By Lankamithra –
“Be like the bird who, pausing in her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing she hath wings”. ~Victor Hugo
They say we got independence from the British colonial powers in 1948. It has been sixty nine long years and the journey has not been very exciting to look back upon. At the beginning of this journey, those who were dubbed as ‘fathers of the nation’ and others who were originally engaged in the so-called ‘Independence struggle’ began the navigation of a nation’s journey towards self-fulfillment, its goals of serving the masses who were mostly below poverty level, three fourths of who were living in remote rural areas.
Since Independence, this nation has gone through seven regime changes. These changes have been swapped between two political philosophies which are diametrically opposed to each other. The United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which could be broadly termed as the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ respectively, have been fundamentally dominated by two families except in two circumstances. Once was when R Premadasa assumed the leadership of the UNP and the other when the Mahinda Rajapaksa was honored with the responsibility of leading the SLFP. Since Independence, the leadership of the UNP was in the hands of two family clans- Senanayakes and Jayewardenes. Except for the short term of R Premadasa from 1989 to 1993, even up to the present time, the UNP’s leadership has not been outside these two family clans. The present leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is a nephew of J R Jayewardene. If not for the fact that J R Jayewardene had the foresight, equanimity and a great sense of equality and above all the daring to name Premadasa as his successor, we would not have seen a representative of the so-called déclassé leading our nation. After Premadasa, although Gamini Dissanayake, again a representative of the Kandyan, Govigama Buddhists assumed leadership of the UNP for a very short time up to his unfortunate and gruesome assassination, the leadership of the party went back to a Jayewardene-relative.
On the side of the SLFP, although falsely claimed as a party of the ‘common man’, there is nothing ‘common’ about the SLFP leadership until its present leader Maithripala Sirisena assumed its leadership. Fundamentally a family-centered political party, the feudal genre of those who held the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, at a time when the people at large were looking for an alternative to the UNP, appeared on the horizon as a savior. Some social scientists and historians attribute this to the nation’s historical subservience to a ‘King’, an authoritarian head at the top. This argument might have some credence, yet the British influence on the shaping of the national mindset towards a democratic, constitutional type of governance is real and evidence abounds in the dynamics of our people adjusting to and adoption of democratic systems and other administrative organisms. This clash between propensities towards authoritarian rule and democratic principles continues and the political parties of today are confronted with this reality. Whether the current leaderships of our political parties are capable of or have the elementary capacity to understand these nuanced undertones of politics and adopt a strategic approach to achieve their political ends is yet to be seen.
In other words, Independence from the British colonial powers has not shown any maturation of a nation; on the contrary our nation, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burgers, all have succumbed to short-term retail politics resulting in a country torn apart by communal tensions, economic stagnation and social decay. It is certainly not a very elegant preface to a nation’s long story. However, both revolutionary organizations that emerged as alternatives to the leaderships of the two communities, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) as against the UNP/SLFP combination and Liberation Tigers of Tami Elam (LTTE), against the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) failed. Failure of the JVP as an alternative to the traditional leadership of the Sinhalese-dominated UNP/SLFP failed due to many reasons amongst which is primarily the Sinhalese community’s fundamental reluctance to reach the finishing line on a path of revolution. It has been proven time and time again, despite the irregular propensity of the Sinhalese community to resort to violence as a mode of settling issues, a well-organized revolutionary movement and their rigid disciplines could not attract the mature men and women towards them. Ninety percent of the JVP cadres were made up of the youth of the country, basically university and Advanced Level students.
The story of the Tamil revolutionary cadres is different in that Prabhakaran managed to shape the minds of the Tamil youth towards a mirage of Elam, the absence of any post-revolution program was a grave vacuum to fill. The overwhelming military power of the security forces ultimately destroyed the LTTE, including its legendary leader, Prabhakaran and today the Tamil community is living with a sense of great loss and with great uncertainty about their future in the midst of Sinhalese community which is still indulging in obscene triumphalism.
This is the short history of our nation after Independence. Yet the rampant corruption, especially among the majority of our politicians in the government ranks, seems to have eaten into the very core of our nation’s being. The corruption that was essentially a byproduct of vast and rapid material growth ranging from infrastructure, massive high-rise buildings, international trade, import and export transactions particularly when the government officialdom is involved in the decision-making process, has come to be accepted as the norm in daily life of all Sri Lankans.
From the security forces to the government Kachcheries, from corporations to government authorities, from departments to government owned petrol sheds, this worm of corruption has crept in. It’s been worming itself into the skin of our national bureaucracy and from the peon all the way up to school principals and departmental heads. This was manifestly evident in the last twenty years; the politicians sometimes did not sit down for discussions without an advance payment of 10% of the project value. The most distressing feature of life after Independence is this malignancy of corruption. When corruption becomes part of daily transactions between the government and its clients, the general masses in whose name all politicians hold power, that component of corruption calculated in monetary terms goes into the cost of all transactions whether they be an infrastructure project or an imported product made available to the market. Cost is being escalated without added value. Inflation ensues, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats earn ill-gotten cash and the masses suffer.
Sri Lanka should be ashamed of this process which seems to be irreversible. The villagers living in far remote hamlets are not aware of this; they have their own day-to-day needs to be provided for; they simply are not sophisticated enough to understand the nuanced characteristics of a market economy; they are too busy trying to find a better school for their children; they are too preoccupied with the lean that the village Mudalali holds on their property and sadly, they couldn’t care less.
Independence has produced a placid, unimaginative, subservient culture. History judges a people not only by the products they generate in the material world, their cultural expressions, their social evolution, their standards of morals and ethics too come in for most intense scrutiny and investigation. It is in this sphere that Sri Lanka stands listless and rudderless. Nearly seventy years after Independence, the languid lifestyle of our rural villagers, not only among Sinhalese, also among Tamils, Muslims and Burgers, has contributed greatly to their stagnation as a thriving nation.
One half hour spent among the grueling traffic in Colombo and its suburbs would reveal the reckless and undisciplined character of our people. The Plantation Raj of the British era is reported to have said that ‘you can never make a gentleman out of a native’. That may be true, yet the pride of our rural folks cannot be underestimated, nor can it be misplaced. A proud nation which once it was, it has been corrupted by some half-educated charlatans who roam the corridors of power with immunity and pomp. Their protection comes from the very system they created after they came to control the government coffers. The pursuit of power for the service of man has turned into pursuit of power for self-enrichment. A sizeable number of politicians of yesteryear and most at the present time are guilty of corruption, nepotism and lack accountability and transparency. Such elements of accountability and transparency are totally alien to them and they seem to be absolutely disregarding the basic precepts of decency and decorum.
In such a context, life after Independence in Sri Lanka has turned out to be utterly divorced from a growing adulthood. Sri Lankan men and women are like birds without wings and rabbits without feet. And it is not a glad epilogue one can write about post-Independence Sri Lanka.
*The writer is available at firstname.lastname@example.org