Changing Sri Lanka: What Will You Do?

The original version of the post below was written after the January 8, 2015 Sri Lankan Presidential Elections. On August 17, 2015, Sri Lankans went to the polls to elect Members of Parliament. This update was written in response to the outcome of these elections.

The citizens of Sri Lanka have now elected both a new President and a new Government with a mandate to bring reform and change to Sri Lanka. While there is much to be hopeful for in the months and years ahead, it is not clear whether our elected representatives have the vision, commitment or capacity to honour the mandate they have received and to fulfil the promises they have made. Deep, wide-ranging and lasting transformations will be needed before this country is a just and peaceful place with opportunities for all, and this complex process will take considerably longer than a single Presidential or Parliamentary term. As legislative processes for reform are frustrated or acts of governance fall short of the ideals of ‘yahapalanaya’, it will be tempting to question the ability of Sri Lanka to achieve real change and seek refuge in cynicism or disengagement. However, I would argue that our elected representatives and political leaders — despite all the responsibility and authority that they have been entrusted with — are not the only people who have the power to bring about meaningful change in this country. I believe that all of us truly have the capacity to effect real change in Sri Lanka, if we choose to do so.

No (new) Sri Lanka Without Us

My confidence in this view lies in the fact that there is no Sri Lanka that can exist independently of the actions of its 20 million people. When the millions of us wake up each morning and go about our day, the choices that each of us makes about what we do during that day helps to either maintain yesterday’s realities, or change them for better (or worse). Just imagine: without the actions of these 20 million individuals each day, there can be no bribery, no charity, no childcare, no violence, no nepotism, no economic productivity, no healthcare, no discrimination, no art, no traffic accidents, no survival of traditions, no pollution, no productive agriculture, no patronage politics, no censorship, and no resistance. There is truly no ‘reality’ of Sri Lanka at all that is independent of the choices that need to be made by every single of us each day.

Your actions matter whether you are a judge, a municipal worker, a family caregiver, a school student, a surgeon, a clerk, a policeman, a president, a local government councillor, a nurse, a teacher, a neighbour, a shop assistant or any of thousands of different (and important) roles that are played by citizens of this country each day. At the very least, we each have an impact on what happens in our homes, in our own neighbourhoods and in each of our workplaces. Sri Lanka’s day-to-day reality is made up of a mosaic of all of these daily actions, and by the connections that take place between them. The effects of the daily choices each of us makes may be limited or far-reaching, but all of these will contribute to creating the daily reality in our own piece of the mosaic (and set a precedent for what can happen in the future). If this country is to be truly transformed, this will require the action of citizens from all walks of life — not just those occupying high office.

Of course the actions of individuals are shaped or constrained by structural factors that seem dauntingly inflexible — like our current systems of laws, economic inequalities, institutional rules, etc. However, if one were to look closely, it’s clear that these structural constraints were established by (and therefore can be changed by) the actions of human beings. Amongst us are also those who have the ability to protest, critique, resist and indeed amend or redress these structural constraints — individually and collectively. This is where our elected law-makers and those who advise them or hold them to account have a vital role to play.

What Can I Do?

Each of us must ask ourselves what we can do today (and indeed everyday) to contribute to changing our part of Sri Lanka for the better. We might not be sure what the precise benefits of our actions alone will be — since our actions often need to coincide with the actions of others to bring about lasting change, but we should seriously consider the cost of our inaction. What if it is our failure to do our own small part for change that helps maintain a status quo that will harm the lives of others (including perhaps eventually also those we care about)?

Inspired by the groundswell of optimism and renewed engagement about the future of this country since the 8th Jan 2015 elections, I compiled a list of actions I hoped to personally undertake in the hope of contributing to change in Sri Lanka. Some of these actions related to how I wish to conduct myself in wider society and others to how I wanted to behave in my private life. Some actions were about changing the way that I think, and others were very practical. I know that most of the actions I have committed to are rather ordinary everyday things and impact only my own life and those of a few people whom I interact with.

However, I do believe that even if only a fraction of the 20 million people on this island made and acted on their own lists of (20, 10, or even 5) things they could actively do in their private and working lives to support changes in their own ‘reality’ of Sri Lanka, this could have a tangible effect on transforming the larger mosaic of this country.

For what it’s worth, here is a list of 20 things I am currently trying to do to change Sri Lanka (and myself). Your own list might look very different.

  1. Never pay a bribe to a Traffic Police Officer, a clerk, a Grama Niladhari or any other public official http://www.ciaboc.gov.lk/web/images/pdf/publications/Bribery_Act_english.pdf
  2. Find a local charity or good cause that improves the lives of others to donate my time or money to http://www.charity-charities.org/SriLanka-charities/SriLanka.html & http://www.vsrilanka.lk/new_site/
  3. Make choices that ensure that my children grow up with playmates/friends of diverse faiths, social backgrounds and ethnicities
  4. Pay people who work for me a decent wage under fair working conditions, especially those who undertake roles with poor legal protections (ie. labourers, domestic workers, etc) http://www.salary.lk/home/labour-law/domestic-work-in-sri-lanka
  5. Resist becoming cynical or ‘accepting’ that corruption is the norm in Sri Lanka: incl abuse of discretion, nepotism, favoritism, clientelism, bribery, extortion, etc. http://www.tisrilanka.org/
  6. Tell my children stories about real life people who have shown great moral courage, and read books or watch movies about them together http://moralheroes.org/
  7. Drive & ride safely and avoid taking risks that might result in harm http://www.transport.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=279&Itemid=171&lang=en & https://collidecolumn.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/when-worlds-collide-115-fast-tracking-road-safety-in-sri-lanka/
  8. Be more public about my views as a private citizen https://twitter.com/ittappalaga
  9. Remember that Sri Lanka has 20 million inhabitants; don’t make generalizations about any subset of them without data http://www.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=301&Itemid=423&lang=en
  10. Share food and meals with more people (ie. neighbours, co-workers, acquaintances, etc) http://www.shareable.net/blog/peer-to-peer-dining-builds-community-one-meal-at-a-time
  11. Be better informed about the activities and track records of politicians and parties that are active in my local government and parliamentary electorate http://www.manthri.lk/
  12. Try to contribute more to public policy debates and development in Sri Lanka through my professional role https://medium.com/p/seven-key-actions-for-mental-health-psychosocial-support-after-disasters-in-sri-lanka-5a3b8d2dd681
  13. Ensure that I vote in every election where I am eligible to do so http://www.gic.gov.lk/gic/index.php?option=com_info&id=485&task=info&lang=en
  14. Find ways that I can do more pro-bono work through my workplace #100things #icanChangeSL http://goodpracticegroup.org/financing
  15. Buy from small local producers & retailers whenever possible. Support local industries. http://blogs.worldwatch.org/an-interview-with-ela-r-bhatt-founder-of-the-self-employed-womens-association-in-india/ …
  16. Join or form a group through which citizens or professionals can contribute to local (or national) debates about services and governance. http://web.mit.edu/cpsproject/strategy_tools.html
  17. Keep track of promises made in election manifestos and whether these are fulfilled http://www.priu.gov.lk/presidential_manifestos/Manifesto-EN.pdf & https://www.colombotelegraph.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Election-held-LAA.xls-.pdf
  18. Find meaningful ways to support Families of the Missing in their search for their loved ones and the truth https://medium.com/@ittappalaga/walking-together-b27539d9ab0b
  19. Ask for help or advice when I need it | Offer free support and advice when I can http://saviman.org/index.html
  20. Try to be more courageous about doing the right thing.

An earlier version of this post was previously published on the Change Sri Lanka campaign blog.

Ananda Galappatti is a father of three. This post reflects his conviction that all citizens of Sri Lanka have a role to play in shaping its future — whether in their private, professional or public lives. He supported the changesrilanka.org campaign in his personal capacity, and tweets via www.twitter.com/ittappalaga.