Diffusing Foreign Interferences and Influences | Daily News

Diffusing Foreign Interferences and Influences

IMF help alone will not put the economy back on track.
IMF help alone will not put the economy back on track.

Part VI

Without the confidence to be truly independent, freedom is a wasted opportunity. For a nation that suffered a severe and an unprecedented blow to its very structure from nearly 500 years of forced European occupation, we have an appalling grasp on the true meaning of freedom.

Freedom is not the mere absence of foreign occupiers. It is the courage to stand on whatever ground that best serves our interests. As an independent nation we ought to have the freedom to form partnerships with different entities, even though these entities themselves may not see eye-to-eye with each other. We reserve this right even when we may appear inconsistent in our loyalties or policies.

India is the best example before us. To oppose China’s rising power and regional dominance, India is a member of the US-led Quad. As such, India had been one of the top recipients to US’s military technology transfers. However, India has made it categorically clear that despite this security partnership, India is not in the US camp.

In the Russia-Ukraine war, India did not join the US’s entourage (aka the EU) to criticize Russia. Instead, India took Russia’s offer for petroleum products at cheaper rates. India did not even pretend to entertain US’s displeasure over this commercial agreement. Many onlookers, including MP Wimal Weerawansa who usually speaks of these matters after much research, wonder if India’s defiance signifies a realigning of alliances between camps.

However, it is being tipped that India is to receive as much as USD 500 million as military aid from the US. If this comes true, reports Bloomberg on May 17, 2022, then India stands to be the largest recipient of such aid after Israel and Egypt.

One may interpret this consideration of the US as an attempt to wean India from her current dependence on Russian weapons. If it is so, whether India agrees to be weaned off from Russia’s influence remains to be seen. Irrespective of the speculations, the point remains that India has steered her foreign policy to enjoy the best from two very opposing camps and makes no apology or excuse for it. This is freedom.

A Glimpse to Sri Lanka’s Era of Darkness

On February 4th, the media revisits the key milestones of this dark era of forced occupation, especially that of the British, and we duly raise our national flag. Of late though, hoisting of our flag is influenced by our acceptance of the Government in power. If that Government is not our choice, we feel less inclined to celebrate Independence Day.

This act of defiance signifies two possibilities. Either it reflects the misgivings we have over some of our political powers, who we believe are yet to cut off the apron strings from the former occupiers or we have not comprehended the significance of February 4th itself. If we did, we would not hold Independence Day responsible for the mismanagement of governance thereafter.

As it is not a criminal offense not to fly the national flag to commemorate the Independence Day, no one heeds the presence or absence of the proud flag atop our properties on this momentous anniversary. The contentious point is not the missing flag but the missing point that today we are the masters of our own fate and that is what February 4th signifies. Whether we have used it wisely or not is secondary.

Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese (1505), Dutch (1638) and British (1796).

Unlike India who had dug into the annals of history to understand India before and during the occupation, we have not undertaken such a study. We are yet to produce an investigation that carries an in-depth analysis of this era that explores what it was really like to live under an imperial boot. This lack of curiosity has cost us a valuable resource - testaments of those who either experienced this period firsthand or heard of these experiences directly from those who lived during these times.

For instance, we do not know the reaction of people who were increasingly taxed to maintain another nation. Then, when we hear that even the household pet dog was taxed, it is more a joke than a serious fact. Even though we do not doubt its factuality, the full weight of its implications does not hit us.

There is one story that captured the mood of then people. When two British soldiers went into a village to announce yet another tax increase the village chieftain was away on another matter. Outraged by another audacious tax increase the youth in the village overpowered these two soldiers and harnessed them to a furrowing plough and forced them to plough the paddy fields.

The whole village watched this unusual scene where two British soldiers were forced to do the work of buffalos. Of course when the chieftain finally returned, the soldiers were freed. The chieftain also sprinted away the mischief makers to a faraway village to save them from the British reprisals, which would have been merciless.

Despite their efforts to arrest these youth the British never found them. This is a testament of the sentiment that prevailed among the then citizens of this island nation, who protected the hunted youth without ever betraying them. Undoubtedly, they may have been heroes of sorts to the oppressed.

Yet, this kind of anecdotal evidence is not common knowledge. Instead, schoolchildren’s history lessons comprise of the governors who oversaw the management of our affairs and the benefits each introduced to us. Though we give our national heroes who were committed to regaining a free country due acknowledgment, it is on par with the publicity given to the British governors.

When half the lesson promotes the occupation period as beneficial to us and the efforts of our national heroes condensed to just regaining an independent country, we leave a very wrong impression with our budding generations. In the same breath when we condemn our present powers, the younger generations grow up regarding the Western viewpoint with more confidence. Needless to say, this attitude has been instrumental for those who wish to influence us for their gain.

India’s Version of British Occupation vs Sri Lanka’s Version of British Occupation

With just 200 years of forced occupation, India may not had Europeans forcefully parked on them for as long as we had to endure. Yet, India suffered as much, if not more than we did. Yet, while Sri Lanka is still running behind world powers with hat in hand, India is now rubbing shoulders with these same powers.

The Post-Independent difference between our two nations is that India acknowledges the trauma she suffered and is determined to regain her rightful place in the world order. Conversely, Sri Lanka is uncertain if we suffered a trauma in the first place. In our minds, our tale of current woe begins after 1948.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s remarks, after the IMF’s bailout package of USD 2.9 billion agreed at staff-level between Sri Lanka and IMF, is a case in point. He noted that in 1949, the year he was born, “Sri Lanka had no debt and we had sufficient reserves to lend to the UK which was recovering from war times. We had made enough out of our rubber, and our tea and we built our first reservoir out of our own initiative.”

Many of us share this nostalgia. What is not acknowledged however is the extreme poverty that prevailed among the ordinary people. From a financial perspective, the country’s bottom line was strong. However, the viewpoint of the society was bleak.

A case in point would be the 1953 hartal over the cancellation of the hal potha (ration card for rice introduced during World War II with the food rationing but continued thereafter as a subsidy for rice). Declaring the ration card obsolete effectively increased the price of rice from 25 cents to 70 cents per measure. This increase of 45 cents was beyond the means of the ordinary man, to whom this ration card has become a form of sustenance since the 1940s.

However, the then Government was without choice. Despite being the granary of the East before the occupation, rice, which is our staple food, at the time of Independence and thereafter for some time was imported to Sri Lanka.

With the Korean War, rice prices shot up and the food subsidies would have cost the then Government a crippling Rs 300 million - a third of the estimated revenue in the planned budget for the following year. Continuing the subsidy thus threatened Sri Lanka with bankruptcy. Even with the Sri Lanka-China rubber for rice pact, Sri Lanka’s economy could not be saved as the strong Rs 345 million surplus trade in 1951 dwindled into a Rs 200 million trade deficit by 1952.

According to the anecdotes of those who remember this awful period, some had been reduced to do with Punnakku (cattle feed) for rice without the subsidy became beyond their means. History however has forgotten these miserable incidents.

This episode highlights that though financially the numbers looked rosy, as a country we were very weak. Since then, we have come a long way towards self-sufficiency in rice. However, this achievement is difficult to appreciate when we are ignorant of the challenge we overcame. Hence, our moments of success do not register much and all we see is a failing State.

India on the other hand is very well aware how much the forced occupation robbed India of their opportunities. Indian intellect Shashi Tharoor got everyone’s attention when he demanded compensation from the British. He backed his call with well researched facts.

In his book, An Era of Darkness, he writes, “At the beginning of the 18th Century, as the British economic historian Angus Maddison has demonstrated, India’s share of the world economy was 23 percent, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time the British departed India, it had dropped to just over 3 percent. The reason was simple: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India.”

This clarity has helped India to identify the root causes that felled India. That accurate identification in turn enabled India to map the road to recovery. India has its own social issues. That however has not impeded India from striving for its national goals.

In contrast, Sri Lanka’s ignorance of its traumatic past, which was not so long ago, has produced a confused nation. Divided into ethnicities and economic circles we blame each other for the never ending mess. Without identifying the root causes, we faithfully follow the systems implemented by another nation for their benefit.

The difference between the days of occupation and Post-Independence is simple. During the occupation, only those who adapted the European ways, denouncing their own cultural heritage were allowed to benefit from the system - may it be education or economic opportunities. As such, only a small segment of the society got colonized. The rest were ostracized.

In the Post-Independent period, such discrimination is not in practice. Any Sri Lankan citizen, regardless of race or religion, is included in the system. As we follow the colonial system, without a cost-benefit analysis, we without our realization are getting ourselves colonized.

75 Years of Independence Overridden by State Sanctioned Colonization

Every February 4th, we celebrate Independence Day - a national holiday to mark the leaving of the British. Ironically, the Independence Day parade’s main feature is the march past by the different brigades of the Sri Lanka Army. As smart young military personnel in their ceremonial garb march past we can see the pride with which we have preserved the traditions and customs passed on to us by the British Forces.

This brings forth a very serious question before us. By and large we have allowed the systems and customs imposed during the occupation to continue unchallenged - right down to the kilt, one could say. Then, have we for the past 75 years strengthened our independence or sanctioned colonization?

The first and foremost clue that we are willingly colonizing ourselves is our education. The education set by the missionaries never addressed the needs of the local economy. Three quarters of a century of independence later, we still have not included our local economy into the curriculum.

Consequently, neither the farmer nor the agricultural experts have a clue as to improve our produce or its quality. This is a matter of grave concern when over 60 percent of the population is engaged in the agrarian industry. Our neighbours as India and Pakistan are making huge strides in technology and are in fact nuclear powers. Yet, their cottage industries are protected and recognized for their contribution to the respective economies. Ours are on their way to extinction.

Though successive Governments pledge their support to making the country trilingual, the only language that still opens the door is English. Progress and social acceptance still hinge on the adaptation of English and English ways. Today, we are gradually abandoning our heritage because it is ceasing to make sense. Our formal education certainly has no place for it. This degradation of identity did not exist even during the worst day of occupation of nearly 500 years.

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To be continued 

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