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Azath Salley was arrested yesterday. One of the allegations made against him is making comments that incite religious hatred.  Azath Salley in recent months has built a reputation of of sorts of being pretty much the only Muslim politician with the courage to go up against the BBS in public.

This affidavit penned by the General Secretary and Leader of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) Dr. Vickramabahu Karunarathne, gives a bit of broader context to what Salley was up to in the run up to his arrest. The NSSP, Salley’s NUA and several other parties were part of a “Movement for Unity with Power Sharing” with a mandate that involved tackling racism.

According to the Defense Ministry, Salley has apparently said that Muslims must start an armed struggle like the LTTE, and that they are actually ready and waiting to be armed. Salley is also suspected of having links with the LTTE. No evidence has been brought forth to prove these allegations as yet.

After some heavy drama where he was denied medical care and had to resort to a hunger strike he was admitted to hospital on Friday afternoon. Where his case will proceed is still not clear. Hopefully we will see a fair and transparent legal process. Anything else could be a serious setback to perceptions of government support for ethnic harmony.

But double standards are not nice. For instance, the Bodu Bala Sena has clearly engaged in hate speech and incitement of ethnic hatred. Yet the BBS has only been allowed to grow and prosper. They seem to have quietened down lately, and rumors of anti-BBS foreign pressure have been heard on the grapevine, but there is no telling if the BBS is now a thing of the past; a mere spike in the long line chart of public distractions giving away to the next (Duminda perhaps?); or in fact a sleeping dragon.

The BBS bias though, begins to make clear sense in the murky twilight of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik. Sinhala Buddhist supremacy is nothing new to the country. It has always been there and maybe it always will.

What is worrying to me is not that the government is responsible for unleashing the BBS, because that would imply that it was actually capable of controlling it. What is worrying is that the government, if those that allege that it is behind the BBS are right, is only trying to appease it. Because it plainly poses fatalistic threats to near term stability in Sri Lanka.

From an economic angle, Sri Lanka has a consistent savings to investment gap, so the only way to seriously grow the economy is to attract solid foreign direct investment (or to borrow, but that way lies disaster). But foreigners are notoriously sensitive to political instability; and ethnic strife along with human rights allegations, the Chief Justice fiasco and sudden price hikes just add to the list of cons when it comes to investing in Sri Lanka, especially given enough safer options in the region like the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia etc.

So the argument that this is merely another ‘distraction’ pre-supposes an extremely short-termist, even stupid government. Because for it to invent ethnic disharmony out of thin air as a distraction from a flagging economy, a tactic that can only worsen the economy’s prospects would be a very stupid thing indeed.

But I don’t think the Rajapakse’s are short termist, in fact, they could just be one of the most long termist entities in power we’ve had. But they are still playing a balancing act, despite their outward show of power. Mark Juergensmeyer has a few great passages on Sri Lanka in his “The New Religious State” (the whole of it is well worth read). This was written in ’95 but still sounds coldly relevant today.

The present rulers in Sri Lanka face the same dilemma as their predecessors: they need Sinhalese support, but they feel they can not go so far as to alienate the Tamils and other minority groups. They have been attacked viciously by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists for attempting to achieve what might be impossible: a national entity that is both Buddhist and secular. The use of Buddhist symbols is meant to appeal to the Sinhalese, and the adoption of a secular political ideology is supposed to mollify everyone else.

With elections approaching and Sarath Fonseka back on the campaign trail, powers are converging against the status quo. To take Juergensmeyer’s view, this rise of extremist nationalist forces could be the Rajapakse’s first ‘attack’ at the hands of  “Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists” for trying to achieve a “national entity that is both Buddhist and secular”.

I still think that the Rajapakse model of government, while far from ‘good’, is the best we can have in our current context. We can help improve it, but if it is toppled we would probably descend into disarray. From a policy and historical perspective, and in line with examples of East Asian success stories, a ‘benevolent autocracy’ is probably the only model of government capable of giving Sri Lanka the stability it needs to grow in the longer term. Maybe what John Kotelawala said in 1974 is still largely relevant.

Sri Lanka is not ready for democracy. In a country like Sri Lanka democracy becomes government by bloody mugs and idiots.

But how benevolent is this autocracy? Evidence so far has proven that it can be quite belligerent and reactionary. But is that due to this balancing act, this need to keep all sides happy? And now, how autocratic is it? With movements like the BBS emerging, the stranglehold the Rs have on power is beginning to be questioned as well.

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After stewing about it for more than two days ‘Team Mobitel’ appears to have finally come up with a response.

Mobitel response

It’s actually quite ridiculous. They apologize for any ‘inconvenience or pain of mind’ caused but reiterate that the racist ringtone will remain on their site on a ‘revenue share basis’. Apparently they still care about upholding the ‘true values of unity and ethnic harmony’ by allowing an organization that stands for just the opposite to make money off its site, and on a revenue sharing basis too.

The image is accompanied by an expanding thread of comments of largely unimpressed people. Mobitel’s social media team and at least one fake account is also feebly attempting to respond, but are only succeeding in digging itself deeper into this hole.

Many are asking if Mobitel would allow an LTTE song to be put up to fund the terrorist group on a ‘revenue sharing’ basis too. The answer, even though it has not been articulated yet, is obviously no. Why in the world would Mobitel do that? Therefore Mobitel definitely does NOT consider the Bodu Bala Sena to be a hate group or a group with any negative social connotations at all.

The utter chutzpah of this response is rather hard to digest, I will say that at my next tea party. The lyrics of the BBS song call for a “Holy War” to destroy the “rallying cry of the unrighteous” and “the heathens” “who have all united into one camp”. Yup, practically dripping with peace and harmony there.

Actually if this song came from any other group, or was just a song released by an individual artist. Its message could have been construed as one meant purely to inspire and provoke steadfastness on a personal level or whatever (the lyrics are actually quite well written). But the BBS has made its intentions clear through its actions, they possibly really do want a holy war. In denouncing imaginary Islamic terrorism in Sri Lanka and countless other made up threats, the BBS is fast mirroring its non-existent worst enemy.

Therefore by allowing the BBS to make money from its ring back tone services (and sharing in the moolah no less) Mobitel is sending a strong message that they support, or at least are indifferent, to its extremist standpoint.

Here’s a poster being shared around on Facebook, which carries the full lyrics of the song and calls for a boycott of all Mobitel products.

image from JDS Lanka

image from JDS Lanka

The Pax Rajapakse is almost four years old. In that time I’ve gone from being a relative tortoise in my own country to having a degree of freedom that I never imagined possible. I’ve traveled now to virtually every place formerly torn up by the war. And can travel anywhere else I please should I wish to do so.

But the Pax Rajapakse is just that, peace. It has no moral identity. It has no moral pretensions even though it likes to pretend otherwise. Dreadful things are done to preserve the peace. But in all objectivity some might say that the end justifies the means. Peace is its own reason.

But a once universal peace is now fragmenting into varying degrees of peace; different categories of peace now exist. There is a lesser peace and a greater peace. The greater peace is being able to move around your country with freedom, the lesser peace is demarcated by invisible lines drawn through society with labels saying things like ‘Do Not Cross’, ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot’ and  ‘Sycophants Only’.

The country, as it strains under the forces of development, churns society like the roiling Indian Ocean and casts up new oppressed classes and facilitates the surge of new elite. Apparently there is ‘good’ corruption and ‘bad’ corruption. So say some, justifying the regime’s steamroller approach to progress with a substantial personal cut. But where is the line, I say?

While people leave on boats, and put up with heavy abuse for want of jobs and are kicked out of their homes to make way for high rises in the midst of Colombo; a whole new class of wealthy and powerful Sri Lankan is emerging. Closely connected to the country’s powerbrokers, they wield high influence that cuts through social and legal infrastructure like butter. Any justice is we have here is highly skewed in the favor of these elites.

All this has not gone unnoticed. The people are restless and feeling the brunt of ever increasing cost of livingn. Straight talking journalists are still in danger. And the briefly stable peace is now crumbling at the edges with this latest drive of racism. The people are hungry for something to blame. A few decades ago it was the Tamils, and now it is the Muslims. 

But peace is profitable, war is not. And the last thing the government needs is another conflict. And therein lies the problem. Sri Lanka is a corrupt animal. This corruption is like a cancer, but it can still grow within it. Most forecasts still place our economy with prospects of around 6-7% of GDP growth per annum. On a global scale this is huge. This means we double every ten years or so. And if we’re patient enough and do not over reach, we can still become a rich country in our own time.

There are however, serious glitches that can ruin everything. Since Sri Lanka stopped being a low income country, it has stopped receiving aid which basically allowed us to spend more than we earned without worry. And over the years a strong parasitic class developed that benefited and prospered from this surplus, the result; a bloated state sector, crazy inefficiency and high levels of corruption. And now it is this transition from being aid dependent that is really killing us.

Finding itself forced to cover up its various deficits (budget and current account) by taking loans, Sri Lanka is realizing (I hope) that it is mixing a recipe for disaster. We need solid foreign investments to replace these loans and they will not come in until the political, and by extension business, environment is made investor friendly; until budget gaps are sorted out sustainably;  until capital expenditure is focused on projects with long term benefits like education, infrastructure and health.

Currently the government is trying to cover its behind by putting the burden on the public. It should be cutting dead weight and increasing its efficiency by turning state corporations (like the cash bleeding CPC and CEB) profitable, instead it is reducing much needed public expenditure and increasing prices of essential goods and utilities. This burden on the public, ever increasing with the latest round of fuel price hikes, is what is contributing to unrest. There is a continuing laxity in addressing post war issues, and fiascos like the Expropriation Bill and the impeachment of the Chief Justice are poorly handled and reflect very badly internationally.

The Rajapakse regime still has my support. Most East Asian giants grew up under pseudo democracies; Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. And the fact that we lack a better alternative has never been more obvious in the light of the UNP’s recent feeble opportunism in attempting to capitalize on racist propaganda. The Rajapakse’s have huge potential to bring something the country has not had for a long time; political stability and long term growth. But they cannot do this by cultivating a parasitic social sub-strata of sycophants and dependents.

Hidden agenda lurks behind this fresh wave of racism, trying to distract from pressing issues at hand. What we should be doing is figuring out the real problems and then campaign for reform, especially with the limitations of our reality in mind. This is undoubtedly hard to do in the current context; the corruption is the cancer and it is within all of us, if you will permit me a bit of drama. If the Rajapakse regime had a big role to play in creating the pax, average Sri Lankans have an even bigger role to play in keeping it.

image from the brilliant Wisdom on Wheels

Democracy is too nice. Everyone has a say and everyone has a in on how to handle things. This, generally, is a very good thing. But when things hit a rut, and quick decisions are needed, democracy can fail spectacularly. Just take whats going on in the Euro zone right now. No one can foresee a proper decision coming out of the region in time to avoid an economic crisis of massive proportions. Cronyism in Europe was helped along by the state. The imbalances created by the Euro zone’s formation coupled with a free spending, free borrowing approach has landed some of its less well off countries like Italy and Greece in hot water.

If they (the Euro officials) had acted fast they could have maybe stemmed everything at the start. They had several options on what to do and arguably any one of them would have worked, the climate at the time just required any action, just something to bring back investor confidence, but instead its powers started bickering. And the Euro-bickering is still going on, with no end in sight. This has led Paul Krugman to predict a massive scale bank run and plenty of other apocalyptic financial predictions from virtually every corner of economic thought.

Or, if you think the Euro example does not quite relate, think back a few months to when people were on pins about the US debt ceiling. From the beginning it was obvious that the ceiling was going to be raised. The US could take no other possible route. But parliamentary opposition from the Republicans created a heavy battle over tax cuts and entitlement reductions. The conditions were ultimately agreed to and the debt ceiling was raised. But the political opportunism probably didn’t help the US one bit when it comes to planning out a viable future strategy to recover its economy from the doldrums.

Poor, third world, developing (you pick the name) countries on the other hand, are always in a rut. They continuously face challenges and opportunities that require quick and intelligent action to mitigate or make use of. They are mostly desperate for hand holds to grow and if properly motivated and managed can become powerhouses very fast. Cases in point are Singapore and Malaysia who rose to stratospheric success in a very short time. Both of the above had intelligent, strategic but autocratic regimes. China is currently a pseudo autocracy (meaning it’s an autocracy but you can’t say it out loud) and it has so far managed its economy remarkably well.

What Do The People Want?

Democracy encourages countries to do what the people want. but in countries urgently in need of development, what the people want and what the country needs can be entirely different. Take Sri Lanka for instance. What do people want? Ideally they want free education, easy subjects and a guaranteed government job. Oh and free food stamps, low transport costs and cheap fuel. They also want no taxes, more subsidies and higher pensions. All this of course cannot happen at the same time.

For the country to develop, conversely, everyone must work hard, and everyone must sacrifice a few things. French-style decadence can come later. When your parent’s generations have become fat on economic riches and you can afford to work just 30 hours a week if you feel like it, or spend your time in roadside cafe’s smoking and drinking coffee on a government dole if you don’t.

In Sri Lanka political parties basically do what people want and skim off the top. At least, this is what they’ve been doing for a while now. If they’re not reducing bread/fuel/fertilizer prices before the election they’re promising more government jobs or cutting taxes. In fact it can be argued that our model of democracy has actually held back progress, by people getting the politicians they deserve. If the people have no long term vision for growth, then it is hardly likely that politicians with a long term vision for growth will arise out of a democracy consisting of these people.

A more centrally powerful government can ignore the short term wants and needs of people and give them what is really needed for long term growth. It can cut government jobs, privatize, cut taxes and increase investment. It can invest more in education, training, transport infrastructure and gross domestic capital.

A strong state is a strong state whatever model it uses to get there. Going by the above hypothesis, stronger states in lesser developed countries are generally autocratic, meaning there is a trade-off between development and liberty. But this doesn’t mean people are necessarily oppressed. All states, even autocratic states, desperately need majority corporation to actually develop, provided development is a strong objective and so will try to please as many people as they can while they work around the ones they can’t please. To paraphrase Bob Marley ‘you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.’

Democracy is an ideal. It is never really completely achieved, always remaining in its purest form unreachable. But the world remains fascinated by its appeal and the very word is taken to be synonymous with freedom and development. But history has shown that not to be the case and a careful look at past experiences and current events tells us that maybe it’s time we started looking at and accepting the presence of more mixed forms of government that are geared for development, inclusive in their own way but constantly changing and adapting to conditions on the ground.

I have a friend who wants to join the police. He is about 22 and holds a high office in the student council of a local university. He is good in sports and has great leadership qualities. More importantly for him, he has a degree and that is something you definitely need if you, like him, are going to apply for the post of ASP. Assistant Superintendent of Police. He’ll have a 50k plus salary, house and car with driver and other significant perks that come with the job. Not bad.

But you might say hold on, can a twenty two year old actually aspire to such a high post in law enforcement fresh out of university? Apparently yes. You need no on the job experience or previous training. Any fresh faced graduate with a 34 inch chest and above average in height can make it in, theoretically. What happens to the police force here? Incentive structures get skewed. You’re average ralahami will not be inclined to stop taking bribes and clean up his act because he basically has nothing to look forward to, the maximum the majority of them can expect to rise up to will probably be the rank of sergeant.

OK, say the system works. Maybe the police need to make sure that their top echelons are qualified and refined. Intelligence and leadership skills guaranteed from a young age so that they can be groomed early to provide a refreshing effect. But selections here are again not based on merit but on political favor. My friend for instance considers his number one asset to be his political connections. All of the rest are basically secondary. Only around twenty to thirty get picked every three years, so you can imagine the level of wrangling involved. The politicians pick the cops, no going around that one.

Looking at Sri Lankan politics and searching for a method to the madness let alone a science is no easy feat, and certainly it is beyond me; a mere armchair based channel flipper loath to immerse myself in everything but the juiciest of political gossip.

But as a representative then, of the vast majority of Sri Lankans I reserve the right to pass comment on our political sphere by virtue of my ignorance of it. That’s a neat little loophole I challenge anyone to disrupt. I am ignorant, therefore I am. Most of us are ignorant save for a few therefore it is us who are and you who are not. Us who are. Who are? Who’re? Whores.

People deserve the politicians they get. This is true. If the people demand salary hikes from an overly bloated government sector completely ignorant of the damage it will do to the country then they will only ultimately elect a person who can deliver what they need. And that person is a politician completely devoid of understanding of how to run a country. It fits nicely: the only thing completely and fatally under a free market mechanism appears to be democracy.

Suppose the people do elect worthy statesman by some luck then what the intelligentsia can hope for is that person be perpetually in power. But the majority is quick to catch on to what the intelligentsia want, mostly because intelligentsia can’t shut up about it, and is also very quick to become suspicious of what the intelligentsia says. The opposition catches on, and fuels this suspicion and takes down said statesman in next election.

So maybe what we really need is a benevolent dictator? Both in tune with the individual man to keep him happy in the present and also in tune with what the nation needs for economic development? History has shown that true development happens when governance is constant. Note that I didn’t say ‘government’ but ‘governance’.

The US changed governments pretty often. But they stuck by strong ideologies that dictated a constant direction to all their activities that they maintain to this day. More recently India: same. I.e., their system had constants that pushed them along. But some countries have hit the big time by more dubious means. By dubious I mean anti-democratic and we only have Churchill’s word that it is the best system discovered yet. China and Singapore for e.g. rose to staggering power through autocracy.

In Sri Lanka we just keep building up and then tearing what we built down to start all over again. As governments change and each pooh-pooh at their predecessor’s achievements. So in the face of a lack of a perpetual ideology/direction to governance, maybe our next best hope to hitting the big time is to have an autocratic leader with no incentive to engage in short-termist crowd pleasing development. Maybe what we really need is a king, of sorts, like a CEO.

But is Mahinda a Lee Kwan You or a Mao? The intelligentsia are not sure, neither are the people. Seems like a good start. Personally, I’d rather he be a Lee Kwan than a Mao, no cultural revolution for me thank you very much; a sound management of the country will do (lest we may all be forced to don amudeys and drive the buffalo along idyllic paddy fields). But as Spiderman will tell you; with great power comes great opportunities to enrich yourself. Or was it something else? Can’t seem to quite pin it down.

Following is a brief synopsis of the history of economics as i understand it together with a subjective viewpoint on its inherently oppressive nature. This viewpoint as written below does not necessarily reflect my personal opinion on economics, it is simply a viewpoint, that should stand alone in its own right.

-The Raj

Since industrialization humans have focussed on getting more efficient, becoming more profitable. I shouldn’t say humans in this regard, for it is mostly the capitalists who expound such thought processes into practical application. Economics after all, cannot be taken away from the self interest of its proponents, and when brought into the fray of politics, self interest largely depends on who is in power. And, money being tantamount to nearly everything in entering politics, most modern democracies flout the interests of capitalism over ‘what is good for the masses’. Of course this is cleverly disguised, more so from the politicians themselves, but GDP is not a measure of quality of life. Getting richer as a country, with it’s complete wealth distributed according to the laws of the Pareto Principle, is questionable as a purpose of being. Most modern economies can be highlighted as examples.

The prevailing ‘what is good for the powerful is good for the economy’ philosophy can be easily illustrated with simple look at the history of economics. Initial feudal establishments (which were centered around the absolute power of the landowning class and its default omni-ownership of all capital) crumbled with the increase of trade and the appearance of ‘marketplaces’. This only exacerbated with colonialism and eventually led to the Merchant class surpassing in wealth the landowning overlords of feudalistic society. Eventually, the reign of Merchants was the norm.

Mercantilism

‘Mercantilism’ was their philosophy. Mercanltilists were of the opinion that to prosper, a nation must sell more than it buys. In other words, its exports must exceed its  imports. This kind of thinking will seem absurd in the modern day world with interdependencies among nations causing more deficits than surpluses. A system like that cannot survive, for the simple reason that were every country in the world to follow identical princples, trade would simply halt! leading to eventual collapse of the system. As it happened Mercantilism survived for a long while, primarily due to cheap resources readily available from colonized nations and also by oppression of its own country’s peasant class, and economies in that day were controlled more by guilds of merchants that functioned more like cartels; monopolizing trade and commanding prices. Not very good for the quality of life of your average peasant, I would say.

Moving on, the rise of capitalism happened when the industrialists got into the game. They were a class of people who believed in the use of capital to control the arena of trade. They would supply capital to small scale artisans and contract merchants to sell them. This practice formed the basis of what would become the modern company.

Capitalism

‘Capitalism’ full blown, had names like the Dutch and British East India Companies as its flag bearers.  They allowed joint stock ownership and modern share markets found their origin here. They used their vast capital and trade monopolies to import cheap and sell dear. Making their owners’ wealth increase to previously unimagined proportions. Along with the emergence of capitalism, the seeds of the destruction of mercantilism were sown. Some advantage was gained to the common man with the abolition of protectionist measures like monopolies. And free market systems ensured competitive prices but along with its advantages the market economy also increased the sense of work ethic. Previously idyllic lives were now to be spent slaving at factories and workplaces eking out a living.

This hasn’t changed much. In the world of globalization and international trade, corporate interest is the main driving force behind ‘growth’. Obama treads lightly with BP because Obama possibly knows who has a fatal but light grip on his balls. The ecosystem and the small people making a living off it are not really significant. And this is not really a one off example. Trade barriers, free markets, international trade agreements, multinationals etc are all ‘good for growth’ but not really good for the increment of the quality of life of the small man. At least, such increment does not make the betterment of the common good its priority. Leading us to question the validity of the whole system, and our perceptions of human nature.

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