By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“But the pasture of stupidity is unwholesome for mankind.” – Ibn Khaldun (The Muqaddimah – An Introduction to History – Abridged version)
Dutugemunu is the hero-king of Sinhala history. But in the eyes of some Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists he is a tad imperfect, because he failed to chase Tamils out of Lanka. He ‘liberated’ Anuradhapura but allowed Tamils to live beyond the Mahaweli River, thereby leaving a ‘Tamil problem’ to ‘menace’ future generations of Sinhala-Buddhists.
The Rajapaksas cannot chase Tamils out of Sri Lanka, not in this day and age. Instead they are using internal colonisation to change the ethno-religious composition in the North/East.
The demographic composition of an area is not a constant. Demographic changes can happen naturally, as the cumulative result of actions by private individuals. Demographic changes can also be caused by organised political/ideological intervention, especially by state actors. The North is being subjected to this second variety of demographic transformation, an unjust and punitive process which will render genuine reconciliation and a consensual peace even more impossible.
As The Colombo Telegraph reported, “Vast acres of land that were owned by Tamil families for generations have been handed over to Sinhala families, forming ‘new’ villages. The housing and other infrastructure facilities in these villages are being provided to the resettled Sinhalese families by the Sri Lanka army.”[i]
The politico-ideological thrust of this colonisation is symbolised in the transformation of the Tamil village Kokachankulam into Nandimithragama, complete with a giant statue, supposedly of King Dutugemunu’s chief warrior, Nandimithra[ii]. According to Mahawamsa, Nandimithra began his martial career by ‘tearing asunder’ Tamils who desecrated Buddhist sacred monuments. An apt symbol indeed, for the new North that is coming into being under Rajapaksa rule.
The Rajapaksas may or may not believe that they have a historic duty to complete the task left half-done by their ‘ancestor’ King Dutugemunu. In any case, drastically changing the ethno-religious composition of the North is imperative for the success of the Rajapaksa agenda. Implanting army camps, military cantonments and Sinhala villages in the North will make it easier for the Rajapaksas to dominate the province politically and electorally. Just as Colombo is being denuded of its poor and lower middle class inhabitants to break the UNP’s politico-electoral hold over the city, the demographic reengineering of the North is partly aimed at widening and deepening the Rajapaksa electoral-footprint in this inhospitable terrain.
So while the TNA lives in an imagined reality and pursues mirages, the Rajapaksas are busy creating facts on the ground. For instance, last month the government officially announced that 6,381 acres of private land in Palaly has been taken over by the military.
Military land-grabbing is happening in the East as well. According to Katheeja Lebbe Umma (aged 51) of Ashraff Nagar, Ampara, “As far as I can remember, from my seventh year of age, my mother, father, siblings and I have been living there…. I have no work now because military has taken over my cultivable land. The military came and occupied our village…. The women were engaged in making cottage industry products…. Now nothing…. If we have no land to cultivate we have no income; no life. The military knows this well. And yet they obstruct our cultivation. And they are now cultivating my land…. Nobody can come to our house….no relatives and friends can visit us. We live like we are in prison. If we chat by the roadside, military men come running over to say, ‘Do not talk here,’ and disperse us.”[iii]
Many Sinhala villagers have also been evicted form their traditional habitats in the East, to make way for Navy bases and commercial ventures[iv]. In order to ensure their own survival the Rajapaksas are creating multiple swamps of discontent and division.
A Deadly Union
A Pakistani columnist argued that the main sin of cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan was that “he’s mainstreamed extremism. Made it sexy, dressed it up, foisted it off on an audience that didn’t really understand what he is selling or why, packaged it as the little blue pill that will make all our troubles go away…. It’s all couched in the language of understanding and pain and transferring blame.”[v]
The Rajapaksas also mainstreamed Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism, making it synonymous with patriotism, in the pursuit of their familial agenda.
Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism and Rajapaksas supremacism are conjoined twins. In order to survive and flourish each needs the other. Some Rajapaksas may not be genuine Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists; but all Rajapaksas need that politico-ideological cover. Some Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists may detest the Rajapaksas. But the absolute majority of them would know that without the Rajapaksas, they will be relegated to the political margins once again. So this ‘coalition’ will continue to grow, at least for the foreseeable future.
While the regime is changing the ethno-religious composition of the North/East, Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists are trying to win Sinhala-Buddhist hearts and minds. In the enabling and permissive environment created by the Rajapaksas, they are using a plethora of methods to popularise their version of past and present and their vision for the future. For instance, many ‘historical’ movies are being made, most of them based on the Hosts and Guests concept of Lankan history – a tale of generous majority-owners being hoodwinked by perfidious minority-guests. The latest is a movie about Anagarika Dharmapala, the true progenitor of the likes of JHU and the BBS. This year marks his 150th Birth Anniversary and a vehicle procession, ‘Dampal Riya Sariya’, is crisscrossing the country “with the aim of spreading his thinking all over the land.”[vi] The procession’s main exhibit is the car used by Anagarika Dharmapala; it was in a dilapidated condition and was repaired by the Army.
Though there will be no probe into the manner in which Namal Rajapaksa and his singer-companion conducted themselves in three government schools during school hours there is to be a probe about why the national anthem was sung in Tamil in a Colombo school. According to the Ceylon Teachers Union, the Colombo Zone Education Director has asked the “principal of a Tamil medium school to show cause over the National Anthem being sung in Tamil during school functions.” Incidentally, the singing of national anthem in Tamil was banned by President Rajapaksa in 2010. Restoring this practice was among the LLRC recommendations.
According to the CTU, the complaint about the national anthem was lodged by the Civil Defence Committee of the area. 14,000 Civil Defence Committees were set up during the war to “look after their villages while the forces were engaged in war.” In 2011 Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered their revival[vii]. The episode about Tamil national anthem indicates what these revived committees are expected to defend.
In the end, all these diverse efforts would lead to a hardening of Sinhala-Buddhist attitudes, based on the feeling that minorities are inimical and untrustworthy aliens. By dividing their victims along ethno-religious lines, by making ethno-religious hatred and violence a natural condition, the Rajapaksas will reap enormous benefits. But for the country and people it will be an unmitigated disaster.
[i] Sinhala Colonization in the North Sped Up – The Colombo Telegraph – Sep.8th 2014.
[iii] Our Struggles; Our Stories – edited by Shreen Abdul Sharoor
[vi] Lankadeepa – 10.9.2014