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Praise be to the IMF and its hangers-on

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Suspend disbelief as much as you like—and often as you like, as some would say—but you are not going to overcome this shocking piece of news from our Resplendent Isle, thanks to that great saviour of poor nations and mankind, officially known as the IMF.

It came to me via an Old Thomian network; fortunately, days before that House of Miracles at Diyawanna Oya rushed through another piece of obnoxious legislation while pandemonium reigned, even if it did not pour, as happens more often than not.

But first to the comedy of errors in what some see as the house of horrors.

The legislation was called the Online Safety Bill. Though ostensibly it was intended to safeguard women and children, among others, from the abuse and misuse of social media and other forms of electronic communication, the vast array of its critics thought otherwise.

They saw it as a concrete barrier of legal protection against criticism, castigation and exposure of governments and politicians seen as responsible for abuse of power and unpardonable corruption.

What caused the parliamentary uproar and government MPs to form an arc in front of the leader of the house, Susil Premajayantha, as he read out the amended bill while opposition benches shouted him down?

They argued, credibly, that the determinations of the Supreme Court had been brushed aside and the 13 amendments did not comply with what the apex court had determined.

While the Supreme Court, which had earlier found 31 clauses of the original bill were against the constitution, was now having several of its determinations upended—and this is not the first such determinations to have been ignored by a recalcitrant government—there was irony manifesting itself thousands of kilometres away at the world-renowned Cambridge University.

Addressing a gathering of about 40 students of the Cambridge Union, Foreign Minister M.U.M. Ali Sabry appeared to pay tribute to colonial Britain’s legacy that brought “us democracy, which we enjoy today, the rule of law, an independent judiciary which is vibrant, and infrastructure and a robust civil service.”

Minister Ali Sabry was lucky that he was speaking to a handful of students who seemed to know little or nothing of the current situation in Sri Lanka. Had it been the more vocal and better-informed Oxford Union that has virtually torn apart far more educated and articulate British and foreign politicians than the foreign minister, he would have been subjected to a grilling he would have remembered a lifetime.

How can he unleash this crap about a democracy which “we” enjoy today without pausing a moment to say who presents that plural because all opinion polls and assessments by commentators and researchers indicate that this government, which has denied the democratic right of elections, is scraping the bottom of the popularity barrel, just as his client and boss Gotabaya did with the foreign reserves?

And while he was speaking to an uninformed or uninterested student group probably pressed-ganged into attending, the very independence of the judiciary was being nullified by a government whose commitment to the rule of law, which Ali Sabry says we inherited, is now as illusory as its Washington messiah’s interest in the wellbeing of the Sri Lankan people.

This brings us to the Pièce de résistance of the IMF and its local incense-burners’ attempts to revive the country’s economy, which had been sunk to its lowest depths by some of the very people who have reappeared like a resurrected Lazarus before an aggrieved and disgruntled population ready to undo the damage they collectively did over the years.

To do so, they have sought the help of one of Washington’s terrible twins, as though its past economic revivals in other parts of the Global South have been dry-cleaned and forgotten.

A brand new year had dawned five days earlier, and Sri Lanka’s half-starved population waited with bated breath for Independence Day one month ahead to be told what great future awaits the people—after all, it is also election time when the government releases its multiple Santa Claus with goodies such as new taxes.

An old Thomian from my alma mater who was staying at a hotel in Beruwela walked into the lounge after what I suppose was a tiring day, sat down and ordered a fresh orange juice. The drink arrived, and he sipped it and was almost ready to leave when the bill arrived.

The date and time can be conspicuously seen on the bill. It is 06.01.2024 and the time 16.16. But what caused the shock, which might have required urgent medical attention otherwise, was his Thomian grit.

This is how the bill read:

Article                 Price     Value

1 Fresh Orange Juice          4,565                                                       4,565.00

Item Total                              4,565.00

Service Charge                     456.50

Tax                                         1,055.80

Total Bill                               6,075.00

Just imagine if the guest had to pay a medical bill after the first look at the bill, particularly if the medicines had been imported during Minister Keheliya Rambukwella’s incumbency. He would have to ask for a personal bailout package from the IMF, given today’s rates.

By the way, does one detect some faulty additions in that bill? Maybe the IMF had tampered with it, given its monumental cost to developing countries after it had laid its hands on their economies.

The day before I sat down to write this, I was at my medical surgery for a couple of blood tests the doctor had ordered. One of the receptionists told me she was going to Sri Lanka on holiday in March.

I was halfway to asking her not to order orange juice but managed to apply the verbal brakes in time.

At these prices, thanks to the IMF’s conditionalities and other economic baloney the Harvard-Cambridge combines made the IMF follow in its early days, the next aragalaya is likely to be launched by tourists, with their favoured broccoli selling at Rs 7,000 a kilo when I last heard of the price and vegetarians being forced to turn into committed carnivores.

The other day, a relative of mine asked one of our relatives back in Colombo whether to send them a couple of boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates through a visiting friend so that his kids could have something different.

Oh no, came the answer, which surprised my relative. For a moment, he thought the man at the other end had been converted permanently into Sri Lankan-manufactured chocolates after President Ranil Wickremesinghe turned advertising agent and launched a sales campaign asking the world to buy the Sri Lankan-made chocolates.

Our man back home was more circumspect and surely a better economist than some of those neoliberals in Colombo. He wanted the Ferrero boxes emptied, the chocolates replaced with onions, and brought along.

As might have been noticed, the IMF is not satisfied with the amount of incoming revenue. Like Oliver Twist, they want more.

But why do they not ask the government to tax those casino owners, alcohol manufacturers, sugar, garlic and other scam operators to cough up the unpaid taxes instead of imposing enhanced taxes on the whole populace? Why not ask what the hell the Finance Ministry and Inland Revenue are doing? They would make some headway in serving the common people.

Oh no, they would rather feed the people on broccoli and green chilli and wash it all down with a juicy glass of well-squeezed orange.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran
Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later, he
was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)

 

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