All of us Sri Lankans could sharpen our thinking, and rise together to the top as a successful and peaceful nation

“It is possible, for individuals, or even for whole cultures, to care about the wrong things…” – Sam Harris, Moral Philosopher

I stood up on my own two feet” – Sam Wijesinghe, former Secretary General of Parliament

As most of us know, Sri Lanka came out of a dark age quite recently. The darkness was perhaps literal for some, like for those who were under the massive clouds of bellowing smoke rising from the burning oil tanks in Kolonaawa, or for the countless folks who lost their eyesight1 due to the shockwaves and shards of flying glass at WTC, Central Bank, Hilton, Pettah Bus Stand, CTO and other infamous bombings. These victims are a mere speck of debris in a vast metaphorical cloud of violence that engulfed our island nation for nigh 30 years2, until the unilateral defeat of LTTE-led “Tamil” terrorism in May 2009.

It is not the purpose of this essay to analyze the cause of this unfortunate conflict, or weigh the ethical merit of the two opposing ideological camps that fueled it during its heyday. Suffice to briefly say that violence begets violence3, and the subculture that flaunted separatism as their aspiration and endorsed organized terrorism as the vehicle to achieve it, grossly failed in its critical reasoning. Tribal ideology (as the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, an unfortunate victim of the conflict himself, put it) was never going to be a successful strategy for social advancement. Today’s rising global moral zeitgeist is based on secular reasoning and humanism. The only room for condoning the exercise of physical violence (organized or otherwise) would be for the purpose of defending souls against immediate bodily harm; a far cry from the well-documented LTTE stratagem of instigating violent backlash through murder and genocide, beginning with the shooting of the popular and efficient public servant Alfred Duraiappah in 19754. As the proverb goes, the separatists always drew first blood.

Of course that great leveler, history, eliminated the fiendish brainchild of this unfortunate “separatist” groupthink, at great cost to life, limb and property. We wouldn’t drag out from the closet this hoary old “Tamil Terrorist” chestnut, except to serve as a pointed reminder that Sri Lankans are known to have lost their way in the past, en masse.

Let us move on to the present (2013), and bring to light a newer, and in some ways equally dangerous ideological subculture that is fermenting at grass-root levels across the socioeconomic and ethnic spectrums of our beloved country. Let us consider the “Sri Lanka sucks” groupthink, a widely prevalent meme (a viral idea propagated in a human society) making the rounds today. Let us study it, and nip it in its infancy, before it manifests itself into a big, bad beast like Prabhakaran of yore.

The reasons touted for why Sri Lanka supposedly “sucks” are many5, 6, 7, 8, but have the same broad shape of: “The government led by the “Rajapakse family” is ruining the country through mismanagement and corruption, and we have no hope for a better future. Besides, even if this weren’t true, the country has been going downhill for the last 60+ years; the downhill trend has been accelerating of late, and it is best to run away from here if we can help it. We will likely die of hunger or be killed by politicians if we remain behind. At best, we will end up in a failed state, living on our wits and in poverty. There is no room left for material, spiritual or intellectual freedom in SL”. This is the caricature of the meme, at any rate.

Granted, that anyone living in a vibrant democracy is entitled to publicly voice an existential gripe. When the going gets tough, we humans tend to blame anything and anyone, except chance and ourselves. The instinct to frame what is largely environmental circumstance into that of a purposeful action by a conscious agent (e.g. our neighbor or God) is strongly inherent in us Homo sapiens9. For example, I am born in a 3rd world country, I loose my job, I don’t have a house of my own, my peers are unsympathetic and laugh at my predicament… and I blow up. I blame society at large, the government, my parents, the education system, and basically anyone in earshot. I want to run away to dreamland, where the grass is always green…

Wait a minute. We are not talking about this sort of passing anecdotal lament. The meme we are talking about is an organized public delusion. Let us consider the sum total thrust of the front pages of our leading private newspapers like the Sunday Times or the Sunday Island for the past one year. At any given moment, the country is (said to be) engulfed by a half-dozen crises. Milk powder poisoning crisis, well water poisoning crisis, rape crisis, public sector bribery crisis, public sector mismanagement crisis (like the Southern Airport and Port), judicial services crisis (CJ impeachment), human rights crisis and opposition to CHOGM… There even was – and this is a good laugh – a screaming headline in a so-called reputed newspaper some months ago that carrier-based US Airplanes were poised to attack Colombo due to a dispute about airspace! Not to sound vaporous, let us pick today’s headline in the Sunday Island.

“Manmohan makes no commitment to attend CHOGM in Lanka” – okey fine.

Sub headline: “His participation may depend on what Colombo does about Tamil political rights” – Huh? Lets return to this in a moment.

And then: “My source [apparently journalists write anecdotally in first person these days] said: “… Dr. Singh made no commitment whatsoever [note the whatsoever – apparently there was a possibility of him making a sort of “partial commitment” to attend] to definitely attend [so he could have made an indefinite commitment? ROFL] the CHOGM….”

We think this sort of wordplay is a joke, an insult to the intelligence of the reader. If there is any value in a confidential source reveling a conversation to the press, isn’t it in stating the conversation verbatim, and letting the general public decide what took place? What did Manmohan Singh say?

And here’s the final beauty: “Dr. Singh is under pressure from regional political parties in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry to boycott the CHOGM Summit to convey India’s unhappiness with the Rajapakse government for refusing to give political rights to the island’s minority Tamils, and generally treating them as second class citizens.”

So this journalist apparently is stating the above as a fact, and not as a mere viewpoint (and an empirically false one10, 11) of a certain political subculture in Tamil Nadu?

Does this journalist actually believe that persons of Tamil cultural decent are second class citizens in SL, and that it is India’s official position that Rajapakse is a racist? If he doesn’t, couldn’t he at least frame this false allegation as a mere viewpoint of an interested party? “Dr. Singh is under pressure due to allegations by certain political forces in Tamil Nadu is that…” might have been the ethical way to frame this statement.

But then our mass media has no time for ethical reflection.  Any unfortunate incident (and there are many on any given day in a country of 20 million+ souls) is twisted into a politically motivated statement, and blown out of proportion. Perhaps in the hope that the so-called UNP opposition, an impotent remnant of a once powerful political force brimming with original ideas for the development of Sri Lanka, gains some “mudslinging points”.

A mentally imbalanced priest commits suicide whilst the instigators who put him up for it film his exit gaily12, and “Buddhist extremists” are blamed for his self-immolation. Some crackpots who call themselves reformers of Buddhism go around breathing racist hellfire, and the government is accused of having founded (or funded) their movement13. A child is raped and murdered in Colombo, and the government is responsible for an apparent erosion of morals in the urban slums. Seems that whenever something bad happens, we don’t look for answers in our immediate surroundings and ourselves – instead, we look upwards, like the primitive urge for prayer, towards the government.

Let us relate one particular meme of superb entertainment value, which made the rounds in Colombo a few months ago. Incidentally, Taxi Chauffeurs are a vehicle of transmission for social viruses, catching their infections presumably from their politically motivated masters. The author ran into this meme from such a chauffeur. There is an artistically designed bus stand shaped like a banana leaf on parliament road, next to the newly built park and jogging track. This park serves as a sort of showpiece of beauty and serenity in Colombo, one of many such handsome parks built in recent times.

Chauffeur: “this bus stand is a travesty of justice. Think about all those people who are starving. The million+ rupees used to build this stand could have fed a hundred mouths for weeks”.

Author: “Well, but it’s a symbol, we spend a little money to beautify our environment, to make us feel good. Makes us think we are on the road to success and to showcase our artistic talent.”

Chauffeur: “Yeah but we can’t afford it.”

Author: “How do you know, this might have been the result of a donation by some interested private party. Besides, think of all the beautiful parks and artistic creations in public places in other countries like Germany or Singapore. We need to sacrifice a little of our tax money for broader goals like beautifying our city.”

Chauffeur: “Yeah but this is Sri Lanka, not Germany…”

There he said it. In a nutshell – “this is Sri Lanka…” the implication being, we are a poor, failed state, and have no right to stand tall on our feet and feel proud of our achievements.

All this talk is not to say that there are no faults to be found in our current position. Sure, one could for example say the government is taking the concept of “playing to the crowd” too far. The ungainly display of public billboards with mug shots of political leaders or the exploitation of base religious mysticism for purposes of cheep popularity, seem calculated faults of this administration that perhaps we would do better without as a society. None of us are obliged to be worshipers of any government; if we don’t like them, we vote them out. But when we do this, we do so after a rational analysis of the sum-total contribution made, and not because of anecdotal memes. Colombo is clean and bustling with new construction. The road system is vastly improved throughout the country. Ports, airports and other public utilities are being renovated. The agricultural sector is being supported immensely. There is foreign income flowing in, in several sectors such as the one in which the author works – in IT. Law and order on the streets has improved, and there are less gangsters ruling the “handiyas” [inner city junctions]. Last but not least, our economy is booming like never before14.

What has our main opposition party to offer? Mud, or ideas for development?

If we don’t like what we see, we must be prepared to face problems and solve them. For example, an unsolved problem is the poor adherence to traffic rules as compared to the observed standards in Western Europe (we are far better than countries like India on this count). This is a long-standing and as yet unresolved issue in our country. But if we are not prepared to avoid jaywalking when we can help it, if we can jump in and out of moving busses, if we are impatient enough to race across double white lines and risk accident simply to get home 5 minutes early, if we are driving by the horn (and blinking headlights – a innovation) simply because we don’t know what horns exist for (presumably to warn of impending danger) – then it is us as individuals who suck, and not our government or our country. If the police are corrupt, then how many official protests has civil society lodged against the poor policing of roads?

Having a feeling of dissatisfaction with one’s environment, and wanting to explore new environments, such as working abroad and settling down in new countries, is perfectly ethical. What is not ethical is converting the anecdotal personal “reasons” for preferring a different environment, into a pseudo-scientific meme for abandoning our own country “because it sucks”.

Sri Lanka can benefit from a large dose of rational, scientific thinking, when it comes to improving our lot, both economically and culturally. We must gradually move away from our horoscopes, our smashing of coconuts and our weak, otherworldly attitude towards spiritual development. Instead, we must embrace empirical human knowledge acquired over millennia and use it to improve our individual thinking and our approach to life as rational agents. We (politicians and the media especially) must treat each other as smart human beings, irrespective of our socioeconomic standing. And when we talk of improvement, we must talk of facts, like the fact that we have to make compromises when global conditions change, like loosing fuel subsidies along with the rising cost of energy. And we must talk of concrete solutions, such as exploiting solar power, and investing in its development. Perhaps if that Chauffeur we spoke about earlier had suggested that the expenditure for the banana leaf bus stand could have been better spent on sending a bright young Sri Lankan to the US to pick up the latest developments in solar power, it would have been an excellent criticism.

We must bat with some intellectual honesty, and stop this arcane, nonsensical talk about “adjusting political power” for racial or cultural groups. And start talking about real problems that face Sri Lanka; like energy, education, family planning, or defeating the false meme that “we suck because we are corrupt and are racists”.

In conclusion, it is the delusional idea portrayed in the media that other (western) countries have achieved greatness through a royal road15, and that economic and socio-cultural improvement is unachievable through hard work and rational thinking, which is most offensive to the intelligence of well-meaning Sri Lankans like myself. Let us close this essay with this apt quote from a great thinker of our times, admired both in the east and the west.

“It might be easy to manipulate uneducated people in a human society. Education improves [a person’s ability to make rational compromises towards solving a given problem]. Cunning will not be a successful [social strategy] when dealing with smart people. Truthful and honest engagement is the strategy to follow…”

–      His Holiness the Dalai Lama in conversation with V.S. Ramachandran and other eminent scientists of our time

References:

  1. Over 100 people loose their eyesight in the Central Bank bombing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Bank_bombing
  2. 27 year long civil war: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_Civil_War
  3. Violence begets violence: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violence_begets_violence
  4. Murder of Alfred Duraiappah: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Duraiappah
  5. Allegations of large scale government corruption: http://www.tisrilanka.org/?p=11175
  6. Allegations of family bandism: http://www.lankatruth.com/home/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4514:government-in-turmoil-due-to-basils-appointment-&catid=42:smartphones&Itemid=74
  7. Allegations of poor economic management: http://www.jvpsrilanka.com/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=178:country-is-faced-with-the-worst-economic-crisis-in-its-history-comrade-anura-dissanayake&catid=40:jvpnews&Itemid=73
  8. Allegations of a failed state: http://colombogazette.com/2013/06/24/sri-lanka-still-a-failed-state/
  9. Attributing agency to circumstances beyond our control: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/brill/jocc/2003/00000003/00000003/art00002

10. No discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka – ref 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkcyGOl33XY

11. No discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka – ref 2: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=86029

12. Priest self immolation: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22677058

13. BBS racist movement: http://uktamilnews.com/?p=16091

14. Sri Lanka economy booms: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Sri_Lanka

15. How Sweden became an economic success: http://www.ifn.se/wfiles/wp/wp873.pdf

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One Response to All of us Sri Lankans could sharpen our thinking, and rise together to the top as a successful and peaceful nation

  1. Realist says:

    For Sri Lanka to rise, the basics should be implemented. Law and order, i.e. you cannot (allegedly) shoot someone in the head and then fly to Singapore for treatment because of who you are and the fact the president visits you in hospital, you cannot go on a murder spree and get away because the Chief Minister of a province is a friend. There needs to be transparency so that we can find out how much was spent on that bus stand and where the money came from and went, whether the Central Bank is actually telling the truth. Extremists like the BBS should be arrested when they stone buildings instead of the police just watching them.

    Self aggrandization projects such as the MR harbour, airport need to be put up to the microscope of a cost benefit analysis. We need reason and logic to guide us, not astrologers. Also repealing the 18th amendment might help.

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