Minorities have equal rights

by Shanie

As we begin our sixtieth year of independence from western colonial rule, it is appropriate to take stock of our achievements and of our failures over the years. If we can honestly do this, we will then be able to chart a path for the future that will move away from our failures and build on our achievements. Honesty demands that we look at ourselves through the eyes of an outsider. There are many areas where we can be proud of what we have accomplished in our journey. But we keep moving forward only when we recognise and admit to our shortcomings. In areas where we have gone wrong, we need a change of direction. We need to take one step back to take two steps forward.

The Economy

In 1948, the British handed over to us a reasonably stable economy with reasonably stable monetary reserves. This, of course, was not due to the benevolence of our colonial masters, but to fortuitous circumstances. Ours was then basically a plantation economy that was developed because it brought economic benefit to the British. The tea plantations were almost entirely controlled by British companies; while the Sri Lankan land-owning class had significant investment in rubber and coconut. We had emerged from the second World War with healthy foreign currency reserves. This was further boosted by the Korean War that followed soon after, when our plantation crops, particularly rubber, fetched good prices.

But the cultivation of food crops and the promotion of paddy production, which had sustained ancient Ceylon over the centuries was sadly neglected. This did not bring any commercial gain to the colonialists. It was left to the indigenous leaders to start, on regaining independence, massive programmes to advance peasant agriculture. The Gal Oya was the first of many river basin development projects that gave a tremendous boost to agricultural production. However, other problems arose. With the development of vast acres of land in the Dry Zone, new peasants had to be settled in the newly opened lands. The new colonists were brought in from the west and south of the country and this changed the demography of the area. From being an area populated by Muslims and Tamils, Gal Oya became a Sinhala majority area. With hindsight, we can now say that the scheme of colonisation could have been handled with acceptance to all communities. Over the years, this has been symptomatic of our political problems. What could have been achieved by dialogue and consultation, was allowed to deteriorate into crisis proportions.

Over the years, our economy has diversified to some extent, but not as much as was necessary. From being almost totally a plantation economy, our earnings now come from garment exports, remittances from labour employed abroad, export of non-traditional agricultural products, etc. But these are so volatile, that they do not give stability to our economy. Agriculture is one area where we have not had sustained developed. Individual policy makers have had their own programmes – the result is that growth in this sector has been only sporadic. We need a national policy that does not have to depend on changes in government to take forward.


The same goes for education. In the forties, the State Council introduced universal free education. This made us far ahead of other countries in the global south. The Central Schools that were developed provided education of a very quality. In the fifties, the switch-over to Sinhala and Tamil as media of instruction, even though poorly implemented, enabled many to receive tertiary education previously restricted to the urban English-speaking class. The statistical percentages of literacy may have gone down over the years, but we are still way above the global average. It was a pity that the language policy of the State was so much mixed up with linguistic emotion that we did not encourage the whole population to be literate in all three languages. Had that been done, the educational standards of the country would have been high even by the standards of the developed countries. It augurs well that this is being gradually implemented but past neglect means that we do not have the teaching resources for this. The criticism in respect of economic policy, holds good for education as well. We need a national policy that will not change with every change of government.

Health Care

There has been a decline over the last sixty years in the provision of health services. All our regions used to have good health care with the medical institutions manned by very competent personnel. Sadly, this has declined over the years. One tends to get the feeling that this has been the result of privatisation. Health care in state institutions was and is still free and since competent personnel in all areas of medicine were available in the provinces, the people living in the country and those with limited income still had access to good care. But with the growth of private medical institutions, adequate health care is increasingly becoming restricted only to the affluent. It is not easy now to reverse this trend, but a re-thinking of public health policy is now needed. The cost of major surgeries, followed by necessary care, is now simply beyond the reach of the average citizen. The formulation of a policy that ensures affordable and sound health care for all people and in all regions is a vital need.

Social Cohesion

The other area where we have slid down remarkably is in discipline, law and order and this is also tied up with the decline in ethnic relations and the politicisation of our public, police and security services. From the mid-fifties we have had a series of ethnic pogroms, at different levels. When the first violence broke out in the Gal Oya valley in 1956, the alarm bells should have rung and we should have taken urgent steps to prevent their recurrence. It was in that year that the victory of the Bandaranaike led political grouping swept into power. It was a revolt by the vast majority of our people who had suffered deprivation at the hands of unimaginative government policies. Despite free education, it was the English-speaking elite who enjoyed all the plums. This social uprising should have been directed to a national awakening that was inclusive of all our people. There was a cultural renaissance among both Sinhala and Tamil people that has enabled a home-grown and revived arts to develop. But the political fall-out from a narrow linguistic policy has resulted in the country not developing in comparison to other countries of Asia. This was because some of the leaders of the 1956 political “revolution” were simply not visionaries. It was these elements who conspired to assassinate Bandaranaike, one of the few visionaries in that government but who lacked the political muscle to rein in these elements. Fellow visionaries like Philip Gunawardene in his Government and N M Perera in the Opposition were allowed to be politically isolated.

Ethnic Relations

The deterioration in ethnic relations is what continues to keep the country down. The Tamil and the Muslims must be made to feel that they are part of the country’s development march; that they have equal rights and equal opportunities in all areas of public life. There must be a conscious policy to ensure that the minorities have equal access to employment in the state sector. Offering cabinet portfolios to minority leaders only marginalizes them. The way to tackle terrorism is not through counter-terrorism. It is a pity that we are unable to learn from the experience of other countries, and indeed from our own country, on the way forward. The message must be consistently stated and implemented, that the minorities have equal rights. via … The Island


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Posted on February 10, 2007, in Sri Lanka and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Minorities have equal rights.

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