Dictator: The cry of the robber barons | Sunday Observer

Dictator: The cry of the robber barons

First it was the monk, calling casually for Hitler during a birthday sermon. Now it is the business tycoon in a silk suit, telling a packed, business-friendly audience at a five-star hotel how what Sri Lanka needs is ‘something like a dictator.’

The recent ‘fireside chat’ hosted by a distinguished business chamber last week, was chock full of surprises. Six of the country’s richest and most successful men sat on armchairs, with a brick-walled fireside as a digital backdrop, to tell a ballroom full of people how much was wrong with Sri Lanka.

One such tycoon, whose business was built on Government construction projects, whose business deals have been struck down by courts of law for being riddled with irregularities, pontificated extensively on the tax burden on the private sector, which he claimed was propping up an ‘inefficient’ public sector. Complaining bitterly about construction taxes and tax on revenue, the businessman griped about poor policy and the bitter pill of having to fund public services.

It is difficult to state exactly how far removed from reality such gala business community events can be. In Sri Lanka, nearly 50% of the population live in poverty. Without free access to healthcare, education and subsidised transport, this segment of society would be rendered helpless and destitute. Even a cash-strapped Government must keep these services operational, in order to keep its citizens alive and capable of seeking livelihood and education. These crucial public services are kept running through taxation.

It is beyond ironic that in a country where millions live below the poverty line, rich men in suits sit on plush chairs and complain how unfair life has been to them. That there is not even a moment of hesitation before such words spill out into the public domain tells a tragic story about the social responsibility and community-feeling within the ‘high net worth’ class.

But it was the call by some for ‘a little bit of dictatorship’ that truly exposed the intellectual poverty of some of these tycoons. Sri Lanka’s current leadership was without direction. The Government had two leaders, and neither would make a decision, another man in a silk suit complained. “In this country, what is needed is something like a dictator,” he waxed, all the while exercising his right as a free citizen of the country to express his views openly, without fear of reprisal and attack.

From five-star podiums, they condemn the Government of the day, no longer living in fear of losing contracts or political favour, no longer fearful of the dreaded ‘white vans’ that even the cocktail circuit sometimes shuddered about quietly only three years ago. Back then, they looked the other way while the President’s brother- in- law ran the SriLankan Airlines to the ground. Today, they tear down Government economic policies and mismanagement – perhaps warranted – but all the while never uttering a word about the waste, extravagance and unprecedented robbery of state coffers over a decade that drove the country to this crisis point. It is almost as if even in Opposition, the Rajapaksa regime inspires more fear of reprisal than the political party that holds state power.

That freedom of expression was restored after the fall of the Rajapaksa regime.

Let us be clear. For nearly a decade, this country had a true taste of authoritarianism. The brutal attacks on journalists, the killings in Ratupaswela, the hundreds of white van abductions, the muzzling and fettering of the media – all this took place far away from the boardrooms and ballrooms where the tycoons held sway. While citizens and Government critics bore the brunt of the autocracy Mahinda Rajapaksa was shaping, these same tycoons gleefully embraced the previous regime with all its corruption, brutality and gross economic mismanagement. In that long, dark decade, not once did the men in suits even dare to whisper a complaint. To do so would bring swift retribution – the cancellation of lucrative projects and contracts, the ostracism from high society, and perhaps, if they truly overstepped – financial ruin. Then the corporate oligarchy was the extension of the political one; existing in perfect symbiosis: ask no questions, win the big contracts.

But when supposedly responsible corporate magnates cross their legs by the fire and dream of dictatorship, they throw mud in the faces of real victims of Rajapaksa era brutality. Over a decade, the ‘little’ dictatorship of Mahinda Rajapaksa had devastating consequences. For the three children Lasantha Wickrematunge left behind, the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, the families of Roshan Chanaka, Anthony Fernando and the three schoolboy victims of the Ratupaswela shootings, a return to dictatorship would be the stuff of nightmares. While these tycoons speak of strong leaders, an entire constituency fears the return of the autocrat, because they have tasted his brutality and unforgiving nature before.

That these whining tycoons can only offer such a style of governance as the answer to their woes either merely betrays their intellectual poverty or reveals their hankering for a return of that same authoritarian regime, perhaps because it was the source of their prosperity. The fireside chats last week made it abundantly clear that the brutality on the streets and in a warzone without witness a few miles away, had never touched the leather-panelled boardrooms and skyscraper worlds in which these men reside.

Sri Lankan capitalism needs creative leadership if it is to take forward its combined legacy of the ancient vaniks and colonial mercantilism. What is necessary is the intelligent contribution of the corporate leadership toward national economic strategy and not the immature grumblings of frustrated robber barons now yearning for the return of their political patrons.