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Did Independence Result in Freedom for the Many?


Photo courtesy of Xinhuanet

As we mark another independence day celebrating the transfer of power from the British colonial government to Ceylonese rulers, it is important to reflect on the situation that existed before, the impact and the dependencies created henceforth. Away from the superficial ceremonial grandeur, is there a commendable social, economic, political and cultural reality post-independence? Does that reality deserve further scrutiny by the educated class including academics, journalists, intellectuals and writers? How far have we become independent in the true sense of the word or dependent when all matters are concerned? As someone born a couple of years after the country gained independence in 1948 and grew up in post-independent southern Ceylon/Sri Lanka until entering the University at Peradeniya in 1968, I am well placed to make some critical observations on the subject.

In fact, we can raise further questions on the subject: Has the country changed for better since independence? Do we have the necessary infrastructure and services to sustain life as decent human beings? Are we an egalitarian society that cares for those who are disadvantaged by life circumstances? Have we become cogs in the wheel of global economy and dependent in mind and body to be acceptable to the needs of powerful nations? Are we a nation infected by colonial and post-colonial complexities and practices? How do we overcome the dependencies that have been created by the British colonial system and continue until now in a revised form? Have we lost the plot in terms of our misdirected efforts to be a modern, industrially developed nation? Although it is impossible to address all these questions here, my aim is to make preliminary observations to encourage further thinking and action.

Given the economic, political, legal and social conditions prevailing in society and their effect on living conditions, there is a critical discourse in Sri Lankan society today about the way forward. It is admirable. However, there is a view among some Sri Lankans that it would have been better if the country was governed by the British. They mention that there was rule of law and order then with no politicisation of administration and service delivery as today. In the latter part of the colonial rule, the country had limited democratic system of governance ensuring basic rights of the people. Although social inequality existed, labour laws came into being and a judicial system where all were considered as equal before the law existed. Education in the medium of English obtained via colonial establishments and affiliated Colleges served the country well. Some of these assertions can be superficial but we cannot ignore such common beliefs when comparing the system that existed before independence and the conditions today.

True independence cannot be experienced by the population without economic independence as a country or at individual and family level. The country’s dire economic situation requires no further commentary as the story is well known and hardships experienced by people at the lower and middle levels of socio-economic hierarchy compared to those in upper echelons continues. An economy dominated by imports of all sorts on borrowed money killing the creativity and local initiative in production and manufacturing has made us more dependent on global powers, agencies, corporations, consultants and tourists.

When late Professor E.R. Sarachchandra was a visiting fellow at the Culture Institute, East-West Center, Honolulu in the late 70s he started writing his book With the Begging Bowl for obvious reasons. Being ambassador to France before this assignment, he knew very well where the country was heading after the change of government from the SLFP led coalition. Familiar with the regional and global trends and the challenges faced by developing countries, he probably had early inklings as to what was to come in terms of the future of Sri Lanka not only in economic terms but also political, social and cultural terms. Changes such as the institution of an executive Presidential system, liberalised economy, relaxation of migration controls and import rules had far reaching consequences. Those who suffered immensely from import controls enforced by Sirimavo Bandaranaike government between 1970-1977 and the experience of JVP insurrection in 1971 voted with their feet to change the government in 1977 to create a Dharmishta Samajayak.

The UNP led by J.R. Jayewardene couched the fundamental changes in governance and economy rightly or wrongly with a powerful cultural expression to attract the voters to link the island nation with the global system led by US with no questions asked. Attraction of multinational corporations by way of foreign direct investments, creation of Free Trade Zones (FTZs), removal of bottlenecks for foreign investors and the provision of infrastructure and services became the main focus. The accelerated Mahaweli River diversion project was tied in with this new approach. The growth experienced by the four Asian tigers Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan served as an ideal for the Sri Lankan political leadership. The need for a strong government that can make decisions quickly and efficiently without the approval of a cabinet and parliamentary system was the justification for creating an executive president’s role with immunity from persecution. It was not subject to normal law of the country. However, as we know the ideologically driven way the government handled Tamil ethnic question became a major obstacle to the economic and social development aspired by the leaders then.  Enormous expenditure in fighting the LTTE and social divisions created during the conflict was a key obstacle for achieving good economic results. The country was drawn more and more towards regional and international players who wanted to help us to win the war. At the end we won the battle but lost the war. Effects of it continue to haunt the nation. Many Sri Lankans departed to find alternative means of living. Considerable internal population movements also became a reality. Moving forward as a nation has become impossible due to structural (economic), political and cultural issues.

Industrialisation, modernity, service/knowledge economy and information society

When we look at the way that developed societies transformed over the last few centuries, we can observe that the industrialisation, scientific findings and technological advancements and knowledge creation helped them to become modern societies while providing better economic, social, political and cultural spaces for their citizens to operate unhindered and to provide better facilities e.g. infrastructure and quality of life. Indeed, the resource transfer from the colonies to the empires and dependencies created between the global north and south assisted in this process. Nonetheless, in the process of globalisation followed by colonisation where free markets, global trade, movement of goods, people and services across national boundaries are emphasised, the global system is founded on the principle that several advanced economies benefit from the system more so than a large majority of economically and socially undeveloped countries. The latter provides the resources, labour and in some cases the real estate for the companies and individuals from the more advanced countries to make more profits.  Investment funds including pension funds from countries of North America and Europe also invest in various enterprises including in the agriculture, tourism, fisheries, industries, higher education and health to make a profit for the clients. Government and corporate bonds are one mechanism used.

There is a worldwide speculative financial economy primarily in the private sector sustained by chasing higher interest rates or returns for the collective funds gathered from individuals and companies invested. Multinational corporations are active in working with local partners in the resources, supply chain, marketing and provision of various services. Such players with foreign capital, knowhow and technology dominate the economies and societies in the global periphery. In this context, some of the developing countries have emerged out of the backward, competitive conditions by using their own human and other resources, products for export in particular the value added ones to access foreign markets to earn important foreign exchange. This has been a selective process, not a haphazard one. In this system, economic and financial intelligence plays a key role. Today even artificial intelligence has become a key mechanism used to identify and develop products markets and services.

It appears that Sri Lanka has failed in gaining an advantage in this process even when it has a higher and technical education system that produces professionals in various fields. Many of them leave the country for various reasons rather than remaining and contributing to economic and social growth. Has any government agency conducted a survey to find out why they leave and the country loses valuable talent? Has the government developed plans to invite them back even on contractual basis by paying competitive salaries and bonuses? Is there an economic intelligence unit beyond the treasury and central bank to look for ways and means of promoting local economic growth and productivity in collaboration with foreign partners? What measures have been taken to add value to the local products or services and export? Are there rewards for innovation? Or are our institutions that are supposed to bring the bacon home dysfunctional, ineffective and a burden on society? These are some questions that need to be examined carefully and necessary measures taken if the country is to achieve true independence along with a sustainable and growing economy as well as a political will to develop.

Creation of newer forms of inequalities from the existing system is another area requiring attention.  While some have benefitted from the system (public and private), many have not. Those who are able to relate to the new economise in the region and the world with necessary knowhow, qualifications and experience obviously benefit by doing so. They have been able to enjoy the fruits of such relations and positioning in various roles. Some of the less fortunate ones such as the domestic workers in Middle Eastern countries have also been able to reap some material benefits but with sacrifices to their personal integrity in many cases. Ability of well-educated and not so well educated to move overseas and earn a better income has become a part and parcel of the current global economic and governance systems. Students who can afford to pay high fees also move to other countries and end up gaining residence visas. However, the question is whether Lanka can survive and prosper by merely selling labour – skilled and unskilled – or sending our young and the brightest overseas?

The relationship between the governance system and the market is also an essential aspect. There is a tendency for governments around the world to privatise state enterprises and core services. They rely on taxes from such privatised enterprises. This has been successfully implemented in some countries but at a cost to the long term health of the country. Areas include electricity and power generation, water, transport, banking, telecommunication, health service and education. Such privatisation takes many forms. In some instances, the public-private partnership basis is used to operate important enterprises such as construction of road and rail projects. In others a total privatisation to local or foreign interests has happened. When doing so, countries like Sri Lanka have to carefully assess whether such privatisation is in the best interest of the country. Merely because such a step can generate income for the short term does not mean that they are in the best interest.

Demise of democracy, egalitarianism and social justice 

Although the country is to celebrate the gaining of independence from its British colonial masters, the country’s formal and social institutions are still characterised by not so modern features and practices. The governance and administration system in place and associated practices are not designed to encourage innovation and creativity of the population but to control and limit. While an efficient administration system is necessary for moving forward, the fact that it is burdened with patron-client relations, politicisation and corruption is a road block for gaining economic growth and social development. Although the rulers have taken steps to accommodate free market initiatives, practices remain in the governance and administration system working in the opposite direction. In the larger society, the political party system and culture work to include favoured few and exclude the many. Instead of problem solving at various levels in the interest of serving the people, the system operates to display authority, delay decisions and make the service provision a luxury.

What we have seen since independence is the erosion of democratic make up of society, politicisation of decision making process and growth of a patron client system where those close to the power get many benefits whereas those excluded get the crumbs. Living beyond the means with borrowed money has been the modern dharma used by politicians who were responsible for making decisions. Accountability and responsibility to the people for decisions made have become non-existent. Power is acquired and used by those close to mainstream political parties in an exclusive manner with no obligation to consult people in between elections. By now we know that corruption has also been a major factor in the slippery slope experienced by the country over the decades.

A few politicians at the top of governance system/hierarchy based on family relations or personal friendship making decisions and getting the cabinet to rubber stamp such decisions is not the right prescription to handle an economy and society that needs to be put on the right path for success in a competitive world as today. Heavy handed law enforcement process stifles creativity and innovation among emerging generations of youths. Governance and administration system in place have become so dysfunctional that it is a burden on the people even though from the point of view of party leadership they have been seen as places to provide rewarding positions for party affiliates and supporters. Local government that should be the backbone of any civic administration is at a slow phase of development and has not been given its due place compared to similar countries. It should rather encourage local participation, collectivism and innovation instead of becoming yet another level of administration.

Overall, we have to examine whether the system of governance and administration has a humanitarian orientation or not. They should not be for the sake of reinforcing the power of those in authority but for the purpose of serving the needs and interests of citizens. Social justice principles with a vision should be at the core of governance and administration. For the country to develop, a central planning and coordination process is required with the necessary resources. The planning process cannot in this day and age be a top down one. It has to be a bottom up process where the information is collected from the local sources or communities of interest, collated and provided to subject specialists in various ministries and the government. How the information is generated, analysed and used is the key in the current systems whether global, regional or national. In developed countries, if a policy is to be changed in a given field, relevant authorities consult the people to obtain their views and suggestions before the change. Does this happen in Sri Lanka? My understanding is that it is not the adopted way by the government. Instead experts, foreign and local, work with selected bureaucrats to develop a blueprint for the change stipulated and get the consent from relevant politicians. It is a closed door process rather than an open one because in many of the changes foreign capital is involved.

Geriatric leadership problem

The nature of political leadership and whether we are getting leaders who ae capable of steering the country out of the current situation toward an acceptable future needs careful scrutiny. When we look at the leaders who became presidents and prime ministers through the mainstream party system since independence, it is evident that most of them either were elderly or became elderly in office. Once a leader become aged say for example 70, he/she needs to reflect on the position and leave office giving the opportunity for next generation of leaders. That is unfortunately not how the system works; politics has become a lifelong vocation for most leaders and their families. Once they become elderly, they have to rely on technocrats, bureaucrats or academics who are affiliated with the party for governance decisions. Alternatively, they rely on family networks or political appointees. Decisions are not made in terms of meritocracy i.e. appointing the right person for the right job. We now see the results.

Such a geriatric system of leadership does not allow for the current and emerging generations of creative and energetic and youthful professionals with good ideas to channel them to the system of governance. The system and its institutions are instead maintained as a cap in the feather of given ministers at enormous cost to the treasury. In other countries such as Australia, prime ministers and cabinet ministers serve the country for some number of years and move to either the private sector or NGO sector for community service once their party loses power. We need instrumental leaders instead of geriatric leaders to face the current challenges and steer the country forward. This requires leadership change along with political change. Leaders with a vision and a strategy developed collaboratively to take the country out of the current mess. No single leader possesses the wisdom or the solutions.

After about 45 years of running the country with an executive president and a free market system that allowed for severe concentration of power in the hands of a few, the results do not show much has been achieved. The problems faced by the country in recent years, the emergence of aragalaya and the IMF prescriptions reflect the deeper issues faced by the country and the need for reforms in consultation with the people through a bottom up process. I do not see this is happening with the current governance system.

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