Sri Lanka has been fortunate to maintain a high literacy rate and a satisfactory life expectancy level over the years. There had been significant achievements in health, education and other sectors together with a prospering plantation economy at the time of independence. In 1948, the British pound against the rupee had been Rs.1/50. Now it is Rs. 185/=.
In the early 1940s, in the then State Council, there had been demands for Dominion Status. The British had thereafter responded that Ceylon (which had been renamed Sri Lanka in 1971), would get a “full responsible government”, for internal civil administration, after the war ended. During this period, the Second World War had been a profitable industry for a majority who did not have fixed incomes. Anyone who had anything to sell to the military had prospered. Ceylon became the largest rubber producer for the allies. The major losers were State and those employees who drew fixed salaries. By 1946 clerical workers had been desperate. It was during this period that the leftist trade unions had sprung up.
The Communist Party founded the Ceylon Trade Union Federation. Dr. N.M. Perera had led the Ceylon Federation of Labour. There had been large scale trade union action and strikes in 1947 just before the General Elections under the new Soulbury Constitution. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and J.R. Jayewardene, who had been considered radical young politicians, had joined the UNP in September 1946, under the leadership of D.S.Senanayake. The British had no doubts about the colony and they considered it a safe bet to succeed compared to other British colonies. Ceylon was a country which had suffered the least damage during the war.
The Ceylonese leadership was also conservative at that time and had gained sufficient experience in politics in a British-style political structure. The only fear had been whether the Communists would succeed. In July 1952, at the first general elections after gaining independence, the UNP pledged to continue with the welfare that had already been granted. The D. S Senanayake government however endeavoured to curtail numerous subsidies.
A socialist party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, LSSP, led an island-wide general strike in August, 1953. After the death of D.S, his son Dudley Senanayake became the Prime Minister, and resigned due to the country-wide protests, which paved the way for Sir John Kotelawala to become the third Prime Minister of the country. Kotelawala during his premiership committed serious miscalculations. He angered not only the Sinhalese, but Tamils as well. He removed the highly respected G.G.Ponnambalam from the Cabinet on personal grounds and replaced him with the lesser known Kandiah Vaithyanathan. Kotelawala, having visited Jaffna in 1954, promised that he would give equal status to Tamils.
Surprisingly, Bandaranaike, who had supported parity of Sinhala and Tamil in 1952, quite opportunistically, made use of all the weaknesses of Kotelawala, and declared that he preferred Sinhala as the official language and a “reasonable use of Tamil”. Kotelawala dissolved Parliament 15 months ahead of time and Bandaranaike won the election that followed.
After the untimely death of the late D.S. Senanayake, it is pertinent to ask did the politicians of the time act democratically or did they attempt to perpetuate power for themselves instead? Our leaders, in taking the path they did, failed to resolve the national issues of the time. They did not consider the country before themselves. They divided the people politically, undermined economic progress and nearly separated the country. Corruption, lack of judicial independence and political interference became the order of the day. All these had eventually led to lawlessness, growing unemployment, inflation and numerous social, political and economic issues. What transpired?
All that followed, from 1948 to-date, is a tale of woe. The civil war took a heavy toll on the nation with over 100,000 lives being lost. Successive governments overlooked the need to achieve technical growth, the primary determinant to achieve long term economic growth. Having embraced the open economy in 1978, they did not meaningfully monitor the plans efficiently to achieve these goals.
All this had created a feeling of disillusionment, distrust, hatred, antagonism and great betrayal among all communities. They had removed the words honesty, equity, fairness from our vocabulary. For them, honesty did not mean being truthful. They broke rules openly with impunity. Having broken the rules are they trying to re-define the meaning of fairness; playing by the rules that suit their objectives? The country has been destroyed economically, socially and politically. Have they become politicians just to rob the country? The idea of a separate nation and the need to establish Tamil Eelam became deafening in 1970s after the Jaffna market area, the office of a Tamil newspaper, the home-property of the then Jaffna MP and even the Jaffna Public Library were destroyed. The next episode had been the ‘Black July’ riots. The perpetrators escaped without legal action. Did the rulers accordingly pave the way to create a ‘culture of impunity’ in our country. The people now seemed to think that they could commit murder with impunity. They had intimidated witnesses. They allegedly bribed judicial hierarchy, police officers and destroyed evidence. The successive governments neglected their responsibility to engage the relevant agencies to fight crime for their own benefit.
As elected representatives, why didn’t they honour democratic principles on which the country is based ?. Haven’t they destroyed all that? Didn’t they create a group of newly-rich politicians, who were after nothing more than self-aggrandizement. They have proved that they have not done their fair share of service to the community and the country. The President too vouched that steps would be taken to eradicate corruption. Is it happening?
The violent conflict that erupted with the LTTE too retracted growth. Was it purely an ethnic conflict per-se? To me, it was a deep complex problem involving neglect, poverty, discrimination, deprivation etc. Our elected representatives simultaneously, under the pretext of fighting a war, served themselves with a larger spoon. The YAHAPALANA government too seems to be continuing to burden the masses, causing further losses to the Treasury. I quote from an English editorial – “In the early post-independence years, the parliamentary allowance of an MP was a meagre Rs. 750/=. They came in their own vehicles to sittings of the House – some like Dr. W. Dahanayake came by bus or train because they did not own a vehicle – and nobody got duty free permits to buy vehicles. They paid for their own petrol which in those days cost about Rs. 2/50 a gallon”. It had also stated – “Undoubtedly many of those elected to the then House of Representatives were people who had private means – landowners and the like – as well as professionals who did nicely as lawyers and doctors. But others, by no means rich or comfortably off, did not ask for more. LSSP leader Dr. N.M.Perera, despite his very high qualifications, did not practice a profession and was among the earliest to urge that MPs be paid pensions. N.M did however engage himself in private business and older readers would remember his being pilloried over the Giridara Mill in the sixties and references in newspapers to plantations he had owned – Oakfield and Moragolla. While he could be attacked for being a capitalist while professing socialism however, none would dare accuse him of ever making a dirty rupee”.
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which was appointed to recommend ways and means of healing and peace-building to consider post war reconciliation, had advocated a rigorous language right policy as an essential step towards ethnic harmony. In other post-conflict countries, too, ‘language pluralism’ thereby bilingualism has become a useful consideration primarily to strengthen ethnic harmony. This had been the prime reason why Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara, the then Minister of Education, in the pre-independent era, had promoted bilingualism in his free education policy. Why did successive governments destroy that?
The present-day politicians too, for several decades, used political power to serve themselves. They have competitively entrenched systems and policies where they protect themselves for their own benefit. They have not addressed the other issues pertaining to the social, political well-being of the citizens. We had once been made to believe that we were the ‘Wonder of Asia’. Do you know that there had been around 200 Heads of States since late 1950s in post-colonial Africa to-date? From among all of them, only four had relinquished political power voluntarily. All the others had been overthrown after a decade or more in power. A majority of them had robbed and ruined those countries mercilessly. Thus, most of them had been assassinated in military coups.
Nevertheless, our leaders too during the past several decades had looted our Treasury and mismanaged the country making ours a ‘farcical democracy.’ Why is it that the laws against corruption don’t apply to them? Why are they holding up the National Audit Bill and other important legislation? Aren’t they dragging their feet in the delivery of promises? The system is corrupt because they are egocentric, narrow-minded and strictly profit-driven. How much have we told the PM and MPs that they should first be committed to serve the peoples’ best interests. They refuse to lend their ears. Let us accept our own responsibility to create a better future. The country is weeping for want of better leadership. Donald Trump said – “Politics is such a disgrace, good people don’t go into government”.