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OPINION - A ‘new foundation’ for Sri Lanka’s economy?

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Speaking before parliament, Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe set out a new budget that will see the selling off of state assets, slashes to the public sector, and a reorientation towards an export-driven economy. Whilst Wickremesinghe has described the budget as the “new basis of the economy”; the refusal to discuss Sri Lanka’s growing military expenditure shows greater continuity than rupture from the past. Instead, we see the perpetuation of crony capitalism that will impoverish the poor whilst the island's military grows even further.

Key to Wickremesinghe’s speech was his fawning over the economic record of his uncle, President JR Jayewardene.

“Instead of the failed closed economy, a different path was chosen […] The economy was opened; the country flourished; poverty decreased, with the expansion of middle-class”, Wickremesinghe told parliament.

Jayawardene’s notorious legacy was marked by increasingly authoritarian control of the economy to push forwards a western-backed model of market reforms that saw the gutting of Sri Lanka’s public sector; the dismantling of organised labour; and the open of the island’s economy to western finance.

Whilst the island found itself awash with Western capital there was a growing chasm between the Sri Lanka’s affluent middle class and the increasingly impoverished rural South. A divide the administration attempted to mask by the inflation of the military which increasingly offered employment to those in the rural Sinhala South. By the 1990s, the military was the largest state employer. The expansion of the military was justified as a means of suppressing Tamil militants and increasingly draconian measures were used to target Tamil youth. This would erupt in the genocidal violence of 1983, where Sinhala mobs backed by government forces set fire to Tamil homes and businesses and slaughtered thousands of civilians in the process.

Wickremesinghe makes no note of this sinister legacy of Jayawardene’s record, nor the continued expansion of Sri Lanka’s military, which now stands at double the size of the UK’s. Instead, Wickremesinghe opines the “open economy” did not go far enough as it did not provide private entrepreneurs “with the necessary facilities”.

Instead of casting blame on the island’s military, or examining the millions borrowed to suppress the Tamil national question, Wickremesinghe instead castigates the public claiming that the country’s finance was spent “on our consumption”.

“We got lazy day by day. People got used to handouts from the government. We were not thinking about the future of the country. A selfish society that only thinks about what the country should give its citizens was created gradually. Regrettably, we were feasting on borrowed money”.

Wickremesinghe seems geared to adhere more strictly to the neoliberal economic agenda setting forth a series of cuts to the public sector, weakening Sri Lanka’s labour laws, and selling of state assets. What remains a constant, however, is the pervasive role of Sri Lanka’s military in the economy.

Last year, the military was granted 15% of the total state budget, amounting to more than both the health and education sectors. This budget will see military spending increase a further 10%, strengthening its stranglehold on Sri Lanka's economy.

This has been hardest felt in the North and East, where Tamil civilians are subject to restrictions on their land and fishing rights as the military plunders their resources. Whilst the Tamil homeland remains under constant military occupation, the scope of the military appears to increasingly eclipse the role of the state increasingly. Sri Lankans find themselves under the thumb of a political class in league with the island’s war crimes accused military elite.

Progress can only be made by breaking away from this model of militarised governance and towards a genuinely democratic society that enshrines a commitment to devolution.

Read Wickremesinghe’s full speech here.

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