By Nethra Goonewardena –
When we were in our youth, life in our physically beautiful country seemed worth living. We had just emerged after nearly 450 years of colonial rule and we had our country back. There was hope in the air of a fresh start whereby all Ceylonese would be given a fair deal. All of us could sniff the air of freedom and look forward to a meaningful future. Bliss indeed was it then to be alive and young. Our national university was one of the best in the developing world if not in the world at large, our politicians listened to and sought advice from the educated segment of the country, our institutions were functioning as they should as there was respect for our Parliament, Judiciary, the Public Service and our Press from all citizens including our political leadership. Talking of the latter, those who entered politics then were educated and people of reasonable means. Those who aspired to high office utilized their personal finances to manage their election campaigns and conquests. Today, in sharp contrast, men and women of no means, for the most part, enter politics, become millionaires overnight, and, to add insult to injury, they and their offspring flaunt their ill-gotten wealth in the most tasteless fashion imaginable!
The destruction of our national institutions that began with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (1956), continued with Sirimavo Bandaranaike(1970) and that almost ended with J.R. Jayewardene(1977), is virtually complete today under Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Our political rot began as soon as we set about the process of our post-colonial state formation in 1948. The key task before our leaders was national integration. We started with what we thought was a project of undoing the harm done us by our colonial rulers. What we ought to have done was to put right the shocking errors committed by the colonialists and their local collaborators and keep intact the good that was done by them, not throw away that good along with the evil. In a sense, our national integration project was doomed from the start. Under the first independence government headed by D.S. Senanayake, we disenfranchised the plantation Tamils because our Kandyan ‘elites’ thought they should be disenfranchised. These plantation workers had kept our economy going whilst suffering near awful living conditions and receiving a pittance as wages. Our Kandyan ‘elites’ and the non-elites alike, disregarding the dignity of labour, considered it below their station to do an honest day’s work and refused to work on the tea plantations, which is what made it necessary for the import of this indentured labour from southern India in the first place. The political need to disenfranchise these plantation workers arose from the fear that they would vote en bloc for the Left as the Lanka Sama Samaja Party had by then either successfully unionized or were about to unionize them. Instead of bringing together all our different ethnic groups and building a united country, we thus began on a note of division that has dogged us to-date and played havoc with our nation-building project post-independence.
The next significant error of Sri Lanka was also committed by the government led by D.S. Senanayake. That error was the ‘disenfranchisement’ of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike from the United National Party (UNP) leadership. Bandaranaike, the Leader of the House of Representatives, Minister of Health and Local Government, was heir apparent to succeed the ageing Senanayake. But a combination of tradition (handing things down from father to son, in this instance from D.S. to Dudley Senanayake) and political intrigue led to his being sidelined. Before he could suffer from the ultimate insult of being dumped politically, Bandaranaike quit the UNP and in 1951 formed his own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). From all accounts of those close to the UNP leadership of that time, it was widely known that Bandaranaike’s arrogance and cocksureness were key aspects of his personality that made some of the UNP stalwarts of the time wary of handing over the leadership of the party to him. There might also have been a degree of envy on the part of the less enlightened members of the ruling party that contributed to this fateful sidelining. Whatever may the reasons be, this sidelining of Bandaranaike has had dire consequences for Sri Lanka.
Bandaranaike was a politically ambitious man scorned. It is said that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Until Bandaranaike began his counter-offensive on the UNP, we did not realize how much more damaging and destabilizing would be the fury of this scorned ambitious man. He exploited ethnicity and religion to come to power, throwing education and principle to the winds. The Buddhist Sinhala lobby, like the Jewish lobby in the United States and the Hindu nationalist one in India, plays a significant role in our national politics to the detriment of the body politic in our country as the Jewish lobby and the Hindu nationalist lobbies do in the United States and India respectively. There was a resurgence of narrow religious and ethnic nationalism in Ceylon immediately after independence and this revival resulted in the agitation for a special status for Buddhism and for the Sinhalese. Hence there were various social, political and economic forces at play in the early 1950s countering any moves made by the early UNP and the Left parties like the Lanka Sama Samaja/Equality Party (LSSP) and The Communist Party (CP) to build and nurture a Ceylonese nationalism. Disregarding the positive developments around him as represented by the inclusivist policies of the UNP and the Left, Bandaranaike chose to exploit ruthlessly and without compunction the narrower extremist Buddhist Sinhala nationalism to win the national leadership in 1956 and this, sadly and tragically, was the beginning of the end for Sri Lanka.
Bandaranaike was a prisoner of the Buddhist Sinhala nationalist extremists who had helped him to come to power and this latter group was now demanding their pound of flesh. They wanted the ‘Sinhalisation’ and ‘Buddhisification’ of Ceylon overnight. Bandaranaike began by introducing ‘Sinhala Only’ and dethroning English as the official language of Ceylon. This dethronement of English and replacing it with a national language, in and of itself, was not a bad thing to do. But, his inability to give similar prominence immediately to the other national language, Tamil, and also preserve English as a language to bridge the gap between those who spoke only Sinhala or only Tamil was a monumental mistake. Under the enormous pressure of the extremist forces that he had unleashed in order to capture political power at all costs, Bandaranaike had no option but to do away with English overnight and seek to replace that language with Sinhala (and later, Tamil) in an apparent bid to usher in equality. All that Bandaranaike succeeded eventually in achieving was a ‘degradation of equality’. He thereby also succeeded in opening our national Pandora’s Box. The hasty introduction of Sinhala to replace English without giving Tamil its due place paved the way for narrow ethnic nationalism that, with the passage of time, degenerated into violent ethnic conflict. Today Sri Lanka is a country tragically divided along ethnic lines. The first casualty of this awful ‘Sinhala Only’ policy were the Burghers of Ceylon, the descendants of the Dutch and the Portuguese colonialists, a colourful segment of what used to be Ceylon’s wonderful ethnic mosaic.
The second casualty of ‘Sinhala Only’ was the non-Sinhala segment of Ceylon, made up of the Tamils and Muslims of the island. The anti-Muslim project is ‘thriving’ as we write. Its latest target is the Maharagama branch of the Muslim owned business enterprise named ‘Nolimit’. The Bodu Bala Sena (“ Buddhist Force”) is actively seeking to disrupt inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony, to the meagre extent we have it today. The Buddhist Force’s avowed aim reportedly is to make Sri Lanka a Buddhist state in which the other religious groups can remain intact so long as they play a subordinate role to Buddhism. It is not different from their attitude to ethnicity. The ‘logic’ of this Buddhist Force (one suspects it is the militant arm of the Jathika Hela Urumaya /JHU as the ideology is identical) is that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese. Other ethnic groups can and should accept the pre-eminence of the Sinhala majority and make do under the benign supremacy of that majority. This attitude is reminiscent of the late President D.B. Wijetunge’s viewpoint that the Sinhala people are like the sturdy tree on which other ethnic groups like the Tamils and Muslims can entwine themselves and draw nourishment and sustenance from their generously mighty host!
To return to our historical narrative, while S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was doing his bit to dismember Ceylon, the Tamil politicians were faring no better. These Tamil ‘elites’ had split, along personal rivalries and jealousies, into two factions, and the Tamil Congress that housed them all at the beginning under the mercurial leadership of G.G. Ponnambalam was now divided into two: the Federal Party under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and the other lot comprising of the remainder of the Tamil Congress. Both political entities played games from the word go. To begin with they were believers in the pernicious caste system and wanted to keep all the non-vellalas out of the general scheme of things. They, the vellala masters, would take care of things so long as the ‘low’ caste rest kept quiet, voted them in at elections, and remained grateful for the morsels that fell off their vellala tables. Meantime they said and did one thing in Colombo and a diametrically different another in the north and east of the island, invested in land and property and in commercial affairs outside of the arid north and east . These Tamil political leaders were the latter day Jekyll(s) and Hyde(s): advocates of a separate state when in their constituencies and partners for national unity when in Colombo. The duplicity of the Tamil politicians was matched by the insincerity of their Sinhala counterparts. These latter, taking a leaf out of their tribe in the north and east of our island home, got used to the habit of exploiting the under-educated members of the Sinhala majority. The goigama Sinhalese and the vellala Tamils thus became a potent and explosive mix. Initially there was a compact of convenience cemented by caste and class between the goigama Sinhalese and the vellala Tamils to share the spoils of political power. The rest of the country was asked to put up or shut up which, for the most part, they did in the early years following independence.
The above-outlined state of affairs apparently worked until 1971, at which point the youth of our country decided to challenge the establishment. It was the marginalized youth of the south that fired the first shot. The marginalized Tamil youth were not too far behind. Though the Tamil youth banded themselves together around the early 1970s and committed sporadic acts of violence at that time, their major salvos were fired only in the 1980s. The more enlightened amongst the youth wanted both segments, that is, the disaffected non-elite Sinhalese and Tamils, to fight together to defeat the upper class/caste oppressors. But that, sadly, was not to be as the narrow and intransigent Tamil nationalists saw to it that the progressives amongst the Tamils, Muslims and the Sinhalese would not be allowed to come together. And we know now where such tragic dissipation of Ceylon’s youthful energy has taken the country. To the point of no return as the title of this essay asserts.
What Bandaranaike began in 1956 has come full circle today. In the intervening years there were isolated times when we seemed to almost recover our lost sense of purpose and get back on track. One such moment was in 1965, when we voted into office the National Government led by Dudley Senanayake. The other was when in 1970 we elected into office the United Front Government led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Both governments, however, in the end let us down badly. In the first instance, it was ironically the LSSP and CP-led opposition to national unity that largely caused the downfall of the 1965 National Government spearheaded by the UNP in coalition with the Federal party (FP) and a small group of others prominent among whom were C.P. de Silva and Philip Gunawardena, formerly of the SLFP and the old Left respectively but now belonging to minor new political formations. Ironic because it was the LSSP leaders Colvin R. de Silva and N.M. Perera who stood for equality of all Sri Lankans up to the 1950s, then abandoned their principles and coalesced in the early 1960s with the SLFP now led by the widow of the assassinated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, that gave leadership to the infamous masala vadai line. It was principally the N.M and Colvin-led opposition that disparaged prime minister Dudley Senanayake (the slogan the Left used to brainwash the Sinhala extremists was Dudley ge badey, masala vadai) and his national government. These were the men who stood for parity of status for the Sinhala and Tamil languages and talked of equality of all Sri Lankans in their heyday up until their fateful fall in the early 1960s when they, too, like lesser mortals before them, sacrificed principle for expediency and succumbed to the temptations of political power in the form of crumbs from the SLFP table! Perhaps it was their dismal performance at the 1960 general election, when they contested 101 seats and faired abysmally, that convinced the Left leaders that they will not be elected into office on their own steam. Hence the clutching of the ‘saree pota’ of Mrs. Bandaranaike to parachute into power.
In the second instance in regard to the government of the United Front of 1970, it was the uncongenial coalition of such disparate partners as the SLFP, LSSP and CP that let the people of Ceylon down. The right wing of the SLFP led by that evil genius of the SLFP, Felix Dias Banadaranaike, destroyed the so-called ‘golden brains’ of the Left. Having compromised virtually on all of their principles, the LSSP and the CP were ingloriously kicked out of the government in 1976. Mercifully the people of Sri Lanka put these now ageing men of the old Left out of their misery by booting them out of public office for good and all in the evening of their lives in 1977. The entirety of the old left was wiped out in that dreadful victory scored in 1977 by the other evil genius of Ceylonese politics, Junius Richard Jayewardene. Both evil geniuses, Felix Dias Bandaranaike and J.R. Jayewardene, by the way, were children of two judges of the Supreme Court of Ceylon at a time when clowns of the kind we find in our Supreme Court today like Mohan Pieris and Shiranee Tillekewardane were not even accidentally permitted to be anywhere near Aluthkade! We thus see how badly our national institutions have broken down today to the detriment of our beloved country.
The destruction of our national institutions that began with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (1956), continued with Sirimavo Bandaranaike(1970) and that almost ended with J.R. Jayewardene(1977), is virtually complete today under Mahinda Rajapaksa . It is an interesting coincidence that both the governments of 1970 and 1977 gave us two autocthonous Constitutions, The First Republican Constitution of 1972 did away with the Soulbury Constitution that came into being in 1947 immediately prior to independence. This 1972 Constitution was replaced by the Second Republican Constitution of 1978. Despite glaring shortcomings in both these home grown Constitutions, all was not yet quite lost. There was a glimmer of hope left as our Judiciary managed to survive the machinations of the two Bandaranaikes and Jayewardene-headed governments. ‘Beeshanaya and Dooshanya’ Ranasinghe Premadasa and well meaning though erratic Chandrika Kumaratunge were not exactly models of democratic leadership, but, bad as they were, even they could not totally destroy our social fabric despite the horrors of Premadasa lackeys like A.J. Ranasinghe, H.L.D. Mahindapala, ‘Anuruddha Tilakasiri’, DIGs A.C. Lawrence, Sylvester Joseph and SSP Ronnie Gunesinghe and Sarath Silva, Anuruddha Ratwatte, and the PSD goons of Kumaratunge , to name only a handful of villains. It is important to remember that despite their villainy, these botlickers and lackeys of our earlier political leaders were not as crass or as incompetent as their counterparts under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Today we have hit the lowest depths imaginable. One needs only to look at the Silvas, Mervin and Duminda, suspected and not brought to book murderers, for confirmation although several others unnamed here are not too far behind.
If we have not hit rock bottom today, how else would we have a Mohan Peiris play the illegal role that he does in Aluthkade supported by the Hettiges and Tillekewardenes? Loosest of loose cannons like Rajpal Abeynayake at Lake House and SLBC, Lucien Rajakarunanayake and Bandula Jayasekere in the Presidential Media Unit, Ambassadors of the kind of Jaliya Wickremesuriya, Asitha Perera, Palitha Kohona, Sarath Kongahage, ministers like Nimal Siripala de Silva, Basil Rajapaksa, G.L. Peiris, Sarath Amunugama, Bandula Gunewardena, S.B, Dissanayake, Rishard Bathiudeen in our Cabinet, and suspected murderers and drug dealers like Mervin Silva and Duminda Silva as bosom buddies of our president? Then there are the other brothers of our leader, the extraordinarily powerful Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the remarkably pliant Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa. Nor are these all! We also have the three mediocre presidential sons who are doing their bit to make our country their fiefdom. What chance is there for the survival of national institutions given these lowly types that call the shots? We are surely at the end of the road as a viable modern state.
G.L. Peiris, so fond of rubbishing all and sundry except himself, does not realize what a standing joke in poor taste he has become within the educated segment of our country and outside our shores. His vile political ambition has made him sacrifice any scruples he may have possessed prior to entering politics in 1994 after a most distinguished though not unblemished academic career during which he served as Professor of Law, Dean/Law and Vice Chancellor at the University of Colombo. Peiris’s unscrupulous and chameleon-like character becomes more apparent when we focus on the fact that this once remarkable man of letters has been a member of every government, regardless of which political party headed it, since his entry into politics in 1994. His uncanny knack for shifting allegiances and ability to hoodwink successive heads of state of Sri Lanka are as noteworthy as they are frightening. Imagine what we citizens might be in for if Peiris were to realize his political ambition and become president of the republic one bleak day! Lest we forget, let us forever bear in mind that G.L. Peiris is the man, as Minister of Justice in the mid-to-late 1990s, who manipulated the appointment of Dr.Shirani Bandaranayake as the first woman justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka when he failed to ensure his former Law Faculty colleague succeed him as Professor at the University of Colombo. It is the same man who was, among several others, at the forefront of the illegal impeachment of a few days ago of the very same Dr. Bandaranaike, the Chief Justice. Could ambition ever be made of sterner stuff? Could any other man in national politics today be leaner and hungrier than G.L. Peiris? Perhaps the only other educated person that is as despised as Minister Peiris today is his namesake Mohan Peiris who is purported to have replaced Dr.Bandaranayake. As in the infamous Jayewardene era when we had two Members of Parliament for the single constituency of Kalawana, today we have two Chief Justices in our country!
Our Judiciary today is destroyed, our national press is run by inconsequential mediocrities, our government is run by those who suck up to one Rajapaksa or the other and includes murderers, rapists, drug dealers, land grabbers and worse. Our universities are led by the most despicable bootlickers imaginable. The few decent citizens who try to do an honest job are obstructed at all times by those in borrowed cloaks of power. Our hospitals and schools are riddled with incompetents at the top. Our transport system, which is an apt metaphor for our governance today, is in such a mess that it is a wonder we are able to get from one destination to another and survive to tell the tale. Our bus drivers and drivers of vehicles that escort our potty politicians around are number one killers in the country. Those who drive the politicians around, like the politicians themselves, are a law unto themselves and they are immune from any form of accountability. Not a day passes without our hearing of a horrible road accident. Most bus drivers are either on drugs or alcohol or both while on duty. And the Police (that, by the way, is another highly corrupt entity in our country) never ever arrests any of these lawless drivers. The reason is known to all. The owners of these private buses are senior officers in the Police or their kith and kin. So the drivers of the buses have licenses to kill! A handful of citizens who obey the road rules are penalized if they should make the slightest unwitting error, but the murderers on wheels go scot free. This is but one example of the culture of impunity that prevails in our country today. If one is a toady of the Rajapaksas, there is nothing he or she cannot do. If you are a law-abiding citizen who exercises his right to dissent, you do so at your own risk. There is no guarantee that you will live to disagree with the Rajapaksas on another day! Ask Prageeth Ekneligoda or Lasantha Wicrematunge if you can.
Sri Lanka today makes the headlines for the vilest of reasons. A recent study carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the sister company and research arm of The Economist magazine, based on economic forecasts up to 2030, roughly gives us a picture of the socio-economic conditions that children born in 2013 will face when they reach adulthood. In an attempt to measure which country will provide the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life in the years ahead, Sri Lanka was ranked 63 in a list of 80 countries. Based on this EIU study, The Washington Post opines that “you are worse off being born in any of these three countries, according to the data, than you are just about anywhere else, including Sri Lanka, a poor hot bed of ethnic violence, oppressive Vietnam or even Syria”. We will soon have yet another press release from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Rubbisher-in-Chief, the one time Rhodes Scholar, External Affairs Minister G.L Peiris rubbishing these research findings as well. The rubbishy Central Bank Governor, Nivard Cabraal, and Sarath Amunugama, the Senior Minister who has nothing better to do but deputise for Mahinda Rajapaksa at international financial gatherings will also jump on the Peiris bandwagon and, with a little help from ministerial colleague Wimal Weerawansa, tell us that all is hunky dory in the ‘Wonder of Asia’. They will then proceed to inform us, backed up by ‘statistics’ only they believe in, that all this EIU research is a part of an international conspiracy to tarnish our unsullied image. This is today’s Sri Lanka.
Now the last nails in the coffin of our island home are being nailed. There is talk of a 19th and 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Given the bankrupt and impotent political opposition in Parliament, it is matter of time before these Amendments come into being. Hence our conclusion that the finishing touches to the project that began with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956, pushed vigorously forward by his widow Sirimavo with the help of her Marxist hangers on in 1970s, and accelerated beyond imagination by J.R. Jayewardene post- 1977, are now being put irreparably and irrevocably under the guidance of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers three. We are now managing the death of Ceylon instead of nurturing the kind of future we envisaged for ourselves in 1948. The national tragedy of our country is the greater because we did have politicians, civil servants, academics, legal luminaries, diplomats, creative artists , and men and women of standing in our civil society who were eminently competent and capable of guiding and leading Ceylon to greater prosperity and continued glory. I have in mind politicians of the calibre of C.W.W. Kannangara, Dudley Senanayake, M.D. Banda, Vincent Perera, Bernard Soysa, M.H. Naina Marikkar, Gamani Jayasuriya, Mangala Moonesinghe, V.Anandasangaree, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Sarath Muttetuwegama,civil servants like Gamani Corea, Shirley Amerasinghe, Vernon Mendis, Ben Fonseka, Raju Coomeaswamy, D.C.R. Gunawardana, Neville Kanakeratne, Bradman Weerakoon, M.D.D. Peris, academics such as E.F.C. Ludowyk, C.W. Amerasinghe, I.D.S. Weerawardena, Ian Goonetileke, K.W.(‘Carl’) Goonewardene, Gananath Obeyesekere, Stanley Tambiah, E.R. Sarchchandra, S.Mahalingam, E.O.E. Pereira, Fred Bartholemeusz, Reggie Appadurai, Hilary Crusz, M.S. Sultan Bawa, V.Appapillai, Terrence Seneviratne, Stanley Kalpage, W.R. Breckenridge, Newton Gunesinghe, legal specialists like R.K.W.( Raja) Goonesekere, T.Nadarajah, H.W. Tambiah, M.C. Sansoni, Chris Weeramantry, H.L. de Silva, Neville Samarakoon, A.R.B. Amerasinghe, Mark Fernando, giants of the arts like Lester James Peris, Sumitra Peris, Sunil Santha, W.D. Amaradeva, Victor Ratnayake, Tissa Abeysekera, Gamini Fonseka, Henry Jayasena, Iranganee Serasinghe to mention a few that come readily to mind. But the lesser breeds amongst us managed to keep the good and decent away from positions of influence.
The Sri Lanka government of today instead of being a force for good is a social, political and economic menace to our country.
Only a miracle could save Sri Lanka. But, then, miracles do not happen that easily, do they?
Contemporary Sri Lanka reminds us of the lines from Nissim Ezekiel, a now departed poet friend from India:
I have never been a refugee
Except of the spirit,
A loved and troubled country
Which is my home and enemy
It was Ezekiel, also, who penned:
Confiscate my passport, Lord
I don’t want to go abroad;
Let me find my song
Where I belong .