Contemporary politicians in Sri Lanka have, without exception, turned stealing from public coffers into a fine art.
Gross monetary debauchery
It doesn’t matter if they are from the lavish surroundings of Colombo with so-called historical heritages they can boast of or the wild nature of Polonnaruwa and the Deep South. With public funds fattening political wallets, central bank governors have been dragged to court over various “scams”, with one fleeing abroad as a fugitive. Meanwhile, revelations in international corruption investigations such as the Pandora Papers and the Panama Papers involving “politically connected persons” remain in limbo. All this while the country is sinking deeper and deeper into huge debt.
Along with the looting of public funds, the rot of politicization has eaten away at the innards of once-respected national institutions such as the Central Bank and Currency Council responsible for Sri Lanka’s monetary policy. Public perception of these institutions is at rock bottom. Rightly or wrongly, its members are seen as dancing ingloriously to the tune of many and varied political pipers. Nor has the judiciary significantly intervened to impose sanctions on political thieves, let’s put it bluntly.
The end result has been that we the people are being collectively punished for the sins of this decades-long wild ride in gross monetary profligacy. Sri Lanka’s post-independence financial record can be summed up in these few laconically bitter paragraphs. No wonder then that the nation has been crucified by the world as being on the brink of sovereign bankruptcy, even though the Central Bank Governor grows angry with rage if this eventuality is mentioned, even passing by pesky journalists during press briefings.
The wolf at the gate of Sri Lanka
But despite these stridently unconvincing denunciations, the harsh realities of citizens’ foreign currency accounts being frozen, scarce assets, and international creditors wolves at the door demanding their books of financial flesh, tell a different story. Certainly, not all blame can be placed on the global pandemic, as even a child will point out. If so, then all our neighbors in South Asia should also be in the same situation as us. Instead, we trot around them with a begging bowl, chanting “more, more” much like a desperate modern-day Oliver Twist.
In short, it is categorically Sri Lankan political leaders of all shades and sizes, past and present, who are responsible. No one can wash their hands of the lamentable fate that has befallen this nation. Opposition politicians who are bringing down the wrath of the heavens on the ruling regime for what they call a daytime theft of public money must remember their record when the Central Bank was caught in the ‘yahapalanaya’ bond scam scandal. Did they speak out against this infamy that happened not once but twice?
Or did they stutter and stutter, sometimes obscuring or outright denying when it suited them? Now, as much as Rajapaksa loyalists previously chanted in opposition, that “no one stole because no one had been successfully convicted by the courts”, this same chant is repeated by frontliners Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB ). They seem to think that just because the fugitive Central Bank Governor under their watch has not been brought back to Sri Lanka and punished does not mean there has not been a bond scam. The public, however, knows (unequivocally) that this is not the case.
Theft of public funds is a collusive exercise
Opposition politicians should therefore beware of their sloppy tongues if they know what is best for them. Simply put, the theft of public funds is a case of collusion between political parties, neither of which will cause the other to attack it. That said, and even compared to the despicable history of the robber barons of Sri Lanka, the government’s recent attempt to tax the benefits of the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and the Employees Trust Fund (ETF) belongs to a despicable category in its own right.
The two workers’ funds are caught up in an additional tax bill which proposes to (retrospectively) impose a 25% tax on companies that have made profits of more than Rs. 2 billion in the year of evaluation starting from April 2020. Here too, government and opposition politicians exchange insults on the floor of parliament, blaming each other. Government politicians argue that a ‘yahapalanaya’ The Inland Revenue Act (2017) had interpreted the term “society” to include “a friendly society, building society, pension fund, provident fund, superannuation fund, superannuation fund or fund or similar company”.
As a result, the Inland Revenue Department issued a ruling that income generated from the investment of EPF/ETF funds should be taxed, a position which was challenged by the current Department of Labour. The ministry also opposed the current proposal, to give it credit. Loud opposition has also ensued from the private sector over what they call the retroactive double taxation the bill seeks to impose. As the political allegations are exchanged, the public has had enough of this circus. Regardless of whether or not it happened before, the blame game has to stop.
The turns of public anger against governments
If the government wishes to end the union strikes that will cripple the economy which is recovering from two years of covid paralysis, it must refrain from waving red flags at the salivating union bull. Does he invite new “Roshen Chanaka” to martyr themselves on the altar of police excesses against demonstrators? As it should be recalled, Roshen Chanaka was shot dead by law enforcement officers in 2011 after participating in a protest in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone against a pension plan proposed by the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency.
This scheme, no less imaginative than the current proposal, had envisaged contributions of 2% of private sector workers’ wages to a pension fund that would have resulted in no gain for enraged workers. Gathering in Katunayake against the project, more than two hundred demonstrators were put down with water cannons, tear gas, batons and live ammunition while female workers were brutally assaulted, with many seeking medical treatment in hospitals. At the time, enormous public pressure forced the resignation of senior police officers, but later, once the uproar subsided, some were reinstated.
However, the 2011 protests in the free zone became a turning point in public anger against this regime. It was a great warning to politicians looking to cash in on workers’ hard-earned money. This caution is now increasing a hundredfold as a covid-19 irritated public bears the brunt of economic mismanagement and hasty policy changes, from a thoughtless ban on chemical fertilizers to private sector chiefs making big returns from sugar garlic scams scams with political patronage.
Is the government courting union martyrdom?
The fine speeches delivered at political rallies by political leaders seeking to position themselves for the upcoming elections do not alleviate the crushing economic deprivation that citizens face as they try to survive each day. Are we asking for more to join the ranks of union martyrs in the protests against the theft of EPF/EFT funds, a cry that is sure to strike directly into the hearts of the public?
This is the question the government must ask itself.
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