Lament of a Forgotten Son

My heart mourns for Sri Lanka today when I see the pictures of lineups for gasoline and food, and the mass protests on Galle Face Green urging the government and the president to resign. We had a similar demonstration like that in Ottawa recently, but our “First-World” protestors opened barbecues and saunas for comfort, food wasn’t in short supply, and monster trucks guzzled gas 24/7 just to keep their drivers warm; Sri Lanka is a different situation – the pillars of its society are collapsing, while its brave people are struggling to keep the country alive under the mechanisms of democracy and civil behaviour, for now, and they aren’t blocking traffic and blasting noise and exhaust pollution, if I can believe the footage.

What can we do from over here in foreign lands, other than to send money and press “like and share” to Facebook posts coming from the angry masses of Sri Lanka? After all, we were the ones who left – the exiles. When you leave the game, you can’t play again, no? But can you still wave the flag from the sidelines? Can I be an armchair critic of the political situation that has been going downhill for generations, and which was my prime reason for leaving over forty years ago? I must have a smidgeon of a right still left, yes? Okay then, I’m going out on a limb to make my contribution in words, for I have already done my bit with money and with social media “likes and shares.”

I find a fundamental flaw in Sri Lanka has been its inability to accommodate the Other, a legacy of its class and caste-based society, existent from even pre-colonial times. When I lived in Sri Lanka, we were raised to call people by their race, religion, or ethnic community, and the domestic servants had to eat in the kitchen. So, my friends were either Buddhists, or Burghers, or Muslims or Tamils, among a raft of other classifications. After a drink or two, those definitions got edgier: “Ah that Sinhala bugger,” or “That Lansi Karapoththa…” But we got along, except for when a race riot broke out and we looked upon the Other with suspicion for awhile. Then the difference got sharper – it came in the guise of “Sinhala Only” in schools. I had to study in Sinhala even though I did not speak it at home. That gave me the feeling of being a foreigner in my own land, and when the name of the country changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka in 1972, that feeling got hard-coded. The final straw came when university admissions favoured rural Sinhala kids over city kids and my marks no longer made the grade. I left.

But that’s ancient history. My leaving, like many of my contemporaries, is not important. We are the exiles, the traitors who betrayed the cause. Or, were we the betrayed ones? How many of us would have stayed, if we had been given the chance, to stem the brain drain and contribute to the country’s development, perhaps fill the cadres of politicians and civil servants and remove the stigma of ineptitude that hangs over its present crop of incumbents? Instead, we developed abroad, and none of that intellectual energy seeped back into the old country that had given us our early education but abandoned us before payback time – leaving other countries to cash-in on these educated immigrants who came to their shores, job-ready, to contribute to those nations’ prosperity at Sri Lanka’s expense.

This squandering of resources did not stop at talent loss, it spread to the country’s finances. Politicians entered the job to make money, not to serve. As the years went by, their appetite for personal gain became voracious, their guards of discretion fell, and the blatancy of corruption became standard.

Xenophobia also took root. The Sinhala-Buddhists remind me of the French-Canadians in Quebec – they are the majority in their home base but are an insignificant minority amidst a grouping of neighbouring countries, or internationally. Hence the need for self-preservation and nationalism – strategies that leave them even more isolated in a shrinking echo chamber.

These vulnerabilities in Sri Lanka muddled along during 74 years of post-independence, sometimes rising to near-boiling point during the hartals of the ’50s and ’70s, during the Middle East Oil Crisis in the ’70s, during two civil wars, and during an unexplained Easter Sunday massacre in 2019. But the malevolent achcharu of flaws breached the wall when the perfect storm of the Covid-19 pandemic, short-sighted nationalizing policies, and a western boycott of Russia hit Sri Lanka in 2022, even harder than the tsunami of 2004.

The country is bankrupt now; its main revenue engines of tourism, agriculture, and human resource exports are hobbled. The present regime, including ruling party, opposition, and its moribund president, have been unable to solve the problem and are still making “deals” with each other to set up a new government, with the same players!  This resembles a replay of moving the deck chairs on the Titanic. While outside the walls, the crowd swells with cries for blood, and food. Tent cities with exotic names like Gotagogama are going up. Even the tourists are protesting! The Sri Lanka Spring has arrived with ominous rain and thunderstorms. 

Some bright signs emerge through the storm: the protests are now orchestrated by internet-savvy young people who, through the flattening effect of social media, define themselves as “Sri Lankan” and not by their narrow ethnicities or religions like my generation did; this is the worst crisis since Independence and there is no deeper bottom, they say – it’s gotta (not Gota) be uphill from here or bust; the comfortable upper middle-class who always skirted past crises by pegging their income to the inflation rate are also feeling the heat of power cuts and are out on the streets; the Rajapaksa dynasty is finally crumbling and has been exposed for all its corruption by even its own 6.9 million diehards.

But this is not enough. Hot air, protest, tin-cupping for money with the IMF or the Chinese, and a re-stacking of the broken chairs on the Titanic will not cut it. Democracy notwithstanding, Sri Lankans rally behind a leader, a legacy of their history of being led by a king. Now that Rajapaksa has been exposed as the Goat and not the King, who is his royal replacement? Is this saviour standing among the protesting crowds outside the walls? I see none.

Democracy is a process of evolution that spans many generations, even centuries, and Sri Lanka is still in its early days of democracy. The country was granted institutions of democratic government by the departing British before fully internalizing the responsibility and civic duty of being leaders and citizens in a democratic society. A democratic leader serves, he doesn’t use his position to amass personal wealth, at least, that’s the theory. A democratic citizen accommodates the Other, respects public property, and votes with personal conviction, not because they have been promised an election trinket. And the Rule of Law, which plays oversight over the process, has real weight and impartiality; it is not a mere bandied-around cliché.

There have been very few servant-leaders in Sri Lankan politics, and the few who were there were soon subsumed and usurped by greedy sycophants who raided the larder behind the leader’s back. Singapore had its Lee and Malaysia had its Mahathir, long-serving autocratic leaders who served until their countries stabilized, developed, and were ready to assume their individual brands of democracy, however imperfect they still may be. Sri Lanka too longs for a similar kind of leader, and I agree that this “messiah” needs to be in power for at least 20 years, until a generation turns over, until civic duty is embedded in the national psyche and greed is wiped out of public office. Hopefully, that leader is a person of independent means who will not look to his term of service as a means for gain, but as one of contribution and legacy. We thought we had that person in J.R. Jayawardene and Mahinda Rajapakse, but hubris and overreach laid them low.

Perhaps that leader, is standing outside on Galle Face Greene now, waiting for his or her chance to play. Or, perhaps the crisis will push a Hamlet-like figure who has been hitherto standing in the wings, minding their business, to step on to centre stage and take up the cause to rid the state of its “rottenness.” We saw that with unlikely and unexpected leaders like Rajiv Gandhi and Volodymyr Zelensky who had greatness thrust upon them (I don’t speak for these leaders’ policies but for the circumstances that led them to assume office). Even legendary King Arthur is reputed to have pulled a sword out of a stone and gone onto found Camelot.

And if there is no such messiah, lest we have the Second Coming, it will take many more years of painful evolution before Sri Lanka turns the corner and emerges as a true democracy.

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