Sri Lanka´s best-known cartoonist, Wijesoma, neatly encapsulated what 50 years of Independence has meant for his homeland in a savagely effective cartoon published in the run-up to the 4 February golden jubilee.He showed a grinning, bloated politician in national dress, standing on a flag-draped dais being saluted by a parade of thugs, muddlalis (local moneybags) and assorted criminals swaggering by with hooch, knives, flaming torches and crude handguns. One of the marchers also has a politician in his pocket.
The point need not have been belaboured, but, for the record, it must be said that the United National Party (UNP), which claims credit for winning freedom for the country and which has governed Sri Lanka for most of the last five decades, has identified the “disease of politicisation” as the root of the country´s present ills. The party, which, as much as anybody else, must plead guilty for being responsible for this sorry state of affairs, says it is looking for a new political culture to set matters right. And nobody would dispute its conclusion that “the people are disenchanted with the process of democracy itself”.
Even as the jamboree celebrating 50 years continued, many asked what there is to celebrate. For the country has frittered away much of what it had when the British left in 1948: back then, Ceylon was much stronger in socio-economic terms than the Asian Tigers who have forged far ahead. It had a secondary and tertiary education system that was the pride of South Asia. Her English language skills were something to boast about. There was good infrastructure and excellent public service. The economy, sitting pretty on a tripod of tea, rubber and coconut, was so strong that Ceylon even gave a loan to Great Britain to help fight World War II. “We can go on ad infinitum about the good things we have lost,” said the Sunday Island newspaper. “Most of all we have lost the [communal] harmony that was ours before the opportunistic ´Sinhala Only´ advocates planted the first poisonous seed that has grown into the civil war that takes its daily toll.” The war in the north and east today costs the government nearly SLR 50 billion a year -a third of its total revenues. The death toll in 15 years of conflict is estimated at 50,000, 10,000 of whom were government soldiers. And the end to the fighting is nowhere in sight.
But the gains of Independence cannot be forgotten. Apart from the cultural and spiritual aspects, Lankans have been masters of their own destiny and the democratic system that is well entrenched has enabled peaceful transfers of power seven times in the past 50 years. The welfare measures in place during this period have brought about tremendous economic and social mobility for the less advantaged sections of the population. People of very modest origin have long adorned the professions, the government services, politics, business and commerce. In every field, people who have been born poor have reached the acme of achievement.
There are some who suggest that, if Sri Lanka had opted for a vigorous capitalist development model back in 1948 (instead of moving towards it now), the advantages at the end of the colonial era could have been maximised. Using the natural resource base and the natural attraction that the country holds for foreign investment, the results may well have been spectacular. Indeed, these possibilities could surely have been exploited but for the vigorous left movement that flourished in the island from the pre-Independence days. The welfare state that was pushed through has certainly provided gains, as stated above, but at what cost to long-term development is a question that requires pondering without ideological blinders.
The last 25 years have seen the old left all but wiped out, surviving today only by clinging on to the sari pota of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The new left, represented by the janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or People´s Liberation Front, was responsible for two abortive youth insurrections that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Sinhalese youth in 1971 and 1988-89 (Himal, Sep/Oct 1997), and is now more or less inconsequential. The market economics ushered in by J.R. Jayewardene in 1977 has been accepted by the ruling SLFP despite its leftist leanings and that is the way the country is likely to go in the foreseeable future.
But there remains the question of the civil war, now 15 years old in a country of only 50.