Almost everyone in Sri Lanka seems to be aware of the several crises the country is suffering. Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo is hardly an indicator of the harsh times. Restaurants are full, the roads seem to be full of well-maintained cars and there are no queues for fuel or gas. This is probably because the bulk of the working population with regular salaried jobs are based in and around Colombo. Venture further afield and the crisis is easy to spot. Farmers are very badly hit, the green gold fields of Ceylon Teas are down 23% in terms of production – thanks mainly to the fertilizer issue – farmers all over the country are up in arms with fertilizer prices at all time high levels. The economy has shrunk from USD 80 Billion to approx. USD 73 Billion and with Sri Lanka’s working population counting as much as 62% being daily waged, the population at large are badly hit.
To add to the woes, President Wickremesinghe announced sweeping tax hikes with top rates of 36%. The tax net was widened by including those who earn just USD 275 per month. Tax experts in Sri Lanka have opined that despite these tax hikes the government will still be unable to meet their recurrent expenditure. President Wickremesinghe told Sri Lanka that the IMF had wanted his government to cast the tax net even wider to include those earning around USD 120 monthly and that his administration had refused. Many of Sri Lanka’s established tax payers confirm that they would be happy to help the Treasury out but question where these taxes are being utilized.
There is deep unhappiness at the size of the government public administration apparatus including the size of Sri Lanka’s Army. Many privately complain about the financial drain on the size of the military and the government has undertaken to reduce the size of the Military by about 50,000 to 200,000. Nevertheless the servicing of their pensions will not help the beleaguered Treasury which is staring a deficit of more than three times its revenue stream. (Sri Lanka has estimated its 2023 Revenue at Rs 145 Billion and its Deficit at Rs 480 Billion). Revenue from Customs Duties – always a main stay – has been particularly hit after a long list of items banned for importation by a government hard stretched for foreign currency. The ban has also challenged manufacturers who bemoan the lack of imported raw materials. Reduced production is a stark reality in Sri Lanka’s economy. Those supplying state institutions are also hit by severely delayed payments. Interest rates of over 30% have not helped either.
Sri Lanka’s President – who was not directly elected by the people but appointed by MP’s – has openly stated that he has no plans or forward plans other than that he wishes to rebuild the economy. Ruling party politicians are constantly asked what their forward plans are to address the precarious state of affairs, but many have no specific plans other than to say that the IMF funds will help Sri Lanka towards normalcy. President Wickremesinghe’s statement has been likened to the statement made by Gerald Ratner then the Chairman of his family owned and publicly listed corporate ‘Ratners’. (He referred to some product sold at Ratners as being ‘total crap’).
The public are not only being urged to ‘tighten their belts’ but are also being taxed at every possible juncture. Several protests are on-going in the country despite the government's penchant for the liberal use of the dreaded Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to bring about a semblance of control against the people who exercise their constitutionally granted right to protest.
The announcement that the Wickremesinghe administration plan on celebrating the nation's 75th Independence has been met with not only criticism but total disbelief by detractors who point out the fact that there is a growing propensity by the state to continue with high-value perks for parliamentarians whilst almost tongue-in-cheek asking the public to bear the cross of an economy in crisis.
The public’s disbelief is compounded that the Wickremesinghe administration – understood by all that it is a Rajapaksa Family proxy – who openly claim that the cost of Rs 10 Billion to have the Local Government elections is a drain on the economy. Members of the public that I spoke to on the streets surrounding the Katuwapitiya church in Negombo, bemoaned the fact that despite planning to celebrate 75 years of Independence from the British, this government were yet to prosecute those behind the Easter Tragedy.
Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court traversed towards unchartered territory when a 7-member bench ordered the former President Sirisena and various officials to pay compensation to the families of the Easter Tragedy sending a powerful signal that public officials cannot expect to get off Scot free when their inaction or actions result in harm to the public good.
The Archbishop of Colombo, His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith questioned what Sri Lanka has to celebrate when so many remained incarcerated without trial, when the Easter Tragedy had so many questions unanswered and when another former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa refused to publish the finding of the second Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Tragedy.
“It appears then that the 75th Independence Day celebrations will celebrate the people's unhappiness, the spectacularly mismanaged economy and great sections of the population who face perilous challenges for food and everyday survival and also large numbers of children who are under nourished and suffer from malnutrition. The 75th Independence Day will clearly not be celebrated by the Tamil and Muslim Communities who have been waiting at least since 2009 for an investigation on alleged war crimes, waiting for answers on the thousands of the disappeared, displaced and waiting for the release of their lands and even for reparations. Theirs has been a wait that has been enjoined at the waist by false promises and downright dishonesty on the part of Sri Lankan legislators who have constantly lied not only to the affected but also to the international community.”
In-between this unhappiness and misguided adventure to celebrate a questionable ‘independence’ and a country that is yet to resolve in any sustainable way the question of reconciliation, is the announcement that the United States Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland will visit Sri Lanka to coincide with its 75th Independence celebrations – although it is unclear how Ms Nuland will instill commitment on the part of Sri Lanka’s political establishment towards human rights and reconciliation – two items that successive Sri Lankan Presidents have failed to address.