22 July, 2024


Sri Lanka At 76: Past, Present & Possible Future

By Tissa Jayatilaka

Tissa Jayatilaka

To consider what the future holds for Sri Lanka, a glance at its past and present should prove useful as we could thereby contextualise and perhaps begin to understand what that likely future could be. Unless we look at our past mistakes dispassionately, attempt to learn from them and take meaningful steps to re-chart our national course, we are most likely to continue to allow history to repeat itself.

Sri Lanka, like all other colonised countries suffered immensely at the hands of the colonisers; however, our track record of how our country (or constituent parts of it) has been ruled and governed by some of our own kings and nearly all of our politicians leaves much to be desired. Therefore, heaping the blame for our continuing miseries post- 1948 on our colonial rulers who exploited and plundered us (sometimes with a little help from our ‘nobility’) from 1505-1948, as some tend to do, is to obscure the truth.

We ourselves have contributed lavishly to our ruin as evidenced by our pre-colonial and post–independence history. That history tells us, as in some other countries of the world, violence and intrigue have been very much a way of life in Sri Lanka too, in the centuries gone by and post-independence. We need to ponder why, we as a nation, have not overcome these tendencies, if we are to move beyond such uncivilized conduct.

Division along ethnic lines

At the turn of the 20th century, Sri Lankans began to divide along ethnic lines. The brand of Buddhist revivalism of Anagarika Dharmapala supported by Piyadasa Sirisena et al., influenced the circle of Sinhala businessmen implicated in the anti-Muslim riots of 1915. From around the 1920s the Sinhala – Tamil relations were on a slippery slope. The fact that politically shrewd and manipulative British Governors of Ceylon sought to divide and rule us is beside the point; for after all, Ceylon had a sufficient number of educated, experienced and sophisticated political leaders at the time who should have known better than to fall for that colonial bait. The notable Ramanathan brothers that had hitherto spoken and acted in the best interests of the country jointly with their Sinhala colleagues parted ways. They went back to Jaffna and together with a few of their Tamil contemporaries began working for the betterment of their community.

A little more than a decade and a half later, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who in 1926 upon his return from Oxford, had advocated a federal solution for the political ills arising from ethnic rivalry in the country, established the Sinhala Maha Sabha (1937) that was devoted to the promotion of Sinhala Buddhist interests. Bandaranaike had, like some other westernised Christian politicians, also become, what is referred to as, a Donoughmore Buddhist and donned the national dress. The parting of the ways of the Sinhala and Tamil politicians as referred to above, disturbed the harmony that had prevailed between them in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Hence, the Sinhala and Tamil politicians were disunited even before we could secure independence from the British. What was infinitely worse was that the Sinhalese and the Tamils were divided among themselves as well. The upper class and upper caste Sinhalese and their Tamil counterparts, believed that by birth and wealth, they were superior to the rest of their countrymen.

Within three years after independence, the Sinhala and Tamil politicians split-up. Certain members of the GG Ponnambalam-led Tamil Congress left in 1949 to form the Federal Party, while S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike resigned from the United National Party -led Government and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in 1951.

Social division based on class and caste

Along with this ethnic division, was the social division based on class and caste. As Howard Wriggins (Wriggins:1960) has noted, ‘Ceylon was made up of two nations, the Sinhala and the Tamil. There were also two other nations—those who spoke English and those who did not. The former was made up of both the public school elite and the western-educated elite. They held significant positions in the public service, the professions, business sector and politics. The government was carried on in a language the non -English speaking public did not understand. The social divide between the English-educated elite of the urban areas and the rest of the country, especially those in the rural areas, was evident to any sensible observer. At the same time, those Ceylonese who were educated in the English medium, regardless of ethnic differences, bonded together in a way the rest did not’.

Despite the above-delineated ethnic and social divisions, post-1948 Ceylon could have emerged as a viable nation united in its diversity. For that to happen, a strong political will was necessary. After nearly four and a half centuries of colonial rule, in the aftermath of independence, there was a need for the revival of indigenous socio-cultural values. This was admittedly a complex need. However, it was our misfortune, that a majority of the political leaders who guided the destiny of Ceylon at the time, with the possible exception of D.S. Senanayake, had neither the will nor the wisdom required to attempt to bring about an all-embracing national revival, and hence, succeeded in achieving only a Sinhala Buddhist revival.

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism

Consequently, less than a decade after independence, ‘1956’ came into being on the back of an extreme Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and Ceylon lost whatever was left of the opportunity to forge a pluralist society. We became a country of different ethnicities and religions instead of a robust nation held together by unity in diversity. As the years rolled by, Sri Lanka became, as the American academic Robert Kearney has put it, ‘an unhappy reminder of the difficulty of maintaining an orderly and peaceful democratic process in a plural society when ethnic loyalties and symbols become central elements of political contention and outcomes are determined on a majoritarian rather than a consociational basis’. (Kearney:1985).

The grim and dismal outcome of our missed opportunity to become a rainbow nation is our painful present predicament. Today, we have hit rock-bottom economically and politically. To say that the Sri Lanka of today is in chaos is to state the obvious. Even faced with dire challenges to our very existence as a country, we continue to remain divided as ever, with each of our political outfits clamouring to ride into political power at whatever cost. Each political party has miraculous solutions to our national woes which they “threaten” to implement, as the Rajapaksa cabal did whenever elected to office. A need to have a dialogue with the electorate on key issues prior to an election is, strangely, not deemed important.

In the latter political context, it is useful to recall the damning indictment of our political reality by U.B. Wijekoon, a former prominent politician. In a booklet titled The Curse of Party Politics (no date, probably 2008), Wijekoon tells us that politicians from all backgrounds tend to look at any national problem with the sole intent of seeking an advantage to win elections, disregarding principles and values. Furthermore, he observes that our political party system has wrought havoc by misguiding our society, denying the country of a coherent social fabric and economic equity, and in the process creating grave national instability. He notes that in Britain, whose political model we have chosen to follow, over a period of five centuries only three political parties came into being, whereas in Sri Lanka, political parties exceeding fifty-nine (59) have been registered within a short span of 60 years. Wijekoon goes on to say that our politicians are not accountable to the people that elect them, and virtually all of them are guilty of bribery and corruption. With meagre incomes most politicians manage to send their children to international schools in the country and then to universities abroad. What Wijekoon said in 2008 remains valid even today!

Need to curb corruption

A pressing need of the day, if we are serious in our intent to resurrect Sri Lanka from the depths to which it has fallen, is to curb and minimise corruption. Corruption as defined by the Malaysian academic Syed Alatas, is the abuse of public trust for personal gain, and it is rife both among our politicians and, tragically, among members of our public service as well. Until we implement fully, sans political interference in the judicial process, the existing laws of the land and legislate necessary new laws to combat the rampant corruption, it is unlikely that much would change in our country in the years ahead.

Another crucial need, however belatedly, is to make a genuine effort to forge national unity. So long as we are not treated as Sri Lankans, regardless of our ethnicity and religion, so long will we continue to flounder as a state nation instead of becoming a nation state. And until Sri Lanka stops the discrimination of its citizens on the basis of language and religion, there will not be meaningful and consistent socio-economic development in our thrice-blessed land. Sri Lanka has to curb its militant Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that its politicians and a segment of its Buddhist clergy, (contrary to the teachings of the Buddha) are guilty of. Ever since the early 1950s, when the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (EBP) came into being, Sri Lanka has been plagued by violence against the non-Sinhalese, orchestrated by unscrupulous politicians seeking to win elections by hook or by crook, with the aid of lesser mortals among the Buddhist clergy. This is unacceptable and totally contrary to the ethics and principles enshrined in the Buddha Dhamma.

None of the above can be achieved without a radical reform of our education system. The key element of such a reform should be the teaching of an inclusive History in our schools. The History we are taught at present, even before we can begin to distinguish right from wrong, tells us that our non-Sinhala fellow citizens are evil because the Tamil kings of old harmed the Sinhalese or because South Indian Tamils (the Pandyans and the Cholas) invaded us ages ago, between the 9th and 10th centuries; and that Islam poses a threat to Buddhism while Muslim traders and businessmen impoverish their Sinhala counterparts. Surely, it is about time we Sri Lankans shed our primordial prejudices, fears and complexes and learned to live in peace with one another.

Education system should be reformed

In addition to the teaching of such an inclusive History, the future generations should be introduced to the tenets of all the major religions, taught the basics of ethical behaviour as part of their school curriculum combined with the essence of literature and philosophy to create well-rounded future citizens. In this endeavour, early academic specialisation should be discouraged, at least until after the GCE Ordinary Levels.

As Arjuna Hulugalle(The Island; 16 April, 2009) observed almost 15 years ago, the introduction of tri-lingualism is a must. We have come a long way since Dr. Colvin R. de Silva said, One language two nations; two languages one nation. Important as the two languages Sinhala and Tamil are, they are insufficient today for our purposes. Hence, in addition to teaching both indigenous languages to all Sri Lankan students, they should be taught English as well, because a knowledge-based society needs to have access to the world outside its shores.

Tri-lingualism for Sri Lanka is necessary because language plays an important role in the process of reconciling and uniting all our citizens. Countries like Switzerland, Finland, Canada and Singapore to name but a few, give equal importance to all the languages spoken within their borders.

Our education system should be reformed as outlined above so that Sri Lanka could aspire for inter-ethnic, inter-religious and inter-cultural harmony without which, only further misery would be in store for us in the years to come. These changes to our educational system, though essential, could only produce results after many years. Among the short to medium-term measures that could be adopted to address the anomalies in our system, the following could be considered essential and immediate:

a. Merit-based selection for all public service appointments

b. Conferment of equal status to all national languages, religions and citizens

c. Gender equality and,

d. Strict application of the laws of the land to all citizens irrespective of their social and political status.

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Latest comments

  • 14

    Tissa has credentials to talk about Sinhala- Tamil unity being married to a Tamil.
    Tissa also quite rightly identifies the first signs of a split in the 1920s.
    Both Ramanathan and Arunachalam sensed the divide.Whether the the British were behind this or otherwise is only a matter of academic debate. This was almost quarter of a century before the British left us to mind our own business. At this point of time only 2% of the population were conversant in English. Jennings after interacting with Sinhala and Tamil students at Peradeniya declared that the two groups were only language groups and nothing more. True that was a golden era,

    After the British left political parties in the country were falling over each other to bring in legislation that worsened the Sinhala Tamil divide.
    Notwithstanding the lofty ideals of Tissa to mend fences between the groups amounts to closing the stable doors after the horse has bolted.
    Anyway lets hope that we could bring back the more positive relationships in the form of equal status to all languages and religions and the Rule of Law.

    • 14

      Because of few such people ( Tissa , TG) there seems to be some sanity. As for hope there ain’t none. Haven’t we heard and seen enough of our Lankan politics, family kleptocracy, democrazy, Pseudos, Kaputas, intellectuals , prosperity and splendor, dharmishta, ……. can fool retards easily and 6.9 million all their lives but not the world.

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