By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Lies are believed amongst every race; and was any race ever the sole possessor of Truth?”[i] – Abdallah al-Ma’arri (Arab poet and sceptic 973-1057)
In Aluthgama and Beruwala, violence has petered out and fires have died. But it will be a long while before normalcy returns to these afflicted localities, if at all. The memories and the fears will survive, and for the Muslim people of the area, life will have to be lived under an ominous cloud of dread and foreboding.
The President has promised to rebuild the houses and shops with government funds. Hopefully, the promise will be honoured. Even more hopefully, the UDA will not decide to take over the affected properties and transform Aluthgama into another ‘garden-city’, sans most of its people.
The President’s promise of an investigation would have been laughable if anything humorous can be found in such an unleavened tragedy. Will the investigation uncover the identity of the person who, ignoring the appeals of several ministers and Muslim organisations, gave permission for the incendiary rally? Will the investigation entail asking Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera to account for his bloodthirsty speech? Will the final report ever see the light of day?
People have multiple identities. When the religious identity becomes predominant, conflict is never far away. It is no accident that the first riot in Ceylon was based not on ethnicity but on religion. And it was not the riot of 1915. It was the Kotahena riot of March 1883. This was a Sinhala on Sinhala clash. The dividing line was religion – Sinhala-Buddhists vs. Sinhala-Catholics.
The Buddhists centred round the Dipaduttaramaya in Kotahena had organised a series of religious festivities. The Catholics centred round St. Lucia Cathedral in Kotahena were unhappy that these festivities fell during Lent (including a procession on Good Friday). A minor matter, which could have been resolved amicably, if the two sides had wanted to. But religious rights were the issue and religion, especially when it has political overtones, brings out the worse in people. They become intent on domination and refuse to accommodate.
The riot was contained because the Protestant (Church of England) British could be impartial. Still 2 people died and a Roman Catholic chapel in Dehiwala was burnt. An investigative commission faulted both parties thereby satisfying neither[ii]. Buddhist-Catholic tensions continued to simmer; in 1903, another mini-riot broke out in Anuradhapura, during the Poson season. A Roman Catholic church was burnt and a slaughterhouse destroyed. This Buddhist-Catholic conflict took a back stage only after the riots of 1915.
Sri Lanka is a pluralist country. And we need to develop peaceful mechanisms to deal with the problems and tensions unavoidable in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. This necessary task has been seriously hampered by the near total absence of a Lankan nationalism. The absolute majority of Lankans think ethnically and religiously, except perhaps in the arena of sports. The idea of a national interest which is extrinsic to their particularist interests is alien to them.
After the devastating defeat of the 1848 Rebellion, the opposition to colonial rule assumed religio-cultural forms. Instead of a new anti-Colonial struggle, there was a Buddhist Resurgence, followed, inevitably, by a Hindu Resurgence and a Muslim Resurgence. Perhaps after the memories of 1848, any political opposition to the British was deemed too foolhardy and dangerous and the discontent was diverted to channels deemed safer – cultural opposition to ‘Western influences’ and religious opposition to Christianity.
The main ‘anti-Colonial’ movement thus became more like a Buddhist version of India’s Hinduthva movement. This new movement had more problems with Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Christians and Westernised Sinhalese than with the British rulers. Ancient Lanka was recasted as a land of morality and all ‘evil’ habits were blamed on alien influences. This was an illogical, irrational, militant Buddhism, Sinhala-centric, intolerant and exclusionary. Anagarika Dharmapala, with his fiery anti-minority rhetoric, became the foremost representative and leader of this Buddhism.
The BBS is a product of that history. It is no accident that Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera models his speaking style very consciously on Anagarika Dharmapala.
The Rajapaksas, in search of a ruling ideology, embraced this Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism. They casted themselves as the chief protectors of the Sinhala Nation and the Buddha Sasana. And the job description includes keeping the minorities in line, by whatever means necessary.
Race-Religion-Military-Ruling Family Nexus
On Poson Poya day, President Mahinda Rajapaksa deposited sacred relics at the new Sanda-Hiru Seya (the Stupa of the Moon and the Sun). The new Buddhist edifice is being constructed in the historic city of Anuradhapura, to “commemorate the victory of liberating Sri Lanka from terrorism.”[iii]
President Rajapaksa laid the foundation stone for his stupa-war memorial in October 2009. According to ITN news, the edifice will be 250 ft tall and will require 45 million bricks; the adjacent hall will be built with marbles supplied by Myanmar. The total cost will come to a massive Rs. 2,000 million.
The Rajapaksas plan to build eight more stupas in the other eight provinces (including in the North and the East) to mark the victorious conclusion of the long Eelam War. This is not a personal Rajapaksa project but an official project of the Lankan state. It will be funded by state allocations and public donations; labour is being provided by the armed forces and the civil defence force.
Why build stupas to commemorate the victory over the LTTE? If the war was a Lankan war or even a Sinhala war, why use Buddhist edifices to mark its victory? Incidentally, this was not an ancient Sinhala/Buddhist tradition. Even King Dutugemunu did not go around building stupas to mark his victory over King Elara. The only known war-related structure he built was the monument to Elara.
The implication is obvious – in the eyes of the state and the Ruling Family, the victory over the LTTE was not a Lankan victory or even a Sinhala victory but a Sinhala-Buddhist victory.
The stupa project symbolises the Rajapaksas’ role as guarantors/protectors of a Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka. It symbolises the nexus between the Rajapaksas, the military and the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. The project also provides the clearest possible indication that in post-war, post-LTTE Sri Lanka, the impetus for extremism is coming from within the bowels of the state – and not from the political fringes.
If Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera did not exist, the Rajapaksas would have had to create him. Come to think, given his meteoric rise and Teflon-status, they probably did.
In theory the Rajapaksas are the protectors of the Nation, the Faith and the Armed Forces. In reality, all three serve the purposes of the Ruling Family and are subordinated to its interests. Not only did the Rajapaksas jail the war-winning army commander. They also launched a witch-hunt against Fonseka-loyalists within the army, axing many ‘war-heroes’ in the process. When Asgiriya and Malwatte Chief Prelates pleaded publicly on behalf of Gen. Fonseka, the Rajapaksas retaliated by imposing punitive duties on a consignment of school bags and shoes donated by a foreign well-wisher.
The Rajapaksa triumphalism is a Sinhala-Buddhist triumphalism. Its message is simple – Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka has many enemies. The Rajapaksas will defeat them, as they defeated the LTTE. Keep them in power.
[i] Studies in Islamic Poetry – Reynold A Nicholson
[ii] Kotahena Riots – 1883 – GPV Somaratne. Leveling Crowds – Ethnonationalist and Collective Violence in South Asia – SJ Tambiah