There is no “best of the lot” choice in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has now come to a wholly different political phase, leaving the secluded, closed economy, opening into the world with absolutely no trade restrictions

by Kusal Perera

Responses to my article yesterday (June 21) in the Daily Mirror (DM) titled “Heading for a Sinhala South presidential poll without Solutions” are many and as usual diverse. Meanwhile it has stirred some soul searching among concerned Tamil and Muslim Citizens who engaged with me to ask me what they could do in this crisis situation. They seem to feel, “not voting is a bad option.” They honestly feel minorities should unitedly go for the “best out of the lot” to prevent the “worst in the lot” from coming back.

Old those days when the country represented by respectable men
Sadly, while it is an impossible task now to convince the minority voters to poll en bloc as they did in 2015 January, this same argument used then in 2015 January served no purpose. In 2015 January, Rajapaksa was pre-determined as one who had to be ousted at any cost. That cost has become clearly unbearable and not worth, giving way to a Rajapaksa “comeback” in a far more polarised Sri Lanka. As I wrote in the DM article last Friday “…..there is no alternative to the Sinhala Buddhist homogeneity and hegemony that comes without any serious programme for improving the quality of life, even for the Sinhala South.” Within this crisis when everyone is competing for the Sinhala Buddhist vote, each trying to project himself (no woman candidate in sight) as the “best Sinhala Buddhist leader”, my question in the DM article was, “what difference is there between them (candidates) for the people to choose one out of them?” The only difference is, the “Rajapaksa nominee” stands out as the most dominant and “authentic” Sinhala Buddhist candidate others cannot compete with.

We are in a major crisis no doubt. We don’t have real political alternatives to choose from. There are no holistic national programmes on socio economic and cultural development offered for social discussion in a country where every aspect of social and personal life is being devalued and is wholly neglected. Yet this awfully corrupt, filthy rich open market economy is taken as the “only” path for socio economic development, when for over 40 years, it is proved as a massive tragedy in every shape of social and personal life. Minorities need to understand, it is not only “mega corruption”, breakdown of law and order and inefficiency, lethargy and racial bias in public administration this open market economy breeds and nurture. Religious and ethnic extremism is also bred and fostered within this open market economy as in India and Myanmar. ‘83 July pogrom on Tamil people was clearly against Tamil business that grew within the open market economy. KG Industries that stretched from “Star toffees” to “Cial pens” and “KG buses” to “Sinhala cinema theatre halls”, was one major target. Most Tamil businesses in the Pettah was burnt and looted. So were shops and groceries in Colombo and in other cities. From after the conclusion of the war, polarisation of the present society is about elimination of Muslim businesses from this open market economy. Sinhala Buddhist “homogeneity and hegemony” is simply about a Sinhala Buddhist State and a government to provide for such economic power. Depriving of minority rights go with that ugly majoritarian politics, played out with slogans like “national security, safety of Sinhala people and Buddhism” to provoke the underprivileged Sinhala majority against minorities.

This is one major political reason the TNA with all its patience and unconditional support to this Wickramasinghe government failed in gaining even the release of Tamil detainees kept without charges. Failed in their major effort in having a “new Constitution” for 04 years now and will not have it even in the months to come.

Clearly, “minority politics” need a paradigm shift as much as national politics today. That needs a complete change in approach. Pre and post independent Sri Lanka till the 70’s did have space in establishing an “Inclusive plural State”, if the “Left” and the Federal Party (ITAK) that represented democratic Tamil politics were willing to come on to a single page. Unfortunately, they did not. ITAK leadership under “Thanthai” Chelva withdrew from national politics to “provincial” politics after 1956 and thought they could negotiate their democratic and political rights with the Sinhala leadership at the Centre on the strength of provincial support in North and East. The dominant traditional “Left”, both the LSSP and the CP remained locked in urban politics, without any serious programme on “national development” touting different shades of “socialism”. Absence of alternate politics for an inclusive, secular State, left the two major political parties, the SLFP in particular to define and shape Sinhala politics as the dominant social psyche. As a result, in the 60’s the LSSP and the CP affiliated with SLFP politics and caved into Sinhala chauvinism. That was evident in how they lost their foothold in the North losing to ITAK. That thereafter consolidated the “State” as a Sinhala Buddhist State with the first Republican Constitution in 1972, which sealed off space for any negotiations for Tamil rights for a pluralistic society proving the first generation of Tamil political leaders “failed” in securing equality and dignity in life. It was therefore not surprising the next generation of Tamil youth took to arms and for a “Separate” Tamil State.

Sri Lanka has now come to a wholly different political phase, leaving the secluded, closed economy, opening into the world with absolutely no trade restrictions. A free market allowed to run on its own in a country that in its social thinking is trapped with feudal social structures and values, obviously negates establishing of strong democratic social traditions. As such, this open market economy has over 40 years atomised the society, while allowing the trader and business community to decide politics for Sinhala Buddhist dominance, not through market competition, but through political power.

It is therefore important to understand that, neither the issues of the urban poor and the rural society left in the periphery of this free market economy (take note; it is Colombo, Gampaha and South/South West Kurunegala that have grown with it) nor that of minority communities can be found answers for within this free market economy. All numbers played out as “GDP growth”, “per capita income”, “inflation” and “poverty” to prove the economy is stable and growing, are irrelevant to the bottom 60 percent of this society. No graduate teacher, no clerical hand in the public sector, or middle level executives in the private sector earn half the “per capita” income of 12,470 US dollars PPP (2017) that makes Sri Lanka a “middle income” country. Poverty numbers are reduced by drawing the national “poverty line” at Rs. 4,812 per month for an adult to meet all needs during a month when the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) of the Census and Statistics Dept. says a family of 04 needed Rs.43,511 to meet basic human needs in 2016. The huge disparity in wealth and income, in a city centred open market economy keeps dragging the country into more and bigger crises. That was why the “Rainbow Revolution” in 2015 January was in fact a “rainbow” and nothing more. That is also why apart from growing violent polarisation of society, this government is now a proven failure with education, health, public transport, rural development, urban planning and housing, reconciliation, social integration and everything else.

This major crisis provides an opportunity to push for a “national alternative” for quality improvement of life for “All”. Its only such major crises that demands a national alternative. If everything runs smooth, society does not need an alternative. It is within this necessity for a national “alternative” for social change, that minorities can and should position themselves to gain “equality and dignity”. They therefore have to now think “national” and work towards framing their demands within a “national perspective” for socio economic development and far reaching “State reforms”. In short, they have to now come out of their “minority politics” and challenge Sinhala Buddhist politics that leads to this massive crisis on a holistic “national platform” for “participatory democracy” and “dignity of life” with quality socio economic and cultural development for “All Citizens”.

It’s about thinking “big” and working “big”. A “White Paper” on Education for serious reforms should discuss everything from Pre-school to tertiary and higher education including curricula and syllabi. Including also “religious education” outside the school that can include even Sunday and Daham schools and Madrasas. A national policy on preventive and curative health, public commuting, urban planning and housing, etc., can be discussed with broader democratic social structures that strengthen local “people’s participation” in policy making and implementation. Democratising of the present “exclusive” State into an “inclusive, plural State” can be proposed on the basis of the APRC Final Report that was endorsed by all allies in the Joint Opposition, including the JHU, the MEP of Dinesh Gunawardne and the SLFP that of Rajapaksa then.

To conclude this very short intervention in provoking a new discourse on “minority and national politics”, let me propose a Tamil – Muslim platform anchored outside North and East, with democratic social elements and groups in the South. They too need a more “national” outlook, beyond the Sinhala South. In summary, a wholly new “Alliance for a Decent, Disciplined and a Democratic Country”

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