1 June, 2023


The Lost City: Reflections On Liberal Space In Sri Lanka

By Gehan Gunatilleke

Gehan Gunatilleke

Gehan Gunatilleke

‘We were anonymous, and even then I had the sense that cities were yielding; that they moved over and made room.’ ― Sheridan Hay, The Secret of Lost Things

They are often warned that no conversation on reform in Sri Lanka is worth having unless had in the vernacular of the masses. They are constantly reminded that they are irrelevant. They are treated as non-entities in ideological warfare. The media seldom makes reference to them, while nationalists and hardliners make headlines. So they grieve amongst themselves in their anonymity, trapped within their walls of reason, surrounded by bigots and extremists. They believe change is impossible unless others change their minds. Their belief in their collective irrelevance is their opiate. Defeated, they lull themselves into quiet conformity and convince themselves that they must dine with wolves in order to survive. In the process, they are reduced to parochial sheep; sheep adorned in wolves’ clothing to avoid detection. An existential crisis confronts them—those of the City—today.

By ‘City’ I do not mean the elite class. The City is neither a geographic nor physical space located in some urban setting. It does not exclude those from rural or suburban areas. It is neither a Western nor an Eastern ideal. The paradox of the City is inclusion amidst anonymity. People of similar leanings congregate in cities, yet remain strangers. It is the only place that one could feel alone amidst a crowd. It is thus my euphemism for the space in which the dwindling ideology of liberalism resides in this country. The City is where we liberals reside.

In this piece, I will attempt to examine recent developments in the City—from its decline in political influence to its surrender to political patronage. I will nevertheless point to a critical opportunity. The smog of war that once clouded our judgement has—perhaps for the first time in five years—dissipated. An international justice project now serves to magnify the country’s problems, compelling introspection and course correction. A moment of clarity has arrived. If ever there were a moment in which the City might launch a new ideological battle, it would be this moment, now.

The Decline of Public Reason

Past leaders heard and grappled with our views. Admittedly, our views went unheeded, as we often fought losing battles. Time and again, our leaders exploited the fundamental weakness of any democracy—its susceptibility to majoritarianism. We watched helplessly as they appealed to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the masses in order to gain and maintain power. They rendered an entire community stateless overnight; discriminated countless Tamil-speaking public servants; and brutally suppressed peaceful protests. We spoke out too softly against those early injustices. Yet our voice grew louder over the decades. We spoke out more clearly against blanket emergency.[1] We cautioned against the constitutional grant of ‘foremost place’ to any one religion.[2] Despite sustained demagogy, a voice of public reason was slowly crystallising. Yet we perhaps lacked the conviction of empathy. The illusion that leaders still identified with our values insured us that we ourselves were somehow immune to oppression. A line was then drawn in 1983, when the mob tore the City apart at the beckoning of those very leaders. We were not spared if we fell on the wrong side of the ethnic divide. Our smug sense of security was laid bare as flames of hatred engulfed our dwellings. Make no mistake; many of us daringly protected victims. Even today we habitually recall our heroics. Yet, in the end, we lacked the fortitude to protest the injustice and prevent escalation.

During the war, we often failed to observe the compromise of our values, particularly when leaders adopted illiberal policies in our name. As victims of terror, we afforded them the latitude to oppress on our behalf. We too were governed by emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance. The language of terror soon replaced the language of reason. While we struggled to understand the extent of our decline during previous eras, nearly a decade of this regime’s rule laid all doubts to rest. We were now a City besieged.

The price of our dwindling political influence is the decline of public reason. Hark back to the casual promulgation of the Eighteenth Amendment or the crude impeachment of the Chief Justice. On each occasion, the unreasonable juggernaut forged ahead with impunity while the voices of reason were reduced to murmurs. We are now left with a fundamentally unreasonable discourse, where rhetoric and propaganda are sufficient to convince, and rational debate ridiculed.

Post-war Privilege

The City’s post-war history has not been all grey. In fact, much of it has been shimmering white, with carefully placed spotlights to highlight its glamorous contours. The pristine streets, the restored sites, the very buzz of progress heard in the restaurants and courtyards undoubtedly delight us. We are enamoured by the new splendour of our surroundings, made possible only by the ‘peace’ secured by the present regime. We occasionally quip that the warmongers have been vindicated. We even feel entitled to the spoils of war, as we too suffered egregious violence.

The price of this ‘peace’ is patronage. The City is this regime’s new client. Despite the decline of our political voice, the new economic dispensation affords us unprecedented levels of luxury. And thus we are kept happy—our minds eased from the burden of reasoning. In an act of calculated ‘benevolence’ we are afforded the space to live our liberal way of life; provided we pay the right tribute—our silence and our cooperation. The temptation to abandon lofty ideals in favour of real comfort and convenience is therefore irresistible.

The City’s transformation into a symbol of apathy and decadence tempts us to abandon the liberal project altogether. We no longer seem to hold the keys to our own City. Our hypocrisies and contradictions mock us.  The very reference to the ‘City’ invokes scorn and cynicism amongst the few still genuinely committed to fighting injustice and corruption. Yet our predicament grates against our conscience. There is still a hint of frustration that sets us apart. We know there is no cure for our concealed depression, except a radical reordering of our society. We remain uncomfortable in the knowledge that we enjoy privilege, and not power. For we wish to be the masters of our fate rather than privileged sheep amongst wolves.

A Moment of Clarity

For decades, the state controlled the content and dissemination of information in Sri Lanka. Despite our ability to question and to critique, we happily accepted a version of the truth that was comforting and convenient. Even after the war, we watched with vacant expression as alternative voices in the media—voices of dissent—were systematically eliminated. We needed a catalyst to stir us from our reverie—to compel us to confront reality.

In March 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted the third in a series of resolutions on Sri Lanka.[3] The resolution calls for the implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations. More than two years have lapsed since the government-appointed Commission published its report in December 2011. Yet the government has fully implemented only a handful of these recommendations.[4] The resolution also points to ongoing problems in the South, including religious violence and military attacks on civilians. These problems are symptoms of impunity cultured by our silence and cooperation. A Damocles’ sword in the form of an international inquiry meanwhile hangs over the government should it fail to correct the course.

Two years ago, when the first resolution on Sri Lanka was adopted, Southern opposition to its contents was virtually unanimous. The reaction to the latest resolution, however, has been somewhat mixed. Sections of the Sinhalese press, which reaches more than 60 percent of the readership, adopted a distinctly pragmatic stance, calling for swift domestic reforms.[5] An extraordinary shift in the discourse is taking place. When confronted with sustained and compelling reasoning, the reasonable mind cannot help but begin to face reality. We begin to detect the irrationality in failing to implement the recommendations of homegrown mechanisms. We begin to acknowledge the cancerous nature of corruption, impunity and bigotry. Even if we had briefly abandoned our liberal values, we find it too awkward to ignore reason. In May 2009, many of us became intoxicated on the fumes of triumphalism. Five years on, we have awoken to an appalling hangover. Our throbbing conscience now beckons us to act.

The City is still too splintered to pose any resistance to the status quo. We have been too easily divided, distracted and conquered. All that unites us now is perhaps our quiet allegiance to reason. This is an important identity. It is an identity that is forged not by geography, ethnicity, religion or class but by attachment to values. It is an identity that is fundamentally inclusive rather than exclusive.

The City expands and contorts to make room for new inhabitants.

In this moment of clarity, our first steps in a long walk will be small. We must first preach amongst ourselves, the so-called converted, before preaching to the masses. We must slowly re-forge our identity. To forge this identity, we must self-identify with values such as freedom, equality, justice and tolerance, and speak with one compelling voice. To speak as one, we must come under one liberal banner—not one of political affiliation, but one of language. We must speak in one language—not Sinhalese, Tamil or English, but the language of reason. The more often and compellingly we speak, the more defined our identity will eventually become. We must then give leadership to a new struggle that is underpinned by our values; a struggle that fundamentally appeals to reason. We in this City must eventually draw public discourse into the realm of ideas, where we still retain the prowess to convince and influence. We must believe that we have the power to steer the course of this country. We are not irrelevant, and neither are our values.

[1] See Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, Letter to the Hon. Sirimavo Banadarnaike, Prime Minister on the restoration of certain rights and liberties of the people suspended since the declaration of the State of Emergency in March 1971, dated 10December 1971, in the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, ‘Peoples Rights’ documents (1971-1978), at 21.

[2] See Benjamin Schonthal, ‘Buddhism and the Constitution: The Historiography and Postcolonial Politics of Section 6’ in Asanga Welikala (ed.), The Sri Lankan Republic at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice, Centre for Policy Alternatives (2012), 201-218, at 215-216.

[3] Resolution 25/1 titled ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’ adopted at the 25th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March 2014.

[4] See for example, Verité Research, Sri Lanka: LLRC Implementation Monitor – Statistical and Analytical Review No.2: Constructive Recommendations (March 2014). The report lists 179 actionable recommendations of which 105 recommendations fall into eight categories of ‘constructive recommendations’ listed in two previous UNHRC resolutions (19/2 and 22/1) on ‘Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka’. According to the report, only 5 of these 105 recommendations have been fully implemented.

[5] See Verité Research, The Media Analysis, March 17, 2014-March 23, 2014, Vol. 4, No.12 (March 2014), at 6.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    I am entranced reading this searing poetic meditation.

    You articulate for some of us (perhaps for many of us) the roots and (distant) cure of our “concealed depression”

    We have not all been deceived by the “shimmering white”, the “pristine streets”, the “buzz of progress”. We have not all been rocked to sleep by the false peace, the suppressed voice/pain of the disregarded.

    But dare we share your belief that “an extraordinary shift in the discourse is taking place”?

    How precious, yet fragile, seems the basis of this shift — a unity based on “our quiet allegiance to reason.”

    I am so moved by what you have written, communicated. I have to go back to it again and again.

    This cannot be limited to CT. It must go beyond this space.

    • 1

      Something was haunting me as I read your piece. Now I remember what it was. Pablo Neruda — no Liberal –quoting Rimbaud at the end of his Nobel Prize Speech:

      “Lastly, I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind.”

  • 1

    Thanks Gehan for the thought provoking article. It is a most worthy clarion call for liberals in Sri Lanka to wake up from their slumber.

    I would like to add some comments on some of your views.

    You begin to describe the City in a sociological sense but then concludes that it is the space where liberals reside. I am sure you would agree that there should be space in the city for conservatives and radicals too. Even though you begin talking about reforms, later you say that a radical reordering of society is essential by which I am sure you mean reversing to liberal values you describe.

    Later, you extend your metaphor of the city to indicate physical space. Here one must add that many liberals not only indulge themselves in the personal comforts the refurbishing of the city brings to their lives, but also that all along they have been admirers of the liberal development discourse that provides the basis for the clinical cleansing of the city for its corporate takeover. Isn’t the very notion of progress you seem to criticise, a basic pillar of liberal values coupled with the idea of reason which you seem to hold as the key to our possible deliverance from the present plight? I would say what is required is political engagement (rather than reasoning) the rejection of which is the Achilles heel of political liberalism. It does not believe in political activism of citizens as central to defending and keeping democracy alive.

    I think, Liberals in Sri Lanka worked their way into irrelevance in politics when they in the name of liberal values you identify such as freedom, equality, justice and tolerance etc. failed to name LTTE terrorism as terrorism and instead sought to valorise the LTTE as the liberator of the Tamils.

    That the liberals had to seek protection in the shelters of international powers in the face of state repression is mainly due to that they do not believe in mobilising mass political support for their cause. I think it is this same refusal and inability to mobilise masses to face the repression by the regime that has made liberals and left liberals in Sri Lanka pin all their hopes on the UNHRC resolution to be the catalyst for ‘radical reordering of society’ which also seems to be suggestive of regime change.

    I do not deny that it is a worthy cause at this point to attempt to revive political discourse in Sri Lanka from a liberal perspective in defense of liberal democracy and therefore as a critique of the present regime.

    However, defending democracy at this juncture in Sri Lanka would also require reexamining liberal allegiance to notions such as development and progress themselves.

    • 0

      Nimal, thanks for those thoughts and comments. I agree, those who identify themselves as ‘liberals’ have compromised their values in the pursuit of wealth — cloaked as ‘development’ and ‘progress’. They have even poached the term ‘liberal’ and transformed its meaning — to represent their fidelity to market capitalism. Unfortunately, a system touted as ‘liberal’, when divorced from its fundamental values, quickly becomes susceptible to greed. That is the basic vulnerability of so-called ‘liberalism’ that Sri Lankan ‘liberals’ know all too well. But what is a liberal democracy–and what is political liberalism–if not a system or ideology founded on liberal values? The discourse ceases to be liberal, the moment we suspend our allegiance to liberal values. I’m not in favour of a mere descriptive form of liberalism. I think a liberal should first advance liberal values–freedom, equality, justice and tolerance. When values fail us (as in the Sri Lankan case), let us at least be guided by reason, as I firmly believe ‘reasonable’ discourse takes us back to those values.

      By ‘radical reordering of society’, I don’t mean regime change. I mean realignment of values in society. I agree this is not possible without mobilising mass political support. This is why liberal discourse must be fundamentally inclusive — it must expand to include, and as you quite rightly point out, it must shed its blind allegiance to development and progress (particularly when they come at the expense of fundamental liberal values).

  • 0

    Thank you very much for directing me to Neruda’s Nobel Lecture. It was an utterly captivating read.

  • 0

    Thank you for this timely article. As thousands celebrate the official demise of the LTTE, and another thousand/s mourn the loss of their beloved in the North, let us meditate on the meaning of everlasting peace.

    I have often wondered why it is that Tamil-liberals in the diaspora have not successfully reached out to non-Tamils to form coalitions to work against forces of Sinhalese racist fundamentalism. A basic tenet of Western liberal democracies is the power of individualism. Thus if one identifies with Western liberation ideology, one has to acknowledge that each of us is unique, irrespective of ethnicity and religion, and therefore always a potential friend, not enemy.

    There are plenty of examples from the struggles for freedom and liberty in the US that show how the majority community MUST be part of the solution to any injustice. The white college students from the North who moved SOuth to work with the Blacks during the Civil Rights era, the heterosexual parents and siblings who fought for the rights of gays, the men who helped organize and walked beside the Suffragettes are good examples.

    I do hope that the people representing the Tamils, do intentionally and with an open heart reach out to the Sinhalese and muslims, who do want to live with minorities as equal citizens in a united Sri Lanka. For I believe even if there’s an Eelam or many separate nations on the isle of Lanka, there won’t be ever-lasting peace until and unless the majority of people find empathy with the minorities. One can only build empathy through non-violent interactions.

    Let the mothers/children/widows/widowers of those killed by one group or another reach out to each other and share their grief – perhaps that could be the seed of our future peace.

    “Na hi verena verani
    sammantidha kudacanam
    averena ca sammanti
    esa dhammo sanantano.”
    -Verse 5 Dhammapada

    Hatred is, indeed, never appeased by hatred in this world. It is appeased only by loving-kindness. This is an ancient law.

    • 1

      sinhalese buddhist

      “For I believe even if there’s an Eelam or many separate nations on the isle of Lanka, there won’t be ever-lasting peace until and unless the majority of people find empathy with the minorities.”

      I hate to agree with you.

      This is not going to happen therefore these stupid people both Sinhalese and Tamils should get out of this island as soon as possible and go back to their ancestral homeland, Tamilnadu, Bihar or Bengal.

    • 0

      Sinhalese Buddhist, Well spoken! Truth when stated is so obviously striking!

  • 0

    here is some idea liberals to think about:

    “Free-market capitalism, in the absence of any major redistributive interventions on the part of the state, Piketty shows, produces anti-democratic oligarchies.This demonstration has given sustenance to liberal outrage as it drives the Wall Street Journal apoplectic.”


    Afterthoughts on Piketty’s Capital

    David Harvey


    ” Thomas Piketty has written a book called Capital that has caused quite a stir. He advocates progressive taxation and a global wealth tax as the only way to counter the trend towards the creation of a “patrimonial” form of capitalism marked by what he dubs “terrifying” inequalities of wealth and income. He also documents in excruciating and hard to rebut detail how social inequality of both wealth and income has evolved over the last two centuries, with particular emphasis on the role of wealth. He demolishes the widely-held view that free market capitalism spreads the wealth around and that it is the great bulwark for the defense of individual liberties and freedoms. “

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