Colombo, Elections, Identity, Politics and Governance

Sri Lanka: A country without citizens

Note from author: For someone who is not in the least interested in politics – and is more often than not bored by it – my reaction to the 2010 Presidential Elections was surprising, even to me. Strangely enough though, I found that a lot of people felt much the same way. We were repulsed by constant news of violence; inescapable hoardings with their proclamations that our politicians loved us; posters that made the city walls disappear beneath them; partisan media stuffing propaganda down our unwilling throats; the promises of candidates that we knew to be false.

Yet, despite all this, we cared – albeit, rather reluctantly and in spite of ourselves. We still wanted to be in the know; we still tried to separate fact from the politicians’ fiction. We still agonized over whom to support, fought with our friends and colleagues about that choice, and later felt guilty that we might be making the wrong one.

As a first-time voter I felt totally out of depth in the process. On the night of the 26th, as the results started coming in, I sat glued to my television set, snowy with bad reception, and wrote them feverishly down in my journal, as if my pen might help me make sense of the outcome. It didn’t – and at about 3.30am my writing had become so unintelligible that I had to give up and get a few hours rest.

It was at least a small comfort that I wasn’t alone in my peculiar fixation with the elections. Being a heavy Facebook and Twitter user, I realized that many people I knew – no matter their age – felt similarly repelled and attracted towards this pivotal election. Some posted the entire election results on their blogs, others constantly updated their statuses with election-related news; some spent their time reading and sharing relevant material and others – like me – couldn’t stop writing about it in any and all fora.

This article, I guess, is proof that this process is continuing.

* * *

I’ve heard it said by a prominent artist that there is no such thing as a citizen of Sri Lanka. That, we are a country without citizens.

The statement stuck with me, purely because I had no idea what he meant. But watching the unravelling chaos the election brought with it in the past weeks, I’ve been able to form my own interpretation (although I can’t be sure that this is how he intended his statement to be read).

I’ve realised through this election that Sri Lanka is a country of many publics – too fragmented or just too different to form one cohesive whole. During the campaign period, thousands gathered at rallies to support their chosen candidate. Smaller numbers gathered to talk about the more unpleasant things: human rights violations, abuse of public resources, corruption and so on. On the Internet, bloggers, writers and activists engaged each other with their opinions. Many prominent media institutions made no attempt to disguise their partisan politics. Politicians made their rounds, spouting their promises of Utopia at appreciating crowds. In some parts of the country, communities drank in the promises, blinded by faith. In other parts of the country, communities passively disengaged with politics, closing up shop and refusing to vote – either out of intimidation or plain disinterest. And then there were those like me, struggling to make sense of it all.

These groups – and there are many more – rarely come together for any common cause. Sometimes it seems to me that we are a people that need little or no excuse to divide ourselves further – whether it is on grounds of religion, ethnicity, politics, ideology, gender or even lifestyle. We appear deeply suspicious of what we don’t understand or agree with and this breeds a vicious cycle: we avoid communication and are therefore unwilling to drop our differences band together for a greater good. Every society has its sub-cultures, its inner-posses and cliques, but if there is no overall sense of belonging or identity, how can there be a viable citizenry?

The presidential election in Iran caused hoards to come out in protest for days on end, risking their lives to make sure their vote counted. There will be immediate rebuttals to this statement, I know, telling me “Sri Lanka is no Iran” – but I’m not sure that’s something to be so triumphant about. If Iran was divided by politics, at least one side had the strength and conviction to protest against unfairness and injustice – and they weren’t a small community of activists; they were everyday people who came together and captured not only their government’s attention, but also the world’s. During election time in Sri Lanka, we were largely split into two political camps – but there are so many contradictory, opposing groups within those camps that we appear doomed to be estranged forever.

Even in the aftermath of this turbulent election, where accusations and allegations continue to be hurled every which way, where there is a call for a re-count or an annulment – we the public sit in the crossfire, bullets flying overhead, wondering what on earth is going on. Many believe the election was won unfairly but remain staunchly reluctant to do anything about it.

I too can feel this strange detachment in myself. The election which had me hooked like a bad drug, took a lot out of me: when I cast my vote, I felt oddly powerful, like I was playing a vital part in the making of this hugely important decision. I also briefly felt like I was a part of something much larger than myself or my politics – a small but important cog in a massive national machine. As the election result came in and the barrage of allegations with it, that feeling was stripped away. And now that it is over, I feel tired, oversaturated and repulsed. I want to switch off the TV, throw out the newspapers, shut down my computer and just not bother about it for a while.

There is no national machine – or if there is, it’s broken. How can it work when its people won’t drive it forward? So this is what it feels like to be in a country where there are no citizens: one feels powerless, alienated, and restricted.


It’s easy to blame politicians for everything. “This country is going to the dogs” I’ve heard many a person mutter over the morning newspapers. But politicians have always played a dirty game. This is not news. The problem lies with us and our inability to listen and discuss opposing view-points rationally, to stretch our understanding, to tolerate and accommodate difference. There will be those who will bluster to the contrary, unable to see beyond their political beliefs or beyond this election – which, however important, is still just one of many to come. They will simply prove my point.

I was reminded recently that in a democracy, the citizen reigns supreme, a fact easily forgotten. Still, it helps to be reminded sometimes, and once we remind ourselves, we can work on reminding those in power, who seem not to know it at all.