Wijith DeChickera may have hoped for a truer course but geopolitics is making the country creak at the seams

The newly independent former crown colony of Ceylon got off to a sterling start 73 years ago. Despite being plundered through nearly five centuries of colonisation, the British left our blessed isle with zero debt, oodles of potential and a promising legacy.

We were the cynosure of South-East Asian eyes and an envy of many others.

However, over seven dismal decades, successive governments and increasingly abysmal political cultures ensured that we as a nation barely  muddled through – often in a hole… and simply dug us in deeper.

It behoves us to take stock, two years away from a diamond jubilee, teetering on the edge of an abyss, which spans the gamut from geopolitical interventions to looming bankruptcy as a sovereign state.

Once off the blocks as arguably Asia’s oldest democracy, we’ve stumbled over the early promise and fallen at every pillar and post… from lost opportunities for national unity in the midst of disasters such as the 2004 tsunami, through a debilitating war that never ends in some hearts and minds due to lack of transformative nation reconciliation, to chronic sociopolitical and religious-cultural conflict.

In under 75 years, we’ve sacrificed around 500,000 Sri Lankans on the altar of senseless (often cynically manufactured) conflict. Some 3,000,000 islanders left our tropical paradise in fear of and anger at the state of their homeland, in search of the proverbial pot of gold and elusive peace elsewhere.

Today, GDP is barely a bowed head in front of neck and neck debt: every citizen owes somebody somewhere an estimated 650,000 rupees. And government coffers carry precious little reserves and revenue has dwindled.

To add insult to injury, law and order fluctuates between lip service being paid to discipline, as well as a just and virtuous society on the one hand, and the effortless anarchy of the political elite and privileged elected representatives of the people on the other.

A coup, constitutional tinkering that smacks of personal agendas trumping the national interest and recent developments on the judicial-legal front have given the lie to One Law, One Country.

Be that gloomy picture as it may, there are pressing concerns that are emblematic of a larger issue. If left unresolved, these could contribute in no small measure to Sri Lanka’s slide to perdition. We can only trust and hope that wiser counsel prevails, and a small coterie of technocrats and statesmen acts expediently to reverse the tide of a rot that’s setting in. Well yes, right!

VIRAL CULTURE The authorities’ handling of Sri Lanka’s second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is a case in point.

From state actors as high up as the speaker to lowly state ministers (now COVID-positive!) ostensibly endorsing certain native concoctions to a bewildering apathy in securing sufficient stocks of a viable vaccine, the once competent handling of our most pressing crisis to date has descended from militarised sublime to superstitious ridiculous.

Add the tourism industry’s woes amid concerns that only an elect few benefit and corners are being cut to privilege those well-connected to power, and you have a country perplexed at quarantine management measures and mixed messaging – although the business angle has the industry making ambiguous noises about ‘pilot projects’ having been ‘successful.’

TACTICAL INVESTMENT While one instinctively sympathises with the state’s Treasury woes (paltry reserves and sluggish revenue streams), recent controversies over the Indian slice of a lucrative Sri Lankan port’s key container terminal has raised a storm.

There was even a case made by a broad front of stakeholders – from political progressives to concerned trade unions – that the necessary funds to boost port activity could come from local syndicates.

India being given a 49 percent slice of the East Container Terminal – despite a controlling interest being retained by our government – could see Sri Lanka’s supremacy in the region being compromised. (Colombo was once ranked 24th on the JOC’s top global container ports; compare this with our nearest neighbour’s closest contender at 29th.)

Under a previously proposed MOU, Japan’s interest in a share of our port could offset (or upset?) the precarious power balance posed by China’s longstanding interest in and control of a southern harbour.

FOREIGN INTERVENTIONISM Government for its part continues to be caught between the rock of geopolitics and the hard place of its home electorate, which is traditionally nationalistic in ethos.

India’s great interest in devolution of power, gentle insistence on rebuilding bulldozed monuments in the still troubled north of our island and general ire at China’s ascendance over Sri Lankan horizons is evident. It’s all exasperating to true patriots – irrespective of political party or race…

Due to the dire need of a lifesaving influx of funds (and an Indian vaccine?), plus possibly regional technological know-how, Government has listed to port… sending out mixed messages on container terminal ownership, operation and management; perilously navigating troubled waters.

In this respect, reneging on promises not to sell national silver – a key platform of the past two major polls – has made nationalism flounder, making the incumbents look and sound a lot more like the neoliberal administration they ousted because of their internationalism.

Will this government also founder because of it?