By Latheef Farook –
Election time has always been a period of amusement in Sri Lanka where democracy continues to erode ever since independence in February 1948.
One such item which sums up the tragedy fell on the island since independence was a baila song in the YouTube by Sunil Perera under the title The Gypsies “Kiyanne Gothala”. This 4 minute 48 second song summarises how once stable and prosperous Sri Lanka was ruined by corrupt racist politicians.
Sunil even goes to the extent to state that this country would have been better off had the British remained here. He provides sufficient food for thought for those who believe in a Sri Lanka where all communities could live in peace and harmony.
Sri Lanka, during the time of independence, was truly one of best countries in the world to live. There was political stability, economic growth, sufficient foreign reserve, developed health care and education system, islands’ university degrees were recognised throughout the Commonwealth of Nations, communal harmony and peace.
Those were the days one could walk from Matara to Jaffna or Mannar to Trincomalee without the fear of being harassed, humiliated or waylaid. Instead on the way, perhaps, one may have been treated for a free cup of tea or even a meal.
Rights and privileges in the constitution were guaranteed to everyone. People respected one another’s religious and cultural values. Politicians, professionals, intellectuals and all others were respected by the society. Corruption and crime were relatively unknown. Such immoral and anti social activities rampant today were detested and those involved in such evil deeds were ostracized.
There was independent judiciary and police.This was the Sri Lanka during independence when the country was blessed with everything required to move ahead to ensure a better future for all.
However, where are we today after more than six decades of independence? Who is responsible for plunging this blessed island in to the depths of moral degradation and depravity?
The tragedy is that Sri Lanka failed to produce a national leader who could think above communal politics and guide the country for the ultimate unity and prosperity for all.
In fact the evil of racism began rising its ugly head in the 1930s when some Sinhala politicians began to promote the interest of the Sinhalese for their own selfish political interest.
For example during the State Council days in 1930 it was D.S.Senanayake as Minister of Lands and Lands Settlement initiated the colonisation scheme of Sinhalese in Polonnaruwa, Padaviya and Inginiyagala in the East which were claimed by Tamils and Muslims as their traditional home. Thus began the conflict between communities which is raging to date and torn asunder peace and harmony in the country.
The politicians also started claiming that this is a Sinhala Buddhist country and dismissed the reality of the existence of minorities. As expected, minorities dismissed this fallacious claim of the Sinhalese politicians. They do not want to be second class citizens and demanded equal rights and equal role in the affairs of the country and in deciding their own destinies.
Here lies the crux of the ethnic crisis.
Despite rising chauvinism even around 1930s there was communal harmony and today’s hatred, bitterness and suspicion of one another were unknown then.
Realising the racist mindset of the Sinhala politicians, the British colonial government, before granting independence, enshrined in the Soulbury constitution a special provision, section 29A as a security valve in the hope of protecting minority rights.
However successive governments with their own hidden and open agendas promoted and protected the interest of the majority community, dismissing the rights of minorities.
As a result Sri Lanka is one of the most mismanaged countries in the world today. Crime and corruption is rampant. Lawlessness is order of the day, communities remain divided and the country’s resources which could otherwise be used for development and help raise the standard of living to provide better life to people have been siphoned for security.
Some of the Sinhalese leaders, before and after the independence, were quite open in continuing to whip up communal feeling. They openly equated and, continued to equate Sinhalese nationalism with Sri Lankan nationalism and Buddhism, and began implementing their communal agendas ruthlessly, not realizing that they were plunging the country into a bloodbath. Since the dawn of independence, the Sinhalese dominated governments sought to strip the minorities of their existing rights and privileges.
For example, they passed the Citizenship Act No 18 of 1948; Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act No 03 of 1949 followed by the Parliamentary Elections (Amendments) Act. Within two years, the implementation of these Acts deprived a large number of Indian Tamil residents in Sri Lanka of their citizenship rights and franchise.
The irony is that it was Tamil and Muslim votes that deprived the estate Tamils of their citizenship. According to some, the Citizenship Acts were partly aimed at Indian Muslims who had come to dominate many local businesses.
Exploiting the mood of Sinhalese the then Legislative Council Member S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike formed the “Sinhala Maha Sabha” which segregated the Sinhalese from the mainstream political scene.
With no respect to minority sentiments, J.R. Jayewardene moved in the United National Party annual convention the Sinhala only resolution.
Going a step ahead, S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike called for “Sinhala Only within 24 Hours” and faced elections on communal slogans to gain power. Adding fuel to fire the politicians encouraged the rise of Sinhala chauvinism with frequent violent attacks on Tamils, killing and causing damage to property.
Though Mr Bandaranaike was quick to realise the consequences of his communal politics and took damage control measures such as Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagm Pact, BC Pact, he became a victim of the very same forces which he unleashed, when he was assassinated by a Buddhist monks.
Even at that stage, did the politicians do some stock taking and soul searching of the consequences of their racist politics? They were not bothered.
Instead almost all governments dominated by the two main political parties, the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, with their eyes firmly fixed on the elections, either to win or to retain power, aggressively continued to woo the majority community as the most effective vote caching strategy.
In 1970 Prime Minister Mrs Srimavo Bandaranaike removed Section No 29A of the soulbury constitution in her Republican Constitution and made Buddhism the state religion. In consequence to this all Tamil political parties united under the umbrella of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) which demanded equal rights.
Added to this President Jayewardene’s draconian 1978 constitution which paved the way for a democratically elected all powerful dictator, not accountable to parliament or anyone, virtually turned the country into a “ One Man Show” and made minorities voiceless and helpless.
In July 1983 his party thugs attacked and killed Tamils besides burning their properties under a very well organised anti Tamil pogrom.
The result was the emergence of the Tamil militancy, later trained, armed and financed by India, which produced some of the deadliest terrorists who virtually paralysed the island besides paving the way for a powerful Tamil Diaspora of Sri Lankan Tamils.
There was death and destruction all over, economy was crippled and people lived in fear. The situation was such that womenfolk at home were not sure whether their husbands who went to work or the children who went to school would return alive. Those were the days when people went about only for essential work as they did not know when and where a bomb would explode.
While people bled and suffered, politicians and their cronies, according to many reports, flourished making money in the form of commissions in weapons purchasing. This dire catastrophic situation spelt adversity to the helpless people and prosperity to the self motivated politicians.
The ethnic war also brought in all sorts of players from weapons dealers, merchants of death, to several others tearing the fabric of peace and harmony and polluting the political atmosphere.
For example India came into the island’s politics when the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi forced down the throat of President J.R. Jayewardene, to prick his pride, the 13th Amendment to the constitution. In the subsequent years India’s interference and dominance in the local politics came to such a ridiculous stage that Sri Lankan politicians visited New Delhi frequently to brief the Indian government and, perhaps, to get their blessings on local issues.
It was the time when people in general lost all hope of an end to the war and return to peaceful life. Most disillusioned people from all communities left the island in search of peaceful life to countries all over the world.
Squeezed between Sinhala chauvinists and the Tamil racism and militancy, the Muslim community had its own share of sufferings. They always peacefully raised their grievances but those fell on the deaf ears of almost every government after the independence.
Muslims always wanted to be part of the mainstream politics despite facing numerous problems due to racist politics. However President Jayewardene’s arrogant statement that the Muslims can remain with the government or leave when Muslim parliamentarians resisted his move to bring in the Israelis, the sworn enemy of Islam and Muslims, to fight the LTTE, was an arrogant reply tainted with pride.
Humiliated time and again, a section of Muslims, especially those in the east, launched a separate Muslim party, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which isolated the Muslim community from both Sinhalese and Tamils and ended up as disaster for the community which is now paying the price for this short sighted move.
Though the Muslims were not party to the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils, they too suffered a great deal during the ethnic war. Their sufferings continued even after the war ended as the government was indifferent to the grievance of the Muslims in solving their issues.
On the other hand the military defeat of LTTE provided a golden opportunity for the country to learn lesson from racist politics, take measures for healing wounds, bring communities together and jointly move ahead for a better future for all.
That historic opportunity was squandered once again due to racist politics.
Instead of relief a very well organised anti Muslim campaign was unleashed by few hundreds of racists threatening the very existence of the Muslim community. There were more than 350 attacks on mosques, religious schools, business establishments and the organised pogrom at Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga town.
As a result once again racist politics, widespread corruption, lawlessness, rapid erosion of democracy and the like brought the country to where we are today.