By Ameer Ali –
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (PGR) coined the phrase “prosperity with splendour” and promulgated it as the chief objective of his presidency. It is a tacit acceptance that seventy-two years of independence had neither brought prosperity nor splendour. Why did a nation endowed with so much natural resources and human talent, gained its independence on a platter without shedding a drop of blood but with ample foreign reserves, inherited a highly efficient civil service and public administration, and managed to establish with pride one of the most successful welfare states in Asia, fail to build on that enviable edifice a modern economic powerhouse like a few of her Asian neighbours? Economists may theorise the causes of this failure ad nauseam. But, the most fundamental of reasons that prevented such a transformation goes beyond economics and enters deep into the nation’s politics. It was the metastasis of communal politics that sowed the seeds of national disunity and inter-communal discontent, which ultimately deprived the economy of the vitally needed synergy emanating from a united citizenry.
Sri Lanka’s ethno-religious and cultural diversity is a blessing in disguise contrary to what present day Buddhist supremacists seem to believe. The ancient rulers of this nation realised this fact and harnessed that diversity to create prosperity with splendour. The difference between now and then is that those monarchs, with true commitment to their Buddhist faith and its values, treated every component of that plurality with equal dignity, respect and tolerance. Although every community had its own social hierarchy and stratification, each community in the eyes of the ruler carried the same status. The Sangha of course advised those rulers when needed to make the realm virtuous and in conformity with Buddhist ethos. In short, and to put it in modern political parlance, every subject under those monarchs was an equal ‘citizen’. The kingdom was a united but plural entity in which every community and every subject lived in peace and contributed to the best of their ability to the success of the realm. Political and economic rationalism and not religious bigotry ruled the day. Today’s supremacists are deliberately hiding this beautiful chapter of Sri Lanka’s golden history in order to thrust their own twisted version. History is prostituted to satisfy the demands of power hungry chauvinists.
The western concept of nation state and nationalism which were originally devised to unite warring petty kingdoms in medieval Christendom, later became, in the hands of European colonizers, a divisive and poisonous instrument to divide and rule several plural societies that remained peaceful and cosmopolitan until the colonialists arrived. The disintegration and destruction of the Ottoman Empire is proof par excellence of the handy work of poisonous nationalism. Similarly, Sinhala and Tamil ethno-nationalism, which sapped the economic vitality of this island and dragged it into a foolish and futile civil war, were a by-product of the same so called Westphalian synthesis. As an outgrowth of this ethno-nationalism is the idea of Buddhist supremacy, which is now dictating the political and economic agenda of PGR and his caretaker government. PGR’s strategy of political exclusion with economic inclusion of minorities is a clear expression of supremacist thinking. How could he or any government under him achieve prosperity with splendour by empowering one group at the expense of another, is beyond any sense of political rationality and economic justice.
A few days ago, it was reported that one of the militant members of the Sangha, while addressing a gathering in Jaffna, called on Tamil leaders and their people to learn the Sinhalese language and join the majority to develop the nation. He did not even have the courtesy to say that he was willing to learn the Tamil language at least to communicate with Tamils and understand their feelings, grievances and aspirations. It is the same Ven. Thera who also wants to homogenise different marriage laws and traditions in the country in favour of one common law. People of his ilk insisted and won prohibiting the national anthem to be sung in Tamil at Independence Day celebrations. With this type of racism they are also indirectly advocating that Tamil speakers need not espouse patriotic emotions? What a dangerous attitude especially at a time when foreign powers are vying to gain a long term foothold in the country? A divided nation is an inviting terrain for scheming outsiders.
Similarly, on a different occasion, a budding Muslim leader was calling members of his own community to join the Sinhala majority and be part of PGR’s race for economic development. This native informer should know very well that the supremacists who are behind PGR, while not prepared to consider the Tamils as co-owners of this land, are also questioning the indigenousness of Muslims in this country. In other words, to the supremacists, members of the two minority communities are virtually non-citizens at best or second class citizens at worst. How could any leader expect to promote genuine political partnership on such unequal terms? Such a partnership would eventually lead to a master-servant relationship, which seems to be the objective behind PGR’s authoritarianism. With soft militarization of government’s high powered administrative and managerial sectors, and with the posting of security personnel in every district, apparently to assist in development work, a police state seems to be looming on the horizon.
A workable solution to the national question and post-war reconciliation is possible if supremacists and their opponents stop using the heart to do the work of brain. Let reason prevail over emotion and consider a solution in the context of the gravity of situation confronting the country today. Of the manifold issues facing the nation, two are critical and they need a united effort from the entire population to tackle successfully. One is the economy and the other is national security.
On the economic front, behind the massaged statistics dished out by ministers and their appointees, an unbiased review of the real economy depicts a worrying future. Sky-rocketing cost of living amidst ad hoc populist handouts, increasing unemployment worsen by underemployment, chronic budget deficits caused by wasteful expenses and falling public revenue, mounting national debt, depreciating rupee and resulting inflationary pressures, are problems that cannot be solved without massive increase in domestic output with surplus to export. Foreign direct investment (FDI) can certainly be of assistance, though not the solution, but even (FDI) will not flow in unless the home ground is attractive and safe to investors. That attraction depends on the quality of domestic infrastructure, quality of domestic labour and associated factors of production, and above all a peaceful political and social environment. The last of these is rarely stressed by theoretical economists, but assumed away at best under the all-inclusive ceteris paribus. In Sri Lanka especially, peace and security is precondition to achieve prosperity with splendour.
Modern economies are not built on science and technology alone although they are crucial, but with the co-operative effort of the people who contribute to and benefit from those economies. That co-operation cannot be bought or forced. It has to be spontaneous and that spontaneity depends on how free, independent and happy people feel about the socio-political surrounding in which they live. This is why popular democracy is such an attractive political model especially for plural societies. It provides opportunities for a numerical minority to become a political majority and vice versa, depending on the policies they advocate and programs they represent. Having denuded democracy of its inner substance while preserving it carapace of political parties and periodic elections, ethno-nationalism in this country has destroyed socio-political peace, which in turn has thwarted prosperity with splendour.
That peace cannot be recovered by relying on security forces alone. Increasing the size of police, army, air and naval personnel that are imbued with supremacist thoughts, equipping them with expensive and state of the art weapons, and allowing them to roam around in every city, town and village, may succeed in injecting fear and anxiety among masses, but will not promote societal peace and the necessary confidence in the future, especially among communities that had been grievously hurt by past injustices at the hands of these forces. Without peace and confidence economic efforts will remain suboptimal at best. This is why PGR’s strategy of political exclusion and economic inclusion will not work. Once again, it should be stressed that our policy makers study closely how pluralist Singapore built its Singaporean identity that turned that resource-poor tiny island into a regional economic giant. In a public address delivered by Lee Kwan Yew in the mid-1980s, he warned the Chinese chauvinists in his country not to commit the error of Sri Lanka by advocating ethno-nationalism. It was the same Lee who envied the development of this island when he visited in early 1950s.
With reference to security, PGR and his caretaker government need not be reminded of the fact that the art of warfare has changed dramatically in recent years. We are living in an age of drone attacks and cyber terrorism. To protect an island like ours against such misfortunes requires international cooperation. That cooperation has now become a complex matter because of geopolitical developments in the Indian Ocean. To trumpet that Sri Lanka adopts a neutral foreign policy is simply for public consumption bereft of substance. Because of the strategic developments in the Indian Ocean, there is always a possibility that Sri Lanka may become a new theatre of war in Asia, and that war will not be fought with conventional weapons. The nation is well and truly trapped by the geostrategic manoeuvrings of India, China and the USA. How our own civil war itself contributed to this tragic situation is a sordid chapter altogether, which the supremacists may not want to read about or listen to. Given this scenario, at least a united Sri Lanka can help to minimise possible damages. The old adage, ‘united we stand and divided we fall’ is no more appropriate than it is now.
This is why, it is time that PGR and his supremacists from the political, economic and religious circles address the national question without delay and with open mind. What the country needs is unity with equality among its plural constituents. With that unity, prosperity with splendour is certainly within our reach.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia