Tone deaf to suffering

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Last week, 70-year-old Mohamed Iliyas from Kandy died after he collapsed while standing for several hours in a queue to purchase kerosene. Yesterday another died whilst standing in Kadawatha. A vast majority of Sri Lankans have now been forced to line up for essential items, from fuel for vehicles, gas for cooking to essential items such as milk powder. People have been made destitute and desperate amidst the worst economic crisis in living memory.

There should be no doubt that this is a crisis of incompetence and mismanagement. The mishandling of the economy by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government has directly resulted in this unprecedented misery to the public. While the president and his administration would wish to suggest that global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine had precipitated the current situation, a quick glimpse of other regional countries would suggest that Sri Lanka is uniquely in this predicament. While many countries have in fact increased their foreign currency reserves during the last two years, Sri Lanka’s reserves have declined to a point that it is not able to pay even the interest on debt. 

The drastic collapse of remittances by expatriate Sri Lankan workers from approximately $ 8 billion in 2019 to $ 2 billion last year (as quoted by President Rajapaksa recently in his address to the nation) is a direct consequence of the policy of the Central Bank to maintain an artificial exchange rate for over two years. The shocks that are felt now across the board due to the sudden devaluation of the rupee is a result of this misadventure to peg the currency to an artificial exchange rate. Slashing of taxes in 2019 and the increase in State sector expenditure have also exacerbated the situation to a point of collapsing the whole economy. 

Having caused such a monumental catastrophe, the least the Government leaders could do is to demonstrate some empathy towards the people who are suffering on multiple fronts. This has not happened from the very highest office to the lowest level of the political spectrum. President Rajapaksa in his address to the nation last week, explicitly stated that the current crisis was not of his making. He could not be more wrong. As noted above, the mismanagement, incompetence and corruption of the current administration are directly responsible for the current situation. 

Especially after the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the constitution through which executive powers have been concentrated in the presidency while diluting the oversight powers of the legislature and the judiciary it is disingenuous for the president to shy away from responsibility. The buck squally stops with him.

While there is an acute fuel shortage across the country with long queues at fuel stations, a vehicle parade was organised by politically connected individuals in the Puttalam district. Numerous luxury vehicles paraded through the streets with police escorts until a group of angry citizens protested to put a stop to the charade. The same week Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa was in the Maldives enjoying water sports. After the images of the minister appeared on social media it was clarified that he had attended an event on the invitation of his Maldivian counterpart. The minister’s spin on his leisure activities was that it was done to promote tourism into Sri Lanka.

It is natural for individuals to seek entertainment and relaxation even during the most difficult periods. Politicians and their families may not be different in this regard. Yet, when the whole country is suffering from acute shortages and economic turmoil, brought about by the ruling administration, it is blatantly tone deaf to carry on with such activities in the glare of the public eye. It demonstrates a callous disregard to the suffering of the people. It is natural that there is resentment towards the ruling elites due to such behaviour. They ignore public sentiment at their own peril.

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Disclaimer: Tone deaf to suffering - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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