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Saturday December 10th, 2022

Sri Lanka government heading into a perfect storm: Opinion

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is heading for a perfect storm around the end of the year as political and community opposition to the government rises amid looming food and fuel shortages.
Just in the past few days there have been more significant protest campaigns that should worry the government.

Hundreds of Catholics, including many priests and nuns lined the road leading to the Supreme Court on Nov 8 as a petition filed by Rev Cyril Gamini Fernando, a spokesman for the Catholic church calling on the apex court to prevent his arrest by the Criminal Investigation Department was heard. The protestors who were joined by some members of the Buddhist Clergy as well, did not shout slogans or hold placards. Instead, some silently prayed the Rosary.

Fr Cyril Gamini, as he is popularly known, had earned ire of the head of the State Intelligence Service Major General Suresh Salley by raising the question of how the intelligence agencies could have been unaware of the existence of the National Towheed Jamaat and its leader Mohammed Zaharan. He was participating in a webinar along with Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith on Oct 24 hosted by a group of Sri Lankan expatriates based in Australia. This group is among many that have formed overseas by concerned Sri Lankan Catholics calling for justice for the Easter Sunday attacks.

Maj Gen Salley complained that he had been defamed by this comment and called for an investigationalleging that the priest had endangered national security and incited communal disharmony. He could have been charged under the Sri Lankan Law modelled on the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The law has been abused by the Sri Lanka police in prosecuting several people including a Sinhala short story writer in the Kurunegala area and a Tamil language poet from Kattankudy.

Links between the intelligence services and Zaharan have been spoken of before. Prof Rajan Hoole in his book on the Easter Tragedy enumerated the many times Zaharan had been arrested but had been released due to pressure from the Security Forces. Several cabinet ministers have spoken about it and former Army Commander and Samagi Jana Balavegaya MP Sarath Fonseka gave more details in a speech in Parliament.

The Supreme Court ruled in Fr Cyril Gamini’s favor and the Attorney General’s Department pledged that the priest would not be arrested.

The following day saw a mass protest, a raucous parade of several thousand angry people from the Negombo area, a predominantly Catholic region of the island. They were calling for justice for the Easter Sunday attacks as well as protesting a government move to acquire and sell lands around the Negombo lagoon. The lands are within the Muthurajawela wet zone protected under the Ramsar treaty.Many people said they would lose their property if the government goes ahead and acquires their lands. The protest shut down the Negombo urban area and the police did not intervene. The protestors were joined by members of the Catholic clergy from parishes in the area.

The Catholic Church’s demand that the investigations into the Easter attack reveal who was the mastermind behind the blasts that killed some 260 people is gathering strength. The Church has shown it is unstoppable and is willing to fight for answers. Cardinal Ranjith has openly expressed his anger and disappointment against the government for failing to come up with answers to questions his congregationhas raised.

The Cardinal who was seen as leaning towards the Rajapaksas in the past has stood firm with his congregation on this issue. Fr Cyril Gamini is the public face of the protest and has been addressing concerned Catholic groups that are agitating for answers.

In the meantime, many famers’ groups worried about low yields after the government abruptly stopped the import of artificial fertilizer have continued to protest against the government, burning effigies of Agriculture Minister Mahindanda Aluthgamage and staging demonstrations in many areas.

The country’s teachers and Principals are also on the warpath after promised salary revisions were not granted to their protest. In early November teachers and principals in the Mawanella area surrounded a local police station alleging that the police had failed to arrest a governing party local councilor who had assaulted protesting teachers and parents.

And now riding on this wave of anti-government feeling the main opposition SJB wants to organize mass protests led by farmers next week on Nov 16. SJB MP Dr Harsha de Silva was quoted as saying “anyone” can join.

Inside the government the eleven smaller parties in the coalition have been making meek sounds of protest as well. These parties which include the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Wimal Weerawansha’s National Freedom Front and Udaya Gammanpila’s Pivithuru Hela Urumaya have tried to form a caucus within the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna alliance. Although they have had several meetings with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to address their concerns, they are yet to leave the government or appear to reconcile.

The SLFP has been complaining of poor treatment by the leaders of the government and the SLPP General Secretary Sagala Kariyawasam told reporters that the smaller parties could leave the government if they wished to. While most of the dissidents are not raising their voice too high veteran Communist Party Member D E W Gunesekara called the current Cabinet the worst he has ever seen and “a bunch of buffaloes.” He also said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a “scarecrow” using a Sinhala term that can also mean he is without life.

Prime Minister Mahinda, however, seems to be more in touch with the feelings of the SLPP’s constituency. At the party convention held last week he upbraided the SLPP members for not being in touch with constituents. “We have to do politics with the farmers, teachers and others,” he said.

Coming up shortly of course are the Budget proposals. Most Sri Lankans are hoping there will be some relief for them from the rising cost of living and lack of jobs. But Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa has not been promising anything. Most likely the government may go ahead with cutting government pensions and other measures to pull the government out of its financial woes.

With rising protests, embarrassing questions over the Easter Sunday attacksand a perception among the ordinary people that the government is inept, the ingredients are there for a perfect storm.

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Sri Lanka opposition MP sees racist agenda behind behind pro-China demonstration

TNA MP Shanakiya Rasamanickam – Image credit: Facebook

ECONOMYNEXT – A protest held outside the Chinese embassy in Colombo against opposition legislator Shanakiyan Rasamanickam was likely the work of a paid group with little knowledge of Sri Lanka’s crisis and pushing someone else’s racist agenda, the MP said.

Rasamanickam told EconomyNext on Saturday December 10 that the protestors were peddling a familiar narrative of racism.

“These people are clearly on a racist agenda. We know how this agenda plays out and we know who is behind it from before, so it’s not anything new. People can connect the dots and figure out who might be behind this protest,” he said.

The hurriedly put together demonstration seemed to be against Rasamanickam’s controversial warnings of anti-China protests in Sri Lanka over Beijing’s purported reluctance to restructure the crisis-hit island nation’s debt.

A small group of protestors including a number of Buddhist monks had gathered outside the embassy premises on Friday December 09 condemning Rasamanickam’s statement in parliament that people will take to the streets against China in a “go home, China” wave of protests similar to the “go home, Gota” protests that unseated Sri Lanka’s powerful former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“I was actually very happy to see a protest happening against me in Colombo. This is the first time there was a protest held against me,” said Rasamanickam.

I”f you look at the group that were protesting, they are quite unaware of the current economic situation in the island,” he added.

One banner displayed by the pro-China protestors contained the words “let us strongly condemn the ‘Go home China’ statement by separatist Rasamanickam” in Sinhala, though the organisers had been careful to omit the word ‘separatist’ in the English translation of the slogan.

It is unclear at present who was behind the protest, but a placard carried by one of the protestors read “is this going from anti-Gota to anti-China”, indicating the possible involvement of pro-Rajapaksa elements.

“It looked like a paid  group of people who came with no knowledge of the country’s situation and was completely under the agenda of somebody else,” said the MP.

The Batticaloa district lawmaker claimed that some people had offered to organise a counter-protest against the pro-China demonstrators but he declined the offer.

“I refused it because the citizens aren’t silly. They are aware of their surroundings and what is going on, so we need not protest in that way,” he said.

A commotion also ensued at the demonstration when a woman started recording it on her mobile phone, prompting some of the protestors to demand that she leave. Words were exchanged, with the visibly agitated woman yelling at the protestors that they were conspiring to sell Sri Lanka to China.

What triggered the protest was an explosive remark by MP Rasamanickam on December 02 that if China were a true friend of Sri Lanka’s, it would agree to either write off the island nation’s 7.4 billion dollar debt or at least help restructure it.

Nearly a fifth of Sri Lanka’s public external debt is held by China, according to one calculation.

“If China, who has nearly 20,000 billion dollars, is truly Sri Lanka’s friend… offering 9 million litres of diesel or half a million kilos of rice isn’t real help,” said Rasamanickam, speaking in Sinhala.

“I say to China and the Chinese embassy that, as 22 million Sri Lankans irrespective of ethnic or religious differences got together to say ‘Go home, Gota’, don’t push us to a place where we will be saying ‘China, go home’,” he said.

Whatever the agenda behind Friday’s protestors, they are not alone in their opposition to Rasamanickam’s strong words against China. Main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Harsha de Silva was strongly critical of the statement, insisting that Sri Lanka cooperate with all countries.

Rasamanickam told EconomyNext that his words were misrepresented.

“What I said was ex President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t listen to the voices of the people and people ended up saying ‘Gota Go Home’ and if the Chinese fail to address the issues and act in the interest of the Sri Lankan community, naturally people will start opposing them also. If that happens, I simply said that I will support them because for us our country and our people are the priority,” he said, adding that his speech had raised awareness among the public of the situation.

The MP has been raising his voice in parliament and elsewhere in recent days over what he claims is a hesitance on the part of China to assist in Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring efforts. The 2.9 billion dollar extended fund facility (EFF) that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has offered to extend to the island nation is contingent upon the successful restructure of this outstanding in addition some stringent reforms that experts say are long overdue.

Colombo has been vague at best on the status of ongoing restructure talks with Sri Lanka’s creditors, and opposition lawmakers and others have expressed concern over what seems to be a worrying delay. Rasamanickam and others have claimed that China, Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral creditor, is the reason for the apparent standstill.

Meanwhile, IMF Chief Kristalina Georgieva has called on China to speed up restructuring of debt in Sri Lanka and Zambia following a meeting with the leaders of the country.

“We had a very fruitful exchange, both on the G20 Common Framework and on some specific cases,” she said in a statement after the meeting.

“We need to build on the momentum of the agreement on Chad’s debt treatment and accelerate and finalize the debt treatments for Zambia and Sri Lanka, which would allow for disbursements from the IMF and multilateral development banks,” she said. (Colombo/Dec10/2022)

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IMF chief calls on China to speed up Sri Lanka, Zambia debt overhaul

ECONOMYYNEXT- International Monetary Fund Chief Kristalina Georgieva has called on China to speed up restructuring of debt in Sri Lanka and Zambia following a meeting with the leaders of the country.

“We had a very fruitful exchange, both on the G20 Common Framework and on some specific cases,” she said in a statement after the meeting.

“We need to build on the momentum of the agreement on Chad’s debt treatment and accelerate and finalize the debt treatments for Zambia and Sri Lanka, which would allow for disbursements from the IMF and multilateral development banks.”

Sri Lanka is discussions with the Export Import Bank of China as the lead lender to the island, State Minister Shehan Semasinghe told parliament.

China has informed Sri Lanka that they will also hold bilateral discussions with the IMF and World Bank he said.

China has been asking questions from Sri Lanka and lenders were trying to assess the impact on credits to other countries as well as the domestic economy, he said.

China is a top lender to Sri Lanka along with Japan, the Asian Development Bank and Japan.

Some of China’s infrastructure loans have also been questioned for lack of proper feasibility, though a coal plant is generally acknowledged to be best investment the country has made since the 1980s and is enough to cover many since.

But China gave several so-called ‘cover up loans’ to Sri Lanka which was not linked to infrastructure or economic reforms when the country ran into forex shortages under ‘flexible inflation targeting/output gap targeting’ compounding borrowings from sovereign bond investors.

Sri Lanka calls such monetary instability linked borrowings ‘bridging finance’.

The World Bank and Asian Development Bank or Japan does not give such ‘bridging finance’ or budget support loans without reforms to expand economic activities.

Sri Lanka central government net debt (after deducting foreign reserves) which was 17 billion US dollars after almost 65 years of foreign borrowings shot up to 32 billion US dollars over 7 years of extreme monetary instability. Meanwhile foreign reserves became negative.

Resorting foreign borrowings to meet foreign repayments comes from a Mercantilist fallacy known as the ‘transfer problem’, analysts have said.


Sri Lanka debt crisis trapped in spurious Keynesian ‘transfer problem’ and MMT: Bellwether

Policy makers believe that a current account surplus is magically required to make foreign repayments and not higher interest rates to curtail domestic investments and consumption which make resources available to meet such payments which will in turn reduce the imports and any current account deficit. (Colombo/Dec10/2022)

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Sri Lanka has excess rice amid malnutrition: President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is to harvest a good rice harvest in the upcoming main (Maha) cultivation season but paddy stocks from two previous seasons are still with farmers and collectors, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said.

“I see now that we will get a good harvest in the Maha season,” President Ranil Wickremesinghe told parliament.

“That is also a problem, because we have some leftover rice stocks from the recent Yala (minor) season and the previous Maha season.”

“Now there can be situation of excess rice, we have to protect the farmers. On the other had we will have food to reduce malnutrition.”

Sri Lanka’s rice farmers do not grow and internationally traded grade of rice and bumper harvests do not lead to export booms but calls for trade restrictions on the hungry and helpless to ‘protect’ their incomes.

Rough rice (paddy) prices have fallen to around 80 rupees a kilogram, from over 120 rupees at the height of the crisis earlier in the year when large volumes of money was injected to the banking system to sterilize interventions and pay state workers.

Food Price Crisis

Though supplies are coming back to normal, because soft-pegging macro-economists destroyed the rupee from 200 to 360 to the US dollar by printing money for two years to keep interest rates down, prices are double before from the liquidity injections or ‘stimulus’ started.

The malnutrition is coming from monetary instability involving the collapse of the anchor-conflicting ‘flexible exchange rate and not a problem in the real economy as excess food supplies show.

Related Impoverished Sri Lankans are selling assets, eating less: WFP

Sri Lanka’s chicken farmers are also looking for export opportunities.

Related Sri Lanka chicken farmers eye exports as domestic prices drop

Sri Lanka is now in the worst the worst currency crisis triggered it the history of its intermediate regime (flexible exchange rate) central bank.

With salaries not keeping pace, incomes many sectors, mostly salaried workers including daily wage earners are too low to afford food whether or not they are plentiful, leading to malnutrition especially of the children of poor families.

The phenomenon has a been a recurring problem in the country after the soft-pegged central bank was set up 72 years ago.

Before 1980, when depreciation became fashionable in Washington policy making circles (now called a flexible exchange rate and BBC policy at that time), import controls were the main threat to food supplies, not soaring prices and lagging wages.

Food Trade Controls

In the 2022 currency crisis soft-pegging macro-economist in a mistaken strategy then banned ‘open account imports’ threatening food supplies ranging from lentils to onions and sugar to wheat that usually come from South Asia and Dubai, driving up prices.

But Wickremesinghe then opened account imports, preventing a real food crisis from taking place, allowing money flowing through traditional gross settlement systems (Undiyal/Hawala) to be easily prioritized for food.


Sri Lanka can trigger food shortages as in medicines with new trade controls

Sri Lanka food importers seek exemption from open account trade ban

Sri Lanka removes ban on open account food imports

Food imports in Sri Lanka are only around 100 to 150 million dollars a month which is about third of monthly worker remittances and about 10 percent of total exports.

However the central bank under Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe took the required action to liberalize rates allowing credit to slow and stabilize the external sector.

The government also raised energy prices to keep in line with flexible exchange rate collapse (also a recurring phenomenon) and raised taxes to reduce domestic credit (also recurring action).

President Wickremesinghe and his advisors focused their efforts on getting loans from foreign lenders to buy fertilizer for farmers after he took over as Prime Minister and later President.

Fertilizer supplies are important in a currency crisis not just to produce food as normal but the construction sector usually has to be smashed to stop balance of payments deficits and to stop the rupee from falling further.

When rural workers engaged in construction return home to farming areas availability of fertilizer will help them keep in employment.

Open Market Injections

Construction and other sectors undergo an artificial boom when a soft-pegging central bank suppresses rates with its open market operations and sells downs reserves when the currency peg comes under pressure.

Selling reserves and printing money through open market operations to stop rates going up – an action called ‘sterilized intervention’ – effectively injects what classical economists called ‘fictitious capital’ into banks and artificially pushing up credit and imports further by effectively re-financing private sector activities with central bank credit.

The new money to sterilize interventions over-extending a credit cycle and encourages more imports.

In the current crisis Sri Lanka’s Consumer Affairs Authority, by imposing price controls, disrupted sectors like poultry sector and created black markets.

President Wickremesinghe has so far not taken any actions to abolish the CAA or its price controlling powers which goes against his ‘social market economy’ strategy. (Colombo/Dec09/2022)

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