By Siri Gamage –
There is a considerable amount of reporting, commentery and wisdom circulating in the mainstream and alternative media about the evolving situation in Sri Lanka in relation to the economic, political, cultural/ethnic and social spheres. There seem to be a stalemate in the political sphere as the cabinet resigned and no interim arrangement has emerged yet as some would prefer. The pressure from protesting Lankans -mainly youths-asking the government leaders to resign has increased with more and more people joining the protests. On the economic front, with the appointment of a new Central bank governor and a secretary to the Finance ministry, things are moving in terms of immediate decisions to be made to stabilise the money market and negotiations with the IMF. Support from India to meet the most immediate needs seems to be forthcoming. Celebrations of Sinhala and Tamil New Year are taking place during a volatile time for the population, the government and law enforcement agencies.
The pictures from Gall Face #GotaGoHome protest site symbolises the story of current crisis. The protestors who are peaceful and non-violent carrying Sri Lankan flags are to be seen against a background where high rise buildings – the symbol of neoliberal economy that the country has implemented quite faithfully until the current crisis point. These buildings occupy those who control the levers of private sector economy. In the background, one can see the Presidential secretariat -symbol of the hierarchical, semi-authoritarian executive and constitutional power whose occupant is not answerable to the parliament, judiciary or anyone else but himself. Such is the trajectory or combination of institutional power, control, wealth, culture and symbolism that brought the country to a halt by April 2022. The fundamental question we have to ask today is whether we should continue with the same combination of executive, institutional and corporate power or do we need to engage in a critical review to identify the fault lines of the jigsaw puzzle that has brought the country to current crisis point and find a new perspective, model and governance system that can serve the interests of many rather than the few?
This is essentially the free-market economy where the international and local market forces, agents, players companies etc are allowed to run their enterprises with minimal government control. At the global level, bilateral and multilateral agencies plus governments from the global north push for this idea as wealthy and powerful countries can facilitate their own multinational companies to extend their operations to the developing countries in the global south (mostly former colonies). Countries of the latter kind who found technical expertise, investment capital and even the drive for starting new enterprises after obtaining independence from the colonial masters looked to multilateral agencies who formulated rules of engagement including free trade for advice and guidance. When the cold war ended and the expansion of global capitalism to countries that suffered economic stagnation under the Soviet Union started to open up and adopt the neoliberal economic model including more and more borrowings from the international agencies and countries willing to provide credit international finance capital started to move in. China also figured prominently as was the US and the European Union.
In the case of Sri Lanka, though the free market model was introduced with a centralised power structure under an executive president from the late 70s, the influence of those in political authority in the affairs of the economy did not wane. Instead it increased exponentially. Borrowing for various infrastructure projects, the procedures followed in offering various projects to specific companies or countries, allegations of large-scale corruption, complaints about the way decisions were made in the cabinet, lack of consultation with the parliament, nepotism, formation of the gang of thieves (Chaura Kalliya) etc symbolise the signs of a sick system that has been at play during the decades following Sri Lanka gained independence.
As they say the proof is in the pudding. Irrespective of the nationalist-political rhetoric by the leadership the economy is in real trouble. The fundamentals are not right. The country spends more than it earns or generates. It has been importing more than exporting. Rulers have been living on borrowed money without giving up their own privileges that had been authenticated by a corrupt political culture and practice. It has now come to a situation where the national assets have to be offered on a plate to countries and wealthy individuals/companies to gain several hundred million dollars to close the books that have been made irrelevant by an irresponsible lot of leaders who perhaps knew the gravity of the dangerous situation but failed to act early enough.
The current attempt is to find a solution to the crisis from the same script i.e. neoliberal economic model promoted by the IMF, World Bank and powerful countries of the West including the US. The central bank team will negotiate a package with the IMF to obtain several billion dollars in exchange for structural reforms in various institutions including the public service, government enterprises that are not making a profit, income tax reforms, curtailment of trade union rights to create labour market flexibility and more. Any measures of this nature will hurt the people more in the short term. Remember what happened in Greece? We need to look around to see the harmful effects of IMF policies and prescriptions in other countries with similar economic and social crisis. It is not hard to find cases from the global south where the IMF involvement in the economic restructuring created more burdens than less on the people. For example, see the role of IMF in Ukraine.
From a long-term perspective, what is required is a decolonial solution to the economic, political, and socio-cultural problems facing the country -rather than a neoliberal one as prescribed by the IMF. Such a solution requires one to familiarise with the vast literature produced by decolonial scholars from all continents, especially Latin America, critical of imperialist designs in the past and the present on one hand and the way forward on the other. Such a solution involves many layers. To get an idea, the book by Mignolo and Walsh can be a starting point.
One aspect that has not been discussed enough is the conflict of values between the ruling elites/class vs the people, especially those who have come out to protest demanding the rulers to go home. The ruling elites/class have been operating with a set of values nominally justified by the democratic governance system inherited from the British colonial masters, deformed and politicised in the process of governance since independence and allowed members of the elite class to enjoy many privileges in the name of democracy even though what is practiced is far from the ideals enshrined in democratic traditions in their original form. For example, transparency in government decisions required under the democratic parliamentary system is not practiced when it comes to decisions made by the executive President and those officials close to him. In the recent past, one family exercised more power than the whole parliamentary team put together – both the government and the opposition. Accountability and transparency in government decisions have not been that clear. More alarmingly, those who were charged with wrongdoings in financial terms escaped the legal consequences and punishment. The ruling class appeared to function as if it is above the law. Law has been made too complex with the appointment of various commissions of inquiry etc.
From the point of view of the citizen such a system is not fair. Citizens need egalitarianism, fair play, social justice, openness and accountability in government. In addition, the greed and self-interest that have been cultivated via the neoliberal, competitive economic model over the last decades have made the social fabric more vulnerable and open to many vices. Care for the elderly and sick – one of the hallmarks of Asian societies – became a thing of the past. Trying to get ahead in competition with the neighbour, extended family, friendship circle became the ideal. Failing to achieve such ambitious goals within the country, many decided to leave. Solutions that require selling not only the heart and soul but also the very motherland that provides sustenance became the way to move forward as a nation. This was marketed by the ruling class as a necessity to sustain the corrupt system. In the end, the system itself failed and the population has awakened.
The values being promoted by the protesters seems to be aligned with a united nation without the distinction of race, colour, creed etc. Cooperative and collaborative ethos is visible instead of the divisive ethos one finds in the political culture that is based on patriarchy, hierarchy, concentration of power in the hands of the leader, promotion of followers rather than equals. The value system and the drive that has been brought to the scene by protesting youths has the potential to lead the country, its economy and people out of the current crisis if handled carefully.
In addition to the economic and political as well as social crisis, there is a corresponding epistemic crisis i.e. to do with the way knowledge is produced and disseminated in countries like Sri Lanka. It is a crisis in the knowledge production field including education, higher education, media and science. We tend to largely and exclusively depend on Western knowledge (American and European) in teaching, learning, publishing, and trying to find solutions to the existential problems. This habit was implanted in our education systems (early-childhood, primary, secondary to university level) during the British colonial period. We continue with the same disciplines, boundaries, perspectives, fragmented knowledge, and theories as well as methodologies without evaluating whether the knowledge inherited from Western sources is applicable and relevant to our own contexts and our needs? Our scholars, intellectuals, academics and professionals go on without investigating whether our own indigenous/local traditions provide better ways of knowing and doing? The habit we developed to downgrade the importance of our own things including ideas is being promoted in the name of international education today. Syed Hussein Alatas, a renowned social scientist from Malaysia, described the dependent mentality of the academics in former colonies in Asia as Captive mind (Gamage 2022 Philippine Sociological Review -forthcoming).
This epistemic crisis is a continuing one in our education system where no credible inside examination has taken place. Instead imitation of western knowledge practices dominate to the extent that it has created academic dependency. As we are rushing to the IMF for advice and funds to meet the economic crisis, our government appointed consultants have been working with the World Bank and other multilateral agencies to apply Western prescriptions in our education and higher education system as if our academics are unable to identify the problems and find solutions? Home grown solutions do not come with external funding or expensive expertise. In short, our debt problem is not one created by us alone. It is the result of decades long collaboration of governments with international agencies where Western prescriptions were to be applied to solve local problems in various fields. The ultimate result is more dependencies rather than less. For more on this, you may read my published papers in various journals and books.
Political (Party) System and Culture
I do not think, as many thousands of protesters believe, that the mainstream political party system can provide solutions to the current crisis except as a stop-gap measure until a better system of governance is formulated with the active involvement of the citizenry. In the past, I have advocated a national citizens committee composed of educated and experienced individuals from various fields with corresponding committees at the regional level to steer the country forward by way of a social movement. It is not a bad idea to explore this concept in the current context. This can be a part of the political process or otherwise.
Indigenous System of Governance
If we combine our intellect, experience and insights gained from both within the country and internationally, it is not difficult to devise a system of governance based on indigenous values, aspirations, concepts and needs drawing from the international experience as appropriate. Not the other way where we attempt to imitate the Westminster system, American, French system or even worse a combination of these. There is no point in trying to superimpose alien systems on the local body politic and the populace without looking into the long-term consequences or the net benefit. If it is to be an elected representative system at the national and local levels (we may need to do away with the provincial level), the method of electing representatives need to be re-examined and a simple method formulated. We need to do away with the proportional representation system including the appointment of MPs from the list. These measures have deformed the notion of representation beyond repair. Likewise, the role of administration needs to be redefined and re-focused in order to allow qualified people with integrity to fill the positions. One of the continuing problems today is that the people are treated as subjects(neo-colonial) rather than free citizens with agency who deserve the respect and attention by politicians and government officials at all levels. Today, getting anything done without the influence of those in power has become extremely impossible. As not everyone has access to those in power, the second method for speeding up things in government offices has lifted its ugly head i.e. corruption.
The risk we are facing as a country is the potential for re-colonisation by a powerful country or a block of countries either through further entrenchment of the neoliberal economic model and corresponding assistance schemes or through defence agreements made when the country is in trouble. I hope the country will be able to develop a better vision for the future and an institutional set up for better governance -in the truly democratic sense- in coming months with citizen involvement. Instead of focusing on one family (though I can understand why this is so), what is required is to critically examine the necessary institutional reforms to achieve the goal of a better Lanka by teams of our own experts. The more we are divided, the risk for re-colonisation is considerable. Devising a simple method of governance-based on an electoral system plus an upper house like a senate is not that a difficult task as Sri Lanka has qualified and experienced law makers and experts.
Further readings on Intellectual Dependency and Decolonial Imagination
Alatas SH (1977) Intellectuals in Developing Societies. London: Frank Cass.
Alatas S. H (2006) The Autonomous, the Universal and the Future of Sociology. Current Sociology 54(1): 7–23.
Alatas, S.F. 2022. Decolonising Knowledge: meaning and problems, Social Affairs (forthcoming).
Bhambra G. K, Gebrial D and Nişancıoğlu K (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.
Go, J (2017) Decolonizing Sociology: Epistemic Inequality and Sociological Thought. Social Problems 64 (2): 194–199.
Connell, R. 2018. Decolonising Sociology, Contemporary Sociology, 47(4)
Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth (Grove Press).
Fanon, F. (1986) Black Skins, White Masks. (Pluto Press).
de Sousa Santos, B. (2015) Epistemologies of the South: justice against epistemicide, London: Routledge.
Meghji, A. Decolonizing Sociology. Cambridge: Polity: Conclusion.
Mignolo, W.D (2007). Coloniality of Power and de-colonial thinking, introduction, Cultural Studies, 21,2-3, pp. 155-167
Mignolo, W.D and Walsh C (2018) On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Mignolo W (2011) The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (Chapter 6).
Mignolo, W. (2002). The geopolitics of knowledge and the colonial difference, South Atlamntic Quarterly, 101(1), 57-96
Savranski, M (2017). A Decolonial Imagination: sociology, anthropology and the politics of reality, Sociology, 51(1) pp.11-26
Smith, L.T. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed
Uyangoda, J. 2018. Decolonial Thinking, Southern Theory, and the search for Alternative epistemologies in the Social Sciences, Colombo Arts- Biannual Refereed Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, 2(3).