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Cost of repression

Cost of repression

14 Jan 2024

It appears that the ha-ho over the alleged mid-sea ‘party’ involving at least two dozen ruling party MPs last week has stirred up a hornet’s nest, with accusatory and counter accusatory missiles flying in all directions. More significantly, the saga has once again resurrected the old sins of the party that had somewhat been buried in the sands of time, resulting in not only the SLPP but also the President facing a barrage of criticism.

It will be recalled that such extravagance was very much par for the course prior to the events of last year that resulted in the incumbent assuming the presidency. While old habits die hard, such indulgence at this juncture when the people are being squeezed dry by taxes is, needless to say, in bad taste. The organiser and multiple spokesmen of the SLPP have since made a bad case worse by their infantile defence of the tamasha, vainly attempting to defend and justify what is clearly indefensible at this juncture.

The President too must surely be feeling the heat, not only for his failure to rein in errant ministers and ruling party MPs who continue to live lavishly and flirt with controversy when the people are in no mood for such, but also his own apparent wanderlust that is costing the exchequer dearly. When the President who is also the Minister of Finance presents a supplementary estimate seeking parliamentary approval for a further allocation of Rs. 200 million for his travel and travel-related expenditure just one month after Budget 2024 was approved by Parliament, it no doubt creates a bad precedent and probably the worst possible example of financial discipline.

Given that the economy is still very much on life support – though most ruling party MPs don’t appear to think so – the serious lack of monetary discipline and the absence of any sort of austerity on the part of officialdom can only mean one thing: a heavier burden for the people. As for how long they are willing to tolerate it in the name of stability, only time will tell.

While the powers that be have gone to great lengths to brand the country’s current plight as an economic crisis, those with a more enlightened view, including local research organisations, think tanks, and, more significantly, the likes of the IMF, World Bank, and even UN agencies, have described it as a governance cum corruption-driven crisis. Unfortunately no tangible measures have been taken as yet to address this aspect, leave alone even mere acknowledgment of the same, even though the regime appears to be persistently stubborn in enacting inconsequential legislation such as the revised Anti-Terror Bill and the so-called Online Safety Bill.

The timing of the mid-sea party exposé could not have been worse, with key benefactors of the bailout attempt being in town at the same time, namely, an IMF delegation, a World Bank delegation, and the Japanese Finance Minister, who has been instrumental in the ongoing external debt restructuring effort. For its part, the IMF has not beaten around the bush and laid bare the main causes for the crisis through its extensive governance diagnostic. Unfortunately, the regime’s commitment to upholding the 16 governance-centric concerns has been limited to paper. The fact that there is no attempt whatsoever to curtail VIP spending and continued State patronage for those convicted of causing the economic crisis has led to the public openly questioning the lopsided sharing of the economic burden.

Given this inequity, people are questioning how their tax money is being spent with little to show for it by way of benefits to the public, with infrastructure, transport, health, and education sectors in particular being in bad shape. Meanwhile, unmitigated State expenditure such as the allocation of Rs. 1.3 billion to merely ‘facilitate’ the sale of Sri Lanka Telecom has raised eyebrows and led to a call for an explanation in Parliament.

It is probably the extent of the fallout of the mid-sea party that led the State Minister of Shipping, who organised the tamasha, to attempt damage control. But, as usual, the explanation quickly made a bad case worse. According to the Minister, the entire saga was in fact a ‘development activity inspection’ tour for MPs, but he failed to explain why such a tour required a red carpet welcome for attendees or why it was held in the dead of night. 

The Minister then tried to justify the allegations of financial impropriety by claiming that he had spent his personal funds on the entire excursion. That created even more trouble, with questions being raised as to why a State Minister needed to pay hundreds of thousands of rupees out of his pocket for what was described as an official inspection tour. When that explanation too lost traction, he called for the arrest of those who had filmed the drama.

But the crux of the matter here is not really the event per se but the commitment of the regime to stop the vanity and wastage that has bled this country to bankruptcy. That there is yet no serious commitment to prudent management of State resources by those entrusted to do so even at this stage therefore is of great concern to the public in a backdrop where it is they who are being called upon to foot the bill.

However, a healthy outcome of this state of apathy is the apparent reawakening of civil society, who for the most part in the recent past has played a passive, non-committal role in the sociopolitical arena. It will be recalled that it was civil society-led movements including the Free Media Movement and business chambers that came together with a common purpose that finally dislodged 17 years of UNP rule in 1994. While there was a fleeting glimpse of it last year during the people’s revolution and having already been bitten once in the past, the leadership acted fast to dispel the new threat.

The threat of State persecution hanging like the sword of Damocles appears to have done the trick, with most civil society organisations and business chambers preferring to mind their business in the name of self-preservation. But the current economic circumstances appear to be creating a new, organic, people-led movement at the grassroots level that appears to be unrestrained and unhesitant in treading on ground hitherto strategically avoided by the mainstream civil society organisations. Alive to this reality, the regime’s response appears to be repressive legislation. Its insistence on pursuing the now twice-revised Online Safety Bill and Anti-Terror Bill, despite wholesale objections both locally and internationally, has therefore led to questions over the regime’s bona fides.

Governments past and present must concede the fact that had the media and people been allowed to air their views freely over the past three decades, there is every possibility that it would have led to the creation of a culture of accountability and better governance. After all, if the leaders are unable or unwilling to hold to account errant ministers and MPs in their ranks, at least let others do that job on their behalf by ensuring free expression. 

While repression may have saved the day for those in power at different times, the current state of the nation proves just how shortsighted and counterproductive those attempts have been. While the latest ship party saga will prove to be enough motivation for the regime to proceed with its plans with the latest attempts, for those genuinely interested in seeing this country progress it is nothing more than another puerile attempt to turn back the clock yet again so that mediocrity can continue to thrive and clapped-out politicians can continue to cling on to power.

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