By Emil van der Poorten –
When one begins to step back and try to analyse the issues and problems faced by Sudu Banda, Rasalingam or Cader Mohideen in this country, after a while the penny drops and one is left with a whole bunch of uncomfortable “realities,” the primary one being the massive corruption that seems to have reached into every nook and cranny of Sri Lanka.
While corruption seems to have accelerated very dramatically during the Rajapaksa hegemony, its roots seemed to have established themselves with the free-for-all that was the “open economy,” when I am sure that a man for whom I have never had any great respect, J. R. Jayewardene, seemed to have really meant it when he said, “Let the robber barons come!”
By all accounts, there was a desperate need, for national psychological reasons if for no other, to change course from the truly terrible economic stifling of the last years of the Sirima Bandaranaike coalition government. However, even though there might have been a case for some of the steps taken in terms of turning back many of the idiocies of import substitution by controls without precedent in this country, all of which were restricted to the “hoi polloi” and scarcely affected those in the seats of power and their friends, no provision had, obviously, been made for the most rudimentary of checks and balances, that would have ensured a more humane system than either the Bandaranaike/N.M.Perera one and J.R. Jayewardene’s “open economy had resulted in. Exacerbating “Yankee Dick’s” model was the fact that, inevitably, his invitation to the robber barons was gladly accepted by that pestilence in both their local and foreign versions!
The curious fact is that the current Rajapaksa regime has through unprincipled behavior truly without precedent in any recent time, succeeded in turning this bastardized version of the much-reviled economic system called capitalism into a truly monstrous system that serves nobody but their immediate family and its cronies.
It is fascinating to observe a populace that still does not seem to realize the implications, both long-term and even in the immediate future of what is to descend, inexorably, upon it. The loans, at exorbitant interest rates, from China are beginning to come due and as one financial wizard who is currently straddling the political fence phrased it in respect of the cost of Colombo’s massive “development” with Chinese funding: “We are turning our debt into equity.” Meaning? That we had agreed, literally, to convert parts of our tiny island into Chinese territory! If nothing else, his foreign doctorate had certainly provided him with an interesting turn of phrase!
Despite all the mumbo-jumbo nationalism practiced and preached in this country for goodness knows how long, the implications of this business of borrowing money at usurious rates and trading off parts of what many proudly proclaim to be their Motherland, is dichotomous to say the least.
What is the explanation for the contradiction of people displaying all the symptoms of terminal xenophobia handing over pieces of its already meager territory burdened with a population equivalent to Australia’s while spouting nationalist rhetoric that would given even stupidity a bad name?
One explanation could well be the incessant racist rhetoric rained on its population by Sri Lankan politicians of importance over a really long period, some of it cloaked in quasi-Buddhist philosophy as witness the idolization, even today, of such as Anagarika Dharmapala. By some really strange turn of events, this language has been made to fit with the economic and philosophical transformation of post-Mao China. What is additionally fascinating is that when China is discovering that untrammeled, corrupt free enterprise is not the answer and is beginning to prosecute hitherto untouchable members of their kleptocracy, Sri Lankans appear to be reaching new heights of acceptance of their own version of the Chinese oligarchy just when that country has begun to take those fitting the same description into custody, convicting them and, either, putting them to death, or in the case of a lucky few, giving them substantial prison sentences. How is it that a nation such as ours, known in post-colonial history for its sophisticated politics and democratic practices is sliding towards becoming a nation where someone like Jean Bedel Bokassa would feel very much at home? To mix my comparisons, perhaps Haiti with Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier might bear more apt comparison than the African country where Bokassa carried out practices that would have even been rejected in the middle ages as being inhuman!
The vast majority of Sri Lanka’s citizenry did not even begin to reap the benefits of our early independence because they neither spoke, wrote nor understood English, the language in which the country’s affairs were administered. It doesn’t take intellectual brilliance to appreciate that this state of affairs provided very fertile ground for the seeds of the racism, religious intolerance and rank xenophobia that gained momentum as the years went by.
The solution to this problem could well have been a concentrated effort to have every Sri Lankan read, write and understand English, an international language whose spread has accelerated since the end of Empire! This would have proved a real “link” language unifying distinct communities and cultures. However, those holding the levers of power either could not or chose not to put such a policy into practice.
Despite never having been a great admirer of the late Lee Kuan Yew and his iron-fisted rule of Singapore, one cannot but admire the statesmanship he displayed when he chose, against every tenet of nationalism of that time and since, to make English the language of administration of his city state. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating thereof, the simple wisdom and practicality of that decision is only too obvious. That one step seems to have counterbalanced the disadvantages that his dictatorship brought with it.
Think about it. You will realize the enormity of Bandaranaike’s cynical “Sinhala Only” policy which didn’t preclude him from educating his own children on the continent where he had already served as President of the Oxford Union and from where he brought the habit of wearing bow ties and breeding pedigreed Greyhounds. Great beginning to the first major upsurge of post-independence nationalism, I’m sure you’ll agree!
However, one could well say that we Sri Lankans should have learned something from our previous stupidity during the intervening six decades. Unfortunately not, it seems. All it takes, even during the current election campaign, is for someone to shout “The Tigers are coming” for a significant number of people to rally round the flag of racism and xenophobia supporting the very people they know to have raped and pillaged this country for far too long. In a perverse way, this appears to be the result of the deprivation visited upon their followers by the very individuals who have kept them down.
A large number of Sri Lankans still look up to and admire Rajapaksa and his clan for the most abhorrent traits of their behaviour and I say this in all seriousness despite the fact that that conduct flies in the face of every basic tenet of the philosophy that the vast majority of Sri Lankans pay homage to, Buddhism.
Is this because the opposition, led by Wickremesinghe and Sirisena is considered suspect and not capable of living up to its promises or is it because many believe whatever the governing coalition originally promised is being diluted by the “insurance buyers” who hold positions of power within it and that, therefore, the “known devil” (Rajapaksa) is preferable?
Go figure! But remember that after the 17th of August you are going to have to live for a very long time – not necessarily whatever term is officially stipulated for those elected – with those you elect.
A momentous choice awaits Sri Lankans on August 17th and I believe that they will, ultimately, live up to that early promise of being the cradle of modern democracy in south Asia.