Every time I sit down to write about Sri Lanka, I shake my head. The country never fails to surprise me. And sadden me. The rational side of my brain says, “But you need not concern yourself – you left 42 years ago. You’ve cleaved to another, more rational and prosperous, country – let it go!” But when I think of the emotional pull that gets stronger with age, when I think of my own idiosyncrasies which stem from an embryonic beginning in that distant idiosyncratic country, the paradoxes draw me back.
What are these inconsistencies? Here are a few, off the top of my head:
- The country got independence out of expediency not out of agency.
- Ruling families filled the void left by ancient kings, in a country seeking independence and democracy.
- The politics of exclusion was practiced in the country that was ostensibly labeled as democratic.
- While the rest of Asia went up economically, and from a lower base, Sri Lanka went down from a higher base.
- A nationalist prime minister who propped up the Sinhala-Buddhist majority to come to power in 1956 was gunned down by a Sinhala-Buddhist monk.
- His widow and housewife cried at his funeral and went onto become the first female prime minister in the world and found yet another ruling dynasty, doing better and lasting longer in office than her Oxford-educated husband.
- Freedom struggles fizzled out, in 1971, in 1988/89, and were praised as the work of strong governments preventing anarchy.
- A former president won the 26-year civil war but got turfed out in an election six years later for unchecked spending.
- An unsolved bombing in churches and hotels on Easter Sunday 2019 led to the fall of a “unified” government run by a president and prime minister who could not get along.
- The recent president, using his two-thirds majority, amassed the greatest of powers, yet lost them all and fled the country within two years of coming to office. And his replacement got the position with no political power in parliament!
- The latest freedom struggle, the Aragalaya, ended in a damp squib, half its mission complete, neutered by the very man it enabled to come into power, much against its own wishes.
- The country has one of the highest literacy rates in Asia. Yet the electorate has a short memory and falls for the next election trinket or promise.
- The Sinhala-Buddhist majority is strong at home but insignificant internationally, making it want to be stronger at home to the detriment of minorities.
- Today, ministers say fuel is available, yet fuel queues get worse and the racketeering is in high gear. QR codes? Meh!
- Today, ministers say food is available, yet the prices are beyond many, reducing people to skip a meal(s) in a day.
- Today, schools are available for online learning – but does everyone have high-speed internet access?
- Today, government servants can work from home – but they never even worked while at the office as far as I can remember.
- Today, protests are second nature, as easy to organize as a baila party in my day. But solutions are hard to come by.
- Deposed prime ministers, presidents, and officials accused of war crimes and financial misdemeanours are able to walk about the land freely, yet the small fry, especially those pesky freedom fighters, are prosecuted for bad behaviour.
- The city of Colombo and its elite core of privileged and entitled inhabitants live a pro-western lifestyle far removed from the rest of the country’s inhabitants who are only eking out a living these days.
I could go on with the paradoxes, but I think you get the picture.
When the Aragalaya got going, I glued myself to the news emanating from Sri Lanka, a long dormant beat in my breast ramping up excitedly to ask, “Is this the moment?” After 75 years of post-Independence bungling, that left a lot of dead and emigrated in its wake, were they finally going to get it right this time? But no, the Aragalaya quickly deteriorated into a lookalike of the class-divided society that Sri Lanka is, with many to speak for the individual factions, but with no one to unite them. And the newly-minted “prime-minister-acting president-elected (by parliament) president,” who did not have a single seat in the legislature except for his honorary one, did not exercise the basic tenet of democracy upon his ascendency – i.e. including the Other in dialogue. Instead, he flexed his aging muscles and threw the book at those who had enabled his new position by incarcerating the protest leaders. If he had a PR team, they were absent and unable to explain His Excellency’s modus operandi, and world opinion has turned against him. We hope to see the method in his madness soon, if at all. I’m told that he is toying with Sri Lanka’s strategic geo-political position—a new asset that has emerged, even more important than tea, rubber and coconut—to dangle before polarized world leaders.
As the 225+1 jostle for new positions in a “all-party government,” I have already dismissed the happenings of the last few months as just another birth pang in Sri Lanka’s long road to true democracy and sustainable prosperity. Alas, that goal won’t be reached in my lifetime. Prove me wrong, Mr. President – please!