By Mass L. Usuf –
In political science, wrote BBC’s David Molloy, populism is the idea that society is separated into two groups at odds with one another – “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”, according to Cas Mudde, author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction. In Sri Lanka this definition may have to be revisited.
Guileless it may seem, political populism manifests itself glaringly in the propaganda posters of Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. The ubiquitous presence of Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s picture cannot miss our sight. Researches have shown that populism rides on the back of a mixture of sentiments some of which are fear, disappointment, national security, resentment towards racial and religious minorities. These are calculatedly driven into the minds of the people. Robert E. Litan, Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution notes, “Populists thrive in such environments, finding receptive audiences for easy targets to blame and simple solutions, and for divisive appeals that prompt angry rather than thoughtful responses by voters.”
Rightly so. Since the running government was voted into power it has failed to deliver on its solemn promises. Especially, in bringing to justice the corrupt bureaucrats, corrupt politicians and those accused of murders, killings, drug related offences, organised crimes etc. Not to act in these instances means to maintain the status quo and permit the proliferation of crimes and criminal activities besides encouraging nepotism and corruption.
What about accountability for the enforced disappearances? The ghosts (if any) of the likes of Prageeth Ekneligoda and the large number of people especially, from the North-East will continue to haunt civic consciousness. This is not about party politics but plain and simple human rights. By the way, an enforced disappearance occurs when a person is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization, or by a third party with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of a state or political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law. (Wikipedia).
Myopic and irrational
A coterie of monks in the hierarchical priesthood are seemingly in favour of a near totalitarian system. Clearly victims of blind populism in contrast to informed thought. These myopic and emotionally driven irrational views of the monks are detrimental to this country. Moreover, it proves how oblivious some of these monks are of the complexities of democracy and democratic form of government. The monks from their comfort zones should refrain from making irresponsible statements favouring their preferred individual or personality. The primary concern of the people is about what is democratically good for the nation. People do not want to turn this island into a North Korea. North Korea is officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea but, it is governed by an absolute dictatorship and there is no democracy. Can we allow the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka also to be like North Korea?
In an article titled, “The dangerous rise of populism: global attacks on human rights values” by Kenneth Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch, he has warned of a ‘new generation of authoritarian populists’. (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2017). They are democratically elected but transform into authoritarians and/or il-liberaltarians. He has named democratically elected leaders such as Filipino President Duterte, Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán and Indian Prime Minister Modi in the same breath as autocrats such as China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Putin and Syria’s Assad.
Venerable Wenduruwe Upali Thera, Anunayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter in June 2018 reportedly raised eyebrows with his sermon at a birthday celebration of Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday encouraging him to be like a Hitler who slaughtered six million Jews in the Holocaust and take power as the next President of Sri Lanka. “Some people describe you as a Hitler,” the monk told Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “Be a Hitler! Go with the military. Take the leadership of the country.” (Daily News, 22.06.2018)
These words encourage to seize power from a democratically elected government, with the force of the military. The public was befuddled if this was a call for violence coming out of the mouth of a preacher of non-violence. Party politics and personality cults aside, the question that begs an intelligent and wise answer is whether the idea of a military type regime is good or bad. The country has experienced authoritarianism at a lower level during the previous government. Undoubtedly, all are in agreement that such a set up may not respect human rights, freedom of expression, the rule of law, media freedom, democratic opposition and so forth.
An Authoritarian Saviour
The weakness of one is the strength of the other. In this polarity, the weakness of democracy reflects the strength of the strongman. The inability of democratic values to sustain itself diminishes the conviction and confidence the public has on these institutions. These are moments of uncertainty and anxiety for the people as their political representation do not inspire them or deliver positive results. The strongman capitalises on these opportunities and pose himself as the saviour of the nation. The strongman will use whatever that appeals to the masses – nationalism, religion, ethnicity, race and everything else – other than human rights, rule of law, collective governance and liberal democratic values. Remember Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the wake of 21/4 making a statement that he will contest for the Presidency. Incident focused statements create a new awareness, here the public will be driven to thinking that if he was in power, such an attack would not have occurred.
Even Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator in order to garner popular support to himself once wrote the famous article titled, “Is the White Race Dying?” (Published in Il Popolo d’Italia, September 4, 1934). These are methods of igniting the sensitivities of the ordinary people. Unfortunately, the people do fall victim to the mind manipulation of politicians whoever it may be.
Donald Trump and Gotabaya
Are these two personalities to a certain extent same? Trump is dubbed as an ‘eccentric dictator’, ‘democratic dictator’ etc. Is there truly some form of dictatorship in the land of the free? The host of CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360°” noted how Trump cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (whom the CIA believes authorized the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi)”at last week’s G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, before stepping into North Korea to meet its dictator Kim Jong Un. (HuffPost, 07/02/2019).
“Put simply, the leader of the world’s most powerful nation is behaving like an authoritarian dictator, one who threatens democracy in his own country and far beyond.” (The Guardian, 05.07.2019). Will then a person like Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa who according to the Anunayake Thera people describe him as ‘Hitler’ be an inseparable and extremely comfortable bedfellow with Donald Trump? To hell with freedom, liberty and equality. Going by what the Anunayake had said, is Sri Lanka going to fall into the trap of that global populist right wing trend of arbitrary, capricious, and inhumane rule?
One of the approaches of the Populists include conspiracy theories. Creating a sense of say danger among the electors and an exaggerated sense of urgency to address such issues. For example, that the security of the country is at stake and the complacency or inability of the government to take swift and effective measures will be disastrous. Incidents like 21/4 adds credence to this populist hypothesis. After forming this and other perceptions in the minds of the people, they promote the idea of the need for a strong and visionary leader. They centre their sales pitch around the failure of the current government to find solutions to what they term as burning problems that threaten the country.
Remember the rhetoric of Donald Trump during his election campaign in 2016. Deliberately touching on the most sensitive topic in the American mind ‘terrorism’ Trump said, “I alone can fix it. I am going to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country.” The irony is that though he promised to deal with the ‘Islamic terrorism‘ he miserably failed to control his own home-grown right-wing white supremacist terror. They, in fact, had killed more people during his rule than the so called ‘Islamic terrorists’. White supremacists perpetrated a series of bloody attacks on synagogues, black churches, and mosques.
An increasing number of arrests related to domestic terrorism is being fuelled in part by white supremacy, FBI director Christopher Wray said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. His agency has already made nearly 100 domestic terrorism-related arrests this year, a figure already higher than that of the entirety of 2018. He added: “We also found ideologically motivated murders by white supremacists increased in 2018 to 17, from 13 in 2017, while violent Salafist Jihadist killings dropped to only one.” (Independent, 23 July 2019).
Statistics on White Supremacist terrorist attacks against religious targets in the United States are disturbing. Brian Levin, Director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, states “By the end of year 2018, our research found hate crime in 30 large American cities hit a decade high of over 2,000.” (21.03.2019).
Direct similarities may be drawn in the Sri Lankan context. So those who claim to fix the ISIS problem in Sri Lanka are never focused on the home-grown extremists. Solutions for the attacks, hate crimes, arson, killings and wanton destruction of properties of the religious and ethnic minorities are not on the drawing board of the runners in the Presidential race.
Unfortunately, these very same people along with their minions are using this racio-religious divide to come to power. What a tumultuous and tragic period this little island is going through?