By Uditha Devapriya –
The problem with political nationalists is that they are qualitatively and temperamentally inferior to other nationalists. I neither subscribe to nor do I oppose elevating a nationalist campaign through the Parliament, but I am wary of career politicos who seem to use rhetoric to get power and then belittle those who helped them. That is why, as a citizen of Sri Lanka and an observer of its political shifts, I am also wary of those touted as the salvation for the problems afflicting this country. This of course brings me back to my first point. Political nationalists are exactly that: political. If we extrapolate from this premise, we can add that they are also amateurs.
When a set of professionals (lawyers, accountants, engineers etc) came together for an event at the Golden Rose in Boralesgamuwa, not many noticed. I did see newspaper articles touting it as being successful, but I did not bother to check out why. That is, until Dr Dayan Jayatilleka in an article summing up a speech he gave there caught my attention. The speech, I have not read. The summary, I have. This week’s column is about the political nationalist he singles out for praise, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. At the inception therefore, I insert a caveat: I neither oppose nor support the man.
In my column last week, I referred to the above class as professional nationalists, whom the Mahinda Rajapaksa cabal knows only well. This class is different to the rabble-rousing rural folk that is the base of that cabal. It was this class, not the rural folk, which stood behind S. L. Gunasekara and his attempts to form a Sinhala nationalist party. With that party, the Sihala Urumaya, Gunasekara and his cohorts (including the now dormant Malinga Gunaratne and the late A. V. D. S. Indraratne) tried to complete what S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike idealised but could not achieve: the coming together of BOTH Buddhist AND non-Buddhist Sinhalese politically.
To understand the professional nationalist class and the underside to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it would pay well to revisit history. The Sihala Urumaya was both birthed by and opposed to the nationalist tenets espoused by the Jathika Chinthanaya, which in turn was formulated by Professor Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara. Both Nalin and Gunadasa were political at the outset, and both (barring the latter’s early years in the South) were bred in the city. That it was disconcerting to come across their explicit repudiation of Western science and literature is another story altogether, but for now, what’s important is that the Sihala Urumaya was an offshoot of all this, though as Malinda Seneviratne points out, there were other attempts to come up with a similar political party.
I have come to believe that there’s no such thing as a pure follower of a religion, ANY religion. There are no pure Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and from that premise, Buddhists. Because I am a Buddhist, I am qualified (I hope) to suggest that there are only two kinds of Buddhists in this country: the Sinhala Buddhist and the Olcott Buddhist. The latter term was formulated, not by me, but by Nalin de Silva. It remains a cornerstone in his philosophy. What is pertinent to note, then, is that the Sihala Urumaya and its avatars depended on this “Olcottised” professional class. It is from here, and not the village, that the Mahinda Rajapaksa cabal has picked up a campaign to promote the most enigmatic of the Rajapaksa brothers, Gotabaya.
What does Gotabaya Rajapaksa bring with him? He has experience in the military. Some say that he preferred the backbench to the frontlines. Such accusations, however, can’t be verified. Temperamentally, he stands between Sarath Fonseka and Wasantha Karannagoda, the former prone to outbursts, the other not. He was hence a mediator in those difficult war years, when a cohesive strategy transcending personal vendettas was needed to defeat the LTTE. I believe that when history is written and the Rajapaksas are assessed 50 years from now, this will be Gotabaya’s biggest legacy. That is why I am grateful, as a Sri Lankan and a young patriot. My gratitude, however, does not forbid criticism.
The biggest black-mark against the man is his authoritarian streak. Taken by itself, this is not indefensible. That authoritarian streak got Colombo cleaned and gave the military a civilian function in maintaining our suburbs. Statistics tell us that this same military opposed him in the 2015 Election, though whether that was due to his authoritarianism we do not know. We do know, however, that time and time again, he has given the impression of harbouring a raging beast within him, which he has unleashed on those who refuse to toe the line. Because nothing is ever sacrosanct, except in the political field, it’s disheartening to come across instances where he resorted to force and filth to do away with his dissidents, even if it was done to end the war. The end never does justify the means, after all.
Owing to this, I agree with Dr Dayan when he compares Gotabaya to Mahathir Mohomad and Lee Kuan Yew. Both Mahathir and Lee are celebrated today by the SLFP and the UNP, for transforming their economies to middle-class, consumerist societies. They can be forgiven for sweeping away the fact that for such a transformation to take place, the media had to be gagged and the opposition (which in Singapore’s case was never a problem, because there wasn’t one) eliminated. Gotabaya fits both these visionaries because he at least superficially harbours a combination of brutality and efficiency, which defines the kind of administrator that the professional nationalists adulate.
In fact, what Dr Dayan says in his article interests me because the people he alludes to bring up our collective, non-partisan, and politically neutral admiration for men of force. It is this mutual admiration for such men (not women, owing to how patriarchal politics still is in Asian societies) which tripped even intellectuals like Professor H. L. Seneviratne, who devoted three-quarters of his book The Work of Kings cautioning against the Left’s rationalisation of autocracy in Sri Lanka before praising Lee Kuan Yew and suggesting that Sri Lanka (or Ceylon) would have profited with a Singaporean political model. It comes to no surprise then, that die-hard UNPers I have met have told me that even they would vote for Gotabaya should he contest without bringing in ethnicity.
Which brings me to the second biggest black-mark against the man. Gotabaya is loathed by extremists in the Tamil community for having masterminded the defeat of their hero, Prabhakaran. That is understandable BUT NOT condonable. He is also loathed by the Muslim community for what they perceive to be his role in the formation of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). That is understandable AND condonable.
In other words, the hatred against him by the former is based on an irrational premise, while the hatred against him by the latter is based on a more empathetic premise. Regardless of their political affiliations, Muslims believe they have a reason to fear a Rajapaksa Resurgence in the form of a Gotabaya Presidency and Mahinda Premiership (the scenario that Dr Dayan envisages). That is why I have always considered him a dangerous man: not because he is the stuff that amateur, career politicos are made of, but because he projects an image of himself that is disturbingly incongruent with how he is perceived by the Ethnic Other.
Of all the Rajapaksa brothers, he is the most placid. Mahinda by contrast is more open. He has his sons. He has his family. He has ensured that even those who support him are wary of his offspring. Gotabaya, on the other hand, is not tainted this way. That is why I was not surprised when, at the launch of Kamal Gunaratne’s book Road to Nandikadal, everyone got up unanimously when he came in with the kind of hallowed silence that did not greet Mahinda (who had come earlier). This may or may not be rooted in his militaristic outlook on politics. Whatever the reason, we now know that Project Gotabaya (as my friend Hafeel Farisz, who countered Dr Dayan’s assertions in a separate article last week) has been helped by the fact that historically since independence, the Sri Lankan polity has always preferred order to chaos, and authoritarianism to anarchy.
Why has that been the case? Simply because nearly every political and personal difference between the two mainstream parties in this country has been erased by a common factor: the mainstream’s opposition to the Liberal Left. Gotabaya is to the Sinhala and Olcott Buddhists what Ranil Wickremesinghe is to the Cinnamon Gardens and Reid Avenue elite. Just as much as there is no real qualitative difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States, there is no difference between the UNP and the SLFP, both of which are unified by their electorate’s admiration for men of force. Whether you agree with them or not, the professional nationalist class adores Gotabaya owing to this.
Again though, why has that been the case? The answer can be found in the role the Liberal Left played in perpetuating a federalist discourse in the SLFP. It was Vijaya Kumaratunga who (despite being the husband of S. W. R. D.’s own daughter) shifted that party from a populist-nationalist to a federalist-devolutionist outfit. I have explored this in an earlier column.
Not even the UNP, whether under J. R. Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, or (at least until the turn of the millennium) Ranil Wickremesinghe subscribed to the ideology which defined this new SLFP. Because voters felt betrayed and disenchanted by a party that was fast rejecting the values they had stood for, they found their saviour in Mahinda. Since Mahinda was seen as cohabiting with the same Liberal Left (or Old Left) which had been responsible for this paradigm shift in the party, they then shifted their allegiance to Gotabaya, who staunchly opposes the 13th Amendment. That is why it is the Elder Brother, not the Former President, who covets more attention from the Professional Nationalists (or “ProNats” as I like to call them).
Which brings me to another issue. The ProNats are part and parcel of the same hybrid class which spawned the Olcott Buddhists. This hybrid class has unearthed the fatal self-contradiction at the heart of the urban nationalist movement, which I will explain now.
With respect to the urban nationalist movement here, I can only think of Gevindu Cumaratunga, Malinda Seneviratne, Gunadasa Amarasekara, Nalin de Silva, and the rest of the Jathika Chinthanaya group as ideologues that are not enamoured of the brand of Westernisation they repudiate in their writings. I am worried, however, about the next generation, because the same ideologues that reject Westernisation let their offspring wallow in it, often at the same elite schools they condemn as being culturally castrated. Let’s not forget that this is the same self-contradiction and disjuncture we saw and see between the Rajapaksa Elders and the Rajapaksa Progeny. Such a disjuncture, we have not yet seen with Gotabaya.
Someone once chided me recently by saying, “We should protect Buddhism from Sinhala Buddhists like you!” Agreed. That, however, does not shield the Olcott Buddhist or the ProNat. As I pointed out in the beginning, though, there are no pure Buddhists. Tainted as we are by political nationalists, we can hence only conjecture as to what Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with or without Dr Dayan’s prognostications, will do IF he wins the Presidency in 2020. Until then, I can only say what a Muslim friend of mine told me the other day: if the ProNats find themselves pitted against Gotabaya one day, the man will not hesitate to politically eliminate even them. That is why he can correctly be identified as a dangerous man. Not because he is a raving lunatic, but because of all the nationalist politicians we have now, he is the least amateurish.
Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com