By Rajan Philips –
In November 2014, to mark its own eightieth anniversary, the British Council published a list of 80 greatest world moments over 80 years (1934-2014), based on a survey of 10,000 adults in ten countries in four continents (the five BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, four from G7 Germany, Japan, UK and USA, and Egypt) and ranked by eminent experts in diverse fields from diverse countries. The list starts with the invention of the Worldwide Web in1989 and ends with innovations in German ballet dancing, perhaps indicative of the distribution of judges and the survey population. Fourth on the list is the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the same year Sri Lanka became independent. Decolonisation is ranked 36, as the Independence of former Colonies of Europe. Thanks to the Indian independence movement (the role and influence of Mahatma Gandhi is ranked 29), Britain handed over independence to colonial conformists in the model colony that was Ceylon while the island’s anti-colonial revolutionaries were underground in India. This is old water long run under even older bridges.
What is new are the many moments on the list of 80 landmarks assigned to information technology, besides the worldwide web, and how these global technology moments are transforming Sri Lanka in ways that only a few among us seem to be noticing with some consistency. Third on the list of 80 is the widespread availability of home computers since the 1980s. The list goes on: the growth of social media (#12); mobile phone (#15); public television (#24); Nano Technology (#25); Email (#26); digital photography (#42); and Wikipedia (#47). With the exception of public television that took over forty years, since its initial launching by the BBC in 1936, to arrive in Sri Lanka, the integration of other information and media technologies in Sri Lankan society has been swift and comprehensive. In a country, where the landline telephone was once an exclusive luxury, the mobile phone represents the omnipresent necessity for cordless technology.
The impact of social media on Sri Lankan society is largely unfathomed, although there is great interest in whatever impact that social media is having on the country’s politics. The first use of social media in Sri Lankan politics was in the January 2015 presidential elections. It certainly created a buzz but it is highly unlikely that social media contributed to any significant movement of votes. Stories about the corruption of the Rajapkasas were broadcast over social media, although quite a few of them later turned out to be pure fabrications. The sinister use of social media in Sri Lanka was in fomenting anti-Muslim sentiments and organizing anti-Muslim violence in parts of the Kandy District in March 2018.
A positive use of social media came to the fore in the mobilization of public opposition to Maithripala Sirisena’s presidential antics late last year. The famous tweet from a protestor at Temple Trees, “I am not here for Ranil, but for democracy,” generated a rare response from the Prime Minister: “That is what democracy is all about.” That may have been the high point of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s participatory democracy. He is reported to have gone dormant in social media interactions after he was re-sworn as Prime Minister. Ironically, the Rajapksas (the father, the son and the uncle) are believed to be the heaviest users of social media among Sri Lankan politicians. However, and not so ironically, their politics and political messaging failed to resonate in social media during the shut down of parliament and earlier during the orchestrated Colombo protest march over nothing. The disconnect is not implausible, because social media empowers the individual, though not always positively or for positive purposes, and it can hardly be the medium for the Rajapaksa brand of politics that dismisses individuals and wants to treat people as social animals.
A broken party system
The point is also that 71 years after independence Sri Lanka finds itself strung between new forms of technology and old forms and old questions of politics. The antics of October-November and their continuing aftermath have created a special backdrop to the 71st independence anniversary that will be officially commemorated tomorrow. The President and the Prime Minister who will be leading the ritual celebrations tomorrow were not born at the time of independence. That in itself is not a problem, but the problem stems from their dubious abilities and commitments to meet the challenges of today’s circumstances, some of which they themselves have created or aggravated separately and together over the last four years. The two men together raised high hopes at independence anniversary celebrations in 2015 and 2016. Everything has been going downhill ever since.
Last year especially, they were at each other’s throat, the President more than the Prime Minister, trying to out do one another in the Local Government elections. They both failed, Sirisena more miserably than Wickremesinghe, and yet it was Sirisena who wanted the ouster of Wickremesinghe as PM based on the LG elections. After losing every battle from that time, the President is still not calling off his war against the Prime Minister. He makes it a point to send public overtures to Sajith Premadasa, perhaps still trying to wean him away from Wickremesinghe. And Mr. Premadasa doesn’t seem to be averse to receiving and reciprocating Sirisena’s overtures, even though there is not a hell of a lot that he can do with them. The President’s newest harebrained idea is to use the rump of the SLFP that he is supposedly leading to become the vehicle for a new national government that will be open to anyone except Ranil Wickremesinghe. At the same time, the Prime Minister never seems ready to give up on placating the President to have another crack at the national government. If Sirisena seems implacable, Wickremesinghe has become a glutton for Sirisena’s taunts and insults.
For all their infirmities, the UNP and the SLFP have been Sri Lanka’s alternative governing parties. The UNP, although founded from a motley collection of different political groups, was the party of independence. Its creator was also the father of the nation and first Prime Minister, DS Senanayake. The SLFP was the democratic alternative to the UNP and was founded three years after independence by SWRD Bandaranaike. The UNP has now become the political bandwagon of Ranil Wickremesinghe and is forever in some an alliance or front for contesting elections, often unsuccessfully. Although the junior of the two and began as an opposition party, the SLFP has spent more time in government than the UNP. But the SLFP is in virtual death throes now.
For the last 25 years the President of the SLFP has also been the President of Sri Lanka: Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005); Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-2015); and Maithripala Sirisena (2015-?). But during the last four years, Maithripala Sirisena has been presiding over the dismemberment of the Party of SWRD Bandaranaike. The Rajapaksas have spirited away about one half of the Party. Many of the remaining members are not happy with Sirisena, who is in fear of a challenge from Chandrika Kumaratunga for the control of the official party and assets, or its breakaway, and leaving Sirisena in the political lurch. Sri Lanka’s political party system was insubstantially developed at the time of independence, and whatever that grew afterwards is not working like a democratic party system should. Even the numerically smaller but organizationally vibrant Left Parties and minority political Parties have lost their identities. This is one of the sadder and more tragic developments after 71 years of independence.
Other moments and lapses
“The spread of English as a global language” is ranked 11th in the list of 80 moments, one step ahead of the growth of social media. What was a global moment about the English language became a huge lapse in Sri Lanka, not so much because of the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 under Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, but because of its aggressive implementation after his death which he may not have condoned. The tragic hypocrisy again was that those who had a head start in English and their children did not lose anything, but generations of students who would have gained fluency in English in the normal course of education were shut out of that opportunity in the name of swabasha streaming. The 13th Amendment belatedly recognized English as a link language and there is now a hunger for learning English, but there is no infrastructure to satisfy that demand.
Sri Lanka has fared better on a different innovative moment (#69): “the development of shipping containers.” This was also a rare, if not unique, instance where the institutional and professional body of expertise that began with the building and operation of the Colombo harbour under colonial rule was able to continually upgrade the harbour and its operations in keeping with the global development of port technology. This was unique because in almost all other departments of engineering and infrastructure that were started quite systematically under colonial rule, the record after independence is disgraceful failure. Transport is the worst sector. There are no transport moments after 1934 in the British Council list of 80 – they had all happened much earlier, except the “growth of low cost air travel” since the 1970s based on the regional air travel model in the US. Sri Lankans have immeasurably benefited from low cost flying, but successive governments have comprehensively mismanaged the national carrier. The daily exposure of the rot at Sri Lankan, the national carrier, is again a national shame.
The key moments on the social front are: the mass production of penicillin (#2); greater equality for women in many parts of the world (# 10); the invention of the contraceptive pill (#22); and the growing recognition of Gay and Lesbian rights (52). The sixties began with the pill and ended with the coming out of gay pride. Sri Lanka was not concurrently buffeted by these sweeping changes, but they are gradually finding their way into South Asian and Sri Lankan societies. The Indian Supreme Court’s ruling to decriminalize homosexuality is a landmark ruling in the slow march from social intolerance to social refinement.
Globally, Sri Lanka’s independence coincided with the emergence of the Cold War (# 37) that split the allies who fought the Nazis. The Cold War ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union (# 8). The beginning of the end came earlier with the fall of the Berlin Wall (# 27), which is also considered to be the beginning of the current phase of globalization. The financial infrastructure for globalization had been anticipated in the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement (#51) that set up first the IMF and then the World Bank. These developments became the facts of life for countries like Sri Lanka influencing their foreign policy and the management of their economies.
Sri Lanka’s foreign policy in the past has been driven more by domestic ethno-political considerations than economic interests. What was Anglo-mania and India-phobia in foreign policy soon after independence became China-mania and Anglo-India phobia under the Rajapaksas. The present government has tried to be all things to all people both in domestic politics and international relations, but has little to show as results for its efforts. At the same time, there is a new Cold War emerging over trade, technology and climate change, and globalization is giving way to greater emphasis on regional blocs. Where and how Sri Lanka will adapt to these changes are questions that should preoccupy those aspiring to be presidential candidates. But the aspirants are more preoccupied with other matters such as dual citizenship, cabinet expansion, or trading in presidential pardons.