By Dinesh D. Dodamgoda –
Mangala Samaraweera tried to solve the problem of ‘thymos’.
As the political scientist Francis Fukuyama defines, ‘thymos’ is the part of the human ‘soul’ that craves recognition of dignity. Fukuyama borrowed the concept from Plato, who conceptualised a tripartite soul. Plato related the first part of the soul to desire, the second part to reason, and the third part, ‘thymos’, to recognition. Fukuyama divides ‘thymos’ further into ‘isothymia’, the demand to be respected equally with other people, and ‘megalothymia’, the desire to be recognised as superior.
‘Isothymia’ drives contemporary identity politics by marginalised groups, such as marginalised-ethnic or religious minorities, the LGBTQA+ community, refugees, and women, who demand equal recognition. ‘Megalothymia’ has historically existed and thrives on exceptionality. Fukuyama noted, “Megalothymia takes big risks, engaging in monumental struggles, seeking large effects as all of these lead to recognition of oneself as superior to others.” Fukuyama observed that ‘megalothymia’ can lead to leaders like a Lincoln, or a Churchill, or a Nelson Mandela, or tyrants like Caesar, or Hitler, or Mao. ‘Isothymia’ and ‘megalothymia’ drive contemporary identity politics. Some leaders who were initially driven by ‘isothymia’ can easily slide over to ‘megalothymia’.
‘Thymos’ can provide us with a conceptual framework to understand the role Mangala played in contemporary politics. ‘Thymos’ is the primary basis of ‘identity politics’ and Fukuyama emphasised that the term ‘identity politics’ is of fairly recent provenance and came into view only in the cultural politics of the 1980s and ’90s.
The 20th-century world-politics had been organised along a left-right spectrum defined by economic issues. Whilst the ‘left’ wanted more equality, better social protection, and economic redistribution, and centred their politics around workers, trade unions, and social democratic parties, the ‘right’ demanded greater freedom and was primarily interested in reducing the size of the government and promoting the private sector. In the mid-2000s, identity politics developed into a level that powerful enough to affect an ideational shift to the 20th-century traditional left-right spectrum of world politics. The ‘left’ started focusing less on broad economic equality and more on promoting the interest of marginalised groups. Even in Sri Lanka, for example, Marxist-Leninist JVP pledged to end discrimination over a citizen’s sexual preferences and tried to get in line with the demands of the LGBTQA+ community. Fukuyama further noted that the identity politics of marginalised groups gained the ability to block collective action of a society and he termed the said ability as ‘vetocracy’.
‘Vetocracy’ has blocked and challenged the traditional family values, socio-cultural norms, ethnic and religious majorities’ dominance and even the traditional division of labour. For example, the gay marriage movement was not acceptable to many people who do not want to have equal marital status with gay marriages, ‘isothymia’ in ethnic and religious minority rights movements challenged the ethnic and religious majorities’ ‘megalothymia’, and women were displacing men in an increasingly service-dominated new economy.
Whilst the ‘left’ started focusing more on promoting the interest of the marginalised groups in the mid-2000s, the ‘right’, Fukuyama wrote, redefined “itself as patriots who seek to protect traditional national identity, an identity that is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity, or religion.” The identity politics of marginalised groups, as well as new economic trends, had built up resentment in the souls of many people in the mainstream who appreciated traditional family values, socio-cultural norms, etc. As a result, the leaders of the politics of resentment of the ‘right’ “mobilised followers around the perception that their group’s dignity had been affronted, disparaged, or otherwise disregarded”. Fukuyama explained that this perceived threat to traditional societies paved the way to ‘populist nationalism’ that arose in many parts of the world in the second decade of the 21st century.
The rise of populist nationalism has threatened the global surge towards democracy that began in the mid-1970s. The period from the early 1970s through the mid-2000s witnessed a democratisation wave as electoral democracies in the world increased from about 35 to over 110, making the liberal democracy default form of government. Yet, the ‘isothymia’ demands put forwarded by marginalised groups had threatened the ‘thymos’ of many traditional, middle-class people in liberal democracies. It ignited ‘megalothymia’ in many traditional, middle-class souls and made them support the populist leaders who claimed a direct charismatic connection to “the people,” who are often defined in narrow ethnic terms. Some political scientists viewed the ‘crises’ as one of a “democratic recession”.
One can now observe that the relationship between ‘isothymia’ identity politics of marginalised groups and the ‘megalothymia’ identity politics of many traditional, middle-class people who supported populist-nationalist leaders was interdependent as the one cause and nourishes the other. Those populist leaders convinced “the people” who flocked around them they must regain the old order of their countries and societies back! For example, Donald Trump promised to “make America great again!”, Narendra Modi campaigned for a “New India!”, and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa promised a “Restructured Country with a Future!”
Mangala’s politics as a human rights defender kicked off with the formation of the ‘Mothers Front’ in July 1990. During the JVP insurrection in the late ’80s, Mangala’s house in the Matara electorate became a ‘centre de refuge’ for many who were looking for missing youths. The ‘Mothers Front’ was formed “by women whose children or husbands were killed or disappeared in a 1980s Sri Lankan government campaign against the People’s Liberation Front (JVP)”. The Mothers Front aimed to create an independent commission to investigate the disappearances and compensate the dependents of victims. It further demanded the government to remove all oppressive laws, disband paramilitary death squads and reveal the names of all political prisoners.
As the co-convenor of the ‘Mothers Front’ (the other convenor was Mahinda Rajapaksa), Mangala attracted the attention of many local and international human rights activists (including Amnesty International), foreign journalists, and researchers who were interested in studying the late ’80s youth insurrection. The role Mangala played in the ‘Mothers Front’ started shaping his political uniqueness in the corpus of Sri Lankan politics. He signalled he was to uphold human rights, the rule of law, and to fight on behalf of marginalised people. Yet, the pressure group politics was not so strong during the early ’90s in Sri Lanka, and the Mothers Front had little success in “pressuring the government to disclose information regarding whether people on their list are alive or dead”.
Mangala became a close political and personal associate of Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumaratunga (CBK), and the relationship became stronger during the excavation of the mass graves at Sooriyakanda in 1994. During the JVP insurrection in the late ’80s, a group of school children were killed and buried there as part of the government counterinsurgency. The strong relationship between CBK and Mangala helped to shape not only Mangala’s politics but contemporary Sri Lankan politics as well.
Identity politics in Sri Lanka in the early ’90s was mainly on the minority Tamil ethnic issue. Besides the Tamil issue, identity politics did not play a powerful role in shaping the national political agenda. Therefore, Mangala’s group movements did not play a major role in CBK’s 1994 presidential election campaign. CBK’s campaign promised to end the 11-year-old civil war and resolve the ethnic issue. Apart from that, CBK’s campaign mainly aimed at strengthening democracy by scrapping the executive presidency and restoring the earlier Westminster system, restructuring the market-oriented economy with a human face, eradicating bribery, corruption, and waste.
During CBK’s tenure, Mangala as a junior Cabinet Minister paid attention to the Tamil ethnic issue and attempted to reconcile the North and the South. He started the “Sudu Nelum” (white lotus) reconciliation movement, the “Pothai-Gadolai” (the book and the brick) project to rebuild the Jaffna Library which was burned down during the ethnic-riots in 1983, and “Thawalama” (Caravan) as an awareness campaign carried out by over 300 street performers as the main project in the second phase of “Sudu Nelum” movement. However, as the peace talks with the LTTE collapsed, and the country slipped back to the war, it developed a hostile attitude towards Mangala’s reconciliation movements and projects. The Minister of Defence then, Anuruddha Ratwatta, pressurised CBK to halt Mangala’s “Thawalama” program. It worked and Mangala’s “Sudu Nelum” and “Thawalama” dried up.
The fate of Mangala’s reconciliation movements shows the comparatively less importance identity politics received in the ’90s: identity politics was on the periphery! However, the input Mangala received from the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lakshman Kadirgamar, played an important role in motivating and guiding Mangala. Although Mangala’s reconciliation movements faded away, Mangala widened his connections with like-minded interest groups, including the minority ethnic activists, and peace activists.
In the early 2000s, Mangala signalled that his liberal democratic political fundamentals were not so strong as he then departed from his fundamentals to gravitate more towards consolidating power by any means necessary. He was on a project to regain the government which Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) grabbed from President CBK in December 2001 (Whilst CBK from ‘People’s Alliance’ remained as the executive President, the main political rivalry of her, the UNP leader RW became the Prime Minister and lasted until January 2004). Mangala was ready to resort even to non-democratic means to dismantle Norway’s brokered peace deal RW signed with the LTTE and topple RW’s government. Meanwhile, Tamil identity politics came to the forefront of national politics during the period of peace negotiations. Many new NGOs and civil society organisations were started and tried to address issues related to the conflict. However, it disappointed many of the majority Sinhalese as they viewed those NGOs, civil society organisations, and even the peace broker Norway as collaborators of the LTTE. Mangala took his chances to seize the opportunity and attempted to persuade CBK to take three key Cabinet portfolios back from RW. Despite President CBK’s initial unwillingness, Mangala pushed CBK in early November 2003 when RW was out of the country to “prorogue parliament, declare a state emergency, send troops into the streets, and take control of three important ministries (defence, interior, and media) back”. In January 2004, CBK dissolved RW’s government prematurely.
During the 2005 Presidential election in which Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) contested for the first time, Mangala supported MR. However, CBK had a different opinion as she thought MR was not a suitable candidate to preserve and develop liberal democratic political values (as well as her reasons), and therefore, she indirectly supported RW. Yet, Mangala’s defensive explanation was that securing political power by hook or by crook is essential as, without it, his politics would not flourish! Some suggest that Mangala had played an important role to secure MR’s victory by facilitating an LTTE boycott through Tiran Alles to block the North and the East Tamils from casting their votes.
The South elected MR as the President in 2005 and MR gave Mangala the Foreign Affairs portfolio in his Cabinet. As the peace talks with the LTTE halted and the cease-fire agreement became futile, MR’s government waged a war against the LTTE. Mangala, as the Foreign Minister, had to travel to Europe and other powerful nations and persuaded them to proscribe the LTTE. This endeavour gave Mangala a great opportunity to develop his international connections with the elite on the liberal democratic block. Mangala was against the LTTE, and his name was on the LTTE’s hit list. Yet, Mangala was sympathetic towards the ethnic Tamils. Mangala was against extrajudicial killings and had to answer the international community on behalf of the government; besides, Mangala did not believe in using a military approach to solve the minority Tamil issue. Mangala was vocal in condemning the government’s low morality and had heated debates with the then Secretary of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (GR) in the Cabinet. GR found it uncomfortable to work with Mangala, and the Rajapaksas sacked him from the Cabinet in February 2007. It came as a surprise to Mangala; he was in Singapore, having ice cream with one of his closest female friends!
Eventually, Mangala had realised the difference between him and the Rajapaksa family! Whilst Mangala was for a “liberal democracy”, MR was for an “illiberal democracy” (Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán used the latter expression in 2014). Much later, in May 2016, Mangala wrote an open letter to MR and stated, “In fact, I realised this bitter truth only after you climbed to the top of the greasy pole of power and became President 10 years ago. If you remember, before parting company in 2007, I sent you a 13-page handwritten letter emphasising my concerns that your policy of dismantling democracy, ignoring reconciliation and violating the basic tenants of good governance would lead to the country’s ruin and your downfall as well.” Mangala learned the lesson the hard way not to compromise his political fundamentals just to gain power! He resigned from MR’s government and established a new party in June 2007, the “Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) (Mahajana) Wing”. Later, on August 6, 2010, Mangala joined the UNP.
The UNP offered Mangala rich soil to develop his struggle for an advanced liberal democracy. He spearheaded the UNP media division and mercilessly attacked MR’s government (between 2010-2015) on government’s anti-democratic behaviour, mishandling of the ethnic issue, attacks on Muslims, racism, suppression of freedom, disappearances, pro-Chinese foreign policy, nepotism, bribery, corruption, and waste. In addition, with support from CBK, Mangala gathered rights and civil society movements around him and established strategic corporations with some other political parties and individuals in the opposition and the government against the Rajapaksa brothers.
In 2014, Mangala formed “Samagi Balawegaya”, a socio-political movement of groups and individuals gathered around him. Everyone in the movement accepted the UNP leader RW as the head of the discussion table. The movement met at Nalandaramaya Temple, Nugegoda and groups, politicians and individuals who did not have any sort of comfortable relationship with the UNP, for example, groups such as “Families of the Disappeared”, “Samabima”, politicians such as Sumanthiran, Wickramabahu, Mano Ganesan and human rights and civil society activists such as Nimalka Fernando, Brito Fernando, Kelly Senanayake (former JVP veteran), and some famous human rights lawyers who had a leftist political background also attended. Although the UNP was a liberal democratic political party in principle, it was not so comfortable with human rights groups, NGOs, civil society organisations, and such politicians who were openly sympathetic towards the Tamils and the Muslims. Mangala’s “Samagi” movement was a strange addition to UNP politics. Despite the unwavering support received from the UNP leader RW, and the General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, many party seniors were critical of the UNP’s association with such groups and individuals as they thought it would disturb many Sinhalese Buddhist voters. The government and organisations, such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), openly attacked Samagi Balawegaya. Yet, the movement continued and carried out activities that contributed to shaping the public opinion against the MR’s government and promoted liberal democratic principles of governance.
Unlike in the 1994 Presidential election in which CBK contested for the first time, human rights and minority rights groups, civil society organisations, and NGOs played a key role in the 2015 Presidential election. Key issues emphasised in the election manifesto and neoliberal policies introduced by the “Yahapalanaya” (good governance) government that lasted between 2015 and 2019 show the impact those interests groups and individuals made on conventional UNP politics. The 2015 presidential election was a battle between MR’s popular nationalism and MS’s liberal democratic agenda, and MS’s liberal democratic agenda won voters’ hearts and minds.
Although many civil society activists who supported MS during the Presidential election did not accept any positions in the government, they were influential in shaping the government’s liberal democratic agenda. Mangala started with a controversial joint UNHRC resolution brought by the USA led block in 2016 on post-war accountability. The “Yahapalanaya” government introduced several institutions to strengthen liberal democracy in Sri Lanka. Some of them were, the executive presidency was restrained by the 19th amendment to the constitution, the institution of the Constitutional Council and the independent commissions were established under the 19th amendment, the Right to Information bill was passed, the Human Rights Commission was strengthened, committees were appointed to suggest a new constitution with a consociational power-sharing institutional framework to solve the ethnic issue, Mangala as the Finance Minister, attempted to amend archaic laws that prohibited women from purchasing alcohol from wine stores and pubs, and issues related to women’s rights, minority rights, and the LGBTQA+ rights were openly discussed. In addition, a demilitarisation process went underway, and it adopted measures to strengthen the civil society. Mangala and RW were visible in attempting to reduce the influence the Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarianism played in government affairs. The government established the Financial Crimes Investigation Unit (FCID) and appointed a new Director-General to strengthen the Commission to investigate Bribery or Corruption.
Despite rights and freedom given to people, by 2019, liberal (many say neoliberal) democratic “Yahapalanaya” government and Mangala, MS, RW, and CBK lost the level of legitimacy they had in 2015. Eventually, a popular nationalist, a brother of MR, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (GR) defeated the “Yahapalanaya” government in the 2019 presidential election. How did it happen? Is there a logical way to explain the defeat of the “Yahapalanaya” government’s liberal democratic agenda?
Fukuyama and Mangala
Fukuyama suggests that in the second decade of the 21st century, ‘vetocracy’, the ability that the identity politics of marginalised groups had to block collective action of society, stirred the resentment politics of the majority who appreciates traditional socio-cultural norms and values of the old order. Populist leaders who claimed a direct charismatic connection to “the people,” who are often defined in narrow ethnic terms, brought the politics of resentment of those affected by ‘vetocracy’ to the forefront. Those populist-nationalist leaders rallied people around them to “regain the old order of their countries and societies back!” As mentioned earlier in this essay, some political scientists viewed the ‘crises’ as one of a “democratic recession”.
In the Sri Lankan context, the “Yahapalanaya” government and its liberal democratic policies had a similar fate that Fukuyama observed in many parts of the world in the second decade of the 21st century. Some of the key policies and changes the “Yahapalanaya” government brought or tried to bring had blocked or threatened to block the collective action of the traditional majority in Sri Lanka. For example, expressing his remorse on remarks made by Samantha Power (the current head of the U.S. Agency for International Development) on Mangala in 2019, a pro-nationalist columnist, Malinda Seneviratne, viewed, “liberal is taken to be neoliberal economic ideals which are patently anti-intellectual and a nightmare when it comes to a healthy planet and wholesome, meaningful lifestyles”. He viewed neoliberalism as an anti-intellectual ideal and a nightmare to meaningful lifestyles!
Not only the opinion leaders and the political elite of the Rajapaksa camp but the ‘Yahapalanaya’ government’s President Sirisena also openly criticised the neoliberal ideas expressed, and policies introduced by Mangala, CBK, and RW. Why? As Fukuyama conceptualised, neoliberal ideas and identity politics brought by the liberal democratic block had threatened the ‘thymos’ of many who believed in the old order. Fukuyama wrote, “contemporary liberal democracies had not fully solved the problem of ‘thymos’.”
Many Sri Lankans did not welcome the controversial joint UNHRC resolution Mangala brought in 2016 on post-war accountability. Although Mangala had laid out his justifiable reasons in public on the resolution, many Sri Lankans had a different perception, largely motivated by emotions. Fukuyama observed that classical economic theories suggested human beings can make rational choices and individuals try to maximise their financial self-interest. Yet, as behaviourists observed, more intuitive forces often undermine our rational choices. It convinced Fukuyama that the desire for respect certainly undermines rational choices. Many Sri Lankans believe the UNHRC is a pro-LTTE organisation, and therefore, it should not investigate war crime charges against ‘war heroes who defeated the LTTE’. As it implies, many thought that Mangala, who was open about his stance on the minority Tamil issue and who brought the joint UNHRC resolution with the USA, was a pro-LTTE and a pro-American politician. This perception eventually threatened not only Mangala’s legitimacy but the “Yahapalanaya” government’s legitimacy as well. Most Sinhalese Buddhists saw Mangala and pro-minority leaders in the government as a threat to their identity and values. Antagonising them further, RW and Mangala both used the word ‘racists’ in the Parliament when attacking pro-Sinhalese Buddhist politicians who criticised the government’s stance on the ethnic issue.
It based the UNHRC joint resolution on a retributive justice model that intended to punish criminal offenders. Mangala was not ready to utilise an alternative model, for example, to adopt a restorative justice model with amnesty to address the post-war accountability issue as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) did in South Africa. Mangala said, “amnesty for disclosure will not work in SL, and that perpetrators will be prosecuted since confession and forgiveness are not parts of the SL culture.” Even in the South African context, some prominent people argued that the culture and the moral code of the South African society are to punish perpetrators. For example, the very first interviewee, a professor, who applied to become a TRC Commissioner said in the interview that he believed in retribution as part of the process, because ‘it is part and parcel of our moral code, our legal system and our theological belief, and I feel that the public embarrassment that would come with revelation to the Commission is a form of punishment”. The families of Steve Biko also disagreed with the TRC and tested the Legality of the Commission in the Constitutional Court, crying they want ‘justice!’ Yet, the TRC did not prosecute the perpetrators who admitted to killing Biko. Archbishop Desmond Tutu believed that reconciliation is not cheap and ultimately based on forgiveness and repentance, which depends on confession. Archbishop Tutu favoured as broad a process of forgiveness as possible, provided those who perpetrated murders or torture could prove they acted politically. Therefore, the South African government refused the argument raised against the TRC based on the cultural and moral codes of the society and went ahead with the TRC mechanism. Unfortunately, Mangala could not understand the deep philosophical foundation of forgiveness that was articulated by Archbishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and even J. R. Jayawardhana at the St. Francisco Conference in 1945.
The negative perception most Sinhalese Buddhists had on Mangala, RW, CBK, and the government was further hardened by the government’s attempt to bring a new constitution with a consociational power-sharing institutional framework to solve the ethnic issue. The attempt had threatened the interests of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. They viewed it as a coup to divide the country into two halves! If you asked Mangala, he would say he was against the Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarianism as it suppresses minority rights, and he was certain that discrimination is not in line with the Buddhists’ philosophical thinking. Mangala wanted to reduce or eliminate the impact the ‘megalothymia’ identity politics of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority had on Sri Lankan politics. To reach that end, Mangala utilised the ‘isothymia’ identity politics of marginalised minorities. That is where he went wrong!
The solution offered by Mangala, RW, CBK, and Jayampathy Wickramaratne P.C. to solve the ethnic issue was based on consociational principles theorised by Arend Lijphart in the late 1960s. Although this is not the place to discuss the consociational approach’s weaknesses in bringing sustainable peace and democracy into societies that are divided by cultural identities, such as ethnicity, religion, or language, I should emphasise one fundamental point. Mangala (RW and CBK as well) believed that sharing political power based on ethnicity, which is the most divisive cultural identity in Sri Lanka, can bring sustainable peace and democracy. Unfortunately, they could not learn, at least from their neighbour, Jawaharlal Nehru, in India. Political scientist Philip G. Roeder wrote, “India has avoided creating power-sharing for what has been its most explosive cultural divide—that between Hindus and Muslims. Indeed, in creating linguistic states in the 1950s, the Indian government created a counterweight to what had been the two types of identities that posed the greatest threat of secession from India—Islam and the princely states governed by traditional rulers. Jawaharlal Nehru rejected religion as the basis for new states and blocked plans for a Sikh state based on religion precisely because he feared this would lead to ‘Pakistan-Style’ fragmentation.” In addition, there are serious studies conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of the consociational power-sharing mechanism. For example, Anthony D. Smith, Paul R. Brass, Donald Rothchild, Philip G. Roeder, and even Francis Fukuyama had suggested alternative institutional building approaches ranging from “Multiple Majorities Approach” to “From Identity to Identities” approach to solving the problems of identity politics. Yet, Mangala, RW, and CBK did not bother to consider alternative mechanisms as they had a tunnel-visioned approach to solve the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka.
It seemed to be the case that Rajapaksa’s ‘megalothymia’ majoritarianism could not survive without its rivalry, ‘isothymia’ identity politics of Mangala, RW, and CBK, or vice versa! During the “Yahapalanaya” government, the ‘isothymia’ politics of the ethnoreligious minority was powerful as the minority political leaders held many positions in the cabinet, and sometimes, they blocked or threatened to block the collective action of the traditional majority. The opposition led by the Rajapaksa seized the opportunity and mobilised nationalist feelings among the majority Sinhalese Buddhists against the ‘Yahapalanaya’ government’s pro-minority agenda.
As some witnesses testified at The Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Attacks (PCOI), the ‘Yahapalanaya’ Cabinet ignored or maybe downplayed the early warnings regarding threats posed by extremists and/or exclusivist Islamic movements since the coalition government did not want to upset Muslim political leaders. In November 2016, a pro-nationalist Cabinet Minister in the ‘Yahapalanaya’ government, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, made a statement in Parliament and warned about the threats posed by Islamic extremists and stated, “There is a greater fear among the public about ISIS,” and he threatened, “If somebody tries to spread extremism, we will not allow for that from today.” The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL) immediately reacted to Minister Rajapakshe’s statement and said that it came at a “very opportune time to certain extremist elements bent on tarnishing the image” of Sri Lankan Muslims.
In early January 2017, an unknown group started a campaign, writing the word “Sinhale” (“සිංහලේ”) on the walls of some houses belonging to Muslims in the Nugegoda area. A three months later, another round of attacks burned down several shops owned by Muslims. In June, the police arrested a former soldier in connection with petrol bomb attacks on Muslim-owned shops at Maharagama and Wijerama, and investigators found the suspect was a member of “Bodu Bala Sena” (BBS)– (Buddhist Power Force). In mid-June 2017, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka declared 20 violent incidents against Christians in the same year and emphasised that it was a parallel surge in violent attacks on Muslims. It further noted, “Since the current government took office in 2015, over 190 incidents of religious violence against churches, clergy, and Christians have been recorded.”
The Rajapaksa led opposition won the local council election held on February 10, 2018, by a landslide, and the victory boosted the morale of the nationalist camp. On February 26, 2018, another attack sparked in Ampara in the East over an incident of ‘Wanda-kottu’. A group damaged a night hotel and a mosque, and the initial investigation found that the group had a connection to an opposition politician in the Ampara area. Meantime, another development was taking place in Kandy District, and on February 22, 2018, a group of Muslim youths attacked a Sinhalese lorry driver in the Teldeniya Police area over a traffic accident. The assault victim died on March 3, and the news sparked riots in the district. Prime Minister Wickremasinghe told Parliament that a group of people who had come from outside and not by the people in the area unleashed the violence in Kandy. Many came from Anuradhapura, Dambulla, and Kurunegala areas. Names of two opposition politicians in Kandy District came to the surface of having connections. The police Special Task Force controlled the situation, but rioters had damaged mosques, houses, shops, and vehicles, and two died. It was later reported by some researchers that the said riots in Kandy District (Digana incidents) were a factor that agitated Zahran Hashim to resort to a sophisticated and targeted domestic terrorist attack.
The emerging situation in the country was unfavourable to the “Yahapalanaya” alliance, and the worried President Sirisena tried several times to remove RW from the Premiership. Yet, no one in the UNP accepted the invitation to be the PM, and in October 2018, the President appointed MR who was in the opposition as the PM. Relatively moderate President Sirisena openly stated that RW, Mangala, and CBK’s policies had disappointed the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Buddhist clergy. However, the appointment of MR as the PM led the country to a constitutional crisis, and MR survived as the PM only for 52 days. MS had to appoint RW again as the PM on December 16, 2018.
Ten days later, on December 26, several youths on motorcycles damaged a few Buddhist statues in Mawanella, a town near Kandy. It was later reported that the ringleader of the Easter Sunday suicide attacks, Zahran Hashim, radicalised the perpetrators and that Hashim had been living in Mawanella for some months in 2018. Investigations of the Mawanella incident led the law enforcement authorities to raid a coconut state in Wanathawilluwa on January 17, 2019, and they found weapons and explosives on the site. During this period, MS and RW had an uneasy coalition, and the situation developed to a point where the government could not prevent the suicide attacks on churches and hotels on April 21, 2019, which left 269 dead. Five days later, on April 26, 2019, Reuters reported, “Sri Lankan ex-defence chief Gotabhaya says he will run for president, tackle radical Islam”.
The government averted further attacks and defused the remaining suicide bombers. However, in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, anti-Muslim violence had started in Puttalam, Kurunegala, Gampaha, Matale, and some other districts. The rioters damaged mosques and looted Muslim-owned shops. Amresh Gunasingham at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore noted, “According to analysts, these attacks should not merely be viewed as direct retaliation for the Easter bombings; they follow previous patterns of anti-Muslim violence, fuelled by opportunism and past prejudices among Sinhalese Buddhists against the Muslim community.” The tension between Sinhalese Buddhists and the Muslims, and the Catholics and the Muslims, continued throughout the rest of the year after the Easter Sunday attacks. Seven months later, 6.9 million (52.25%) people voted for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (GR) and elected him as the President. GR was sworn in at an ancient Buddhist temple, and, in his speech, he thanked the Sinhala majority for their overwhelming support.
As Fukuyama observed, and this essay previously stated, ‘megalothymia’ takes enormous risks, engaging in monumental struggles, seeking large effects, and can lead to leaders like Lincoln or tyrants like Hitler. The relationship between ‘isothymia’ identity politics of marginalised groups and the ‘megalothymia’ identity politics of many traditional, middle-class people in the old order who supported populist-nationalist leaders was interdependent as the one cause and nourishes the other. As we noted, the ‘isothymia’ politics of Mangala (RW, and CBK as well) had maximised the context and the possibility for the success of Rajapaksa’s ‘megalothymia’ politics. This observation raises many questions regarding the approach adopted by Mangala to solve the problem of ‘thymos’. The irony is that not only Mangala, many who supported him, including RW, CBK, and the Western democratic block that attempted to strengthen liberal democratic values through identity politics, are also responsible for the victory of populist nationalism in Sri Lanka.
Mangala, as an influential politician, tried for over three decades to bring a change to the status quo through identity politics and top-level leaders such as CBK, MR, RW, and MS. After losing the government, which was elected in 2015 to strengthen liberal democracy in Sri Lanka, Mangala retired from parliamentary politics. It gave him time to reflect on his presumptions, vision, and approaches. Mangala concluded it must start the change with the voters of the new generation. This time, Mangala found a new category of opinion leaders to influence the new generation, social media account holders with many followers, Yohani to Otara! Mangala himself appeared in a Tik-Tok / YouTube video as a “king” who fights to protect social media freedom.
Yet, Mangala had to leave before embarking on his new political journey! There are many lessons to be learnt from Mangala’s successes and failures. As the Nobel Prize winner in Economic Science, Douglass C. North emphasised, “History matters. It matters not just because we can learn from the past, but because the present and the future are connected to the past by the continuity of a society’s institutions. Today and tomorrow’s choices are shaped by the past.”
Mangala Samaraweera tried to solve the problem of ‘thymos’. Yet, neither Mangala nor contemporary liberal democracies had fully solved the problem of ‘thymos’! This author’s opinion is that the country needs a new framework of political and economic institutions that discourages cultural identities and encourages crosscutting, non-cultural identities in politics to address the problem of ‘thymos’ in Sri Lankan politics.
*The author is an Attorney-at-Law, holds an M.Sc. in Global Security from the Royal Military College of Science (Cranfield University), UK. He was a Member of Parliament and worked with Mangala Samaraweera as a member of the United National Party’s communication division and as the convenor of ‘Samagi Balawegaya’, a socio-political movement started by Mangala in 2014.