Colombo Telegraph

Dog-Whistle Racist Electioneering: Why Is The Nation Still Elusive To This Danger ?

By Lakmal Harischandra –

Lakmal Harischandra

If we are surprised today that Gotabaya’s camp is racist, we haven’t been paying attention. Even before they started their campaign, they have been proving it repeatedly. In fact, bigotry has been a part of SLPP’s public persona since their formation. The open embrace of racism as a political strategy is, however, a natural progression from the days of Post-war Rajapaksa regime. While this bigotry campaign against the minorities was then instinctive arising from MR’s attempt to project himself as the champion of the Sinhala Buddhist masses at the cost of the ‘other’, riding a continuing tide of Sinhala-nationalistic rhetoric as the man who won the war, it also served a political purpose. If one wants to see what happens when a political party unites around foul language and racist hatred spewed from the mouths of bigoted and opportunistic politicians, then follow the Dog-whistle racist political election campaign of the Pohottuwa camp. Sinhala Buddhist grassroots appear to fall for this line of campaigning, when the racist card is properly played. 

Today, the tradition continues, making the minorities both Tamil and Muslims weary and fearful of Gota’s possible election victory, while at the same time emboldening the die-hard racists like Gammanpila, Madhu Madhava, Eraj and Wimal Weerawansa to subdue the ‘other’. With Hiru and Derana openly advocating a ‘Pro Gota’ racist line, distorting the election speeches  of particularly the Muslim politicians (recent examples of Mujiber and Fawzie), Gota’s punch line is clear: win at any cost even if  a divisive nation is the ultimate result! 

In her 2006 book, Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia, Academic Amanda Lohrey writes that the goal of the dog-whistle is to appeal to the greatest possible number of electors while alienating the smallest possible number. In the Sri Lankan context, these opportunists are playing raw racist tunes to the Sinhala Buddhist gallery, with scant regard to the sensitivities of the Tamils and the Muslims. Dog Whistle racist politics however,  is not only limited to Sri Lanka.. In April 2016, Mayor of London and Conservative MP Boris Johnson was accused of “dog whistle racism” by Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Labour MP John McDonnell when Johnson suggested U.S. President Barack Obama held a grudge against the United Kingdom due to his “ancestral dislike of the British Empire” as a result of his “part-Kenyan” heritage, after Obama expressed his support for the UK to vote to remain in the European Union ahead of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. In the 2016 London Mayoral Election, Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith was accused of running a dog-whistle campaign against Labour’s Sadiq Khan, playing on Khan’s Muslim faith by suggesting he would target Hindus and Sikhs with a “jewellery tax” and attempting to link him to extremists. During the 2016 US presidential election campaign and on a number of occasions throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has been accused of using racial and anti-Semitic “dog whistling” techniques too. If racism is the new line of American politics, in what is considered the world’s largest democracy, why should it not be the policy of other democracies too? 

Where majority racism is the rising slogan of White America, the slogan of the MR/ Gota campaign appears to be ‘Make Sri Lanka Hate Again’ by taking a lesson from President Trump to ensure majority dominance in the country. During MR’s time, there was growing concerns over the widespread corruption and nepotism of his rule and his assaults on judicial and media freedom  as well as the apparent culture of impunity, appeared to dent his popularity. This does not mean that Sajith’s election will ensure a racist-free regime. With Champika Ranawaka’s influence bearing upon his campaign, and Yahapalana’s track record of allowing impunity to continue for racist attacks on Muslims and not fulfilling the promise to solve the Tamil grievances , there is no full assurance of a racism-free Sri Lanka. But, comparatively, Sajith Camp is a lesser evil. It is only the NPP camp of Anura KD which has persistently and consistently advocated that religion and race will not be part of their governing politics. Other two main contenders Gota and even Sajith will not give such an assurance. 

Both Mahinda and Gotabaya have been ramping up the unashamed Sinhala-nationalism rhetoric: the claim that they freed the nation from the tyranny of the Tigers. The duo’s message to the Sinhala majority has been designed to reinforce their conviction that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala nation, indivisible – and that the Tamils of the north and east must accept that, or have that forced upon them. The “national question” is the single most important issue facing Sri Lanka in Post war time. Yet it is the one issue on which you cannot find a sliver of difference between Rajapaksa and the Yahapalana duo – Maithri and RW. After the defeat of the Tigers, both let loose a string of Sinhala Buddhist extremist forces under various names and began to traumatize the next biggest minority-the Muslims. Even since them, Muslims have been undergoing immense suffering – hate attacks under the Yahapalana government which promised to punish the offenders of previous racist attacks. Comparatively, Gota’s camp calculates that the climate of Sinhala triumphalism following the war cannot be questioned if they are to win the key Sinhala vote. Thus the need for them to engage in racist politics more in a dog whistle fashion while appearing to appease both Muslims and Tamils by giving hypocritical assurances.

In the Post –Easter period, the realities have changed where anti-Muslim hate has become the new normal. The election campaign, therefore has to turn into a contest on who is tougher on Muslim militancy, putting the largely peaceful Muslim community under pressure. With the stature of Rajapaksas as the saviours  of the ‘Sinhala Buddhist people’, the post-attack situation has been creating a demand for their style because Sinhala Buddhist nationalists are going to say they need a dictator or a strong leader who can handle the national security threats. This is exactly what has been happening, if anyone is interested in observing the styles of electioneering. Earlier the Tamils were the targets, but now in the aftermath of the attacks carried out by suicide bombers who have been identified as well-educated local Muslims, the Muslim community have been facing the heat in the elections. The anti-Muslim racist card thus appears to be played in a subtle way as the main election campaign strategy of particularly the SLPP. 

Since Independence, the majority political class and their affiliates by their myopic political visions, parochialism and self interest have taken the country down the abyss leading towards a failed state. Communities have been disintegrating on racial and religious lines hitherto non-existent, militarizing society even in the absence of war. Today, the bankrupt political class having exhausted all the democratic options of coming to power by show of achievements and civilized means of meritocracy is thus using the racist card and racism as a political tool to gain power and to rule and squander the wealth of the nation in the name of race and religion. Buddhists and others must understand that the current conflict amongst them is orchestrated by the stooges of power that wishes to carve its own space to be in perpetual power. It is the responsibility of all communities not to be provoked by these manipulations and not to be distracted from the existential issues that they are suffering from due to political mismanagement. It is useful for the majority community to realise this truism and ensure  the long-term survival of Buddhism as a value based philosophy by saving the country from the scourge of racism and prevent Sri Lanka sliding to become an apartheid state.

A CPA study of hate speech on Facebook surrounding Sri Lanka’s Parliamentary Election of 2015, looked at the role of social media in racist political campaigning. It states, ‘The General Election in August 2015 saw the strategic use of social media as a tool for political campaigning and election related activity in Sri Lanka, with Facebook emerging as the most used social media platform used by candidates and political parties. Visible also was the phenomenon of supporters, friends and detractors of candidates openly posting material online via Facebook, in addition to the candidates themselves. The relatively greater freedom of expression found in social media as opposed to traditional media proved to be a double edged sword in that it also opened the door to individuals posting negative, defamatory and objectionable material targeting candidates and rival political parties. This included accounts and pages on Facebook set up for different purposes, which had previously posted or featured hate material targeting various minorities or groups. These accounts, groups and pages afforded a ready-made following of members who were arguably receptive to hate speech thinly veiled as political content. This phenomenon of existing Facebook groups, pre-dating the General Election, being appropriated for party political campaigning and propaganda couched in hate speech is a new development in Sri Lankan social media and politics’.

In that study, questions such as ‘Is the proliferation of online hate speech in Sri Lanka a slow ticking time bomb?’ and ‘What is the significance of election related online hate speech? “What role (if any) did social media play in the recently concluded Parliamentary (General) Election on 17 August 2015?, are posed by writer Nalaka Gunawardene and answers the question. ‘Many are asking this question – and coming up with different answers. That is characteristic of our new reality: there is no single right answer when it comes to multi-faceted and fast-evolving phenomena like social media. In the present analysis, hate content and their receptacles demonstrate that what drives these hate movements is the primary objective or cause of the page –which is essentially ultra-nationalist or racist’. 

‘The hate speech generated targeting a particular political party or candidate is a by-product of the existing biases of the Facebook group. The appropriation of these pages for party political or election related hate mongering is a temporary phenomenon, exploiting the opportunity (the election) to further the cause of the group, maximizing their effect as echo chambers for perpetuating hate. It is noted that some posts when viewed in isolation do not amount to hate speech. However, such posts harmless though they may appear at first glance, when viewed in the context of the purpose or cause of the Facebook group, the tone of posts and surrounding content, are clearly hate motivators. It must be noted that online hate speech is a growing menace and with time, has the potential to influence and radicalize youth’.

Perhaps, effective ways to tackle hate during election campaigns needs to be worked out by the government, the Elections Commission, political leaders and candidates both in respect of both online hate as well as hate used during campaigning as they did in the 2015 elections. CPA report specifies, ‘During the 2015 General Election, the Elections Commissioner established strict guidelines for parties, candidates and the media with regard to election campaigning. His office also established election complaint centres75and even a mechanism for lodging complaints of election law violations via SMS. Establishing reporting mechanism where candidates or the general public can report online abuse and hate speech where the Elections Commission can in turn investigate and report the offending Facebook page to be shut down, by Facebook itself. Political parties too can be vigilant and report offending pages. However, the fact remains that often Facebook pages which promote hate are shut down only to re-emerge under a new account name, seamlessly transferring the offensive content and their followers to flourish on a new page. Nevertheless, intervention of this nature can discourage hate speech mongering to some extent, sending a clear message of zero tolerance’

‘….Given our turbulent history, cultivation and protection of tolerance and mutual respect between ethnic, religious and other distinct communities is a herculean task, but not impossible. ‘Certain utterances achieve terrifying power, in the right context. In a climate of ethnic animosity, statements of ethnic pride are indistinguishable from insults against one’s opponents. And the converse is also true: Even the most hateful or incite-ful speech remains benign, if it has no audience or if its audience is firmly and explicitly determined to keep the peace’. Shrinking online space is not the answer; expanding the space for respectful and peaceful engagement is. It is a valuable lesson for Sri Lanka’

Sri Lanka’s religious minorities face violations of their constitutional right to religious freedom in many forms, including hate speech, discriminatory practices, threats and intimidation, destruction of property as well as physical violence. Ensuring the full rights and protections of all religious communities in the country is essential if Sri Lanka is to move forward from the traumas of its past towards a more peaceful and sustainable future. This therefore requires a clear commitment from the government, religious leaders, law enforcement and local communities to respect religious diversity and equality before the law. 

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