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Young men practice cricket strokes at the Royal College Indoor Nets in Colombo. (Photo by Rajpal Abeynayake)
Tea Leaves

Sri Lanka weighs colonial ballast

Is it better to preserve and build on historical legacy or destroy it?

RAJPAL ABEYNAYAKE | Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan

When Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe invited Britain's Prince Edward to be guest of honor at the island state's 70th Independence Day celebrations this year, Sri Lankans took it in their stride. This was a form of progress for the premier, who was shouted down when he suggested during a previous term in office that Sri Lanka should celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Portuguese invasion with a state-sponsored tamasha, or grand celebration. 

Prince Edward's invitation, seen as an attempt to charm Sri Lanka's former colonial ruler, drew some sharp reactions. An internet posting by a Sri Lankan scholar at Dublin City University went viral after she claimed that Sri Lanka would benefit more from "proactively shedding its colonial past" than from the presence in Colombo of the ninth in line to succeed Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

But shedding the Englishman's skin is easier said than done in Sri Lanka, with the nation seemingly undecided whether it wants to ditch the colonial legacy or own it.

Previous Sri Lankan governments systematically demolished visible signs of Britain's imperial presence, which ended in 1948, by taking down street names such as Gregory's Road, Dickman's Road and Bullers Road. But local people, particularly businessmen, now seem to be heading in the opposite direction -- bestowing high-rise apartment blocks and luxury hotels in Colombo with English names such as Lyndon Hills, Havelock Residencies and Kingsbury.

While many Sri Lankans seem to aspire to being more British than the British, others scoff at what they perceive to be the post-colonial slavishness of a privileged class of so-called "pukka sahibs" -- an anglicized local elite who critics accuse of stifling local talent and institutions. Sri Lankans seen to be praising the West are often regarded as cheerleaders for a more "modern" society. Others merely blame the current dysfunction on the colonial legacy and its allegedly clueless lackey class.

Such critics sometimes note that Sri Lanka lacks independent personalities such as Shashi Tharoor, an Indian parliamentarian whose anti-colonial rhetoric has inspired many imitators. But some locals laugh at such comparisons, arguing that the country, known during the colonial period as Ceylon, had no independence movement along the lines of India's.

Tourists flock to Independence Square, the monument for freedom from the yoke of British colonialism. (Photo by Rajpal Abeynayake)

When the British held sway in Sri Lanka, it took foreign visitors to spur the local community into any kind of resistance. For example, the top tier schools Mahinda College and Ananda College, which now cater to Sri Lanka's Sinhalese-speaking elite, were established by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, two of the founders of America's Theosophical Society, which promoted a form of spiritualism.

The locals were lazy rebels at best. One prominent visitor, the Buddhist monk S. Mahinda from Sikkim (then independent, now part of India) wrote inspirational verses in Sinhalese, but also poked fun at the locals for being "willingly oppressed."

Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of independent Singapore and architect of his country's economic transformation, provides inspiration for how Sri Lanka might resolve conflicting local interpretations of its colonial history. Lee, who worked closely with the British in the 1950s ahead of Singapore's decolonization, once remarked -- probably with Sri Lanka in mind -- that his country had "no xenophobic hangover from colonialism." He meant that Singapore had concentrated on improving and exploiting the colonial legacy, rather than excoriating it.

In sharp contrast, successive governments in Sri Lanka tried to dismantle the legacy as fast as possible, often with disastrous results. Successful tea estates established by the British, which were taken over by post-independence governments, notoriously underperformed. The judiciary, a Dutch and British legacy, is still plagued by delays.

One of the few British bequests the country has improved on is cricket. Locals never tire of mentioning their spectacularly superior performance compared with "those who invented the game," including two victories in cricket World Cups in recent years.

Against this background it is unsurprising that so many buildings bear anglicized names, often sounding comic in the local setting, while politicians such as Wickremesinghe are simultaneously accused of hankering after colonial symbols.

Sri Lankans should decide one way or the other. Perhaps colonial-era institutions can be made to work for them as they have for Singapore. If not, they may as well stop being nostalgic about the long-departed European ruler and evolve robust institutions of their own. After all, when not arguing about the present, they're widely given to boasting about their "unique" 2,000-year history.

Rajpal Abeynayake is a writer and lawyer in Colombo

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