GUNESEKERA: In Sri Lanka, voters’ interest - peace - carried the day

Thursday December 12 2019

Sri Lanka's new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka's new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (centre) and his Prime Minister brother Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) stand for the national anthem before a ministerial swearing-in ceremony in Colombo on November 22, 2019. PHOTO | ISHARA S. KODIKARA | AFP 

DARIN GUNESEKERA
By DARIN GUNESEKERA
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A determined and peaceful people, Sri Lankans overwhelmingly voted in Gotabhaya Rajapaksha as their new president. He was hitherto unknown in the region’s politics.

However, elections in Sri Lanka, like in many developing countries, are a domestic affair. The voter responds to his or her view of the world as it affects them and their family.

On November 16, Sri Lankans voted for peace. And the candidate who won, a man of few words, an executive by training and experience, said it only briefly and at key points.

On assumption of office, President Rajapaksha stated that he would ensure that Sri Lanka would not be part of big power plays by the geo-political forces.

This was because the new president sees politics as a voter does—and the voters definitely want peace above anything else.

The world comes to our doorstep and into our homes, first, through powerful nations. Then such global agencies the World Bank, the United Nations, non-governmental organisations and what we call “the international community” come in.

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The world they bring to us may be soft and lovely. It will be digital, healthy, caring and cultural. However, it is also a repudiation of the basic culture, religion and manners we are used to and have held for centuries.

It may be in form of dressing or food. It may be in both private and public aspects of our lives. It is definitely in what we think, there being insistence on what is “correct” thought.

Together, these create fear in the people. With time, most people in the developing world come to appreciate fear as the fact of their world.

The person who will stand up to the forces we sub-consciously know cause this fear, will be liked and followed.

President Rajapaksha is one such person as captured in his speech in New Delhi.

“We are neutral. You may very well have the arguments all in your favour. But we, who are not great nor strong, are still able to be neutral. “We want our region, normally called the Indian Ocean region, to be an area of peace,” he said.

This is the first step to dispel fear.

Moments into office, the president pronounced himself on economics as captured in his manifesto, which was published and delivered to every home in the country as required by law.

He observed that the people suffered as a result of low incomes and high inflation. The international community disagreed, quoting statistics for good measure.

In Sri Lanka, the first economic problem was that the government expenditure was high, the burden of taxes was high while incomes were low and getting lower as increased taxes meant low sales and a weak economy.

Figures from the national statistician, showed that the tax burden was increasing but little of this was personal income tax.

Instead, the government made more and more tax revenue through indirect taxes. In Sri Lanka, this is mainly the sales tax called value added tax (VAT).

Lectures and seminars have been held by international agencies and consultants on this matter under various slogans, all having “fiscal” as the marker.

But the president’s secretary chose action over words: He has halved the VAT or sales tax. No more tax burden. No doubt inflation will also be tackled simply.

With these simple steps—from choosing to be neutral and dispelling fear to halving VAT for the sake of the common man, I think we can all be happy for Sri Lanka today.

Dr Darin Gunesekera is a financial capital expert and once served as an advisor to the Capital Market Authority in Kenya.

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