SRI LANKA: Confusion about the meaning of independence

On February 4, Sri Lanka will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its independence from the British colonial empire. There is hardly any mood to celebrate in the country, however. Beset by enormous economic hardships and price hikes, by ever unprecedented levels of blatant corruption and abuse of power, rejection of adherence to the Constitution itself and violent conflict within which all parties to the conflict seek a more direct military confrontation, the people of the country are confused about the meaning of it all. The tremendous lawlessness that has spread in the country and the increase in grave crimes, coupled with the ever increasing police and criminal nexus–this confusion accompanies widespread insecurity. In trying to understand the prevailing confusion, the following two quotes by John Adams, the second U.S. president, and Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy in her book The God of Small Things, respectively, may be of some use:

“But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The revolution was effected before the war commenced. The revolution was in the minds and the hearts of the people.”

“‘If you’re happy in a dream, Ammu, does that count?’ Estha asked.

“‘Does what count?’

“‘The happiness–does it count?’

“She knew exactly what he meant, her son with his spoiled puff.
Because the truth is, that only what counts counts.
The simple, unswerving wisdom of children.
If you eat a fish in a dream, does it count? Does it mean you’ve eaten fish?”

In these two quotes, there are two different, but related, ideas. First, freedom has to live in the hearts of people who have come together as a society if it is to have any real social significance. Thus, freedom, which in modern times also includes human rights, needs to be a dream, an expectation and something that is deeply cherished. On the other hand, a fish eaten in a dream does not count. Dreams, if they are to count, must find expression through social arrangements which really work. Taken together, these two ideas demonstrate the state of freedom and human rights in Sri Lanka today.

Compared to 60 years ago, Sri Lanka today is now a place of dreams and expectations shared by large sections of the people. These people belong to different racial and religious groups, be they Sinhalese or Tamils or Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others. Among all these people, there have been changes from the point of view of their allegiances to the earlier social order in which only privileged people in the feudal and colonial system enjoyed most of the benefits of the social arrangement. The most prominent change has been in the rural countryside in all areas of the country–in the South, North and East. If one were to trace the history of any village in Sri Lanka for the last 100 years, it will demonstrate the tremendous change of the peasant’s submissive mentality towards their landlords. There is now a whole generation of young people who will no longer behave within the mindset with which their ancestors lived for centuries. The demand for rational explanations and reasonable treatment is part of every family’s behavior now. Thus, it can clearly be said that in the hearts of the people of Sri Lanka there has been an irreversible transformation that demands recognition of their rights. While the particular form of articulation of this internal transformation may vary, it is simply a matter of fact that the mindsets of people who are living today in Sri Lanka are radically different to the traditional mindset bred in a feudal, caste-based social milieu. It can thus be claimed that the centuries-old inner laws of social organization of Sri Lanka have now been decisively broken. The people have more hopes, more expectations and more dreams in their hearts. More people eat fish in their dreams.

However, in reality, there are tremendous restraints against realizing these hopes, expectations and dreams. These obstacles emanate from both the political and social organization of the country that has resisted adjustments to suit the inner transformation that has taken place among the people. Overcoming these barriers is always a difficult task.

The times during which great changes occur in the hearts of people is also a very difficult time for varying forms of social arrangements that have been taken for granted up until then. Among such social arrangements, one area that reflects most of the difficulties is in the field of governance. Political institutions, legal institutions and social institutions do not find it easy to adjust to change. In fact, in the whole dynamics of achieving practical arrangements in political, legal and social institutions, we have a good illustration of what is taking place in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan experience, in fact, is similar to that of India and China. For example, when more people changed their minds about the caste system in a country like India, one of the most eternal laws on which social arrangements have been made in the past was shaken. When peasants lost their docile attitudes and loyalties to feudal landlords, as occurred in China and many other countries, this too challenged a centuries-old “law” that has contributed to the type of social arrangements in such societies. When the attitudes regarding corruption underwent change, for example, in a community like Hong Kong, this was accompanied by a new legal regime which effectively outlawed corruption. In all these instances, changes had to be made to the previously existing political, social and legal order by new arrangements to accommodate the changed mentalities, meaning changes within the systems of governance.

How will Sri Lanka develop its political and social organizations in order to become compatible with the change in the hearts of the people? How will their aspirations for recognition and equality in a more rational and dynamic way than existed in traditional Sri Lanka be achieved?

These central questions need a response if the 60th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence is to have any meaning. This assertion applies to all social groupings in the country. The binding thread between the people of Sri Lanka now, despite the decades of violent conflict, is that among all the neglected people in the country in the old feudal social order there are now strong demands for recognition of equality. To make equality a reality in people’s lives, the people whose hearts and minds have changed must themselves express their own positions more assertively. Distinguishing a capacity for assertiveness also demands the rejection of violent modes of political expression that manifest frustration rather than definite ambitions to reorganize their societies on the basis of a greater recognition of their rights. Bringing about the possibility of peaceful political discourse is primarily the responsibility of the state, which must ensure an ethos within which political change can take place that is compatible with the changes of the people’s mindset.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-024-2008
Countries : Sri Lanka,