15 April, 2024


Blood-And-Faith Populism & Sri Lanka’s Future

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“As the great reformers of the 19th century well knew, the Social Question, if left unaddressed, does not just wither away. It goes instead in search of more radical answers.”~ Tony Judt (Reappraisals)

This month, the populist wave suffered two critical defeats. In France outsider-candidate Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen. In Iran, reformist president Hassan Rouhani trounced Ebrahim Raisi, a religious hardliner backed by Supreme Leader Khameni and the Revolutionary Guard. These defeats come in the wake of other electoral setbacks for populists, especially in Austria and The Netherlands. Despite these welcome-defeats, the current wave of populism is far from spent – and would continue wreak havoc, until the forces of moderation manage to create a new synthesis between pluralist democracy and progressive economics.

Populism is hardly a new phenomenon. It flourishes best where there is economic loss and pain. Populist leaders succeed in their power-grabs by harnessing that economic pain to their political projects.

Historically many (if not most) populist projects contained a fairly prominent economic content, starting with redistributive measures aimed at alleviating more extreme inequalities, at least to some degrees. This progressive component is totally absent in the current wave of populism. At its heart is not economic class but race/religion. Today’s populism is blood-and-faith nationalism in a slightly different, semi-modernist, guise. It has no redistributive intent, no measures aiming at alleviating economic or social injustice. Its economic programme is neo-liberal with one exception, the advocacy of a degree of protectionism. Its redistributive agenda consists of dispossessing aliens.

Populism always needed a heavy dose of ‘alternate-facts’, but in its current manifestation it operates solely within a universe of ‘alternate-facts’. Every economic problem besetting the People is attributed to rapacious foreigners who take our jobs, our money and our land and undermine our age-old culture in a thousand insidious ways. In this rhetoric, fear is substituted for reason or logic. When facts stand in the way, they are derided and rejected as fake-news.

In Orwell’s Oceania, ignorance is strength. Populism in its current incarnation openly glorifies ignorance. Donald Trump, speaking after the Nevada caucus, hailed the poorly educated as the smartest and most loyal people. Thus a new notion of a model citizen is created, someone who is happily uneducated, proudly ignorant and boastfully uninformed. Lack of education or information is not seen as a problem to be remedied but as necessary virtues to become a good citizen in the new populist utopia. The proud-ignorance of their followers is indispensable to the success of the leaders.

The Murder of Yameen Rasheed and Blood-and-faith Populism

Five years before he was stabbed to death, Maldivian blogger Yameen Rasheed wrote an analytical piece in the Himal magazine about his country’s gradual descent into the mire of Islamic fundamentalism. A Tool for the Atolls details the weaponisation of Islam by Maldivian rulers to gain and consolidate political power.(Himal – June 2012). The practice began with Abdul Gayoom who captured power on an Islamic platform. In 2012, a virulent oppositional campaign led by fundamentalist parties forced the democratically-elected president Mohamed Nasheed to resign.

Yameen Rasheed points out that Mr. Nasheed was, to some extent, the author of his own political demise. He made the cardinal error of trying to neutralise the growing fundamentalist forces by accommodating some of them in his cabinet. His argument was that an oppositional policy would drive the extremists underground. Unfortunately, the induction of the Adhaalath Party into the cabinet did not stem the tide of extremism; instead it gave extremists legitimacy, a slice of formal political power and a foothold in the system.

Traditionally, most Maldivians followed a moderate form of Islam influenced by Sufism. This liberal faith was slowly undermined by hardline influences coming from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Yameen Rasheed used his writings to oppose and ridicule the growing fundamentalism in his country. His writings, especially his popular blog, The Daily Panic, earned him the wrath of the authoritarian government and the hardline Islamists alike. Barely a month after he and a friend won an international award for developing an app to connect patients suffering from blood diseases (ex. Thalassemia) with hospitals and blood-donors, Mr. Rasheed was murdered.

The opposition movement which ousted Maldives’ democratically-elected President Nasheed was an early manifestation of the populist wave which is currently threatening democracy and pluralism across the globe. This wave marked its next significant victory in India. In 2014, Narendra Modi and his BJP won power in the world’s most populous democracy on a populist platform which combined rightwing economics, social-conservatism, political illiberalism, Hindu extremism and anti-environmentalism.

It was thus unsurprising that many Hindu fundamentalists (like many Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists) supported Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton. It is also not surprising that one of the first victims of the post-election racist resurgence in the US was an Indian-American. Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer, a legal immigrant and a product of American universities, was killed by a white Navy veteran who, minutes before the fatal shooting, told his soon-to-be-victim, “Get out of my country.”

That statement encapsulates the essence of the current wave of populism: ethno-religious racism. The declared aim of this populism is to protect the chosen people and their homeland from encroaching aliens and emasculated elites. The People are seen as homogeneous, virtuous and perpetually threatened from within and without. The People can win if they “make their voices count through the populist leader/party…. In this way populists play on the idea of communities which had lost what they once had and will lose everything if they do not find their voice now and make it heard.” (Twenty First Century Populism – Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell)

Populism always had a knack to inveigle the populace to support projects which went against their fundamental interests. The current wave of populism excels at it. The American rightwing (especially the Ult-right) depict any increase in the minimum wage as a measure aimed at conferring special benefits on migrant workers. According to latest research, 50% of white-American working class males are opposed to an increase in the minimum wage. That is an example of how effectively racism can be used to stupefy entire communities and make them oppose policies which are in their own interests.

In Sri Lanka, a facebook post (in Sinhala) claiming that Islamic State (IS) operatives, disguised as health workers, are wondering from house to house injecting householders with the aids virus has gone viral. As a result, health officials in many areas are being prevented from carrying out an anti-filarial campaign, according to a Health Ministry complaint to the police. (The Sunday Times – 14.5.2017). This facebook post is a translation of one which similarly went viral in India. That post seems to be a spinoff of a 2014 facebook post which claimed that the IS was injecting AIDS virus into oranges! The fact that there are people out there who can take such a canard seriously creates understandable fears about the future of democracy and civil-peace in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s Unintelligent Government and Unreconstructed Opposition

Wimal Weerawansa’s plan to hoist black flags on Wesak Day failed abysmally, but the wave of anti-Indian hysteria rides high, with audible undertones of racism targeting North-Eastern and Upcountry Tamils (This Sunday’s Divaina carries an op-ed piece claiming that Mr. Modi was trying to stir separatism in the plantations; the writer, a medical doctor, even criticises the upgrading of Norwood hospital!). The fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa sought and had a (reportedly bon-homos) meeting with Narendra Modi has made no dent in the anti-Indian hysteria of Mr. Rajapaksa’s acolytes. These followers see nothing contradictory in Mr. Rajapaksa’s bromantic powwow with Mr. Modi, anymore than rank-and-file JVPers in the 1987-89 period (such as Wimal Weerawansa) saw anything amiss in an anti-Indian war which killed Sinhalese by the thousands but caused not a scratch to a single IPKF soldier. As Prins Gunasekera, a prominent JVP fellow-traveller of that time, revealed, “But the evidence that has started trickling in, in recent times, makes me wonder whether their anti-Indianism was really so… Many student activists of the IUSF, in sympathy with the JVP, had been seen visiting the Indian High Commission in Colombo, even telling them that they had nothing to fear from the JVP, that the Indian Embassy officials need not be evacuated to the security of the Taj-Samudra Hotel.” (Sri Lanka in Crisis, A Lost Generation: The Untold Story).

In the flurry of arguments and counterarguments about numbers, what is being ignored is the kind of rhetoric which dominated the JO’s platform. There are plenty of fact-based criticisms to be made against the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, starting with a distressing inability to understand, acknowledge or address the growing economic pains of ordinary people. Instead of showcasing these failures, the JO leaders indulged in racist and religious scaremongering on May Day. Nothing has changed from the time they made such preposterous claims as ‘SLMC now a LTTE or ‘Maithri-Prabha Mugs appear in London, Toronto.’

In 2013, the Fashion Bug outlet in Pepiliyana was attacked, consequent to a rumour of a 15 year old Sinhala-Buddhist employee of being raped, within the premises, by a Muslim fellow-employee. Less than a fortnight before this incident, Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara had accused the Muslim owners of Fashion Bug of conspiring to turn pure Sinhala-Buddhist maidens into harem-inmates. When the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was asked about this and other anti-minority incidents during a 2013 Al Jazzera interview, his response was not condemnation, but justification based on lies as insane as the one about the IS injecting oranges with the Aids virus. “What was in the background? Why were they attacked? Now see a girl was raped. Seven years old girl was raped. Then naturally they will go and attack them whether they belong to any community or any religion… There were incidents like that. All incidents have some background to that.”

Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara is stirring the mire again. He wants to launch a campaign against Niqab. He is also challenging the primacy and authority of the Mahanayakes, whose relative moderation is a bar to his attempts to create a Wahabi-Buddhism. He wants the government to stop dealing with the infinitely more moderate and rational Buddhist hierarchy and deal with “monks and officials at ground level – him and others of his ilk. The comments might seem like ravings of a madman, and indeed they are. But they need to be taken seriously because they also mark the first step in a planned ‘reformist’ movement from below, which aims at systematically eliminating every iota of moderation and tolerance in Sinhala-Buddhism and turn it into another Wahabism or Salafism. If this plan is even ten percent successful, the damage it can do to Sri Lanka and all its people, especially the Sinhala-Buddhists, would be incalculable.

The Joint Opposition’s spectacularly successful May Day seemed to have given the government a necessary jolt. But whether this will make the government deviate from its path of economic and political inanity is uncertain. For example, the plan to impose a huge tax on the EPF is still on track. If the Cabinet approves of it, the President will find himself facing a situation worse than what the Rajapaksa government did when it tried to impose a Kleptocratic pension plan on the private sector. The fact that the government cannot understand that a measure like this can turn the entire private sector workforce, from top to bottom, against it, indicates a terrifying absence of basic commonsense and enlightened self-interest.

History warns that political democracy and cultural-liberalism cannot flourish – or even survive – in the absence of socio-economic democracy. It is a lesson which is of paramount importance to post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.

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Latest comments

  • 11

    Well written article ..without any bias the writer explore the facts and true nature of this unwanted conflict. This is an objective piece of writing so far on this issue of social violence in SL. It could cost a lot to SL..inneptitute leadership do not care but it will entirely engulf this beautiful nation into continuous violence to return it into lawless country like Solmaia..
    Now goverment need to take action …this Will give radical groups emerged . LTTE was created by social phenomenon like this …
    So …in the interest of this nation to c stop this circle of violence soon.

    • 8

      The meanings of “Lack of Education” in year 1900 and year 2000 are very different. This is true in SL too. If you ask opinions of 10 three-wheeler drivers about recent GMOA (educated) actions, you would see that so called “Education in year 2000, not give “necessary virtues to become a good citizen”… I also thinks new-populism happening in the West is bottom-up approach. General public in the West now have doubts about common sense of highly educated and humanitarian democratic/labour leaders….

  • 5

    Every Tom, Dick and Thisaranee has become an expert in populism. From where are they copying these ides? Who originated this word populism, that seems to attract a whole band wagon of experts and writers. They do not have any original ideas, copying a quotation from here, a phrase from there, a word from yonder they become great writers. Has anyone read an article by Rhoda Miller de Silva? Those were classics. Not a lot of opa dupa like this.

  • 12

    Many have said it before, and I’ll say again now; Gnanasara is evil and with his ever growing band of thugs masquerading as ‘Buddhist monks’ is sowing discord and division amongst our communities with the express intention of turning this once-pleasant land into a hell-hole of discord and hate. I make now apologies for branding Gnansara a scheming bastard who will stop at nothing in order to achieve his vile aims. Our Presidents, immediate past and present, have fallen into his trap of giving him time of day. (He now sits at top-table with Prez MS and advises him… on what nobody knows). This because our political leaders are shackled to anything in a saffron-robe. The biggest nonsense is that the government is support to protect Buddhism – what a load of bollocks! A noble religion hijacked by devious politicians for their distinctly un-Buddhist activities.

    What the BBS are up to is nothing short of evil. They are leading a stupefied country, sleep walking to Armageddon.

    TG has written a warning. Alas, too many a shocked to act, they just ring their hands and cry ‘what to do?’. Gnanasara and his growing band on thugs will continue on their march to lead us first to chaos, and then to hell.

    Be warned; The first victim of all this will be Buddhism.

  • 4

    I watched the video-clip of the verbal onslaught by Bikku Gnanasara in the aftermath of the recent Kurunegala attacks with consternation and horror. I was astounded by the seemingly docile and submissive stance of law-enforcement officers, who seemed to defer to these monks. I have no doubt that his public language and rhetoric amounted to a breach of the law with regard to inciting racial hatred with intention to cause public disturbance and violence. However, the police inaction spoke volumes about the orders they would have received, or the attitude of tolerating law-breakers based on their status and standing with the political hierarchy. Wasn’t the present government supposed to bring social amity, zero corruption and good governance?

  • 5

    This man , Gandassara has to be Put away for Good, before Sri Lanka becomes known around the World, as an Anti-Buddhist country!

  • 3

    Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, YouTube etc have given joint and individual pledges and undertakings to the European Union and all the 28 individual nations of the EU that they would take instant and immediate action about it, within 24 hours, jointly and individually, if any hate speech incident is brought up to their attention.

    Incidentally, recently, a group of individuals opened up a Facebook page, and used it to tarnish the good characters of some other individuals, in fact this page had 2000 followers, this was brought to their notice, in no time they shut down that page. Best part was those bad eggs linked their personal Facebook pages, some other pages owned by them plus their Google + links, all them gone in one go. All these people are barred for life to open another page in their names. Some time there are possibilities that they might face some serious actions.

    All of the social media platforms have special and dedication links for any one to take up with them matters connected with hate speech and fake news. In fact they created special crawlers, and engaged thousands of experts from all over the world to monitor these.

    With billions of dollars in their purse, their intentions are to create a better world, but they wouldn’t allow people to create discord among people or to destroy the world using their platforms.

    So friends, if any one detects hate in social media, take it up with them for immediate action to put an instant and immediate halt to it.

    • 0

      Firdt Ban. Tamilnmmet speeches by wigneswaran.

  • 5

    We saw the same police inaction when Tamils were killed in 1983 “riots”. This shows that Srilanka is not a democracy. The country is ruled by thugs.

  • 1

    Now I understand why TG hated Mahinda Rajapakse because he was buddhist. In the last article, for Meethotamulla incident, TG was scolding Sinhala-buddhist Supremists. I could not believe how she drew ethnicity and the religion in to the garbage problem.

    CT is good at bashing buddhists, Sangaha members, Sinhala buddhists, and buddhism. the easiest target So, an anglican christaisn found a good target this time.

    Some one should address how the catholic prists has built a a church in the middle of the Wilpattu park. what he should be expecting, to compete with Rishad Bathiuddin and his muslims ?. For Tg, christains building Vaticans in the East in all over Sri lanka is democracy. for us, it is expansionism.

    Because, the buddhist monk was critical about the police, TG and muslims accuse the monk for attacks. but, were you watching it ?

    You did not write any words, when Tamils attacked a Police car in Wanni.

    I wonder whether this is the last article about this from CT. It is thiestic religions ganging up against buddhism.

    This destruction is happening in every buddhist country in Asia. Some are reacting to that. Sinhale is slow because people are backward. I heard Mongolia like countries are suffering a lot because christians have screwed up the society really bad.

  • 2

    Really Jim, you must be very Soft in the head to equate the Sinhalese and True Buddhists with Thisaranee’s, and all Thinking Sri Lankan People’s, definition of Sinhala/Buddhists!

    It is Sinhala/Buddhism that is driving People away from the True Teaching of the Buddha!

  • 0

    United Nations Population Fund on Migration says: In 2015, 244 million people, or 3.3 percent of the world’s population, lived outside their country of origin. One takes this to mean multiculturalism, for previous to 2015, living in one’s country of origin meant hegemony (3.3 % a far higher figure than historical migration percentages due to ease of movement due to modern transportation).

    So, are the 96.7 % masses to be forced converted to multiculturalism to keep up with the 3.3% is the question. However, in the interests of world peace, the rights of the masses are paramount!

  • 1

    Nanasara is filling the vacuum created by the greedy maha nayakas, Chief prelates must unite Buddhists, they must own up to the problems in Buddhist society and solve them!

    One thing is sure, Nanasara’s Buddhism and Whabi Islam both are alike and all moderate Buddhists must save Buddhism from these extremists!

    Genuine issues must be solved by dialogue and Nanasara’s extremism must be defeated by facts and truths and moderate Muslims also have to play a role and rectifying their evils!

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