Sri Lanka: A Nation’s Quest for Identity and Unity

The great nationalist achievements of the past seventy-five years, which belong to all the communities that make Sri Lanka their home, are a memorable part of the country's history, whatever its future is going to be.

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Front view of the old Parliament now functioning as the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo [ Photo: Sri Lanka Guardian]

I concluded a previous article published  Sri Lanka Guardian on January 28, 2023 (Is recolonisation the final solution II) touching on the deplorable situation that innocent Sri Lankans have been plunged into not only by the current economic crisis but also by the so-called Tamil ethnic problem, both aggravated by unjust direct foreign intervention in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, subversive NGO activities and various forms of imported religious fundamentalism, with the following words:

“The solution is not to try to return to the alleged Utopia that the British are believed by some to have bequeathed to us at independence (for such wasn’t the reality), or to overlook the 1972 change as insignificant, but to make way for the young of the country today to make a correct assessment of what has been achieved and what has not been achieved by the previous generations since independence (who were no less patriotic, no less proactive than them) and forge ahead with new insights, new visions, and appropriate course corrections as our ancestors did during crises to ensure our survival for so long as one people in spite of manifold differences among us.”

Now a large proportion of “the young of the country today”, unfortunately, are not aware of the unspoken truth behind the growing political instability and the artificial economic ruin that is engulfing the nation. The criticism often repeated these days that all post-independence governments mismanaged the economy, ruined everything through corruption and did nothing for nation building is not a valid one. It is deliberate disinformation chiefly peddled by anti-national political and religious extremists, that is, Tamil federalists/separatists, and Christian/Catholic and Islamist fundamentalist groups. Ordinary Tamils and Muslims have lived peacefully with the Sinhalese majority as equal citizens of one country for many centuries.  Although extremists are only a handful among the relevant mainstream minority communities, they are a power to reckon with in Sri Lanka’s current besieged condition.

The aforementioned misrepresentations and corresponding misconceptions are accepted as indisputable facts, particularly by the sadly uninformed credulous section of the young population today. They are largely ignorant of the origin of the alleged Tamil ethnic problem and its exploitation by the former colonial powers and their allies to destabilize our little island that is located in a geostrategically and geopolitically sensitive region. The future that the genuinely concerned young people envisage for the country could end up as a mere pipedream unless they make a serious study of what truly happened within the past seventy-five years of independence and shape their strategies, learning from the formidable challenges the older generations had to meet, and the admirable successes as well as the dismal failures that they had experienced in the course of the past three quarters of a century. 

Had these misguided young people including the yellow robed ones among them been properly instructed about the sharp political awareness and inspired activism that the brave youth of their parents’ generation involved in the second JVP insurrection of the 1986-1990 period displayed, they would be ashamed of themselves. Had they learned about the ideologically even more sophisticated fresh young men and women of their grandparents’ time who took to arms in the first JVP rebellion of 1971 against the popular, newly elected left-of-centre United Front government of Mrs Sirima R.D. Bandaranaike without any provocation except a self-denying revolutionary zeal to force a real system change in the country’s politics, the strange bedfellows of the so-called Galle Face Aragalaya  would have died of self-loathing. 

Of course, it must be remembered that the majority of the Aragalaya protestors were genuine. I would not include among them the handful of religious extremists who staged an ‘Aadaraye Aragalaya’ (Struggle of Love). The authentic agitators were similar to, if not identical with, the countless groups of spontaneously inspired young boys and girls from diverse communities who volunteered to adorn the city walls across the country with beautiful paintings (some with historical themes) to celebrate what they thought was the dawn of a new era with the eagerly awaited ‘system change’ made possible by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as president in 2019. The expectations of the youth of the country were dashed to the ground when president Gotabaya, earlier universally believed to be the iconic leader the country needed to salvage it from the mire of corrupt politics and the Yahapalanaya, Good Governance, misadventure (now conveniently forgotten), failed to deliver due to countervailing internal and external forces assisted, as suspected,  by the treachery of his family as well as his own lack of pragmatic political skills, in spite of his undoubted moral uprightness. These genuine protestors should be distinguished from the few political and religious extremists who wanted to hog media attention by making the loudest noises. 

Corruption among politicians is a fact. ‘Dealer politics’ is also a perennial issue. Mahinda Rajapaksa embodies a striking example of both. He, whose political leadership helped to rid the country of LTTE terrorism, has almost totally nullified the benign results of that success through his horse trading with extremists aimed at perpetuating his family’s ascendancy over Sri Lanka’s political landscape. Corruption charges against him remain yet to be substantiated. But the notoriety he has been already accorded in the media cannot be any worse if the allegations turn out to be true. These evils – corruption in high places and abuse of democracy for selfish gain – must be fixed by the enlightened youth of the country. But the present economic crisis and political instability cannot be totally attributed to these evils alone. Such simplistic generalization in itself is a grave error. It is a graver error, a crime against the nation in fact, to dismiss the history of the past seventy-five years since independence as one of unchecked thievery and erroneous policy making by unpatriotic politicians.   

Within the first two decades after severing ties with the British monarchy, thousands of pure-hearted idealistic young men and women (over 5000 in 1971 and over 60,000 in 1986-90, almost totally from the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community) paid the ultimate price, laid down their lives, in the name of their Motherland. They fought for the country, not for a particular race or community. Their battle cry was: “mau bima naeththam maranaya” “Motherland or Death”. The 1971 JVP rebellion provided a major stimulus for the government to introduce many progressive measures to build a self-reliant national economy through new state enterprises (such as the tyre and steel corporations, paper mills, sugar mills, and chemical fertilizer plants) as well as through increasing domestic food production. Similarly, the second JVP uprising of 1986-90 became a watershed for a profound change of course in Sri Lankan politics. The deluded, impractical modern day Aragalakarayas who are merely adding to the hardships of  the suffering masses by their exasperating antics must remember that they are by no means pioneers in the struggle for a system change in Lankan politics. (Of course, today’s JVP is not what it was then. Its new leaders do not seem to understand the meaning of simple concepts like nationalism, racism, secularism, religious fundamentalism, culture, and the rest.)

Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known to the outside world before 1972) was under Christian European domination for roughly four and a half centuries from the beginning of the sixteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century. With the annexation (through conspiracy rather than conquest) of the Kandyan kingdom (or the Kingdom of Sinhale as it was called then) to the British empire in 1815, the whole of the country came under colonial rule. The British left in 1948 having granted Ceylon what was known as dominion status independence. That is, it became one of the “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. It is clear from the Wikipedia definition quoted in the previous sentence that the ‘independence’ given in 1948 was subject to lingering colonial restraints. Full independence was achieved in 1972 through the promulgation of the first republican constitution under the United Front government headed by prime minister Sirima R.D. Bandaranaike. 

In talking about the eventful seventy-five years since 1948, we need to take a quick retrospective look at the immediate pre-independence years. The minority leaders, particularly, Tamil leaders, feared that the majority Sinhalese would dominate the government on the basis of their superior numerical strength to their disadvantage when the proposed Westminster type parliamentary system would come into operation with the departure of the colonial British. It was to avoid such potential Sinhalese dominance emerging that the Ceylon Tamil Congress leader and lawyer G.G. Ponnambalam demanded a 50-50 allocation of parliamentary seats for the Sihalese and all the minorities put together, which was grossly unfair by the former. The proposal was scornfully rejected by the Soulbury commissioners who drafted the independence constitution. Sinhalese leaders headed by D.S. Senanayake assured a government representative of all the communities without discrimination. The aim of his United National Party founded in 1946 was for the various communities in the country to evolve into one Ceylonese nation living in unity. But Tamil leaders always thought in communal terms. They wanted the privileged status that the Tamil elite of the time had enjoyed under the British to continue. But they knew this was going to change after 1948 when the native Sinhalese majority would try to restore their long lost rights. So, S.J.V. Chelvanayagam founded the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi or Lanka Tamil State Party in 1949. They popularized it as the Federal Party. The misleading English name was meant to conceal the ultimate goal of the party, a separate state for Tamils within the territory of Ceylon/Sinhalay (since this was not possible to achieve within the strong gigantic Union of India where Tamil Nadu, Tamils’ real homeland, lies). 

At independence, the British colonialists left a country that was able to flaunt relatively high economic indices due to volatile external factors associated with the end of World War II in 1945 (such as the increase in the price of rubber exports from Ceylon). A 1948 UN report described the Sri Lankan economy as agricultural and industrially underdeveloped; low productivity and unavailability of resources relative to the country’s population hampered its economic development. The people were socially and communally divided as a result of the imperial policy of ‘divide and rule’. A minuscule minority of citizens that emerged as an English speaking, Westernized and generally Christian elite was privileged over the rest of the downtrodden population. (Today some members of the same class are looking forward to a return to the good old days.) The vast majority of the people lived in grinding poverty then. The reality was a far cry from what (probably the majority of) today’s young people have been brainwashed to believe through propaganda, a pre-independence Utopia of sorts.

The seventy-five year post-independence history of Sri Lanka is the  record of one long national struggle conducted according to democratic norms from the very beginning for the historic goal of building a Sri Lankan nation that stands on its own feet as a single sovereign state that is second to none in the world. In my opinion, six iconic leaders gave leadership to this struggle, whose approaches were different, though the goal remained the same. Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake (1947-52) regarded all citizens as ‘Ceylonese’, not as Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers, etc who were at loggerheads with each other. He began his national service decades before independence. As minister for agriculture and lands in the State Council in the 1930s, he brought in legislation to bring bare lands into cultivation through irrigation schemes. Under his multipurpose Gal Oya Development project, 250,000 landless peasants were settled in uninhabited areas in the eastern province. Some communal-minded Tamil politicians objected to this to no avail. It was Senanayake who proposed the use of hydroelectricity, as Sri Lanka had no coal or gas for energy production. He was popular among ordinary people of all communities as well as among the British who were leaving. His unexpected death in 1952 removed his sound leadership. Like D.S. before him, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (1956-59) was elected at a parliamentary election to lead the nation as prime minister in 1956. He was a true nationalist like Senanayake. As such, he took steps to redress the harsh discrimination that the majority Sinhalese were subjected to under the colonial British. Communalist Tamil leaders vehemently opposed him. Tamil MPs opposed him even when he had the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act No. 21, 1957 passed. The particular act was  meant as a check on caste discrimination, a social evil that was especially severe among their own community. (Some hooligans among the Aragalakarayas at Galle Face wanted to pull down the Bandaranaike statue there for obvious reasons.) It was his widowed wife Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1961-65, 1970-77, 1994-2000) who was able to turn the Dominion of Ceylon into the fully independent Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, which was the most profound system change that any post-independence leader ever achieved in the name of the Sri Lankan people (nation). She pioneered certain economic policies, that harked back to the D.S. Senanayake era of agricultural development just as well as they looked forward to a future of local industrial advancement. The austerity measures her government introduced were too much for the people. The opposition made use of the spreading public disaffection with her administration and the emergence of a streak of authoritarianism on her part in undemocratically prolonging the government’s term of office by two years. J.R. Jayawardane (1977-89), who was himself a staunch nationalist like his predecessors, had the second republican constitution promulgated by which he instituted the all powerful executive presidency. The institution of the executive presidency has to date protected the unitary status of the Sri Lankan state. J.R. saw to it that it survived even the Indian imposed 13A, at least tenuously. He introduced the open market economy model for national development. He implemented the Accelerated Mahaweli Programme, the largest multipurpose development project ever undertaken in the history of the country. It was the fruition of an plan proposed by Sirima Bandaranaike as (the world’s first female) prime minister in 1961. Following J.R. Jayawardane, R. Premadasa (1989-93) made history as the first ‘commoner’ to become head of state of Sri Lanka. He got elected as president at a time when the country was literally being torn apart by civil strife by the JVP in the South and by the LTTE in the North. The JVP violently opposed the UNP government of JRJ for giving into Indian expansionist intervention in Sri Lanka). Premadasa himself, though prime minister under Jayawardane, had demonstrated his angry disapproval of the Indo-Lanka accord by absenting himself from the signing ceremony between JR and Rajiv Gandhi. Premadasa put an end to the JVP insurgency in1989 through ruthless violence. The LTTE was mounting terrorist attacks on civilian as well as military targets in pursuit of their dream of establishing a separate state on Sri Lankan territory. On becoming president, Premadasa flatly asked India at a public rally to withdraw the Indian Peace Keeping Force. He was determined to resolve the Tamil problem peacefully as an internal matter. He made peace overtures to the LTTE. He was said to have given arms to the LTTE to fight the IPKF. But finally, Premadasa was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber. Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to militarily defeat the LTTE terrorism through his political management skills. But he gravely mismanaged the aftermath through personal hybris as well as family bandyism. Even his nationalist credentials are in doubt now. But his past achievements cannot be forgotten.

The great nationalist achievements of the past seventy-five years, which belong to all the communities that make Sri Lanka their home, are a memorable part of the country’s history, whatever its future is going to be. This truth must be revealed to the global powers – the America-led West, India, and China – who have remained our friends throughout the last seventy-five years and helped us generously in their different ways in spite of their own conflicting national interests. Sri Lanka is indispensable for each of them because of its geostrategic location. The highly cultured peaceful Sri Lankans of diverse ethnicities have been living in peace and harmony for centuries. Disinformation by the few separatists and the handful of religious extremists who are exploiting the misplaced generosity of charitable international donors should not be allowed to prolong the suffering of these innocent people, who pose no threat to any of those powers. All Sri Lankans want the geostrategic location of their island to be a blessing for them, not a curse.

Rohana R. Wasala

Rohana R. Wasala is a freelance journalist and regular columnist for Sri Lanka Guardian, with a background in academia.

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