Sri Lankan politicians from all parties are prone to a common malady: shooting from the hip. They rarely stop to think the consequences of such actions on society, to the economy and the country at large.
All politicians, be they from the ruling party or the opposition, are guilty of this at some point or other in recent years. This is most often seen in parliament where the behaviour of members is generally sans decorum or dignity.
Many are the times verbal diarrhoea and shouting matches have taken place while students, mostly from the outstations, watch in awe from the galleries, in a visit aimed to see how parliament is conducted and the dignity of such an 'August assembly'. 'August' or veneration is the last thing this place portrays for Sri Lankan society today.
That's one of the reasons why a Parliamentary Committee was recently set up to recommend measures for the 'maintenance of propriety, discipline, traditions, and security of parliament' in which public representation has been called for. The public has a lot to say about today's politicians and much of the proposals won't certainly be to their liking: In essence, society demands that parliamentarians keep their 'mouths' shut if they have nothing to say rather than mouth expletives and the Speaker repeatedly cautioning members or directing that the uncouth or defamatory remarks be struck off the Hansard (and media reporting).
In recent times, those guilty of shooting from the hip have been government ministers Mervyn Silva, Wimal Weerawansa, Bandula Gunawardene and Mahinda Samarasinghe. Samarasinghe's announcement that India promised to oppose the US-backed resolution at the UN Human Rights discourse in Geneva, made a week before the event, eventually was to Sri Lanka's disadvantage. Even if it was a fact, rather than keep it a secret, disclosure of one's voting plans boomeranged on Sri Lanka with India - pressurised by the southern Indian, pro-Tamil lobby - changing tact and supporting the resolution.
It was a typical 'shoot from the hip' comment aimed at showing who Sri Lanka's friends are, but alas worked against the country; poor strategy. Other statements from Mervyn Silva ('I will break unpatriotic journalists' bones"), Bandula ("a family of three can live on Rs 7,500 per month") and Wimal ("boycott US goods") are also working to the government and Sri Lanka's disadvantage. Furthermore to justify their claims (when challeged by the media), these politicians press ahead with more statements.
This week, Bandula's challenge saying he is prepared for a debate to prove his 'Rs 7,500 per month for a family of three' theory has been accepted by at least two opposition politicians. In last week's Business Times poll on Bandula's claim, one respondent wryly commented; "we should not take too seriously these idiotic comments by government ministers.These are just sideshows to distract attention from the real issues."
It was a reflection of the times where the public views with contempt and cynicism modern day politicians. Anger against the US is not going to do Sri Lanka any good and Wimal's call for a boycott of US goods is doing more harm than anything else. In the first place, the US is least concerned for the simple reason that the margin of exports to Sri Lanka is minimal compared to billions of rupees worth of goods particularly garments sold there. In fact, visiting US trade official Michael Delaney told a seminar in Colombo this week that the US was Sri Lanka's biggest employer and that exports could increase further if 'the right policies are in place'. It is in this context that the stony silence by the Central Bank Governor Ajit Nivard Cabraal and other officials on the prospects of tomorrow's board meeting (see story on previous page) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to consider the report of a recent fund review mission on the $2.6 billion loan, is probably a good thing. While the media is looking for that 'hot' story, Sri Lanka's external reserves position might be better placed in the 'silence is golden' strategy being adopted prior to the meeting. Cabraal is one of the most outspoken officials - often speaking and defending the government and its economic policies - and drawing criticism from economists particularly opposition parliamentarian Harsha de Silva.
This time however, Cabraal has refused comment on the meeting and Sri Lanka's stand on whether or not it has requested the balance US$800 million tranche which (if given) is at a higher interest rate. On previous occasions, Cabraal has freely expressed his views ahead of such meetings.
The Governor has gone on record in the past (a few months back when the IMF mission was in Sri Lanka) as saying that while there is no immediate need for further assistance, a 'whether or not to request the balance money" decision would be made closer to the meeting of the fund's board of governors. The Central Bank says US dollar reserves are not under threat and have stabilized because of the Bank's withdrawal from market intervention rather than using up reserves to prop up the Rupee. However any additional foreign inflows (at still lower than the commercial market interest rates) would be a welcome addition to the country's coffers at a time when a major economic crisis is brewing and state revenue is far below expenditure.