Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ioma Rajapaksa are seen being greeted by his party stalwarts on his arrival at the Bandaranaike International Airport from Thailand. He fled the country after intense countrywide protests paralysed Sri Lanka
- Gotabaya turned the entire population of this country into lab rats through his dim-witted policy of organic agriculture. The overnight ban on chemical fertilizer decimated the agricultural sector; food production declined by 40-50 per cent, triggering a cascading effect on the entire economy and disposable income of people
Ex-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa is back after a whirlwind tour of self-exile that took him to the Maldives, to Singapore, and finally to Thailand. None of his hosts was enthused to have him for longer and Gotabaya himself seemed to have felt that the whole experience was an act of needless humiliation. He has every right to return home and the government of Sri Lanka has a constitutional obligation to take him back. However, the same constitutional rights should be extended to all Sri Lankans, who are victims of Gotabaya’s criminal mismanagement of the economy and maladministration of the country.
Average Sri Lankans are now scraping the bottom of the barrel as a result of Gotabaya’s egoistic and stupid decisions. He turned the entire population of this country into lab rats through his dim-witted policy of organic agriculture. The overnight ban on chemical fertilizer decimated the agricultural sector; food production declined by 40-50%, triggering a cascading effect on the entire economy and disposable income of people. Today Sri Lanka ranks sixth in the world in child malnutrition, according to UNICEF. His demagoguery would haunt the nation’s children for decades to come, unless the government which unfortunately has a different set of misplaced priorities, acts fast enough to address the looming hunger in the most vulnerable communities. Even before the economic crisis, two in five infants in the country did not receive adequate nutrition, which makes Gotabaya’s self-inflicted hunger extra egregious.
Also, his politically motivated tax concessions that favoured the business elites who supported his campaign drained the treasury and caused a loss of Rs. 600 billion in tax revenue. The heightened vulnerability of public finances resulted in the downgrading of the country’s credit ratings and culminated in the default of the sovereign debt. His government abruptly floated the Rupee, only after the foreign reserves ran out, leading to an 80% depreciation of the Rupee, destroying the lifetime savings of most Sri Lankans who unlike the Rajapaksas and their acolytes do not have the luxury of offshore accounts.
There is a litany of acts of mismanagement, race-baiting opportunism and simple stupidity of Gotabaya’s presidency. Then there are allegations of high-profile human rights violations during his previous tenure as the defence secretary. For five years, he managed to evade appearing in Jaffna court to face charges of complicity in the disappearance of Lalith and Kugan, two activists of the Frontline Socialist Party. Then there is the white flag incident. Some of these allegations are controversial and divisive and could even help Rajapaksa’s cause by dividing the nation yet again. However, the quest for accountability should start from somewhere. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s colossal mismanagement of the economy can be that starting point.
There are international precedents where the political leadership is held accountable for their actions. In Thailand, ex-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was sentenced in absentia to five years in jail for a ruinous rice subsidy; in South Korea, President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 20 years in prison for abuse of power and coercion, though she was later pardoned by her successor. In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff was impeached for cooking books to downplay the fiscal deficit.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa should face justice, at the least, for the mismanagement of the economy. He might have had the best intentions or he was simply naïve or plainly stupid. However, none of that should be a mitigating factor for him to get away scot-free, while the children of the nation are starving and the average public is struggling to make ends meet.
Yet, justice is elusive in Sri Lanka, especially when it involves the politically powerful and politically connected. Double standards have made the judicial process both a farce and tragedy. Last week, a Balangoda Magistrate found a man guilty of selling four eggs at Rs. 65 each, above the maximum retail price, and fined Rs. 500,000. In the same country, Pyramid Wilmar owned by a key election financer of the Rajapaksas was accused of profiteering to the tune of Rs. 16 billion by exploiting a tax concession, but escaped unscathed. The Government’s Audit Office recommended the recovery of the revenue loss from the importer but to no avail.
After all, the former President managed to escape the long arm of justice, which in Sri Lanka rarely reaches the people of power, despite being accused of complicity in some of the grotesque human rights abuses – and backed by some of the prima facie evidence.
This lopsided state of affairs has fostered a culture of impunity and is actively nurtured by those in power. The sheer absence of accountability in the holders of political office in return provides the impetus for further abuses of power. That was partly why the affairs of the state were run like a family business, though ultimately it was the general public who foot the bill.
Mahinda Rajapaksa in a fit of anger took over the Sri Lankan Airlines after the then Emirates management refused to offload a contingent of fee-levying passengers to accommodate the presidential entourage. Since its takeover, the national carrier has incurred a loss of US$ 1.04 billion. Rajapaksa who once vowed to face the electric chair to save the country would not face the consequences of his actions. It is the Sri Lankan public who pays for his misadventure.
Nor would the current administration of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who counts his political survival on the good office of Basil Rajapaksa dare to hold the Rajapaksas accountable.
To make matters worse, the Sri Lankan judiciary, unlike its peers, is lacking in activist judges and is populated by those who hedge on the good grace of the political powers for their career advancement.
No wonder that, instead of holding Gotabaya Rajapaksa accountable, his acolytes are now planning to bring him to Parliament through a vacant national list post. That may be a precursor to appointing him as the Prime Minister.
That is tantamount to giving the middle finger to the whole nation that is destitute by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s misrule. It is a shame that Sri Lanka has not changed even after the mass protests and sacrifices by its youth. But make no mistake, a nation that exists for its leaders, but not for its people is destined to fail. Sri Lanka should strive to avoid that downfall.
Disclaimer: Justice for Gotabaya and Justice for Sri Lanka! - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view