Soon after Independence, Ceylonese society, as it was structured then, was exclusively governed by an elite that was consummately skilled and able in furthering its own agenda, its own interests, both social and economic, and safeguarding the privileges that were granted to them by the departing British Raj. An elite whose education was either in Oxford and Cambridge or Colombo schools, whose virtual first language was English, whose commuting was done in luxury cars, in other words, a class of people who were absolutely divorced from the common man in the country was charged with managing the socio-economic, cultural development of the nation. This elite clique was not limited to the leading community at the time, Sinhalese; it was the same for Tamils as well as Muslims and Burghers. As Kumari Jayewardene wrote in her celebrated exposition of Sri Lanka’s rise of Mercantilism and the elites in the twentieth century, ‘Nobodies to Somebodies’: ‘Members of another group of Sri Lankans, who were to form an important part of the emergent 19th century bourgeoisie, were landowners, whose holdings provided them with a means of accumulation and later, a basis for expanded growth in the plantation era. Just as the monopolistic policies of the Dutch and the British had located a stratum of officials in the cinnamon industry and endowed them with a basis for growth, their administrative policies also created a group of Sri Lankan officials, called Mudaliyars. Peebles (1973:1) has defined them as an economic and social status group “mediating between the alien rulers and the bulk of the indigenous population” performing functions that the foreign rulers were “unable or unwilling to perform”.’
This elite group, that rose to real influence behind political power, along with the growth of capitalism of the local flavour, in character was snobbish and conceited but in substance and capacity, quite rich and equipped. However, Jayewardene’s book did not go past the Independence of Ceylon and as a result, unless she is engaged in writing another mini-masterpiece on the transformation of elitism from one class to another class, we are bereft of a close and erudite analysis of Sri Lanka’s socio-economic-cultural evolution as a social democracy in the latter half of the twentieth century. Despite, this transformation-not in real substance and fundamental mindset-the modern twenty first century-elitism in Sri Lanka does not seem to have changed at all in the context of weight and influence behind the politicians who govern the country.
Outside the corridors of power, this elitism does not seem to exist. The primary language this new elite communicates in is Sinhalese or Tamil. English is spoken only in the corporate world where the top layer of leaders are drawn from those elitist secondary schools such as Royal, S. Thomas’ and Trinity College. But thanks mainly to the survival of the Ceylon Civil Service, at least up to 1972, a few brightest of the bright village educated lads managed to get into this elite administrative system and shine among the Colombo or overseas-educated, elite, civil servants. But that was just a handful or even less.
What is Sri Lanka’s elite? To find an answer to that question, one would have to look at all layers of our society, their individual thought process and mindsets, their social intercourse, their capacity for spending money, their real lifestyles, their immediate associates and friends and their historical lineage. Elite is defined in most dictionaries as “a group of persons exercising the major share of authority or influence within a larger group”. In the narrow context of that definition, Sri Lanka’s current elite could be loosely categorized as those who are close to political powers and drawing every possible ounce of benefit from their association with the powers that be. However, one stark contrast between the Ceylon Civil Service of yesteryear and the current Sri Lanka Administrative Service is esteem in which the old Civil Service was held, it is deservedly so, and the contempt and scorn the current one receives.
Nevertheless, the non-political elite of this country, especially in the urban sector, even though their dealings, business and social communication are mostly conducted in the vernacular, their spending and influencing capacities have reached levels that are far out of reach even for the average wealthy person. The current occupiers of the upper echelons of this ‘elite’ are wealthy beyond any imagination. Their riches are phenomenal and the way it’s displayed on the functions such as weddings, receptions and other social events is obscene. With an uncontrolled spiralling down of spending capacities, in real value terms, of the ‘have-nots’, the dominance of these elites gets exaggerated and their perceived appearance assumes even a ‘paler shade of gloom’ in the face of the common masses.
The tragedy of the decline of the traditional elite that existed prior to the nineteen seventies is felt, not only in the mass perception of the nation’s psyche, it is even more evident in the cruelty with which the masses are disregarded in the most callous way, less by the politicians and more by their henchmen and cohorts. What was played out, one would argue, as a bizarre drama especially during the last days of the Rajapaksa regime was merely a microcosm of that deep issue which was sheltered by a veneer of patriotism. When this new elite which consisted of the new-money class, wrapped themselves in a patriotic flag, they became the voices not only of the regime, but they pretended to be the real vanguard of a national requisite.
The profiles and social outlook of the elites of the security forces, Army, Navy and Air Force, were diluted below the minimum level required to be at an elite-contention. Their subservience to the henchmen and cohorts of a ruling family or clan went beyond mere loyalty to the government in power. The traditional elites in the provinces and other district capitals lost their clouts and were replaced by thugs, drug-dealers and illicit brewers with money and muscle. This gradual but sure evaporation of the traditional elites, in the center and the regions, and their replacement by the new-rich provincial Mafioso had its rapid results in the socio-cultural ethos in the country.
Elites in Sri Lanka today are, to reverse-paraphrase what Pieter Keuneman in Parliament referred to the famous C Sunderalingam, more of a ‘target of anger rather than an object of pity.’ In the overall scheme of matters, elite politics, elite business, elite sports, elite social life, elite bureaucracy, elite security forces all come down to one glaring reality. That reality is physical closeness to the powers that be. That closeness consists in, for example, to be seen with the political leaders of the day, to be visible in the same arena where the ‘big political boys’ play, to be talked about in the same sentence with powerful leaders.
The traditional Sri Lankan elite which was the monopoly of the leading civil servants, commanders of the forces and leading businessmen of the day has evaporated into thin air. The English-speaking educated in the leading Colombo schools first and then in Oxbridge overseas, played a vital role in shaping the destinies of the nation yesteryear. Whatever their follies, their political philosophies, their financial dealings, they still played the game by its rules. They sometimes behaved in the maddest fashion, yet there was a method in their madness. That order, that discipline and that adherence to the rules of the game had their inherent advantages, for when they were proven wrong and short in judgment and execution of matters of the state, business and security etc. they accepted the rules of the game; when they were defeated, they left the arena with their heads severely bruised but held high. To that galaxy of elite belonged D S Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake, Sir John Kotalawala, J R Jayewardene, S W R D Bandaranaike, N M Perera, Peter Keuneman, Phillip Gunawardene,Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, S J V Chelvanayagam and Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and Anura Bandaranaike, Lakshman Kadirgamar, of latter decades along with Sir Oliver Goonatilleke, Raju Coomaraswamy, Bradman Weerakoon, Shirley Amarasinghe, Dr. Wickrema Weerasooriya and Jayantha Dhanapala and an innumerable number of civil servants and force-commanders and businessmen. The cultural elite that could boast about Ediriweera Sarathchandra, Mahagama Sekera, Lester James Peries, Joe Abeywickrama, Gamini Fonseka, Punya Heendeniya and the rest of those cultural giants cannot be replaced by those who sang eulogies to modern ‘kings’. That elite was a blessing to the advancement of our society as a cohesive nation. They did not sacrifice their personal integrity nor did they surrender their professional uprightness for the sake of currying favor with the powers that be.
The elites of today have stripped themselves of that yesteryear-decency; they are an elite that is trapped in their own cocoon of avarice; they are a bunch of henchmen and hench-women whose DNA has been identified as ‘severely spoiled’ and unique in character in that its holders are prone to multiplying disproportionately to its original approximations. They find themselves in an unfamiliar arena where,in the past, champions played and excelled. They are a scourge to our society and the sooner we realize it, the better for the country.
The writer can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org