23 September, 2018

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Elitism In Sri Lanka, Is It A Scourge Or A Blessing?

By Vishwamithra1984

The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.” ~Tom Clancy

Soon after Independence, Ceylon’s society, as it was structured then, was exclusively governed by an elite that was consummately skilled and able in furthering its own agenda, its own interests, both social and economic, and safeguarding the privileges that were granted to them by the departing British Raj. An elite whose education was either in Oxford and Cambridge or Colombo schools, whose virtual first language was English, whose commuting done in luxury cars, in other words, a class of people who were absolutely divorced from the common man in the country was charged with managing the socio-econo-cultural development of the nation. This elite was not limited to the leading community at the time, Sinhalese; it was the same for Tamils as well as Muslims and Burghers. As Kumari Jayewardene wrote in her celebrated exposition of Sri Lanka’s rise of mercantilism and the elites in the twentieth century, ‘Nobodies to Somebodies’: ‘Members of another group of Sri Lankans, who were to form an important part of the emergent 19th century bourgeoisie, were landowners, whose holdings provided them with a means of accumulation and later, a basis for expanded growth in the plantation era. Just as the monopolistic policies of the Dutch and the British had located a stratum of officials in the cinnamon industry and endowed them with a basis for growth, their administrative policies also created a group of Sri Lankan officials, called Mudaliyars. Peebles (1973:1) has defined them as an economic and social status group “mediating between the alien rulers and the bulk of the indigenous population” performing functions that the foreign rulers were “unable or unwilling to do”.’
This elite, that rose to real influence behind political power, along with the growth of capitalism of the local flavor, in character was snobbish and conceited but in substance and capacity, quite rich and equipped. However, Jayewardene’s book did not go past the Independence of Ceylon and as a result, unless she is engaged in writing another mini-masterpiece on the transformation of elitism from one class to another class, we are bereft of a close and erudite analysis Sri Lanka’s socio-econo-cultural evolution as a social democracy in the latter half of the twentieth century. Despite, this transformation- not in real substance and fundamental mindset- the modern twenty first century-elitism in Sri Lanka does not seem to have changed at all in the context of weight and influence behind the politicians who govern the country.jr-and-ds

Outside the corridors of power, this elitism does not seem to exist. The primary language this new elite communicates in is Sinhalese or Tamil. English is spoken only in the corporate world where the top layer of leaders are drawn from those elitist secondary schools such as Royal, St. Thomas’ and Trinity College. But thanks mainly to the survival of Ceylon Civil Service, at least up to 1972, a few brightest of the bright village educated lads managed to get into this elite administrative system and shine among the Colombo or overseas-educated elite civil servants. But that was just a handful or even less.

What is Sri Lanka’s elite? In answer to that question, one would have to look at all layers of our society, their individual thought process and mindsets, their social intercourse, their capacity for spending money, their real lifestyles, their immediate associates and friends and their historical lineage. Elite is defined in most dictionaries as “a group of persons exercising the major share of authority or influence within a larger group”. In the narrow context of that definition, Sri Lanka’s current elite could be loosely categorized as those who are close to political powers and drawing every possible ounce of benefit from their association with the powers that be. However, one stark contrast between the Ceylon Civil Service of yesteryear and the current Sri Lanka Administrative Service is esteem in which the old Civil Service was held, it is deservedly so, and the contempt and scorn the current one receives.

Nevertheless, the non-political elite of this country, especially in the urban sector, even though their dealings, business and social communication are mostly conducted in the vernacular, their spending and influencing capacities have reached levels that are far out of reach even for the average wealthy person. The current occupiers of the upper echelons of this ‘elite’ are wealthy beyond any imagination. Their riches are phenomenal and the way it’s displayed on the functions such as weddings, receptions and other social events is obscene. With an uncontrolled spiraling down of spending capacities, in real value terms, of the ‘have-nots’, the dominance of these elites gets exaggerated and their perceived appearance assumes even a ‘paler shade of gloom’ in the face of the common masses.

The tragedy of the decline of the traditional elite that existed prior to the nineteen seventies is felt, not only in the mass perception of the nation’s psyche, it is even more evident in the cruelty with which the masses are disregarded in the most callous way, less by the politicians and more by their henchmen and cohorts. What was played out, one would argue, as a bizarre drama especially during the last days of the Rajapaksa regime was merely a microcosm of that deep issue which was sheltered by a veneer of patriotism. When this new elite which consisted of the new-money class, wrapped themselves in a patriotic flag, they became the voices not only of the regime, but they pretended to be the real vanguard of a national requisite.

The profiles and social outlook of the elites of the security forces, Army, Navy and Air Force, were diluted below the minimum level required to be at an elite-contention. Their subservience to the henchmen and cohorts of a ruling family or clan went beyond mere loyalty to the government in power. The traditional elites in the provinces and other district capitals lost their clouts and were replaced by thugs, drug-dealers and illicit brewers with money and muscle. This gradual but sure evaporation of the traditional elites, in the center and the regions, and their replacement by the new-rich provincial Mafioso had its rapid results in the socio-cultural ethos in the country.

Elites in Sri Lanka today are, to reverse-paraphrase what Pieter Keuneman in Parliament referred to the famous C Sunderalingam, more of a ‘target of anger rather than an object of pity’. In the overall scheme of matters, elite politics, elite business, elite sports, elite social life, elite bureaucracy, elite security forces all come down to one glaring reality. That reality is physical closeness to the powers that be. That closeness consists in, for example, to be seen with the political leaders of the day, to be visible in the same arena where the ‘big political boys’ play, to be talked about in the same sentence with powerful leaders.

The traditional Sri Lankan elite which was the monopoly of the leading civil servants, commanders of the forces and leading businessmen of the day has evaporated into thin air. The English-speaking educated in the leading Colombo schools first and then in Oxbridge overseas, played a vital role in shaping the destinies of the nation yesteryear. Whatever their follies, their political philosophies, their financial dealings, they still played the game by its rules. They sometimes behaved in the maddest fashion, yet there was a method in their madness. That order, that discipline and that adherence to the rules of the game had their inherent advantages, for when they were proven wrong and short in judgment and execution of matters of the state, business and security etc. they accepted the rules of the game; when they were defeated, they left the arena with their heads severely bruised but held high. To that galaxy of elite belonged D S Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake, Sir John Kotelawala, J R Jayewardene, S W R D Bandaranaike, N M Perera, Peter Keuneman, Phillip Gunawardena, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, S J V Chelvnayagam and Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and Anura Bandaranaike, Lakshman Kadirgamar, of latter decades along with Sir Oliver Goonatilleke, Raju Coomaraswamy, Bradman Weerakoon, Shirley Amarasinghe, Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria and Jayantha Dhanapala and an innumerable number of civil servants and force-commanders and businessmen. The cultural elite that could boast about Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Mahagama Sekera, Lester James Peiris, Joe Abeywickrama, Gamini Fonseka, Punya Heendeniya and the rest of those cultural giants cannot be replaced by those who sang eulogies to modern ‘kings’. That elite was a blessing to the advancement of our society as a cohesive nation. They did not sacrifice their personal integrity nor did they surrender their professional uprightness for the sake of currying favor with the powers that be.

The elites of today have stripped themselves of that yesteryear-decency; they are an elite that is trapped in their own cocoon of avarice; they are a bunch of henchmen and henchwomen whose

DNA has been identified as ‘severely spoiled’ and unique in character in that its holders are prone to multiplying disproportionately to its original approximations. They find themselves in an unfamiliar arena where, in the past, champions played and excelled. They are a scourge to our society and the sooner we realize it, the better for the country.

*The writer can be contacted on vishwamithra1984@gmail.com

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  • 3
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    By Vishwamithra1984

    RE: Elitism In Sri Lanka, Is It A Scourge Or A Blessing?

    “Soon after Independence, Ceylon’s society, as it was structured then, was exclusively governed by an elite that was consummately skilled and able in furthering its own agenda, its own interests, both social and economic, and safeguarding the privileges that were granted to them by the departing British Raj.”

    “Sri Lanka’s current elite could be loosely categorized as those who are close to political powers and drawing every possible ounce of benefit from their association with the powers that be. However, one stark contrast between the Ceylon Civil Service of yesteryear and the current Sri Lanka Administrative Service is esteem in which the old Civil Service was held, it is deservedly so, and the contempt and scorn the current one receives.”

    “The current occupiers of the upper echelons of this ‘elite’ are wealthy beyond any imagination. Their riches are phenomenal and the way it’s displayed on the functions such as weddings, receptions and other social events is obscene.”

    “The elites of today have stripped themselves of that yesteryear-decency; they are an elite that is trapped in their own cocoon of avarice; they are a bunch of henchmen and henchwomen whose..DNA has been identified as ‘severely spoiled’ and unique in character in that its holders are prone to multiplying disproportionately to its original approximations. “

    Thanks for the summary of the Para-“Elites” in the Land of Native Veddah Aethho.

    Yes, self- promotion and self-interest of the Para-“Elites”.

    Then it was replaced by Para-Sinhala “Buddhism” and racism, and the politicians latched on to that. It was downhill since then.

    The low average IQ of 79 certainly helped.

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      Ranil Wickramasinghe epitomizes the worst of the old and new elites of Sri Lanka.. and is dangerous.

      He is like Assad in Syria: “resolved to ruin or to rule the State”.

  • 3
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    The USA broke the stranglehold of the elite power brokers when it elected an uncouth philandering Billionaire who is more like Ceylon’s Mudalali class rather than the Aristocratic class of the Bandas, Senanayakes, JRs etc.. The barbarians are at the gate

  • 3
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    Vishawa: Ranil Wickramasinghe and Mahinda Jarapassa have collaborated and are jointly the most culpable in modern Sri Lankan history for the bi-partisan UNP-SLFP State of corruption, impunity and immunity for financial crimes and moral deterioration that is manifest today in every corner of the country. Indeed more so Ranil than Jarapassa.

    Indeed,, Corruption has been normalized and institutionalized in the Diya-wenn Parliament under Ranil.

    In his greed for power and duplicity Ranil Wickramasinghe represents the worst of the old and new elites in Sri Lanka.

    With the Mega Bond Scam and bribing of politicians with 100,000 salary raises and duty free SUVs this week in the Diyuawenna Parliament, Ranil has condoned and magnified corruption to the extent that most SLFP and UNP politicians, are today a parasitic Caste on the body politic – all in the name of PARLIAMENTARY PRIVILEGES! Ranil further entrenched a culture of immunity and impunity for corruption that is trickling down from the Parliament.

  • 4
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    I think elitism comes natural to mankind. It is a manifestation of social/societal hierarchical arrangements. There elite criminals too. That is our pecking-order that evolved over millennia and we share it with all creatures great and small. In the human, it operates in a variety of forms. The rich elite, land owning, educated elite, political elite,professional elite, religious elite,intellectual elite etc.

    While all types of elite co-exist in parallel at all times, at present the political elite have become the most dominant. That is our tragedy, especially when they are less educated, less cultured and non-intellectual.

    The intellectual elite are on the decline in this country in numbers and quality. An intellectual is a person who engages in critical study, thought and reflection about the reality of society and proposes solution for the problems confronting society at any given time. He/she helps create healthy public opinion. An intellectual may also be a contrarian. A contrarian is a person who takes a contrary position that is opposed to that of the majority regardless of how unpopular it may be.

    We definitely have so-called intellectuals who sell their soul to the Devil. However, they cannot be called the elite.

    Thomas Jefferson says,” All know the influence of interest on the mind of man, and how unconsciously his judgement is warped by that influence”.

    A true intellectual is one who can transcend ‘The influence of interest’- self and sectarian and tall enough to see the details below him as well as the direction in which society as a whole should be nudged.

    Many of those whom we label as intellectuals are vocal and literate
    rabble-rousers.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    • 8
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      I look forward to your contribution. Incisive as usual. I agree that a real intellectual is one who possesses the best of mankind; but sadly we don’t see this in many “intellectuals”.

      I take issue with the author on one factual point. SWRD and JR certainly did “sacrifice their personal integrity nor did they surrender their professional uprightness for the sake of currying favor with the powers that be”. To be told otherwise is sheer fantasy.

      I don’t think many people realize how backward this country is (in terms of secondary educational quality; quality of our tertiary education). Our chief export is our menial labour. To sit on the crest of society and call ourselves the elite does not say much.

    • 3
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      You can add further, the present elites are psychologically suffering lot, very closer to sociopath, they cannot reason out the suffering caused to the masses. They promise greener pastures for ever and ever while enjoying the privileges denied to the people who placed them in the chair. If cannot govern they must resign.

  • 4
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    How do fish feel out of water?

    For over 200 odd years, we were taken out of our own culture and thought to be something we are not.

    Now, we have finally returned home to our own culture as if no detour ever happened. This is how, we would have arrived at the 21st century, if the pale-face never set foot.

    To hell with SWRD, he didn’t do a thing with his Swabasha shindig; he’s nothing but a half-assed Anglophile.

    After so many half-hearted attempts to come back home to our own culture, the leader, the true father of the modern 21st century Sri Lanka, who could finally shed centuries of White-man’s training and bring us back home to our own Lankan culture is great Mahinda Rajapakse.

    The great man did it by example!

    This is who we are.

    It’s nice to be back home.

  • 2
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    Nimal Fernando , are you an Aryia Sinhala or a Sri Lankan Sinhala or Dravida Sinhala ? You have Ariya face or pale face ?

    I agree with you that the problem created is 200+ yers old because we never had unitary state but united Kingdoms. SOUTHERN, WESTERN, CENTRAL , EAST , NORTH CENTRAL AND TWO NORTHERN .So let us restore our systems that existed 200 years ago.Then we can conquer South India up to the border of former Kalinga.

    Spread Theravada Buddhism as our army march forward towards the border of former Kalinga.

    • 4
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      Non PhD,

      “are you an Aryia Sinhala or a Sri Lankan Sinhala or Dravida Sinhala ? You have Ariya face or pale face ?”

      Does it matter? I am just another guest in the hotel.

      We all evolve; at least we should.

      At this stage of my life I’ve come to believe that education, religion and culture, in the main, is nothing but a gang rape of our minds that smothers independent thinking and prevents us from thinking for ourselves.

      I’ve read the story of a girl who was gang raped, and later she would sit in the bath tub for hours trying to wash it away day after day. This is what I’ve done most of my adult life; trying to wash away the gang rape of education, religion and culture. Some days are good some days are not.

      I despise “trained” “system-thinkers” who can’t take the blinkers off and get off the tracks they are put to travel on. It’s too predictable; where they start and where they end. Unfortunately Lankan tradition is too steeped in Oxbridge/Ivy-league tradition. We can’t help it; it’s our tradition/training.

      Most writers/analysts, subconsciously, are still trying to gain the masters’ approval.

      The point I was trying to make – half in jest :) – was that Mahinda was the first Lankan leader to break tradition from our colonial-past and run a truly indigenous/”vernacular” “administration.” He was truly a man of the “rural” and couldn’t have run anything else even if he wanted to; he didn’t know how! He represents – I guess – 75% or more of Lankans. Whether we like it or not, that’s what we are. Most “Sri Lankans” are very attuned/comfortable to/with his “Sri Lankan-ess” as his popularity shows.

      The previous leader most like him would have been Premadasa, but he was in a party that is steeped in the “Western tradition” and the conflicts he faced – while in power – in his own party the UNP points to that. Usually there are very few conflicts in a ruling party cause they all come together to partake in the “privileges.” No one wants to upset the applecart; well, until the end – to jump ship to join the next wining side.

      The conflicts brought on by the “training” within Chadrica was very obvious. A little French, a little English and a whole lot of Sri Lankan. Mahinda had none of those conflicts. For better or for worse, he was the first truly “Sri Lankan” leader. Who had the “freedom” to be totally “Sri Lankan.” And the results are there for all to see. Some may like it, others may not. But this is not about any of that, I’m merely pointing to an event/occurrence; that’s all.

      99% of Lankans are not immersed in the “Western-tradition” that the writers/analysts are espousing here. Mahinda Rajapakse was the leader who was able to prove it conclusively and banish all doubts.

      I’ll cop the wrath of many but to use a crudely analogy, what happens if you go to a colony of monkeys and induce certain “non-monkey” behavioural traits using bananas as rewards? What happens when the “trainers” leave?

      All of us – including myself – are barking up the wrong tree. Our foolish pride won’t allow us to see it for what it is. Our problem at the core is nothing more than one of Anthropology. If we do not address the problems at that level all else is just a waste of time; just standing on our heads and whistling Dixie from our behinds. Nothing much’s gonna change.

      Sure, I read most of what people write; it’s very stimulating in an “academic” way. I may be wrong, but I don’t think it’s going to solve our problems.

      It’s a free world; I’m just one voice among 22 million. Nothing more and a lot less.

      • 0
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        Take away your mind as see with your eyes for a change.
        Think about exports to USA.
        Lankans have lost the china card with Terry Branstad friend of Xi as US ambassador to China.Now the Lankan leaders are praising Jayalalitha and Trump.
        The country will be dumped by Trump and Forever Trump Paul Rayan too.
        you will be begging from the Hindians soon.

        • 0
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          “Lankans have lost the china card with Terry Branstad friend of Xi as US ambassador to China”

          I dont thinkl so. Sri Lanka does not even come into the equation. The Chinese don’t give a fig about who is the US Ambassador. Friend, Enemy, Former Friend, Former Enemy.. it’s all the same to them. They will just stroke the American b@lls and keep their US market alive for as long as they can.

          China’s ambitions remain the same.

          For all the hot air, let see Trump get Americans to pay $500 and not $59 for a pair of sneakers (it is a bargain!!) because it is “Made In America”

          … after having handed Carrier millions of dollars in tax cuts in order to “save” a couple of hundred thousand dollars worth of jobs !!

  • 0
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    This is an interesting article. I have encouraged research and writing on this subject before. It is important to study and analyse contemporary elitism in its manifold forms and shapes for the sake of understanding the true nature of the ruling class. I often use the latter term instead of ruling elites because the ruling class is composed of diverse elements and characteristics compared to elites. Elites,as the author describes, had a distinctive character being associated with colonial administration, commerce, etc but English educated and working as brokers between the Suddas and common man. Ruling class today comprise of politically constructed stratum of polis both at Central and provincial levels, bureaucrats, defence and security bosses, etc but indirectly include those in business, professions also to some extent.

    If we focus on the question who are the contemporary Midaliyars many things will become clearer. To understand elites today, one has to understand the top layer of polis,bureaucrats,corporate and defence elites,diplomats etc who seem to wield super power compared to middle level functionaries at the command of the former. Whether the contemporary elites are linked to each other by a distinguishing feature like the colonial elites need further examination,e.g political culture,nepotism,corruption, desire for wealth,

    Ranjani Obeysekera has written a valuable chapter on changing elites after 56. For the reference see my article in the latest issue of Post colonial Directions in Education you can acces via Internet. Vol.5 no 1 May 2016 special issue

  • 1
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    The elites today are an un-educated lot. Some or even more than some, may be qualified – even Professors – but NOT educated in the real sense of the word. That is why they go after filthy lucre, power and position.

    The bureaucrats of yester years literally followed the Rule of law and stood up to the cheap politicians who wanted to bend the Law. But alas, today, it is just the opposite with the bureaucrats – including highly qualified people – bending backwards to please the politicians.

    In the late 1950s, there was an ASP who was interviewing applicants for Sub Inspectors for the Police. An applicant who fell short in Height brought a letter from an outstation politician asking the Interviewing Officer to ignore the Height requirements for the applicant. The ASP read the letter, went to the measuring area, placed the letter on the floor and asked the applicant to stand on it and exclaimed “you are still short on height”. That was the end of the matter. I believe the ASP was Sydney Soyza. Today, can you imagine even the IGP doing that?

  • 0
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    People look at their political and religious leaders for moral guidance,

    I would like to differentiate elitism and the class.

    Elitism is what rich and influential, may be educated,

    Class is that differentiate you from the ordinary, the value system, culture, behaviour, decency. It is crafted from the exposure, experience and etc.

    We still have elites now but without the class, I guess the elitists we had in 50s 60s had class.

    We do not see that class among the Buddhist Monks anymore!
    We do not see that class among the politicians!
    We do not see that class among the government servants.

    Even our University lecturers have no class, They come to west, Work in Tescos and Sainburies, save money, get the PHD and go back.

    We still see this nature among the Catholics thanks to the priests who pass down this to their followers, Because they get a better exposure to the outside world and foreign priests.

    May be that is why Dayan is an intellectual, How many people like him do we have in Sri Lanka?

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