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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Monday, April 04, 2005

A wake-up call to all Sri Lankans

Online edition of Sunday Observer - Features: "03/04/2005
by Gamarala
The first part of this article was published in the February 27 issue of the Sunday Observer.

The public ('civil society') blamed their politicians for many of these ills - bribery and corruption, inefficient bureaucracy, escalating cost of living etc. Yet, they failed to admit that they were responsible for electing these 'corrupt politicians' year in and year out.

Despite all this, the latest models of fancy imported cars sped along our roads - the shops were filled with glossy imported goods - stylish clothes, the best perfumes and cosmetics that money could buy. Supermarket shelves were filled with imported goods - from caviar to Vodka and some of Europe's finest wines.

Nightclubs, five star hotels, international schools and private hospitals mushroomed in our big cities. Colombo's skyline resembled that of many modern cities of the affluent west, and more was coming - "we want more-more-more!" cried out the pampered kids of the super rich. Acquisition of material wealth and craving for power became an obsession in Sri Lankan society. Some called this 'progress and growth'!

In early April 2004 the UNP led UNF government of Ranil Wickremasinghe was swept out of power by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's U.P.L.F. - coalition of the SLFP and JVP and several other small political parties. The election was deemed to be 'free and fair' by both international and local election monitors.

The magnitude of its defeat astounded the UNP, while the victorious UPLF seemed to be equally surprised by the ground swell of voter confidence it has received. The 'populist' JVP component in the UPLF was believed to be the main contributing factor to the 'landslide victory' of the UPLF.

Despite 56 years of self rule ('democratic governance"'), many Sri Lankan politicians lacked the humility to accept the 'people's verdict' and seemed incapable of gracefully accepting defeat, while many a victor lacked the capacity to be magnanimous in victory. The defeated UNP was licking its wounds and bent on destabilising the newly elected Govt. Their main concern and obsession was in 'capturing power' as 'soon as possible'.

The new government blamed the UNP for all the ills which had befallen the country. The LTTE was adamant that it would commence 'Peace Talks' with the government only on its terms (compromise was not in their lexicon). The Government wanted a wider agenda on the discussion table - ISGA as part of the final solution. The UNP backed the LTTE's stand. Amidst such intransigence, and 'holier than thou' attitudes, another senseless ethnic war seemed imminent. Even more frightening was the smouldering religious conflict between some Buddhists and Christians (Christian fundamentalists were blamed and accused for alleged 'unethical conversion' of Buddhists').

As 2004 was drawing to a close, Sri Lanka was a deeply divided nation about to explode into chaos and anarchy!

Then, the unforeseen and unthinkable happened - on December 26, 2004 the massive tidal wave (Tsunami) struck shattering the pettiness of man and all his works. We have now been compelled to realize that nature does not recognize or discriminate between the many labels that we humans give ourselves - Sinhala, Tamil, Moor, Malay or Burgher; Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim; nor does nature bestow any special privilege based on caste or class-Rich man, poor man, beggar - politician - UNP, SLFP, JVP, SLMC etc. These are mere labels - walls that insecure humans build around themselves.

Media response

Initial response of the local media (private and state controlled) was admirable. Television networks revealed in graphic detail the magnitude of the tragedy to the millions of TV viewers here and abroad. They went beyond their normal call of duty by rapidly organizing emergency relief for the Tsunami victims. Some networks were highly innovative in fund raising and galvanizing people into action.

Local media also played a commendable role in spotlighting some despicable events - looting, jewellery being torn off corpses, molestation and abuse of women 'tsunami victims' in relief camps/centers; material goods meant for tsunami victims being stolen and sold by various unscrupulous elements.

No sooner did the outside world recognise the magnitude of the "Asian Tsunami - a catastrophe of biblical proportion", international humanitarian assistance began to flow into Sri Lanka. Shortly thereafter, many privately owned media institutions appeared to resort to a spate of criticism and negative reporting - gross distortion of facts - reporting trivia with malicious intent. What prompted this sudden change in attitude? Was there a hidden hand intent on destabilising the government? Why throw a spanner in the works at a time like this?

Criticism can be very destructive if it is unjust. It is rarely appreciated even when it is just. Who do we criticize? If we want to correct something that we think is 'wrong', let us make sure to check the facts - is it true?

What is the context (prevailing ground situation)? Is the criticism really necessary? Is it valid? Will it help? Help whom? The national cause - not the fancies of our patrons (who ever that might be - politician, employer, or 'boss'). What is the best way to correct that which we perceive to be 'wrong'? Will our criticism fan the old divisions - political, ethnic, and religious?

No doubt this is part of the human condition. We can do little about it. But, if some should only see the mud, rake it up, and run off to print-splash it across the 'front page's of a newspaper-Television story, etc. Does that help the 'national cause'-motivate people (public servants/politicians, fellow citizens) to sink their differences, unite and serve the people?

Some of us are optimists, others pessimists. Some are 'wreckers' (demolishers) others are 'builders'. Which are you? Demolisher or builder? There is , not much left to demolish after the tsunami! Do we want to add to the wrecks around us, or should we be assisting in building bridges (metaphorically speaking).

Try to recognise and understand the ground level realities. This disaster is unique in its magnitude; we have never had to deal with such a great calamity before. Our public servants are being subjected to great pressure. Bureaucrats have been the favourite whipping boys of disgruntled politicians and the public. Sri Lanka's public service has been highly politicised.

Undue political interference has prevented many honest public servants from doing their duty by the public. We have had many public servants of high integrity, and competence. Some of them have been compelled to resign or retire prematurely because they were unwilling to 'pay pooja' to their political masters (Read 'Fact is stranger than fiction: memoirs of a public servant' by Patrick Dias). Our politicians (past and present) should blame themselves if they find the public service 'inefficient and corrupt'. Fortunately' we still do have some excellent public servants. It is amazing that they still continue to work for their 'motherland' when they could have easily found more lucrative employment overseas!.

Public servants in tsunami ravaged areas have also had to deal with personal tragedies (they too are human). They too have lost their loved ones, valuables, houses and properties. Despite being traumatised themselves, they have been compelled to virtually work round the clock in their operational areas. Had we been in their shoes, could we have done a better job? We need to bear in mind such realities before trying to pick holes in the performance of our own government agencies and public servants/bureaucrats).

In fact, has our media adequately amplified the positive?

Appreciation (praise) stimulates, and results in better work for it increases a man's confidence. He feels that he belongs that he is on the team. "Praise your wife's pie, and you'll have more and better pies in the future!" Having responded so well to assist the unfortunate victims of the tsunami, the local media can play a much bigger and far more useful role in the task of building a better Sri Lanka.

However, in order to do so, they must make a firm resolve to act with restraint and greater responsibility. Each institution could do some honest internal reflection on their conduct before the tsunami hit us; conduct in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami; present trends and future direction.

One of the more positive features in the media industry in recent years has been the emergence and rapid increase in the number of extremely talented, intelligent, creative young men and women imbued with a love for their motherland. These idealistic young people must have the courage to speak out and say "enough is enough-let us not lend ourselves to perpetuating the petty selfish interests of politicians, patrons and 'rich' employers.


The air is alive with calls for united action-"we must all unite, sink our differences and act together in rebuilding our country". Calling for unity is all well and good, but let it not be mere wishful thinking. If our fractured society is to unite, we must make it happen. We all have to play an active role in achieving this unity. We have proved that we can be united in dealing with a crisis like helping the tsunami victims.

However, barely a month after tsunami hit us, the old cracks and divisions within our society seem to be reappearing.

Within the coalition government itself we see the old divisions and in-fighting between the SLFP and JVP reappearing. The UNP says that it will lend its support to the government in dealing with the tsunami crisis, but the body language of many of its leaders is not at all convincing in that they really mean what they are saying. In this age of Television, body language speaks more eloquently than mere words!. Private media and government controlled media are squabbling once again with each other. Vested interests seem to be rousing and prodding organised labour (unions) to engage in 'picketing and strikes'.

Thankfully, our religious leaders appear to be still united and sincere in trying to achieve the illusive goal of uniting our people.


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