By Ameer Ali –
Sri Lanka inherited the system of parliamentary democracy from the British, one of the positive legacies of their colonial rule. Even though the original Westminster model was given up, first in favour of a republican constitution in 1972 and that again in favour of an executive presidential republic in 1977, political party system and the principle of electing peoples’ representatives to legislature have basically remained intact with periodical gerrymandering. In societies like Sri Lanka, where communities are not ethnically, linguistically, culturally and religiously homogenous, and where the voting strength is not balanced among them, parliamentary elections often provide opportunities for minority communities to form conditional coalitions with winning parties in order to maximise advantages deemed beneficial to minority constituents. The Indian community in Malaysia and Muslims in Sri Lanka in particular, are clear demonstrations of such coalitions.
This strategy of bargaining and compromising with minorities is not favoured however by certain sections within majority communities, who are committed to secure absolute control over practically every sector of the country, be it political, economic, cultural and even religious. From the late 20th century and in several Muslim majority countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Algeria and Egypt, radical Islamists have openly expressed their condemnation of democracy and called it a Western evil introduced to secularise politics and to keep Muslim nations permanently under Western subjugation. These Islamists are also afraid that democracy allows room for other religious minorities to influence and dilute government policies to make them advantageous to non-Muslim interests. Ironically, after experiencing several setbacks these Islamist radicals themselves now realise that they cannot capture power except through the ballot box based on the democratic principle of one person one vote. Yet, there is a general fear among political scientists and observers that if these Islamists ever capture power through the ballot that would be the final fall of the curtain on democratic elections under Islamist regimes.
In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala Buddhist supremacists, who intend to Buddhisize the country in all aspects and weaken the political bargaining power of minorities seem to entertain a similar fear about parliamentary democracy. Over the last few decades they have become particularly dismayed and alarmed at what they consider as disproportionate influence that Muslim parliamentarians in particular had enjoyed in almost every government that came to power since 1947. Even though the first executive president, JR Jeyewardene, could not be called a typical Sinhala Buddhist supremacist he too disliked the role of minorities in the parliament including the leftists, who on several occasions were able to defeat or amend legislations, which otherwise would have proved detrimental to the interests of minorities. This was one of the reasons why he brought his new all-powerful presidential constitution with provisions for proportional representation.
Even that mechanism has not yielded the expected outcome for the Buddhist-supremacists. For instance, the coalition between SLMC and SLFP and the mega-ministry that M. H. M. Ashraff held in the Chandrika government became a particular eyesore to this group. Had it not for the menacing LTTE terrorism, anti-Muslim agitation would have started long ago. Again, in the 2015 presidential elections it was virtually the unanimous support of the two minorities, Tamils and Muslims that defeated a pro-Buddhist-supremacist, Mahinda Rajapakse, in 2015, and finally, it is the crucial support of the representatives from minority communities that is keeping the present Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government afloat. In fact, one of the Muslim ministers who resigned, and against whom allegations of fraud have been lodged by Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), has openly said that it was his refusal to support Rajapakse’s opposition in its attempts to bring down the government that triggered those allegations.
It is in this context that one must understand the fundamental reason for the current anti-Muslim propaganda and wave of violence by members of BBS and their co-supremacists. They have a daunting fear that in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, if the Sinhalese Buddhist votes were to split between two or among three or more parties and their candidates, votes of the minority communities would decide the victor. This would be a disaster for the hegemonic aspirations of the supremacists. Hence, they have adopted two inter-related strategies. One is an uncompromising and open attack on Muslims, and the other is to cultivate friendship of convenience at least with Tamils of the East. On the first, the attack on Muslims had already started in the aftermath of the civil war. The Aluthgama riots in 2014 could be called as the opening salvo from the new front. After shifting the theatre riots to Amapara, Gintota, Digana and Kandy, the anti-Muslim mob received a fresh and more virulent impetus in April this year. That barbaric Easter carnage carried out by a fanatical bunch of Wahhabi indoctrinated Islamists from National Tawheed Jama’at, which consumed the lives of hundreds of innocent Christian worshippers, presented the supremacists a golden opportunity to resume their campaign from where they left, but with greater venom. Readers would be familiar by now with details of this cycle of violence and therefore need no repetition here. What is surprising is the unholy silence of the President, Prime Minister, non-Muslim members of his cabinet and the leader and members of the opposition when the riots were intensifying. Their unanimity in refusing to condemn the perpetrators of this violence and the street vendors of Buddhist supremacy will leave an indelible and bloody mark on the pages of Sri Lanka’s modern history.
The strategy of cultivating friendship of convenience with Tamils is a new scenario in the political drama of supremacists, which opened a few weeks ago in Kalmunai in the Eastern Province. The demand for a separate council to the Tamil majority Kalmunai west was an old issue that remained unresolved because of the unwillingness to compromise between Muslim and Tamil leaders of that area. Suddenly, the supremacists saw an opportunity here to widen the rift between the two communities, while at the same time promoting encroachment by Sinhalese into Tamil dominant zones in the north and turning even Hindu temples into vihares. Not surprisingly, a new generation of Tamil leadership aspirants from the east are falling into the trap in order to gain short term advantages from the government. Ironically, it is the same businesslike strategy that Muslim leaders resorted to and gained numerous benefits to their community. But it was at a time when far-right Buddhism did not emerge as a political force to reckon with. The budding Tamil heroes are intending to adopt the same strategy now but under changed circumstances. In the calculations of supremacists splitting the minority votes would enhance the odds in favour of their own presidential candidate.
In all these manoeuvres, one can discern the hidden fear of democracy in the thinking of BBS & co. Their agenda for an absolutist Buddhist Sri Lanka is no different from the Islamists’ goal of an absolute Islamic regime. The philosophies of both are equally fundamentalist and intentionally confrontational. Like radical Islamists, who wish to convert non-Muslims to Islam, as ISIS did in its so called caliphate, the secretary of BBS wants to “mould” Muslims in this country to suit his supremacist agenda. He may be thinking of the Chinese government’s re-education program for Uygur Muslims.
The big question however, is whether these absolutists and confrontationists carry with them the overwhelming support of the silent majority in the countries in which they operate. In Sri Lanka, the vast majority of Buddhists are not confrontational or intolerant in their thinking and behaviour. Having changed governments several times democratically, the Sinhalese Buddhist voters are too smart to fall into the supremacist trap. This country, until the rise of these far-right ultra-fundamentalist Buddhist elements, had remained committed to preserve its plural polity and religious tolerance. In a parliamentary democracy no one politically remains a permanent majority or permanent minority. That is the beauty of democracy. Let Sri Lanka maintain that golden rule.
In the meantime, the nation faces far more serious problems than the claim for Buddhist supremacy, especially in respect of its economy, environment, sovereignty, and above all welfare of its citizens. Tragically, neither the supremacists nor the current rulers and not even the opposition has put forward any systematic program of action to tackle these issues so that voters could make an informed choice when voting. In the absence of such a program the only issue on which political campaign proceeding is over ethnicity and religion. This in short is the nation’s tragedy.