By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“…an instant invitation to an overpowering onrush of self-righteous recidivism, against which reason can only erect the feeblest defences.” ~ Mervyn de Silva, ‘Paradise & Hostage to the Past’, Far Eastern Economic Review, January 1984
One of the most distressing moments of my turbulent life was a fleeting episode at the Shangri-La conclave some months ago organized by Viyath Maga. It was something that was generated by the ideological atmosphere and social semiotics of that event. It was when a well-known and respected name in the IT industry, who operates from both Colombo and Jaffna, an articulate, cosmopolitan Sri Lankan of Tamil ethnicity, Mr. Mano Sekaram, thought fit to open his presentation by thanking the organizers for “the gesture of inclusivity” they had made by inviting him to speak. I didn’t think he meant in his capacity as an IT magnate. He meant that it was a “gesture of inclusivity” in that precise milieu of a grand event organized by that grouping. He meant it in its ethnic or ethno-regional sense.
That came as a shock to me, because in the Ceylon I was born into and the Sri Lanka I chose to study, remain citizen of and live in, such a remark would never have been made; never thought necessary to be made. Certainly Neelan Tiruchelvam and Lakshman Kadirgamar would never have done so, still less my father’s schoolmates, campus friends (of which “LK” was one) and club-mates from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Mano Sekaram’s spontaneous expression of gratitude was because things have changed and are changing for the worse in at least some part of our society and polity; changing because that which should have been unquestioned and unquestionable, that which should have been axiomatic, that which had been axiomatic, was now a “gesture of inclusivity” that required the expression of thanks.
This was not the Ceylon of SWRD Bandaranaike that I was born into, or that of DS Senanayake or the Ceylon National Congress. This is a society that had never existed. It is a society of the imagination of the Sinhala Alt-Right; a society in which Tamils and other minorities know their place, are satisfied and grateful. It is a country that never was and never will. But it is the model of assimilation in the name of integration; a model of society that the Alt-Right will strive to create.
Not everyone would have said the same thing though. Douglas Devananda would not have. But there were no such persons among the speakers. The other person of Tamil ethnicity on stage was a pleasant young singer, a successfully rehabilitated ex-Tiger child soldier.
This ideology has been latent not manifest, covert not overt, marginal not mainstream– and subterranean even if and when it was mainstream. As usually happens, it took the insights in my late father’s writing to help me decode the riddle. (My father was born and bred a Buddhist, as was my mother, the daughter of a well-known and respected Panadura Buddhist lay preacher, though Thaththa soon became an agnostic humanist and Amma converted to Catholicism as she left her teens. They married in church.)
Mervyn de Silva described the “Sinhala psyche” (as he used to call it) best in an article in the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review in 1984:
“Separate identities have been sustained and fortified by deep antagonisms and wildly contested facts which extend over two millennia and more…the Sinhalese mind is crammed with atavistic fears. So before he goes into polemical battle, the Sinhalese combatant – be he politician, teacher or trader – reaches for the Mahavamsa, the great Pali chronicles written over centuries by Buddhist scholar-monks, and now the repository of all that is Sinhalese…Each fresh confrontation and every violent eruption becomes an instant invitation to an overpowering onrush of self-righteous recidivism, against which reason can only erect the feeblest defences.” (‘Paradise & Hostage to the Past’, Mervyn de Silva, Far Eastern Economic Review, January 26, 1984, pp. 22-23)
But this isn’t all, nor is it the scariest thing out here today. What is happening is that a powerful network has an ideology which is a throwback to the discredited and abandoned prejudices of the worst years of our lifetimes. I refer of course to Black July 1983, 35 years ago. That horror did not come out of nowhere. It had a matrix in which the ideology of Cyril Mathew was a significant part. Mervyn describes it thus:
“…Industries Minister Cyril Mathew, the most consistent and uncompromising champion of majority Sinhalese rights… Mathew told the conference he was opposed to the TULF because it was ‘not a political party but a communal organization that supports terrorism.’ The history of Sri Lanka, he added, was the history of the Sinhalese, ‘and nothing else.’ His resolution to the national question was ‘to settle Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in all parts of the country on a system of proportional representation.’ It is this sort of polarization and distrust which, running through the whole tragic history of the Tamil issue, now permits the past to hold the future hostage.” (Ibid)
Difficult as it is to imagine, Mervyn in even more precisely prophetic and speaks of a situation which exists today, constituting the matrix of contemporary neo-Mathewism and its components:
“But, as in the Shah’s Iran, suppressed dissent has found refuge in an impregnable forum, the temple, and an articulate spokesman whom nobody dares to touch, the monk. Having co-opted the clergy, can militant Sinhalese-Buddhism rely on support from the armed services, too? Now regional councils are coming up for air for the third (and last?) time. All the political parties are discussing the proposal, a shrewd Jayewardene move to gain endorsement from a national consensus. But has political power already slipped out of the hands of politicians?” (MdeS, Ibid)
It is this confluence identified almost 35 years ago by Mervyn de Silva—‘the temple’, ‘the monk’, ‘militant Sinhala-Buddhism’, ‘the armed forces’ or in this case the ex-military, and the disempowerment of the politicians–that gave birth to the Alt-Right turn. It did not arise from the Nugegoda platform of February 18th 2015, the womb of the Joint Opposition (JO) or of the later phenomenon, the Pohottuwa.
The ideology of the Sinhala Alt-Right is an imagined model of society from an ancient time and of an ancient time, which is sought to be imposed finally, albeit in a disguised and updated form, on Sri Lanka in the 21st century. Like the pods or eggs in Ridley Scott’s movie Alien, the ideology has been incubating in the dankness for a long time.
However, not even the most moderate Tamil political parties and leaders will go along with that blueprint. One of the most significant encounters of recent times had taken place at the 91st anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, between two personalities with military backgrounds, one a former military officer and the other a former guerrilla leader. In an important interview, the Sunday edition of The Island surfaces and captures that conversation, in the ‘Politics’ column of CA Chandraprema, the author of the book ‘Gota’s War’:
“Q. You seemed to indicate that the former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa also had a negative impression about you. Do you have a problem with Gota?
A. I will not say yes or no. The other day I met him casually at the PLA anniversary celebrations hosted by the Chinese Embassy. I took up two issues with him. He had said that when the government disarmed all the groups in the North, that Douglas Devananda and Siddharthan were reluctant to comply. I told him, that kind of statement is politically damaging to us. The other issue that I took up with him was his recent statement that the Tamil People’s problem is an economic problem. The economic problems that the Tamil people have are common to all the people in this country. But as Tamils we have a different political issue as well. We have to cater to that too. After the Indo-Lanka Agreement we gave up arms. From that time, my position has been to implement the 13th Amendment in full. At the last election, the TNA promised the sun and the moon and got votes. That is not my style of doing things. I will only talk about what is practically feasible. The implementation of the 13th Amendment in full is something that I can accept and I can campaign on that basis as well.”
Douglas Devananda has worked with every Sri Lankan government starting with that of President Premadasa. He and Dharmalingam Siddharthan of PLOT are the only Tamil leaders who are willing to settle for the full implementation of the 13th amendment. Beyond him are those who variously want federalism, federalism and self-determination and self-determination up to separate state. So Douglas is as good as it gets and it is going to get. And this is his bottom-line. This is the impasse which cannot be overcome by the Sinhala Alt-Right.
We do not live in a mythical past and it cannot be recreated or acted upon. This doesn’t mean that there will not be an attempt, costing the country in “blood and treasure”. What it does mean is that there will be no takers for it outside the Sinhala Alt-Right cultural and civilizational zone, which does not envelop the whole island. Neither will it sit well with the world.