The habit of allowing extremists to shape the national agenda and set the national course must end if Sri Lanka’s future is to be better than her past.
by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“There has been enough death.” ~ Colm Tóbín (House of Names)
Hours after losing the presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa climbed on to a windowsill in his ancestral home and informed a crowd of grieving supporters, “We must remember they got their majority vote from Eelam,”
The Medamulana Declaration reframed the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa by Maithripala Sirisena as a defeat of Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka by Tamils, Muslims, and Christians. In this retelling, the minorities are voters, citizens, yet aliens; any electoral outcome in which they play a decisive role is illegitimate by definition, an evisceration of Sinhala-Buddhist birthright. This false narrative had a single aim – enabling the Rajapaksas to regain power with Sinhala-Buddhist vote only, an outcome considered impossible under the presidential system.
Politics of majoritarian grievance became the only Rajapaksa game. Starting with Mahinda Sulanga, the Rajapaksa-led opposition carried out a systematic campaign to overwhelm Lankan democracy with a Sinhala-Buddhist tsunami. In the process, a religio-racial contract was crafted between the Rajapaksas and the majority community – Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy in return for Rajapaksa power. No more concessions or considerations for minorities; no more appeasing of India or the West. An army of political monks acted as the guarantors – and salesmen – of this bargain.
The gamble worked, with more than a little help from a group of Muslim fanatics who blew themselves and around 270 innocent people on 2019 Easter Sunday. The divisive journey that commenced in Medamulana reached its apogee in the landslide victory and Sinhala-Buddhist presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The Rajapaksas are not ideological. They are consummate users of an ideology. Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism is their sword and shield, their path to power, their rampart against opposition. It is their go-to solution when everything else fails.
The Rajapaksa fidelity to Sinhala-Buddhism is no different from Xi Jinping’s fidelity to socialism. But displays of piety and declamations on morality could be counted on to obfuscate the gaps. Sri Lanka will be a pure Sinhala-Buddhist Raj, led by a family of tough-guys unconcerned about the minorities and unafraid of the West. In that utopia, even the poorest Sinhala-Buddhist would have the satisfaction of knowing that they owned more political power than the richest Tamil, Muslim or Christian. Add a few economic crumbs, and Rajapaksa rule would be safe in Sinhala-Buddhist hands down to young Namal, and perhaps beyond.
Now that utopia lies in tatters. It is hard to feel superior to anyone, when one has to spend hours in a queue for milk powder for a child; or rush from outlet to outlet with an empty gas cylinder. As desperation reaches new highs in tandem with the Rajapaksa-made, pandemic-worsened economic crisis, the regime’s only way out is to displace Sinhala-Buddhist anger towards a suitable enemy.
“Islam has been, in Pakistan and also in other Muslim countries, a refuge for weak and scoundrel regimes and leaders in modern times,” Eqbal Ahmed warned. “Whenever they feel threatened and isolated – and are losing their grip, losing popularity and losing the consensus of the people – they bring out Islam from the closet and use it as a political weapon,” (Confronting Empire). This reading is a perfect fit for today’s Sri Lanka as the Rajapaksas try to cling to their receding popularity.
Soon new and direr threats to the very existence of Sinhala-Buddhists will be uncovered. Soon familiar foes in ever more terrifying guises will loom over the landscape. Rendered infantile by dread and panic, Sinhala-Buddhist voters would cleave to Appachchis Mahinda, Gotabaya, Basil, and Namal, even on empty pockets and emptier stomachs.
The sudden unleashing of Monk Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara, spewing vitriol against Muslims and Catholics, presages that future.
Bats out of extremist hells
Sri Lanka witnessed two anti-Muslim riots in the last decade. Both were preceded by waves of anti-Muslim hysteria, the halal scare before Aluthgama and the wanda pethi madness before Digana. In the resulting atmospheres of fear and hate, accidental incidents could be used to detonate violence and were.
In Aluthgama in 2014, it was a dispute involving a Buddhist monk and three Muslim youths. It would have come to nothing, had the BBS led by Monk Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara not descended on the town. “This country still has a Sinhala police, a Sinhala army. If after today a single Muslim or some other alien lays a hand on a single Sinhalese, let alone a robe, it will be the end of all these creatures,” the monk thundered at a hastily organised rally. An outbreak of violence followed, with rioters, often clad in the white garb of piety, attacking Muslim properties with total impunity.
Digana had similar origins. On February 20th, 2018, subsequent to a minor road accident, four three-wheeler passengers savagely attacked a lorry driver. The attackers were Muslim and the victim was Sinhalese. The attackers were remanded. The victim was hospitalised and died on March 3rd. There was grief at the wanton loss of a life, but no outburst of anger or targeting of Muslims until Monk Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara visited the funeral house on the evening of March 4th. Soon after he left, rioting began.
Irrationality is the rationality of the religious fanatic. The Easter Sunday Massacre could have happened even in the absence of Aluthgama and Digana, for the suicide bombers inhabited a mental landscape that had ceased to exist in real world centuries ago. But Aluthgama and Digana would have made the deadly work of Zahran Hashim easier. All he had to say to a potential recruit was, Look.
Now Monk Gnanasara is back, busy at his usual game of rabble-rousing. This time, he has been given a platform by state-owned Rupavahini. While Mahinda Rajapaksa was talking religious harmony in Bologna and Gotabaya Rajapaksa was preaching reconciliation in New York, in Colombo, Monk Gnanasara was laying the groundwork for another bout of religious violence on state television.
This week, Sri Lanka asked India for a loan of 500million dollars to buy fuel, one more indication of the precarious state of our economy. If rabble-rousing Rajapaksa proxies succeed in rousing the rabble, if there is another outburst of mob violence against this or that minority, it will be tantamount to a killer blow to an already ailing economy. There will be no investors, no buyers for prime property, even at bargain basement prices, and much fewer tourists. The economy will crunch, the rupee will collapse, and hunger and want will stalk the land, unconcerned about the ethnicity or religion of the victims.
The Rajapaksas are trying to superimpose a false racial/religious contradiction on really existing politico-economic ones in order to staunch the haemorrhaging of their Sinhala-Buddhist base. Another wave of anti-minority hysteria is necessary for the family’s political survival. But it will be deadly for Sri Lanka as a country and for all Lankans whatever their ethnicity or religion. What the Rajapaksas must do for their own survival will severely undermine the survival of Sri Lanka as a viable nation-state.
“Politics isn’t about the weird worship of one dude,” American senator Ben Sasse reminded his fellow Republicans in the wake of Trump election shenanigans (CNN – 15.2.2021). In the Rajapaksa universe, politics is nothing but the weird worship of one family. Uduwe Dhammaloka thero (who once claimed that one fine morning he found two two elephant calves dumped outside his temple gates) recently equated the destroying of the Rajapaksas with the destroying of Sri Lanka. In reality, the obverse is true. Sri Lanka can have a future only if a stake is driven through the false narrative at the heart of Rajapaksa ideology. Defeating the Rajapaksas is not enough; their raison d’être must be exposed and vanquished. Or, like Bram Stoker’s Count, they’ll be back for another round of bloodletting.
Rajapaksa Raj or Sri Lanka?
In 2011, the Rajapaksa regime came up with a plan to build a 1,435 acre sports village in Suriyawewa, by filling six tanks! This in a dry zone district, where water-loss would lead to the destruction of not just livelihoods but also lives. And the absolute majority of the victims of such a tank-closure would have been Sinhala-Buddhists and bedrock Rajapaksa supporters. The plan was so fraught with disaster and danger that even Chamal Rajapaksa was compelled to object. The plan came to nothing then, but its very consideration exposes the true anti-people nature of Rajapaksa politics.
A recent incident illustrates the full tragedy and perfidy of Rajapaksa rule. A video circulating on the internet depicts an attempt by a group of officials, politicians and policemen to browbeat a woman into giving her land for a jogging track in Baddegama. The official repeatedly demands that the woman writes away her land to the state. She is promised nothing in return, perhaps some compensation, certainly not the full value. The woman – obviously a Sinhalese – refuses. This is her only property she says; she has no place else to go, no livelihood. She had previously given a part of her land to a road project and is yet to receive even a cent in compensation. She is willing to give the rest of the land for a jogging track but she demands justice, either proper compensation, or another piece of land. She says she wrote to everyone from president downwards pleading her case, to no avail. (News 19 Alerts – ඇවිදින මංතීරුවක් හදන්න ඉඩම් ගන්න හැටි | Facebook).
In 2011, the Rajapaksa regime came up with The Sacred Areas Act. If enacted it would have empowered Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs to acquire any land or building by the simple expedient of issuing a gazette and affixing a label – a Protection Area, a Conservation Area, an Architectural or Historic Area or a Sacred Area. The Act was already on the parliamentary order paper when the Supreme Court, in response to a lawsuit by the CPA, ruled that it needs the approval of all provincial councils since land is a devolved subject under the 13th Amendment. The Eastern and North-Central provinces refused to consent, forcing the government to withdraw the Act. (This ruling led to the subsequent illegal impeachment of CJ Shirani Bandaranayake).
Had the Sacred Areas Act become the law, that woman in Baddegama, and millions like her, would have lost their meagre properties sans any compensation. That is the Rajapaksa reality behind all the flag-waving and sloganeering.
As poverty, unemployment, and injustice increases, more and more Sinhala-Buddhists (including many of the 6.9 million voters) would find themselves at the receiving end of Rajapaksa madness. Turning minorities into bogies is the only way the Rajapaksas would be able to deal with their resulting unpopularity. The danger of a such a strategy working should not be underestimated. The only way out is to consistently expose the true nature of the Rajapaksa project, to make Sinhala-Buddhists understand how majoritarian supremacism had undermined – and will continue to undermine – their own safety and wellbeing.
Sri Lanka’s future cannot be secured unless the military is sent back to the barracks and religion (every religion and their officiating priests) is taken out of politics. If that is not done, militarisation and political religions will continue to poison even a post-Rajapaksa future, with their immoderation, intolerance of dissent and propensity for violent solutions.
The military, for instance, can place itself at the head of a future anti-Rajapaksa movement to secure its own political and financial interests. The very same political monks who helped the Rajapaksas hoodwink almost seven million Lankans, who abused the image and teachings of the Buddha to appease Rajapaksa power hunger, are now trying to find ways to survive and thrive in a post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka. If their efforts succeed, the only appreciable difference between that future and this present might be the absence of the Rajapaksas.
Consigning not just the Rajapaksas but also their ideology to the ash heap of history requires a policy of zero-tolerance policy towards extremism of every sort. The creed of the extremist is immaterial. There are no good extremisms, just as there are no good racists.
Similarly the struggle against discrimination must not be discriminatory. The aim should be a Sri Lanka where all citizens enjoy the same basic rights. Muslim men, for instance, cannot credibly complain about unequal treatment at the hands of the Sinhalese (who justify their discrimination on the basis of Sinhala-Buddhism), even as they demand the perpetuation of unequal treatment of their own women in the name of Islam.
The habit of allowing extremists to shape the national agenda and set the national course must end if Sri Lanka’s future is to be better than her past. Dethroning the Rajapaksas is a necessary condition for that, and just the beginning.