The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

An island falling apart

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 19 June 2022, 09:53 Last update: about 8 days ago

“We have a culture of impunity - impunity is entrenched, systemic and goes from top to bottom.  Those at the very top show blatant disregard and contempt for the rule of law.  They sent the message to everyone else - you can do the same and I will protect you. The root of the crisis is the impunity the political elite enjoy,” Ambika Satkunathan, former human rights commissioner commented about Sri Lanka’s epic crisis.

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That crisis is a human tragedy. A country long hailed as a democratic success, proud of its quality of life, is on its knees. Once the rice bowl of South East Asia, Sri Lanka faces starvation. The severe food shortage was precipitated by incompetence and corruption of its government, notorious for cronyism, nepotism and mismanagement. People queue for hours at gas stations to buy fuel.  The army controls crowds of angry citizens who wait in stifling heat for cooking gas.  Huge fuel-laden tankers are anchored off the coast, unable to deliver their goods because Sri Lanka has run out of foreign currency and cannot pay.

The immediate threat to Sri Lankans is starvation. The Rajapaska government squandered millions in useless unnecessary infrastructure projects. It decided to save money by banning fertilizer imports.  Overnight it ordered farmers to switch to 100% organic.  Instead of admitting it could no longer afford to import fertiliser,  the government cynically presented its decision as a progressive environmental move.  The country’s farmers lacked experience in organic farming.  Not surprisingly the country’s harvest was decimated overnight. Farmers kept what little produce they had for themselves.  Those with produce to sell couldn’t get it to market because of lack of fuel.  Vegetables, rice and fruit rotted in fields as people starved. What little food is available is unaffordable.

On April 12th Sri Lanka halted its payments to its foreign creditors.  It had no money left to pay its debts.

The economic meltdown Sri Lanka faces comes as no surprise.  The economy began to unravel years ago. The government officially recorded years of spectacular economic growth.  That fake growth was fueled only by large scale infrastructure projects such as highways, the lotus tower and a massive commercially unviable deep sea port part-funded by China.  These mega projects were funded by more loans, were tainted with corruption, provided little return and filled the pockets of politically connected parasitic business people.

Those who called out the government’s corruption were intimidated.  Journalists were killed, generating a climate of self-censorship.

Despite the dire state of the country’s finances, in a populist move Gothabaya Rajapaksa promised voters he would cut taxes if re-elected.  That is exactly what he did after winning a landslide victory. He made concessions to rent-seeking crony capitalists who funded his campaign.  He undermined the independence of critical institutions such as the National Audit Office and the Commission to investigate Bribery and Corruption allegations.

His government failed to deliver justice for families of victims.  It appointed incompetent cronies to the administration. The President’s brother, Mahinda became prime minister. Another brother Basil was Minister for finance. Chamal, a third brother, became Speaker. The Prime minister’s son Lakshman was appointed minister of youth and sports. The government was buttressed by crony capitalists, state owned media and private media houses bribed by government.

For years the government continued its strategy of denialism. It dismissed warnings of economic meltdown. They bragged about surpluses. They denied any shortage as queues for fuel grew longer and milk rationed. Doctors lacked basic medicines but government denied they were out-of-stock. The Central Bank governor, a party loyalist, insisted that media claims of an impending default were nothing but “inaccurate stories, misleading opinions and deliberate lies spread by certain parties with vested interests”.

The craft of denialism, mastered through years of denying corruption allegations, was rewarded when voters returned them to power. They portrayed themselves as the uncontested patriots who alone could fix the country’s economic woes.

Just months later, Sri Lankans recognised the deception. Hunger and desperation hit. The lies about economic growth and unemployment could no longer be sustained. The people’s anger spilled over. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned and is now hiding at a military base.  The rest of his brothers resigned too.  Only the President, Gotabhaya clings to power. He was evacuated from his home after buildings were torched and his residence attacked.  He has now imposed a “state of emergency” giving the military sweeping powers to use force on demonstrators.

Sri Lanka is a stark example of how political corruption, cronyism and nepotism wrecks nations and destroys people’s lives. The country’s meltdown occurred with only 51 billion dollars of sovereign debt. Sri Lanka has a population of 22 million. As of March 2022 Malta accumulated debts of 8.4 billion. On a per capita basis that is equivalent to 348.5 billion euro for Sri Lanka.

Labour has been using the exact same tactics as the Rajapaksas - denialism, deception and disinformation. Owen Bonnici boasts of Malta’s  7.6% economic growth driven by wasteful government spending -  SOCAR, Electrogas, Vitals-Steward, Mozura, Barts, tents, shooting ranges, tunnels, exorbitant salaries for political appointees and their assistants. The golden passport golden goose is about to be slaughtered. All talk of surpluses has dissipated.

Robert Abela boasts of record unemployment. But fails to mention 1,400 unemployed put onto the GWU’s scheme, paid by the state for doing close to nothing, but officially classified as private industry employees. He overlooks the hundreds of useless positions of trust, including a dog handler, messengers and maintenance officers, handed out by Labour. Or the fake jobs like Melvin Theuma’s. Incompetent dangerous cronies head important institutions, paid exorbitant salaries. Critics are labelled traitors.

Reality finally hit home. Rajapaksa’s own campaigners now scream “Gota go home”. The man glorified as the nation’s saviour now faces the wrath of an entire nation.  He needs the military to protect him. Those who voted him to victory, just months ago, now recognise they voted for their own destruction.

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