Change for building a brave new nation
Posted on February 11th, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

Oh, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in’t!

-Miranda to Prospero, her father, in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest

We, Sri Lankans, have just survived a political tempest conjured by the powers that be, who/which, collectively, may not be as benign an ‘evil doer’ as Prospero of the spectacular Shakespeare play that ends happily for all, the characters in the play as well as the audience; or maybe we are still in the process of weathering the storm, for a more enduring outcome is yet to follow in an election scheduled to be held in June. The Tempest is also a play that involves the themes of temptations of power over others, unjust means of restoring justice, the close resemblance between good people and bad, the attraction of it all, and the like. In the scene where the lines quoted above occur, having spent all her young life since her infancy confined to a lonely island with her father Prospero, an Italian duke  treacherously deposed by his brother, Miranda is setting eyes on a crowd of human beings (sailors) for the first time and is impressed by the sight of the ‘goodly creatures’. Incidentally, the adjective ‘brave’ here means magnificent, marvelous, splendid. I’d like to think, not without reason, that we too are being held in the same magical moment as Miranda in which we must be able to rediscover the intrinsic beauty of our common humanity in resolving the national issue at the centre of the ongoing unexpected precipitation of ‘change’.

However, the reality we are witnessing is not as roseate as in the Miranda scene, though it certainly has some real potential for evolving as a great national awakening in ethnic relations in the national polity. The recent election result cannot at all be hailed as the triumph of a popular will for the sort of epochal change that was achieved in 1956 and was later refined to better accommodate improvements, especially in the area of official language policies. The way forward is to correct past mistakes while building on past successes. In fact, there is a danger of the ‘change’ becoming the beginning of the reversal of that early change or ‘transition’ as it was then described (from lingering imperialism to relative independence). Preventing this possible trend is the challenge that the nation is facing today.

For whatever happens all Sri Lankans are responsible, be it through their action or their inaction at critical moments where the first is mandatory. The late Jonathan Edward Schell (1943-2014), author and visiting fellow at Yale University, and campaigner against nuclear weapons, said: The common world has been the work of every generation that has lived in it, back to the remotest ages” (1982). This statement should be understood not only at the mere physical level, but at political and social levels as well. The present realities in Sri Lanka have been historically shaped by our ancestors and us of the new age. We have a responsibility to leave a livable country for our children and their children.

At this middle of the second decade of the 21st century, undoubtedly the most enlightened age of human civilization so far, let us Sri Lankans reflect with sadness on the wanton destruction of human life and the utter waste of inestimable mental and material resources that  we have suffered over the past one hundred years in the name of the so-called Sinhala-Tamil problem. According to the 2012 population and housing census which was conducted covering the whole island after a break of 30 years, the majority Sinhalese account for 75% of the population, the minority Tamils (Sri Lankan and Indian together) 15.4% (http://www.statistics.gov.lk/). Let us also think about how we, the majorities and minorities, were collectively subjected to merciless exploitation by colonialists, who created divisions and ignited fratricidal passions between communities through their ‘divide and rule’ strategy for their own advantage and to our detriment. Naturally, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority posed an unbroken challenge to the European occupiers of the country during the last five hundred years, and were never totally reconciled to foreign domination, and they were joined by the other communities from the beginning of the last century against foreigners. By the time of so-called independence in1948, after nearly 450 years of brutal attempts at the ‘temporal and spiritual conquest’ of the island by the Europeans including the Portuguese who initiated it in the 16th century, the overwhelming majority of the masses belonging to diverse ethnicities remained loyal to their common homeland and to their respective cultures, as they have since, despite appearances.

The nearly half a millennium of European occupation was also a period of heroic native resistance to it. The first three and a half centuries of this period took mainly a bloody military character. During the next 100-year period of European occupation (i.e., from around the mid-19th to mid-20th century) local resistance to foreign rule assumed a peaceful, political character. By the end of the 19th century, it had started receiving the support of the minorities as well. However, the introduction of such progressive features as universal franchise and free education for all, which even the British colonialists had recognized as necessary, met with some initial opposition from the minuscule privileged Westernized comprador class composed of elements from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds.  This was generally because the members of the culturally deracinated class feared that their privileged status would be jeopardized in the event of the native Sri Lankans (the majority of them being Sinhalese Buddhists)  regaining their sovereignty. But it must not be forgotten that it was some nationalist patriots belonging to the Westernized elite itself who, irrespective of ethnicity, played a major role in winning emancipation from colonial occupation.

Meanwhile the masses lived in communal harmony as they had done for centuries since before the arrival of Europeans in the island. Towards the end of British rule the Tamil problem had become compounded with the importation of Tamil labour from South India (during the mass scale indentured labour migration from South Asia between 1834-1917) by British planters. The indenture system, a system of bonded labour which had come into existence after the abolition of slavery, was hardly less inhuman or less exploitative than the latter.  They were made to work in appalling conditions, though they were supposed to be looked after by both the Indian and the Ceylon governments, both being parts of the so-called British empire. Their settlement among the native impoverished Sinhalese peasants dispossessed the latter of the lands they had been traditionally enjoying as a common national resource of vital importance for their existence. The poor illiterate Tamil migrants (most of whom didn’t understand the terms of the ‘bonds’ they had signed) were an oppressed community, and the Sinhalese were even more oppressed and made even more indigent in their own land of birth. It is a cruelly unfair indictment against the native Sinhalese to suggest that these ‘plantation’ or ‘Indian’ Tamils (No insult is intended, but that used to be one way of distinguishing them from their native Sri Lankan co-ethnics) were oppressed by the Sinhalese, for the truth was that both groups (Sinhalese and Tamil) were oppressed by the colonialists in common.

The various governments that came to power after 1948 did much to improve the lot of the previously oppressed Tamils (both Lankan Tamils and Tamils brought from South India as indentured labour) along with that of the equally or worse oppressed Sinhalese and other communities with the cooperation of all their leaders. However, under many post-1948 governments, economic development was mostly Colombo centered, Colombo being the base of government and also the economic hub of the country until recently. Little development  reached the periphery, leaving areas such as the deep south, parts of the north, east,  and north central provinces, for example, lagging behind in terms of economic, educational and social development. The unsettled conditions due to the ethnic problem deprived the north of any development for nearly thirty years. With the conclusion of the civil war, this too ended. Since more than 85% of the Lankan population live in the villages, economic planners must, without neglecting the urban areas, pay special attention to the village as the previous regime did.

There is a great backlog of misunderstanding and misinformation between the communities accumulated over generations, which makes already existent harmonious inter-communal relations difficult to enhance. This is awaiting clearance by the new generation. Racial stereotyping leads to mutual prejudice between races. No ethnic community is free from derogatory tags put on them. The Sinhalese were denigrated as a lazy indolent people by the mid-19th century British planters who went looking for local workers to work on their plantations. But the Sinhalese of that time, an industrious independent agrarian people, regarded it as below their dignity to work as hired hands for a foreign employer; so most of them refused to work on European owned plantations . Since they were unable to find sufficient numbers of workers among the local Sinhalese peasants, the planters had to resort to the method of indentured labour mentioned above and bring in workers from South India. Those migrant Tamils had a different attitude to selling their labour. The Kandyan Sinhalese treated engaging in commercial enterprises as undignified too. Tamils and Muslims were also subjected to baseless stereotypical negative caricaturing. Not that these old habits are too embarrassingly evident today. But they still exist as a damaging undercurrent in inter-communal relations, and come to the open at times. It is time we learned to accord the same dignity to others that we want them to extend to us, and thus ensure synergy and security across cultures in our beautiful island home.

Of course, among human beings, however civilized they are, a certain degree of interactional tension between groups of people (apt to be in certain contexts identified necessarily as racial discrimination or racism) is inevitable not only due to cultural differences displayed in their social behaviour, diversity of religious beliefs, conflict of interests, and so on, but also due to our evolutionary biological heritage as members of the animal kingdom. But in a well governed secular democracy such as Australia, the deleterious effect of this is checked by common decency observed by the citizenry as well as by the efficient maintenance of the rule of law by the state.

The best way to establish reconciliation in our country, I think, is the realization of good governance, that is, giving practical expression to the basic values of democracy, and the implementation of liberal constitutionalism. According to Mark Warren of Georgetown University (1989), liberal constitutionalism can be described as … the combination of constitutional devices – separation of powers, checks and balances, civil liberties, and civil rights – that are presumed to protect against illegitimate political coercion against persons and which guarantee public influence over political decision makers”. In this respect, the ideas of Professor Nayef Al Rodhan of UK, philosopher, neuroscientist, and geo-strategist, are helpful. In his book Sustainable History and the Dignity of Man: A Philosophy of History and Civilizational Triumph” (2009) he proposes eight fundamental criteria for ensuring good national government: participation, equity, and inclusiveness; rule of law; separation of powers (roughly, the division of state power/governance into the three branches of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, each with specific powers and distinct areas of responsibility so that its powers do not come into conflict with the powers assigned to the other two); free, independent and responsible media; government legitimacy; accountability; transparency; and limiting the distorting effect of money in politics (the need for the last criterion has been acutely felt in all democracies including, for example, the US, UK, India, and our little Sri Lanka).

Reinforcement of good governance was the ‘Change’ that the majority of Sri Lankans voted for and are still awaiting, though of course a section of the electorate may have had different motives. Change we can believe in” or simply Change” was current US president Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign slogan, too. Campaign slogans are powerful mantras that politicians chant. But such mantras need not always be meaningless. It was clear that Barack Obama was determined to bring about a change in governance among other areas that needed change. He was aware of the importance of limiting the distorting effect of money in politics” before Professor Al Rodhan included it in his list of basic principles to be adhered to by democracies for ensuring good governance. In all democracies campaign funding is an issue that is interestingly connected with a primordial conflict in human society that originated with the beginning of agriculture (By the way, farmers were the pioneers of human civilization; their wellbeing must be a special concern of rulers in any society). As pointed out in his 2010 book Here on Earth” by Australian writer, scientist, and explorer Tim Flannery, the motivating force of democracy is little more than a continuation of the trend that began with the dawn of agriculture, wherein the individually weak farmers triumphed over the powerful few”. In any capitalist democracy, the weaker many are pitted against the privileged few. By providing campaign funding for politicians and political parties, the rich businesspeople and other similarly wealthy and powerful elements are able to subvert the interests of the voters. A perennial challenge for humanity is to create a better democracy to deal with this issue. It is a rule of the thumb that whoever pays the piper calls the tune. For true democracy to work political funding ought to come from the entire public.

Barack Obama who knew this changed the democratic process by using the internet to collect small donations from a large number of relatively powerless common people to fund his campaign in 2008. UPFA Western Provincial Council member Udaya Gammanpila successfully adopted a similar method to raise funds for his campaign. Having probably not understood the broad significance of this practical application of something praiseworthy that fresh-thinking Gammanpila  had learned from one of the most powerful politicians of the world today for helping introduce good governance in Sri Lanka, some of his critics, after the fall of the Rajapaksa government, according to reports, asked him to return the money he had collected from the public! At the time of writing, I heard the news that he has claimed to have been threatened with death! Our voters must be more educated in how to participate in the democratic process without their interests being subverted by enemies of the common people with their money power.

The plethora of negative signs (regarding any hope of good governance prevailing) that we are currently seeing must be a temporary phenomenon. Targeted witch hunts may be attempts to deliver the coup de grace to fallen adversaries that are likely to pose a threat to those who have assumed the upper hand at the moment. While this is happening in the background  the current administration appears, in a sense, to be on autopilot mode, while  one or more hands too many may be raring to grab the joystick. However, judging by his thoughtful words and deeds, I feel that the autopilot cruising appearance is deceptive; President Mr Maithreepala Sirisena is firmly at the controls and is proving himself to be the leader that the nation needs at this juncture. Whoever rules after the next (parliamentary) election, Mr Sirisena’s crucial role at this critical moment will decide the future of our nation.

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