On the Frontline: Public Participation and Decolonial Hopes in Sri Lanka

On the Frontline: Public Participation and Decolonial Hopes in Sri Lanka

Anupama Ranawana (University of Aberdeen)

Morality is, first and foremost, ‘lived’ individually. Even in terms of a collective, a moral hegemony, we create value based systems that protect our rights and selves as an atomized community, or as distinct individuals who choose to be aligned with such communities. We are all parts of commodified groups, consistently asserting our vendibility in foras of civil war, constitutional reform, in lobbying for UN recognition, regional economic battles, and so on and so forth. Nationalist fervour, in itself, is such an individualised morality, as it seeks to create a people in defence, seeking to protect their sovereignty against external threat.

This is especially true in previously colonised countries. Indeed, those who argue for a further need to decolonise are pointing to a distinct and valid grief; that the end of colonialism did not mean the invention of new men. In Sartre’s unpublished Rome Lecture of 1964, there is this feeling of disappointment that the ambiguities and failures of the end of colonialism left us only with a neo-colonialism. Nations and peoples ruled by an external psychology. Imperialism is embedded within.

In his 1959 address to the Congress of Black African Writers, Fanon understands this possibility in his analysis of colonial psychological destruction: “Dynamism is destroyed. Defence mechanisms are established. Every effort is made to bring the colonised person to admit the inferiority of his culture which has been transformed into instinctive patterns of behaviour, to recognise the unreality of his ‘nation’, and, in the last extreme, the confused and imperfect character of his own biological structure.”

A powerful form of racism becomes embedded within the psyche of the victim, as well as the oppressor. In this same address, though, Fanon felt that the movement for national liberation, through the native intellectual and the ‘literature of combat’, could turn this all around.

Yet, the seething nationalisms and the atomised moralities of these nationalisms, especially in South Asia, evidence that the project for such liberation has either failed, or necessitates further levels of decolonising at the level of scholarship, policy and politics. As it is, the Indian subcontinent is not the most straightforward of milieus. Arundhati Roy once commented that Indians subsist on a diet of ‘caste massacres and nuclear tests, church burnings and expanding cell phone networks … female infanticides and the Nasdaq crash’. The Sri Lankan political situation, benefits from a similar nutritional regimen. Politics is heady, heated, coated in language that is fervent and, indeed, almost ‘religious’ in its ire.

Moreover, as aforementioned, for both India and Sri Lanka, the entrenched power of Hindu and Sinhala Buddhist nationalisms are able to win significant victories because of their alignment to an incomplete project of liberation. The memory of colonialism, during which both these movements experienced a Renaissance, imbue such nationalism with an enduring power, a sense that their existence protects the country against evil. For over a decade, the Rajapaksa administration in Sri Lanka managed to mobilise Sinhala Buddhist support on this very same platform. The international community, any call to accountability, the soon defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Muslim and Christian communities became one ravenous beast of foreign imperialism. The Sinhala Buddhist majority, submitting themselves to the mentality of a minority responded strongly to these strategies. After all, in the post independence years, party after political party had used this same trope to’ rally the troops’.

A nationalist racism that held, and further fostered, a strong sense of victim-hood, and a nationalist racism that was channelled wilfully against the Other propelled the Rajapaksa juggernaut until it crested on a wave of seemingly undefeatable oppression, systemic abuse and corruption. In the North and East, the LTTE defeat left the population impoverished and disenfranchised, as the government appropriated land and mounted a wholesale project of militarization and Sinhalisation. In a disagreement with the sitting Chief Justice, the Rajapaksas illegally impeached her, appointing their own apparatchik in her place. Muslims and Christians came under increasing attack from a group of militant Buddhists, with Muslim businesses and places of worship being significant targets. Even peaceful protests regarding contaminated water were met with state violence.

Media persons and members of civil society who spoke out against the regime were often met with abuse, abduction, death threats, and that consistent refrain of being a terrorist, an enemy of state and communal harmony. The morality of this brand of nationalism pardoned a multitude of state sins. Indeed, the Rajapaksa administration spared no one, and many in the diaspora were puzzled as to the continued hegemonic hold of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy. Yet, what the Rajapaksas managed to do was to destroy dynamism, and to keep the Sinhala Buddhist community dwelling within an insecurity of self, all the while proclaiming the triumphant greatness of the Sinhala nation. If a change was to come, it had to come from an effective revolution from the grassroots.

Civil society members who agitated against the government often despaired of the electorate who consistently kept voting the regime back in to power. Often, one would hear the analysis that ‘the people’ were too blind to see the abuses around them, and that there was little point in appealing to the grassroots, and therefore much political analysis and rhetoric were directed at elite forces. It is often the case that the focus on the politics of a development country anchors itself to what we may call the primary agents of change. We look to leaders, statesman, religious teachers, to traditional intellectuals to bring about significant change, and to speak truth to power. For ten years, in Sri Lanka, these intellectuals battled against the government and its own intellectuals. The Rajapaksas had ended a long civil war, and, as aforementioned, in doing so, they concretized the hegemony of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy. Yet, on January 8th 2015, it was the people who dramatically changed the scope of things in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksas lost, and a period of cohabitation began.

A significant majority of the votes for the new government came from the Tamil community in the North and the East, but poll observers could also see many young persons turning out to vote, and the Rajapaksas did not win as much of the Sinhala heartland as they had expected to. The winning candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, had an appeal to the Sinhala base, but, clearly a morality of fear had lost its hegemonic hold. To a great extent, Sri Lankans voted for a change, for a chance to breathe. They also voted for a candidate who ran mostly on a campaign that promised intellectual and ethical change; of substantial constitutional reform.

Using social media and other popular channels, the campaign did an excellent job of appealing not just to the emotional base, but in raising the level of debate. In terms of political engagement, and the post election atmosphere, one can see people waiting for the implementation of the constitutional reform, for momentous change in Sri Lankan politics, and, most of all, an increased level of public participation in political process. Soon after the results were announced, a website called 100days.lk was launched that not only tracks the new government’s adherence to electoral promises, but notes any digressions from the original mandate. Similarly, an initiative launched via the Centre for Policy Alternatives named “We Can Change SL”, that speaks not only to government accountability, but also to personal integrity in transforming political morality has gained much traction.

This, indeed, is the important take away from this story. The polity responded to a strong issue-led campaign, but we also see the slow beginnings of that revolution of the mind that encouraged resistance to nationalist hegemony, that grew a feeling of collective responsibility for transformation. Where looking to the elite for change had failed, a growing solidarity for change, for revolution, organically manifested itself, and sustains itself in a polity enthusiastically participating in long-term structural change. This does not mean that all is now perfect in Sri Lanka. The new government faces its own set of missteps and a north/south divide that will take time to heal, especially in terms of addressing injustices that happened during the war. The upcoming general elections will still be a battle between who is a ‘traitor’ and who is a ‘patriot’. The problem of Sinhala ‘victimhood’ still remains, and is still exploited by forces aligned to the previous government. Revolutions do not happen quickly, but one observation that can be elicited is that through education and increasing the levels of public participation, oppressive structures can, and will be resisted. The extent of public scrutiny and willingness to be politically involved are at a level that I have not seen in my lifetime. Consistent education, higher levels of public participation, and raising the level of public debate is one step towards a decolonisation that eludes metaphor.


Anupama Ranawana researches religious political thought in the international and is mostly based in Canada. She is completing her doctoral dissertation in Buddhist Political Thought at the University of Aberdeen.

Photo Credit: CeyGatetravels.com