The traditional New Year has ushered in a new round of speculation that a National Government is in the making.
No doubt, from the outset of the President’s ascendancy to high office – and the hot seat – as a result of the unprecedented socio-political-economic explosion of last year, he has called on all parties in and out of Parliament to support him to extract the country from the deep economic hole it has fallen into. But it fell short of a call for a National Government.
Last month’s IMF bailout has temporarily stabilised the economy, deflating Opposition demands for elections. It has been pushed to re-evaluate its stance of non-cooperation with the President. No longer carrying the ignominy of being a ‘bankrupt country’, there still are massive debts to settle to turn the economy around from red (negative) to black (positive) in the nation’s balance sheets.
A National Government is not always as good as it sounds. The country is not at war with an external enemy country. And a country needs an Opposition in Parliament, as much as it needs a free press and an independent judiciary so that a Government is kept on track, and is not a runaway train that can derail with terrible consequences to the people.
Equally, and more so in the current climate, there is a responsibility on the part of the parliamentary Opposition, professional and undergrad groups, and trade unions to see that critiquing the Government does not spill onto the streets. Take the economic report card for now; notwithstanding the IMF dollar infusion, export earnings especially from garments are under threat from the global recession, setbacks from last year’s commotion, and increased production costs in comparison to competitors in the region. The BOI (Board of Investments) predicts as much as 30 percent of foreign investor companies are downsizing their operations in Sri Lanka. Bits and pieces of dollar inflows from other exports like tea, remittances from workers abroad and IT services are only trickling in – just enough to pay the nation’s monthly import bills, but not enough to settle our debts. The country is barely keeping its head above the water.
The secret of the economic success of Dubai, Singapore and even China has been foreign investments — resulting from political stability. They are one-family, or one-party rule countries. Political stability is therefore guaranteed. Sri Lanka is positioned differently. It is a multi-party democracy. With all the ‘noise and chaos’ of an imperfect, participatory democracy a Government cannot ram down anti-democratic laws to ensure political stability.
And yet, the country cannot drift towards the instability and uncertainty that prevailed last year. It cannot afford it. Political stability and consistent economic policy are what outsiders look for in Sri Lanka. A responsible Opposition must know that too. It is not so much National Government, but national consensus that is needed.
For a moment, the public may be excused if they fell for what they thought was a belated April Fool’s joke by the Agriculture Minister. It, however, turned out to be a serious proposal by him to export 100,000 monkeys – to China.
He first made out that this was an official request for the monkeys to go to Chinese zoos. Then, in the face of denials from the Chinese authorities, he ‘about-turned’ to say it was a private request trying to make out the Chinese were doing Lanka a favour with an ‘unsolicited proposal’ to remove the ‘pests’ destroying agricultural crops. The Chinese embassy threw a wet towel on this with a disclaimer saying there were strict laws in the People’s Republic governing the import of animals. They are clearly sensitive to the subject of live animals and wet markets in China that may have the outbreak of COVID-19.
Social media had a field day. Some clips showed the politicians responsible for the ruination of agriculture and asked that they be exported to China first. Others belittled the Government’s drive to sell off stakes in state institutions and asked if they were reduced to selling the monkeys as “jaathika vasthu” (national assets). The UNP General Secretary supported the Minister adding that even peacocks should be exported. What about elephants who are destroying crops and farmers’ homes, someone asked, but the elephant, after all, is his party’s symbol.
The nuisance to crops and the daily lives of humans living in rural areas from wild animals is clearly a problem, the ‘human-elephant’ conflict being the biggest. In a country with limited landmass, increasing human and animal populations and the expansion of human settlements bringing humans into closer contact with wild animals, on average some 70 humans and 200 elephants lose their lives annually due to these conflicts. Agricultural research agencies give statistics on the damage to crops.
The export of monkeys as a solution to the monkey menace, however, raised eyebrows for several reasons. One is that China does not seem to have that many zoos to house 100,000 of them. Monkey flesh, on the other hand, is a known delicacy in China. The Chinese make no bones about it. Monkeys are used for medical research. And though the Minister says the contractual price has not been discussed, when China exported its COVID-19 vaccine it specifically wanted the price tag kept a top secret.
The newly appointed Wildlife Conservation Minister’s silence on the matter is deafening. That ministry was taken away from the Agriculture Minister shortly after he could not safeguard the Yala National Park from his own relatives. There are several methods to control the monkey menace. If they can capture 100,000 monkeys for export, why can’t they be vasectomized as they have done with stray dogs in the cities?
Successive Governments have struggled to enact the Animal Welfare Bill. It has been on the back-burner of the legislative agenda now for decades. On the eve of Vesak, it does not bode well for a Government to ignore the rights of animals and disregard the Buddha’s message that “all beings” be free from suffering; free from disease; and be well.