by The Association of Sri Lanka Academics in Japan (SLAcJ)
Sri Lanka is now facing an unprecedented crisis, with island-wide protests going on continuously for several days now. On 12th April, the Central Bank decided to default on debt servicing. Immediate actions are necessary to resolve the political and socio-economic crises, including aggravating social unrest and severe damage to the livelihood and well-being of all corners of society. Parliament members, opposition political parties, many individuals, and civil society recommend many options. So far, none of them are accepted by the country’s political authority.
With great sorrow, dismay, and anger, we, the Sri Lankan Academics in Japan, watch the current state of hardships Sri Lankans are undergoing. It is unfortunate to see how our beloved country has come to this state.
Japan has built a prosperous and peaceful society where people are free from wants and fear of persecution and violence. The vulnerable are protected, and opportunities are made available for all citizens to fulfil their aspirations to their full potential. The foundation of this success is mainly due to the importance placed on public trust. Anyone in power, whether a political leader, a high-level government official, or an industrial leader, either resigns or is removed from power if responsible for committing an act of losing public trust. An independent, accountable bureaucracy appointed, based on merit, ensures the rights of the public and makes sure that the government functions according to regulations, even when there is political instability. Separation of the powers of the legislature, executive and the judiciary has been sacrosanct and this has ensured checks and balances against excesses. Working for the well-being of the country and its citizens whilst respecting the institutions of a parliamentary democracy has enabled these three branches of government to build public trust in Japan. We believe Sri Lanka can learn much from this in overcoming the current crisis.
As a country, Sri Lanka is blessed with natural resources and a work force second to none, if given a chance. All around the world, Sri Lankans have risen to very high levels in Academia and Industries, yet opportunities are not available, and industries are not fostered in our home country. There is a blatant disregard for public trust and the public voice since the public has been made powerless by weakening governance and politicization of critical institutions. The current protests in Sri Lanka are a timely action to restructure, reform, and balance the three pillars of the political economy – the state, markets, and civil society. Expressing the citizens’ genuine grievances, concerns, and desires, is the only way one can save the country for future generations.
To come out of our current predicament, some of the actions we see that need to be taken, though not exhaustive, are as follows:
1. Immediate actions
a. The citizens have lost their trust in the government and respecting citizens’ will, President, Prime Minister, and their family members must apologize to the nation and immediately resign from their political positions. Parliament should select through confidential voting two potential candidates outside the ruling parties for the future President and Prime Minister.
b. Appoint an interim Cabinet of ministers of not more than 15 who are skilled, acceptable to the people, and responsible to the Parliament and the people. Some members can be elected from current parliamentarians through confidential voting, while new members can be selected from the national list. The current national list MPs should be replaced with skilled, responsible, qualified technocrats and administrators. Impose restrictions on corrupt individuals leaving the country. Depending on the interim Cabinet’s performance, they may continue until the next general election; otherwise, the government should hold a general election earlier at a suitable time.
c. The proposed interim government should introduce a new budget for the remainder of the year because the budget approved for 2022 is election-oriented rather than for stimulating economic and business promotion. The allocation of the government’s financial resources must be the responsibility of the Parliament.
d. Immediately appoint independent qualified technocrats (similar to the new Governor of CBSL) to critically important institutions, including the Department of Inland Revenue, Department of Customs, Ports Authority, Ceylon Electricity Board, and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, Pharmaceutical Corporation, State Banks, and Gas Companies. Similar appointments must be made to non-profit State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) to formulate policies and programmes which are socially acceptable, economically viable, and environmentally friendly.
e. Remove all privileges to elected members of Parliament and make sure that they are answerable to the law, similar to the practice of all other advanced democracies. The documentary on the lifestyle of the Japanese Prime Minister, widely viewed in Sri Lanka recently, is an excellent case in point. There is no justification to provide excessive benefits and privileges at public expense to parliamentarians who are expected to serve the people of the country.
f. Request the international community and Sri Lankan expatriates for possible cooperation through remittances, investments, and know-how (technical support). Reach out to friendly countries who have assisted us in the past. Attention must be paid to Japan, which has provided generous support to many important areas in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has finally gone to the IMF. We should also turn to Japan for help, where development assistance does not lead to “debt traps.” Similarly, we need to seek assistance from the World Bank, and ADB, where Japan plays an important role.
2. Policies under the interim Cabinet
a. Appoint independent technocrats/bureaucrats as secretaries to the ministries and independent career diplomates as heads of foreign missions. The power vested on ministers over the bureaucracy without proper control mechanisms by the 1978 (s52.2) constitution amendment should be removed immediately, and ensure that elected members of Parliament, as well as government officials, are accountable for the decisions they make and are subject to the laws and regulations of the land. Government officials must be independent and dedicated to the people and maintain professionalism in their duties.
b. Financial and non-financial assets of all the Members of Parliament, elected members of the Subnational Governments, Senior Government Officials, including Head of the Departments, Diplomatic Officials, Judges, Chairman of State-Owned Enterprises, Corporations, and Statutory Bodies, should be declared and audited before assuming duties and after, with appropriate time interval.
c. Formulate national policies for each ministry and establish a research and development division in the ministry to educate policy-makers and the other stakeholders on the best practices.
d. Based on the culture, oriental wisdom, resource endowment, policies of each ministry, and the best practices elsewhere, Sri Lanka should create a homegrown “Long-term Developmental Plan” with visions, missions, and values. These policies must be constructively debated, comprehensively evaluated, and approved by the political parties in the Parliament before making them as “national policies.” Once national policies are established, all political parties must continue the same guidelines to avoid frequent policy backsliding.
e. Sri Lanka is strategically located in the Indian Ocean. Who dominates the Indian Ocean may dominate the world economy in the 21st Century. Indo-Pacific geopolitics is changing drastically due to the confluence of three strategies: China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India’s Act East Policy, and the United States’ Rebalancing Asia. Japan’s articulation of its commitment to a Free and Open Indo Pacific is also relevant to Sri Lanka’s future growth and development strategy. By 2050, China, India, Indonesia, and Japan will be the first, third, fourth, and fifth most significant economies in the world, respectively. Sri Lanka needs stability in all aspects to deal with enormous powers who are interested in Indian Ocean domination. Therefore, Sri Lanka desperately needs to establish a national level independent council on Foreign Policy, Peace and Security Policy, and Economic Policy to formulate well-thought comprehensive policy packages and advise the government when and where it is most needed.
f. Bring necessary policies and constitutional changes to empower independent commissions established under the constitution council, finalise electoral demarcation, reform the election system, minimise the executive powers and functions of the President, and other governance-related issues before the next election. The objective of changes must be to ensure a true representative and participating democracy-friendly parliament, including women and youth and reflecting the diversity of our nation’s peoples.
g. Political parties must introduce internal democracy within the party, and their financing must be audited. Independent commissions are a must to safeguard the constitution so that the parliament members cannot arbitrarily amend it for their short-term benefits.
h. Empower the judiciary and state’s political and economic institutions and make them independent and “inclusive” rather than “extractive.” Introduce reforms to outdated laws, rules, and regulations relating to auditing, accounting, and public administration.
i. Sri Lanka introduced Social Market Economy (SME) in 2015. However, unlike in Germany, Sri Lanka has not gained the full potential of an SME. And the state should introduce “constitutive principle” and “regulatory principles” similar to German with view to ensure that the “free market” yields result near to its theoretical potential. The market is expected to be embedded in the legal and political systems of the country. Under SME, the safeguard of human dignity and citizens’ freedom is guaranteed. The constitutive principles of SME should ensure a competitive economic system. The complementary regulatory principles safeguard the human welfare aspect.
We members of the Association of Sri Lanka Academics in Japan (SLAcJ) stand with the citizens of Sri Lanka in the ongoing struggle to lay the foundation for good governance and economic development so that future generations will have a country they could be proud of, live in peace and harmony, and have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
We conclude this appeal with an ancient Pali verse which explains sustainable development as follows: Devo vassatu kalena sassasampatti hotu ca phito bhavatu loko ca-raja bhavatu dhammiko. May the rains come on time! May there be bountiful harvest! May the world be contented! May the rulers be righteous!