By Siri Gamage –
Dayan Jayathilleka seems to be on a mission in a hurry! Ever since the previous Rajapaksa regime was overthrown by the voters on January 8th 2015, he has been putting out a large number of articles to various media claiming now there is an ‘existential threat’ to the Sinhalese from various sources including the Tamils. He seems to be trying to be the theoretician for the defeated political forces, as Anton Balasingham was to Prabhakaran, and continue to justify the defeated Rajapaksa project by citing historical political figures and their thoughts. Intelligent people from all walks of life understand the folly of this project couched in Sinhala patriotic terms.
Rajapaksa is portrayed as the protector of Sinhala Buddhist Nation and in Jayathilleka’s words he restored the boundaries of the country after winning the war (No one would argue this latter point though many including Sarath Fonseka contributed to this result). He does not speak about how the regime used this ‘protector façade’ to build an empire while severely curtailing the media, brutalising society and civic activists, centralising power and favoring family members in government appointments, politicising the foreign service (a subject he should be familier), intrusions into rule of law, corruption through mega deals (according to media), increased taxes, creation of an expensive provincial political mafia, and much more. These are minor matters for him that should be ignored. What matters is to beat the drum of ‘an existential threat’ while conniving with the defeated political forces, including the parasitic deshapremis and leftists, and try to reconstruct a political discourse that was rejected by the majority of voters on the 8th of January.
Let’s look at the nature of this political discourse that he is trying to reconstruct and give lifeblood by writing non-stop to various media outlets. It is none other than ‘majoritarian Sinhala nationalism’ though he makes musings about Sri Lankan identity in the course of doing so. The Sinhala nation that he and his political colleagues are trying to use as the flag post for their failed project is an ‘exclusionary one’. It excludes ‘significant others’ such as the Tamils as a group from the national political equation. It is essentialist in nature in the sense that only Sinhalese can belong in it. No one else. He says that the Sinhalese nation should have more rights compared to ethnic minorities. In other words, the Tamils can’t have same powers as the Sinhalese. The Tamils can have cultural rights not political rights equal to the Sinhalese (See his article dated march 7th, 2015 in CT).
These are very narrow racialist -not nationalist-views being pumped out almost on a daily basis through various media to provide currency and reconstruct a failed discourse together with the failed Rajapaksa project within which he seems to imagine a future for himself and other Sinhalese politicos beating the patriotic drum. This looks like the Bhumiputra concept adopted by Malaysian governments (under this minorities had a rough deal), not necessarily enlightened or humanistic views that should come from an academic, though a politically partisan one in that. In a post-war context where reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamils should be the main focus, repeating the mantra of Sinhala nationalism, an existential threat, denial of legitimate rights of the Tamils as equal citizens etc. can have far-reaching consequences for the harmony and well-being of society.
I have nothing against Sinhala Nationalism, if it is used to rally Sinhalese people for a constructive, less divisive cause. If it is an inclusionary ideology within which the minorities also have a defined place, it is even better. However, I am critical of attempts made by failed and supposedly corrupt politicians and their theoretical gurus like Jayatilleka trying to use Sinhala Nationalism for (self serving) political gain. Instead of racially defined, exclusionary ideologies of majoritarian nation, nationalism, etc. what the country needs is an all-embracing, inclusive political and social ideology and practice to move forward as a reconciled political entity away from the dynastic project and crony capitalism that denied the masses their due and only a few benefitted (Q How many billions of dollars do we owe to China? Is it not an existential threat?). I am not sure whether this will be possible under the new government but at least some clear space has been opened for dialogue among diverse political and social forces after January 8th. Instead of sprouting narrow nationalistic – actually racist -views by claiming an existential threat, and remind the Tamils of their minority status, people like Jayatilleka should be using his intellectual faculties to come up with constructive ideas for the future harmony and well being of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans wherever they are and whoever they are.
I respect him for one thing though. Unlike some other so-called intellectuals from the universities and outside who simply appear on various party political platforms to justify party agendas like mindless trophies, in his case at least he is putting his views before the reading public in black and white. The fact that his recent writings are a part of a broader agenda for reviving a failed project and ideology that was suitable when George Bush was in power is a different matter. The world has moved on, so is Sri Lanka.
The problem with these ultra Sinhala nationalists who want to revive their failed political project by using patriotism and Sinhala nationalism is that they stir inter-racial fears and anxieties quite unnecessarily at a time reconciliation, mutual understanding, dialogue etc. have to be the norm of political and social discourse. They have nothing to say about good governance, rule of law, anti corruption, or human rights. What these pseudo deshapremis want to do is to revive the Rajapaksa theocratic paradigm cum dictatorial rule again in the guise of patriotism, safeguarding borders, and Sinhala nationhood. No wonder that Jayatilleka is working overtime to become the chief mullah of this imagined theocracy. Fortunately, thanks to a few enlightened political leaders including the present President and the PM plus 40 or so civil society organisations, the hidden agenda of the Rajapaksa regime was explained to the electorate before the last election against all odds. In that struggle of the common people demanding good governance, rule of law, democracy, fair play, media freedom, and a corruption-free government, Jayatilleka opted to take the defeated side instead of the liberalising and humanising side- probably a fatal miscalculation. Now he is engaged in a fruitless and valiant attempt to justify the unjustifiable by using most extreme majoritarian Sinhala racist views while directing those who read his daily feed to a highly biased fantasyland where the specter of an imagined Tamil, Indian and Western enemy is the main plank.
Sinhala nation, perhaps more accurately Sri Lankan nation, deserves better. If at all it needs a fresh ideology for managing future affairs within and beyond its borders. What it needs is a more balanced, timely, and inclusive ideology of nationhood and national identity where everyone can feel at ease irrespective of their colour, gender, religion, language or ethnic identity. While retaining ethnic identities as they are, this national identity has to be one derived from and based upon, among others, modern principles of coexistence, democratic governance, rule of law, fair play, equity and mutual respect. Not through redefining the nation in terms of majority and minorities in which the majority becomes the all-powerful arbiter, rule maker (and breaker), and minorities become the less worthy follower while only being able to enjoy cultural rights. Political power sharing arrangement may be an integral aspect of a new Lanka identity but this is something that needs to emerge through dialogue, negotiation, and transaction among political leaders, not through the daily sermons of Jayatilleka with full of academic jargon. No matter how much noise he makes from the defeated opposition side, the democratic and humanising forces that brought about the change on January 8th will not succumb to such pressure applied from the margins.
Jayatilleka’s extreme discourse has run its course full steam until 8th January 2015. He can devote his lifetime to bring back Rajapaksa theocracy and the dynastic project but the masses from all corners of the island have moved on. They fully understood the three faced nature of the Rajapaksa project, one couched in Sinhala patriotism and Buddhism, the next an expansive economic project that benefitted his kith and kin, and finally the ambition expressed via constitutional amendments to stay in power in perpetuity. At the last election, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people understood the threat to their existence coming from the elaborate Rajapaksa dictatorial and dynastic project rather than ‘an invisible existential threat’ from the Tamils and the West.
If we learned any lesson from the 30-year war, it is that the country needs to develop and promote a Sri Lankan identity and inclusive nationhood rather than Sinhala or Tamil nationalism as such. This requires a clear vision (devoid of academic jargon), a program of action, resources, and an understanding of the outcomes expected. However, while this all embracing Sri Lankan identity and nationhood need to be promoted by the powers that be and civic-religious organisations, schools and universities – ethno-specific identities and conceptions of nation can continue in their respective realms? These conceptions could be rooted in a range of Nation and Identity constructs –not necessarily majority-minority postulate, as Jayatilleka prefers. As Sri Lankans are now open to ideas from around the world due to their expatriate and diasporic experiences, there is no reason why they could not suggest newer strategies for the Sri Lankan identity and nationhood as well as ethno-specific identity and nationhood. Yet those defeated politicians and their academic gurus like Jayatilleka are trying to limit these conceptions of identity and nationhood only to one construct-which is majority-minority one -for obvious reasons.
In my previous article I pointed out some of the weaknesses and risks in Jayatilleka’s enunciation of these ideas (see Colombo Telegraph, March 7, 2015). I also raised a series of questions that he conveniently ignored. The whole purpose of my article was to show that there are multiple meanings of Nation depending on the context and the distinction between Nation and nation-State. Yet Jayatilleka’ mixes the two when he states that ‘Sri Lanka is too small for two states, two kingdoms’ (Colombo Telegraph, March 7, 2015). Can’t we talk about Nation or Nations within a State please? Writers like him equal the nation with state and even separation – the moment someone writes or talk about Tamil nation. They either can’t understand the multiple meanings of Nation or do not care.
The net implication of Jayatilleka’s exposition in his article dated March 7th, 2015 is that the Tamils should be considered second-class citizens due to their minority status. Over and over again, he reminds Tamils that they are a minority with no political rights equal to the majority. Look at this statement: ‘Tamil nationalism believes in such lunacy which turns a majority and a minority into equals and abolishes in their collective mind, the fact of being a minority’ (CT, March 7, 2015). What is wrong in Tamils asking for equality, equal treatment, equal rights within a unitary Sri Lanka? Nation and Nationhood is not the preserve of one ethnic group alone, as Jayatilleka surmises. He doesn’t stop there. He advocates a ‘monist and unipolar’ political ideology for the country – not a pluralist one. This goes against the understandings of millions of Sri Lankans about their society as a pluralist, culturally and ethnically diverse one. Nonetheless, advocacy of a unipolar and monist ideology fits very well with the Rajapaksa project that was rejected by the people. Yet this pundit keeps beating the same drum to rally round unsuspecting Sri Lankans for a lost cause-as if it is his full time job.
Finally, I must say a word on another strange idea that he uses to reject my views by playing the man rather than the ball. According to Jayatilleka, the fact that I work and live in Australia (ie.expatriate Dr. Siri Gamage) is a reason he applies to show that the views I express have no validity or they have less validity. The fact that he lives and work in Sri Lanka is a qualification to make his views more valid and legitimate (CT, March 7, 2015). This is a highly narrow and even pathetic view considering the fact that there are now over a million Sri Lankans like me working and living overseas. Do we not have a right to express an opinion, a viewpoint about topics such as the nation and Nation-State merely because of this fact? How many children of Sri Lankan academics, politicians, bureaucrats and professionals live in the USA, Australia, England, New Zealand and European and Asian countries? Should their views also be discarded as having less value? This shows the depth of narrowness and bankruptcy that Jayatilleka has gone into in his valiant attempt to revive a political discourse, i.e. majority-minority that was defeated by the people.
Seriously no one in their right mind is asking for two states. If anyone is asking it, do you think the countries that supported Rajapaksa government to defeat the LTTE will not support this government also even with more resources? Jayatilleka’s highly divisive attempt to label Sri Lankans as majority and minority and advocate the treatment of the minority unequally in a political sense can only contribute to the raising of racial tensions yet again. This is a time for all Sri Lankans to live with ‘unity in diversity’ as many other diverse and pluralistic nations do. It is not a time to remind ethnic minorities that they are inferior in someway compared to the majority because of the difference in population numbers. Instead, this is a time to welcome them to the fold as the current President is doing for securing a sustainable peace, well-being and long-term safety of all Sri Lankans.