Forecast 2017: Sri Lanka

18 Feb, 2017    ·   5237

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera assesses how Sri Lanka fared in 2016 and makes recommendations for 2017

It was less than half a million votes that restored democratic order in Sri Lanka and set the nation in the correct direction three years ago. 8 January 2015 saw the dawn of good governance locally and a recalibration of the island’s foreign policy. The draconian 18th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution was scrapped by an (extra) ordinary man who took on the challenge to topple the existing government. Expectations were and are high to change existing political cultures. Adoption of new ways is difficult for individuals who believed deeply in a set of values because it represents a shift from an established zone of comfort and influence. Fresh recommendations, new methods of fighting corruption and much more have to be absorbed and proven instead of rejecting every idea.

On the economic front, in Sri Lanka, 2016 began with the visit of George Soros. While his visit did not bring with it the anticipated investment, Prof Riccardo Hausmann from Harvard University shared valuable insights. The appointment of the new governor to Sri Lanka’s Central Bank was appreciated by many due to the controversy surrounding the former. 

The bipartisan unity government with deep differences in political ideologies experimented with different methods of working together throughout 2016 but failed to deliver on many promises. However, the effort to work together with differences must be appreciated. The biggest challenge is in finding a common ground to execute differing ideas. Civil society experts could perhaps educate the government on bipartisan methods and models instead of destroying the new model. The nation will have only one choice if the present model is reset. The Sri Lankan governance model is evolving towards a technocracy. People expect a technocratic rule by technical experts to deliver results in areas such as infrastructure, clean air, water management, reliable transportation, public safety, ease of conducting business, good schools, quality housing, freedom of expression, access to jobs etc. Result oriented technocratic governance structures and high quality civil servants with delivery of results is what the country requires and what the people seek.

President Sirisena’s Third Year
At a ceremony to mark the beginning of third year in office, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena invited Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of India’s Andhra Pradesh state, as his special guest. The visiting chief minister shared lessons learnt from the technological development of Andhra Pradesh’s economy, particularly on water and power management. According to President Sirisena, poverty in Sri Lanka stands at between 25 to 27 per cent. This is ample reason to declare 2017 as the year to eradicate poverty – a challenging task given the present economic situation. 

Looking back, in the past two years, there has been an improvement in the human rights situation in the country, particularly with regard to media freedom. There has not been a single incident of murder or incidents reporting on journalists departing the nation due to fear during President Sirisena’s time in office. However, the perpetrators of the murder of veteran journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga  - who was killed on 08 January 2009 – are yet to be brought to justice. Social media comments regarding this delay raise questions that as to whether this investigation would meet the same fate as that of Richard de Zoysa, another veteran journalist who was assassinated in 1990. Not all solutions can be found in 24 months but the media is highlighting the people’s frustrations.

Cyber crime and threats to state security domains on this frontier remain. The hacking of the president’s website and the recent Muslim Cyber Army claim for hacking the Health Ministry website are incidents the government should immediately curb. There have been multiple incidents of hacking by the same group in India and other places but these were a first in Sri Lanka. Rise of violent non-state actors in the cyber domain has become a complex geopolitical problem that threatens many countries today. 

Sri Lanka and the New World Order
China’s rising naval power has built one of the largest submarine fleets. Their fleet is causing a tense situation in making port calls in the Indian Ocean, which sets to further unfold in next few years, especially in the South China Sea. In this global power tapestry, Sri Lanka has to find its path to gain the best geopolitical and economic benefit; but this is a challenge, because of the strategic interests of the global powers. According to Prof Indra de Soysa “Our strategic position is likely to be of great political interest to great powers that will be tempted to meddle in the internal politics of Sri Lanka. This means that Sri Lankan policy must synchronize with regional and extra-regional powers with an interest in the region. On this count, Sri Lanka could potentially take a lead role in establishing a movement that demilitarizes and de-securitizes the Indian Ocean by building a regime for peaceful cooperation.”

Challenges in 2017
In 2017 the nation will face 3 key challenges: 

First, is its debt crisis. According to the governor of Sri Lanka’s Central bank, the country is still in the hospital but not in ICU. FDI remains at a very low rate compared to last year. Two global reports were unfavorable towards Sri Lanka: Bloomberg ranked it among the highest risk countries in the world for investors; and the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) placed the island-state at the 95th place – from 94th in the previous year. The primary focus should be on the economic crisis the nation is facing. 

The second challenge is the human rights issue that the government has to face in March 2017. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, there are credible reports to show white van abduction has taken place under Sirisena government. International pressure on these baseless allegations questioning the island country continues by the same individuals accusing of no structural reform to tackle systemic failures of the justice machinery. The Sri Lankan government needs to effectively counter these challenges. The Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTFRM) appointed by government recommended a hybrid court with foreign judges, and was endorsed by the Global Tamil Forum and the Tamil National Alliance. Reportedly, the president expressed his displeasure towards the idea of a hybrid model. This position was clearly expressed even in the past. 

The third challenge is the local government elections and the new constitution with internal political pressure created by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The recent political rally and protest by the villagers and the joint opposition members at the opening ceremony of the Sri Lanka-China Industrial Zone in Hambantota near the Chinese built port Hambanthota is a clear indication of the same. The government’s decision to lease 15000 acres of land to a Chinese company was viewed as a serious threat to the nation’s sovereignty. The project is moving forward despite the protest. Clearly the island country holds substantial strategic value due to its geographical position and the Sri Lankan government owes Beijing $8 billion (more than 12 per cent of its total $64.9 billion debt).

2017 began with the loss of one of the country’s most eminent jurists and visionary for peace. Justice CG Weeramantry was instrumental in introducing peace education to the world and although he was a recipient of the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education, he failed to introduce the same to his own country. Peace education and global dignity are programmes that are operational in over 60 countries. Such programmes should be introduced to Sri Lanka. Given the right set of universal values, children may one day unite the broken country.