By Mohamed Harees –
“..A Small Island of many people, whose political machinery is running down in an environment of increasing fragmentation and factionalism. The hopes of yesterday…have (thus) become fast evaporating fantasies”’ – S.J. Tambiah, in his lucidly written book, “Sri Lanka–Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy”
Despite a deceptive sense of stability, it is open secret that Sri Lanka is still navigating its way out of a serious economic and political crisis, since it gained independence after the Second World War. According to the World Food Program, some 6.3 million people in Sri Lanka face food insecurity. Over the last year, this debilitating economic crisis has already left populations without access to food, fuel or lifesaving medications. Amid this gloomy scenario and people’s growing frustration, comes the perplexing news of the ruling clique getting ready to ‘celebrate’ its 75th Independence at a tremendous cost to the public purse. The government authorities confirmed that Rs. 200 million has been allocated. The absurdity of the need for an Independence ceremony when the nation’s coffers have been set on fire, on the basis of a fake national pride as expressed by a President with a fake ‘public mandate’ is not just humorous, but alarming too.
President RW says, “We must celebrate the 75th Independence Anniversary, otherwise, the world will say that we are not capable of celebrating even our independence. Similarly, we need to attract tourists and investors to our country. We need to build a positive image of our country. Therefore, let us minimize our expenditure and celebrate our Day of Independence”. However, many extravaganzas have been planned including inviting foreign ministers of SAARC and Commonwealth Secretary General as special guests in the celebration, among many other local activities, with a shocking revelation of an ‘overestimation’ of expenses coming to light such as Rs. 1.8 Mn and Rs. 97,000 respectively been spent relating to the singing of national anthem and garlanding of DS Senanayake statue, which smacks of gross misuse of public funds. This is but just an inkling of this farce!
Besides, President RW appears to be harbouring on the myth of a public mandate he never received, having only been appointed, thanks to the ruling party parliamentary majority, to complete his predecessor’s mandate term and not to plan for the rest of the century. Presidential Media Division echoes his elaborate plans. “During this celebration held with pride under the theme “Namo Namo Matha – A Step towards a Century”, the government will announce its new reformist course for the next 25 years for the implementation of a stable government policy right until the 100th Independence Day celebrations in 2048”. He is also taking the nation on a fantasy tour when he says that all political parties must reach an agreement in order to solve the ethnic problem by the upcoming 75th Independence Celebration.
What exactly does this so-called crisis ridden and bankrupt Sri Lanka want to achieve by celebrating the 75th Independence milestone? Certainly the Independence itself does not make any sense, going by what the power hungry major political parties have inflicted on the soul and body of the Sri Lankan nation! Instead of becoming independent, it is a tragedy that the nation’s dignity and wealth have been mortgaged to major international powers to pay for the daily bread. Celebrating therefore is a farce to say the least. Anyway, as it stands, the whole world is aware about the depth of the economic crisis and no ‘Independence Extravaganza’ will help Sri Lanka build a positive image, among the international community, as RW is trying to make out.
Although Independence remains a sacred and an emotive concept, it remains a poorly understood one to numerous people. Usually, people come to see Independence as an essential marker of our ‘Lankan-ness’. Ceylon Independence Day is depicted as a milestone separating two periods: the colonial era of oppression and impoverishment AND the independence era of freedom and ‘our brand of progress’. Further, through subtle and not so subtle indoctrination, we have been taught over the years, to indivisibly connect Independence day, with the way we think about ourselves so much, so that our own concept of our Lankan–ness can only be understood only in relation to colonialism, the struggle against colonialism and eventual independence. Thus, even after more than seventy five years of Independence, our identity became inextricably linked to our Independence.
Independence, however at least in a political sense, is not a fixed phenomenon. It is always defined in relation to changing socio- political and economic realities as well as electoral requirements. Sometime back, when an African friend was asked: “When do you celebrate your Independence Day?”, he, without hesitation or bitterness, said: “We don’t celebrate our Independence Day… it is meaningless”. In the case of Sri Lanka too, it is meaningless too.
People have begun to challenge the official view of Independence and see through its absurdity. Although RW says that events need to be organised in a way that the public can participate and enjoy them, public anger however has risen to gigantic proportions; in fact bordering on frustration as well, at a time when the government is hiding behind the bankruptcy of the nation to avoid an election. Recently, a 40-year-old activist of Aragalaya was arrested in Maharagama for posting a post on his Facebook page over the 75th Independence Day celebrations , which read said, “Are you also an invited guest of the 75th Independence Day Ceremony? If so, come prepared to be drenched in Beira Lake.”. This statement should be understood more in a philosophical sense more than physical, with Beira lake to be taken as the massive debt burden.
Sri Lanka gained independence within the British Commonwealth on the 4th of February, 1948. Gaining freedom was the joint effort of all communities, all of whom subscribed to the idea of an independent Ceylon, on the basis of equal rights to all and not on a majoritarian platform. This Independence Day on the 4th February has since been commemorated for the last 75 years with a national but politicized event in Colombo and many religious events marking the day. But, apart of this day being a national holiday, to what extent has this D day being a day of reflection for Sri Lankans across communities, as the country commemorates the 75th year of Independence from British colonial rule.? Has it been of any good for the people of Sri Lanka yearning for an inclusive and socially just country where all of them can live and reap its’ fruits of progress as equal citizens after this so-called Independence? After all, political leaders of all communities practically chipped in, to make it a reality.
Every Independence Day, national and local political leaders in the tongue in the cheek fashion engage in national events and other symbolic functions as the nation get suffocated by its’ own un-doings. We hoist and wave our national flags while the very lofty ideals like equality, justice and fair-play symbolized in them are being blatantly desecrated. As the national leaders hasten to stress their resolve and their commitment to national reconciliation and Lankan-ness, the governments of the day have been violating them with impunity using racism as a tool to achieve power. They have been allowing extremist groups to roam the streets freely to engage in the infamous 1983 Anti Tamil pogrom, Aluthgama and Digana anti-Muslim communal violence. They were certainly being shameful episodes in our Post Independent history.
As our leaders talk of social justice and stress on the need to eliminate poverty and inequality, the equality gap has been widening as never before while the corrupt top has been squandering millions of public money to fatten their nests. Rule of law has become ineffective with some are more equal than others. From SWRD’s lop sided Sinhala only policy, JRJ’s authoritarian rule, MR’s family led corrupt and racist based regime ,o Sirisena’s utter inept and clownish Presidency followed by Yahapalana fallacy until the nation’s ultimate crash engineered by Gota, now carried forward by cunning RW, Sri Lanka has been a sad victim of short termism and opportunism. Minority parties too have not have had the benefit of pragmatic and far sighted leaders. Today, despite the idle boast of Independence, Sri Lanka is worse off, unable to raise its head, thanks to this Post -Independence greedy political class; the recent one being the extremely corrupt autocratic Rajapakse family dynasty.
As a nation 75 years after gaining Independence, the political leaders have thus failed in no uncertain terms to build our nation and progress in qualitative terms – to build a sense of common identity and a sense of unity. Majoritarian attitudes in statecraft, inability to accept the multi-cultural, multi-lingual reality of our nation and lack of political commitment in creating ‘Sri-Lankan-ness’ in our people have thus paved the way to the continuance of an environment of increasing fragmentation and factionalism since Independence. Many broken promises given by political parties of all hues to resolve the national question, and their hypocrisy and corrupt outlook have been part of the process of degeneration of the political culture and today the political leadership of all communities have lost their credibility in the eyes of people. Remember the list of promises Wimal Weerawansa read out at a Pro-Gota election rally in 2019, and today he and his fellow rats have jumped off the sinking ship into a helicopter.
Moreover, little will we achieve if we do not give up colonial mentality – the belief that the cultural values of the colonizer are inherently superior to one’s own Acclaimed Afro-Caribbean writer and philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote; “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land and from our minds as well”. Fanon’s advice is informed by his understanding that far long after independence, many previously colonised nations remain chained by the same chains that colonised them. There is thus a need to rediscover our most intimate selves and rid ourselves of mental attitudes and complexes and habits that colonization trapped us in for centuries.
When then can the people of Sri Lanka expect a regime that governs not in reaction to the past but in preparation for the future and see the seeds of a new possibility, of a world that is neither colonial nor postcolonial? Not until the people and the intellectuals in particular stand up and speak up demanding decisive social changes in society and vote in leaders who believe genuinely in building an inclusive nation founded on the bed rock of national reconciliation and social justice. Still, majority of our populace are living under fool’s fantasies of progress under the corrupt political class who ruled this country since Independence. Still the likes of Rajapaksas, Wickremesinghes, Bandaranaikes are enjoying the loyalty of this politically subservient nation. Still, those who seek to promote the vision that Sri Lanka belongs to all who have made it their home are under attack by hawks on either side of the ethnic divide. The nation should clearly let RW know that he is but one of the co-creators of the present chaos Sri Lanka is facing and his so-called public mandate hoax to plan ahead until 2028 should be called out. RW’s public mandate is a myth and he is at best a temporary shuttle service to reach the main station to take the correct train to the expected destination.
The myth of Independence has been a dominant idea that unfortunately resonates with all Sri Lankans, regardless of their age, gender and ethnicity; one national narrative that binds them together. The strong sense of independence has even historically served to legitimise many discriminatory policies initiated and adopted by many Post-Independence governments and today it has become a meaningless ‘milestone’. In this context, if there is one lesson Sri Lankans should learn from the past, it is that the inclusion of the myth of independence in their national narrative has to be done away with great care.
Sri Lanka should not slip back into chauvinistic politics which will threaten to destabilise the country. History shows that reconciliation is quite possible even in the most challenging situations. However, each society must find its own path, with successful reconciliation processes bringing together alienated communities and re-establish the confidence of citizens. Dialogue and discussion, not bloodshed and destruction, will prove to be final arbiters of our destinies. The current situation is depressing but there is certainly a light at the end of the dark tunnel, only if the people wake up from their slumber and decide that Sri Lanka needs a new fresh leadership with a new vision and a mandate. Sri Lanka needs to be re-structured and re-invented for its inevitable tryst with destiny. Otherwise, the challenging task of building a new nation will still be unfinished business even a century after Independence, despite the illusion woven by the likes of RW, making. ‘the hopes of yesterday…becoming fast evaporating fantasies’, as author S.J. Tambiah once wrote.