By Ravi Perera –
‘ The Urban Wetland Park is hereby vested in the citizens of Sri Lanka by His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and would remain a lasting testament to the glorious vision contained in the “Mahinda Chintanaya” of ushering in modernity to the State , sound health to the nation and “picturesqueness” to the environment , while bringing more luster and grandeur to the renowned city of Nugedoda -Gotabaya Rajapaksa Secretary, Ministry of Defence and Urban Development on this 12th day of January ,2013
A visitor to this country can be forgiven for thinking that the majority of Sri Lankans are automatons, living day to day in an unthinking routine of motion and reaction. The capacity to initiate, a fundamental feature of an autonomous being, is only a preserve of a select few.
Whichever place he were to go to, the visitor will observe columns, banners, plaques and hoardings commemorating the beginning, launching or the opening of a project, by the government. The writing on them will invariably announce that the whole scheme was conceptualized by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, implemented mainly by one of his brothers, occasionally associated by a lesser politician. The words used in Sinhala are so predictable that even without reading it one can presume most of the message. It is essentially a Royal edict of yore – King so and so taking pity on the suffering masses built this huge tank, or that a certain Pharaoh built this Pyramid so that all Egyptians may marvel its engineering ingenuity. What the Egyptians, whose taxes, Ideas, labour, sacrifices and even lives went into that endeavour thought, did not matter at all. As long as the pharaoh willed it, the Pyramid would have happened anyway.
The automatons have no capacity to observe and judge. So the writing tells them that the flowing water and the surrounding greenery in the cleared marsh are picturesque. Walking is recommended and therefore healthy. And they are reminded that the suburb they live in is endowed with luster and grandeur which is now further enhanced.
If the visitor is from an evolved democracy, he might enjoy the quaintness of a practice which is pre industrial revolution thinking. In the modern world, only in a country like North Korea that people wait docilely for the great leader Ill- Jong to think, initiate and order. In their times , his grandfather Kim –Ill-Sung and later father Kim-Jong-Ill , did all the conceptualizing and initiating for the North Koreans. Now Ill-Jong, with the pretty an immaculately coiffured wife Ri-Sol-Ju by his side, carries this heavy burden for an utterly “grateful” 25 million North Koreans.
One must not think that in the ensuing monolithic order the North Koreans have no choices. Apparently when visiting their hair dresser, the North Korean women have the choice of any one of the 18 officially sanctioned haircuts! The quality of the hair dressing salons however is for the reader to imagine, bearing in mind that North Korea’s GDP is only US $ 12 Billion, about one fifth of that of Sri Lanka!
Whatever the obscure charms of such a hermit State, it is clear that a system where only the boss matters, does not produce economic benefits, leave alone other advancements. North Korea by all accounts is a poor and dismal country. It is unlikely that this matters very much to Mr. Ill-Jong. After all he has decreed that North Koreans are indeed happy! Concepts such as human rights, an independent judiciary or a free media are just counter-propaganda, having no place in the paradise created by his family.
We know that any large project is a collective effort ,sometimes requiring the inputs of hundreds .In a project such as the wetlands park in a marshy area of the suburban sprawl of Nugegoda; environmentalists, urban planners, engineers, landscape specialists ,soil and water experts and numerous others would have had to pool their talents and expertise. The all- important funds for such projects come from our taxes, foreign aid or loans. However glamorous, like all public projects this too is subject to human error, excesses and waste. The project is of course open to further improvements and requires constant maintenance.
The imperious tone of the message notwithstanding, a modern State is not a one man or one family show. In societies where democratic sensibilities are more evolved it is not possible to come across such self -promoting messages displayed at public expense. It is difficult to conceive of the American people for instance putting up with such a condescending message from President Barrack Obama. The spirit of public service and the meaning of public office, if understood well, will not allow it.Such service is meant to be unheralded and wherever possible anonymous.
But in certain countries in South Asia and Africa, such patronizing declarations have become the standard. In Tamil Nadu their long term Chief Minister Jayalalithaa missed no opportunity to glorify herself in every possible way. Many projects and public institutions are named after her and other politicians there. There is no visible moral revulsion from the people of Tamil Nadu, many even treating her as a kind of divine presence living among the common folk. Now in a hallmark judicial decision a court in India has convicted Jayalalithaa for the offence of enriching herself while holding public office.
We do not know whether the North Koreans have even a moral concept about the personal enrichment of Ill –Jong. So cowed down are they that they do not deem it possible to question the big brother. They live in a different plain. Automatons will not question the glorious inspiration that Ill-Jong represents. It was the same with the ancient Egyptians who could not conceive of a universe where the ruled questioned the actions of a Pharaoh.
Of course Sri Lanka is not a North Korea. But we can see many parallels with Tamil Nadu. Here too, those in power can easily assume divine proportions in the eyes of the led. This happens not only in the government but could happen in political parties, associations, corporations and even clubs. It seems that social and moral dimensions of political and public office are viewed differently in our culture.
Our generation was fated to grow up in the austere days of Srimavo Bandaranaike (1970-77). A youngster of today will not believe the difficulties and the denials of that era. On certain days of the week it was prohibited to serve rice in an eatery! Although Mrs. Bandaranaike was elected for a period of 5 years only, while adopting our first Republican Constitution , her tenure became an effective 7 years ! She seemed to have believed that her rule was a boon to the people who should have rejoiced the extension! During this period the then fashionable Non-Aligned Nations Conference was held in Colombo, and of course was presided over by Mrs. Bandarnaike. This was sufficient ground for the government media to refer to her as the leader of two thirds of the global human population!
Then came 1977 and the JR Jayewardene government which introduced the second Republican Constitution, bringing in the office of the Executive Presidency. Mr. Jayewardene once quipped that Sri Lanka was a five star democracy. History will record this period as one of our bloodiest.
Now we have become Asia’s miracle. The word miracle is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as a marvelous event due to some supernatural agency; remarkable occurrence and so on. These three governments, Bandaranaike as leader of two thirds of world’s population, JR Jayewardene with a five star democracy and now the Rajapaksas with a miracle are in effect indulging in a comparative exercise with other countries and leaders. They claimed in turn an international leadership, a five star democracy and now a miracle in Asia.
In the first two decades after independence (app 1948-68) Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP was comparable or even better than countries like Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand and even Singapore. After the Second World War both China and Taiwan were left ravaged and very poor. Today we lag far behind these countries. A large part of our foreign exchange is earned by exporting labour, mainly for blue-collar work. It is hard to imagine anyone outside of our national boundaries considering us a five star democracy or a miracle. Only we claim so.
Ultimately, we hit the fundamental question. What is a modern State or more importantly a modern consciousness?
Where good sense and realism should prevail we see divinity and magic. As someone once said “Children see magic because they look for it”