As Sri Lanka enters a landmark anniversary of independence this month, it is beset with multiple crises, widely believed to be the result of decades of misgovernance. In this special post marking the anniversary, Jayadeva Uyangoda takes a long-term view, reminding us that it wasn’t always so — that, in fact, in 1948, as Ceylon became Sri Lanka, it was a nation with several positive vectors among Asian countries. What, then, should be celebrated now?
Sri Lanka commemorates 75 years of political independence in 1948 at a time when the country is riven by an unprecedented crisis of four dimensions — economic, social, political and governmental. There is hardly any doubt in the minds of ordinary people that it is the harvest of what the political class as a whole has sown in the name of self-government for a full 75 years.
Sri Lanka around 1948
One thesis — that of ‘we have wasted our independence’ — is fostered by comparing Sri Lanka with other ‘new states’ of Asia. This comparison, the authorship of which is often attributed to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, is based on a truism: that Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon at the time of independence, had a stronger economy and better standard of living for her peoples than all other Asian countries (except Japan). Where did Sri Lanka gone wrong, then? An explanation that has become popular amidst Sri Lanka’s current economic meltdown is: ‘We Sri Lankans nicely ate, drank and made merry at the expense of development.’
This ‘making merry’ critique is in fact directed against Sri Lanka’s venerable welfare state, inaugurated during the 1930s, and continued until recently even in an emaciated form. Rarely do these critics acknowledge the truth: that it is the welfare state that really enabled Sri Lanka, until recently, to maintain a record of fairly high social development indicators.
Sri Lanka, compared with other South Asian or many post-colonial states that were formed after World War II, had two exceptional features. The first was the welfare state that protected the poor and enabled them upward social mobility in a class- and caste-stratified society, even in times of the decline of the national economy, since the 1930s. The second was the preservation of parliamentary democracy without being overthrown by the military, even amidst two civil wars and an authoritarian transformation of the state. Yet, the advantage that that exceptionalism may have given to the country and its peoples has not been fully utilised by all elected governments. Why it so happened remains unexplained.
Until recently, there were some Sri Lankans of the older generation who used to say, without blinking an eye, that her people’s lives would have been better off if the country remained in the hands of suddhas (‘white men’). Sri Lanka does not seem to have those colonised subjects any longer. The new generation of politicised citizens express their disappointment and anger slightly differently: they should punish the entire political class collectively for the abysmal failures of its governance over the decades.
Educated citizens have another explanation of why their ruling élites have failed to fulfil the promises of political independence from colonial rule. ‘We did not have leaders like Gandhi or Nehru as the Indian people did’, would be one such explanation. Another explanation, slightly similar to the first, is to say that ‘we never had a real independence movement as the Indians did.’ The basic point in both is that we Sri Lankans have wasted our political independence due to lack of a ruling class with foresight, commitment to public good, selflessness and correct ethical disposition. Perhaps it was due to the grave mistake of the mixing up of priorities by the post-independence ruling élites.
Ethnicity and Politics
The Sinhalese political élites who became the ruling class after independence were keen to consolidate and secure their power by means of establishing an ethnic majoritarian political order. A politically polarised class of Sinhalese élites, divided into two antagonistic political camps, as represented by the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), spent all their energies on laying the foundations of an ethnic majoritarian nation-state. This happened during the first two decades after independence in 1948. At the same time, reforming and transforming the colonial economy while maintaining the social welfare commitments of the state to the poor and underprivileged strata of the citizenry would have enabled the Sinhalese ruling élites a better and sustainable decolonisation option than the communalist decolonisation that happened in nationhood and culture.
Violent consequences of the continuity of the colonial economy and ethnic majoritarian policy priorities are quite well known, tragic components of Sri Lanka’s political history since the 1950s. The social outcome of the continuation of the colonial plantation economy without any structural alteration was a major crisis of the welfare state marked by the inability of the economy to provide employment to the educated youth in both Sinhalese and Tamil societies. It was this ‘mismatch’ between the expansion of education and the economic stagnation that provided material and social conditions for two anti-state armed rebellions from the 1970s. The first, a ‘social rebellion’, erupted initially in the southern Sinhalese society in 1971 and re-appeared in the mid-1980s with greater ferocity; The second, an ‘ethnic insurgency,’ was in the northern Tamil society a few years later, lasting three decades as a protracted separatist rebellion. Both highlighted that there were glaring inadequacies in Sri Lanka’s economic and political structures requiring fundamental reforms if the ruling élites were to serve the people’s aspirations to emerge as a new post-colonial nation.
Lessons from History?
A puzzle that continues to characterise the political behaviour of Sri Lanka’s ruling élites is their stubborn refusal to learn lessons from these traumatic events and take effective measures to prevent the repetition of debilitating systemic crises. The policy response of the government to the 1971 insurgency was to nationalise European-owned plantations and expand the state sector of the economy that could hardly address the overall structural stagnation of the Sri Lankan economy. When the Sinhalese youth insurgency in the 1980s was brutally put down for the second time, the government at the time, excessively pleased with its own success in securing a pyrrhic victory over the young rebels, ignored the task of addressing root causes of social unrest and rebellion. When the protracted armed insurgency of Tamil nationalist militants was defeated in 2009, the reaction of the Sinhalese ruling class was not different. It was a triumphalist and self-congratulatory celebration, totally ignoring that there were serious deficiencies in the system as a whole, requiring solutions by means of far-reaching reforms.
Both occasions required political prudence and pragmatism also to break away from two political traps. The first is the trap of over-reliance on the efficacy of patronage politics, built on the foundations of welfare state and electoral politics, to tame the subordinate social classes in distress and win over their electoral support. The second is the trap of ethnocratic irrationality and imprudence, which also has some of its roots in what DeVotta calls Sri Lanka’s ‘politics of ethnic outbidding’ (DeVotta 2005).
While celebrating 75 years of independence, can the Sri Lankan people feel relieved that they have at last got a political class with a better mindset? Not really. A fresh test of its capacity for re-invention and renewal as a responsible ruling class came on its way just last year when an unprecedented degree of public discontent and anger came to be openly expressed in a four-month long protest campaign by the citizens. Erupting spontaneously and independent of political parties or civil society groups, this massive citizens’ protest demanded accountability from the entire political class for its seven decades-long misrule and mal-governance that had ultimately produced an unmanageable economic and social crisis. The protesting citizens demanded the resignation of the President, the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the government in order to allow a ‘system change.’
After their resignation, what did the ruling élites do? They elected a new President through parliament and rally behind him to defeat the citizens’ protest campaign through repressive measures claiming to restore law and order and protect ‘democracy’ from ‘fascists’ and ‘anarchists’? Without any sense of regret or shame for so much public exposure of their unforgiveable misdeeds, the political élites were quick to restore the old order. They did so through the parliament which is dominated by MPs of the same (ousted) government of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). It is the party which the citizens protest movement blamed for Sri Lanka’s debilitating economic crisis. The same corrupt, inept and self-serving ruling élites, having secured their hold over state power, have now also regained their resolve to resist any new popular initiative of the citizens for meaningful political change. Once again, Sri Lanka’s ruling élites have shown how obdurately unreformable they, and the political order they manage, are.
What is the year 2023, the 75th year of independence, likely to offer the majority of Sri Lankan citizens? It is continuing misery, despair and anger, exacerbated by the worsening economic crisis. That deep sense of hopelessness shared by citizens of a wide range of social strata may likely set in motion another phase of protests. The coming stage of citizens’ activism is likely to demand effective replacement of the present ruling élite which is inept, incompetent, and insensitive even to comprehend that there is a colossal crisis maturing again.
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Banner image © Hendrik Cornelissen, ‘Nine arches Bridge, Ella’, Sri Lanka, 2019, Unsplash.
The ‘Sri Lanka @ 75’ logo is copyrighted by the LSE South Asia Centre, and may not be used by anyone for any purpose. It shows the national flower of Sri Lanka, the Water Lily (Nymphaeaceae), framed in a graphic design of colours derived from the national flag, and sacral architectural motifs. The logo has been designed by Oroon Das.