Running parallel to dynastic family rule in Sri Lanka is the emergence of (with apologies to Milovan Djilas) a new class of movers and shakers: the progeny of people of influence in Sri Lankan society of years not-so-long-past, who appear to have used the ‘leg-up’, that their parents provided a political climate of entitlement to move to positions of authority, if not eminence. In the so-called Western democracies, the very high percentage of medical doctors whose parents practiced the same profession is constantly quoted to highlight the need for reformation of this particular profession.
In Sri Lanka, it seems the net of needed reform needs to be spread much wider. The reason for this is because people from a generation where, among others, the terms ‘Mandarin’ or ‘intellectual’ were applied to those able to influence the national discourse in a significant manner, seemed to have been able to move their progeny into positions of power and influence in the next generation.
Let me briefly describe four of them who appear to typify what I am speaking about.
One is a recently-lionised member of the country’s diplomatic community who often harks back to the oracle that it is claimed his late father was. This 21st century referencing of an ancestor of eminence does not strike me as healthy for anyone with claims to being an independent ‘intellectual’, a term used in a peculiar manner in Sri Lanka in any event. Harking back to whatever one’s ancestor did or didn’t do hardly seems like intellectually mature behaviour. It comes across after a while as using some dead, even if respected, ancestor to deflect some of the slings and arrows that inevitably come one’s way in the course of political debate.
Another of the much-published defenders of the current regime doesn’t have to summon his father to his defence because that worthy has demonstrated little reluctance in the matter of rushing to the defence of the apple of his eye when the latter has, seemingly, come under (intellectual) attack. Again, it seems strange that a middle-aged ‘intellectual’ needs his paterfamilias to run offence for him – if I might borrow from the sports terminology of another country.
In yet another example of inherited importance, the son of an important functionary around governance and legislation has ridden that connection to a position that he has plated with pomposity to an extent not hitherto witnessed among government spokespersons. It seems like one of his claims to fame is an ability to apply an Oxbridge accent at what he believes are appropriate times. The man never seems put off by the fact that his delivery does nothing to elevate the (vacuous) sentiments he consistently expresses. But then, if uttering inanities in defence of an ethically-challenged government provides a more-than-comfortable existence, who am I to cavil?
These individuals epitomise three distinct groups of those who have distinguished themselves by their ability to move from the privilege and position inherited from their parents to the protection of a government which, if it doesn’t do anything particularly well, does know how to look after its friends. After all, by the government’s definition, there are two types of people in this country: those who support it and are ‘patriotic’ and those who might have the temerity to criticise it and therefore are enemies of the nation deserving of appropriate punishment inclusive of “termination with extreme prejudice” as the old Cold War phrase had it.
There is also a group of commentators in Sri Lanka today who do not fit into the categories I’ve just described. They slavishly parrot the official line of the current regime without the excuse of “daddy showed me how to do it.” These are the common-or-garden sycophants, the archetypal pandankarayas, who have a long history of being camp followers in this country and indeed, all over the world. They are simply ‘guns for hire’ in the terminology of the Old West.
What is particularly vexing about these sycophants, whose approach varies from one to the next, is their pretence to some kind of liberal democratic belief system which they display by providing the occasional rebuke to their unsophisticatedly crass and jingoistic brothers in arms whenever those worthies display their undying support for a jingoistic Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism, making no pretense of civility, while launching their blitzkrieg of criticism and abuse against those holding dissenting views from a government which provides them with patronage of an exceptional nature.
My increasing conviction is that those who belong in all of these categories form a network of the forces of repression and dictatorship which have emerged in this country. These defenders, apologists and ‘theoreticians’ for Sri Lanka’s emerging oligarchy are advancing their careers quite successfully while providing a very comprehensive smokescreen inclusive of paying lip service to such concepts as civic and human rights, denying that they are, in fact, goose-stepping in lockstep, one with the other.
As I have said before, the irony of this state of affairs is that in the (very doubtful) event of a change of governing regime to one where dissent will not be persecuted up to and including the ultimate punishment, they will be free to practice their professions with no let or hindrance thanks to the freedom of expression that will come with such a change. Talk about having one’s cake and eating it too!
Outside the fence protecting these sycophants, are those who’ve made the conscious decision to operate within the norms of liberal democracy which has, as its cornerstone, freedom to dissent and to express that dissent in public fora. Because of the perverted brand of ‘democracy’ that prevails in this country, rather than be considered bland supporters of democratic orthodoxy, they are categorized as the contrarians of our political discourse!
Not surprisingly, pretty well, all of those who belong to this group come from families that had little or no history of affiliation with those in the seats of power in generations past. Not being a scholar with expertise in this kind of thing, I will leave the explanation of this reality to someone better qualified.
Suffice it to say though that it seems that, just as medical doctors seem to beget more of the same, those of an intellectually and politically independent bent who did not benefit from being close to the seats of power and influence seem to produce progeny that reflect that independence of thought and do not display a predilection to support those in authority as a matter of habit (and survival!)
It should be evident by now where my sympathies lie.