By Ameer Ali –
“Archaeology is not a science, it’s a vendetta” (Mortimer Wheeler, British archaeologist).
“Reconciliation is more beautiful than victory” (Violeta Chamorro, Nicaraguan political leader)
The resignation of Professor Anura Manatunga, Director General of Department of Archaeology, apparently after a heated controversy with President Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) who rejected the Professor’s request for an unusually extensive area of land for excavation in Mullaitivu, is bound to anger the saffron army of political bhikkhus who are 21st century’s Sri Lankan crusaders against ethnic reconciliation and religious harmony. This army, which has a sordid history of instigating and participating in violence against minorities, enjoyed the support and blessings of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR), who vowed to safeguard the sasana and created a special Task Force to excavate and protect ancient Buddhist ruins in the north and east of the island in particular. He crowded that task force with bhikkhus and Buddhist demagogues rather than qualified and trained archaeologists. It was indeed an act of political vendetta aimed at demolishing once and for all the Tamil claim that that part of the island is their traditional homeland. That was also why whenever GR’s prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) visited Tamil areas, he never failed to remind his listeners that no province or district in the country should belong to any particular community. But he never extended the same argument when referring to the whole country. That hypocrisy was the reason why when that obstreperous bhikkhu Gnanasara publicly proclaimed in Kandy in 2021 that Sri Lanka belongs only to the Sinhalese neither GR nor MR and not even any of the Sinhalese parliamentarians including the current president, except the late Mangala Samaraweera, dared to counter that assertion. Now, at a time when RW is trying to champion the cause of reconciliation and engaging to strike a deal with Tamil leaders, after promising them to stop unjustifiable encroachment into Tamil territories by religious zealots and soldiers, the professor’s request and resignation, appear to be a premeditated ploy to sabotage the President’s effort. As expected, the usual suspects who want to politicize the issue and gain mileage out of it at the ballot box have already started their malicious campaign.
According to an old historical anecdote the people of Afghanistan believed that they should first kill the white man who first appeared on their land with his mission for surveying and mapmaking, because they thought that he would be followed soon by the British army to conquer their country. Likewise, there is a growing feeling of suspicion and fear among Tamils and Muslims of north and east when sighting a bhikkhu innocently roaming in their area, because they feel that sooner or later a statue of Buddha may appear somewhere and most probably in the dead of night, which would then be followed by a team of so-called archaeologists under army protection planning to excavate that spot for Buddhist ruins, which ultimately would end up in a vihara being built to encourage Sinhalese settlement. This pattern of Sinhalese transmigration into Tamil areas is a post-civil war phenomenon. And, it was to facilitate that pattern Mahanayakkas insisted at the end of the civil war that the army should not be withdrawn from Tamil areas even though LTTE had been defeated and destroyed comprehensively. Yet, the bogey of its possible revival is kept alive by Sinhala supremacists, to justify the permanency of army camps there.
Sinhalese colonization of Tamil dominated districts, which started with irrigation schemes from the Gal Oya project in 1950s to the Accelerated Mahaveli project in 1970s, has now taken a different route under the guise of archaeological excavations in search of Buddhist ruins. This has nothing to do with Buddhism or the teachings of the sublime Gautama, but everything to do with political Buddhism and its hegemonic ideals. In a sense, this archaeological adventurism resembles what is going on in another part of the world, Palestine. There also it is through archaeological excavations based on Biblical and Judaic myths that a four thousand years old and independent Arab Palestine is being systematically dwarfed by Zionist encroachment and made into what Edward Said described as “Bantustan”. Palestinian lands are continuing to be swallowed by Zionist Israel to hollow out any substance that still remains in the so called two-state mantra, which is tirelessly repeated by Western powers. One is therefore tempted to think whether the Israeli Embassy in Colombo is teaching the Buddhist bigots some of the archaeological tricks which its government in Israel employs in occupied Palestine.
Be that as it may, reconciliation is the second half of RW’s scheme to pull the country out of its polycrisis. The IMF partnered economic half may restore badly needed financial stability to enable the economy to revive, but that stability and revival cannot be turned into a growth propelling platform without the active participation and collective synergy of the three major ethnic groups in the country. The political system that is currently in vogue is incapable of achieving that, and ethnic reconciliation is therefore sine qua non for not only communal harmony but also economic development. RW’s predecessor tried to put the cart before the horse and trumpeted that economic development of north and east alone is the answer to the ethnic issue and ended up in bankrupting the economy and reducing the country to pariah status internationally. GR also promised to implement the controversial 13th Amendment when he visited Delhi and met Narendra Modi in 2020, but because of nationalist backlash at home he had to retract that promise as soon as he returned to Colombo. Once again, the issue of 13th Amendment is bound to arise again as preparations are under way for RW’s visit to Delhi. Are we going to witness a repetition of what happened in 2020? The archaeological tumult points in that direction.
RW himself appears to be a charlatan on the issue of reconciliation. If he is really committed to solving the problem and not using it as a tool to win the votes of minorities at the next Presidential Election, he should have used every opportunity of addressing the nation to urge the majority to make the first move. Genuine reconciliation starts with hearts and minds and not with words and appearance. Sri Lanka lacks a Nelson Mandela. Now, in search of an economic miracle RW is trying to tackle the ethnic question. But his hands are tied. On the one hand, his hopes of continuing as president with popular mandate would be shattered if ethnonationalism is allowed to raise its ugly head. The saboteurs of reconciliation would do all what they could to stop him succeeding in his effort. His political agenda would therefore force him to retreat. One bhikkhu has already called GR to speak out and prepare coming back to take charge. If that happens that would be an unmitigated disaster. On the other hand, RW realizes quite rightly that without halting political bhikkhus from rampaging through Tamil and Muslim areas to build viharas and without demobilizing an oversized army that is permanently camped in that region and draining the public purse reconciliation could not materialize, unless forced from outside. The tragedy is that no one in RW’s parliamentary camp seems to be championing the cause of reconciliation. Even ministers from the minority communities had not uttered a word so far in sympathy with the president’s effort. Everyone is playing their cards safe to maximize political advantage. At the end of the day, without reconciliation economic prosperity and development would be hamstrung. IMF cannot do wonders, and RW’s dependence on IMF to achieve his magical economic transformation by 2048 is destined to evaporate as the rupee is allowed to float and import restrictions relaxed in terms of IMF prescription.
The only leader who has been bold enough to say publicly that the 13th Amendment should be implemented temporarily until the whole system is overhauled with a new constitution is AKD from NPP. That gives a glimmer of hope for statesmanship quality in the country’s future leadership. Will the voters give NPP a chance?
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, W. Australia