What my school taught me – about Sri Lankan rules of power

  1. Seniority is power
  2. Unaccountable brutality is the true measure of “real” power
  3. Power must be demonstrated often – by sudden acts of physical and mental cruelty
  4. The prospect of random cruelty is an essential ingredient of fear
  5. Fear is the only true form of respect
  6. Servility and obedience are the only possible expressions of respect
  7. Kindness: occasional minor acts of mercy by the powerful to prove their confidence. Too many acts of kindness is proof of dimming strength/power
  8. Equality is an illusion created by the dominating few for the dominated many
  9. Among the powerful there are no peers. Only snarling rivals
  10. The powerful are infallible. Specially when they are wrong
  11. Highlighting the mistakes of the powerful (however minor) is an unforgivable insult
  12. In such matters a powerless one is brutalised to save face, increase fear (and thus power)
  13. Brutal public physical and/or verbal humiliation enforces fear (respect)
  14. Discipline is word for brutality used by the powerful
  15. Disobedience is the failure of lessers to meet contradictory rules of their betters
  16. Rules are to be obeyed or not understood
  17. The individual has no rights. Only a duty to obey his betters
  18. Punishments are for getting caught
  19. Smallest infractions are harshly punished to maintain discipline (fear) and face
  20. Rules create a market for exemptions.
  21. Servility is the currency for buying exemptions
  22. Patronage is developed through servility. It is key to survival and becoming powerful
  23. Tradition is the repetition of meaningless rituals over time
  24. The purpose of tradition is to numb and groom lessers for greater servility
  25. The rituals of tradition creates a language and opportunities to negotiate patronage deals between lessers and their betters
  26. Ideals are for sermons, institutional songs and justifying traditions entombed in silly Pali/Latin mottos
  27. The school song is the ultimate meaningless ritual and symbol of hypocrisy

The list goes on. I’m sure some of you old boys you are already hot under the collar.

Yes yes it is very wrong, long and horrible. But you get the drift. With enough good single malts I’ll bang out a longer list. I prefer not to. Feel free to contribute. I went to an all boys school. Perhaps the girls had it different.

My childhood in Sri Lanka’s free colonial eduction system gave me many gifts. A refined sense of cynicism. An appreciation for the absurd brutality of life. I learned to become invisible in the plain sight of authority. Mastered the masks for appearing bland, conformist, compliant, obedient. A good boy they patted. Not a trouble maker. They never knew of the books I read. Or what I thought.

I could have scrawled something subversive on the walls. Shocked them all and faced the caning in stoic defiance. I was too dim for such bravery. It would not have mattered anyway. I should have departed but didn’t think it was an option. I learned the rules to survive. Yet refused to thrive from that learning. I could have paid a worse price.

This learning saved me from being disappointed by the world. The shock at its natural evil. The inevitable human failures. Yes yes it is all very shocking and appalling they say looking at the news. Then go back to their breakfasts. Turning the page. Change the channel. What do they know of history? It could be worse.

I like to think I have a healthy skepticism of my cynicism. It lets me appreciate the ultimate works of art – acts of kindness, however small. Preserves my emotional energy for positive things. For the bad stuff, a cold and calculating approach. When I read 1984 I pitied Winston Smith for lacking my education.

Sri Lanka is approaching another turning point in its history. I feel oddly calm about the approaching train. The only fear I have is for the personal dangers people face. Specially during times of uncertainty. When the powerful will do any cruelty to preserve themselves. I hope we all make it through this round of history without sorrow.

Be well, do good work and keep in touch 1. May you be happy and free of suffering.


This post was written before the famous What Your Schools Didn’t Teach You word grenade was hurled by Thisuri Wanniarachchi. Certainly before Rothbourne’s response. Another good contribution to the discussion is Shailendree’s “What schools should teach us” .

Thisuri’s post was published in the mainstream media. It triggered quite a storm in the tea cup of the Sri Lankan Internet. All of it got washed away in the next week’s online outburst. At least the “What Your Schools Did/Didn’t Teach Ye” exchange jolted some interesting discussions. My post had nothing to do with any of it.


11 thoughts on “What my school taught me – about Sri Lankan rules of power

    1. I think I’ve been pessimistic of every regime. In a feudal political system like Sri Lanka’s the politicians seem to regard economics as something to extract. Where ever they see something growing, they want their cut. If the margins allow, then its possible to survive through buying protection. The tool of good old socialist policies are quite handy in going after any form of non politician dependent wealth/surplus generation.

      I suspect that a healthy private sector/economy is bad for politics. That would mean a source of jobs outside political patronage. Leading people to expect politicians to have rational policies that actually benefit the common good. Which is beyond the brains of most of these thugs. All they can manage is bread and circuses. If they run out of money just reach for the IMF/World Bank/People Republic China credit card. Should the whole thing fall apart there are plenty of scapegoats.

      The old ways never went away. They just got hidden in a fog of rhetoric. The mechanics of patronage based power structures haven’t changed much in hundreds if not thousands of year.

      Ok so this is rather glum. But I’ve eavesdropped too many tales of woe from uncles in the palace. Of course none of the above is based on a rigorous data driven analysis of anything. So I hide a faint hope that I might be wrong.

      You certainly have a way of provoking too much thinking… 😉


    1. Thanks 🙂 The Voices have been mumbling about it for ages so I had to placate them.

      In the primordial past I took a class on African politics so Ghana’s tragedy is familiar – though that website is one of the best overview write ups about it I have ever read. Thank you for the link.

      It reminded me about similar insanities that have visited in near by countries. Burma in particular comes to mind. Not to mention India. Singapore escaped. Malaysia barely made it. So perhaps there’s hope.

      It’s just that hope never seems to go beyond being hope.

      Change I feel will only come with a grass roots level mindset change. Such a change is poison to the current system of feudal politics. So the politicians irrespective of their tribe will fight such change with all they have.


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