There are still a few common fears floating around Colombo. They are that the country will return to war, that the economy will collapse, and that we will descend into a totalitarian dictatorship soon. These are the traditional rallying cries of the disenfranchised elite, but I think they simply don’t apply any more. These fears are unfounded.
Will Sri Lanka Return To War?
No. People have waited almost two years to see if the war would reemerge, and it hasn’t. Why not? For one thing, the numbers simply aren’t there for more insurrections. In the 1980s there was a significant youth bulge, with the majority of the country being under 35. Today’s demographics are much more balanced. The classic recipe for revolution is young people, unemployment, and oppressive governance. Sri Lanka simply doesn’t have the ingredients to bake that cake.
Also, in the 70s and 80s start-up insurrections could take on the unprepared military and police. The military today is much larger, more sophisticated and experienced and, thankfully, violent insurrection is not something a few kids with stolen pistols can launch.
There is also the fact that violent revolution (unless backed by NATO) is generally out of international fashion, and terrorism is the political equivalent of bell-bottom jeans. Sri Lanka could return to non-violent resistance, but outright war seems out of the question.
Will The Economy Collapse?
People still say that Sri Lanka is turning into Zimbabwe. This simply untrue. Sri Lanka is a rapidly growing economy, and visibly so. Zimbabwe and other basket cases are at best not moving and at worse regressing through insane inflation and oppression. The Sri Lankan economy is not going to crash anytime soon, though corruption and inefficiency will take their toll in 20-30 years.
While the Sri Lankan government is not building or borrowing optimally, there is such fertile soil after 30 years of neglect that even bad ideas can fly. People are starting new businesses, expanding old ones and better road networks and general stability are extending opportunity all over the island.
At the same time, the government is doing massive development work and – albatrosses like the Hambantota Port aside – much of it is simply dusting off old plans that were developed under multiple governments. The Southern Expressway was planned in the 80s and 90s and current plans for developing Colombo and outstation span governments and are generally reasonable. There is enough low-hanging fruit that we can all eat for at least a decade without stressing that hard.
It is vital not to forget how bad the war times were and how unpredictable that future was. Today’s economic climate, while not as good as it could be, is certainly better than it was. This is the general definition of growth, and it looks set to continue for years.
Will We Turn Into A Dictatorship?
To call Mahinda Rajapaksa a dictator is an insult, not a statement of fact. He is an autocratic and strong-willed ruler, but he remains popularly elected, atop a diverse Parliamentary coalition, and generally dependent on public support. Sri Lanka has seen worse repression in the Bandaranaike, Jayawardena and Premadasa times and still emerged intact.
The operative definition of dictator is someone like Syria’s Assad, Egypt’s Mubarak or Libya’s Gaddafi – someone destructive, unpopular and dependent on an elite to repress the majority. This simply isn’t Mahinda Rajapaksa at all. He’s not a deeply democratic or enlightened leader, but he is productive, popular and has wide support. While Sri Lanka is not an especially free country, the levels of repression are not even on the same scale as traditional dictatorships.
Are things getting worse? People have been saying that things are getting worse for sixty years. It simply hasn’t happened. Sri Lankan people may not vote for great leaders, but we get the leadership that we vote for. Sri Lankans still use protest for strategic ends (protecting pensions, not using vegetable crates) and Mahinda still depends on popular support more than repression for his power. It’s not a dictatorship and it’s not trending that way. People have been crying wolf for years, but the government is really just a dog.
So, is the world going to end in 2012? No. The more extreme claims – return to war, economic crash, dictatorship – are, I think, false. There are, however, more nuanced problems on the horizon. Petty thuggery in government has already sullied our elections and now tourism. Corruption and waste makes growth less than it could be and has long-term costs. A general erosion of rule-of-law (from the top) makes life difficult for average Sri Lankans and in turn engenders a rise in thuggishness and corruption. Furthermore, all infrastructure investments will come to naught if they’re not matched by equal attention to education and health.
These are all real problems, perhaps worth changing the government over. Due to a limp opposition this is hardly an option, but it remains a possibility that doesn’t require war, collapse or insurrection to achieve. Change is possible within this political system, but catching and giving shots to this dog of a government is still harder than sitting on top of a hill, crying wolf all day.