The soul of a people | Daily FT

#GotaGoGama has been a pioneer movement. It has been animated with brilliant resolve. It is easy to be “anti” something, but this movement has been “for” Sri Lanka, for progress, for the future. It is the antithesis of the nihilism we have been living through

Just when you thought we had run out of an inventory of reality averse, magical thinking saturated, self-inflicted body blows to our national wellbeing, there came the tragic actions of last Monday. 

We had mental and moral collapse, the outright insanity of instigating or actually mobilising and paying for thugs, in a concerted national pincer movement (evidenced at least also in Kandy and Galle), to attack innocent protestors holding aloft the patriotism, the hope and the aspirations of a betrayed, bankrupt, besieged nation. 

For all their myopia and perhaps all their lack of practical understanding, this movement was a pure expression of a people’s conviction. It has been a distillation of the wisdom of knowing that certain practices and “leaders” could no longer be countenanced. 

And yet overall, the barricades were manned with cheer, in community, across religious and ethnic lines. People flocked who had never stepped out like this before and discovered their inner fire of determination.

And this was desecrated, by design it seems, by hoods and armed thugs, sent to wreak havoc, while the police stood flaccidly by. And what was the “grand design?” It beggars the imagination. 

In fact, it is the inscrutability of such pervasive and compulsive stupidity that leaves you stupefied. And so the litany of asinine actions that have stockpiled can be painfully catalogued.

Nonsense upon nonsense

The Government cut taxes while the country needed revenue hot on the heels of taking office. 

While having virtually no cases and no ascribed COVID mortality circa March 2020 and no indication of a surge, we had the most restrictive 24/7 curfew “lockdown” for months, costing the economy close to a billion dollars. 

Our fetish for elimination, impossible for an airborne pathogen that has already spread and where animal reservoirs are involved (proven conclusively now by Australia, New Zealand, China past day 55 of its inhuman, useless lockdown in Shanghai), led to every faux “positive test” surge with no national standards for testing, causing panic and having lockdowns inflicted recurringly. 

This meant even more destructive costs were imposed on industries, businesses were decimated, no one could plan, and others took regional leadership from us in various sectors based on being able to offer greater predictability and cost competitiveness.

We went into manic rupee printing to try and address some of this crushing shortfall, preparing the ground for the world’s worst inflation, in an increasingly impoverished country.

We then failed to stimulate exports, did not properly manage imports, opted out of palm oil and then disastrously overnight banned chemical fertilisers, destroying a harvest, livelihoods, undercutting rubber and decimating the tea industry in literally one fell swoop. We ended up importing rice!

As the “brilliance” continued unabated, the private sector was meticulously mum. Its outrage though finally grew in overdue stridence as all the bills started coming due, and as all the portents started ominously stockpiling. 

We held the rupee arbitrarily at 201 since about April 2019 and then in one fell swoop, in a masterpiece of reckless incompetence, let it “float” overnight with no planning, losing 30% of its value virtually and shattering the remnants of the economy.

This after a year of resisting exhortations to manage that in a disciplined way and to go to the IMF and restructure the debt. Or go to the donors and seek to restructure the debt more holistically in addition to the IMF initiatives. 

Had we made the overture six months ago, the liquidity we are desperate for, could be present now, rather than be 3-6 months away. And at the extremity, the IMF “austerity” package will need significant financial cushioning as people simply can’t survive with more “cuts”. 

Taxes will need raising, finally, as we collect among the lowest amount of government revenues in the world, while having one of the most expensive, most inefficient governments in the world. 

We renewed our fascination with mega projects with uncertain pay back, mortgaging national destiny to external investors who will not be impressed by our inability to finish what we start.

Tourism was cobbled by silly Covidian “bubbles” and zones and ridiculously expensive non-value adding PCR tests (with our tame numbers, we should have only gone with treating symptoms, as asymptomatic spread has been revealed over and over to be a phantom, and this is so avidly documented today, it’s not controversial). 

We floundered on this front while Maldivian tourism was flourishing as an example and the rest of Asia, despite tame death stats, was also pouting re letting anyone in. We should have stolen a march on that. 

Anyway, today, tourism is our fastest way back to solvency, but to make sure that can’t help us expeditiously, we ensured we also, via a forex crisis, had a fuel, electricity, food and medicine shortage!

Surely, no one should have to ask you to “go” after such protracted bungling. Surely, you would find an occupation you were better suited for, where planning, problem solving, enrolling talent rather than acolytes, execution, managing costs, serving stakeholders, were not required. The toadying ignoramuses that comprised the Cabinet and advisers revealed themselves to be a national pestilence.

And then, on top of all this, with the world rallying to our support with donations and currency swaps, and deferment of loans, and fresh financing, inspired by the sustained peaceful protests of a people who truly in the words of Les Mis, “will not be slaves again,” rather than leave, they decided to undo the new lease of possibility that was being woven together.

Somehow, this cabal of cronies, thinking mass poverty, business destruction, anarchy, mass migration, blowing up education, were all in a few years’ work (depleting our reserves by 80% while our neighbours used the pandemic to add 30-40% to their own reserves), came up with their “master plan.” 

On the day the PM was to resign (operatic swell of music), goons and thugs and “supporters” (or are they the same?) who suddenly materialised after a month, were summoned, galvanised and sent out across the country to rampage and ravage. And even if they could not have predicted the blowback, what was the best-case scenario?

Attacked by hoodlums, did they think people will “realise” they never wanted freedom after all? Terrified by watching the police stand ineffectually by, they would rally to the Rajapaksas to save them from their own supporters? 

Mesmerised by the callous disdain for life, liberty and the sheer need for national survival being captured on the Galle Face and around the country, people would back off, realising that being plundered, pillaged and victimised by political brigandage is what they really were dreaming of?

In executing any stratagem, you have to ask, “What is the end in mind?” Okay, I pull this off, then what? What’s next? What credible, coherent answer could anyone have possibly contrived with their fingerprints so clearly on the wreckage? 

On the day the PM was to resign, goons and thugs and “supporters” (or are they the same?) who suddenly materialised after a month, were summoned, galvanised and sent out across the country to rampage and ravage. And even if they could not have predicted the blowback, what was the best-case scenario? Attacked by hoodlums, did they think people will “realise” they never wanted freedom after all? Terrified by watching the police stand ineffectually by, they would rally to the Rajapaksas to save them from their own supporters?

Could they in their most fevered moments think that citizens could entrust national progress to that calibre of thinking? Or did they actually believe that they can keep carping about how many votes they got one electorally misguided and disastrous winter two years ago, when people see the absolute calamity, their leadership has been since? 

When you have a failed state, you don’t keep clutching on to some “right” to continue to lead it further into the doghouse. Particularly not a land of cultural riches, impressive human capital, diversity, beloved by so many, geographically well placed, with capabilities and industries it can parlay and leverage – when not led by reality-avoiding, parasitic oafs. 

Of course, the citizenry, and everyone here has to accept accountability in endowing these people with power and being swayed by the nationalistic machismo. But we’re over it, Lanka has gone back to sanity on those fronts, it wants to outgrow that flirtation with a paradigmatic cul-de-sac.

No other report card is possible looking at how others in the region have fared and looking at each of the above “tactics” soberly on their own merits. So, plea remains, leave in peace, or you eventually, sadly, inflame people who you are then insulting and assaulting with your dysfunctional paralysis, until in desperation, they decide to toss civilities and legalities aside. And this must not happen.

Stick to the right road

There has been much quoting of W.H. Auden, and as a commentator for love, justice and human sanity, writing ravishingly, he is hard to quibble with. Here he is speaking of impending human meltdown:

“With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse.

Sing of human unsuccess

In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise”

#GotaGoGama has been a pioneer movement. It has been animated with brilliant resolve. It is easy to be “anti” something, but this movement has been “for” Sri Lanka, for progress, for the future. It is the antithesis of the nihilism we have been living through.

In microcosm, women and men, children, people of all faiths and religions, found common cause. People emoted, people reasoned, they made room for each other, they looked after each other. Members of our corporate team who went to take part, reported being both “inspired” and feeling “safe.” This is a marvellous, bewitching combination. Racial and religious differences were beside the point. It was love of Lanka on display.

The world rallied, also inspired, in awe. Different industries, and celebrities, companies and more, joined in. The Rambukkana shooting incident was responded to by the larger community with great poise and restraint, all expressing remorse and disgust at the tactics. 

Countries around the world expressed solidarity and admiration and insisted people be allowed to protest peacefully and democratically. And amidst whatever private gnashing of teeth and blood pressure spikes, everyone abided. Until just now. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a day that too will go down in infamy, visited some sacred sights, “sanctified” his ego it seems, and some deranged supporters activated plans clearly brewing for days, cued up via the “state of emergency” proclamation. And then after being suitably inflamed by a speech, went marauding.

Police apathy which shrieks in the aftermath helped usher in devastation. Even the glorious makeshift library was not spared. And of course, a curfew was not far behind! But then it unravelled.

Protesters and those that supported them quelled the attackers, and flaunting the curfew, around the country, outpourings of solidarity for the protesters and their movement, unfortunately seething so long now that it could not be contained, came flooding forth.

In the short run everything became toxic. Anger begat anger and we forget the wisdom of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Outbursts happen though, and perhaps the shockwaves of this are akin to reverberations of that famous outcry from the movie Network lo those many moons ago, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” 

That was the chorus. The danger now became if the protests mutated into militancy, anarchy and sheer intemperance, providing the very argument that had been sought for imposing martial control or whatever was being fantasised. 

Of course, the donor community will not permit that, they will not fund a military dictatorship. But then volatility can just continue to implode. 

Here is Martin Luther King reminding us: “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action.” 

And you have to swoon at the moral insight here: “We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.” 

Speaking of “acts,” the continual curfewing, with the likely daily economic tab of roughly Rs. 30 billion, is a playbook we need to quickly get disenchanted by. The Minister of Defence says the public must balance “inconvenience” against “order.” This is an unfortunate and grossly misleading articulation.

It is not “inconvenient” to have already suffering businesses shuttered, stocks becoming outdated, staffing costs mounting, a complete inability to plan. It is not “inconvenient” to have no means to restock food or have no firm commitment of when we will be open. This is “security” every bit as much as taming the fires of outrage after the horrific provocations of 9 May. This is life and livelihood, and only someone in an Ivory Tower would take such a cavalier, dismissive tone with the exigencies of an economy that cannot afford to bleed further.

And then we are told the “Tri-forces can maintain security.” Well, not if they need to keep everyone locked up to do so. You can’t have it both ways. If they can keep us secure, and we trust they can, let the society and the economy function. Impose an overnight curfew if you want. Limit gathering of crowds if you like. Indeed, warn of the consequences of destroying property or harming others. None of this requires a curfew. And if does, don’t congratulate yourself on being able to keep the peace. One day is like another on this front, you have to open, deal with any initial turbulence, and establish a new equilibrium. Clamping down the first day or so after the disgraceful happenings, understood. But now, time to move on.

The President has committed to a Cabinet, seemingly it will be led by Ranil. The 20th Amendment is reconfirmed to be on the chopping block. Can we please get on with it? 

And then into the catechism has entered the phrase “abolish the Executive Presidency.” Why “abolish”? Yes, it is a popular leftist screed, but might we actually have a debate for a change? We debated virtually nothing on COVID management, with ruinous consequences. We have had no debates on our economic blinkers for far too long, and we are in the current quicksand as a result. Just for a change, after defanging the noxious excesses of the current Presidential model, could we actually debate what we need for executive effectiveness, in partnership with Parliament?

Facing reality

Destroying property, crippling our economy further (another nosedive we just can’t afford) so curfews malinger, burning things, terrifying ordinary citizens, or unnerving tourists here or still planning to come – we have to look beyond the moment, and ask which narrative are we seeking to feed?

There are still viable businesses, they want to operate. There are still people visiting us from overseas and they wish to not have their trip completely destroyed, while they have foreign currency we need and advocacy to offer others when they return home. 

And surely, as the IT professionals have, the Aragalaya/Hartal need to more clearly denounce violence as well. They should have been appealing for restraint when the gusher of anger and retribution threatened to overtake the country, potentially depositing us into the bosom of martial law. A glorious legacy does not take long to taint, we have only the French Revolution to consult there. When Kumar Welgama, no friend of the Rajapaksas was attacked, however inadvertently, some public concern or condolence might not be too much to expect? 

Enough of the sideshows. Let’s please welcome that vaunted protection from the police and armed forces. Let’s get that 20th Amendment repealed. Get finances under Parliamentary supervision. Get those BASL ideas flowing, especially get subject matter experts authorised to deploy their expertise urgently on behalf of the nation. 

Stabilise enough so a major tourist drive can be launched. There’s nothing else for this. No more speechifying. Ramp up exports. Get proper fertiliser back. Chalk up progress. Broadcast it, make it visible. Let’s create a Recovery “Scorecard” so we can all keep score and cheer the road back to stability and solvency. 

Contd. on Page 11

(The writer is the founder and CEO of EPL Global and founder of Sensei Lanka, a global consultant with over 30 years strategic leadership experience and now, since March 2020, a globally recognised COVID researcher and commentator.)

Moving on

Utopian fantasies upended become dystopias when we howl in anger too manically at there being no perfect solutions. There aren’t. We have to instead create a step ladder of agreed upon, meaningful milestones, and we follow through to them. 

We are calming down. Religious leaders are more active, providing the balm of their presence. Citizens seem to be better looking after each other, and hopefully quelling outbursts threatening to spin out of control. Yet we can do this, and still be resolute in terms of wanting leaders far more worthy of their representative mantle. 

And certainly, one of the task forces Parliament should establish should address recovery of stolen national assets. There are experts here on the ground with experience in locating and repatriating such funds, and we should put the focus on locating and recovering, not the establishment of ponderous Commissions. 

However, the allegations published by “Anonymous” regarding embezzled wealth requires the appointment of a forensic financial inquiry (with the authority to investigate and issue necessary warrants), which could validate or invalidate such claims. 

Energy needs to be channelled into such clarity; energy has to be channelled to reviving flagging industries. Energy has to be focused on stimulating a tourism drive to move us towards past tourism numbers in Southeast Asia (again, at our peaks, 2 million tourists, 39 million in Thailand and 26 million in Malaysia) with the necessary upgrading of service facilities, service standards and re-imagining the tourist experience at every key “moment of truth.” 

And then we are told the “Tri-forces can maintain security.” Well, not if they need to keep everyone locked up to do so. You can’t have it both ways. If they can keep us secure, and we trust they can, let the society and the economy function. Impose an overnight curfew if you want. Limit gathering of crowds if you like. Indeed, warn of the consequences of destroying property or harming others. None of this requires a curfew. And if does, don’t congratulate yourself on being able to keep the peace. One day is like another on this front, you have to open, deal with any initial turbulence, and establish a new equilibrium. Clamping down the first day or so after the disgraceful happenings, understood. But now, time to move on

That’s where energy and passion need to be dedicated, at anything that gives us a fast, meaningful “ROC” (return on Crisis). This was a metric we recommended and applied in our consulting practice when supporting companies in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. It was critical to sift the essential from the incidental.

End game or rebirth

So the world seems awash in “end games.” COVID theology has fallen apart. Tales abound of people with four jabs catching COVID again, and “mild” Omicron becoming dangerous to hyper-vaxed people. While in countries with lower vax rates, like South Africa, the arrival of Omicron coincided with the collapsing of their Covidian wave, as the ‘natural vaccine’ did its job (high infectiousness, even milder lethality, leading to natural immunity). 

The mask religion has been largely flung away. In Lanka with large crowds with inconstant masking, seven day rolling average of COVID deaths as of 10 May was 0 (after a month of protests). And anyway, the death certificates abound with multiple co-morbidities, so we are anyway scraping the barrel. 

The US and UK have pivoted full throttle to the Ukraine, with the Wall Street Journal suicidally calling on the US to “show it can win a nuclear war.” Really? And what grand global achievement would that be? And by what calculus is that remotely a risk worth running?

What a world we may be in for! As per CJ Hopkins, “apocalyptic (pseudo) pandemic, intramural proxy wars, climate change hysterics, mandatory gene therapy (for your own good), digital currencies (centrally pulling the plug).” Sounds a tad nutty until you see “liberals” cooing over swastika-tattooed self-proclaimed Nazis now renamed “defenders’ and realising we are in serious Orwellian transition. 

Professor Harald Matthes who headed the study I cited in the last article about the serious complications after “vaccinations” against C-19 says, “In light of around half a million cases with serious side effects in Germany, we doctors have to take action.” Glad there’s some threshold for that!

So, in Serendib, we have mercifully more modest, though for our fortunes, equally epic things to grapple with. We need to be an island of stability in the rough oceans of madness globally. We need to be a beacon for our own people, and a place where others can repair for repose and restoration. And if we can stop being self-destructive our appeal will be magnetic. And the investment it will invite will invigorate the fortunes of the people here.

A pipedream? Maybe. But you take on your fears, by seeing through the masquerades of the demons that come calling, by enrolling your better angels. You do it by moving forward, armed. But armed with nothing more than dreams. And together we turn the ignition and convert those into decisive action.