Sri Lanka’s ‘bungee jump’ to bankruptcy and beyond | Print edition

ByDonald L. Leech

Oct 9, 2022

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There is a deep tragedy at the heart of Sri Lanka’s constitutional, financial and legal paralysis that we need to understand.

“Eat” political propaganda

A few years ago, furious supporters of a drug lord turned vassal of the Rajapaksas attacked a courageous forest officer who was protesting against the destruction of the environment by politicians, asking “are we going to eat oxygen”? However, the communities of the South reduced to scrape to live on a daily basis because of reckless decisions taken by corrupt “kings” to whom they lavished an unbounded adoration, perhaps pose another question.

Can they “eat” the political propaganda of the “magnificent Sinhalese majority”, which they and their unfortunate children have fed on for most of their lives? In a special report released last month following a crop and food security assessment mission to the country, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Food Program (WFP) have warned of “acute food insecurity” in Sri Lanka. The report warns that “almost 30% of the population is acutely food insecure and (the situation) is likely to deteriorate further unless emergency assistance is provided”.

It is cause and effect in the most classic of consequential processes, the direct result of allowing a coterie of foolish and ignorant men to make the most fatal of decisions affecting the lives of millions. Even so, the question is not their folly or ignorance (obvious from start to finish, so to speak) but rather how an entire population of men and women (not entirely idiots) allowed that this happen? Ergo, the paralysis of the democratic nation-state for decades and the monstrous growth of a xenophobic and communitarian political juggernaut lodged in the bowels of the state that refuses to die.

A hydra-headed monster
who refuses to die

It is a hydra-headed monster, when one limb is severed, another grows in its place. Band-aids such as the proposed 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, playing around with ad hoc tax reforms and begging mercy from donor-creditors will not help. The torturous back and forth in Parliament, even over the very limited concessions offered by the proposed 22nd Amendment, tell us that radical constitutional surgery is needed. But the question is how to do this when our political system is irreparably corrupt?

This agonizing dilemma also dominates international attention on Sri Lanka. It is clear that two currents of opinion have emerged from the adoption this week by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) of resolution 51/2022 which, among other things, urges the Sri Lankan government to “address the current economic crisis, in particular by investigating and, where justified, prosecuting corruption, including when committed by public officials and former public officials…’ The resolution affirms the will of the HRC ‘to assist and support independent, impartial and transparent efforts in this regard.’

On one level, UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s remarks that the underlying factors of governance, deepening militarization, lack of transparency and accountability for serious human rights violations man have created “fertile grounds for corruption and abuse of power” in Sri Lanka, is common sense. None of these factors can be compartmentalized, it must be conceded. This stark assessment was in the report on Sri Lanka released on the eve of the 51st sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.

The enormity of Sri Lanka
financial collapse

Indeed, the Supreme Court’s authorization to proceed this Friday with constitutional challenges citing a former president, a former prime minister, a former finance minister (all Rajapaksas) and members of the Monetary Council regarding the responsibility of the serious financial crisis in Sri Lanka, testifies to the enormity of this situation. Whatever happens to the merits of the case next year, the Court’s granting of leave has a distinct symbolism of its own. The petitioners had alleged that the decisions of the political leaders, together with the omissions and commissions of the Monetary Board, had violated Articles 12(1), 14(1)(g) and 14A of the Constitution.

This very accusation is also central to the parts of Human Rights Council Resolution 51/2022 adopted by the Council with respect to its paragraphs relating to economic crimes. Nevertheless, there is an international realpolitik at play in all its subtle and less subtle underpinnings during the deliberations of the HRC. Admittedly, the High Commissioner’s report, in its rationalization of the indivisibility of human rights (social/economic and civil/political), in order to formulate a basis for intervention by the Council in the matter of “economic crimes”, to legal sophistry.

In theory, such a link is beyond doubt. Law students learn the indivisibility of rights even as they open the pages of international human rights law textbooks. However, international monitoring of “economic crimes” by a nation’s leaders is heading down a very slippery slope. Under carefully crafted (not without controversy) international law standards, international interventions are limited to crimes designated as crimes of universal jurisdiction (war crimes, torture, crimes against humanity). The casual extension of this control on the basis of “the indivisibility of rights” carries specific dangers for the credibility of such processes.

Madness of yesteryear and failed
repressive measures

That said, the only logical way to deal with the vagaries of international realpolitik is to “put our house in order”. At present, not only is this “house” not in order, but it has also been completely burnt down by gangs of greedy political thieves to grab what they can get. They must be brought to justice by the laws of the land so that there is no room to cry for international justice. If effective action is taken by national mechanisms, the sting will be removed from HRC Resolution 51/2022.

But the Sri Lankan state cannot demonstrate this compliance with the rule of law. This is also the central issue of accountability for gross human rights violations committed against minorities by state agents. Practiced against those labeled as “enemies of the state”, this same strategy is now in action against young protesters. One example, Hashan Jeewantha, was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for his involvement in “anti-government” activities and was released with his detention order overturned after police concluded its investigations.

Obviously, this young man had committed no crime. But who will compensate him for his trauma? Insanity, as Albert Einstein said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This is the leitmotif of the Sri Lankan state. He makes the same mistakes against those who rebel against him, expecting different results. The rebellions, insurgencies and wars of the northern Tamils ​​(from the 1970s) and the southern Sinhalese (1970s, 1980s) can be said to have been crushed by the military might of the state.

Bravo and guilt

Therefore, there was a “triumph” (of sorts). But at what cost ? The hatred and mistrust sown by the militarization of the state have inexorably corrupted our democratic systems, led to countless atrocities, the degeneration of legal and judicial systems and the flight of thousands from our shores. This question is therefore reiterated. Will the citizens of this unfortunate land understand, and more importantly, recognize the connection between their suffering and the communal lies they have been fed for decades?

Until then, the trajectory of economic collapse we find ourselves on will not change. In the months that followed, while many risked dying for lack of medicine (including the elderly and the very young), others were to “bungee jump” from the Lotus Tower. This pointless Rajapaksa extravaganza, evoking the vulgar bad taste “adorning” the slum-adjacent Colombo skyline, is a fitting ode to the voters who cheered on the Rajapaksa and are now remorselessly crushed by their own guilt.

It is a high price to pay for mortgaging the conscience of Sri Lanka to conscienceless politicians.

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