Seventy-Five Years Old and Still a “Basket Case”!

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Unelected President Ranil Renounces Sri Lanka's Status As A Republic - Colombo Telegraph

Punsara Amarasinghe       7 February 2023

The word “basket case” was used by notorious political pundit Kissinger as a scornful phase to look down upon Bangladesh when it was born out of a liberation struggle in 1971. After 50 years when Bangladesh soars as an economic tiger, Kissinger’s title “Basket Case” can be easily placed in Sri Lanka, a county that tries to celebrate its 75th anniversary of independence while teetering on the edge.  Yet, the emergence of Sri Lanka as a nation-state was a sanguine one contrary to its neighbouring counterparts such as India and Pakistan where the dawn of political independence from the British was tarnished by the macabre sense of violence. Sri Lanka, the idyllic island in the Indian Ocean was once a star performer as a typical role model for a Dominion country in the Commonwealth  ahead of the rest of the developing world. However, the wave of irrational policymaking driven by ethno-linguistic politics turned the tranquil socio-economic progress held by the island nation into a fiasco. In a critical juncture when Sri Lanka tries to celebrate its 75th anniversary of independence amidst the chaos, the re-evaluation of events that intensified Sri Lanka’s growth from grace to fall may be pertinent in understanding where the county went wrong. On the other side, it will unfold the repercussion of seizing people’s sentiments for short-term political gaining, which ultimately becomes malicious in the long run.

Sri Lanka arguably suffers from cleavages along many different lines, notably ideology, ethnicity, language and religion. From many, if these endemic symptoms undermined the anatomy of progress, Sri Lanka’s original sin was the lack of creating a strategic economic model after independence. Sri Lanka’s first premier D.S Senanayake represented the ethos of the old school that believed in the protection of “Pax Brittanica” and entered into a defence pact with Great Britain right after gaining independence as D.S felt hesitant about India’s motive to annex Sri Lanka. But this camaraderie created by D.S. was reversed by the statesmen who came into power in Sri Lanka by standing with the non-aligned movement and finally lost its credibility with most of the great powers as a result of this “chameleon syndrome”. Also, one of the biggest blunders made by D.S Senanayake was to leave his legacy to his son Dudley, who was placed in the prime ministerial position regardless of his political immaturity which provided a precedent for all the successive politicians in the country for forming political dynasties which continues up until today.

Assertion of linguistic dominance in enshrining Sinhala as the official language in 1956 by chauvinist leader SWRD Bandaranaike brought the nemesis to the national consciousness of Sri Lanka and it simply undermined the education sector of the country, which consisted of world-reputed scholars. It should be noted that SWRD’s s decision reflected his Utopian vison of a macho leader against the Western world order and at the same time his idea of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism was certainly a populist idea used by him to reach the pinnacle of power. But it boomeranged upon him as the same forces that brought him to power assassinated him in 1959, which marked the first one of the series of political assassinations and the island.

From a vantage point, one can argue that Sri Lanka’s current state of downfall is rooted in its failure of nation-building in the post-colonial trajectory. But its roots can get deeper into the very basis of Sri Lankan society. Unlike its other South Asian counterparts’ Sri Lanka society lacks its original unity and it purely echoes the discursive effects of colonialism. Sinhalese being the majority of the nation have always been divided based on castes, schools and provincialism also tend to imitate Western ideals by trying to detach them from South Asian regionalism , which resulted in forming a hybrid sense of nationalism. This phenomenon was well captured by American author James Thorburn in his work “ Brother Ceylon” in which the author sarcastically refers to Royal-S.Thomas’ inter-school cricket match as the biggest national pride of the nation. Certainly, the whole country’s apathy of forming a national ideology has made visible effects in its decay.

In its 75 years of existence as a nation-state, Sri Lanka received several golden opportunities to rectify its fatal errors buts none of them was utilized by its policymakers. First, the adoption of the strict economic measures under Sirmavo Bandaranaike uplifted the country’s capacity as a sustainable nation, even though its implementation was not a popular choice. But, the whole mechanism was rapidly reversed by the gamut of political rhetoric of JR Jayawardane who went on to forge Sri Lanka’s economy by embracing an open economy, which resulted in creating a strategic mumbo jumbo situation in Sri Lanka. Secondly, Sri Lanka missed its golden opportunity for ethnic reconciliation and a mammoth economic recovery after the island nation was devastated by the Tsunami earthquake in 2004. The tremendous amount of donations that arrived in Sri Lanka was robbed by the political authorities and the opportunity of forming a palpable consensus with the Tamil separatists was discarded. Indonesia, another state that suffered from the separatist struggle in Banda Ache reached its closure in the aftermath of the Tsunami as both government and separatists compromised their stances, which was not the case in Sri Lanka where the dissenting opinion often gets sabotaged. The third and the last option Sri Lanka missed in booming its development was the apt opportunity that the country received after the military defeat of Tamil separatism in 2009. Instead of choosing a path towards reconciliation by invoking all the communities, the Sri Lankan leader was more zealous in forming his political dynasty which was tantamount to a cult worship building. The nepotism, corruption, and human rights abuse that erupted from his rule made Sri Lankan state polity a laughing stock before the world and Rajapaksa administration was prone to economic mismanagement as it prioritized internal state development as aggrandizement  of a phoney development rather than consolidating country’s production capacity to import as an ideal way increasing the foreign currency reserves.

The current dilemma that the county has been facing is neither random nor political. It embodies the whole cascade of socio-political blunders made by one generation after another and the current generation of young Sri Lankans seem to have chosen the fanciful option of leaving the country as their dream of securing a comfortable life status is at stake within the shores of Sri Lanka.