Can Sri Lanka be saved?

Punarudaya Movement does not agree to a system of government that will restrict the sovereignty of the people into a narrow frame of exercising their vote at elections only.

by Victor Ivan

The system that prevails in Sri Lanka can be considered a corrupt and predatory one that allows powerful people to exploit the rest of the people and loot their properties at their whims and fancies, no matter how unreasonable it may seem.

This corrupt system has devastatingly impacted not only the State and its institutional system; it has made its hideous influence on all sectors of economy and the domain of public services such as education, public health and travel. This situation has largely contributed to make the life of people a tragedy and making the country a miserable specimen of corruption, mismanagement and inefficiency.

The extensive crisis that has overwhelmed Sri Lanka can be considered a situation which had developed gradually into its present height as a result of our not being able to resolve certain historical issues which ought to have been resolved at the time of regaining political independence.

The independence gained can be considered more a gift received than an independence won after a struggle. This did not pave the way for building of the modern nation and producing matured leaders capable of steering the country in right direction. In this backdrop, ethnic, caste and religious differences play as major factors of internal conflicts.

Ten years after independence, the country experienced ethnic conflicts and 20 years later, it took a violent form which had gradually developed in to an internal civil war which had protracted for nearly thirty years, turning Sri Lanka into a country of incessant bloodshed of mass scale. A large number of people lost their life while those who were able to survive have been rendered spiritually dead to a greater or lesser degree

This anomaly which had originated during the uncivilised times of violent conflict has impacted not only on the society, but on the State and its institutional system as well. In this backdrop, plundering of public property had become a permanent feature of the State administration. The deterioration of the state and its associated system of institutions was accelerated with the state assuming the form of a bandit and a carnivorous entity.

During the times of violent conflicts and the protracted internal war, there was no atmosphere conducive for State reformations. By the time the violent conflicts and the internal war had ended, the decay of the State had reached an appalling level that it was not possible to move even one step forward without making large-scale structural reformations in the State and the institutional system. But, the leader who won the internal civil war and the two leaders of the Yahapalana Government who came to power defeating the former had failed to address the issue. The decline of the State and the crisis associated with it can be considered an inevitable outcome of this situation.

Thus, the breakdown of the entire system can be considered an outcome of not effecting reformations required for its survival. Now the system is not in a state in which it could be reformed; instead, it has reached a stage in which a complete breakdown of it cannot be avoided.

A third option

All political parties of Sri Lanka have failed to foresee the breakdown of the system in advance. Punarudaya can be considered the only movement which was able to foresee this eventuality. During its short history of a little more than two years, Punarudaya Movement, since its beginning, stressed to the people the deterioration of the system that had been taking place over a considerable time.

Besides that, Punarudaya Movement can be described as an organisation which had emphasised the people of the necessity of turning this inevitable collapse of the system into an opportunity to recreate the State and society. In this sense, the Punarudaya Movement can be described as an active interest group that has focused its full attention on the impending collapse of the system and made a comprehensive study of the situation. It views this breakdown as a golden opportunity bequeathed by the history to recreate the system. It is an excellent chance the country has gained to rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

The way the Punarudaya Movement perceives and analyses things that take place in Sri Lanka and the experiments it has conducted in the domains of social, political and public attitudes, ought to receive the attention of social scientists and the people of Sri Lanka as they could be useful in addressing the problem in a much broader context.

As I am an activist of this movement, I would like to invite the reader to read what I write about Punarudaya Movement with a critical eye. At the outset of this movement, it was launched not in urban areas but in rural areas inhabited by Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people. One main object of the movement was to understand the real conditions of these difficult areas. Another object was to adopt a reciprocal approach of learning from them while educating and enlightening them on the problem. The third object was to identify the rural leaders who are active and are endowed with leadership potential.

There were several popular rumours regarding the holding of meetings with village people. One was that the outsiders conducting discussions in villages, in addition to providing food for the participants, should pay them a sum of money and those fail to fulfil this condition cannot conduct discussions in villages. Another popular story was that there are politically influential people, and the villagers would not allow discussions to be held by outside people without their support. But, both these rumours were proved to be false.

We carried only our knowledge and ideas to the village. All other facilities needed were arranged by the supporters in the village who organised and coordinated the discussions. They did not expect anything other than knowledge and ideas from us. On the other hand, we have not gone to any village seeking approval or support of politicians. We have been to hundreds of villages and so far not encountered any unpleasant situations.

The village people are good listeners, when the issues pertain to their life are discussed. Also, they are very clever in expressing their views when an opportunity is given. They have a unique ability to express themselves clearly. They won’t get angry except listening carefully with interest even when the popular beliefs, which they hold true, are being criticised.

On average, the life of the people living in villages is extremely hard. The income they generate from agriculture is not at an optimum level. Even the large-scale development programs like Mahaweli have not contributed to make a discernible improvement in their life. They have not been able to make maximum use of their lands. There is no mechanism to guide them either. In addition, the damage caused to agriculture by natural disasters like floods and drought and wild animals like elephants, wild boar, monkeys, rilavus, porcupines, peacocks, and above all by ruthless market forces can be considered the other forces that had made their lives miserable. Almost all household items used by them have been purchased from loans obtained from finance companies and micro loans schemes. To pay for the loan instalments and interest, most of the debtors are compelled to cut down their expenses on food and clothing, the basic needs of life.

Despite the large number of Government officials appointed for the agricultural sector, they have not been able to become a positive light in upgrading the life of these innocent people.

An unforgettable experience

The villagers, when convinced that something is true, strongly stand by it. To prove this, I wish to cite an unforgettable experience that I had to encounter. At the early beginnings of the Punarudaya Movement, arrangements had been made to hold a meeting at Kalawewa, in the compound of a house belonged to a deputy principal of a school. A meeting was held in the evening. A group of about 50 selected villagers including the deputy incumbent priest of the Vijithapura Rajamaha Vihara had come for the discussion.

The purpose of the meeting was explained by me. I made a brief analysis, which took about 25 minutes, of the crisis of Sri Lanka, from its beginning since independence and its development up to now. I concluded my analysis of the problem with a request to the audience to express their views, if any, about my analysis.

The first counter opinion was presented by the deputy incumbent priest of the Vijithapura Rajamaha Vihara. The venerable priest appeared to have perceived the Punaruda Movement as a Non-Governmental Organisation. He said that Sri Lanka would not approve of the ideas expressed here and also they were not appropriate for the country and asked the crowd to raise their hands if there was at least one person in the audience who would approve the views expressed by me. In an instant, the entire audience raised their hands. There were a few who had raised both hands. The venerable priest appeared to be flabbergasted. I too, was surprised to witness the reaction of the crowd. At the end, the venerable priest said that in a situation like this, in which everybody is in agreement with the views of the proponent of the meeting, he too will join the movement. Having said that, he excused himself and left the meeting for he had to go for another appointment elsewhere.

Perhaps, there might have been several participants in the audience who had read my articles. But, if at least a small section of the people who had come for the discussion had approved of the views of the Buddhist priest, certainly, we would have had to bury the Punarudaya Movement at Vijithapura before returning to Colombo. But, at that crucial moment, all of them defended us unconditionally. Instead of defending the deputy chief incumbent of the temple of the area, they came forward to defend a few of us who came to their village from outside.

We have adopted a policy of criticising certain popular beliefs of village people which are baseless and not correct, rather than maintaining a neutral stance on such beliefs. Particularly we criticised their passionate attachment to paddy cultivation. We had to emphasise them that the paddy cultivation is one important factor that had impacted on rural poverty. Also we were compelled to insist on the importance of freeing themselves from undue dependence on paddy cultivation and the need for going for alternate products.

Eating rice for all three meals was an important topic which came under our criticism. We pointed out that eating rice for all three meals was a sure way to become a victim of diabetes and emphasised on the need for shifting their food habits and the importance of eating less rice and more protein foods, vegetables and fruits. We reminded them that the old farmers used to hunt wild animals that damaged their crops and consumed the meat which complemented their protein needs. In doing so, they were able to control the density of wild animals and safeguard their crops. We advised them of the importance of shifting to the old policy. Despite these issues being sensitive, they however, listened to our views patiently. They were not annoyed or angry over our criticisms on these issues.

One important thing that came to light was that the political parties do not visit difficult rural areas except during election time; apparently they don’t do anything for the villages. According to villagers, all politicians do their politics being in Colombo and conducting media discussions held with TV channels for their publicity, so they cannot be expected to have a proper understanding of the reality of the village life.

Confidence on self-help

To conduct an island-wide program and visiting difficult villages in remote corners of the country incur heavy expenses, in addition to maintaining an efficient and active organisational mechanism. Raising funds to meet expenses was a difficult problem that we encountered at the initial stage of its launch.

A member of the Punarudaya Movement, as if he had foreseen this problem in advance, made an informal suggestion that we must seek the support of an international donor agency to procure funds required. We knew it was easy to get an international donor agency to sponsor a program of this nature. We were not against receiving international support for funds. But, the majority of our membership was of the view that a movement like Punarudaya should not be dependent upon international aid as it might invariably make it a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO).

The social perception on and recognition enjoyed by most of the NGOs in Sri Lanka is not positive. Apart from the NGO label, foreign aid may even be likely to corrupt a national movement like this. On the other hand, a mass social movement which finds difficult to meet its expenses locally cannot be considered one which is firmly rooted in the country. Having taken all these factors into consideration finally, it was decided to run the Punarudaya Movement as a program based on ‘self-help’ rather than depending on foreign aid or black money. A famous critic of the Punarudaya Movement, commenting on this decision to run the program on self-help basis, had made a sarcastic remark stating that he would work full time for Punarudaya without a fee, if it could survive for three months.

Not only three months, it has now completed successful two years and three months. During this period it had worked spending their own personal money, out of their pockets and voluntary support extended by various people who are associated with the Punarudaya Movement. I am proud to say that a new kind of culture of voluntary support has been created in which there are members and well-wishers ready to provide even their private vehicles for our use or taking us in their vehicles when we travel long distances for Punarudaya work. The contributions made for the movement by various people in diverse ways are immense.

The philosophy

Punarudaya is a pluralistic movement appearing for secular and democratic values. It considers the caste system in the Sinhalese and Tamil society as a menace and an evil system that makes divisions within ethnic groups and disparages human dignity and therefore it should be eradicated. The ethnic and religious divisions are perceived to be two destructive passions that disrupt national unity and create conflicts. It believes that Sri Lankan nation must be built within a framework which allows all citizens equal rights, asserts human dignity and safeguards ethnic and religious identity of all ethnic and religious groups. It also appears for the need of a program which is committed to look into the mistakes done since independence and to heal the wounds of victims and meting out justice for them so that a strong social atmosphere conducive to building the nation is created.

It also appears for a complete social and political transformation and complete reorganisation of the economy. However, it does not believe that these changes and transformations could be achieved by contesting Presidential and General Elections and capturing political power under the existing system. Therefore, the Punarudaya Movement believes that it should not contest elections and seek elective office, but work as a strong interest group committed to achieving these changes.

It also appears for a complete social and political transformation and complete reorganisation of the economy. However, it does not believe that these changes and transformations could be achieved by contesting Presidential and General Elections and capturing political power under the existing system. Therefore, it is of the view that the intended changes should be achieved before the elections are contested.

The Punarudaya Movement does not believe that the corrupt and sadistic political system that exists in Sri Lanka is a strong or sustainable system. It is of the view that this system is on the verge of its collapse as a result of internal conflicts which had developed within itself. Re-creation of the entire system making use of the impending collapse as an opportunity can be considered the main political object of the Punarudaya movement.

It does not consider the question of what should be the type of government suitable for the country - whether it should bad presidential system of government or a parliamentary system of government, as the main issue to be resolved in the sphere of the governance as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. Both the presidential system and parliamentary system in Sri Lanka are equally corrupt. Without changing the corrupt structures of both systems, mere selection of one corrupt system cannot be considered the best solution.

The Punarudaya Movement does not consider the making of a constitution exclusively by the legislature as the best model of constitution making. A constitution is a social contract. In other words, it is an agreement entered into between the rulers and the ruled for a system of government and administration. A constitution adopted exclusively by the Parliament can be considered only as a unilateral contract formulated by the rulers themselves.

The Punarudaya Movement does not accept the concept and the system of constitution called “autochthony” proposed by Naganada Kodithuwakku. It appears that he had adopted a conceptual term used to describe a system adopted in constitution making at an exclusive historic occasion to give a dignified look to the dictatorial constitution that he envisages to make. We don’t come across a single example of the type of constitution that Nagananda advocates in the history of modern constitution making. The Punarudaya Movement appears for participatory constitution making which is the accepted model of constitution making in the 21st century. It is a model that can be used for a complete transformation of the entire system without confining it to a program of drafting a constitution only.

Punarudaya Movement does not agree to a system of government that will restrict the sovereignty of the people into a narrow frame of exercising their vote at elections only. It appears for a system of government that grants them rights to submit proposals to the legislature, in addition to exercising their right to vote. This system was confined only to Switzerland until recently and is now being practiced as an important element in the systems of government in countries like some States in the USA, Italy, Germany and several other countries. By introducing such a system, it would be possible to reduce undue importance attached to politicians, overcome rampant corruption which had overwhelmed the state and above all build an active and powerful citizens force.

There is no need of a violent revolution to make a complete transformation of the political system of Sri Lanka which is putrid and had reached the verge of imminent collapse. What it needs is a kind of revolution which will educate the people, build people’s networks, utilise the modern technology and mobilise the collective force of the people through peaceful and disciplined means.


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