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Who are the ‘enemies’in the "economic war" of post-war Sri Lanka?

Oct 17, 2010 8:08:53 PM- transcurrents.com

By Kalana Senaratne

The victory Sri Lanka achieved in its war against the LTTE was a significant one. People belonging to all ethnic and religious communities in all parts of the country had to undergo a great degree of suffering, not only during the last stages of the war, but for decades, due to the ruthless terrorist menace. That war came to an end last year, bringing along an end also to much of the suffering caused as an inevitable consequence of war.

The end of the war in May 2009, however, seems to have given rise to a different kind of ‘war’ in this post-war phase of Sri Lanka’s history. While we are constantly reminded of the war that ended in May 2009, we are also reminded of the ‘wars’ which need to be waged in the future, or a ‘war’ which has been initiated already. The most prominent and significant one of them being the ‘economic war’ or the ‘development war’ (the other ‘wars’ being the ‘war on drugs’, the ‘war against the underworld’, etc.).

‘War’ here is largely a metaphor, a figure of speech; denoting perhaps the positive aspects of the Government’s policy against the LTTE - the determination to end peoples’ suffering and carnage, having clear and firm goals to be achieved, a firm and unwavering policy, a strong and dedicated leadership, rapid implementation of policies, solid purpose, etc. When politicians refer to the ‘economic war’ these days (as they often do), these are some of the aspects they want us to think about. Given that economic development is of absolute necessity, promoting economic development in such a manner is much appreciated. But there are a number of questions that arise when politicians talk of ‘wars’, a number of questions that we, as citizens, would need to ask in all seriousness. Wars are ugly affairs, however necessary they are considered to be. And it is the ugly side of this economic war that often escapes our attention and that which needs to be addressed and avoided.

The serious question that arises here with regard to the much proclaimed economic war is: who are its ‘enemies’? Who are the ‘enemies’ that the government thinks it needs to fight in this economic war? Would the government consider those critical of its economic policies to be its enemies in this economic war? And if so, how would their criticisms be met in the future, how would they be addressed, or how would they be ‘dealt with’? Just like during any other war? How would constructive criticism be interpreted and understood by the regime during the time of an economic war? Are such views inimical to economic and development progress, do such views stand in the way of swift development? How would such views be addressed, or during times of war, would the government think it necessary to listen to the voices of its critics? Would a government engaged in such a war stop to give thought to the real economic aspirations of the people based on their own social and cultural needs? Are ‘independent institutions’ a threat to governmental activity and policy promotion during an economic war? Is the ‘environment’ an enemy of economic progress, or those who raise environmental concerns? What then of sustainable development? Is the ‘protection and promotion of human rights’ considered an enemy or an adversary in such times? Is ‘democracy’ an enemy or a threat that needs to be defeated and destroyed to achieve ultimate economic progress?

It needs to be remembered that these are not military threats. A war that is fought with arms and ammunition, against an armed military group, can be won. A military group can be defeated by killing its members, by total annihilation if necessary. But in an economic war, one’s adversary is not necessarily armed; there are no armed military groups. There are only people, unarmed people, and various groups and organizations representing and promoting the interests and concerns of the people. If so, any government which is conducting an economic war would need to engage with the people, their rights and freedoms, their concerns. This is why Sri Lankan politicians should not consider ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’, etc. to be its enemies or enemies of the State. If there is a serious clash between competing norms, such a clash needs to be handled with care, with civility. If not, it would only result in the exacerbation of innumerable political, social and other problems within the State. Approaching any problem with a ‘war mentality’, as the government seems to be doing now, is therefore dangerous.

Religious teachers have on a number of occasions warned us of the dangers of such attitudes and such forms of economic progress. Ven. Bikkhu Bodhi, highlighting the Buddhist approach to economic development, pointed out many years ago that “like moths heading towards a flame our leaders and policy planners still seem drawn towards economic growth as the master solution to the weighty social problems pressing so heavily on their hands.” It was further stated that “the principle that should guide social activity is the rule of cooperation and harmony”, which should be animated by “ethical motivation.” Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith seems to have pointed out recently, in the process of critiquing Western-oriented development policies, the market system and the materialist outlook, that Sri Lanka’s younger generation “should not be led up the path of greed and moral promiscuity in the chase for an economic miracle. Sri Lanka should move on towards a process of national inner empowerment…” He had also stated: “It is a fallacy to think that a little bit of dictatorship is necessary for true progress, what someone calls a benign dictatorship. It must be stated categorically that democracy and dictatorship are not compatible at all.” Therefore it would be wrong for the government to imagine that economic development is the panacea for all problems and because of that, economic development should be achieved at any cost.

Importantly, there is another question: do ‘economic wars’ ever end? Or, is there an end to economic progress and development, once the process begins? There are a number of factors which suggest that it would not. An economic war waged in order to satisfy man’s materialistic desires never ends, since there is no end to human desires. Those politicians who stand to gain by big business deals which are easily drawn up during the time of an economic war would never want that war to end (just like arms dealers, during times of armed conflict). So too is the case with those investors who are mindful of profit, and unmindful of ethical and social considerations. One is certainly being immature in imagining that a country would achieve supreme economic development one fine day, and on that day, it will be able to stop its development activity, take a break, and think about human rights, democracy, and greater social and ethnic cooperation. (Space constraints do not allow these issues to be discussed in detail here)

The government needs to approach the topic of ‘economic development’ in a more balanced and rational manner; since ‘economic development’ whilst being necessary, should be conducted in the correct way. It is therefore hoped that the government gives serious thought, inter alia, to the importance of the peaceful resolution of disputes and clashes that are bound to arise during the long (and unending?) phase of this economic war, for it is clear that there are a number of ‘enemies’ it would need to confront in the future.

[Kalana Senaratne is a post-graduate research student based at the Law Faculty of the University of Hong Kong]