By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“…understanding how the past has turned into the present helps us understand the present and presumably something of the future.” ~ Eric Hobsbawm (On History)
Sri Lanka, despite her soaring developmental ambitions, spends less than 1% of her national budget on research and development, an anomaly which was highlighted at the recently concluded symposium, Science and Technology for Society Sri Lanka 2016. Addressing the gathering, Prof. Ajith de Alwis, warned that “Sri Lanka is paying a heavy price in overlooking science in decision making.”[i]
And this symposium on science began with a two minute video on religious observances, a piece of tragicomedy symbolic and symbiotic of Sri Lanka’s dangerous romance with politicised religion and her willing embrace of superstition.
The Buddha in Samaññaphala Sutta categorised astrology, demonology et al as ‘animal arts’[ii] (The extensive list mentioned in the Sutta includes palmistry, reading omens and signs, interpreting celestial events and dreams, making predictions for state officials, chasing demons, casting auspicious times, predicting life spans, forecasting political or natural events and casting horoscopes). But in Sri Lanka, said to be repository of the Buddha’s teachings in their purest form, Sinhala-Buddhists treat astrological predictions with the reverence that adherents of theistic faiths accord to the words of their particular god or prophet.
In the second decade of the twenty first century, it is not uncommon to hear of pious Sinhala-Buddhists dying because they threw ordinary commonsense to the four winds and obeyed the orders of an astrologer, an exorcist or some other practitioner of ‘animal arts’. The latest such example comes not from a rural backwater, but from the urbanised Piliyandala, a town close to Colombo. An artist died after drinking a concoction given to him by an exorcist as a cure for a skin ailment[iii].
The exorcist has been arrested. It is to be hoped that he will be charged formally and tried in a court of law. Perhaps the publicity garnered by such a trial would make at least some Lankans – including the country’s current leaders – understand the idiocy of trusting one’s future and one’s life to dabblers in ‘animal arts’.
Most Lankan leaders were slavish believers of stars and their untutored interpreters; but none of them went as far to use state power and resources to reward or persecute astrologers as the Rajapaksas did. Astrology always played a prominent role in the private lives of most people including most politicians. But under Rajapaksa rule, astrology was accorded a prominent place in the public sphere as well.
Not only did astrology play a prominent role in persuading Mahinda Rajapaksa to hold a presidential election two years ahead of time. Everything he did during that election, from the moment he handed over his nomination papers to the Election Commissioner from an auspicious side, was dictated to a large extent on the advice of astrologers. During the election campaign, astrologers played the part which is accorded to opinion polling and statistical analyses in less superstitious countries. The state television, for instance, aired many election forecast programmes featuring astrologers, an execrable practice the private TV stations were quick to follow.
One of the most satisfactory outcomes of the defeat of the Rajapaksas was the relegation of astrology from the public to the private sphere.
Recent media reports indicate that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration might have taken a step back to that silly past.
Past in the Present
The Rajapaksas made history when they got an astrologer arrested for making a prediction which did not fit in with their agenda. Chandrasiri Bandara, an astrologer known for his pro-opposition views, made an unfavourable prediction, the regime reacted with ferocity. Mr. Bandara was arrested, taken to the CID and grilled.
This unprecedented act of repression had its desired effect, in the short term. Mr. Bandara came out of custody in the safe guise of a born-again Rajapaksa man. During the run up to 2015 Presidential election Mr. Bandara predicted a resounding Rajapaksa victory and pledged to shoot himself if proven wrong – on live TV.
Vijitha Rohana Wijemuni, an astrologer known for his anti-government views, has been summoned to the CID over a prediction he made about the future of President Maithripala Sirisena. (According to his Wikipedia page, Mr. Wijemuni rose to national prominence as the naval rating who hit Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with his bayonet. He subsequently contested elections from Sihala Urumaya)[iv].
While violent crimes are rampant, the Criminal Investigations Department is busy chasing astrologers – because political leaders still regard the prattling of astrologers as truth and nothing but the truth.
Fortunately 2016 is not 2009. The current government is not immune to superstitious cures or dictatorial solutions. But thanks to changes of post-January 2015, the space for such cures and solutions has shrunk.
In 2009, the astrologer was arrested and grilled. In 2016, the astrologer informed the CID that he has already given one statement, has no intention of giving another and will complain to the Human Rights Commission if harassed any further.
In 2009, the astrologer came out of custody with his political sympathies changed from anti-Rajapaksa to slavishly pro-Rajapaksa. In 2016, the astrologer has not changed his political colour or deleted the video which drove the CID out of its collective senses.
That difference is due to the democratic transformation brought about by the regime change of January 2015.
Sri Lanka is not a paradise of good governance. But it is indubitably a better place for its people today than it was under the Rajapaksas.
In 2013, Sri Lanka was one of the saddest places on earth, according to the (UN-sponsored) World Happiness Report. Of the 156 countries rated, Sri Lanka ranks 137.
By 2016, Sri Lanka’s rank has improved to 117[v].
A long way more to go, but the direction is the right one; more advances are possible, unless economics intervene.
The Rajapaksas placed absolute faith on superstition and none on science. That is why they paid no attention to one of the earliest warning signs about growing discontent in their own electoral base.
As the CPA’s Top line survey revealed, in 2011, a mammoth 70% of Sinhalese thought that the general economic situation will get better in the next two years. In 2013 only 38.5% of Sinhalese thought that the general economic situation will improve in the next two years – a decrease of 45%, in just two years.
Had the Rajapaksas heeded such findings instead of clinging to astrological predictions, they may not have lost in 2015.
The current government can launch any amount of propaganda blitzes about the necessity of the VAT bill; it can scream to high heavens declaring that the VAT increases will not affect ordinary people. But people will feel the pinch, when they make a purchase, take a call or channel a doctor.
And they will begin to lose hope, as they did between 2011 and 2013.
This government can make its share of mistake and survive. But if it repeats the mistakes of the Rajapaksas as well, the future will be like the past we escaped from in January 2015.
Take two steps forward and one step back, you can still head to the future. Take one step forward and two steps back, the past will be the unavoidable destination.
Staying the Course
In the same week pollster Nate Silver warned about a dangerous decline in Hillary Clinton’s once massive lead against Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders started to campaign in earnest for his recent rival. Mr. Sanders is no more a fan of Hillary Clinton now than he was during the democratic primaries, but he knows that ensuring a Clinton victory is the only way to ensure a Trump defeat. This is not the election to waste one’s vote on a third party candidate or stay at home, Mr. Sanders told his sceptical supporters; the only option is to mobilise, to defeat Donald Trump and push Hillary Clinton into becoming the best president she can[vi].
In 2015, we in Sri Lanka defeated our version of the Trump clan.
We didn’t get rid of corruption and nepotism and all the other horrendous practices which flourished under the Rajapaksas. But we have better governance than we did during the Rajapaksa years.
Take the constitutional making process, which is more open and more inclusive than anything Sri Lanka has previously experienced. Be it new constitutions or amendments to existing one, every past effort had been top-down ones where leaders decided what should be done and imposed their decisions on the people. In stark and commendable contrast, the new government is encouraging a broad public discussion about the nature of the new constitution.
This new openness has brought into the open issues which had languished in the outer darkness despite their seminal importance. One such case is secularism. The arguments made by Ceylon Rationalist Association in its 1970 memorandum to Minister Colvin R de Silva for a secular democratic constitution are even more relevant today than they were then[vii]. Incidentally, the provision giving Buddhism the preeminent place was a fairly recent addition, introduced in 1972 and reinforced in 1978. There was no such provision in the constitution until then, and Buddhism not just survived but also thrived despite the absence. In this context, it is apposite to remember that state patronage or special protection by rulers figure nowhere in the conditions mentioned by the Buddha in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta as necessary for the welfare and growth of the sasana[viii].
Another encouraging instance of hitherto taboo issues coming into the open in the new enabling environment is that of the campaign wages by progressive groups such as the Women’s Action Network (WAN) against Article 16.
Article 16 of the 1978 Constitution upholds, in its entirety, the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951. One of the many egregious results of this is that Muslim women and girl children are, denied by the constitution, several key constitutional rights and protections enjoyed by non-Muslim women and girl children. For instance, though the minimum age of marriage for Lankan girls is 16, a girl child from a Muslim family can be married at 12, or even below with consent from the Quazi courts[ix].
According to media reports, traditional Muslim political and religious leaders are opposed to any change in the Article 16 even though many Muslims countries have enacted laws criminalising child marriage (according to UN sources, in Algeria, Bangladesh, Jordan, Iraq, Malaysia and Morocco, the legal marriageable age for a female is 18; in Tunisia it is 20[x].). This issue has now been placed on the public stage, not as a divisive slogan or a racist slur, but as a serious topic of discussion, thanks to the open and inclusive nature of the constitution-making process.
This week Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa met the Chief Incumbent of the Malwatte Chapter with a tale of horror about a new constitution. The Mahanayake reportedly advised the parliamentarian not to succumb to paranoia or propagate phobia since the constitution-making process has been open and transparent so far.
Mr. Weerawansa cannot heed the advice. He and his Rajapaksa masters have a future only if Sri Lanka succumbs to the ills of the past. It is only if Lankan people return to the mire of paranoia and phobia and Lankan leaders ignore science, abandon sense and embrace superstitious cures and dictatorial solutions, the Rajapaksa dream of regaining power can become reality.
[iii][iii] Lankadeepa – 14.9.2016