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.

  • niranjan

    Gypsi Bohemia,

    Interesting article. Rationality is a huge problem in this country. Differences of opinion are not tolerated. Racism is all over the place. I blame the public and the education system as much as I blame the politicians.

  • “when I cast my vote, I felt oddly powerful” I think that summed all up, Gypsy. I too watched the election from beginning to the end and until I saw that Mahinda has won. (I did not even vote but my interest was no less.)
    Yet I think there were enough citizens who voted, perhaps not the way way you imagined or wanted, but they did.
    Iranians may have protested there results, so did many Americans when Bush won Florida in 2004, although it was not violent as in Iran. I am glad there were no violent protests in Sri Lanka.
    You are protesting the very same with your writing but respect the vote of non-citizens as you mentioned them. You will have a chance again to vote again and even to ask for many if you care.
    But a country without citizens, what are you? Even the real Gypsies are citizens of some country nowadays, from eastern Europe to South East Asia.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and more importantly for casting your vote.

  • Crazy eyes

    machang I whole heartedly agree with most of whats being said. Being a first time voter myself (leaving out the stupid provincials that is) I felt that bit of empowerment when I cast my ballot.
    However getting to the point that This country has no people many other subliminal often ignored issues hits the head. Ive thought long and hard about em through college and uni. How come these guys are so ignorant.? was the summing up of it. And ive consoled myself with the “islanders” attitude. At least that was the only logical reasoning that made sense. That we lankans live for the day- period. However with maturity ive come to realise that its a genetical disorder. no kidding. the race to be more exact the sinhala race is screwed. And when that comes together with the Bullshit sinhala Buddhist nationalism it jus takes the whole dimension to a different level.
    And please im NO TAMIL and NO RACIST. you need to understand the underlying factors behnd the thinking. How easliy these people have been fooled through out history. To this day unknowingly they have been governed by the more “superior caste or class of People” . Im ot here to argue its merits or demerits but jus the pure fact that these guys have been so ignorant. From DS to SWRD to Jhon to Dudley To JR to Sirimavo to Chandrika its been the elite who have governed them. And the commoner seems oblivious to the fact or jus doesnt care.

    And the rationality Plausibiltiy ability to think to think beyod what is, all our factors thats sadly missed this race. And i have no hope for it to get any better.
    You might wanna check out this comedian george carlin his part six in “back in town” jus explains why the people and not the politicians are the ones that are fucked.

    Now if this sounds like mere rambling my apoligies. Bored to the core at work and thought il ad my two cents to a “non intellectual”s post (at least im thinking your young enough not to qualify..;)

    cheers man

  • Dhiraj

    “but there are so many contradictory, opposing groups within those camps that we appear doomed to be estranged forever.”

    Really? IMO that description only applied to the clumsy coalition led by Sarath Fonseka.

  • justitia

    Lanka Truth reports that General Fonseka has been arrested by Military Police.
    We will wait to see how this citizen fares in the justice system.

  • Today the Land of Buddha who refused denial a Visa to his Holiness the Dalai Lama, has arrested a Gentleman and Soldier. Hon General Sarath Fonseka, because he did not wish to give a plebiscite to a man who invited the Butcher of Burma to observe pirith at the Dalada Maligawa. THE BUTCHER OF BURMA IS INVITED TO A NATION WHERE HIS OWN MONKS REFUSE HIM BLESSINGS. IF A DESECRATOR OF HUMAN RIGHTS, VIOLATOR OF CIVIL LIBERTIES BE INVITED AND HIS hOLINESS THE DALAI LAMA NOT BEING INVITED TO OBSERVE AND WALK THE LAND OF HIS LORD BUDDHA, I BELIEVE THAT THIS LAND IS SLIDING INTO A QUAGMIRE OF DISASTER. MAY THE TRIPLE GEM BLESS THIS LAND THAT HAD SEEN TOO MANY THIEVES IN POWER.

  • franc

    This happens to many who vote and lose. Once you learn to accept the decision of the majority you will be ok. Be happy that there are more than 6 million ritght thinking citizens. Dont redicule your nationality.

  • Jaffna Tamil…

    As someone who has mixed feelings about Gen. Fonseka’s arrest, not because I love Fonska more but because I love Rajapaskse less.
    The statement that ” Those who forget their past are condemned to re live it” is never truer than today.
    When the Tamils were being humiliated, discriminated, hounded and murdered, the vast, vast majority Sinhalese, with the divine belief that Sri Lanka was for the Sinhalese didn’t give a damn. In fact moist of them actively supported the Sinhalses governments actions.

    Now the Sinhalese are tuning against each other. JVP against the SLFP. The Sinha Regiment against the Gajaba Regiment, Rajapakse against Fonska and Amarawansa. Once on the slippery slide, one doesnt know where the skaters will end up!

    I have been talking to some Sinhalese friends who’s brother in law was a close Fonseka confidant. They are very worried. He is expecting to be charged as well.

    Unless and until the Sinhalese accept that Tamils and Muslims have inherent rights that inherent and not to be given and taken by the Sinhalese Majority, the country is doomed.

    It’s like the man who didnt help when his neighbor’s house was on fire, because it was not his house. Now the wind is blowing flames across his yard……

    Is there enough time for the man to help the neighbor and by doing so help himself as well?

    The Sinhalese people have the power to decide. But will they?

  • Jaffna Tamil…

    Dihraj will not get it till his house is on fire… But even then it s doubtful…..

  • Gayan

    You are right in one observation, Sri Lanka is no Iran, You cannot bring people to the street and let them die so you can fulfil your shatered dreams. Democracy has thought you a lesson. You should learn it the easy way.

  • Why Ground views is silent when a national leader was arrested?
    Sri Lanka has become a country without citizens!

    [Edited out]

    What ever crime he has comitted, he deserves respect as a human being.

    “According to eye witness over 100 military policemen led by Major General Sumith Manawadu had taken part in the arrest opperation. When General refused to cooperate he was dragged by his feet and was beaten up by soldiers. He was attending a meeting with three opposition party leaders, Rauf Hakeem, Mano Ganeshan and Somawansa Amarasinhe at the time of the arrest”. JDS

    Release General Sarath Fonseka!
    Stop Political Harassments!
    Long Live Democracy!

    This is a begin of an end!

  • Jaffna Tamil…

    NoEalamInSL says…..,
    —Stop Political Harassments! Long Live Democracy! This is a begin of an end! —

    That is what we Tamils have been saying for almost 52 year since 1958. I am glad you are waking up, Brother or Sister (as the case may be)…..

    But I am sure with your name, the irony is lost on you.

    As they say in the west, “aint Karma a bitch!

  • ItWillNeverEnd

    Any enemy of the government will be treated the same.
    Whether it be Prabhakaran or Fonseka, its all the same.
    You don’t mess with the government.
    Our constitution makes our president equal to a king. You don’t mess with a king.
    For the past 30 years the whole country was united and focused on defeating the LTTE.
    But now, we are starting to fight with each other. Do we really need a common enemy to keep ourselves united.
    Was it a mistake to destroy the LTTE ?
    Expect more [stuff] to go down.

  • The Kandyan

    Wow Civil and Constructive engagement? and Media’s are asking for freedom of speech?? Damn! Hypocracy anyone?? well after what happened to Michael Jackson maybe I’m being too prejudiced…lol

  • The Kandyan

    Monarchs don’t live very long lad…look at Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe. Descending from Dutugemunu? who the hell? The Raja caste of the Sinhales died about 500 years ago hard to believe a Kshudra becoming king and to be anointed by a Jackson Anthony shows our new royal family very well. Sri lanka has no future. unless we accept ourselves for who we are, not who we aren’t.