By Lakmal Harischandra –
When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) delivered his inaugural speech in Anuradhapura, he acknowledged that it was the Sinhala Buddhist people who brought him to power while making a reference to the Tamils and Muslims who did not respond before the elections, to his appeal to join in his victory march. However, he stressed that he will be President of all and not just the Sinhalese. If past is anything to go by, and judging by the people around him ,how sincere GR is about this statement, is both doubtful and even hilarious. During the rule of the his brother President Rajapakse upto 2014 , both of them chose the easiest and safest path of communal politics trusting and expecting it to harvest the Sinhala Buddhist votes in the next presidential and/or general elections. This strategy appear to have worked at least for now, with the Sri Lankan electorate voting in, a majoritarian Head of State, thanks to the well-orchestrated Sinhala Buddhist campaign launched through grass root level networks and temples. Everyone who voted against GR are today branded as unpatriotic and even as traitors serving a foreign agenda. In that respect, DEM-Ocracy is having its’ last rites with State patronage.
GR’s remarks raised fears among the minority Tamils and Muslims who are already weighed down by apprehension of a return to anti-minority attacks by Buddhist extremists, which were rampant during the Rajapaksa regime. He said at the inauguration; ‘We knew right from the beginning that the Sinhala Buddhists of this country will be behind my victory. Although I knew I would be voted in by the Sinhala Buddhists, I expected the Tamils and Muslims to also be part of my victory. But my expectations were not met. Yet, as your new president I request you again to join hands with me for the future development of this country’. Besides, every single racist leader in the country are with him, so the minorities fear that the racists will have complete control over the next government. The Tamils specifically fear the new president’s nationalistic policies could mean renewed abuse of minorities, as the Tamil votes around the country went almost exclusively to his opponent Sajith. People who have not voted for GR are continuing to be apprehensive because a rather racist line is being pursued by the media and others who supported him. The celebrations too had a racist element to them. Even social media was flooded with posts accusing the Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese of casting “racist votes” by voting to his opponents. Abusive posts on social media were also directed against the Negombo Sinhalese Christians too who voted against GR in numbers.
However, GR, Sajith and Anura are all Sinhala-Buddhists. It is thus unfair to attribute a “racist” dimension to the minority votes. On economic matters, both GR and Sajith were probably on the same page, but in regard to minority issues, many felt that Sajith was more forthcoming in this campaign, while Anura referred to his program being devoid of racial connotations. People are entitled to make their democratic choice and as long as their vote has been validly cast, it must be accepted. Also, even Sinhala people voted for GR not purely on his racist agenda; rather many people who voted for him have done so because of their disappointment with the performance of Yahapalana government.
To the Rajapakse dynasty, power through any source was the ultimate dream. It was then Mahinda as the President, Basil as the Minister in charge of the economic powerhouse, Chamal as the Speaker and GR as the powerful Secretary of Defence. Now it is GR as President, Mahinda as PM and Chamal as a Minister for a start. Their past brand of nepotism and sycophantism, authoritarianism and racism bled the country of the much needed peace (not absence of war) and harmony, justice, economic independence and rule of law in Post war Sri Lanka. GR took the lead in the defeat of the Tigers along with his brother and Sarath Fonseka. However, his post-war campaign made the Tamils to feel as a defeated race, who deserved only to be treated as such and marginalized them ,leaving the weak TNA to exploit their agony to remain in power. Then GR, as the sponsor of Bodu Bala Sena, a rabid communal Buddhist outfit bent on degrading Lord Buddha’s preachings of peace and non-violence , he proceeded to marginalize the Muslims, who were living in harmony in the southern parts of Sri Lanka with the Sinhalese. He cultivated the whole gamit of anti-Muslim hate through a set of monks like BBS Gnanasaras, Sihala Ravaya Dayaratnes and Ravana Balaya Saddhatissas , who indulged in acts of violence and rowdyism which even the hardened criminals will envy and think twice to commit. E.g. Damaging and destroying mosques and defiling their sanctity, destroying business businesses, butchering a Buddhist monk preaching peace and cutting of his genital part etc. These are the acts meant to protect Buddhism and its principles ,which myself and millions of others follow in this blessed Island. The deplorable part of these acts is the active and passive support lent by the law enforcement authorities and security forces then, who were supposed to protect the citizens and their property who obviously were following the instructions of GR to assist, encourage and participate in the violent acts. Even the Sinhala Buddhist population who opposed him was not spared of his high handed actions. Rajapaksas thus made Sri Lanka, as a state of lawlessness and racism. Unfortunately, this anti-Muslim tirade continued during the Yahapalana times too, as the Sirisena and Ranil duo were both weak, impotent and imbecile.
The country has now voted in the SLPP to power and GR is the President of all. It is foolhardy on his part to divide the votes cast for him as Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil votes. When Barak Obama was voted to power in US, no one did an analysis of how many Whites and how many Blacks voted for him. In Sri Lanka, this stupidity happens. Therefore this election polarized the entire nation and divide the integrity as never before and GR confirmed it in his Presidential speech. The cats are getting out of the bag, when we hear hate groups sponsored by GR are making public statements that their mission is accomplished and will be disbanded. In their view, Dutugemunu is re-born in the person of GR who will install a Sinhala Buddhist State in Sri Lanka as envisioned by Anagarika. This is the brand of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy which brought disaster to Sri Lanka even after seven decades of Independence, making both Tamils and Muslims second class citizens. GR appears to rekindle that philosophy, looking at the starting phase of his rule.
Looking at the caretaker cabinet of Ministers formed by GR, it is disconcerting to say the least. Die hard racists, thugs and corrupts like Wimal, Gammampila, Johnston and incompetents like Siripala De Silva, Rambukwella and Bandula G are in, contrary to GR’s oft quoted statement that his team will be at least corrupt free (not racist free); Not mentioning Mahinda’s corrupt record. Also GR used his Presidential immunity to cover his own misdeeds and even extricate himself. GR also faces several war crimes accusations from the international community too, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, for actions during the last phases of the war. Even civil servants like Gamini Senerath and Lalith Weeratunga who were charged with corrupt charges earlier have come back and/or exonerated. I wonder how GR is going to carry out his plans to rid the corruption and strengthen the rule of law when his start of the journey is itself tainted and polluted and goes against the hallowed principles of law?
As ICJ reported once, ‘Sri Lanka is facing a crisis of impunity. It is increasingly difficult, in fact nearly impossible, for people who have suffered serious violations of their human rights to receive justice and accountability. Victims and survivors do not receive redress, and perpetrators are not brought to justice. The absence of justice removes an important deterrent to future perpetrators’. This impunity crisis is expected to continue in worst forms, judging by the developments in the first week itself.
Globally too, the past decade has seen a worrying resurgence of racist ideologies. Earlier this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, E. Tendayi Achiume, warned that “globally, racial equality is under attack”. Secretary-General António Guterres has urged member states to protect human rights, saying: “We are increasingly seeing the perverse phenomenon of populism and extremism feeding off each other in a frenzy of growing racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred and other forms of intolerance.”Fear of the other increasingly dominates the political discourse in countries from Austria to Australia, India to Israel, South Africa to Sweden, India to Sri Lanka, as ultra-nationalist parties have encouraged leaders from across the political spectrum to adopt insular and exclusionary policies. Sri Lanka too is no exception.
Whether GR will become another Trump or another Arden (of NZ) is a choice? This GR regime can make a difference without following their previous legacy, if only there is political will on his part. He should rid his circle of racist advisors and proponents and restore confidence on the political opponents as well as minorities. Democracy demands that all are heard and allowed to speak and express their views without government’s iron hand closing their mouths. Rule of law and process of justice should be allowed to function without any restrictions and government interference. All corrupts too should be kept out of the administration.
While the vast majority of Sinhala Buddhists embrace rationalistic values and are amenable to sharing power with the minorities, nationalistic forces within the community continue to subsume moderate voices. Unfortunately Sri Lanka suffers from the ‘Saffron robe ailment’ which keeps those in power to subscribe to Sinhala Buddhist supremacism. In this context, minorities having an equitable stake in governance will be extremely challenging in view of this reality. This is not insulting to the significant number of Bikkhus who preach the peaceful religion of Buddhism. The involvement of Buddhist monks in politics following independence in 1948, in effect, has already transformed Buddhism into a highly politicised religion. Since independence, Buddhist interest lobbies have been active in politics and politicians seek the support of organised Buddhist groups as well as the clergy at elections and their presence at ceremonies. Similarly, Buddhist institutions too depend on the state, thus making the relationship a deeply symbiotic one. In Buddhism Betrayed, Stanley J. Tambiah draws attention to the paradox between Buddhism’s non-violent philosophy and the high degree of political violence in Sri Lanka. He argues that the political activities of the bhikkus did not advance democracy and universalism but promoted a narrow and exclusive ethno-religious, nationalist ideology. Therefore, even if the phenomenon of political Buddhism existed in some form prior to arrival of the colonial powers, it gained traction as an ideology emphasising Buddhist supremacy and minority subordination in the post-independence period with entry of monks into electoral politics.
There is little doubt that the biggest challenge to Sri Lanka’s reconciliation agenda and equal treatment of minorities comes from the nationalists’ lobby. Ethno-nationalistic rhetoric was strongly invoked during both major elections of 2015, but it was unable to harness adequate support to ensure electoral victory for the nationalist camp because other pressing issues impelled a significant proportion of the Sinhala-Buddhist population to vote for a change in the country’s political leadership. However in this Nov, 2019 elections, GR’s mandate has been interpreted as a success of that nationalist, majoritarian and Sinhala Buddhist supremacist campaign.
There is a reality though, which should not be ignored. The success of the process to create a racism –free and a corrupt free Sri Lanka, will be contingent upon the government’s ability to retain the confidence and support of the Sinhala community as much as all other communities. It is important to respect national consciousness, and to take concerns of the Sinhala-Buddhist population seriously about threats to Buddhism and Sinhala race. Sri Lanka is after all the only country where Sinhala people are in the majority . Therefore, the strategy should be to expand and involve all related parties in a spirit of transparency and consultation, and to foster a conception of Sri Lanka as a State where majority are Sinhala-Buddhist, but at the same time, it is not a theocratic state either. – the concept of a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, pluralistic society where Buddhism is given a prominent place and all others enjoy equal rights to practice their religion and culture. Allowing Buddhist monks to rule the country and allowing only Sinhala Buddhists to be seen or feel as sons of the soil will be suicidal.
Late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera showed how a Buddhist religious leader espousing core Buddhist values such as compassion and universalism can take Buddhist concerns seriously and yet act as a unifying force for all communities. The opening created in January 2015 for civic nationalism to supersede the confines of ethnic nationalism should be fully utilised by the current political leadership and civil society groups too, to broaden the middle ground to push forward the reconciliation and development agenda.