Rather, some individuals are more culpable for the country’s economic miseries than others. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his extended family did more economic damage to the country than the megalomaniac terrorist Velupillai Prabakaran and Rohana Wijeweera put together
Last week, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Kandy to receive blessings from the Maha Sangha. Interestingly, Ven. Omalpe Sobhita Thera, one of the most vocal monks, has recently been telling the public that Sri Lanka is the ‘only country in the world where the crooks and looters in white are regularly blessed by the religious leaders’. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, at least on the count of Sri Lanka’s this particular uniqueness, which is not unique at all. But the venerable monk could well have a point.
Television news aired an impromptu voice cut taken during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit. A reporter asks: “As the leader who saved the country, what do you have to say about the current political situation”?
Mahinda Rajapaksa answers as usual, as any politician of his age and circumstance, well past the prime and popular welcome, would do, rather banally.
But the poodle with the microphone is not content. He fires a second question, again a slow full toss. “People of this country have a great appreciation for you. What are you going to do to solve the current problems?”
Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera is right, but sycophancy is not unique to the high priests. You do not expect the provincial correspondent to be the most politically opinionated, but the degree of unabashed flattery in this particular episode was beyond hiring. That the gatekeepers thought it was fit to air at the Prime-Time news, maybe ‘we report, you decide.’ But, news in their presentation should be objective.
This is not a media critique but rather a social critique. A good number of Sri Lankans, who took the brunt of the worst-ever economic crisis, still draw the wrong conclusions. That also lead them to believe the same old culprits who created this runaway economic mess would miraculously turn up to be saviours of the nation. This is not a wholesale incrimination of the political leadership of this country, which could lead to dangerous consequences, eroding the public trust in the political institutions and political and institutional collapse.
Some leaders are more guilty than others
Rather, some individuals are more culpable for the country’s economic miseries than others. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his extended family did more economic damage to the country than the megalomaniac terrorist Velupillai Prabakaran and Rohana Wijeweera put together.
In 2001, Sri Lankan economy recorded its first negative growth (-1.5%) after the LTTE attack on the Katunayake International Airport, which destroyed most of the fleet of the national carrier, Sri Lankan-made worsened by the economic fallout after the 9-11 attacks in the United States.
In 2022, the Sri Lankan economy went to a nose dive, contracting a mammoth 7.3% and hyperinflation of 90%. The economy would contract this year, though at a much smaller number and would only return to its 2019 size in 2026. Prabakaran’s slow strangulation of the economy surely had an enormous economic cost, in terms of unrealized economic growth, perhaps at an annual 2%. In retrospect, that was also due to successive leadership failing to contain the conflict to the North, simultaneously prioritizing economic growth in the South. That is not easy, but not impossible if you count on the economic transformation of countries like Israel.
The national carrier, Sri Lankan Airlines, recovered from the LTTE attack in 2001 and went on to make operational profit until Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a bout of rage after the Emirati management refused to unseat fee-paying business class passengers to make room for the Rajapaksa’s entourage, decided to take it over and hand its management to the brother of his wife. Today the national carrier is deep in the red to the tune of US$1 billion. Prabakaran failed to destroy it, but Rajapaksa did.
Leaders like Mahinda Rajapaksa are not saviours or statesmen. But they are the kind of leaders that countries in our part of the world and our social and economic standards tend to produce. The recipe for this miscreation is in the popular psyche that worships charlatans as saviours.
Charlatans not statesmen
Something has historically prevented those like Rajapaksas from leveraging that populist sycophancy to transform them from everyday populists into statesmen. That, again, is their formative experience in society.
After the military victory against the LTTE, Mahinda Rajapaksa so callously squandered an opportunity to turbo-charge the economy. Instead, he relied on the state-led, Chinese loan-fuelled infrastructure-driven economic growth that fizzled away after a few years and built up the mountain of foreign debt.
The whole affair of economic management was short-sighted and lacking in a vision other than dynastic ambitions in vestige projects. Hambantota Port was built, with its second phase on loan taken at the commercial rate. The China Merchants, which later took the majority stake, disputed the government valuation, citing the project cost nearly 200 million less than the Chinese loan. Rajapaksas built a port tainted by kickbacks but then foot-dragged on the adjacent industrial park, which was meant to feed the port, for reclaiming land is a little more politically inconvenient and needed political will. Hambantota Port is still a white elephant owned by the Chinese.
The worst damage of the Rajapaksa era was the inertia of economic reforms, which again was politically inconvenient. Rajapaksas had competing personal and dynastic ambitions that overlooked necessary long-term fixes. With the right mix of economic reforms and liberalization, Chinese loan-fuelled infrastructure development would have made miracles.
He handed over the mantle to his brother Gotabaya to keep the throne within the family. Gota crashed the economy on a scale unparallel to his elder brother’s mediocracy.
Rajapaksas are not saviours or statesmen. They are your third-world charlatans who exploited and capitalized on a compliant electorate.
Sri Lankans should recognize the full scope of the destruction their false gods have unleashed on the nation. As long as they think of these unrepenting charlatans as saviours, they risk not only their future but the future of their children. They also risk putting another clown on the pedestal after kicking out the old clown.
Ranga Jayasuriya, Journalist and Politica analyst.
This article was originally published on Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.