10 June, 2023


Missed Opportunities

By Ian Ferdinands

Ian Ferdinands

Ian Ferdinands

I belong to a generation of Sri Lankans who witnessed many missed opportunities. Opportunities to stand proud as a nation, to grow politically and socially as a people, to prosper economically. Many of these opportunities defined by a political event, missed because of political will or lack of it. Missed because we permitted politicians to usurp the power that is rightly ours. Most often electing them and then allowing them to do as they please. A majority of politicians rarely fulfill what they promise or do what the people require. That seems to have been the norm in Sri Lanka’s case. Now its election time again. A big one this time. Amidst the rumors and humor that has been part of the political landscape we will have an opportunity to choose. It is our time.

My early recollections of an election go back to a day I spent as a kid, in a remote school room somewhere in the Uva province, where my father was in charge of a local government election (a village council or sub set of it). The process of people coming during the day to cast their vote, the secrecy of the ballot, the announcements made prior to and the declaration of the elected, after the polling closed fascinated me, even then.

Like me, most of my generation are not placard carrying politicians, who call themselves patriots. Yet we love our country and want it to be the best. Our wish list is not complicated. We would like to belong to a society where there is law and order, where fair play (call it good governance) is prevalent, where people thrive in diversity and we can have hope that there will be a conducive atmosphere in which the next generation (our kids) can live in, or at least one that offers them a choice against making another land their home.

I have been fortunate to have traversed this land widely. My parents were typical government servants who took us children along, when they were transferred from station to station. Born in Badulla, I was privileged to have grown up in Kandy, in an environment which thrived in the richness of diversity among many races, religious beliefs and different stations. Sports and co- curricular activities in school contributed much to our interaction with others and took us to many a place around the country. I finally moved to Colombo. These opportunities I believe have given me a wide perspective of the country and help experience both the best and worst of this nation.

Maithripala TempleI remember the anguish I felt as a child, watching weeping families board the train at each railway station on the upcountry line, as I took a train ride from Badulla to Kandy. Weeping as families had been separated and were being sent away to India. Not fully comprehending why until many years later, that it was due to a pact signed by two politicians, Sri Lankan and Indian to repatriate a group of human beings they called stateless. We had forgotten their contribution in the plantations, once the backbone of the economy.

The words “curfew” and “insurgency” were words I learnt during 1971. We had an extended April school holiday, so we were not grumbling. The adult conversation however was centered on a friend’s son who had been arrested and some talk about youthful frustration. Had we missed something? In the ensuing years bread queues and food shortages were not uncommon, as the country experimented with economic policy.

The Standardization of university entrance was another political decision taken in this time frame. We missed the opportunity to harness the best brains into our systems, instead opting for mediocrity, and triggering off frustration among the university aspirants.

1977 was a watershed year. J R Jayewardena was in with a 5/6th majority in parliament. The electoral map my brother and I were colouring was a sea of green. My father’s comment that “this is the beginning of the end” still echoes in my mind, referring to the power that the country had presented JRJ with, virtually absolute power. President Jayewardena had it all and yet missed the bus. 6 years later and into his second term he allowed Black July of 1983, which turned upside down the lives of thousands of families and changed every structure of this country.

To witness the migration of friends and family was painful. Some went because they no longer felt safe, some because they couldn’t trust the systems, some for economic reasons. They went, leaving a vacuum of intellectuals, businessmen, professionals and basically decent human beings.

Some of us decided to stay back. For deciding to stay back I’ve been repeatedly told not to look through rose tinted glasses. But I continue to believe, that this is where I was planted and this is where I will bloom.

The ensuing years saw a conflict erupt in the north which had many twists and turns. There were bombs in Colombo and there was bombing in the north. There were peace talks and ceasefires before the fighting began again.

Terror in different forms became part and parcel of normal life during this era. I have seen terror perpetrated by militants in the north and south and that by the state. Disappearances and killings. Bodies blown up, bodies chopped, burnt and thrown, with not an iota of respect to the human form. Public servants, politicians, teachers, students, activists, clergy and children, most often the common man, victims of a wasteful conflict.

The insurgency in 1988 and 1989 in the south was no different. Uncertainty again prevailed as some began to voice their suppressed opinion with a gun in their hand. The insurrection was brutally suppressed by the state, not without casualties as we saw another round of migration of talented people who would now contribute their skills to another land. Many moved out of the country, uncertain of life in a troubled country.

‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’* and so it was when President Kumaratunga was elected in 1994. The popularity she had in the north however, did not go down well with the LTTE who used the inexperience of her peace negotiators as an excuse to resume hostilities.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s attempt at reconciliation in 2000 was another opportunity lost on the LTTE, who instead brought the people in the north under their jackboot.

The boxing day Tsunami was a moment of truth – The best and worst emerged as people rallied around to assist those affected and displaced. Unfortunately the goodwill created by normal individuals was not harnessed effectively by the leaders on both sides of the divide to allow peace to take root. On the 10th anniversary of the Tsunami in December 2014, over a million people in Sri Lanka were displaced by the inland flood waters, almost twice the number displaced by the Tsunami. Whether we will be politically displaced, the coming election will reveal.

With the war in the north coming to a close in 2009, President Rajapaksa had a war weary nation eating out of the palm of his hand, their gratitude genuine. However the euphoria seen when the war ended, did not outlive the ground realities of reconciliation. What the President or his advisors possibly did not see, was that roads and infrastructure alone would not bring the desired result and alienated the northern populace further. A golden opportunity, missed again.

We’ve also celebrated together. The nation stood proud as one when our cricketers won the world cup, a nation bonded by a common thread of sport. For this country is not only about war. It is also about a land richly blessed by nature, in its flora and fauna and marine life, oceans and beaches, its mountains and plains, rivers and waterfalls. It is about a mix of rich cultures and religions often misunderstood. A resilient economy that has grown around 5% even in bad times. A quietly courageous people with an immense depth of potential. An opportunity to reach greater heights if properly harnessed and shared equitably.

Sri Lanka is a contradiction. Blessed by God and tortured by man.

We are again at a critical juncture. This election will decide where our nation is headed for. The incumbent, President Rajapaksa does not seem inclined to make changes and seems to believe that the current trajectory with a little fine tuning is what we require. The war is touted, citing that the country still needs to be protected from international conspiracies. The allegations made by the opposition, of large scale corruption, authoritarian rule, family bandyism, the lack of law and order and good governance have not been refuted, and thus seems to be a given in the incumbent’s rule. Is this what we require? The challenger Hon. Maithripala Sirisena (a former insider of the current government) with a wide coalition of partners has called time on his rule. He wants to bring change in the system of governance that will protect the voter and administrator. The battle lines are clear and the decision for the voter seems to be straight forward.

Change however is not to be cosmetic. We need to change, if we want this change to be real. Civil society has a greater role to play. We need to change our attitude towards politics and politicians and be more involved in the process, in our day to day lives, if real change is to happen and sustained. Mr Sirisena himself appears to be a clean politician; however the same cannot be said of some of those who would support him. We need to be vigilant, as a majority of politicians are unlikely to change their ways with no motivation. Reform needs to come where the political structure favours the voter and not the voted. Where there are checks and balances to prevent, and recourse against actions that are detrimental to the public and public life. To get caught in the romance of change alone would be foolhardy. Freedom is never free and if we don’t fight for it and be actively involved it won’t be long before someone takes it away.

This election is not about personalities or their achievements. It is about freedom it’s about justice it’s about fair play. The outcome will define the way we live.

I have often pondered why the price we have paid as a nation is still not sufficient for us to have lasting peace and prosperity. So When I stand in that queue to vote, I will remember many. I will remember the mother who still does not know the fate of her child, members of the security forces who paid the supreme sacrifice, the militants in the north and south, citizens of this country, the child soldiers in the north who’s childhood was robbed, the innocent civilians caught in the cross fire, the farmer who needs clean water, the migrant worker who’s tears sweat and blood sustained our economy, the journalist and activist and all those who stood up fearlessly for justice and paid with their lives. In order that their sacrifices are not in vain, I will vote for the future. This vote is for you my son and daughter, for all the sons and daughters of this country that they may one day be proud to call this country their home. This is for the future.

In a conversation that took place at the beginning of 2014, where politics was being discussed a friend made a statement, that the Rajapaksa regime has planned so meticulously that they will remain in power for the next twenty years. My rejoinder to his statement was “what if a Black swan event occurs”? Whether the white swan of Maithripala Sirisena will create an unexpected event, only the poll of the 8th January, will tell.As the 8th of January dawns, I will pray, that justice will prevail, and that soon all citizens of this country will get an equal opportunity to enjoy the potential of what this land has to offer. I will also hope that this election will not be another missed opportunity.

*From an Essay on ‘Man’ by Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

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Latest comments

  • 4

    We cannot have another Missed Opportunity. This country must recover from its present plight and rebuild a decent society for the future generations, I.e. our kith and kin. Trust we will experience a violent free, decent elections where no one doubts and uplift all our morals and happinness.

    • 0

      Ian Ferdinands –

      “I belong to a generation of Sri Lankans who witnessed many missed opportunities. Opportunities to stand proud as a nation, to grow politically and socially as a people, to prosper economically”

      Yes, your generation have to be proactive. Do not let the politicians to take you for ranted. They will use use..You owe it to yourself and the next generation o come…

      Expose and communicate Write the Common Sense Pamphlet and distribute to your generation, just like what Thomas Paine did for his generation in 1776.

      Tweet, Facebook, u tube and geyt your generation to participate..


      Common Sense (pamphlet)


      Common Sense[1] is a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775–76 that inspired people in the Thirteen Colonies to declare and fight for independence from Great Britain in the summer of 1776. In clear, simple language it explained the advantages of and the need for immediate independence. It was published anonymously on January 10, 1776, at the beginning of the American Revolution and became an immediate sensation. It was sold and distributed widely and read aloud at taverns and meeting places. Washington had it read to all his troops, which at the time had surrounded the British army in Boston. In proportion to the population of the colonies at that time (2.5 million), it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history.[2]

      Common Sense presented the American colonists with an argument for freedom from British rule at a time when the question of whether or not to seek independence was the central issue of the day. Paine wrote and reasoned in a style that common people understood. Forgoing the philosophical and Latin references used by Enlightenment era writers, he structured Common Sense as if it were a sermon, and relied on Biblical references to make his case to the people.[3] He connected independence with common dissenting Protestant beliefs as a means to present a distinctly American political identity.[4] Historian Gordon S. Wood described Common Sense as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era”.[5]

    • 2

      I hope so too

  • 3

    This is a great piece. I sincerely hope that true democracy will be restored soon in Sri Lanka!

  • 2

    My my long unseen friend Ian

    This is good article. The question is what can we do after the election to make sure that we or another future generation will not lose the oppertunities that get?

    Your lefty comrade

    Jude Fernando

    • 1

      Good to hear from you Jude.
      We will have to think, but We need to get involved Jude…. You will know better than me.

      • 0

        Simple, MR only got to be brave to do the right without worrying about re-election:serve justice to the Tamil-speaking people: what Sri Lanka leaders avoided for 66 yrs in order to come to power or to stay in power:

        ”Structural and geo-technical engineers know that when a long building is constructed especially on weak soil, it is almost mandatory to have a movement joint to separate the building into two. …. the Northerners need greater freedom; and the North needs a movement joint to settle differentially, while preserving national integrity.”
        _ Does the North of Sri Lanka need a ‘Movement Joint’? Prof Priyan Dias, 24 December 2014, groundviews

        Ethirveerasingam’s comment in the article:
        ” I like to share conversations I had with *Lalith Athulathmudali and **Ranil Wickremasinghe (when they were a *Cabinet Minister and **Opposition Leader).
        L. Athulathmudali, 4 Feb 1985: ‘’Proposing a federal constitution will be political suicide.”
        R. Wickremasinghe, 13 May 1997: “We are a political party. Like any other political party, we will not do anything that will not get us into power, nor would we do anything when we are in power to lose power” –
        Rajapaksrized Chauvinism in Flowery prose: Sri Lankan Diplomat’s outright humiliation of Sri Lankan Tamils, Maitree de Silva, 8 February 2009 in Groundviews

        ”The three elections prior to the escalation of protracted conflict when a new government was swept into power with overwhelming political support were those of April 5-10, 1956, May 27, 1970 and July 21, 1977. In each, the party previously in opposition gained decisive power on a platform that promised fundamental change. After each election, there were missed opportunities for initiatives that could have addressed many concerns of Tamil community members, while simultaneously respecting the concerns of all but the most radical Sinhalese nationalists. In each instance, however, Sri Lanka’s political leaders chose not to expend their political capital in this way but instead, to accede to demands of the radicals. … it will be useful to seek lessons from periods when Sri Lankan political leaders, like President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had such overwhelming political support that they were in a position, if they chose, to expend political capital by taking concrete steps toward communal reconciliation.” – Prospects For Post Conflict Reconciliation And Development In Sri Lanka: Can Singapore Be Used As A Model? Prof John Richardson, Text of a presentation at Global Asia Institute Speaker Series (2010), National University of Singapore, 5 November 2010 in Groundviews

        • 0

          Sorry, not MR . It should be MS

        • 0

          An excellent example for MS to follow:

          Chapter5: Ethnic Co-operation in Sri Lanka by Norman T.Uphoff in Carrots, Sticks and Ethnic Conflict(Ed MJ Esman and RJ Herring 2003):
          ”The farmer who objected to this generosity was persuaded to support the plan after a young farmer, Narangoda, took him by bicycle down the long and bumpy canal road to see what conditions were like at the end. The dissenting individual came back quite moved by what he had seen, reporting that the tail-end farmers did not have enough water even for drinking and bathing, let alone for growing a crop of rice. The Gonagolla farmers tried to save donate two and even three days’ of their five days water allotment once they became more conscious of how the drought was affecting othersothers down stream. ……
          Several Sinhalese farmer groups told me that they had an informal understanding with Tamil communities downstream: if the tigers were making a raid upstream, Tamils would try to warn Sinhalese communities so that they could try to protect themselves; if the Sri Lankan army was moving downstream, Sinhalese would try to warn the Tamil communities so that they would try to get out of the way…. When I met with Sinhalese farmers in Gonagolla and asked whether the Tamil engineer living among them was safe, Narangoda, the local leader said: ”Yes, I regard him as my brother and if someone comes to get him, they will have to get me first” ……”

      • 0

        ” We will have to think, but We need to get involved” is very encouraging and should give a lot of hope to Tamil-speaking people. Some other academics also have begun to speak up very recently and some others have been speaking up for years or even decades
        Tamil-speaking people have been politically, economically and legally oppressed through institutions and periodic pogroms and through lies and ethnic outbidding by the Sinhala politicians from the time of independence. Thus there is an urgent need to remove the ignorance 0f, and indifference to, the injustice and the consequent suffering of the Tamil-speaking people from a significant section of the Sinhala masses by Sinhala academics.
        As a group their impact would be great. Thus the encouragement from Jude’s response and Ian’s response to Jude’s response.
        This is a very good sign:
        Let Us Act Decisively In The Name Of Generations To Come: Declaration By Dons On 2015 Presidential Election, 14 December 2014, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/let-us-act-decisively-in-the-name-of-generations-to-come-declaration-by-dons-on-2015-presidential-election/comment-page-1/
        There were appeals from sub-sections too
        Not only to resolve the ethnic national question but to strengthen all areas of good governance must benefit from the input from academics. Of course universities must be free from politicisation.

        • 0

          I like your quotes.
          Wecan also say that if all areas of governance improve, Tamil-speaking peoples problem will automatically disappear.

  • 0

    Ian and Jude
    Unless the ethnic problem is solved by your generation, it’ll be much more difficult later on. All politicians talk about the ”last 30yrs” and the younger generation wouldn’t have a clue about the real problem or about a solution.

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