By Siri Gamage –
Interesting arguments and counter arguments emerge from the political stage in Sri Lanka these days as the campaigning for the Presidential election heats up. Political leaders on various pretexts claim guardianship of the nation. Both main candidates have made promises to create a better society focusing on discipline and moral order as well as the younger generation. Though the incumbent had ten years to do all this, and more importantly five years after the conclusion of the war, he has at last made a promise to create a disciplined society after winning the next election only. This seems to be an acknowledgement that the existing society is an ill disciplined one. An argument has also been advanced by politicians in the ruling coalition about a Western conspiracy to stop the country’s ‘development’ and ‘freedom’gained after winning the war.
It is argued that if the common candidate wins, he will turn the clock back and succumb to the pressure from Western governments. What is all this about? What is the contradiction between the kind of development that has been promoted after 2009 and the country’s moral order? How does money-power politics impinge on the foundational moral order in the country? What is this talk about Western conspiracy? Is there a local conspiracy to deceive the public by those enjoying unprecedented benefits and privileges of money-power politics?
Where do we start?
Let me first deal with the Western conspiracy. Enough has been discussed in the public media on this aspect but I limit myself to several key points only. Are Western governments including the US conspiring to stop the development in the country led by the President? Why should they do it? What do they gain by doing so? The kind of development that we see in the country is not necessarily a Sri Lankan one or for that matter a development that corresponds with a Sinhala- Buddhist cultural and religious framework of thought and practice. Though the capital for this development is obtained largely from Asian sources, the actual projects appear to embrace Western capitalist-consumerist approach and style. Take for example the pub run at the Old Dutch hospital premises by the urban development authority and/or the army. It does not serve kurumba or tambili. It serves beer and other alcoholic drinks to locals with fat pockets and foreigners at inflated costs. Similar outlets in Colombo and other parts of the island also do the same. If Sri Lanka, whose moral order is being eroded slowly and systematically, is to be safeguarded, the sweeping alcoholism in the country needs to be stopped not encouraged by opening pubs and other outlets. But by including venues such as pubs, which is a Western concept, the management of the Old Dutch Hospital commercial venue has adopted Western commercial culture as part of country’s development. There one can see a major contradiction about the argument focusing on Western conspiracies. Now we have to ask the question as to whether drinking alcohol is a Western habit or a Sri Lanka habit? At these premises local and foreign alcohol is sold to locals and foreigners. How does this practice correspond to the arguments about Western conspiracies?
Secondly, the permission given to establish casinos and gambling venues seem to contradict with the utterances of politicians in power and their actual deeds. Gambling destroys lives because when people start to gamble they do not see any limits to how much they could spend. It leads to anti social behavior such as crimes also. This then leads to family breakdowns, and even individual self-destruction. Gambling is destructive of the person, property and human relations as much as alcoholism. We have seen the consequences of these in many Western countries. Now the question arises as to whether this is a Western or Sri Lankan habit? Establishment of casinos is novel to Sri Lanka and hence it should be a habit imported from the West and China also. Here is then another contradiction in the political discourses being advanced in the current campaign and the ground reality. By the way, it is important to remember that Buddhist and other religions that are practiced in the country prohibit gambling.
If the alcohol consumed and most consumers in terms of tourists are from the Western countries, and Sri Lanka is actively promoting tourism coupled with Western style venues, comforts, food, excursions, and other vices that cannot be mentioned publicly with the active support and participation of the government and it’s branches, who is leading this so called Western conspiracy? Ah, it must be the Tamil Tigers and their sympathisers! They must be attempting to stop this development with the support of Western governments that do not like our development and freedoms? What freedoms? This requires me to write another article. Here I will limit myself to development and Western democracy. Sorry, to Western conspiracy.
Our leaders criticise Western governments and for that matter even the diaspora. But at the same time they go on ‘dollar pilgrimages’ quite openly. Our trade is conducted by using dollars and Euros. Our politicians send their children for education in Western countries. (By the way the children of our academics and professionals also do the same and ultimately settle in Western countries leaving parents to mend themselves in their old age). They have houses and investments in Western countries. Some examples have been reported in alternate media recently. When they go on official government business, they stay in five star hotels and enjoy Western food and of course alcoholic drinks, a practice very different from Indian politicians who are vegetarians. While doing all this, they are preaching to the local population about Western conspiracies! Is there any hypocrisy in these utterances? Who should believe them? The political arguments about Western conspiracies go so far as to imply that the war was not fought by local Tigers and Prabhakaran but by Western governments and the Tamil diaspora. Not even by KP!
I think the intellect of the Sri Lankan voter deserves better than these hollow arguments. The moral order in the country and core values have been seriously eroded by the kind of material –not spiritual-development being promoted, worship of Western values, lifestyles, habits and education, and the development of opportunistic individuals who are motivated by money-power politics and dollar pilgrimages. Our leaders are not talking about ‘an indigenous development’ based on local history, core values, mass aspirations, and resources. Instead what we observe is the importation of Western style – Chinese funded mega projects, shopping centers/precincts that cater to the very rich, nightclubs, pubs and casinos, leisure venues that attract the dollar, and a consumerist lifestyle that 90 percent of Sri Lankans cannot afford.
But in one sense arguments about Western conspiracies are not hollow arguments. As a country that was subjected to Western European colonisation and the undermining of local languages, religions, heritage etc. for centuries, Sri Lankans have deep rooted ambivalences about Western interferences or for that matter Chinese or Indian interferences in local affairs. In 1948 they came out of the colonial grip after suffocating a lot collectively. Thus when the national leaders talk about Western conspiracies, such arguments carry some weight in the Sri Lankan collective psyche. But People are not fools. They are thinking individuals. They weigh the merits of such arguments with their own experiences – though the heavy political advertising and utterances of conspiracies have the potential to sway some when they cast their votes.
In a recent newspaper interview, the chairperson of the University Grants Commission has stated that if we continue the current development model, Sri Lanka will also develop like Singapore and Malaysia (Divaina, Sunday 21, 2014). If this is the model of development being aspired to by the Sri Lankan leadership, many questions arise about the kind of political system in place in these two countries, freedoms of people and opposition parties, as well as whether the development model in place in these countries are anti Western? Minority rights in Malaysia have been a much-discussed subject internationally. I personally have met Chinese or Tamil students from Malaysia who complain about the lack of fair play in education, scholarships and employment. Political persecution of the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim by the ruling regime is well known. One party rule has been entrenched in these countries. Is this the politico-development model that we are also aspiring to or adopting? If this is the case, Sri Lankans have to take a deep breath and reflect on other alternatives they have on the voting day.
Sri Lanka needs a development model that corresponds with our moral order, core values and mass aspirations while utilising our resources for the benefit of many-not the very rich few and foreigners and Westerners. But this is easily said than done because our very lives are entangled with the global order, which is politically and culturally dominated by the Western countries and financially dominated by the Chinese. Personal lives of our leaders, upper classes, the middle class, professionals, academics, artists, journalists etc. are heavily entangled with things Western. There are no pure categories or binaries that divide Western and Sri Lankan-though some politicians who have vested interests in money-power politics tend to suggest otherwise. Families are divided between Sri Lankan towns and villages and Western capitals. Now many Sri Lankans are settling in country areas in Western countries also thanks to visa categories encouraging professionals to work in rural and regional areas. What we have is complex lives in a global stage. But the Sri Lankan political stage is promoting a narrow view about Sri Lankanness based on Sinhala-Tamil, and/or Western -Sri Lankan binaries to suit the money-Power political agendas. This needs proper condemnation.
Building an indigenous development model free from money-power politics and distortions of argument, ideology, political discourse that is consistent with the moral order of the country and core values is the need of the country if it is to be a truly free from Western domination and conspiracies. This requires building ‘a disciplined society’ based on democratic governing institutions and the trust of civic and religious leaders and organisations. Promoting Western style consumerist model of development that benefits mega capitalists and conglomerates from the West and the East will produce winners and losers, mostly losers who cannot afford the lifestyle and its material condiments. The masses will be compelled to ‘imitate’ the same lifestyle to serve the interests of those who own such enterprises but end up as morally weak and materially poor individuals.