What is the change we are seeking?

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There is no doubt that something important and significant is happening in Sri Lanka at the moment. There is a feeling among people that things cannot go on as usual anymore – ‘system change’ seems to be on the minds of everybody. Even the tone-deaf President talked about ‘system change’ recently. 

Sri Lankan citizens have been searching for change for decades. This search may have taken many forms – whether through language policy, insurrection, armed revolution, new constitutions – but as a country, it feels like we have been seeking a fairer form of governance, a just social contract between rulers and the ruled for many years. Yet, each effort led to disappointment, disenfranchisement, and exclusion of certain groups and strengthening of the repressive structures of the State. Above all else, through all the turmoil that the people of this country have gone through, the entitlements and privileges of the ruling class has remained entrenched. 

It has often been remarked that Sri Lanka’s transition from a colony to independent nation was remarkably peaceful and painless. However, what this meant was that there was minimum debate and discussion on the ideals that would shape the new nation. Consider the difference in India, which went through a far more painful and violent independence struggle. Yet, those struggles gave rise to animated discussions regarding the relationship between religion and the State, caste discrimination, power sharing between Central and State government, the right development model for India. India may not have resolved those questions satisfactorily and indeed we can see today how some of those issues continue to vex and divide. We can also see how easily opportunistic politics has threatened some of the most cherished principles on which the Indian republic was founded such as secularism. 

But I would argue that Sri Lanka’s ruling class engaged in opportunistic politics from the beginning: deprived of any debate or discussion on the founding principles of a new nation, from the start what has driven politics in Sri Lanka has been political opportunism rather than social reform. Thus, what our leaders offered us as reform has always been driven by sectarianism, communalism and exclusion. 

For instance, even progressive reform efforts such as the free education movement, was energised not so much by ideals of equality and justice, but suspicion about the undue influence of the Christian church in education. There was no doubt that the Christian church established a system of elite education in the country that created huge inequalities in the access to education – yet, rather than a debate on how a more just education system could be established, education reform led to the demonising of one type of education over another, of one community over another.  Education reforms were viewed as an attack on missionary schools rather than an effort to establish an equitable and progressive education system. C.W.W. Kannangara was either vilified as an enemy of religion by his detractors or hailed as a true Sinhala Buddhist nationalist by his supporters. There are many more examples in our history – where opportunities for engaging in a meaningful dialogue about the principles on which our governance systems should be formulated –dissolved into conflicts about protecting narrow interests. 

It is as if our rulers considered the people of this country incapable of being mobilised on any principle apart from self-interest or sectarianism. J.R. Jayewardene can be considered a leader who had a radical vision for the country – yet, he too dressed up his neoliberal project in the language of a Dharmishta Rajya, and oversaw some of the most brutal communal riots in our history. It is perhaps deeply ironical that the majority of our leaders enjoyed cosmopolitan, liberal lives in private while engaging in deeply sectarian and communal forms of politics in public. Using even the most destructive strategies for the sake of power has become an acceptable part of political culture. 

What is left to us today is a highly divided society, and a political class that is so entrenched in privilege that it has become completely out of step with the populace.  The Rajapaksa family is in many ways a very predictable outcome of this history.  This system of governance, and this political culture has reached a point of critical crisis – and the Rajapaksas are the epitome of that crisis. They symbolise the corruption, nepotism, political opportunism and violence that was inbred into our political culture. It also so happened that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a man devoid of any political skill or even common sense is leading the country at this moment. In fact, the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa can also be viewed as part of that ongoing effort for reform – this time with an ‘outsider,’ a ‘tough guy’ who was expected to whip the country into shape.  

So in many ways, what we are experiencing today has been long overdue. The economic crisis has meant that no one is left untouched by the ongoing crisis. All bets are off – and therein lies the opportunity. In a way, this could be the moment where Sri Lanka becomes truly independent – if we do this right. If we are able to look at the underlying causes of this crisis – if we can use this moment to identify the core problems with our social contract with our rulers as well as the social contract between ourselves – we may have an opportunity to reinvent ourselves on a much firmer foundation.  

However, this would mean that we must recognise this moment not simply as an economic crisis – but as an economic crisis that is the result of an ongoing political crisis. Our urgency to resolve the economic crisis cannot be at the expense of much-needed political reforms. Certainly, the protests are not just about the economic crisis – the slogan against the 225 in Parliament is indicative of the desire of a radical change in established political culture. Let this not be simply about the Rajapaksas, nor should we let the call for ‘system change’ be satisfied with cosmetic changes. This is a moment for us to fight for the fundamental principles and ideals on which we want our society to be organised. This must include at the minimum the recognition of the pluralism in our society and the need to address the deep inequalities amongst us. This will require us to move beyond conventional frameworks and ideas and to re-imagine our relationships with each other as well as with our rulers. 

By Harini Amarasuriya