By Vinod Moonesinghe
Colombo, November 24 (The Sunday Observer): After a quiet Monday and Tuesday, things began to get back to normal on Wednesday, but with a difference. People set off for work with a new enthusiasm. Jaded by four years of ‘Yahapalanaya,’ the public anticipates great things from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
In the short term, it is unlikely that he would face much opposition on the political front. While Sajith Premadasa did creditably, winning 42% of the vote, his United National Party cannot be content with the result. A quarter of Premadasa’s votes came from six districts, in the North, East and Central provinces, in which most voters come from minority communities – votes given to him by supporters of minority parties.
On the other hand, he won only about a third of the Sinhalese Buddhist vote. By this measure, the UNP could end the upcoming general election with fewer seats than it received in 2010.
The biggest challenge ahead for the new President will be to forge a nation out of the country peopled by disparate ethnic groups. This election highlighted the ethnic divide, with the bulk of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists voting for him, but the minority vote going overwhelmingly to his opponent.
During his swearing-in ceremony, at the significant Buddhist Ruwanweliseya site, President Rajapaksa acknowledged his debt to the Sinhalese Buddhist voters who ensured his election. Speaking frankly, he admitted the failure of his expectations of sizeable vote shares from the minority communities. He did, however, make a commitment to representing all Sri Lanka’s people, not just his voters.
The ethnic issue in Sri Lanka dates back to the early period of the British occupation of the island, when the colonial government carried out ‘divide and rule’ policies, perfected in Ireland over centuries.
The loyalty of the Northern people to the Crown of Kandy, reported by Governor North in 1799, was undermined by the British by providing education preferentially to the Northern elite. They empowered Muslim and South Indian moneylenders and traders at the expense of mainly Sinhalese farmers. At the same time, they encouraged the immigration of traders and potential landowners from India and from Penang and Singapore.
By the end of the British period, only the Indian Tamil estate workers lay below the mass of Buddhist Sinhalese in the colonial pecking order – although a small stratum of Sinhalese Buddhists rubbed shoulders with the comprador elite.
This fact underlies the history of ethnic strife in this island, causes the fears of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
Even today, Sinhalese Buddhist representation in the ruling elite is relatively small. Rajapaksa’s bedrock of support came from the Sinhalese Buddhist lower classes, the farmers, workers and the self-employed.
Way To End Ethnic Tensions
These ethnic tensions come about as a result of an uneven distribution of opportunities and wealth, and of frictions caused by attempts to even out the inequalities. Given the limitations on resources available to Sri Lanka, efforts at redistribution could only result in equalization of scarcity.
In the long term, these inequalities may only be ironed out through equitable economic growth, which does not leave any class or community behind. This, in turn, requires social and economic modernization, to overturn the legacy of colonialism, our economic backwardness.
The origin of this backwardness may be traced to the grand expropriation of peasant land in the last three- quarters of the 19th century. The Crown Lands (Encroachment) Ordinance of 1841 took over commonly-held lands, including the forests and many commonly-operated paddy fields. The job was completed by the Waste Lands Ordinance a half-century later.
Traditionally, the peasantry operated at three, ecologically-friendly levels. They left the forests as watersheds for rainwater collection and storage, for collection of forest products (honey, kitul sap, herbs and roots), for occasional hunting and for chena (swidden) cultivation.
They reserved home gardens for fruits and vegetables. They left the lowest land for paddy cultivation, which they did for three seasons per year.
The importance of the commonly-held lands lay in the fact that they provided the bulk of the market produce of the peasantry. They used the remainder, after separating the portion going to feudal mesne lords, mainly for their own consumption. The loss of common land and forests meant the loss of the bulk of their market produce, and they became mere subsistence farmers.
Subsistence farmers cannot provide a market for industrial goods, and they cannot invest in innovations and equipment for increasing productivity. Settlement schemes, the Paddy Lands Act and the limited land reform of the 1970s all contributed towards a solution to this problem, but did not prove sufficient to drag the peasantry out of the mire.
On the lands they seized from the peasantry, the British grew first coffee, then tea and rubber.
The plantation system, which they imported from the West Indies, was just a level above slavery. The planters did not invest heavily in agricultural machinery, but depended on large inputs of cheap human labor. Dr SBD de Silva has pointed out that this, too, constituted an under-developed form of mercantilism, rather than modern capitalism.
The young people on the plantations do not, by and large, wish to work as their parents have done. They are better educated and more outward-looking, and most intend to migrate to urban centers.for employment. This would leave the plantation sector with a massive labor shortage, unless mechanization takes place.
Thus, the agriculture sector provides 27% of employment, but only 7% of the gross national product (GDP). This means the agricultural sector cannot function as a market for a burgeoning manufacturing sector, inhibiting the growth of the latter.
To some extent, the overseas labor market has provided an alternative to a developed agricultural sector. Much of the economic development taking place in the island since 1977 has been fuelled by funds remitted by workers overseas. This has resulted in developmental anomalies, such as the proliferation of beauty salons in villages, and in the rapid development of the banking sector.
Workers’ remittances could provide a means for investment in both agriculture and industry.
However, workers’ remittances cannot provide a long-term alternative to developing production, both for the local market and for exports. Sri Lanka is in a position of not being able to pay for imports. It needs both to substitute for imports and to develop its export capacity.
Narrow Export Market
Furthermore, the country’s exports are almost wholly dependent on a few markets, in North America and Europe. There has to be diversification in export destination, as well as in export products.
It is likely that there will be a global recession within the next two years. Sri Lanka, by reason of its dependence on a few markets, both for its products and for tourism, will be highly vulnerable.
The vulnerability of the economy has been exacerbated by the lack of effective governmental direction over the past four years, during which its policies zigzagged all over the field. This led to a drop in economic growth, made all the worse by the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, which devastated the tourism sector.
The Easter incidents made more obvious the renewed breakdown in societal values from which the country had been recovering following the end of the three-decades-long civil conflict.
Selective persecution of the Opposition, in the midst of inaction on law and order issues such as the Bond Scam, led to widespread disdain for the rule of law. This became apparent simply by the rise of reckless driving on the crowded roads.
Thus, the new President (Gotabaya Rajapaksa) comes into office in the face of a daunting task. The manifesto on which he contested indicates how he would set about addressing this mission, of resuscitating the economy and rebuilding society.
Face East, Not West
An essential part of that strategy is to face East, rather than West. Asia, not Europe or North America, is the growth area. It is to India, Japan and China and, to a lesser extent the existing and emergent new regional powerhouses such as South Korea and Vietnam, to which we must turn in building both a regional security framework and bilateral and multilateral economic relationships.
The new markets we must pursue, for which we must develop new products, lie on the axes of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and on the new Mumbai-Moscow trade route.
President Rajapaksa has already opened up official dialogue with India, where he will make his first official visit in the near future on the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated him on his election, expressing hope for greater bilateral co-operation and mutual development on the basis of the BRI.
Unfortunately, while President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has emphasized a foreign policy of friendship with all, but no subordination to any power and the US Embassy sent a conciliatory congratulatory note, the message from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a hint of hectoring.
This does not bode well for the future, and is unlikely to go down well, considering that the ACSA, SOFA and MCC agreements were hot election issues, very unpopular with the public at large.
The good news is that, by the very fact of getting himself elected, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has set in motion the means of economic and social recovery. On the next day after his swearing in, the first day of trading since his election, the Colombo Stock Exchange All Share Price Index (ASPI) soared by nearly 2%, and has continued to rise. This signifies the rise in confidence felt by the business community, who anticipate a change in the way the economy will be run.
The enthusiasm with which people reported to work may also be a harbinger of change. Commuters noticed that private buses have started operating more in keeping with their schedules. Reports of increased sales of motorcycle helmets indicate a greater respect for the possibility of legal repercussions for wayward behavior.
The legal strictures of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution mean, unfortunately, that there is a limit to the decisive action that can be taken until fresh general elections, unless the new parliamentary opposition (the former government) extend the same co-operation to the President as President Maithripala Sirisena received on his election.
What the past four years have made clear is the extent to which change must take place. The public has reacted very positively to the new President’s rulings on closing roads and enormous security escorts, reinforcing their high regard, and faith in his capacity to carry out the changes that are required.
That regard and that faith may be sorely tested in the coming period, as the country grapples with the problems of history and the challenges of the present, for this is a struggle as difficult in its own way as the battle against violent separatism, which ended in victory ten years ago.
The country will require all the resources it used in that conflict, including patience, fortitude and courage, and a willing and able leadership.
(The featured image at the top shows President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa)