Rout rabble-rousers | Sunday Observer

Rout rabble-rousers

22 January, 2023

The security forces would be downsized or at least such an outcome is being considered we are told. This is not surprising as there is no battle in the country and there is a financial crisis. Of course if able-bodied men are told that they would be retrenched or relieved of their duties and compulsorily retired, it means it leaves that many persons seeking employment elsewhere.

That would be a problem too but at the moment reducing the burden on the Government — and the national exchequer — is important. But there is a more important dynamic in operation here.

We as a nation are learning the value of peace, compassion and coexistence. It’s something that we have learnt with keen intent since the economic meltdown, because all of us were in it together.

The irascible ethnic conflagrations are no more, or at least if they are they are so few and far between that they are for all intents and purposes non-existent. It’s now and only now that we have become a truly Buddhist nation. A truly Christian nation and a truly Islamic nation as well.

This is not something to be glossed over. Whatever the reasons for this infectious compassion, we as a nation have grown and have come of age. Mischievous elements as they are that are trying to raise their heads in attempts to create wedges between communities for their personal narrow political or other advantage would always be there, but there is enough of a critical mass in society to say no to these fringe purveyors of unreason these days.


If we can stay that course, that is a mammoth achievement for a country that fought a long battle against terrorism based on a perceived ethnic divide.

Everything may not be perfect in terms of admiring each other’s ethnicities and religions. But we have achieved much. Vast strides have been made in not merely accommodating but celebrating other ethnicities and other religions replacing the practice of ‘othering’ that was common before events that brought the nation together.

These included the horrendous Easter Sunday attacks, and the economic meltdown. The former made it clear that all ethnicities are susceptible to violence, and that anyone could be the perpetrator. The suddenness and the needless carnage of those attacks also etched a narrative of how little it takes to disturb the peace that a community enjoys.

The economic meltdown of course caused people to close ranks to fight a common enemy that’s typified by poverty, deprivation and economic malaise.

We should have been getting our act together and forging bonds between communities after colonial rule that left us divided and looking for dignity and a sense of identity. But unfortunately that was not to be. We proceeded to divide the country based on issues of language and religion, and politicians were for the most part to blame.

In this context, Lee Kwan Yew the Prime Minister of Singapore and late elder statesman was accurate in his assessment of Sri Lanka. He may not have got everything right, but in an excerpt from a speech that’s doing the rounds on social media, he says ‘there is so much hatred and passion there in Sri Lanka that there is no question of economic development. They will have to be sending maids out for employment for a long time to come.”


The speech was made in 1990. The reference is to the violence that scarred the nation from 1983 and thereabouts onwards for decades to come. He is right that our divisions were needless. We should not have sacrificed everything on the altar of ‘language’ and ethnicity.

What was needed post-independence was for communities to come together as it happened in Singapore.

But our politicians were hell bent on making ethnic dominance a central feature of our progress as a post-colonial nation state. This was disastrous. Savvy leadership in Singapore ensured that ethnic tensions are kept at bay. Yes, there were ethnic riots in Singapore as well. But Singaporeans didn’t make things worse by encouraging each community to push home their advantage. Lee shifted the focus onto economic development and didn’t tolerate political elements that were determined to divide for narrow political gain. He kept them suppressed and isolated.

Singapore has a lot to show for it. They are punching far above their weight as a city State and are a formidable economic entity, with economic clout equal to several nations put together.

Singapore has been criticised for various other issues such as, it is said, a lack of political freedoms, but that not with standing in contrast to Sri Lanka, their achievement was to keep ethnic tensions and needless war and confrontation at bay.

Even belatedly, we seem to have learnt our lessons on that score. Those who seek to stoke ethnic tensions need to be isolated and suppressed as Lee did in his heyday.

Politicians have learned that any advantage they can get out of stoking ethnic tensions is temporary. The nation, on the other hand, was unlucky not to have leadership of the calibre of Lee in this country.

We had leaders with the exact opposite inclinations by contrast. A lot of them wanted to consolidate power for their own ethnicity or their own religious grouping or community and were relentlessly aiming at eking out narrow political advantage.

People were encouraged to identify with their ethnicity rather than with the higher values of compassion that’s preached in religions from Buddhism to Hinduism and Islam. This was a travesty, but if lessons have been learnt and even accidentally we have collectively come to the realisation that compassion and tolerance is key, and that there is no place for superficial identification with ethnicity, religion nation and State, we have come a long way indeed.

Political divisions based on class for instance are equally bad it could be argued, and yes, the insurrections of 1970 and the late 80s in the South were not motivated by fealty to religion or ethnicity.

But often those issues are tied to economic deprivation and such economic factors in turn are mostly tied to the fact that there were divisions that apart from being bad policy, impeded progress.


It could be argued in other words that if the country was on a solid economic footing, there would have been no JVP uprising in the 70s and 90s. If our leadership had focussed on economic gain as opposed to ethnic divisions and parochial political power-plays, a solid base for success as a nation could have been built in the post-independence period.

That didn’t happen because economic issues were in the back burner. Leaders wanted to consolidate personal power by being jingoistic in the main, and that led to disastrous consequences. ‘Never again’ should be a mantra until we come out of this current morass and lay the groundwork for a national resurgence.

Is it possible? Cliché thought it may be, it’s always better late than never. Let the ghosts of Lee Kwan Yew and others guide us, is probably a prayer that we should utter even though that may sound as if it’s a joke to many folk who never take the well-being of people seriously.

For them Sri Lanka is condemned to be bogged down because our divisions are more important than our prosperity. But the people have suffered long enough, and parochial politics have no place.

Sri Lankans are ready to turn the corner and to shout down and banish any voices of discord, division and dissent or any rabble rousers that want to continue sloganeering on the basis of religion and language.

Religion and language are not vehicles for development but are people’s individual choices. Above all they are not issues that should form the bedrock of national policy. At least misfortune seems to have belatedly got us to a point at which we realise we either coexist and support each other and progress, or co-perish.