February 4th of 2023 is the 75th anniversary of Sri Lankan independence. On that day in 1948, they got independence from the British. Prior to the British, the Portuguese and the Dutch colonized this beautiful island in the Indian Ocean from 1505 until 1796. Today, this island is situated along the key shipping route between the Malacca Straits and the Suez Canal, which links Asia and Europe. An estimated 36,000 ships, including 4,500 oil tankers, use the route annually, making it attractive to many global and neighboring powers.
In the early 16th century, beating the Indian, Chinese, Arab, and Malay traders in the Indian Ocean, a new force, in the form of Portuguese ships with mounted guns, arrived in the region. In 1505, a Portuguese fleet commanded by Lourenco de Almeida was blown into Colombo, by adverse winds. Almeida made friends with the local king in Kotte and was impressed with the commercial and strategic value of the island. The Portuguese established regular and formal contact with Kotte and in 1518 built a fort at Colombo and obtained trading concessions.
Then in 1658, the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) occupied Ceylon after the Portuguese. The Dutch presence lasted for 150 years, from 1658 when the Dutch expelled the Portuguese, until 1796, the year of the British occupation. The British, a tiny European Island, with the help of their wise investments in Naval ships and the westerly winds they were fortunate to have, beat their neighboring colonial naval powers, and controlled 90% of the world, and ruled Ceylon from 1815 to 1948, until the independence. That was 443 years of colonial occupation of this splendid island.
In 1940, the Soulbury Commission proposed constitutional reforms in British-ruled Ceylon. These recommendations were accepted by the British government and implemented in 1945 which laid the groundwork for Ceylon’s independence in 1948. However, Sir Henry Edward McCallum, the colonial governor of Ceylon from 1907-1913, is said to have doubts about the ability of the locals to self-rule and predicted that a few privileged local families would rule Ceylon for years to come. Soulbury also correctly foresaw the ethnic and racial violence that would challenge the new nation.
As predicted, a succession of rulers ruled Sri Lanka since the independence, created ethnic violence, and benefitted from those to this day. They ignored the norms of governance laid by the British and bankrupted the island by 2022. Among the prime ministers or presidents in Ceylon/Sri Lanka since 1948, there are several family dynasties. Senanayakes (father & son prime ministers) Bandaranakes (father, mother, and daughter prime ministers, and daughter president), Jayawardane/Wickramasinge duo (uncle & nephew presidents), Premadasas (father prime minister and president, son the opposition leader trying to be the president), and the Rajapakses (two brothers who became presidents, and a son who is eyeing for that). While some of them had progressive policies in the Sixties and the Seventies, others were highly corrupt leaders. Arguably, Rajapakse and Wickaramasinge regimes easily take the cake in that regard. They almost subjected the island to a fourth colonial occupation, through China’s pocket diplomacy.
The country is so bankrupt that they do not have money to celebrate its own independence. Like a family in financial trouble selling or mortgaging family jewels, Sri Lanka has started divestiture of public assets to various foreign governments and international corporations. Among the proposed or leased assets are Katunayake International Airport, Mattala Airport, Ratmalana Airport, Colombo North Port Development Project, and Colombo Port City.
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said that Sri Lanka’s crisis is due to mismanagement while speaking to India’s NDTV at Davos in May of 2022. She said that “it is breaking my heart to watch the pictures of what is happening in the country, that was once quite prosperous. It is a result of mismanagement, and therefore the most important thing to be done is to put the country back on a sound microeconomic footing.”
I have previously addressed the various corruptions by different political leaders in Sri Lanka. As the country is nearing yet another election, a local government election which is a litmus test for the next parliamentary election in 2024, the voters are once again displaying why they are not able to pick the right rulers. Either they do not know what the corrupt leaders have done, or they also benefitted from the corruption, and are still backing up the corrupt. This global phenomenon of picking people unsuitable to govern by any standard should worry the democracy-loving humans in places like Sri Lanka, here in the USA, and everywhere else.
When I shared a draft of this with a British friend of mine, he simply said “I hope you will get this published.” An American friend of mine, Dave Kerr, who visited Sri Lanka in the Seventies, said this. “Again, a very interesting piece that – at least for me – brings some clarity to a complex history. It is reminiscent of so many other post-colonial histories of countries that struggled with self-governance after years of malignant parasitism or, at best, benign neglect of Western colonial governments. I can think of scores of countries that suffered corruption, bloodshed, helplessness, and appallingly bad leadership after being released into independence by a colonial power, so much so that it seems to be a feature of post-colonialism rather than an aberration. Your article has set me off on a research quest to find any post-colonial countries that either avoided that trap or overcame it to become well-governed since I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head. It seems like it’s such an intractable problem with no obvious solutions, but maybe if there are countries that exited a colonial past and avoided the usual corruption and bad leadership, they could be modeled by countries like Sri Lanka. Other than ultra-capitalist enclaves like Hong Kong and Singapore, or exceptions that prove the rule like the U.S., I just can’t think of any countries that successfully transitioned from a colonial past without going through decades of corruption and bloodshed. Can you?”
He further said, “I like the way you lay out the history and the contrast between pre- and post-independence governance, and the sort of inbred system of fielding and electing rulers. That raised a major question, though: who exactly is putting these same 2 or 3 corrupt families in a position to be voted in by a clearly ignorant or disconnected populace? Because it seems that there are only 2 main ways to address the problem of uninformed, uninvolved voters electing an absurdly narrow group of corrupt family members.
First, you could educate the populace, which is what you’re doing with your articles, but that is a gargantuan undertaking that will miss huge chunks of the target (especially the illiterate, who certainly won’t be reading informative articles like yours). Conversely, if a more ideally informed populace is too high a bar, it seems the only other option is to interrupt the nominating process somehow to break the inbred family nomination assembly line to allow for outsiders with more of a populist, people-centric mindset to get in front of the voters and have a shot at winning a reform-focused election.
I don’t know how the political process works there, or how these few corrupt families are able to keep a stranglehold on both the nominating process, elections, and ultimately the voters themselves, but if there truly is no way to insert some fairness and election integrity into the Sri Lankan system, an educated and informed population with a will to revolution (or at least a will to reform) seems like the only hope for change.
Anyway, well done. You really got me thinking, and I’m not even Sri Lankan . . . “
He so eloquently summarized the situation better than I have. Thank you, Dave! I agree that an educated and informed population with a will to ‘revolt or reform’ is the only way. There are signs that it is happening at the grassroots level in Sri Lanka. I am hopeful, once again.