By Ameer Ali –
The 74th Independence Day celebrations were somewhat subdued in pomp and pageant, partly because of the pandemic, which, contrary to what the government claims, is still spreading in spite of vaccination, and partly because of an unprecedented economic crisis without an end in sight. Although the first exacerbated the second, the severity of the latter was the combined outcome of mismatched policies from misunderstood theories implemented by misfit administrators. The regime conveniently scapegoats the pandemic for its diabolic mismanagement of the economy. Enough had been said on this and no need for further elaboration.
One would have expected therefore that Lankaeeswara Padmavibushan Gotabaya Rajapaksa (LPGR) the President would have shown some remorse in his Independence Day address for past mistakes and a fresh resolve to change direction towards better policies and governance. Instead, all that one heard was an arrogant determination to continue with the same strategies and blaming those who do not want to change, while colour coating his ideas with Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalistic pride. That pride underlined every point he made about Sri Lanka’s ancient past and recent history, and it was the most disturbing part of his address. In a sense, it drew out the regime’s battle line for a showdown with its opponents.
After naming, “Great Kings such as Dutugemunu, Valagamba, Maha Parakumba, Vijayabahu and Parakramabahu the Sixth”, without mentioning the Nayakkar Kings of the Kandyan Kingdom, who also “fought against foreign invaders”, and mentioning the vast stupas and irrigation tanks built by ancient Buddhist kings, omitting to mention the temples and reservoirs built by Tamil kings in the North, LPGR jumped to the recent victory against Tamil separatism and criticism of “forces against natural leadership”. Nowhere in his address the President even indirectly inferred to contributions made by minority communities to the economic growth and development of Sri Lanka. Instead, “When steering the country in the right direction”, he continued, “we know that the support of each and every person in the country cannot be expected. We are not ready to abandon our plans to the country’s future prosperity by looking upon those who will not change. Our objective is to do what is right by the country, and not to … please everyone”. Obviously, it was not an address intended to unite the nation but to divide it and his message was directed to be heard by that compartment of Sri Lankans who brought him and his government to power. The Fascist tone and dictatorial arrogance of the president was present in every bit of his address. He is appearing to be someone between Il Duce and der Fuhrer.
The greatest folly or rather crime committed by all national leaders of Sri Lanka since independence was the planned neglect to build “civic nationalism”, which derives its “political legitimacy not from ethnicity, religion, language, culture, or any of the immutable trappings that people acquire from birth, but from the consent and active participation of their citizens, as free members of a democratic polity” (Shashi Tharoor, The Struggle for India’s Soul, Hurst & Company , London, 2021, p. 15). “Whereas ethnic nationhood inheres in the body, civic nationalism appeals to the mind; it is a nationalism of constitutions and institutions you respect, rather than identities you are born into” (ibid). It was a planned neglect because political Buddhism, a radical ideology with little or no relevance to Buddha’s principles of state governance, played the most crucial role in making and unmaking governments with leaders prepared to listen to its call.
One thing that political Buddhism was not prepared to concede was to share sovereignty with other communities in the polity. A multi-religious and multi-cultural polity is anathema to political Buddhism. LPGR’s address to the nation is a total repudiation of civic nationalism and an open endorsement of ethnic nationalism shaped by political Buddhism. Prime Minister MR’s gauntlet thrown a few days ago from the Buddhist cultural capital Anuradhapura, at his “power hungry” opposition, gave the clearest indication of how the battle line would be drawn and what shape would it take when an electoral confrontation erupts.
During the last two years, in spite of repeated failures in economic management, clean government and foreign relations, the regime had shown an absolute commitment to strengthen its Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist credentials and a determination to take Sri Lanka ultimately towards a Buddhist state. Rajapaksa regime represents the acme of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Accordingly, not only that the regime spent public funds lavishly in constructing new and renovating existing Buddhist temples and stupas all over the country but it also encouraged Buddhist priests and their followers to vandalize and destroy holy places and shrines of other religious communities if those markers were found occupying venues of Buddhist remains. For example, the desecration of Neeraviyadi Pillaiyar Temple in Mullaitivu by cremating within its premises the dead body of a Buddhist priest and building a vihara next to it , the removal of Aathi Ayyanar Hindu Temple in Kurundoormalai and replacing it with a vihara in the same district, moves to destroy a mosque in Kuragala in Balangoda, stealthily planting Buddha’s statue in the vicinity of a mosque in Nelundeniya, confiscating the mosque in Mahara and converting it into a centre for Buddhist worship and recreation for prison guards and security forces – all these with the knowledge of the President – and the President’s exaggerated and highly publicized visits to Buddhist temples and veneration of Buddhist monks, are all aimed at demonstrating to the Buddhist public that Rajapaksas are the ones who would protect and promote Buddhism in this country, as if Buddhism is under some imminent danger of being wiped out.
While a disunited opposition concentrates attacking the regime on economic mismanagement, corruption and foreign policy bungling and expects that attack to sway the masses to its side, the regime dismisses all that as mere short-term difficulties that could be overcome in the long-run, and distracts Buddhist attention on prevention of threats to internal security, sovereignty and Sinhala Buddhist hegemony arising from “forces against national leadership”. What forces could they be other than diaspora communities working through the international community?
The President continues to reiterate his insistence on fulfilling duties first before claiming rights, and demands minorities to help in his development efforts, which in his view is the route to solve all ethnic problems. He is therefore not going to waste time addressing specific grievances raised by Tamils, Muslims and Catholics, thus leaving these communities no choice but to remain disconnected to the regime and seek help from outside. The regime is trying to sell this to its backers as organized sabotage by the disgruntled. With a pampered military to protect and battalions of pro-regime Buddhist monks – amongst a total of nearly 45,000 in that community – who would do door knocking to canvass support to the regime when they are summoned as in 2019, Rajapaksas are confidently readying for a final showdown. The opposition, which is disunited and unsure of how to respond to the vile aspirations of majoritarian nationalism is certain to face a tough challenge. The confrontation may even be bloody.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Management & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia