Originally published on the Weekend Express. (10.02.2016)
Often I find myself in conservative conversations, discussions, and strategy sessions on policies that affect millions of people and I can’t help but wonder: “what am I doing here?” Our state and its administration have been built on conservative values. This foundation has lasted decades, and today, 2 insurgencies, a 3 decade war and several authoritarian governments later, these conservative values seem so unshakeable. They are so deeply entrenched to our state administration and its culture. I look around and feel so different than everybody else; not just because I’m always half the age of everyone else at the table and almost always the only woman in the room, (of course ageism and sexsim play a big role in state administration but that isn’t what I’m trying to get at here,) but because politically my values are so far away from everyone else I’m usually surrounded by at these conversations.
I’m a 22 year old liberal. I believe in equal marriage rights. I believe in one’s right to one’s own body. I believe the only time the state should have a say on a citizen’s sexual life is if they had engaged in non-consensual sex. Although the Sri Lankan law believes any form of non-heterosexual sex is unnatural, and there isn’t such a thing as marital rape, I believe the complete opposite. I believe in affirmative action; giving priority opportunities to political minorities to make up for the injustices of the past. I find it preposterous that we still (in 2016) have schools that are dedicated to the majority races and religions. (It’s like America in the 19th century when it had Whites Only schools.) I don’t believe in the death penalty, I believe in rehabilitation and imprisonment when necessary. I believe our economy should be regulated enough to minimise wealth/income inequality.I believe that the state must secure its society’s high rates of social mobility and there should be state-sponsored welfare systems that protect the working and middle classes. I support free or low-cost government controlled health care being equally accessible and hassle free to all citizens regardless of their social status. I believe in the complete separation of the “church and the state”, i.e I don’t believe religion should be state sponsored, nor should it influence state politics in any way. I believe our tax system should be a progressive one, unlike the regressive one we currently have, i.e. big corporations must be taxed heavily and small businesses and entrepreneurship should be supported. My political views are in complete opposition to most of those borne by our conservative state.
Yet, somehow, I still believe in the state.
I believe in the infinite capacities of the state to protect citizens, and increase their quality of life. The state, regardless of politics has the capacity to make or break a country.We live in an era where so much priority is given to politics that attention is often taken away from the state and its functions. People believe that every election a new set of politicians will come in and change things. What they don’t realize is that whoever is elected has to take office in the same state, and its pool of conservative values and institutional conflicts. Most Sri Lankan liberals are thrown off by the conservative state. They choose to stay away from it and fight it from outside. This has been done by many generations, and their efforts have often proven to be obsolete. Due to this liberals in Sri Lanka have rightfully earned the label of being anti-establishment idealists. Although their voices are heard on the streets, in coffee-shop rants and panel discussions the lankan liberal is not represented within establishment that is the state. The liberal values are not represented within the state, giving a free hand to the existing conservatism. The needs of the middle and working classes are not represented, there are fewer and fewer regulations and welfare systems protecting these vulnerable social groups, while the wealthy are protected by the state.
Think about food. Food is the most basic need that I can think of, maybe after air and water. We all need food. Politics and food are so closely linked; not just because more often than not, in Sri Lanka, the masses vote from their stomach, and not their heart or mind, but because it’s one of the main duties of public servants and people’s representatives to make sure the country is fed. One would hope that politicians would work by this rule of thumb, keeping in mind that if you make sure you feed your people, and keep their stomachs full there’s a good chance you’ll be re-elected. But Sri Lankan politics is a little more complicated than that. For the longest time, in Sri Lanka, food hasn’t been as affordable as it should be. Nutrition levels have been plummeting. A majority of the population is either unemployed or underemployed. Inequality rises everyday. A large portion of the country’s wealth circulates amongst the richest 10% and the remaining 90% struggle to make ends meet. Like we prefer to do in any crisis, we often choose to victim-blame. We like to blame it on the people; say that our workforce is unskilled, that our people lazy, they choose not to work hard. Not really. It’s not a matter of productivity. The Sri Lankan workforce works hard, very hard. Take the apparel industry of Sri Lanka, for instance, which employs about 15% of the nation’s workforce, amounting for about half of the country’s total exports. Sri Lankan garment factory workers are skilled and quite efficient; infact, Sri Lanka is among the top apparel-producing countries in the world relative to its population. If you walk into few of the many thousands of jam-packed hostels for garment workers in Sri Lanka, and conduct a rough survey about their day; you’ll realize that most of them work 50+ hour work weeks, save little to nothing, spend a large portion of their income on food and yet intake very little nutrition. The average Sri Lankan doesn’t get as much as they give.
People assume that this gap of representation of middle and working class interests can be filled with politicians who represent the interests of these social groups, but that is far from the reality. Even if honest politicians with a genuine interest of changing things are elected, at the end, they are all thrown into the conservative maze of an institutional web that is the state, which blinds them, and build walls around them. Some of them stand their ground remain stuck within those walls, they shout they scream, yet they can never move forward, and most of them give in to the system, and swim in a wave of hypocrisy through their entire political career. Either way nothing much gets done. The middle and working classes go to bed hungry and fall apart when a personal medical crisis hit, and more than anything, they continue to be held back in the same social class, their children don’t go on to live better lives than they did.
In Sri Lanka left-wing politics has been made a joke out of for decades. Most of the politicians who claim/claimed to be leftist have gone on to have extremely hypocritical political careers. The biggest flaw in leftist politicians in Sri Lanka is that they stand stand for one or few leftist values and completely disregard the others. For instance if you take the leading “leftist” parties in Sri Lanka the SLFP and JVP, they have often claimed to be fighting for income equality but have a track record of fighting against racial, and gender equality. Leftist politicians in Sri Lanka have failed to understand that left-wing politics doesn’t merely stand for income equality, it stands for the core value of equality. With the damage that has been done to the perception of leftist politics by the chaotic violence caused by the JVP (claiming to fight for social equality, while chanting a message of racism) and a decade of hypocrisy of the SLFP (by the Rajapaksas standing under the tent of a leftist party and enforcing the most capitalist ideals protecting the wealthy and exploiting the poor), it is going to take a long time to restore the Sri Lankan public’s faith in true leftist values. Today the UNP, with it’s right-wing, capitalist origins, has come forward to be more socially- leftist than either of the major socialist parties in the country. But regardless of the UNP’s progressive influence on the politics of the country, the state still remains to be its conservative self. No dosage of politics could change this conservatism entrenched in our state. It can only be changed institutionally, from within.
So many take the effort to understand the politics of Sri Lanka, but very few do the same with the state. Electoral politics and the politics of the state differ so vastly. So many new young faces come into Sri Lankan electoral politics every election season, with a paternalistic passion for saving the country, but most of them have no experience or education on the institutional politics of the state. This wedges the policy implementation processes and the state remains its rigid, unmovable self. If young politicians were to spend few years serving in the state, gaining experience learning the processes and complexities, this gap between the state and the people’s representatives can be filled to a large extent.
We live in an era when the young lankan liberals need to be injecting themselves into the state sector. Yes, the existentially conservative, all-consuming state. It is not an easy task. It will make you angry, frustrated and make you see new depths of conservatism, misogyny, patriarchy, and bigmanism at play that you didn’t know existed. But it is absolutely necessary. Without truly understanding how the state functions you can never reform it. And without true liberals to challenge the deeply embedded conservatism within it, the state will always remain conservative; leaving working and middle classes and political minorities vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination. If we are to change things we need to join the state, learn the state, challenge the state ,change it from within and in the process redefine what it truly means to be a Lankan liberal. It is the only way we could restore this country’s faith in left-wing politics and the power of the fight for equality. Lankan liberals don’t belong at streets protests, behind computer screens, conferences and coffee shops, they belong at state institutions; exactly where they are not wanted.
I often find myself in rooms, buildings and conversations of the state filled with conservatism, and I do often wonder how I got there, but not for a second do I feel lost. I’m exactly where I belong.