12 September 2011

Development: api wenuwen api or un wenuwen api?

It was about us. It was for us. By us.  That was the difference, one could argue, with the offensive against the LTTE launched by the Rajapaksa administration and the other ‘engagements’ with that terrorist outfit that previous regimes had flirted with to no avail. 
For years our thinking, conceptualizing and doing were principally informed by external forces whose agendas did not necessarily coincide with our interests.  Even in the past three years, it was not the case that there were no attempts by outside forces to dictate to us the ‘how’ and ‘why’ and ‘when’ of executing a military offensive against the LTTE. We were never an island, politically or economically, and as such there was some ‘inevitability’ to all this.  What was lacking was that we had not been a ‘nation’ culturally, an ‘island’ in terms of resolve, determination, courage and self-belief. 
People may point to superior strategy, a more effective assemblage of weaponry, better coordination, astute leadership, better training, fortuitous re-configuration of the global balance of power, enlightened efforts at the diplomatic front, a more informed and therefore ‘readied’ people and enemy-error as having made the difference, but there is an underlying thread that gave signature to this overall tapestry.  It is all captured in the slogan that defined the last phase of the war: api wenuwen api (we, for us). 
Mr. Good-Hearted Foreign Expert lectured down to us.  We were told it cannot be done. We were told to sue for peace.  We were told the economy would collapse. We were told that in the interest of peace, dialogue was necessary and for dialogue to take place parity of status needed to be conceded.  That’s the kind of logic that peace-NGOs were vomiting left right and centre for years.  The objective was not peace, we now know; it was about granting much-needed legitimacy to the LTTE as a necessary first step towards secession-facilitating ‘resolution’ by way of devolution along federal lines.  The end of the war forced them to re-assess reality and adjust slogan appropriately, but this was the kind of rubbish that was dished out in the name of enlightened literature on that politically pernicious subject called ‘conflict resolution’. 
Our leaders listened.  Chandrika Kumaratunga listened. She danced to that tune.  Ranil Wickremesinghe listened. He danced too. They were not alone.  Academics, peace-advocates (so-called), journalists and others also came to this party and danced the un-wenuwen-api dance quite happily.  It took us nowhere.  It weakened the security forces, strengthened the enemy, silenced those who had the arguments to refute the Eelamist claims and in these and other ways forced upon the people defeatism, helplessness and a readiness to be played with any which way the relevant players wanted them to be played.  Api wenuwen api sorted all that out. Today, a year later, we are free of the terrorist menace. 
Today, a year after the war ended, are we a happy, developed, prosperous and contented nation?  No.  We have lots of problems on our hands.  I have in previous articles over the past 7-8 years warned that the LTTE and the terrorist threat that it represents as well as Eelamism are not the only problems we have.  I warned that ridding this beautiful island of the ugly entity called the LTTE would at best only clear the ground for a re-thinking of who we are, where we have come from, who our ancestors are so that we can return with humility and compassion to one another and look to the future with hope and fresh determination. 
There is a sense in the country that we are somehow in control of our fate as a nation.  Even in the most difficult times, the Government did not do what most governments would have done at the drop of a hat, privatize state institutions.  The Government dug its heels, withstood all pressures and vilifications, and got the job done.  It is natural to feel a surge of national confidence.
This is, to my mind, a crucial time, a period when euphoria can blind us, appearances can deceive and where the defeat of a formidable foe that was thought to be invincible can lull us into believing that the hard work is all done. No. It’s just begun.  This is the time to keep eyes open, to be alert, to pinch oneself and say again and again ‘appearances fooled you again and again; don’t let them lead you astray’. 
An api wenuwen api nation is not necessarily an inward-looking, frog-in-the-well, protectionist political entity or island.  It is rather a nation that is acutely aware of itself, a people who know who they are and what they want, and negotiates with the ‘outside’ with full understanding of and intend to further that which is called self-interest.
The end of the war gave us that line and I worry that we are using it more as slogan and not operative principle or philosophical foundation for each and every engagement.  I am thinking of ‘development’ in particular.
‘Development’ is the thrust of Mahinda Chinthana – Idiri Dekma, the manifesto of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the United People’s Freedom Alliance.  As I pointed out earlier, we are not exactly an island and are not exactly situated in a happy place in the overall political economic structure of the ‘family’ of nations.  We are stronger than we were and our resource base has improved thanks to the extra square kilometers of sea and related resources we have acquired recently.  We are still poor.  Comparatively. 
We listened to ourselves and triumphed over terrorism.  Are we ‘listening to ourselves’ when it comes to development; that ongoing sangraamaya no less crucial than the war against terrorism?  It is not enough for locals to be doing things.  We need to ask ourselves whose agenda we are working according to.   Who drew up the blueprint?  The modalities?  Who was consulted and more importantly who was not?  How much of the plan is infused with api and how much of it with un (them)?  How much of traditional knowledge?  How much of ‘needs’ targeted based not on what we need but what others want us to need? 
The architects of this development drive seem to be fascinated with infrastructure.  Nothing wrong in that.  But we must keep in mind that the British didn’t give us roads; our ancestors paid for them, in money or kind, and that they were used to take away wealth (labour value and resources) from wherever those roads led to.  How much of this ‘development’ is for communities and households and how much for politicians, officials, contractors and that easy hiding place for value, the treasury? 
There is a difference between the appearance of apa doing things for api and things being done by us for ourselves.  The last phase of the war proved to us that we are an apa wenuwen api nation, that the line is consistent with the brand that is Sri Lanka, that it is a core attribute of who we are.  If it worked in the war, there is no reason why it should not be tried in development.  I am not convinced that the powers that be are convinced.  Yet. 
Courtesy: Sunday Island - 23 May, 2010