#SavingWilpattu and its lessons for Sri Lanka’s Democratic future

The 19th amendment was movement in the right direction and there is nothing better than to see some kind of normative debate in our legislature over it than mere political bickering. Yet it is not something we can wave around like a trophy claiming the final entrenchment of democracy in the country as some have done. The devolvement of power however small is vital to getting a democracy out of dysfunction. Now it is vital to create real democracy within the country. And it is still very far off. Especially with regard to establishing legitimate and democratic national institutions.

The ongoing #savewilpattu movement in the country has been an instance of the people’s voice affecting government policy making, in a very swift manner. It is highly commendable that the government listened to a mainly social media based voice. But that very movement highlights the problems within our democracy.


Firstly the lack of properly functioning national institutions. The problem about the so called illegal settlements in the forest reserves surrounding Wilpattu has been surfacing in the news for some time, even during the time of the previous government. In theory the Central Environment Authority, The Forest Conservation Department and even the Resettlement Authorities should have already looked into the matter before it reached such a crisis. Further the Central Bank is supposed to monitor the flow of the apparent millions of foreign funds utilized for the building of the settlement. Instead it seems they have all been in a deep slumber. These national institutions require proper governance and immediate depoliticization. It is no secret that files can routinely go missing at some of our esteemed national institutions and investigations into matters can disappear overnight. We cannot point fingers at a person or a few people for the folly at hand. It is structural problem. The institutions must become independent and a stringent qualified bureaucracy of officials must be able to do their job. The independent commissions established under 19A are a good start. But firstly these environmental institutions must be aptly funded.

Secondly the disparity between the popular democratic voice and the silent majority. The victory of President Sirisena on January 8th has been touted as one led by social media activism. It has given a new deepened voice to what is being discussed in Facebook about issues in Sri Lanka. It is a very positive phenomenon. The free public WiFi project has been legitimized on the fact that it would deepen democracy by reducing the cost of access to the social space and information provisions of social media. However the fact remains that while we in the urban centers can easily voice our opinions and even impact government policy, there is still a silent majority. The voice of the 1.5 billion social media users worldwide has come at the expense of the suppression of the voices of the 5.5 billion others. The vulnerable are ever more voiceless.

In Sri Lanka a majority outside urban centers are engaged in agriculture. It is their lifeline. The land made available for agriculture are no longer sufficient for an increasing population. They haven’t been given a chance to tell they would like new land to live upon. Because they have no access to this new pillar of democracy. This is especially true for the fastest growing Muslim community in the North and East. They also require agricultural land for a livelihood. Existing plots cannot be simply divided among the children since they would be unproductive then. It is pointless blaming them for a high birth rate. There are certain policy actions that should have been taken to reduce the environmental impact of such a dynamic demography. Sri Lanka’s urban density can be increased through subsidizing of apartment construction for the poor – not the luxury ones. Further government land that is underutilized in the North and East must be surveyed and zoned for  new settlements and land distributed by an independent national institution. This way the involvement of politicians in agricultural resettlements can be avoided. Foreign investments from Qatar could have been directed through this independent authority.

Thirdly the issue is increasing identity politics. Communal politics is destroying the very fabric of the country. Action been taken on the Wilpattu issue is being called islamaphobia by some. Meanwhile some claim that action not being taken in a timely manner against the illegal activity is evidence of ‘Muslim’ domination. Some might not even like me talking about this. But this is the ongoing social media debate that the traditional Colombo based social media users are not seeing. Facebook has become the new battleground for sectarian divisions within the country. Urban users of FB and twitter are mostly oblivious to these debates since we have international content we have liked and our secularism is observed in shared content. The truth is these issues arise not because of some kind of communal hegemony but due to lack of proper national institutions to solve problems faced by communities. They end must take matters into their own hands. Politicians are simply using these divisions to stay in power. To get voted in yet again despite their apparent ills. What better way to secure relection than getting new homes for 1500 families? Also new civil society movements are using sectarian/communal identities to gain exponential rises to popularity. Some ‘right wing’ religious organizations were unheard of few years ago but now are daily features of news bulletins. Media has a responsibility of self censorship to prevent such organizations from gaining high media attention.

Further there is the new identity politics of toiyo (Yahapalana supporters) and baiyo (MR supporters). Every government policy is being seen increasingly from one of these two lenses. Its either very good to the toiyo or very bad to the baiyo. It is a typical black and white identification. Nothing is simply black or white. Not even the current government whether you are a toiya or baiya. Instead people must prevent themselves from allowing their political affiliations from causing prejudice on the opinions and policies of the government or opposition. Everything must be weighed upon a normative and content basis. Only the identity of being Sri Lankan should be utilized.

In conclusion, the author would simply sigh. Actually enacting these reforms seem Herculean. The country is divided. Political legitimacy of the legislature is absent. Elections are required to reacquire it. Building those independent institutions will take years. Civil society must be constructed but not one that is a mere voice recording of western values and concepts. A truly national civil society is required which has learned the goodness of Western ideologies in mind but is essentially Sri Lankan at heart. It is Kadiragramars we need to lead such a national movement. Leaders who will protect what is Sri Lankan despite any number of wads of greenback boogies or opportunities of absolute power.

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