Two important members of our South Asian community stand as examples of how not to run a country. Pakistan’s politics and Sri Lanka’s economy—not that they are fully separable—have reduced their people to facing an uncertain future, and that, too, after being devastated by two years of Covid pandemic. The Pakistan military’s continued interference in running the country and Sri Lanka’s ruling elites’ continued indifference to the plight of the masses are the two overarching reasons behind these two countries’ present ignominy.
While Pakistan and Sri Lanka were stuck in their political and economic quagmire, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) predicted Bangladesh’s GDP growth to be 6.9 percent in FY2021-22, a significant achievement considering all the challenges we in Bangladesh face. Even US President Joe Biden termed us a model for growth and stability, in his recent letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and the US. Leadership, especially of Sheikh Hasina, and the resilience and creativity of our people have a lot to do with the continuous growth that the country has seen over the last few decades—in spite of the pandemic and the turbulence in the international economy. However, we will be living in a fool’s paradise if we think that everything is rosy for us. There are plenty of things for Bangladesh to learn from these two crises.
Sri Lanka, once projected as a possible Singapore in our region, shocked its own people as well as those in the region with unforgivable failures to manage its economy. What was unthinkable just the other day is a reality today: Sri Lankans are facing shortages of food and other basic necessities. It has never been heard before that a country couldn’t hold school-level examinations due to a shortage of paper. It happened in Sri Lanka.
It is misgovernance, cronyism and long-term culture of elite family rule that lie at the root of the present problem. Sri Lanka was one of the earliest countries to achieve 100 percent literacy and quality education. It has the highest per capita income among all Saarc members, and its public transport and general healthcare services are the envy of the region. But for its long-drawn civil war, Sri Lanka can be said to have had the best chance of economic prosperity compared to its South Asian neighbours.
Their fatal flaw was the musical-chair type rule by a few political families with superficial commitment to the people. These families reduced democracy to mere elections, which were held mostly on time but resulted in no substantial change or reform. None of the governments undertook any efforts to institutionalise democracy or any fundamental economic or social reform, or strengthen the institutions of accountability.
The return of the Rajapaksa family to power constitutes perhaps the most blatant and unique example of a family capturing a state: the president (who is also the defence minister), the prime minister and the newly former finance minister are three brothers, and near relatives head several ministries and occupy important government positions. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as the president in 2010-15, a total of 40 family members occupied government posts in Sri Lanka—excluding those in the cabinet.
At the moment, Sri Lanka virtually has no government, save only in name.