By Siri Gamage –
On 4th February, Sri Lanka celebrated 70 years of independence from Britain with elaborate ceremonies with a special guest of honour from the British Royal family. As someone born a couple of years after regaining formal independence, it is important to reflect on this event more critically and deeply. Inevitably, topics such as the gains, losses, merits, weaknesses, strengths, challenges, changes, directions (for nation building) etc. need to be fairly and comprehensively evaluated but it is a task requiring collective efforts though recent media contributions focus on some of these aspects. In this piece, my intent is to offer a few comments and observations on a more deep and underlying issue lingering beneath the superficial ceremonies and applicable to not only Sri Lanka but also other countries that secured independence from colonial administration during the last century. It is the issue of incomplete project of decolonisation and new forms of re-colonisation.
Sri Lankans enjoy ceremonies. The society is organised in such a way that amidst the rough and tumble of everyday living frequently a range of ceremonies take place. Some are religious (Kandy, Kelaniya and Kataragama Perahara), others are civil, e.g. weddings, funerals, birth days. There are ceremonies associated with agriculture e.g. planting and harvesting, when laying foundations and opening of buildings and houses. There are also ceremonies to commemorate war heroes and their contributions. Among the politically significant ceremonies, the annual independence ceremony assumes significance as the dignitaries associated with governance and administration participates along with the security forces. Independence day ceremony in the country is organised by those holding power at a given point in time and it is another holiday –among many that Sri Lankans enjoy-for the public servants. More than in 100 countries the day is celebrated overseas in association with high Commissions and expatriate communities in the diaspora depending on the activist nature of the high commission staff.
What actually do we celebrate? Is it the fact that instead of White, Anglo colonial administration now we have a brown, predominantly Sinhalese administration with the support of Tamil and Muslim representatives? Is it the fact that now we have an elected President and a broad based parliament in comparison to the State Council that existed during the late colonial period with restricted local representation? Do we celebrate the fact that higher education has been made free and broad based in comparison to the limited system of the University College and later University of Ceylon at Peradeniya that catered to the children of elite and privileged, urbane, well-to-do families? What about the ability to determine our own affairs in Sri Lankan style? How far have we gone with that for the better or worse?
Have we achieved social justice and equality for those who have been neglected or discriminated by the existing socio-economic system, linguistic practices i.e. English, and cultural mores built on a hierarchical system? What about the status of women? Have they been able to progress in accessing opportunities in society or pushed them into darker corners in and outside Sri Lankan society? Have we raised our head as an independent and sovereign nation economically or have been on a slippery slope ever since we gained independence? Has the power been shared with diverse segments of the population or centralised in the hands of a few by using a political culture that has evolved to benefit the few?
What has happened to our values, culture, customs and cherished aspects of our history, social organisation and culture? Have we become prisoners of global powers or exploitative corporate entities –foreign and local- due to our inability of managing economy and society (social engineering) or are we moving ahead like other countries in the region that have made progress? The list can go on but these are enough questions to ponder in a more systematic and informative manner with particular evaluations by those with expertise.
What this list of questions shows is that political independence can mean different things to different layers of society –other than an occasion to celebrate- and the way political management or governance is handled by the guardians of the state can either move the country forward or backward. Likewise, many questions remain unanswered if we have a deep and critical look. By all accounts, the score card for the 70 years is a highly questionable one but let me turn to the issue of de-colonisation next simply because decolonisation was supposed to follow after gaining of independence.
This is a term forgotten by those who speak about independence in Sri Lanka today. ‘As a term, decolonisation is a complicated concept to grasp. On one hand it signifies the very act of breaking free from a way of thinking, of conceptualising the world signified by oppressive power structures, that have benefited Western hegemony on behalf of the discrimination of indigenous peoples around the world. As such decolonisation represents the reclamation of lands, of languages and of the establishment of numerous self governing bodies working with and for an indigenous group from within’
There is a growing view among some scholars of the global south, in particular Africa, that decolonisation has not occurred to the extent that is desired by the peoples of decolonised countries or to meet the criteria of true independence. Important in the decolonisation of institutions is the social and psychological attitudes as well as the mindset of leaders in various sectors. As much as we desire institutional change for the better, social justice, respect for human rights, equality etc. if the leaders who should steer the nation in such direction are not having the necessary mindset and the comparative historical understanding, things cannot move forward. What we observe today is that the leaders of such institutions are absorbed by globalisation rhetoric and pursue corporate ideals for making profits at the expense of any social ideals with deep meanings and implications for the future. Modernist education implanted during the colonial period through powerful mechanisms with an Eurocentric bias continues to dominate our learning institutions, thinking and attitudes. This has become a graduate attribute desired by the corporate sector and some government institutions.
If gaining political independence was hard, decolonisation of the institutions of governance, social engineering (e.g. education) and important entities in the public and private sectors is even more hard as change requires consensus, change in attitudes, clear vision, strategies, monitoring and follow up. Moreover, the national leaders who inherited political power from the British and subsequently elected to office had to be visionaries like Gandhis or Mandelas with a deep understanding of the society and culture as well as its challenges and solutions in order to steer the country and its important institutions toward the goal of decolonisation along with the task of nation-building. Otherwise, the leaders who gain political power but continue with the inherited ceremonial structure of privilege and governance plus culture and symbolism can enjoy the fruits of power but drag the country toward an unknown and dangerous destination with or without intent. (As for the political ceremony itself, there are remnant elements of colonial authority. This is for the intellectuals interested in such symbolism to discern and elaborate on).
Political Sphere: Power Sharing or Internal Colonialism?
In the political sphere, though we have been able to enjoy democracy in the sense of being able to elect representatives to the parliament since independence and run with an executive president since 1977-78 while the ideal of Welfare state has deteriorated, a more concerning aspect is whether once elected such representatives have created a phenomenon resembling internal colonialism thus replacing one set of rulers for another set different only in colour, dress and nationalistic and often vulgar talk? The gap or distance between the elected and elector is vast and growing even after 70 years of independence. The mindset of elected representatives at the national level seems to be coloured by conceptions of power and privilege defined by elitist strata of society and socially/politically constructed idioms rather than determined by the common layers and mundane aspirations of people, especially from the lower strata.
Access to power and centres of power for legitimate business is limited to a few who have required attributes such as family and school connections, lingua, ability in personal and political maoeverings, contacts with bureaucrats. Many are voluntarily excluded due to the distance between voters and elected plus the lower/inferior social standing, lack of effective communication skills with middle class or upper class politicians whose demeanour can put them off from access.
Exercise of power, though designed to be balanced with checks and balances in the formal system replicating what is observed in Europe, Australia or the US, is contaminated with the influence of vested interests including the corporate sector, multinational corporations, close family and friends. Furthermore, the division of responsibilities between the national government and provincial government has introduced another set of personnel that the average voter has to deal with as if the existing problems of governance are not enough. Public interest is little served by such a politicised system of governance and a culture heavily influenced by factors other than service to the people irrespective of social standing. Such modern attitudes in the public service have not spread to the desired extent.
Power sharing between various arms of government seems to be contaminated by the process of politicisation. A case in point is the nature of public administration. Though Provincial Councils exist, how far actual power to determine provincial affairs are devolved is still an issue? Multiplicity of governing mechanisms and bodies has made the governance with a common purpose a nightmare. Interests of the youths, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, haven’t been sufficiently addressed. This includes University graduates from rural backgrounds. They are finding it difficult to secure employment, especially in the corporate sector that seeks a different set of skills and qualifications plus an attitude unhindered by local culture, language, affinities or values. People living in remote and rural areas are still facing difficulties with law enforcement agencies. Graft and corruption is not uncommon.
While these structural and cultural problems persist, and the country is being steered more and more toward a destination desired by global capital, its agencies (investors), powerful countries and blocks, we have not experienced any grass roots democracy during the recent decades after independence. Instead a super imposed system reinforced by a political culture that is designed to serve the elected rather than the elector is in operation. Quite rightly this has received much criticism in recent years.
Thus we have to ask whether the evolving political and power structure since independence is ‘oppressive’ to the many rather than being a truly innovative, democratic, and progressive one? If the anti-systemic youth movements that created havoc in distinct moments of our recent history are any guide, are there underlying socio-economic and cultural issues lingering underneath the ceremony, political ritual, drama and ceremonial culture?
Political Representation: Open or Closed?
While higher education has been free, the same cannot be said about the opportunity to enter nation’s parliament through the existing party system since independence. Though equality of opportunity should be contemplated in this sphere also, many fences have been erected around this opportunity. For one thing, continued loyalty and political affiliation plus practice have been made the qualification to contest from a mainstream political party – if not being born into a politically active family at national or provincial level. The selection process adopted by such parties favour those who are able to not only command a following at district and electorate levels but also ability to raise funds for campaigns. Having a record of service in local or provincial councils is not necessarily a qualification. What family or caste one comes from and which school one attended can still be influential factors in determining the nomination along with the current professional or commercial profile of potential candidates.
Nomination process is heavily slanted toward those who are already privileged, on the way to being privileged or with the potential to be privileged once elected. It is not for those aspiring individuals from the lower middle or working classes. The parties that have been formed to facilitate representation for such individuals have not been able to secure a mass following at the grass roots level. One explanation for this plight is that people still remember the violence and destruction in 1989 and 1971. Whatever the reason, imagination of alternative political platforms, parties, and groups has not preceded well in the country since independence except in the case of a few parties like the JVP. The story in the Tamil and Muslim areas is even more concerning. Proliferation of communally oriented parties is also a matter of concern. May be the consumerist and material orientation of people after the changes introduced since 1977 has something to do with this situation as voters are inclined to vote for parties who actually form government/coalitions and therefore in a position to distribute welfare and material rewards. We have read much about the famous sil redi case. Nonetheless, this partially closed nature of who can enter political parties and who cannot is one key aspect where serious attention is required with a focus on changing in-built internal colonialism within the party structures and processes.
If the ‘internal colonialism’ and discrimination/exclusion on the basis of party affiliation are post independence phenomena constructed by a privileged political elite how can the masses who got no access to power and excluded from such a party system can enjoy independence other than watch ceremony? If party membership means voting in elections and support the leader waving a flag and wearing a tea shirt given free (among other things) what does it tell about party democracy? If the party machineries and internal processes are not open, transparent and democratic and one has to be almost born into a privileged political family to obtain a nomination to contest an election, what point is there talking about democracy in governance? Karl Marx wrote about oppressive capitalist class. Shouldn’t we focus on the political party as the oppressive instrument in contemporary Sri Lanka? Often talked about change in political culture is not something that can be achieved by suddenly turning bad politicians into good politicians by a miracle because the culture or way of life defined by such culture feeds ruling class and vice versa. Thus structural change in the party system and processes is required to achieve culture change.
As I have written elsewhere, if the existing mainstream political parties are not ready to meet these challenges including the creation of a corruption free truncated system of governance, the middle class at least that has the talent, wisdom, drive and expertise needs to conceptualise an alternative progressive political party or similar entity with the cooperation of civil society to move the reformist agenda forward.
Decolonisation of the economy is an important exercise that needs to be given high priority. How far has decolonisation taken place in our production, manufacturing, exchange systems? To find answers, we need to look at each industry closely. Taking tea production as an example, what do we see? What do we see in our export sector in general including export of fish and other goods? Has our import-export sector been decolonised sufficiently? What is happening in our service sector including in areas such as education, higher education, health and medicine, legal service, accounting, etc.? By decolonisation, I do not mean all these sectors need to be resourced by Sri Lankans. Where necessary, foreign expertise and personnel need to be involved as managers, supervisors or in other capacities. Ownership of economically important enterprises is a critical one. If European and American or for that matter Chinese or Indian, Malaysian entities continue to control critical areas of the economy this has to be based on modern principles of governance including corporate governance. Moreover, these entities and activities should not be at the expense of local entities and industries or service outlets. Preference should be given to nationals of Sri Lanka in running key sectors and institutions of the economy including dual citizens. Granting an unequal share of control in the economically significant venture to foreign nationals or entities can pose the problem of re-colonisation, which takes a different form in recent decades compared to colonisation i.e. direct control by an imperial power. If (economic) ‘dependence’ through the ‘debt trap’ is the main underlying cause of misery (and corruption by those who hold power and privilege is the second cause), how can we talk about ‘independence’ anymore?
Expanding Corporate Sector and Economic Re-colonisation
In the new era, powerful countries of the world do not necessarily invade less powerful countries for dominance –though there are recent examples such as what happened in Iraq. Instead, the strategy is to expand economic activity through multinational corporations which possess necessary capital, technology, management know how, expertise in selected fields etc. Initially, this practice started from European countries and the US. When the labour costs in such countries came to be high and other economic gains could be made by shifting production and manufacturing operations to less developed countries there was a movement of heavy industries, light industries, and other enterprises. When the less developed countries such as China started to adapt capitalist economic development model and accumulating capital through international trade and investments overseas, economists and social scientists started talking about a multipolar world instead of a unipolar world where the US held dominance. Currently, capital accumulated by countries like China and other Asian countries is being re-invested in both more developed and less developed countries with the intention of profit making. Sri Lanka, due to economic and political mismanagement, corruption and nepotism since independence resulting in decades long war with the radicalised LTTE, has not been able to advance itself economically since independence. Instead, it has inherited significant foreign debts to the extent of being caught in what is commonly referred to as a ‘debt trap’. To address this situation, current government has adopted a two pronged strategy: 1) expanding the tax base by introducing new taxes or expanding existing taxes, 2) inviting foreign investments and privatising state entities, e.g. Hambantota port. Even the construction of Port City in reclaimed land near Galle Face has seen compromising aspects to national sovereignty in its original design. How far the facilitation of Chinese capital to invest in such special zones constitutes a corporate colonisation is still to be seen.
Expanding consumerism and associated lifestyle impact on everyone’s life. Through consumer outlets, imported products and services are being offered to the public with heavy advertising. Under this circumstance, whether such Westernisation is part of a process of re-colonisation needs to be examined. If this is the case, what happens to the decolonisation and nation-building project relying on local knowledge, skills, resources, production and manufacturing?
Since independence, there has been very little thought on the part of intelligentsia or the leaders to explore alternative options to foreign capital and technology in their terms. While there is significant literature and examples from the region and the world about sustainable development principles and practices, such information has not been utilised in policy making or implementation. Given the environmental impacts that mega projects including infrastructure projects can have, it is necessary to look at alternative development models that are suitable for a small country like Sri Lanka. By the same token, alternatives to making whole of Sri Lanka a market place for foreign products and services and tourism should also be explored. Hawaiian population and culture due to integration with the US and loss of sovereignty and the expansion of tourism have almost replaced Hawaiian culture with the US culture. American legal, political, educational, security and religious institutions dominate Hawaiian society and culture. Another example is the Philippines. Given the strategic importance of the island to global and regional powers to have a land base in our part of the world, it is not beyond imagination that there can be a situation of another colonisation directly or indirectly. While this colonisation is happening in the economic sphere, it can expand into the political sphere also unless we are united –not divided.
Status of Women
Turning to the status of women, we need to ask whether our women have been liberated or subjected to more oppressive conditions during the 70 years of independence through the changes that occurred in society, mainly by design due to policy changes? For example, allowing women to work in West Asia and other destinations has allowed them to earn an income, which they could not do by remaining in the country. However, what about the social and psychological impact of working under inhumane conditions as domestic workers (servants in local parlance)? What about the subservience, discrimination and abuse that many women experience in the hands of unscrupulous employers in those countries?
These women as a whole go to work in these countries while leaving their children and spouses at home. Has this separation impacted on children, their education, psychology and growth? Surely, these aspects need to be examined by sociologists and psychologists with a view to uncovering hidden experiences and stories. We have to then ask whether the earning of an income is more important than caring for one’s children and own sanity? Similarly, we have to ask the benefits of young women working in factories in the free trade zones for a living wage and social consequences of such work including displacement. Those working in tourism industry face similar challenges. What I am trying to indicate here is that corruption is not only economic. Corruption of mind can take social forms as well. With social and economic changes that characterise post independence period, there are various mechanisms that introduce such corruption of mind.
Culture and bifurcation of Youth Lifestyle
Culture controls our mind and behaviour through various mechanisms that we inherited both from the pre-colonial feudal system and colonial system including education, disciplines, literature, lifestyle, eating and drinking habits and more. We already know that Sri Lanka’s culture significantly changed due to the influence of European cultures during the colonisation process by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British since 1505. Some segments of the population, especially those who benefited from these colonial systems and processes at higher echelons of society embraced elements of European culture and way of life. Education in English and work in the colonial administration as civil servants or involvement in trade and commerce contributed to such culture change. The print media also contributed to such culture change along with the symbolism associated with power and those exercised power under colonial governments.
The attitudinal and behavioural changes inculcated and reinforced by the colonial processes through important sectors in the economy, society, law, administration, polity etc. continued even after independence as a significant segment of the population had been exposed to such changes. It was like a gravitational force with centrifugal power. Emergence and spread of Sinhala and Tamil nationalism after independence and regaining of lost sovereignty along with the development of a bilingual intelligentsia in and outside the universities created space for Sinhalese Buddhist and Hindu Tamil renewal in religion, language, literature, poetry, art, music, television and drama etc. These remain the bedrock of society characterised by the tank and dagaba (pagoda) in the face of substantial foreign influences entering the society in terms of globalisation, international education, tourism, and corporate development. They also remain the core of Sinhalese life and social organisation irrespective of the deterioration of standards in fields such as law, higher education, political culture, governance and the value framework.
The opening of not only the economy to foreign investment but also trade liberalisation, liberalisation of emigration and exchange controls, international education and privatisation, and heavy alcohol consumption have made the continuation of traditional culture, norms and values a challenging proposition. As it stands today, one segment of the youths embrace Western norms and values, cultural habits and practices together with corresponding ‘modern’ attitudes. Another segment of the youths embrace either Sinhalese Buddhist or Hindu Tamil norms and values, cultural beliefs and practices. Among other ethnic and religious groups also such diversity trends can be observed. This bifurcation in attitudes, values and norms, cultural practices and way of life – one toward the Western (European and American) and the other toward local and indigenous -is an important outcome of the cultural changes that have occurred in the last several centuries, especially after the independence. How is such bifurcation impacting on life chances of the two groups? Is this bifurcation contributing to the creation of another internal colonialism? Does one group have access to power and privilege, economic and employment opportunities than the other?
In higher education, decolonisation has not occurred to the extent it should have. Continuation and reproduction of social science disciplines uncritically as inherited from Europe and later America with a Eurocentric bias by our social scientists that benefitted from the free education movement is one reason for this (see my article in Social Affairs on academic dependency). Another reason is the non-emergence of a substantial critique of colonisation and emphasis on the need for de-colonisation of education by university academics who entered the university from rural and semi-urban backgrounds after independence (instead they have gone with the flow). Thirdly, though our intellectuals developed a critique of colonialism and resulting discrimination and exclusion in various fields of study around the time of gaining independence, no concrete action plan has been proposed for specific sectors or institutions to implement necessary change with clear goals in mind. They are satisfied with creative and critical contributions on colonialism or neo-colonialism thinking that such criticism will translate automatically into action –which is a false belief (For a critical reflection on sociology in Sri Lanka from a de-colonial perspective, see my forthcoming article in Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences). Reform in the higher education sector is absolutely necessary for the country to move forward and intellectuals in universities and beyond need to start a discourse as to how to be free from colonial heritage in their disciplines and utilise indigenous knowledge more in educational endeavours. There is a significant and emerging literature both in the field of social sciences and comparative education one can utilise for such task, e.g. Southern Theory by Connell, Connected sociologies by Bhambra, Postcolonial sociology by Julian Go.
While some who go through education plus higher education and become professionals or enter the business world succeed economically and socially, many fail to move in this direction partly because of the operation of internal colonialism imposed by party structures and practices. Yet this is an area that our political and social scientists plus journalists have given the least attention to? We accept the candidate as presented to us and do not question their legitimacy!
What this discussion shows is that we need to look beneath the ritual and ceremony deeper into various segments of society since independence and understand the dynamics that make one layer or strata of society privileged and powerful through our nominally democratic elections and the disempowerment of a large strata or segment of the population by the very same process. A fresh critical look at the system of governance, political parties and their modus operandi as a system of inbreeding and internal colonialism, colonial remnants in educational and cultural spheres, economic subservience etc.is urgently required. Though the world has changed in the last 70 years, many hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans moved overseas for work and settlement making our nation spread over, these factors haven’t been taken into consideration in the governance processes. Though many have found freedom in mature democracies overseas, they are also patriotic and desire a return contribution to motherland. However, the attitude of the political class and culture seems to be not open to such desires. Nationalism seems to be confused with nativism in political discourses.
Nation building is taken to be building mega projects with borrowed money. Lack of attention to a more sustainable development model where our agricultural and other products grow with the purpose of local consumption plus export is a major weakness. Higher education itself needs a major overhaul in line with our national needs and long term prosperity. Overlapping governance structures and politicisation of even the local administration institutions do not bode well for a decentralised yahapalanaya. Economic re-colonisation of the world and small countries like ours and its impact has to be understood in its current form along with the medium to long term repercussions of getting caught in a foreign debt trap. A system that harnesses local talent, especially from lower strata of society and reward the same is necessary in the economic sector and the state sector rather than continue with reinforcing push factors which lead to brain drain and out migration of professionals trained by our higher education institutions. A more open and representative political party system that does not reward those who are already in the boat but entertain new talent outside the boat. Political culture itself (attitudes and practices of those who gain power through the party mechanism and their kith and kin) needs fundamental reform. Role of education and media are highly relevant here.