Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for April 2022

“Hope begins with the ruin of our expectations.”

Both in print and in talks, I have often quoted these words from the Sri Lankan theologian and ecumenical leader, Daniel Thambyrajah Niles (1908-1970). They were words that sustained me during the 30-year civil war this country experienced and, at the close of which, I began writing this Blog. And I continue to cling to them in the continuing darkness that envelopes us and other nations.

Many languages do not have a word for hope. And even in English we have a tendency to identify hope with optimism or simply our aspirations. We pin our hopes on programs, parties or politicians and so are continually disillusioned. Christian hope, unlike optimism or mere wishful thinking, is based on the paradoxical triumph of the cross of Christ and Easter promise. The God of the biblical narrative is a God of surprises, working in unexpected places and through unexpected people. The light of God’s mercy continues to shine in the midst of the darkness.

The end of the civil war in Sri Lanka heralded the deification of the then President and his opportunistic brothers (the Rajapakshe family). They fell from grace in 2015, but made a spectacular comeback in the presidential elections of 2019 and the parliamentary elections the following year, largely as a result of the Easter Sunday carnage which they turned into both anti-Muslim hysteria and promises of ensuring “national security”.

Some of us suspected that the attacks had been conceived by elements in military intelligence that had remained loyal to the ousted President’s brother, the former defence minister, and that the Islamist bombers were merely their tools. Evidence regarding this has been hitherto suppressed. But a gullible and largely docile public gave the Rajapakse family a two-thirds majority in parliament which they promptly used to emasculate parliament itself and turn the Presidency into a virtual dictatorship. The President, Prime Minster, Finance Minister and two other cabinet positions were all occupied by a single family. This was nepotism and gangsterism at its most farcical!

Then came Covid-19. Sri Lanka’s economy has depended heavily on tourism, tea, textiles and foreign remittances from workers abroad. All these were crippled by the pandemic. The crisis was exacerbated by economic mismanagement, political arrogance and rampant corruption. By the beginning of this year, foreign exchange reserves had all been squandered and the country was on the verge of bankruptcy. The regime did what it only knows to do: run with a begging bowl to China and India. These have not been sufficient to meet the severe shortages of medicines and medical equipment, food and fuel. The country has, for the first time in its history, defaulted on its external debt and is facing its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

The ray of hope is that the economic crisis has led to a political crisis. Deprivation has affected all levels of society and finally opened the eyes of Sri Lankan people to the way they have been colluding, some actively but the majority through passive subservience, with the country’s impoverishment. Public street protests, calling on the President to resign and all his brothers to get of out politics, have erupted all over the island. What is remarkable is the way, for the first time in my living memory, the protests have united people from all walks of life and all ethnic and religious communities.

We are experiencing our own Occupying movement and Arab Spring. And we can only pray that it will be more successful than the latter.

Ridding the government of the Rajapakses, coupled with constitutional changes to restore democratic accountability, will not by themselves rebuild this country. Over the past few decades, many public institutions have been stripped of people with the necessary competence and moral integrity. Highly educated professionals, whether judges, doctors, lawyers or academics have been exposed as shamefully kowtowing to the political regime, even benefitting from their corruption. Businesses and banks have also profited by being bedfellows with the Rajapakshe brothers. We need a deeper transformation in the moral culture of this country.

And, of course, there is the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that has ruled this country since 1948 and which the Rajapakses embodied and entrenched. Unlike the religious philosophy called Buddhism which attracts many foreign tourists who seek in the East an alternative to the barren institutional Christianity of the West, Sinhala-Buddhism is a political ideology that undermines many of the moral tenets of Buddhism itself (just as the so-called Christian nationalism of Russia and the USA is the very antitheses of genuine Christianity). The Rajapakses and their political and business cronies fanned the flames of ethnic hatred, rejected human rights and regard for international law, and turned to shamans and astrologers for guidance in matters both public and personal.

Regime change is our immediate need. But it will only plunge us back into the mire if it does not also lead to a wide-ranging, forthright, moral questioning of how we have come to be where we are today.



April 2022