HomeAnnouncementOur Asian Neighbor Feature: ‘Thoughts from My Teal Chair’

Our Asian Neighbor Feature: ‘Thoughts from My Teal Chair’

By Punya Wijetunge | Columnist 

As I pen this, my heart is hopeful. I dream of a future for the citizens of Sri Lanka with its new President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Hopefully, the people will come together behind him for the betterment of Sri Lanka’s future generations. 

When I left Sri Lanka some 17 years ago, the country was very much in shambles, trying to get back on its feet after the devastating tsunami that wreaked havoc on the coastal parts of the island. Beautiful beaches were wiped out, beach hotels were drastically damaged, thousands of people were consumed by tidal waves, and many people were displaced. The tsunami ruined a good part of the beautiful island that is dubbed “the pearl of the Indian Ocean.” 

A few years after, the ethnic war (which cost life after life in the North, East, and good part of the South) was finally over. No more suicide attacks. People were free, going to the North and East. Infrastructure was finally possible. The Sinhalease mingled with their broken Tamil, going to the North and East. So did Tamils, who visited the South with less exasperation. They worked at replenishing broken ties. 

Ten years later, tourism was booming. People opted for lucrative trades: restaurants, hotels, Airbnb’s were sprouting in every nook and corner of the country. People invested a lot in tourism. The country was back on its feet and hopeful for a better tomorrow. 

But this is no fairytale. When the entire world was hit by COVID-19, Sri Lanka had its perks of being an island — but not for long. While the country struggled with the pandemic, tourism came to a standstill. Much of the Rajapakse regime’s investments targeted at attracting the tourist industry went unseen and became a white elephant. 

While the entire world tried to get their respective countries back on their feet, citizens of Sri Lanka forgot one thing: they didn’t care to think that COVID-19 was a universal problem. They didn’t work hard enough. Everyone worked hard at reviving their economy except the people of Sri Lanka. 

Free health care and free college tuition education (including law school and medical school) were not viable, but the government still made it possible to continue these services. The subsidies that were given to the people on fertilizer and fuel were also not sustainable,   but it still continued. 

Due to this, goods and services taxes became exorbitant. People in Sri Lanka do not pay income tax. Most taxes are from goods and services. The property tax there is minute. Due to the lack of income taxes, problems ensued (Though income taxes are mandated by the government, no one actually pays those taxes like here in the U.S.).

The cost of living became unbearable. The country fell to bits. Fuel and gast to cook with was not possible. Power cuts became a daily occurence. Daily commodities were not possible. Like any economic entity, no goods and services results in no revenue and no income generated.

People were frustrated because their regular lifestyle became disrupted with the government’s inability to bear the costs. The JVP: Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (a political party) fueled unions and saw this as a perfect moment to cause social unrest in the country and come to power. The “Antharaya” (the University Student Federation), taking law into their own hands, instigated the “Go Gota” movement. 

The former President, Mahinda Rajapakse, loved for his charisma and popularity, became the reason for social unrest. President Gotabaya (Mahinda’s brother) with no political experience, became the target of people’s unrest. He was no politician and was unable to defend himself. He did not know any of the tactics to survive in the political arena. 

Social unrest caused the most insurgency the country had ever experienced in  its history. The Presidents and Prime Minister’s houses were attacked. Law and order was disrupted, causing breaks in the country’s socio-economic structure. Finally, Gotabaya was forced to flee the country. 

My own dreams of college had been discouraged by Sri Lanka’s college acceptance practices. Having missed by five marks (and not being able to get into college, being just shy of seven marks to pass the Law College Entrance Exam at a time when there were no private colleges available in the island) changed my dreams and aspirations. Having no college education, however, I was lucky enough to end up in the field of journalism in Sri Lanka. 

Getting a college education in Sri Lanka is every parent’s dream and worst nightmare because of its free college tuition. The process is far worse than getting into an Ivy League school in the U.S. Students from K-12 are in a rat race, trying their best just to get into college. Since students are too busy studying for exams, they don’t have time for extracurricular activities. 

Medical school and Law school in Sri Lanka comes with free college tuition too. But it requires the highest marks. After their 10th grade education, students get the privilege of deciding on their major. This gives them a foundation into the major of their choice for college. This means that in 11th and 12th grade, you are already doing your major. However, just one mark will decide your entire future. Because, less one mark from cut-off point, and you are out of college entrance. 

The Ministry of Education, some years back, came with a system called ‘Z-score’ to minimize student acceptance to colleg. Recently, Sri Lanka decided to bring few private-owned education institutes apart from mainstream colleges, which allowed students to make their college dream a reality by paying for college tuition.  

Many art majors in undergraduate college education become a part of a student union fueled by the JVP, (famous for disrupting the entire education system in every college). Once these union members graduate from college, they also march on the street protesting against the government, demanding for employment, while forgetting they were educated at the expense of taxpayers money. And there were a lot of students who were unable to get into college just because they were behind just a few marks. 

I feel it’s easy to play the blame game. Who did what? Who is responsible for what during the time of the unrest. There was no real production in the country. The entire school education was disrupted. The trade unions disrupted the infrastructure. The entire economy came to a standstill. People were unable to go to work. But most people went to protest against the previous government. No services were available. No income was generated. The country came to a halt. The frustrations grew. and kept growing. 

However, there were also factories that ran their businesses with the minimum labor and with minimum infrastructure. These companies made their contributions towards the export industry. There were entrepreneurs who brought their products to market. There were companies who kept their business going (and also who gave their employees a bonus for their hard work). Then there were employees who stopped complaining and worked hard at their job. But these were few. Everyone else was on the bandwagon — “Go Gota”

However, with the new presidency, Sri Lanka is hopeful. But I feel Sri Lankans have a duty: Report to work. Work hard to bring the country back on its feet. Forget party politics. Work together. And keep in mind: Ranil Wickramasinghe cannot do miracles alone!

Mark Ziobro
Mark Ziobrohttps://uticaphoenixnet.wpcomstaging.com
Mark is the current Managing Editor for The Utica Phoenix, and a Central New York Native.
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