The second half of the independent history of this country is defined by unfathomable mass violence that at first came as a shock, and then became routinized in a society where not long ago an occasional murder was such a rarity that it sent the media in to a frenzy. Surely Sri Lanka was not meant to go that way. At its independence, it held a promise of peace and prosperity and had a sound economic system and political institutions. Then, why did we have to witness so much bloodshed?
The commonplace explanations from average folks to academics and political commentators writing their polemic read as thus: Sri Lanka failed in its nation-building because it willfully excluded minorities from the political process; Tamils’ peaceful struggle for equal rights was disregarded thus they had no option other than opting for an armed struggle. Sinhala Buddhists are such venomous creatures that they go to bed thinking new means to persecute minorities next day so that the latter have no choice but to either become a suicide terrorist or condone terrorism. Political leaders are corrupt to the core and looted the country’s wealth.
The youths were disposed and marginalized; their pent up frustration exploded in two youthful uprising in the South. The political system lacked legitimacy and the wealth was concentrated in a few. And the list goes on.
Those might be true at times, but they are overly simplistic explanations that do not do justice to what Sri Lanka has striven and achieved even against all odds.
This country has held largely free and fair elections regularly since independence — or much before since 1931 when the first elections for the State Council were held under universal franchise. And those elections well until 1977 were an exhibition of regular anti-incumbency in fervour.
Those who opted to exclude themselves from the process, be it the Jaffna Tamil leadership who boycotted the first State Council election in 1931 or the JVP and LTTE subsequently, did so due to their own accord, driven by their own calculations. Interestingly, the JVP waged its first insurrection in 1971, barely within a year after the coming to power of the United Front Administration, the most left-leaning government in Sri Lankan history.
And while complaints of youth discontent are true, still a few countries at our economic development level or even higher could match Sri Lanka’s achievement of redistributive justice. Sri Lanka was a nascent welfare state at its independence.
Ever since, successive governments have expanded it and those investments are reflected in our social indicators, which were achieved not through a holistic economic growth, but through an overbearing focus on re-distributive justice.
The Sri Lankan electorate has a penchant for nagging. However, the free education and free healthcare that we take for granted are luxuries for many countries, including those so-called socialist ones. Certain government actions in the past, such as land reforms under the United Front government were some of the most expansive measures in redistributing wealth ever taken by a democratic state in modern history. However, none of that stopped a second uprising in the South in the late 80s.
Sri Lanka’s handling of its ethnic relations is not exemplary. However, the only community that was excluded from the political process by a government decision was Tamils of Indian Origin, who were disenfranchised by the Citizenship Act, which in retrospect was a callous political act. Such infractions were nonetheless prone to happen as new states forged their new identities. (If anything, 21st Century America elected a president who promised to deport 10 million illegal Latinos)
However, Tamils of Indian Origin did not go to war, instead, not only did they manage to win back their due rights, but also, by the 90’s Ceylon Workers Congress leader late S. Thondaman established himself as the kingmaker of local politics.
Jaffna Tamil concerns were a different kettle of fish. It has never been a question of equal rights as individuals, which were already granted, and well until the early 1980s, Tamils had a disproportionate , though gradually diminishing representation in civil service and coveted professions such as medicine, accountancy, engineering.
Though mischaracterized as a struggle for equal rights, the Northern Tamil demand was for a parity of status between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, a position which harked back to G.G. Ponnambalam’s demand for 50:50 representation or, even further to the Jaffna elites opposition to universal franchise.Tamil leadership was not excluded from political process, instead, they themselves excluded themselves. Certain cultural dynamics best manifest in Tamil exceptionalism in Tamil Nadu might have been at work hindering cooperation.
As Lee Kuan Yew once said in 1985, “ I have said this on many a previous occasion: that had the mix in Singapore been different, had it been 75% Indians, 15% Malays and the rest Chinese, it would not have worked. Because they believe in the politics of contention, of opposition. But because the culture was such that the populace sought a practical way out of their difficulties, therefore it has worked.”
That does not absolve the Sinhalese establishment from overlooking the earlier peaceful struggle by the Tamil leadership. But, the extreme that the Tamil struggle went to was more a function of Tamil cultural and political dynamics than anything that has to do with the Sri Lankan state.
However, why those real and perceived grievances both in the South and the North easily degenerated into armed mass violence was due to a particular permissive culture of political dissent that Sri Lanka fostered since even prior to its independence.
The overgrowth of that culture of peaceful dissent into armed resistance was primarily due to several perhaps well intended but short sighted policies of independent Sri Lankan political leadership. Independent Sri Lanka did not clamp down on dissent , instead, even while the limits of state power of an incipient new nation was well manifest, Sri Lanka proceeded with a premature mass political empowerment, hoping everything would be fine. Political empowerment without adequate institutional apparatus of the state to check transgressions is an exercise wrought with danger. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who unleashed the populist Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, told his aides that he had never seen anything like the promise of Swabasha policy that had energized the masses. He did not foresee the disastrous end that such a populist awakening would lead to and retard the progress of the nation. Political leaders who rode to power in a wave of populist support, then by virtue of their populist clout, overwhelmed the country’s nascent independent institutions, which over time became subordinate to politicians. Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike went a step further to entrench that subordination in the 1972 Constitution.
The Cold War international system was plagued by a myriad of civil wars. Some countries succumbed to communist takeovers and others fought with both hands against internal threats. Successful countries learn from experience of others and make precautions for their own exigencies. However, the Sri Lankan leaders, who were cocksure that the battle of ideas would be fought and won through elections did not learn from their peers. Thus they did not invest on the requisite coercive power of the state, which is the ultima ratio in any dispute, be it domestic or international.
“Sri Lanka’s handling of its ethnic relations is not exemplary. However, only community that was excluded from the political process by a government decision was Tamils of Indian Origin, who were disenfranchised by the Citizenship Act, which in retrospect was a callous political act”
The JVP waged its first insurrection with ‘galkatas’ and still came closer to capture the state, until it was defeated with foreign help. Still, lessons were not leant, and the LTTE that emerged as a rag tag guerrilla group, managed to confine army into the Jaffna Fort by the mid 80s.
Sri Lanka became victim of mass violence, because it fostered a democratic space conducive of mass mobilization, which can be exploited especially in a new state that is struggling to knit together a statehood. At the same time, Sri Lankan leaders placed very low the bar of the probable success of an armed takeover of the state. That created incentives for insurgents in the South and the North to give it a try, which they did.
Another factor made things worse. Had Sri Lanka managed its political empowerment alongside economic empowerment, the danger of mass upheaval could have been lessened. Instead, myopic economic policies of the first three decades created a groundswell of grievances of youth who had been empowered through the welfare policies of the very state. Until, J.R.Jayawardene, Sri Lanka did not have a leader who had an economic sense; all who precededhim either thought good times would remain forever or were too dogmatic to find practical solutions. Their path to political power was through dolling out goodies. Their policies were partly ideational, shaped by Fabian socialism, and partly opportunistic. Though the successive UNP governments, up until Chandrika Kumaratunga administration had historically generated higher growth numbers than their SLFP peers, their achievementswere minuscule in international comparison of countries growing from a lower base at the time. Their Statist economic policies discouraged private sector. What the country such as ours wanted then and now is gainful manufacturing jobs for its skilled and semi- skilled workforce. However, capitalism was by and large an F word in the political lexicon at the time. Thus domestic imperatives were ignored, while a host of East Asian and South East Asian states graduated from sweat shops to become economic power houses during the corresponding period.
Economic success could have greatly reduced the propensity of politics of contention drifting into armed violence. Today, Sri Lanka is shipping its semi-skilled and unskilled labour to the Middle East, not an enviable achievement, however, that reduces the demographic pressure on social and political fabric .
Sri Lanka’s focus should be to create sustainable economic growth and to get rid of recalcitrant laws that stand on the path of country’s economic progress. Instead, like in the past, Sri Lanka is putting the cart before the horse.
Last week, writing to thisnews paper, NiranAnketell argued why judicially enforceable socio economic rights should not be included in a bill of rights as proposed by the advocates of constitutional reforms- as he rightly noted not because in opposition to advancement of social economic rights, but because numerous unintended consequences which would in effect have the opposite effect and exacerbate inequalities.
That is exactly where the mismatch between ideational policies and their practical implementation lies. Constitutional rights can lead only so far. Their limits are omnipresent in South Africa’s manifest failure in bridging racial inequalities. For those who believed in more forceful maneuvering by the government, Venezuela looms large as a grandiloquent failure.
Sri Lanka’s electoral democracy is well capable in redistributing justice, but it fares very poorly in generating wealth, which howeverare the building blocks of any sustainable effort to long term equality and prosperity. Sri Lanka should prioritize on putting in place a system that foster economic growth. Even if the era of youth rebellion is now behind, an economic revival would still save our idle youngmen from smoking too much pot.