By Rajan Philips –
Sri Lanka is the fortuitous recipient, even beneficiary, of two enlightenments. The first is bodhi – the Buddha’s awakening, or enlightenment. It is also the much older of the two, divinely pre-ordained to some, and spiritually and ritually cherished by millions of Sri Lankans. The second, European enlightenment, came from the west through colonial conquest and ironically with an admixture of Christianity and secularism. ‘Everything came from elsewhere’ – to paraphrase from Dr. Colvin R de Silva’s history lesson to Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike, delivered in parliament in 1975, following the breakup of the United Front government. The Prime Minister had trotted out the trite argument that the Marxist ideology (of the LSSP) is alien to Sri Lanka’s culture and traditions. As the past master of intellectual rebuttals Dr Colvin could not have had an easier proposition to dispose of: Sri Lanka is an island, small as islands go, intoned the Historian; people and ideas always came from the outside; Hinduism and Buddhism of old came from India; much later came Islam from west Asia, Christianity with western colonial rule and, finally, modern Marxism itself.
In the spirit of enlightened synthesis, it is fair to ask how well, or ill, have the two enlightenments intertwined through our modern history to the point where we are today? The results are mixed, at best, or worrisome, at worst, with perhaps greater reason for less pessimism today than there was, say, in 1983. Vesak is the celebration of Sri Lanka’s first enlightenment. The celebrations might be subdued this year, but the lights of Vesak could not have been timelier than now to soothe the frayed nerves of an agitated people. The country seemed to be on track to normalcy after the Easter tragedies, but the forces of darkness emerged out of nowhere last Sunday and put the country back on edge and under curfew again. Violent mobs targeted and attacked innocent Muslims in the Kurunegala, Chilaw and Gampaha districts, in a pointless retaliation to the perishing of innocent Christians on Easter Sunday.
Although order seems to have been restored somewhat, it was frustrating to see the government failing yet again to anticipate and prevent the outbreak of violence, and being slow and tepid in its response once violence broke out. Compounding the government’s failure in crisis management is its failure to manage its messaging. In fact, there is no coordinated and credible government messaging at all. The huge void in official information is being filled by others from well-meaning religious leaders to over-zealous media speculators.
In a crisis situation, public pronouncements or information sharing by non-officials, however well placed, well-meaning and even ecclesiastical, can do more harm than give help. It is again a sign of the lack of confidence in the government that everyone wants to go public with whatever hearsay information they come across. The social media offers unrestricted space to anyone to pose anything anyone wants. And an inept government trying to control the social media creates more cynicism than confidence among the people.
Frustrations with government failures are the lot of Sri Lanka’s experience with the second enlightenment that arrived with Western colonial rule. While Buddhism and its ethos permeate and inform much of the culture and mores of Sri Lanka, its political society and institutions have been defined and shaped for nearly two hundred years by the enlightenment and institutions from the West. As many of us have been repeatedly writing in recent weeks, the Easter tragedies brutally exposed the fault lines of the political society and the failures of the State institutions. We saw more of the same last week.
The President was again missing in action and out of the country. For what earthly purpose no one knows. The Prime Minister took his own time before bestirring himself to show some signs of control. Not only who is to blame, as I asked last week, the question is also: Just who is in charge? Not to be too harsh, it is difficult not to say that it looks as if everyone is in charge except the government. In hindsight, the 19th Amendment should have addressed the intended omission in the 1978 Constitution to provide for an Acting President while the President is away. The President just takes off without asking anyone to act on his behalf during his absence. That leaves the administration paralyzed in two camps under the current divided government. The divisions and paralyses are quite palpable, and it does also seem that the President and the Prime Minister like to keep it that way. And without term limits, if they could.
Apart from harming innocent people and disrupting the social peace, mob violence diverts the attention and resources of security agencies who are still trying to identify the local actors behind the Easter attacks and their international connects. New information keeps coming out about connections between those arrested in Sri Lanka in connection with Easter bombings and their networking in India. It is one thing to trace and apprehend all the local actors, but quite a different task to trace through all their external connections.
Those who are involved in the work of tracing the ISIS network in Sri Lanka would rather be without having to be distracted by outbreak of mob violence. And new recruits to the ISIS network cannot be prevented if mobs are continually organized to attack innocent Muslims, their Mosques and their businesses. Mob attacks are not at all the way to deal with international terrorism. There is no question that without the attacks on Muslims in 2014 (Aluthgama) and in 2018 (Kandy and Ampara), the ISIS would not have been able to get agents in Sri Lanka to the extent it seems to have been able to do. In the current situation, the government cannot afford to allow mob attacks against the Muslims to recur time after time and in different places.
Sri Lanka has long experience with communal mob violence. Five of them in the last century and three so far for this century including the one last week. The first was in 1915 and brought to surface the internal conflicts of nascent nationalism in a plural society under colonial rule. All the others came after independence and the first of them, in 1958, became remarkable among its other implications for the clinical manner in which it was brought under control by Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, as Governor General acting on the request of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike. Sir Oliver’s 1958 example has not been emulated in the containment of the riots that came in quick succession after a lapse of 19 years: in 1977, 1981 and 1983. This was so despite Sri Lanka’s transition in 1977/78 from the parliamentary of government to the current presidential system. The pattern has continued into this century in 2014, 2018 and 2019.
The deterioration in political crisis management has a lot to do with the steep decline in police standards, which were very and were impeccably observed in Sir Oliver’s time to what they have become now. Since 1977, governments, police and security forces have shown a consistent pattern of being slow to respond to mob violence, responding only half-heatedly, and even acting at the behest of the attackers rather than to protect the attacked. Two other changes since 1977 too have lot to do with two aspects of the current Muslim question. President Jayewardene’s idiosyncratic approach to expanding a private education system, while undermining the country’s public-school system and educational regulations, could be totally blamed for the anarchical proliferation of madrasas among the Muslims and apparently against the warnings of all the moderate Muslims.
The proliferation of madrasas as well as mosques was also aided and abetted by President Jayewardene’s electorally cynical creation of religious affairs Ministries for Sri Lanka’s four religions. No previous government or Prime Minister has ever done that in Sri Lanka, and President Jayewardene was able to do this because he made himself Executive President, and he chose to do it in order to create secure religious vote banks for himself and his successors in presidential elections. The religious affairs ministries have done nothing spiritually, but have become outlets for handing out favours and buying back votes.
One of the sources of anti-Muslim provocations in coastal areas has been the construction of buildings, businesses and settlements on authorized lands and against normal regulations, which were enabled through the intercession of Muslim politicians. This again fits into the general pattern that began in 1977 when government MPs who could not be made ministers were given the political license to start their own, or invest in ‘businesses’ from private transport to, shops and hotels. The 2004 tsunami brought to a halt the unauthorized encroachments in coastal areas, but that barrier too was swept away when ‘disaster capitalism’ returned in the name of post-tsunami reconstruction. The big hotels became the biggest beneficiaries. At the bottom of the pile were little shops and other businesses which became a constant source of communal irritations.
JRJ’s well laid plan started breaking up in 1994, and is now in total shreds. And there have been more riots, more killings and even wars after 1977 than any time before in Sri Lanka’s modern history. The Vesak intervention this weekend will hopefully quieten and marginalize the dark forces who mobilized and executed last week’s mob violence. It would be too much to expect a weekend of Vesak lights to clean up all the accumulation of the country’s dark forces after 1977. But they provide a breather after the tumults of the last month. Hopefully too, they would also set the tone for greater respect and tolerance of multiple differences that have always defined and often enrich the Sri Lankan population.