Kath Noble

Getting Sri Lanka to work

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on May 15, 2013

Why the Government must find a better solution to the country’s unemployment and foreign exchange problems than sending hundreds of thousands of its people overseas 

Rizana NafeekJust when sanity seemed to be prevailing over the Bodu Bala Sena, following the various vigils, rallies and protests that have been organised in the last month, the Government found yet another imaginative way to agitate people – it had Azath Salley arrested. Apparently, the Police are so busy scouring the pages of limited circulation magazines in other countries for potentially disturbing statements by Sri Lankan Muslim politicians that they don’t have time to listen to the bilge that some Buddhist monks are repeating at full volume on a daily basis on the streets of Colombo.

Fortunately, Mahinda Rajapaksa was in a good mood on Friday and Salley was released.

Salley says that he was misquoted. He asserts that he would never advocate or support the taking up of arms against the State since he is all too aware of the consequences, Sri Lanka having only just come out of its three decade long war. Very wise.

Meanwhile, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has proclaimed that there was more to it than an interview – we await his efforts to prove as much beyond our absolutely reasonable doubts.

When people are not so agitated, they focus on their immediate problems.

The electricity tariff hike was enough of a shock to generate a reaction, and the strike planned for next week should give us an indication of how much trouble the cost of living is going to be for the Government.

But what of other issues?

I was bemused the other day to read an article by a prominent economist suggesting that there was no shortage of jobs in the country. He was arguing that the Government might soon have to ban migration, on the basis that the Sri Lankan economy is near full employment. He was concerned about the implications of such a decision on the Balance of Payments, since remittances from workers overseas are the most important source of foreign exchange for the country.

Of course the Government couldn’t ban migration even if it tried. People would continue to leave the country with or without its blessing.

Why? Because they aren’t satisfied with the employment opportunities at home.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the unemployment rate in Sri Lanka was over 15%. In the 1990s, it was over 10%. Now it is under 5%. However, the most important reason for this ‘improvement’ is the departure of hundreds of thousands of people. In 1990, only 50,000 people left the country for work. Now the figure is 280,000.

The 1.8 million workers currently overseas correspond to 22% of people employed in Sri Lanka. Every year, more people migrate for work than enter the labour market.

If this were to stop, the country would be firmly in the grip of unemployment again.

The Government no doubt understands this very well indeed, and I am quite sure that it has no intention of banning migration. That would lead to a serious increase in dissatisfaction, especially among young people, which the Government knows is dangerous.

But not doing something unhelpful is not the same as doing something helpful. Where are its plans to generate decent jobs at home?

At the moment, the Government’s idea of job creation is maintaining an unnecessarily large military and periodically recruiting unemployed graduates to do anything and everything – or most likely nothing at all – in the public service. Keeping people in non-jobs may be good for them and good for the country in some ways, in the sense that they are less likely to get involved in any more uprisings if they are employed by the State, and they will probably spend their salaries on goods and services produced at least in part in Sri Lanka, but this is not good for the country in other ways. While non-jobs occupy so many people, the economy simply cannot reach full employment.

And the country’s development suffers.

While the reconstruction of the conflict areas has generated a certain amount of employment, this won’t last. And it is clear that the Government’s plans don’t go beyond the building of infrastructure to considering how people in the North and East will actually use it to make a living.

What happens if Sri Lankan refugees come home? That’s another hundred thousand people in Tamil Nadu alone.

The Government doesn’t need to recruit them, but it should ensure that they will be able to work.

In the Vanni, the only businesses that seem to be growing at anything like the required rate are banks, which primarily exist to channel remittances from migrants.

Very few people would go overseas to work if there were satisfactory alternatives. The difficulties that migrants face are well known. Even more importantly, everybody understands that families do better when they are together. Tragedies like the execution of Rizana Nafeek have pushed the Government to introduce more checks and balances in the recruitment process, raising the minimum age for migration – especially for women – and to negotiate agreements with receiving countries that try to guarantee better working conditions. However, while these steps are clearly necessary, they are nowhere near sufficient. Most people would rather the Government made it possible for them to live at home.

Although the Government may think that it can safely ignore this issue, since Sri Lankans are now used to the idea of travelling thousands of miles if they want to earn a reasonable income, doing so is putting the country in a vulnerable position.

In 2009, remittances became the single most important source of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka, overtaking exports of textiles and garments. Now textiles and garments exports earn only $4.0 billion compared to $6.0 billion in remittances, with exports of tea accounting for a mere $ 1.4 billion and tourism receipts amounting to just $ 1.0 billion.

Banning migration is not on the Government’s agenda. But what if it were adopted as an objective by receiving countries?

The Indian press has been full of such concerns in the last month, following the implementation by Saudi Arabia of stricter laws on what it calls ‘Saudisation’. Passed in response to the Arab Spring, which made the authorities in Middle Eastern countries think a bit harder about the well-being of their people, they require all companies to employ a minimum percentage of their citizens, as well as to pay them a fairly substantial minimum wage – exemptions for companies with under ten employees have been removed. Also, a new system that may do better at ensuring compliance has been established.

Kerala expects to be badly hit, with an unusually large share of its population working abroad, and its Chief Minister is already talking about establishing a rehabilitation package.

This is probably an overreaction, but at least they are aware that they are exposed.

With 2.3 million workers abroad out of a population of just 33.4 million, Kerala’s numbers are similar to Sri Lanka, except that it has the rest of India to back it up if required.

Although keeping people’s minds off such problems is no doubt awfully time consuming, it would be nice if Mahinda Rajapaksa could spare one or two members of his administration to come up with a few solutions.

However, the rest of his followers will have to intensify their search for the next Azath Salley. The way things are going in Sri Lanka, the Government is going to need to create a lot more demons if it is to continue distracting people, since every distraction is a reminder of just how far off the right track it has swerved. And each demon has to be more extraordinary than the last. Only a few months ago, people were thinking that it couldn’t get much worse than the absolutely reckless impeachment of the Chief Justice, and then along came the Bodu Bala Sena.

This article was published in The Island on 15th May 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Letting the extremists in again

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 16, 2013

On the Government’s responsibility to reduce intercommunal tensions and prevent violence

bodu bala senaThe execution of migrant worker Rizana Nafeek in Saudi Arabia touched the hearts of people around the world. That a girl of 17, left to care for a baby, in addition to being charged with the supervision of the other children of the household, plus the cooking and cleaning, should be punished – let alone beheaded – for what could well have been an accident, was appalling.

Equally distressing was the careless attitude of the Government. Appeals were made to the king, but it was negotiations with the family on blood money that were needed. Were they even attempted? And how is it that diplomats were so little in touch with her case that a minister claimed in a statement made after her death that she would be released very soon? The extra time that she got as a result of her appeal was due to the efforts of the Asian Human Rights Commission, an NGO based in Singapore, which raised the funds to pay for a lawyer. Would she have been convicted if the embassy had provided her with legal assistance as soon as she was arrested?

These questions have to be answered. While the remittances of workers in the Middle East are so important to the Sri Lankan economy, the Government must have the capacity to deal with the problems that they will inevitably encounter.

However, there is an even more important and pressing job to be done at home, in tackling communalism.

Sri Lanka is fortunate that Rizana was a Muslim.

These days, Sinhalese extremists are so keen to advance their campaign against Muslims that the execution of a Buddhist in a Muslim country would have become yet another of their ‘grievances’. They would have been out on the streets protesting, perhaps even burning an effigy of the Prophet Mohammed. There would have been posters and emails and a whole lot of ugly words.

It wouldn’t have mattered that Muslim countries consistently back the Government on matters equally close to their hearts, with regard to Tamils.

This is part of Sri Lanka’s post-war mess.

In the last year or so, these people have been increasingly active. We have seen the emergence of several very unpleasant websites, in Sinhala and English, dedicated to vilifying Muslims. And they are constantly on the look-out for new ways to draw the majority into their communalism. Recently, they have been talking about the ‘tax’ Sinhalese have to pay towards the construction of mosques as a result of the money some businesses spend on halal certificates, with absolutely no concern for the fact that the funds are likely used only to administer the system and that this is anyway an incidental cost for manufacturers, and one that they only bother to pay if they feel that they can sell enough of their products to the mere 9% of the Sri Lankan population that are Muslims. In other words, it is a non-issue.

But extremists are never ones to let facts get in the way of their preconceived notions. They are now urging Sinhalese to boycott shops and companies owned by Muslims, in an attempt to establish some kind of commercial apartheid.

More seriously, there have also been attacks on Muslim shrines and mosques, notably in Anuradhapura in June 2011 and in Dambulla in April 2012.

There was a time not long ago when the JHU was the vanguard of Sinhalese extremism. Its leaders were the ones who talked of sending Muslims ‘back’ to Saudi Arabia and other such nonsense.

But it would seem that something changed with the party’s success in the 2004 elections, when it secured nine seats in Parliament under Chandrika Kumaratunga, subsequently entering into an alliance with the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The need to interact in even a very flawed democratic framework had an impact, if not on the views of its leaders then on their understanding of what can be done about them in a country like Sri Lanka, and some of the least moderate of the JHU’s members broke away.

Groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya came up.

The Ven Akmeemana Dayaratne, who leads the Sinhala Ravaya, inadvertently became one of the JHU’s MPs in 2004, as the fourth man on its list in the Colombo district, when the party forced the third man to resign his seat on discovering that he had become a bit too attached to the SLFP. The leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, the Ven Galagodatthe Gnanasara Thero, was also in the JHU at that time.

No doubt the slight moderation of the JHU was not their only motivation for moving away from the party. They seem to be at least as interested in boosting their own profiles, in particular in competition with the Ven Athuraliye Rathana Thero, whose humble beginnings in a tiny temple (actually a converted house) in Matara would not be easily accepted by monks from the orthodox Siyam Nikaya with thousands of acres vested in their temples by the kings of yore.

Having broken away, they need to show their strength. Yet their supporters are actually very few in number.

That is what the Anuradhapura and Dambulla attacks were about.

The monks who led the mobs on those occasions were making a point. They wanted to chase Muslims away, but with as many people watching as possible, since their objective was to demonstrate to Sinhalese that they are the people who can deliver.

What is crucial to note is that the Government encourages this behaviour.

Violence shouldn’t bring the perpetrators anything other than prosecution and imprisonment, but nowadays it is the easy way to get what you want.

In Dambulla, the Ven Inamulawe Sri Sumangala Thero could have negotiated the relocation of the mosque away from the sacred area. The temple has plenty of land to offer, and Muslims were not implacably opposed to moving. Yet that would have required discussions that could have gone on for weeks. He got what he wanted within a matter of hours when he stormed the mosque, ably supported by the Sinhala Ravaya. The Prime Minister declared that the mosque was illegal and would be removed forthwith. (Fortunately his enthusiasm to reward the mob did not endure – it is reported that more reasonable leaders subsequently managed to resolve the matter amicably.)

The Government is now doing exactly the same thing in response to protests about the Law College Entrance Exam.

Various people questioned the results when they were announced last month. According to news reports, while in almost every year until 2010 less than ten Muslims qualified, in 2011 the number was 51 and in 2012 it was 78. The three toppers were Muslims, as were 28 of the first 50. This naturally raised suspicions, since it was in 2010 that Rauff Hakeem took over as the Minister of Justice. It was alleged that he was involved in leaking the question paper, using Muslims who serve as English-Tamil translators. Equally naturally, Rauff Hakeem denied it, saying that responsibility for admissions to the Law College lies with the Council for Legal Education rather than with his Ministry, while the Entrance Exam is conducted by the Department of Examinations, but it is hardly surprising that this did not dispel all doubts.

Politicians regularly interfere in such matters, so there was no need to treat it as a communal issue. The only special feature of this scandal, if the allegations are proven, is that it was uncovered because those involved belonged to just one community.

What was needed was a credible investigation.

But although the Government immediately took action when a leak was alleged in the O Level, resulting in the arrest of five people, including a tuition master and an official from the Department of Examinations, it ignored the Law College Entrance case. This is despite the fact that unlike the O Level, the Law College Entrance is a competitive examination, meaning that one person’s success necessarily means the failure of another, which makes it a much more controversial issue.

It was only when the Bodu Bala Sena stormed the Law College that anything was done. The Principal immediately decided to suspend registrations.

People thus got the message that it pays to be violent.

Even more important is the space that this kind of response opens up for extremists.

As things stand, the vast majority of Sinhalese are not at all interested in the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya, or indeed in the JHU. They are content to live peacefully with Muslims, and they have no intention of acting on any prejudices they may have developed. They don’t read the disgusting websites that such people maintain, and they have not been roused by the shouting about halal certificates and other such red herrings. They are not stupid.

But their common sense cannot be taken as given forever.

The relationship between Sinhalese and Muslims is far more sensitive than the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils, due to the more obvious cultural differences.

Having just concluded a generation long conflict, the Government should understand the danger.

The Government has a tremendous responsibility to stop the further growth of Sinhalese extremism, yet it actively helps in the creation of ‘grievances’, and it consistently allows communalists to do as they please, even when this includes violence.

Sri Lanka is fortunate that there are as yet no comparable groups among Muslims.

When Rizana Nafeek was executed, they could also have taken it as a reason to protest against Sinhalese. They could have argued that the Government didn’t bother with her precisely because she was a Muslim, while it is an administration that is interested only in Buddhists. They would have been wrong, but there is no reason to expect one set of extremists to be smarter than any other.

The sad truth is that the girl died because she was poor.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 16th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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