By Harsha Gunasena –
Sinhala Buddhists in this country guided by the Buddhist way of life, had big hearts over the centuries in ethnic relationships. Although at present the ethnicity, religion and caste are considered as a prerequisite for national leadership, in the history we had kings with different ethnicities with the concurrence of the people in several instances. They were not invaders who grabbed the power by force although we had number of such kings. For example, Nissanka Malla who ruled the country for nine years (1187-1196) in Polonnaruwa era was not of Sri Lankan origin. This practice maintained by us over millennia was closer to that of current democracies. Examine the status of India in this respect. Practicing Buddhism was mixed with Hinduism from the Polonnaruwa era onwards. Even in today there is no difference. Muslims of Sri Lanka had very good relationship with the Kings and the people about a millennium until 1915 riots. There were instances that the mosques were built in temple land and they were fulfilling their rajakariya at temples including Dalada Maligawa. It was the Sinhala Buddhists and their kings who protected Roman Catholics from Protestants during the Dutch rule in coastal areas.
Ananda College where Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) was educated was started as an English Buddhist school emphasizing on the religion and not the ethnicity to counter the maltreatment received by the Buddhists from the State. The movement was against the oppressor and the oppression. There were number of Tamil and Muslim teachers at Ananda. The vision of the forefathers of Ananda and the legendary principal P. De S. Kularatne was not against other religions but against the undue oppression of Buddhism by the State. Kularatne encouraged T.B. Jayah, who was a teacher at Ananda, to take over the leadership of Zahira College and also sent several teachers from Ananda to Zahira. That was perfectly in line of his vision and the vision of Ananda. Ethnicity came into Ananda College during the time of L. H. Mettananda and by the time GR was educated there it was transformed to a mere Sinhala Buddhist school undermining the spirit of the great struggle spearheaded by Ananda College against the oppression.
This new trend of ethnocentrism emerged as a result of social conditioning of the Buddhist revival movement started in the late 19th century. The Buddhist revival movement was started to regain the due status of Buddhism in the affairs of state, but in the process, antagonism was created against the other ethnicities and religions among the masses. Persons like Kularatne carefully managed this situation in Ananda College and our national leaders failed to do that. That social conditioning was capitalized by subsequent political leaders to capture power. As a response to this Tamils and Muslims have also undergone a social conditioning against the Sinhalese.
The election campaign of GR was designed aiming at the votes of majority Sinhala Buddhists. It was the ideology of Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) camp as well in 2015 Presidential Election where they failed. In this instance GR succeeded. He acknowledged that in his inaugural speech as well. However, unlike to the previous Heads of State, GR seems to be ignoring the interests of the minorities altogether. This dirty game of bringing ethnicity and religion to politics was introduced by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike but he knew what was just and fair and that was why he entered into Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact. He did not have a back borne to defend it. GR seems to be honest compared to his predecessors including his brother and for him it was not just an election rhetoric. What is most probable is that he wants to hold on to the so-called winning formula in the light of deteriorating popularity, but it is fast becoming the loosing formula.
Ethnocentrism, the guiding star of GR presidency started to play havoc. For instance, we can take the issue of the cremation of the dead bodies affected by Covid-19. It was reported that neither the Cabinet nor the Foreign Ministry was aware of the request by Sri Lanka to bury the bodies of Sri Lankan Muslims affected by Covid-19 in Maldives. It was the President who requested that. When I heard about the request, I felt ashamed since he was our President. What a mentality to have that type of request from a foreign country. If we compare our President with the Prime Minister of New Zealand what a gap we see in relation to empathy.
There is enough evidence put forward by the specialist medical professionals of the relevant field supporting the burial. There are WHO guidelines supporting the burial. There are human right guidelines supporting the burial. I do not believe that my body should be buried and not cremated when I am dead but if someone believes that his or her body should be buried, I wholeheartedly support that. This democratic principle of respecting the views of the others especially who represent views of small groups or of minority ethnic and religious groups is alien in the ethnocentric ideology. It is more dangerous when this ethnocentrism is mixed with militarism. All of them are more concerned of the spread of the virus from dead bodies and blind to the ineffective control of spreading of the virus from live bodies. Hence, they are not really concerned of the spread of virus but want to counter the belief that the dead bodies should not be cremated. If the science says that the bodies affected by the disease should be cremated those should be cremated and if the science says that the bodies affected by the disease should be buried those should be buried irrespective of their beliefs.
The people of this country should understand that nationalism or patriotism is not ethnocentrism. We all, including Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa are patriots. The only issue is that sometimes self- interest overshadows patriotism. People should have their ethnic identities, but nationalism is much broader. Humanity is the broadest. In the present day certain political leaders look beyond nationalism. GR and his counterpart in India are with ethnocentric ideals.
Narendra Modi is destroying the secular ideals carefully built up by Mahatma Gandhi and trying to uplift the values of Vinayak Savarkar, the forerunner of Hindutva movement. Jinnah’s Pakistan was religionized by subsequent military leaders and they are feeling the consequences now. Similarly, Modi can do it in the short run and the repercussions will be felt by the new generation. He can do it since his party is stronger and the country is stronger. Donald Trump did a similar thing in US against the liberal ideals evolved over centuries and he had to get his term limited by the people. Sri Lanka cannot do it since the country is weaker.
The economy of the country is in doldrums due to bad financial management and corruption of successive governments and of cause with Covid-19. Fiscal consolidation is the key to stabilization of a country in the situation of Sri Lanka which was initiated by Ranil Wickremesinghe government with much criticism of the private sector which is concerned of their pockets only like all the stakeholders in Sri Lanka. This government has abandoned it. They were so keen to throw it away altogether and, in the run, they have abolished the PAYE as well which was not a tax but a mode of collecting a tax in advance. The private sector did not utter a word. Downgrading by Rating Agencies causing higher interest rate for sovereign borrowings amid the pandemic could have been countered if the country were progressing towards fiscal consolidation.
We would be able to see the fireworks with the introduction of the new constitution minus the provincial councils which will provoke the minorities as well as India which is firmly aligned with USA. The incoming Biden administration will closely work with its allies including the EU and Britain where our export market is. The myopic thinkers of GR camp will push the country towards China, of which the autocratic and unaccountable governing system is the desire of that camp.
Internal as well as the external factors are interconnected, and the policies of the government seems to be driving the country to the bottom of the spiral. The performance of the government and especially the President is disastrous. Most of the time what the government says in defense of its actions are ridiculous. Rapiyel Tennakoon, a leader of Hela Havula of Munidasa Kumaratunga once said that two leaders of Sri Lanka who were excessively dependent of Bhikkus in governance had to sacrifice their lives. One was Sirisangabo and the other was Bandaranaike. Present vociferous political Bhikkus are empty persons (Mogha Purisā) who know neither politics nor Dhamma so that the President does not have to depend on them. Former President J.R.Jayewardene once refused to negotiate with one of them, the president of the nurses’ union.
At the Presidential Election of 2005 MR had a narrow victory over Ranil Wickremesinghe with a majority of 180,000 votes. Ranil Wickremesinghe who spearheaded the peace talks had the support of the moderate Tamil people. Prabhakaran ordered Tamil people not to vote at the Presidential Election. Hence the victory of MR was secured. MR did not have initial plans to end the conflict by war, but the circumstances led him to take that route. It was Prabhakaran who blocked the Mavil Aru dam and created the conditions for the war. MR has given the political leadership to the war and he had a good team to perform that task. Hence Prabhakaran selected his Waterloo.
The Sinhala Buddhist ethnocentrism was the creator of the conditions of the ethnic conflict and thereby the thirty-year long war. Ethnocentrism of Sri Lanka has come to its peak with the Presidency of GR. Ethnocentric actors in the government are bringing that ideology in to the level that they antagonize the right-thinking locals as well as the international community. As all the previous 2/3rd majority governments thought and acted, they think they can do whatever they want. We can see in future whether the Sinhala Buddhist ethnocentrism has selected its Waterloo by appointing GR as the president and giving him 2/3rd majority in the Parliament. The sad part is that all the citizens of Sri Lanka will have to face the consequences.
The country needs a course correction at this point. The country was governed by dishonest leaders over a period. Rebellions were launched against them unsuccessfully and the society did not learn lessons out of that. It is going in the same track. After 72 years of independence, we do not have a constitution acceptable to all. Having centralized the power vertically, the new constitution which is going to be introduced would be the most disastrous one with centralization of power horizontally as well. There is a need of restructuring the current systems of governance, judiciary, and public service. Therefore, we should start the preparation of a constitution which would be the forerunner of a people’s movement aimed at changing the direction of the country. This would be an alternative to the short-term objectives of the politicians of grabbing the power next time.