By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The crisis is proliferating by the week. Which will come first, the crack-up or the state of siege? Which is the egg and which the chicken?
There are two ways in which a country, a nation state, is destroyed. One is by supra-state/supra-national forces, i.e. external forces of hegemonic interventionism. The other is by sub–state/sub-national forces i.e. internal forces of fragmentation. Sri Lanka is being destroyed by both, and the two are feeding off each other.
Insofar as the Rajapaksa administration is unable to resist and defeat the first category, the external forces by the correct foreign policy and diplomatic strategy), it is unable to defend the country from hegemonic external interventionism as exemplified by the OHCHR International Inquiry (which may be referred to in future as the Ahtissari panel).
Insofar as the Rajapaksa administration is unable or unwilling to crackdown on the fanatical Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalists who ignited the violence in Aluthgama, it is only furnishing weapons and ammunition for the external interventionists.
Insofar as the Rajapaksa administration is acting in a manner that generates speculation about a cover up (bullet wounds turning into cuts) or is not acting in a manner that clears up such doubts, it is reinforcing the argument that an external inquiry is needed because the state machinery does not function impartially.
As for the danger of internal fissure leading to fragmentation, the manifest lack of willingness of President Rajapaksa to articulate, clearly and forcefully, a vision of and for the nation that is explicitly and diametrically opposed to the discourse of the Bodu Bala Seana and its smaller, more vicious copycats such as the Sinhala Ravaya, means that the state has abdicated or is held back from playing its legitimate role as the umbrella and shield of all Sri Lankans, irrespective of ethnicity, religion and language. This abdication by the state as umpire –and protector of all equally– removes any obstacles from the path of internal fragmentation and accelerates the process.
An internally fragmented state cannot withstand external pressure beyond a point. This gives rise to speculation as to whether the fanatical Sinhala Buddhist forces are in fact a proxy for the external elements. Valid as such speculation is, it overlooks the more basic question. If these forces and/or events such as Aluthgama are part of a de-stabilization plan for ‘regime change’—as it well might turn out to be—why are the regime and the state apparatuses going easy on them, and why are the various arms of the state, be it the Lake House press or Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission in Geneva, seeking to pin the rap on the victims, the minorities (after all, the dead are Muslims)?
Marx wrote that for true comprehension of underlying economic processes one must move from ‘the noisy sphere of the marketplace’ to the ‘hidden abode of production’. The true understanding of what’s happening in Sri Lanka today would take us beyond incessant critique of the Rapajakasas to the real character of the Sinhala social formation. The Sri Lankan state formation cannot be understood without understanding the Sinhala social formation and neither can be understood without understanding the role, function, ideology of the Sinhala Buddhist Sangha– the priesthood. This must not be lazily and dangerously confused with the ‘Sinhala Buddhist majority’, ‘Sinhala Buddhism’, the regime, the state, the Rajapaksa clan etc., though the interfaces must be studied. The matter at hand is the priesthood; the Sinhala Buddhist clergy as a social stratum or sub-formation.
The Bodu Bala Sena and similar (often more militant and covert) organizations operate on a grid that is neither the Rajapaksa regime nor the State machine. That grid is/are the network(s) of which the temples are the nodal points; the hubs. A review of the reports of all the violence against Christians and Muslims as well as dissenting Buddhists reveals not only the vanguard role of elements of the clergy but as the violence in Grandpass shows, the mobilizing role of the temples. It is not the Rajapksas, the Police, the army, the STF or military intelligence that mobilized and mobilizes the mobs; it is precisely the temples.
Of course it is not all the temples, or even most of them; just as it is not all the Buddhist clergy or even most of them. But the main thing is that the BBS and other similar formations representing fanatical ‘political Buddhism’ have captured significant space within the Sinhala Buddhist clergy and thereby neutralized the Buddhist hierarchy through institutional pressure and an element of coercion. In short, a power shift has taken place within the social apace of the Sinhala Buddhist clergy. This is not a new phenomenon, and those who have studied the surge that led to (not began with) the MEP victory and Sinhala Only in 1956, would be acquainted with DC Wijewardena’s large volume ‘Revolt in the Temple’ (1953).
Over the last decade or more, there has been a far more covert contemporary takeover in the temples. It is the result of the wresting of the ideological initiative by fundamentalist fanatical Sinhala Buddhism. The new wave began with Ven Soma thero. The ideological initiative could be wrested by the militants because of three processes.
Firstly, the liberal, pluralist monks had discredited themselves among the Sinhala Buddhist citizenry by their advocacy of the Chandrika’s Sudu Nelum anti-war movement and the Norwegian peace initiative. These monks, who should have been mobilized purely for the defense of pluralism and devolution against racism, were instead mobilized as part of CBK’s and Ranil’s project. In any society, even the most sophisticated (e.g. France) it is difficult to live down a history of appeasement of fascism.
Secondly, the patriotic Buddhist clergy had lost their progressive orientation, their Buddhist scholasticism and their cosmopolitan composure and civility—the iconic figure of which was Prof. Ven Walpola Rahula. It was symptomatic that neither the State nor the patriotic Bhikku militants mention him.
Thirdly, the growing militancy of the blue collar element of the Sinhala Buddhist diaspora empowered a new offshore network, including in the USA, of wealthy and powerful temples/monks, which adopted the ideology and politics of the most rightwing racist elements of Western societies. In turn these temples were linked up with pro-JHU and NFF ‘Ranaviru’ societies, the Sri Lankan embassies and elements of the state security apparatus—bypassing and subverting the preexisting SLFP branches.
Violent Islamophobia in Sri Lanka antedates the Rajapaksa administration. Those of us who recall the vicious campaign against Minister Ashraff, the Digamadulla issue, the Ashraff-Soma Thero debate would attest to this. Though Gnanasara’s Aluthgama speech is mad, bad and dangerous, even Gotabaya Rajapkasa did not relay it, real-time on national TV, while hours of anti-Christian and anti-Muslim ranting were spread throughout the nation’s drawing rooms when the funeral orations – including by the JHU’s Champika Ranawaka— at the last rites of Rev Soma were relayed on all TV channels including the State’s Rupavahini, precisely under the presidency of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
As the BBS’s Gnanasara said a few weeks ago on TV, it is Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who “should be commended” for agreeing to the presentation of the Anti-Conversion Bill by the JHU, while it was President Mahinda Rajapaksa who killed it.
It was Ranawaka and the JHU who kept Islamophobia going, especially in Digamadulla, and maintained continuity of ideology and program right into the postwar period. It was Ranawaka and his party which first enunciated the line within the Rajapaksa administration that the main enemies after the defeat of the LTTE were the ‘jihadi’ Muslims.
The current BBS phenomenon is only the tip of the iceberg. It is not difficult to comprehend the shift within the Sinhala Buddhist clergy if one is able to cease the fixation upon the Rajapaksas and study the growth of a televangelical Right in the USA and its continuities with the survivalists, the gun lobby, the Tea Party movement and the ‘birthers’; the coalition of the Christian Right and the Zionist Right in the USA; the growth of Sunni and Shia fundamentalist militancy and militias in Islam; the rise of the religious-settler Right in Israel and the Buddhist fascist faction headed by Wirathu in Burma/Myanmar.
The Rajapaksas being far more aware than their political rivals of the ground game within the temple networks and the public opinion making Sangha, have only been trying to play catch up, re-enacting and updating the strategy of SWRD in ’56. They are also mimicking the alliance of Netanyahu’s Likud with the smaller parties of the religious-settler Right. The danger is that the fastest growing shareholder of the temple network is a firebrand Sinhala racism which may ignite a firestorm by attacking minorities who are far more sophisticated and globalized than the BBS, the regime and the State (especially the MoD-MEA). By so doing, these fanatical Sinhala Buddhist ayatollahs will generate a backlash in the form of a bloc of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and their global support networks. Signs of this are already appearing in the East, in Tamil Nadu and in the UN Plaza in New York. A collision of majoritarian and minoritarian nationalisms, which draws in war veterans, deserters, Civil Defense Force members or ex-members, the STF and even the armed forces (while alienating the minority members of the state services), as in former Yugoslavia and contemporary Ukraine, will turn into a violent clash of civilizations, cultures, communities.
In the face of perceived triple threats of (a) external intervention (as the UN international inquiry gathers global momentum) (b) a surge in Northern political secessionism and (c) accelerating domestic fragmentation, the military may intervene (or be called upon to intervene) more directly and robustly in politics; in political and crisis management. This would not be initiated by the top brass. In many countries, it has been a groundswell in the barracks and the junior officers’ messes that pushes the middle-ranking officers into action, drawing in the top brass which would not wish to be left out and would go along with the mood of the institution as a whole.
Such a scenario would take place in a situation of or result in external economic sanctions and legal actions. These would constitute a tightening vice which cracks open a divided citadel for foreign intervention and (Tamil Diaspora/Tamil Nadu propelled) Northeastern secession. Unless someone does an Angelo Mathews, that is.