to be seen, his visit would certainly have put the country on the international investor map. The government’s hope is that these capital barons will be attracted by the tremendous incentives given them to make direct investment in the country and thus become the merchants of Lanka’s dream to fund and turbo charge its flagging economy.

But to dull Lankan hopes, Soros had a word of warning. He said, “You are facing a very hostile external environment not only in China but an overall tendency towards slower growth and that is more serious now than in previous years Money is no longer coming to developing countries. Harsh choices will have to be made. The world is now in a deflationary situation and developing countries that benefited from the commodity boom will not be able to do so any longer.” He called on the Sri Lankan Government to beware of the pitfalls of high expectations and said, “Instead of resting on your laurels, you have to understand this is just the beginning and do more because this is only the beginning of the decline of financial markets. It is a balancing act, reduce expectations and improve performance. This is my contribution and I am sorry about it being a bit of a damper.”

He need not have feared damping the ebullient spirit of the Lankan Prime Minister who would not let a few forebodings of a Hungarian prophet of doom cramp his upbeat style. Ranil Wickremesinghe not only announced his plan to make Lanka a global mega city but also promised to give a ‘good life’ to the people with access to health, education and housing. He also promised to give 1.5 million people freehold land so they will become stakeholders in the country. To the applause of the crowd present, he declared, “the politics is done” and that the rest of his term will be dedicated to ‘fixing the economy”.

Stirring stuff that must bring good cheer to forlorn Lankan hearts. But if the words of Soros have a ring of reality and distant drums beating the dread of hard times ahead are distinct to discerning ears, then the Lankan government should take careful note of the forewarning and tailor their grandiose plans accordingly.

While the Finance Minister is busy trying to scrounge cash from rich foreigners to prevent the rupee from becoming worthless, while the President is trying to revolutionise the political structure by attempting to bring in a brand new constitution that will change the entire system of governance, while the prime minister is bent on conjuring visions of making the entire island into a global mega city and replacing agriculture with manufacturing as the new base of the national economy, will it be surprising if the Government finds it has served itself more than a Hungarian Goulash of problems all at the same time – more than its plate of troubles can hold?

Hirunika’s better half
No fisticuffs flew, no pistols at dawn declared, only a verbal duel ensued when Hirunika’s husband ran into spot of bother on Monday. He found his exist from the housing complex at Havelock City blocked by a neighbour’s car.

Just as he was turning out onto the main road, his neighbour’s car was just entering the narrow road. A typical brinkmanship game was about to begin. Pride made both men refuse to budge. They stood their ground. And words flew in the air. And the neighbour is alleged to have threatened to tell the media about the incident. Hirunika’s hubby Yatowita was furious but such is the price of wedded fame.

But he did not take the law into his own hands nor did he seek the counsel of any agony aunt packing a punch in the vicinity to settle his problem, even though he had free access to the powerful member in his petticoat government. He did the correct thing both men and women should do in such trying situations. He went to the police station and made a complaint. Even though it is not clear whether police are still scanning CCTV footage to determine whether they should send the matter to the Attorney General for an opinion, Hiru’s model hubby showed he is truly the better half.

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