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Liberalism, Nationalism and Barbarism

1 March 2015 07:17 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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ri Lankans, until recently lived under a regime that had scant regard for liberal values. Every effort was made by the regime to mobilize popular support by whipping up nationalist sentiments pointing to alleged threats to national security and national sovereignty. Almost all state institutions were handed over to ardent political loyalists so that they would do almost anything to safeguard the interests of the regime and its leaders. We, within the university system could observe it quite closely as our Universities became politicized as never before. On the other hand, the problems affecting the ordinary masses were not just political or ideological.



The socio-economic issues that ordinary citizens were faced with were diverse and included increasing cost of living, poor quality and inequitable education and health, the lack of social security for vulnerable groups, youth unemployment, crime, widespread abuse of drugs and alcohol,  child abuse and environmental degradation. These socio-economic issues are rooted in deeper structures of the economy and society and cannot be solved overnight. On the one hand, the policy innovations and institutional developments necessary to address these issues take time. On the other, the investments needed to finance various interventions are large and cannot be easily mobilized. Yet, it is natural for people to expect the government to take immediate action to bring about change and improve their life chances. Any delays and lapses in the above regard can frustrate people and embolden the opposition. This is naturally a matter for concern for right-thinking people, particularly in view of forthcoming parliamentary elections. While the ordinary people can be misled by interested parties, more knowledgeable and concerned citizens have a social responsibility to be more considerate and realistic in their assessment of ground realities and enlighten the general public accordingly. But the present media circus around good governance, corruption and rule of law leave little space to discuss the complexities and difficulties involved.



 There are no short cuts to equitable and sustainable development, social justice and peace. These can be achieved only through long term, integrated national planning backed by prudent investments of financial and human resources over a sustained period of time. The time required for all these cannot be counted in months, as some of our over-enthusiastic, reform minded citizens and journalists have tended to do. So the biggest question is whether the present leaders will be given the time needed to formulate and implement appropriate policies and programmes. This does not mean that there should not be critical scrutiny of actions and inactions of the political leaders.  When you watch some of the talk shows conducted by some of the journalists in the electronic media, you do not get the impression that they have the patience to leave enough space for the present government.



 People in this country remained silent observers for many years when high handed decisions were taken by the ruling clique in almost every field, with little or no attention being paid to their possible adverse consequences for the country and the people. State owned media institutions were totally monopolized by the rulers and their apologists with absolutely no space given to alternative views. Though I was a regular participant in discussions on television, I was completely left out by the state controlled media since 2005.
The reason was that I expressed independent views.
 Such blatant abuse of the media no doubt misled many gullible citizens, particularly in rural areas. The end of the war was used by the ruling party to consolidate its power by stirring ethno-nationalist sentiments among the members of the majority community and this naturally frustrated the Tamil minority. The failure of the then government to take measures to contain verbal and physical attacks on the Muslim minority by Sinhala Buddhist groups in some areas in the South contributed to inter-community tensions further.



 Most of the public investments were devoted to physical infrastructure development at a time when the emphasis would have been on public investments in productive sectors like agriculture, industry, fisheries and renewable energy and the development of the social sectors such as education, research, technology, health, public transport and social protection.
Most of those who have been actively engaged in the articulation of issues in the run up to the presidential election focused attention almost entirely on the issues of governance and rule of law. This has been true for the then opposition politicians as well as others including journalists and civil society groups. The question as to what sort of economic and social policies the new government should pursue did not receive as much attention. This lack of serious policy debate became quite obvious when the new government slashed the price of fuel. If there was any serious policy analysis on transport, they would not have done it in the same way. The same appears to be true for other areas like health, education, industry, etc.



All of the above indicate that the need for the broadest possible coalition of political forces to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksha had compelled the then opposition to agree on a liberal political agenda and leave out more contentious policy issues. Yet, after the election, it is necessary to address economic and social issues to meet the demands of the masses. This necessitates the development of a clear economic and social policy framework. This cannot be done within a narrow liberal or neo-liberal framework. For instance, the creation of adequately remunerative, regular productive employment is the only way to contain the exodus of youthful labour and reduce the informal sector which accounts for about 60% of employment in the country today. As is well known, about 20% of the country’s productive labour force is employed outside the country.



 When the social and economic conditions under which many people live are much to be desired, it is easy for people to perceive threats, competitors and adversaries across various divisions in society. This is where the nationalists come in full force. They set people against each other across various primordial divisions and divide them up for political gain. The resulting inter-community tensions make the situation worse, leading to a vicious cycle of inter-community tension, violence and conflict. Such a situation is not conducive for economic and social development. So, it is in the interest of all communities to avoid such a situation in the country. While all measures need to be taken to promote ethnic reconciliation so that social and economic conditions can be created,  enabling all communities to have access to livelihood and other opportunities in an equitable manner. If this is not done, extremist groups from all sides will push the country towards barbarism. When that happens, killing innocent people will become a routine thing for people who follow the command of demagogues, as they did in the past. We should learn lessons from our own past as well as incredibly inhuman acts of violence taking place in other parts of the world.
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