I spoke with a Sri Lankan Professor called Sunil about who are the Sri Lankans. The guide books say there are Sinhala, Tamils, Burghers, Moors and Veddah. How do you tell which are which? I asked.
“Did you expect Britain to vote for Brexit?” He asked. “And did you expect Donald Trump to be elected President of USA?” I told him “No” on both counts. ” So you don’t understand your own people. How are you going to understand ours?”
When our group had stopped laughing, I told him that sometimes an outsider could see something of the form of the forest whereas the indigenous people were familiar with the trees.
He proved my point by giving a penetrating analysis of why Brexit and Trump had happened. “I know because a similar thing happened in Sri Lanka in 1956.” He explained that, after independence in 1948, D S Senanayake became Prime Minister. He understood agriculture and many of the things that needed to be done after the British left. An important policy was that Sri Lanka was one nation for all Sri Lankans. The country was still called Ceylon in those days. Reforms were begun but D S, as he was known, died of a stroke while riding his horse 1952.
His Uncle came to power, Sir John Katelawala. He was a man who liked to govern, he was a ‘Do as I say’ man, a ‘don’t talk to me, I’m busy’ man.
At the next election, experienced politician and Oxford educated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike appealed directly to the people, the rural people not the professionals, not the civil servants but the men and women who tilled the fields, planted the rice and managed the local markets. His message to them, supported by the Buddhist Monks was ‘Sri Lanka (Ceylon) for the Sinhala.’
Nobody had really thought out what ‘Sinhala Only’ really meant. My friend explained that he was at school at the time, the British English teacher disappeared as did all the textbooks in English. They were eventually replaced by Sinhala books. It was difficult for the educated classes as they all spoke English for work but Sinhala at home with relatives. It was worse for the Tamils. Everything, school books, government forms, radio programmes were in a language foreign to Tamils.
S.W.R.D Bandaranayaike was successful because he allowed the people a voice but his promise was a disastrous one. People voted for it but did not think about its consequences.
It is the same with Trump, argued my Professor. The democrats and republicans argue with one another but they agree that it is a pity about the rust belt where manufacturing industries collapsed. However they have to get on with the important business of the war in Syria and in Afghanistan. They have to continue with their first class flights to meet financiers, bankers, climate changers in Switzerland and Paris.
“But what about me?” Whispers the voter. “I lost my job when Chrysler collapsed, I lost my house when the banks messed up. Now I am queueing for a job with a bunch of Mexicans who have just come up from the South.”
“What about us?” Asks the young mother in Newcastle. I cannot get an antenatal appointment, the clinic is full of foreigners. We pay a lot for our health service but we cannot get to use it.”
There are many people like this. Trump and UKIP have given them a loud hailer and they have used it to shout “STOP and change things.” Nobody was ready, nobody was thinking about change, nobody knows what the change ought to be. Change there has to be but the nature of it is uncertain and confusing.
My Professor’s final comments were that we should talk with people, not to people. I agreed. We have too many “Go on” leaders who push from the back and do not know what they are pushing people into. There are not enough “Come on” leaders who will tackle the future with us.
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