In the years after World War II, several nations threw off the mantle of colonial dominion and achieved self-rule under the guise of parliamentary democracies. Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was no exception. Last week we celebrated 68 years of breaking free from the last shackles of colonial rule. This year the nation’s most famous sea-side promenade had been all ‘tarted’ up to host the big occasion with the usual military pageants and panache reserved for Freedom Day.
As usual it was a colourful extravaganza of military marches, cultural dances and drill displays which culminated in a spectacular fireworks display at the Galle Face Green. The politicians, as expected, were in the thick of it. Could anyone point out to me a politician who could resist the pageantry, the plumes and the pompous pounding of parade panache?
Obviously, for our present political fraternity such chimera springs from a natural temperament for swagger more than the need to address the varied burning issues confronting the nation. No one could deny it was a superlative spectacle of military precision that indeed displayed a show of our nation’s martial strength not to mention the patriotic emotion exhibited by the governing party politicos. Yes, this was the day reserved for the members of the world’s flabbiest cabinet to get all soppy and teary-eyed before the TV cameras with patriotic sentiment while singing the National Anthem.
Despite the pomp and parades, is there any really good reason that our nation has to celebrate its 68 years of Independence? Has life improved for the people of Sri Lanka in the past six decades and more since independence? Most of the nation’s citizenry will tell you that there appears hardly any justification to party.
While our nation has for decades been relapsing and stuck in a farcical constitutional and economic skirmish many of our neighbors without even a tiny proportion of our country’s assets or potential have progressed and leapt into becoming Asia’s economic powerhouses.
These small states are showing the Third World the revolutionary prosperity of economic freedom and hard work. The success of the ‘Little Dragons’ is all the more remarkable in that they started from nothing. Taiwan and South Korea have no natural resources of any consequence. Singapore and Hong Kong even have to import food and drinking water.
Yet, these four states did have one thing going for them – the character of their people and the relentless determination of their politicians to lift their nations from the bootstraps. All four societies share a strong work ethic and place high values on education, savings and frugality. While Sri Lanka contrarily has retrogressed into a ridiculous backslide, they are all humming their way towards modernity and unprecedented prosperity. And imagine states such as Singapore once looked at Sri Lanka as a role model for emulation. If Singapore barren of natural resources, could become a rich nation so quickly, why not us with all these natural resources around us?
Singapore, in its current political state, has only been around for 50 years. In this short time, it has defied all odds, and become one of the world’s most outstanding countries. It leads the world in education, banking, and shipping, and has created an everyday existence of unrivalled cleanliness, safety and stability. In Singapore, even petty theft is uncommon.
In Sri Lanka, since the mid-sixties or so, democracy has been a procedure of constant learning for the public. And, what revolting lessons we have learned from our political process through all those years. Yes, this country has seen it all including the type of degraded politics which has resulted in legislative anarchy that has staggered between authoritarian mob rule and opportunistic horse-trading.
But the result of the change is a precariously nauseating arrangement. It is a squalid system where successive governments for the past four decades or so have all been chipping away at the institutional checks and balances which are supposed to shackle the elected servants of the people to the will of the real sovereign – which in case they have failed to remember – is the voting public.
Such extravagant ludicrousness and egotistical posturing highlight the wilder thinking and perhaps utter desperation of certain punch-drunk politicians staggering against the ropes. There is nonetheless the coarse political veracity to contend with, that makes it hard to get rid of the profligate ‘fat’ in many areas of government spending.
The people are wallowing in the debris of both the financial and political destruction around them while staggering under the burden of the soaring cost of living. The country is faced with not only its most severe economic and financial crisis in living memory, but a dangerously political one to boot.
Many analysts are tossing around the question as to why the government isn’t desperately trying to stabilize the situation instead of playing patron and molly-coddling their corrupt politicians and party flunkies. All the government’s razzmatazz and superficial trappings can’t hide the fact that the country is in a sorry mess both politically and economically.
The new hard times are much more in evidence than ever before, affecting the lives of millions of ordinary people. There have been no measures aimed at cushioning the impact of inflation on the hard-pressed public who have suffered increasingly intolerable financial burdens either.
The people have many grievances about the way the country is being governed. Most of them are rooted in a dislike for the excessive influence that many governing-party legislators are seen to exert on the economic and political life of the country. Several of them appear to lack even a clear organizing theme let alone being able to conjure up any bold, strategic moves to overcome crisis.
Why else during these times of austerity are the people being encouraged to indulge themselves and celebrate with all the fun of the fair? Commemorating Independence is one thing. But celebrations! In truth, there isn’t even a remote excuse for celebration. Let’s face the reality that no one will be disposed to frisking and frolicking on an empty stomach. One political devil always difficult to exorcise is hunger, because a hungry population is often an angry population and hardly in the mood for cavorting.