Colombo Telegraph

1815 And 2015

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“One must always say what one sees. But especially – and this is the hard part – one must always see what one sees.” – Charles Péguy[i]

Paranoids live in their own world, uncluttered by facts and unrestrained by reality.

In the paranoid’s world nothing is impossible. Robert H Welch Jr, retired-candy manufacturer-turned-politician, believed that John Foster Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower were dedicated communist agents[ii]. His psycho-ideological heirs accuse President Obama of being a closet-Muslim and the Affordable Health Care Act of enabling the mass-euthanizing of the aged.

In Sri Lanka diehard Rajapaksa-supporters see 2015 as 1815. In their paranoid eyes, what happened on January 8th was not a democratic defeat but an evil conspiracy masterminded by foreigners and implemented by locals. In 1815 Lanka lost its independence; this lost independence was really regained not in 1948 or even in 1972 but in 2009, with the defeat of the LTTE. Just five years later, another bunch of unpatriotic Lankans, following in the treacherous footsteps of their 1815 forefathers, betrayed the country again and turned it into a de facto colony.

Forget reality. Forget that under Rajapaksa rule, the second and third most powerful people were American-citizens. Forget how desperately eager Mahinda Rajapaksa was to host the Commonwealth, that politically insignificant emblem of a dead-and-gone British empire. Forget how close we came to becoming a neo-colony of the emerging imperial power, China (Chinese officials reportedly prevented the flying to the Lankan flag in the Colombo South Port on Independence Day[iii]).

‘We want a king, not a puppet,’ is a popular slogan on placards at the ‘Bring back Mahinda’ rallies. The Mahinda-faithful attending these political spectacles rail against the ‘2015 Conspiracy’, seethe with anger at ‘national enemies’ and yearn for the return of the rightful king. They may turn up in hired buses, but they come not for money but out of commitment. Commitment is value-neutral and the Mahinda-faithful are filled with the sort of ‘passionate intensity’ which is lacking in their opponents.

Last week, a group of Mahinda-faithful invaded the Dalada Maligawa, removed the national flag and tried to replace it with what they called the ‘Sinhale Flag’[iv]. This Kandy ‘protest’ is reportedly the first in a series of events being planned by the Mahinda-camp to commemorate the 200th anniversary of 1815. The next step is a politically-charged religious commemoration in Katharagama, which Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to attend.

The aim of all these activities is to draw a comparison between the Kandyan Convention of 1815 and the Presidential Election of 2015. The plan is to befuddle Sinhala minds with minority phobia, create a wave of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism and to ride that wave back to power.

Racism as Patriotism

There is something far more dangerous than forgetting the past; that is remembering the past selectively. Such selective remembrance is at the root of the ‘Bring Back Mahinda’ project. The pre-Colonial past the Mahinda-faithful want to restore never really existed. The nation-state they worship is a made-in-Europe construct imported by the British imperialists they claim to hate (Just as quite a large chunk of ethics and morality they venerate is Victorian in origin!).

Those Mahinda-faithful who clamour for the restoration of the ‘Sinhale flag’ either do not know or deliberately forget that that flag belonged not to a unitary Sri Lanka but to a truncated city-state.

Lanka was a geographic island divided into several small kingdoms when the first Europeans reached here. And the last rulers of independent ‘Lanka’ were not Sinhalese but Tamil-speaking Nayaks of South Indian origin. One of the greatest kings of Kandy, Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe (who restored Higher Ordination in Lanka), was the second member of this Nayak dynasty.

A similar sleight-in-hand is evident in the reading of the historical relationship between ancient Lanka and South India. It is being depicted as a straightforwardly and permanently inimical one, even though in reality it was a complex process containing both adversarial and cooperative aspects. Armies did come from South India to invade and pillage. But armies also came as mercenaries, hired by this or that king of this or that city-state. Since Buddhism flourished in Southern India for centuries, that religious-commonality functioned as another positive link. South India provided non-theistic Buddhism with many an indispensable god. And many an ancient Lankan king looked to South India when forming marriage plans.

When the last Sinhala king of Kandy died without a legitimate heir, his brother-in-law, a scion of South India’s Nayak dynasty, was invited to mount the throne. The dead king had two sons from ‘lesser queens’ but these sons, though Sinhalese, were not considered legitimate enough or royal enough to wear the crown. The first Nayak king, Sri Vijaya Rajasinghe was a Hindu; even so his choice was endorsed by monks, aristocrats and people. In those times before the nation-state, the most important criterion for kingship was neither race nor even religion but royal lineage.

The multifaceted relationship between South India and Lanka was interpreted and depicted as a uniformly antagonistic one by Anagarika Dharmapala and his fellow religious-nationalists. Long before Samuel Huntington, they came up with a ‘clash of civilisations’ theory. They claimed that Lanka, the only haven of the true-faith, and Sinhala-Buddhists, its sole chosen people, are perennially threatened by the far more powerful Christian/Catholic, Islamic and Hindu worlds – and their local agents, the minorities. In their eyes the real struggle was not against British colonialists but against the minorities. Their main criticism of the British was not political but religio-cultural. Their rather lukewarm political-opposition to the British stemmed not from anti-imperialism but from their belief that the British backed the minorities.

From this crucible emerged a patriotism which considers Sinhala-Buddhists as sole owners of the country and all minorities as guests, without inalienable rights. According to this patriotism minorities, as born-aliens, have no true love for Lanka; they live and thrive here, but their hearts are in Tamilnadu or Middle East or Europe. This patriotism, misinformed by a fabricated history and based on a longing for a past which never really existed, has made a deadly contribution to modern Lanka’s inability to maintain civil peace. After all, if minorities are born-aliens, if they are inherently incapable of considering Sri Lanka as their real motherland, if they are at best creatures of divided loyalties, then they cannot be trusted with anything, not power, not land, not even the vote. And any concession to them, however minute, endangers national security. The only way to manage them is to keep them quiescent through political and military power. Peace flows through the barrel of a gun held by a Sinhala soldier under the command of true Sinhala-Buddhist leader (such as Mahinda Rajapaksa).

This was the basis on which every attempt to resolve the language issue was opposed, long before the LTTE was born, when Vellupillai Pirapaharan was but an adolescent, playing truant from school and killing birds with his catapult. This is the basis on which devolution was, is and will be opposed. And this is the basis on which the resounding victory of Maithripala Sirisena is being derided as illegitimate – to be the ‘real’ president of Lanka, what is necessary is not the support of a majority of Lankans but the support of a majority of Sinhalese. This is universal franchise with an ethnic bias, where a Sinhala vote is worth more than a Tamil or a Muslim vote.

President Ranasinghe Premadasa once said, “We stand for a Sri Lanka in which every ethnic group and every religious denomination are equal partners with one another. We are determined to break away from the past and cut through years of prejudice and suspicion. We are ready to make the necessary accommodation and compromise. There is no other road towards a united Sri Lanka. Foreign forces came to the North and the East because of our disunity.”[v] That was the path we should have travelled post-war, and did not. Only the timely defeat of the Rajapaksas prevented the total alienation of every single ethnic and religious minority.

Mahinda Chinthanaya is the Real Danger

Any universe of an ethnic/religious/caste/caste/gender supremacist is an unequal and hierarchical one by definition. There is a superior group and subordinate group/s. It is not the duty of the superior group to win the trust and confidence of the subordinate groups. It is the unfailing duty and unavoidable responsibility of the subordinate groups to win and retain the goodwill of the superior group by willing and constant subjugation.

This was the Rajapaksa notion of nation-building.

So under Rajapaksa rule, even non-political commemoration of the Tamil war-dead became an act of anti-patriotism. Asking for justice for civilian Tamils killed in the war became anti-patriotism. Ordinary human feelings, such as sympathy, kindness and pity and universal human yearnings such as freedom and justice were criminalised. Merciless triumphalism triumphed over compassion, justice and good sense.

The Rajapaksas dehumanised their victims, and in doing so, they dehumanised themselves, made reconciliation impossible and created conditions for new conflicts.

It did not stop with Tamils. Within three years of defeating the LTTE it began to assault Muslims. And in between Christians of all sects were targeted. Sinhala opponents of the regime too were subjected to the same treatment, the persecution of the war-winning army commander and his entire family (including the aged grandmother of his son-in-law) being the best case in point.

Post-January 8th, there is a chance to rectify at least some of the past errors, to consciously and seriously undertake the onerous task of building a Lankan nation. For the first time after a long time, the more moderate elements on all sides of the ethno-religious divide are in control. The LTTE is no more; the Southern extremists have been electorally defeated and politically marginalised.

It is perhaps a sign of these (hopefully more sensible) times that neither President Sirisena nor Premier Wickremesinghe overreacted to the puerile genocide resolution of the Northern provincial council. The Southern polity and society followed suit, proving, yet again, that though Sinhala masses are not immune to extremism, extremism turns combustive only when political leaders/parties try to use it as a weapon of power. Had the government reacted the old way, a new and unnecessary political crisis with international ramifications would have come into being. Thanks to the government’s measured response, the resolution has become a dead letter, a matter of importance only to Tiger-loyalists and Rajapaksa-loyalists.

In another hopeful sign, not only was President Sirisena warmly welcomed when he visited the North and the East; the protests against his British visit by hardline elements in the Tamil Diaspora were sparsely attended. TNA parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran in a video message spoke against the planned protests, an act of courage which clearly bore fruit. And instead of visibly fuming or ducking, President Sirisena waved cheerfully at the protestors, in a welcome display of civility and tolerance.

Extremism begets extremism. Adolf Hitler inadvertently helped the cause of Zionism. Without the Holocaust, there may not have been a state of Israel, certainly not in its current form. Without the invasion of Iraq, there would not have been an ISIS. Aggressive nationalism on the part of the majority community cannot but give rise to a reactive and even more aggressive nationalism on the part of the minorities. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala and Tamil extremisms often drew strength and sustenance from each other.

Perhaps now we can replace this vicious cycle with a virtuous one, with moderates of all communities helping, strengthening and sustaining each other. That is the only path to a political solution to the ethnic problem, the only way to a consensual peace, the only road to a Lankan identity. That is also a necessary bulwark against the ragingly disruptive ambitions of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ragtag band of loyalists.

There are currently three contenders to the non-existent French throne, a Bourbon, an d’Orléans and a Bonaparte. There are Pretenders galore to non-existent thrones everywhere in the world. The Mahinda-faithful, however committed, are too small numerically to mount a successful electoral challenge. Reignited racism can cause much damage, but if the major parties take a stand against it, it would be containable.

The real danger is something else. It is the new government (and the post-Mahinda SLFP) succumbing to Mahinda Chinthanaya in word and deed. Mahinda Chinthanaya is not just the polar opposite of Good Governance. More importantly it is the obverse of intelligent governance, sensible governance and decent governance. It is kleptocracy and impunity, familial politics and familial economics, racism and intolerance, repression, arrogance and ignorance.

In its far from correct handling of the Arjuna Mahendran controversy, the new government is sailing far too close to the noxious winds of Mahinda Chinthanaya. In its inability to translate some of the budgetary measures into real relief for real people, it is making itself vulnerable to the plague bacillus of Mahinda Chinthanaya.

The political and moral distance between the new government and Mahinda Rajapaksa must not be narrowed even by an inch. The greater danger is neither Mahinda Rajapaksa nor Mahinda-faithful, but Mahinda Chinthanaya.


[i] Quoted in http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/mar/05/france-on-fire/?insrc=hpss

[ii] http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/41155040?sid=21106110583673&uid=2&uid=4

[iii] http://lankaherald.com/2015/02/28/sri-lankan-flag-not-allowed-in-the-colombo-south-port/

[iv] http://www.gossiplankanews.com/2015/03/lion-mark-only-national-flag-issue.html#more

http://www.sinhala.adaderana.lk/news/29996/probe-launched-after-national-flag-taken-down-at-dalada-maligawa

[v] Address to Parliament – 19.4.1991

Back to Home page