Yesterday, I was the only non-politician on a political debate show on TV known as “Satana” (battle). The topic was the new President’s/government’s 100 Day Program (of which more than one-third has passed). I was not expecting to talk about the taxes imposed on the mobile industry, but right in the middle, one of the “referees” asked me about one of the three (or two, depending on the company size) taxes imposed on the mobile operators. I briefly answered saying it was not a good idea since its retroactive and mobile-specific nature was likely to have the effect of depressing investment that was needed if Sri Lanka is to move to the next stage of connectivity beyond voice.
I had taken this position without any serious pushback in other media since shortly after the interim budget was announced. So I was surprised to see objections (mostly civil but some not) on Facebook. My first response was to explain that I was not objecting to the removal of a tax, only to compelling mobile operators to absorb the tax. To summarize the positions of my critics (a) no taxes should be imposed on mobile services, and LIRNEasia/I should ask for taxes to be removed; (b) service industries should be taxed to the fullest extent possible, with manufacturing exempted from tax; and (c) I was an acolyte of a discredited politician because I was talking about effects on investment. In addition, one person claimed that the tax had been designed by Harsha de Silva, “a LIRNEasia boss.”
It was not easy to engage in this debate in Sinhala through Facebook comments, but I was lucky the main arguments had been published in Sinhala and English, with the latter being available online. I posted the link and also pasted some excerpts from the Sinhala text. But sadly, not everyone reads beyond the first few lines of the comments on Facebook.
This is not the first time LIRNEasia has stood against populist positions. It will not be the last time.