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The lessons of Black July

4 years ago

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The week ahead marks the 36th anniversary of one of the darkest days in contemporary history. It was on 23 July 1983 that the infant LTTE with a handful of cadres ambushed a military convoy, killing 13 Sinhalese soldiers. Two days later on 25 July 1983, hundreds of Tamils were slaughtered by rampaging mobs in retaliation for the killing of the soldiers. What happened thereafter over a period of nearly three decades is well-documented history. It is no secret that the war set this country back by decades. The mind boggles at the defence expenditure incurred during this period to fight a war that almost destroyed the country. Had this money been put to more productive use, the economic boom that took off under the J.R. Jayewardene presidency in the early 80s would surely have catapulted Sri Lanka into being an economic powerhouse in the region. It has been said that our neighbour to the north found it difficult to stomach the prospect of Sri Lanka becoming a prosperous nation and therefore nurtured and sustained the LTTE in its formative years to wreak havoc in the country. They were not far off target but the Tigers ultimately bit the hand that fed it by killing Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Mother India learnt a bitter lesson but it certainly had not prevented them from dabbling in local politics. A decade after the end of the war and nearly four years after the present government took office, it is clear that very little has been learnt from the war. The appearance of extremist elements and the aggressive role being played by sections of the clergy has posed the threat of a new confrontation based on religious lines. This is in the backdrop of the Easter Sunday attacks which polarised the different communities, creating an uneasy peace. The unchecked rise of the Sinhalese extremists has led to new fears that the ground is being prepared for another bout of violence. It seems that a minority of the majority community is adamant to take the confrontational path based on political motives. This begs the very legitimate question – where is Sri Lanka heading? It is unfortunate that whenever the country has reached some degree of economic progress, disruptive forces that seem to appear from the woodwork, trigger events that cause the downfall of the economy. The result is that Sri Lanka continues to stagnate while the rest of the countries in the region are racing ahead. Already staring at a mountain of debt repayments, Sri Lanka is also facing the very real prospect of becoming a victim of the middle-income debt trap. The issue is that disruptive forces are allowed to have a field day because of the divisions in the Government where the President and Prime Minister are pulling in different directions. A decade since a war is a long enough period to make a full recovery on all fronts – most notably socially and economically. Countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia are living proof of this. Yet Sri Lanka is determined to shoot itself in the foot by creating space for new threats to emerge. A highly fragmented political setup is no doubt the root cause of the problems facing the country today. A few hundred politicians out of 22 million people are being allowed to hold the whole country to ransom by jumping from this side to that every five years. It is sad because Sri Lanka is the most strategically placed country in the world’s emerging economic powerhouse, Asia. Today, global think tanks are predicting that Asia will account for 50% of global GDP in just the next 20 years. With countries such as India, China, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Philippines producing a new generation of economically stable people, Asia is expected to account for 40% of global goods and services consumption. Sri Lanka stands a very real chance of missing the bus once again if its leaders cannot get their act together. The country was derailed in the early 80s and this should not be allowed to happen again. If we are to be regionally competitive, the first thing on the agenda should be to fix our education system. What is taught by way of syllabi today, up to the general certificate level, is both irrelevant and outdated in the current global context. The world order in economic might, as well as the dynamics of global trade is fundamentally changing and our education system must be adaptive to these changes The global economy is no longer bound by the trade of goods but by services. According to research data, the services trade is growing 60% faster than the trade in goods while what is stunning is that Asia’s services trade is growing 1.7 times faster than the rest of the world. And Sri Lanka struggling to achieve 3% GDP growth is well and truly missing out on what’s going on in its own backyard. Many Asian companies now rank among the world’s largest and their presence in the big league is game-changing. In the 2018 Fortune Global 500 ranking, 210 of the world’s 500 biggest companies by revenue were Asian. India and China thrived on the emergence of their respective automotive sectors with major Japanese, European, and American manufacturers setting up production plants. We were told some four years ago that German automotive giant Volkswagen was to set up a plant here. From what we hear, the intended site in Kuliyapitiya is overgrown with plants. Although this Government set up a dedicated ministry for foreign investment its performance has been mediocre at best. Sri Lanka has everything that neighbour India has to offer in addition to the logistical bonus of having three major shipping ports located in the west, south, and east of the island but has still failed to attract any investment of significance other than of course the hotel sector where the technological knowledge transfer is zero. This is the price the country has to pay for tolerating a system corrupt to the core. It is unfortunate that although our education material gloats about inventions and creations thousands of years ago, they do not inspire the present generation to emulate their forefathers. We seem to be happy being frogs in the well. Let us at least hope that the Black July anniversary will be a reminder of all that this country has lost in the last few decades and the danger of repeating the same mistakes by the silent encouragement of extremists among us.

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