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Sri Lanka, Now a Cautionary Tale, Was Once a Role Model for the Developing World

In 1964, Singapore’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, said he hoped that his country would be like Sri Lanka one day.

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Opinion
5 min read
Sri Lanka, Now a Cautionary Tale, Was Once a Role Model for the Developing World
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Sri Lanka joins the growing list of 21st-century ‘colour’ revolutions against corruption and authoritarianism: Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, the Arab Spring that brought down several regimes in the Arab world, Georgia’s Rose Revolution, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution, to name a few. Sri Lanka’s struggle could be called the ‘Purple Revolution’ after the colour of its national flower ‘Nil Mahanel’.

Leading the struggle, protesting Sri Lankan youth beat to death a member of parliament, surrounded houses of other ruling party MPs, ransacked the prime minister’s official residence, torched his private house, almost occupied the parliament, and chased their president and his ruling clan out of the country. These were representatives the country had elected less than two years ago. With Sri Lanka defaulting on its foreign debt, no money to pay for imports, an acute shortage of essential goods and runaway inflation, the simmering discontent with corruption, nepotism and economic mismanagement burst out into the open.

In the 1960s, wise public policies of successive governments had made Sri Lanka a role model for South Asian development. In 1964, Singapore’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, said he hoped that his country would be like Sri Lanka some day.

Snapshot
  • In 1964, Singapore’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, said he hoped that his country would be like Sri Lanka some day.

  • The country's adult literacy rate of 92% is one of the highest in the developing world. Primary and secondary school enrolment is 100%. Basic health facilities are available to 96% of the population.

  • Human development could have paved the way for faster economic growth and a more civilised society had Sri Lanka's leaders not squandered public money on unproductive schemes and on lining their own pockets.

  • It is not only the Rajapaksa clan that has corrupted the system. It has been happening for a long time.

  • South Asia abounds in financial scandals and misuse of government machinery and public funds. The rulers here have an inborn proclivity to steal. Sri Lanka should be a wake-up call for governments.

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Things Could Have Been Different...

The island has a population growth rate of 0.27% compared to the average of 1.16% in South Asia. Its adult literacy rate of 92% is one of the highest in the developing world. Primary and secondary school enrolment is 100%. Basic health facilities are available to 96% of the population. The infant mortality rate is seven per 1,000 live births – far better than 58 in Pakistan and 29 in India. While 1.5 million unvaccinated children die in Pakistan every year, 98% of Sri Lanka’s children are immunised.

One would suppose that human development would pave the way for faster economic growth and a more civilised society. It could have, had the political leadership not squandered public money on unproductive schemes and on lining their own pockets and that of their friends and relatives.

On one of my visits to Sri Lanka, I took the coastal route south to Galle, the road hugging silvery, palm-lined beaches and continuous rows of pubs. Schoolchildren were manning the roads, policing the traffic and assisting younger children to safely cross the highway. At Galle Face, the nucleus of demonstrations today, groups of youth were busy playing cards in the shade. Others just hung around. I spoke to some of them. They were all unemployed.

The common refrain was that the political system only patronises sycophants and family loyalists. For the young, ambitious and hardworking, the climb to the top of the greasy pole can take a lifetime.
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...But Sri Lanka Squandered It All

It is not only the Rajapaksa clan that has corrupted the system. It has been happening for a long time. The people have only now vented their frustration. Under Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose father was Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister from 1956 to 1959 and mother the Prime Minister and President for 18 years, corruption and nepotism were rampant. Kumaratunga was the President of Sri Lanka from 1994 to 2005. She led the People’s Alliance, a front of seven political parties, which had the most honest election symbol: a chair. How her government squandered public money is underlined by the case of the Southern Development Authority (SDA).

Soon after assuming office, the People’s Alliance (PA) government launched the SDA, promising employment to the youth. It wanted to demonstrate its commitment to developing the neglected south, which has been the breeding ground for two insurrections. However, the SDA functioned more like a carnival for a few selected supporters of the PA. Plump jobs with weighty salaries were given to PA cronies who had canvassed for the party during the elections, resulting in overstaffing and a major portion of the budget being spent on salaries rather than on programmes.

One of the first companies to be given a loan by the Authority was Ruhuna 2001 Human Resource Development and Training Company Private Limited. It was floated by a retired Major-General who had worked for PA in the presidential election.

This company was to train southern youth for employment as ‘environmental animators’ – whatever that meant. The Authority put in $23,000 and the cautious General chipped in with $5,500, of which his personal investment was only $1,400. The Authority then offered him another $120,000 as a capital grant.

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All parties should have been satisfied with this arrangement. But, no! The government went further and handed over to the company an 80-acre government farm and a guesthouse, which the General gladly accepted. The General received a monthly salary of $700, in addition to a luxury car and other perks. Thus, he recovered his investment within two months. Then, the General’s strategic mind surrendered to the temptations of the market.

He went on a buying spree, spending millions on furniture, vehicles, office equipment and construction of buildings that were never built.

How many youths, trained by the General, got employment? In his progress reports, the heroic General very cleverly stated that the youth, after the training programme, were “directed to employment”, though in reality, hardly any of them got jobs, least of all as ‘environmental animators’. The SDA also squandered $50,000 of public funds on advertising campaigns for PA as a run-up to the local elections.

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Same Story Across South Asia

South Asia abounds in such financial scandals and misuse of government machinery and public funds. The rulers here have an inborn proclivity to steal. The whiff of something rotten is always in the air. The young are frustrated with the distant, elderly dinosaurs who run political parties, and with the self-serving, faceless bureaucrats who seem hopelessly out of touch with what the public wants.

With a median age of 27, South Asia’s youth face an economic dead end. Each country matches the other in unemployment. Given the current rate of population growth and not counting the backlog of the unemployed, India needs to generate 8 million new jobs every year; Bangladesh 2.3 million, Pakistan 1,3 million, and Nepal 500,000. During one of his visits to China, US President George Bush asked Chinese President Jiang Zemin at breakfast if he had slept well at night, to which the Chinese president replied: “How can I sleep well? The thought of creating 20 million new jobs keeps me awake every night.” It is indeed a nightmare.

Sri Lanka Should Be a Wake-Up Call

Sri Lanka’s ‘Purple Revolution’ should be a wake-up call to the leaders of South Asian nations. The region’s vast army of youngsters, now educated and connected with the world, are dangerously disenchanted and volatile.

Once the seeds of discontent are sown, some will look to the extremes. Many of the youth-led violent and separatist movements in South Asia have their roots in state corruption.

Good governance, employment generation, maintaining social harmony and rule of law is what South Asia’s public representatives must focus on – instead of looting the state treasury, squandering public money on grandiose and unproductive projects, and playing vote bank politics.

(Akhil Bakshi, an author and explorer, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Explorers Club USA, and Editor of ‘Indian Mountaineer’. He tweets @AkhilBakshi1. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Sri Lanka   Sri Lanka Crisis 

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