Viewpoint by Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka
Prof. Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka is an Emeritus Professor of Community Dentistry and former Dean of the Faculty of Dental Science University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.
COLOMBO (IDN) — This article is not primarily about the woeful record of the present government. Nor is it about the abomination of governance by a family oligarchy in whose stranglehold a nation groans in every part as if being slowly crushed by the constricting coils of some giant Anaconda.
Rather it is about the attitude, character and mindset of 6.9 million people who, with their eyes open, provoked this catastrophe. Before coming to that, one can of course say a lot more about the dimensions of this catastrophe and point the accusing finger at bad people in high positions who to be sure will carry the guilt of their monumental crimes and misdemeanours beyond the grave into the fires of eternal hell. But to be explicit about such matters here might be both unsafe and unnecessary.
Unsafe because, as some have experienced, to openly accuse this government is to run the risk of being tortured through prolonged interrogation by sadistic intelligence agencies. Worse, there is the danger of having to rot away under remand over some trumped-up charge gratuitously denied the right to bail in contempt of the principle that every man is presumed innocent until proved guilty.
Unnecessary because media reports seem to say it all, obviating the need to say any more here other than summarise the hard reality to set the scene for what this article is really about.
For example, a distinguished former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank recently summed up the situation and said “Sri Lanka is undergoing the worst economic catastrophe in its post-independence history. The real economy is shrinking with a negative or near zero economic growth.
Inflation is raising its ugly head with food inflation running at 25%, foreign reserves are a pittance forcing the country to seek handouts from countries like Bangladesh (the) Rupee is under pressure for a mega depreciation, and all essential items like fuel are in short supply making long queues for them a daily occurrence”.
From the perspective of the average citizen, there is the reality of a lucrative black market, the near collapse of the electricity generation and distribution systems, rocketing prices and old people falling dead in the agony of long queues.
The final disgrace was the UNHRC Commissioner’s damning indictment in her 2022 report about the erosion of the independence of the judiciary and other key institutions and the constriction of the democratic space for human rights advocacy amidst a further drift towards militarisation and an emphasis of Sinhala nationalism and Buddhism in State institutions, thereby increasing the marginalisation of minority communities”.
However, the purpose here is to focus on the mindset of 69 lakhs of people who deliberately conscientiously and enthusiastically, of their own free will opted through the ballot to bring about such a predicament to their own detriment. That millions would invite a cataclysm that might spell ruination for themselves and their families for generations to come is fantastic.
It is tantamount to an act of collective national suicide bordering on madness rarely seen in the history of nations. In retrospect, the foolishness irrationality and sheer immorality of such an infernal choice should have been plain to even a little child.
And yet incredibly, those who made the fatal choice came from every stratum of society. They included the well-educated and the semi-literate, the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor, learned professionals and the posh business classes rolling in money. They included pampered government officials wallowing in the perks and privileges of high office and thriving medical consultants.
Nor must we forget the scholarly Ph. Ds and university professors now looking foolish with their lofty pretensions to high intelligence and critical thinking in tatters. From the sophisticated English-speaking middle classes to the unlearned monolingual masses and riff-raff of society, from sanctimonious Buddhist monks, pastors and priests who habitually pay lip service to truth and justice, to the many millions of their simple-minded adherents whom they regularly regale with exhortations to live righteous lives – all of them would seem to have blindly voted to their own destruction in the 2019/20 elections.
But now, everything seems to have changed. The air is thick with the bitter reproaches of the disillusioned millions who, having eagerly voted for this government, now find that all their expectations have been dashed. To them, the promised “vistas of prosperity” have all too soon become a mirage.
Those of us in the 8th decade of life who have lived through all governments since independence can state unequivocally that no government in the postcolonial history of the country has alienated so many supporters so much in so short a period of time as this one.
Indeed, many feel that if there is an election today, the ruling party will be wiped out by a majority as large as that by which they were elected to power two years ago. And they may be right. It is so hard to find folk who proudly admit to have been amongst the 69 lakhs of supporters that one wonders whether they ever existed! One gets the impression that many erstwhile supporters are embarrassed and prefer to distance themselves from that association.
Many of the disillusioned, rather than having the humility to acknowledge having made a great mistake, dishonestly disclaim responsibility by assuming a lofty air of self-righteous disdain for all politicians.
However, taking all such variations into account, there is enough reason for opposition politicians to believe that support for the government has evaporated. It is natural that they should look forward to a dramatic turnaround by 6.9 million disgruntled voters at the next election, in the expectation that the ruling party and the detestable family oligarchy that drives it will be wiped out. On the one hand, there seems to be plenty of justification for such heady optimism.
On the other hand, such confident expectation needs to be tempered by an important consideration. It has to do with the troubling question of why exactly such a large proportion of the Sri Lankan population voted as irrationally as they did in the first place?
What false values, ideological fixations, debased attitudes, entrenched beliefs and inherent assumptions drove such people to make such a monumental error? What deep-seated prejudices, blind loyalties and fatal flaws in the national character did such a bizarre voting pattern signify? Did such madness imply a low level of “national intelligence” (if one can imagine such an attribute) that is not easily rectified?
Such questions are important and disturbing. Have those who are hurting today really had a change of heart? The answers may provide a clue as to whether the current wave of anguish and alienation amongst 69 lakhs of voters is a passing phenomenon or indicative of a permanent change of heart and mind.
Is their current disenchantment the outcome of frustration that their narrow selfish expectations have been momentarily dashed or an indication of a radical change of heart?
For example, not very long ago, teachers were up in arms. It looked as if they were a major threat to the government. Then they were given a salary increase. They have been quiet ever since. The farmers have been justly outraged by the denial of chemical fertiliser amidst the president’s asinine obsession with organic substitutes.
If, by some miracle, there is a radical reversal in policy resulting in farmers being provided plentiful fertilizer as in the past, might they end up eating out of his hand by the time the next election comes round?
And for millions of others who voted SLPP now fuming and fretting away in long queues for gas and fuel, might the restoration of these essentials and an end to queues settle them to a point where their selfish domestic needs being met, they turn back to the political vermin they once elected like dogs returning to their vomit, and begin to make excuses for the shortcomings of their favourite government politicians?
So, the issue of a change of heart becomes paramount. And whether or not millions have had a true change of heart is grounded in the question of why millions voted as they did. Obviously, there can be many theories about this. But one can make a case for five attributes that might define the 69 lakhs of people who voted at the last election and explain their bizarre preferences.
Put in a nutshell, one can hypothesise that collectively as a voting population, they were characterised by being (a) fundamentally racist, (b) indifferent to corruption, (c) inherently selfish, (4) basically foolish though imagining themselves to be wise, and (5) afflicted with a malignant distorted religiosity.
That is not to say that all of the 6.9 million individuals possessed all these attributes nor that the attributes themselves were mutually exclusive. But taken as a whole one can speculate that these five attributes broadly define the mainly Sinhala Buddhist population of nearly 7 million folks who elected a strongly Sinhala Buddhist president and a dominantly Sinhala Buddhist government by a thumping majority in 2019/20.
Firstly, there is the indisputable ingrained racism of the Sinhala Buddhist masses of this country amidst a chauvinistic attitude to minorities that seems to cut across the entire social spectrum. Admittedly these days, such attitudes are subtle and well disguised.
They do not manifest in burning Tamils alive (as occurred in 1983), arson and looting of Tamil shops and homes at regular intervals (from 1956 onwards), burning down a precious public library (as happened in 1981) brutally assaulting those carrying out a peaceful Satyagraha in the Gandhian mode and defacing Tamil name boards in Colombo with impunity (as occurred in the 1950’s and ’60s), and the scandalous standardisation of marks to keep Tamil students out of Universities in 197—amongst many other examples from history.
But the negative racist attitude towards minorities today is reflected in the complete absence of any moral outrage about that sordid recent history, indulging instead the grandiose delusions of a falsified ancient history based on Mahavamsa mythology leading to the axiomatic belief that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country, to challenge which is to commit political suicide.
No wonder there is a disinclination to investigate any allegations of war crimes, and violent hostility (as evidenced by incidents all over the country) to peaceful Christian conversion, which is both a basic human right and, for Christians, an inescapable divine commission. Nor should we fail to notice the relatively placid and laid-back reaction of the Buddhist majority to the Cardinal’s explosive accusation that the government might be covering up the truth about the Easter massacre, leaving the Roman Catholic Church to wage a lonely battle for justice on the international stage.
True, amidst their current sufferings, millions may regret voting as they did. But when it comes to the crunch that they might ever bring themselves to elect a Tamil, Muslim or Christian as President or Prime Minister of Sri Lanka is pure fantasy. The Americans may have elected a black man as President a mere 150 years after the abolition of slavery. But in Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka, a Tamil or Muslim cannot dream of being elected to that office for another 1000 years!
That is the basic racist mindset of the 69 lakhs of voters who now groan with discontent amidst a catastrophe they asked for. But does their mourning and groaning today denote a true change of heart? That is the question.
Secondly, the way 69 lakhs voted reflects a callous indifference or at least a relaxed attitude to the malady of corruption. This is not surprising given that Sri Lanka is a country where corruption is ubiquitous. It is said that people get the government they deserve.
More likely, people get governments that mirror their corrupted nature and moral depravity. Like begets like. The late Justice Mark Fernando once clarified that corruption is not merely bribery and corruption but “extends to extravagance, waste, neglect, and every form of malpractice, dishonesty, and abuse, misuse, and unreasonable exercise of power . . . and indeed anything and everything done or left undone, which results in the rights of the People being denied or impaired”.
What a magnificent all-encompassing definition! No wonder the great man was himself the victim of corruption in being denied promotion to Chief Justice which he richly deserved and shamefully bypassed in favour of one who brought that high office into disrepute!
But by this definition, Sri Lankan society reeks of corruption from top to bottom. From bribery, kickbacks and nepotism at the highest levels to millions of workers who insist on consideration for doing their plain duty, from those who think nothing of sending a false sick note and staying away from work, bribing one way out of a traffic offence or a vehicle emission test, fiddling tax returns or underwriting the property value on some deed of transfer, from mercenary government doctors and teachers whose heart is in the private sector and those who abuse official transport to cart their families around, to mediocre university academics who produce garbage mountains of useless publications and have perfected the art of deftly manipulating a point system which enables them to be promoted as professors who are now a dime a dozen—from top to bottom Sri Lanka is a corrupt society.
It is unrealistic to expect a corrupt population to vote for an honest government that might abolish corruption! The voting behaviour of 6.9 million people might be explained by a benign tolerance of corruption by a fundamentally corrupt population. Does their mourning and groaning today denote a true change of heart? That is the question.
Thirdly today’s disenchanted 6.9 million might be defined by their innate selfishness and lack of compassion. True, they may be suffering today. But in voting as they did, they were guilty of being callously indifferent to the far greater sufferings of others. Hundreds of weeping women may be pining for their husbands and sons who disappeared and were probably murdered years ago.
But they were not my relations so who cares? That’s the attitude. Those victims of ghastly prison massacres, that fine young man Wasim Thajudeen who was reportedly brutally tortured before being killed and made to appear as if his death was an accident, the ‘Trinco 5’ kids who were killed execution-style, Lasantha, Ekneligoda, Keith Noyar those who used to disappear in white vans never to be heard of again, all victims of unsolved crimes—they were not my father or husband or son or daughter.
So, who cares? That was the attitude. The hard-hearted selfishness defined the 6.9 million who voted as they did in 2019/20. Does their mourning and groaning today denote a true change of heart? That is the question.
Fourthly there was something inherently foolish and grossly naïve in the way 6.9 million voted at the last election. It is almost as if for the vast majority of the population, the main outcome of 70 years of free education has been little more than learning to read and write!
Otherwise, what nation in its right senses would elect a family oligarchy of very modest intelligence (to say the least) to rule over them with the absolute power of a constitutional tyranny? Academic qualifications and elite professional training, notwithstanding formal education, has failed to impart true discernment, good judgment, political maturity, moral discrimination and plain wisdom, all of which are components of that indefinable entity that we may refer to as “national intelligence”.
In contrast with the high national intelligence of the British population in the general election at the end of World War II when they rejected the war hero Churchill who had led them to victory in favour of the Labour leader Atlee, who they felt was better equipped to undertake post-war reconstruction!
More recently, the fortuitous distractions of the war in Ukraine may have saved the British Prime Minister from being thrown out over the ‘small matter’ of parties during the Covid lockdown. That kind of national intelligence is a far cry from a nation that swayed by foolish emotion, voted to make an ordinary “weeping widow’ prime minister in 1970 and give absolute power to a family oligarchy in 2019/20.
That is the Sri Lankan naivety that enables politicians to spit in the face of the population with impunity every night on TV with blatant lies, deceptions and double speak, a fraction of which would damn their political career instantly in a more intelligent society.
Perhaps Robert Knox was on the right track when he diagnosed the Sinhalese as having a low cunning which they mistake for high intelligence! That is the ingrained folly that defined the 6.9 million who voted as they did in 2019/20. Does their mourning and groaning today denote a shift from idiocy to intelligence and a true change of heart? That is the question.
Lastly, Sinhala Buddhists, who dominated the 6.9 million voters, were defined by a primitive distorted religiosity that makes a mockery of true religion. It is characterised by superstition, a reliance on horoscopes, blind idolatry, an obsession with empty ritual, and grovelling before any yellow robe irrespective of the character and reputation of the sinner it shrouds.
These were the docile millions regularly manipulated by a rapacious militant nationalistic Buddhist establishment. They constitute the base of a Sinhala Buddhist government which proudly panders to them and cares for no one else.
One feels sympathy for these misguided millions in their shattered expectations and present sufferings. But does their anguish denote a real change of heart? When it comes to the crunch at the next election would they favour a party that stands for a secular society?
Would they support the repeal of the iniquitous clause in Chapter 2(9) of the Constitution which gives the foremost place to Buddhism it being the duty of the State to protect and foster it, which is repugnant to minorities? Would they be amenable to abolishing the stupid full moon day holiday, which makes Sri Lanka look like a nation of moon worshipers?
Would they favour legislation to debar monks from engaging in active politics? The answers to such questions will show whether their mourning and groaning today denotes a passing lovers’ quarrel with the government they elected or a radical change of heart and mind.
One hopes that the 69 lakhs who recklessly voted to bring about the present national catastrophe would in the midst of their shattered expectations, bitter recriminations and suffering, stop to introspectively examine themselves and ask whether the five attributes enunciated herewith might apply to them.
If so, one hopes they would repent of their unspeakable folly and have a true change of heart, enabling them to bear the tragic consequences of their action with greater fortitude and equanimity.
If not, Sri Lanka is doomed. By a radical change of heart today’s disenchanted 6.9 million voters will not only be able to throw out those whom they mistakenly elected last time, but their transformed attitude will enable a new government to rule with justice, equity, and righteousness and peace to unite a divided nation.
On the contrary, if the prevailing public disquiet only denotes a selfish reaction to some immediate material deprivation rather than a radical change of heart, then the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 valedictory to the Russian people would apply to us, Sri Lankans:
“And if from this also we shrink away, then we are worthless, hopeless, and it is of us that Pushkin asks with scorn: Why should cattle have the gift of freedom? Their heritage from generation to generation is the belled yolk and the lash.”
Footnote: Lakh (in South Asia, especially India and Sri Lanka) is the sum of 100,000, especially of rupees. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 July 2022]
This article was originally published in Colombo Telegraph.
Image: File picture of UNHCR where Sri Lanka has been censured many times.
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