By Siri Gamage –
We are passing another Independence Day with ceremony, pride and reflection at a time when the country faces a range of unresolved issues including poverty, lack of reconciliation, uncontrolled police culture, questionable activities of ‘professional politicians’ and a trend towards ethnic extremism – this time from the majority Sinhalese community’s fringe elements. Unless managed well, any number of these and other issues could turn ugly and the forward march of Yahapalanaya (Good governance) derailed. This risk is further enhanced if the country’s political leaders give priority to ‘Politics’ and ‘Privilege’ rather than ‘Good Governance’ in the name of the people who elected them. In a country where ‘transactional politics’ is the name of the game rather than ‘political morality and discipline’, pragmatism can override the principle unless civil society organisations that should function as the guardians of Yahapalanaya apply continuous pressure on the political leaders who tend to forget their promises to the people once in power enjoying the privileges of office.
Independence doesn’t mean much to those masses who tend to be oppressed by economic and social hardships of various types, particularly as a result of what some call ‘internal colonialism’. It is well known that many of our countrymen and women face immense difficulties in eking out a living within Sri Lanka and in other countries such as the Middle East. If people are to enjoy true independence, exploitative and unequal social and economic relations and archaic attitudes that exist in the country have to be eliminated. The question still being asked is whether the political change that occurred in January last year will usher in a new era where people can enjoy full rights and freedoms as empowered citizens? It is true that ‘the jungle rule’ has been replaced with ‘rule of law’ to some extent. Freedoms including media freedom, freedom to express, travel, and associate, etc. have been restored. Freedom from fears of various kinds including arbitrary arrest, bullying and disappearances has been restored. Moral and legal platform against corruption in public life has been convened. Semi-autonomous institutions of governance to restore faith of the public in the instruments of governance have been established. Reducing political interference has strengthened independence of the judiciary. Not only removing ‘the cut out culture’ but also the political leadership trying to lead by example has dismantled the cult of worshiping our dear leader- a concept borrowed from North Korea and other countries like Cambodia. Nonetheless, the people still suffer from a judicial system with lengthy hearing processes and delays -technically manipulated by lawyers -inherited from the colonial rulers. Like the constitutional change, Sri Lanka needs to move quickly to implement ‘a simplified legal system and procedures’ suitable for the 21st century, together with a modern education system not encumbered by historical baggage.
In order to provide economic freedoms, the country needs an economic philosophy rooted in its history and culture, not only knowledge about how to count money borrowed from other countries or multilateral agencies. It needs a development philosophy suitable for the country and its future based on our values including the protection of environment and respect for each other. Long term sustainability of our natural resources need to be ensured along with the health of the population. Social justice principles should govern allocations to the needy and vulnerable. A social and political philosophy suitable for the time needs to be formulated and the people educated on the same. Our intellectuals could play a crucial role in this regard.
The political and social upheaval faced by our countrymen and women for over thirty years cannot be repeated merely because of lack of vision by the rulers of one sort or another. A critical discourse needs to be developed to map out our future for the long term based on our country’s historical, cultural, religious traditions. A way of thinking about our future needs to be articulated through such a discourse. Conversations about a new or amended constitution can be contributory in this sense because it will devise a blueprint for the operations of the governance system including the way elections are to be conducted in the future.
At present, there is some talk about reconciliation but manifestly lacks a well-articulated social or political discourse supported by the powers that be. In this vacuum, emergence of extremist views is inevitable. Such extremist discourses rely on their main target -‘minority bashing’. This should not be the dominant platform for Sri Lanka’s future decades –even though reconciliation among various ethnicities for long-term prosperity is a priority. The main discourse should be woven around the place of Sri Lanka among the contemporary family of nations, defining our rights and responsibilities as Sri Lankans, developing a citizenry informed about world affairs through our education system (that needs significant reform), strengthening rule of law and institutions of law enforcement, developing a democratic system of (small) governance where grassroots leaders can represent their constituents without having to gather millions of black money to be able to function, and a social system in general that ‘empowers’ our citizens, especially the young, rather than make them subservient to the dominant professional political class or business and defense elites. Ethical behavior should be encouraged in all spheres of society through all institutions. Care for the sick and frail should be focused as a special area of attention including the provision of government services and public facilities.
Pockets of internal colonialism in the country need to be identified and removed. Inequalities of various kinds made by man often sanctioned by our convoluted cultures need to be eliminated. Dominance of various kinds exercised by human beings over other human beings need identification and removal. Social norms together with a legal framework suitable for a society where equality is preserved among people need developing. In this task, our sociologists, humanists and other social scientists have a significant role to play in constructing knowledge that is useful for grasping the realities of life on one hand and explaining their root causes on the other. They could provide an education to our young people within who develops an in-born capacity for critical thinking, social and global awareness.
The focus in the higher education system should be innovation and research coupled with quality teaching in a variety of knowledge fields. For this purpose serious reform in the sector is necessary. Courses taught should not only include ‘modern disciplines’ imported from the global north (Euro-America) but also those focusing on traditional knowledge in Asia. Physical infrastructure development is important but how a country trains its young for future roles in society and in the world has become a crucial area of activity in the competitive spheres of work and life. Having a healthy population is a key in this regard. Critical reflections on imported goods and services are necessary to weed out the ill effects of these on the local population, e.g. super market foods. In other countries, there is a trend toward growing vegetables and fruits in home gardens as a way to avoid supermarket foods that contain unhealthy ingredients and causing various illnesses. Such trends need close scrutiny for local application via government and NGO policies. The attitude that ‘all that is imported is good’ needs substantial revision.
Education should be oriented toward the development of whole person –not only provide skills necessary for the private sector employment. If the latter is the philosophy of education, then the human person can be reduced to a ‘human commodity’ devoid of morals, ethics, and personal integrity. Mob (Kalli) behavior has to be discouraged not only within institutions of learning but also in the broader society.
Through the education system, intercultural understanding has to be promoted as part of efforts undertaken to reconcile the nation. Intercultural education is a well-developed field in global centres of learning. Epistemological and pedagogical leads should be taken from this field to introduce courses in schools and higher education institutions so that our emerging generation acquired cross-cultural understanding including basic knowledge of languages. At work places also short courses can be conducted. As the world is moving toward a multi-polar system, learning of world languages is becoming an essential task. In China, there are foreign language universities in various provinces to train their young to be able to communicate in a multitude of languages not only in English. Sri Lanka could consider a similar initiative at least in 3-4 cities. If our young people do not understand each other when they pass out from schools and universities due to the segregated schooling system by language and teaching through different media streams in universities, the foundation for a divisive national culture is already being laid. This needs addressing by policy makers and political leadership.
Activities of civil society organisations should be directed toward those functions that the government couldn’t do by itself. This could include developing a greater sense of ‘voluntarism’ and ‘social service’ as in some other developed countries. Such services could be directed at serving the frail and elderly, deprived communities and groups, and in the emergency services such as in natural and man-made disasters. Allowing it to operate, as a semi autonomous sphere on democratic principles should enhance local government system. Proliferation of governance entities at the grassroots level should be avoided.
These are some brief reflections about our independence and much needed social and economic reforms in our bellowed Lanka on this day.