The current economic downfall did not happen due to a natural disaster or by accident; it was caused by a combination of bad policies, wrong economic direction, mismanagement, corruption, inability to deliver public services, oppression and social division that have percolated for many decades. President J.R. Jayewardene is blamed for establishing the wrong foundation to emerge from closed economic policies. He poisoned social norms by appointing himself above the law, granting himself excessive powers, destroying the independence in the branches of government and failing to introduce any checks and balances in governance. He gave birth to an aggressive form of fraud and corruption. President Jayewardene’s system of governance weakened the judiciary and the state machinery and created a new political culture that enabled the Rajapaksas to rise up and garner a 6.9 million voter base.
Although our immediate crisis is focused on the economy, we should not ignore the fact it stemmed from many years of political decay. Instead of taking short cuts with bankrupt leftist political, social and economic ideologies, we should choose the right path that includes liberal democratic values of stronger private property rights, a smaller government in the long run but performing a bigger role in the short term to address the immediate crisis and improving education, healthcare, transportation and housing. The new way forward should support economic conservatism and economic liberalism by ensuring increased freedom for people to participate in a new market economy.
While the immediate economic debacle was magnified by the arrogance, stupidity and corruption of the current regime, we need to recognize that the dysfunctional political process is a result of a divided and unempowered society. It is crucial that we transform our social structures, systems and values as a prerequisite for a transformational political system.
Due to the gravity of the economic crisis, the popular initial demand was for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to go home. Now he is gone the 225 members of parliament are trying to reshuffle their cards pretending to be an interim government without any obligation to serve the people. Party leaders are advocating that the only option left is to reshuffle the same jokers to protect their turf and Ranil Wickremesinghe maneuvered his way to become the president with the blessings of his arch rivals. I hope the aragalaya can withstand the raid ordered by the president and represent the true aspirations of the people.
In recent years, the prevailing social insecurities were exploited by political families to even cause murder in churches to regain political powers and cover their fraud. We cannot continue within the prevailing social culture but need to build a new social composition to live as one inclusive society that is based on human rights and fundamental freedoms, cultural and religious diversity, truth and social justice, special needs for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups and democratic participation and the rule of law.
The new inclusive society can only be promoted by social policies that reduce inequality to create a flexible and tolerant society by empowering all citizens. Trying to provide quotas or preferential ladders to deprived groups as quick fixes will only be ignoring the root problems of a divided society. An inclusive society built on a shared set of social values can increase respectful social interaction; such a society can override superiority or inferiority complexes from race, gender, class and generation.
In an inclusive society, citizens not only have the ability to grow individually but also have the capacity to grow collectively. One of the most significant aspects in creating an inclusive society is the development and engagement of an independent citizen. The independent citizen will not be identified by caste, race, religion or ethnic community but by a shared set of values such as democracy, individual rights, equal opportunity and individual responsibility guaranteed through a new constitution. It is in such a diverse society that independent individuals can contribute and benefit from shared resources such as healthcare, education, transportation and housing made accessible to all.
Since the aragalaya opened the eyes of many citizens, people have finally realized that the country needs an overhaul to govern democratically. As people gain power, they will want to govern themselves rather than relying on an all-powerful central government. The purpose of a decentralized political system will be to make citizens more active in the decision making process and grant more power over their own lives. We need to think about how the people can self-govern rather than surrendering their powers between each election. Power devolution needs to be seriously considered not only to dilute the central powers but also to self-govern. In addition to protecting citizens from the government, there are numerous merits of decentralization, most importantly to ease access to public services, decrease bureaucratic burdens and increase speed in policy implementation
It is prudent to introduce checks and balances to each level of governance. Although most democracies consist of three branches – Executive, Judicial and Legislative – Sri Lanka should have four branches. The fourth branch should be a senate consisting of the governors of the regions that remains independent and external to the parliament. The fourth branch will perform the following tasks: have a direct voice from the regions; appoint and conduct oversight of national level independent commissions; make regional level recommendations for Supreme Court judges to ensure the Supreme Court will be represented from each region; conduct oversight of the national administrative agencies; and break any deadlocks within the legislature and among the Executive and the Legislature in the central government.
It is evident that Sri Lanka’s economy cannot continue with the status quo but requires a transformation on a new economic path. We have repeatedly seen every elected government fail to balance the budget, increasing foreign debt without increasing revenue. As a result the highly import dependent country has now run out of dollars for essential goods and inflation has eroded the local currency. The restrictions imposed by the government to import and the freedom to trade internationally have prevented those willing and able from contributing to the national economy. Sri Lanka needs establish a free market place under common laws and with limited regulations.
It is evident that the economic impediments people face stem from the way political power was monopolized by a narrow elite. We are fortunate that the youth today are innovators, changemakers, fighters for their rights, visionaries and trend setters. They deserve much more than the cards they have been dealt with as they had the courage to express their displeasure with a nonviolent aragalaya. But the people are still being ignored while the parliamentarians are busy shuffling among the dysfunctional branches of government rather than coming together to recover from the downfall.
Unfortunately, the protestors are yet to define a clear vision for themselves or for the country even after President Rajapaksa was expelled. However the aragalaya youth seem to be in agreement that the country should take a new path away from the failed conventional wisdom.
We can transform our politics leading to an economic revolution and create the new nation we deserve. This is our revolution if we can clearly identify our long term vision to strengthen and broaden the political rights of every individual who will need to hold governments accountable. In such empowered citizenry, people will not only vote at elections but also participate in governance between elections and hold power to impeach those they elected through an independent judiciary. As a result of self-governance, people will participate in an enabling environment to take advantage of economic opportunities from a well-regulated free market place. Therefore, people need to continue the aragalaya to the next level and fight for human, civic and political rights to expand everyone’s economic opportunities because we cannot allow our children to go begging as well. The result will need to be a fundamentally different political and economic trajectory built on a newly integrated social fabric with humanity at its center, beyond the insecurities from race, religion or political loyalties that once blinded us all.