By Dayan Jayatilleka –
What is the role of the regime and state in a multiethnic, multilingual, multi-religious, multicultural i.e. pluralist setting and in a fraught, conflicted, actually or potentially violent situation? How should and how do the regime and state function?
Are the UPFA regime and the State a neutral umpire –as it should be– between the constituent communities of Sri Lanka where all citizens are constitutionally equal, or are they a biased (“hora”) umpire? If the case is the latter do the rulers and state managers not know or care that there is an ‘action replay’ at work in the international system in the 21st century?
Do the regime and the state apparatuses under its command, including the security services, regard violent Sinhala Buddhist extremism as a threat to the stability of the state—as it should? Or are the regime and state benignly neutral towards it?
Do the regime and state regard only non-Sinhalese Buddhists or politically dissenting Sinhala Buddhists (such as the JVP, FSP, elements of the UNP and human rights activists) as foes or potential threats, however non-violent they may be? As the JR Jayewardene regime did with regard to Cyril Mathew and his JSS goon squads in the early 1980s, do elements of the regime regard the BBS and its Sangha Parivar as potential allies against the JVP, FSP and student unions and trade unions led by them?
Is it that the BBS is sought to be coddled so as to prevent its social constituency from shifting to its more natural leader Sarath Fonseka or peeling off a segment of the regime’s voter base?
Contrary to the published assertion of my old friend Gen Ashok Mehta, Mr. Gotabaya Rapajaksa is not the most powerful man in postwar Sri Lanka. However, he may well be the most important and is certainly the most influential, most especially within the state structure. Therefore what he says on important subjects must not only be read, but given its due weight. When he speaks about the BBS in the aftermath of Aluthgama, it indicates the perspective of the state or that which will soon be adopted by it, insofar as the security and law and order apparatuses take their cue from him. What he says about the BBS and Aluthgama is what the state will do and will not do. What he says also sheds light on what the state may or may not have done or left undone—and why.
In a newspaper interview, Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa denies allegations of any links with the BBS. He may be telling the truth. However, his interview itself constitutes an excuse of sorts for the BBS, by virtue of twin facts. (1) He fails to make a single criticism of it, what it stands for and what its most prominent personality has said even in Aluthgama – he has no criticism of Galagodaatte Gnanasara’s “Yes We Are Racists!” Aluthgama speech. (2) He goes on to equate or associate the BBS with Bishop Rayappu Joseph and Muslim extremists; places them in the same category.
However, even the most cursory listening to the You Tube videos of Galagodaatte Gnanasara, most especially his Aluthgama speech would confirm the hate speech and explicit threats towards another religious community. Neither Bishop Rayappu Joseph – who utters dangerously nonsensical falsehoods about civilian casualty figures of over 150,000!–nor the ‘Muslim extremists’ have ever once uttered hate speech and threats, on the record, in public, towards the Sinhalese or Tamils. Still less have their utterances been immediately followed by violent attacks on the properties and lives of another community.
Even in Aluthgama and its immediate aftermath, with all the allegations of Muslim extremists, the dead were all Muslim and Tamil. Obviously the ‘jihadis’ aren’t targeting the Sinhalese or are not very effective in doing so. Or it is the Muslims who killed – cut or shot—the Muslims and the Tamil!
The BBS may or may not have been directly involved in the Aluthgama violence and an organization, as an individual, should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. But I don’t even have to be a former Chairperson of the Intergovernmental working Group of the Effective implementation of the UN Durban Declaration and programme of Action against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia (as I happen to be), to recognize Gnanasaara’s speech in Aluthgama and on earlier occasions as constituting incitement.
In his interview Gotabaya Rajapaksa repeatedly urges that when discussing Aluthgama one should remember the origins of the incident which he claims was the assault on a Buddhist monk on a Poya day. Even if that rendition of the incident were strictly accurate, what is the implication of his assertion? That the logical and understandable consequence of such an assault in a civilized democracy would be a riot, days later against the community to which the perpetrator belongs? This is exactly the kind of quasi-justification of Black July ’83 we heard: it was because 13 soldiers were killed by the Tigers! If that is the kind of argument we hear from the country’s top security official about Aluthgama, what guarantees do we have about the clarity and commitment of the state in preventing a repetition of July ’83 and a pre-emptive crackdown on its possible perpetrators?
The morning after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s whitewash interview comes the BBS media conference with its implicit threats. The BBS is clearly trying to gain immunity for itself by ingratiating itself with the regime’s paranoid ideology by accusing the UNP and DPL missions of perpetrating/being behind the Aluthgama violence. By the way, what raises my eyebrows is not the USA’s cancellation of the five year multiple entry visa granted in 2011 to Galagodaatte Gnanasara but the fact that such a visa was granted to him in the first place, and his 2013 US tour permitted, despite his clearly racist and anti-Christian hate speech and activism since 2012!
I do not advocate the proscription or the immediate arrest of the BBS leadership. What I do advocate is a clear and powerful statement of demarcation by the President and his brothers that they reject and repudiate the message and activism of the BBS and caution the country against it. However, insofar as neither President Rajapaksa nor his powerful brothers stand up to the BBS and give the country and the world a clear signal that they are opposed to the ideas and ferocious rhetoric of this and other similar organizations, they will continue to risk another July ’83 being triggered by these extremists, with far worse international and regional consequences for the country, the government and the President himself, than July ’83 gave rise to.
In the meantime, Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who is clearly poised to be the UNP’s presidential candidate has scored some points on Aluthgama and other issues recently. He has fired some darts accurately and they have hit the regime. He will doubtless be supported and cheered on by the pro-West civil society types. None of this will prevent him and the UNP from being blown clean away by the electoral triple whammy that President Rajapaksa has in mind: Uva, the presidential and parliamentary elections. What the UNP leadership, its ideologues, strategists and its civil society chorus fail to recall or are ignorant of is that for over half a century the UNP and the English language media always took a better stance on minority questions than did the SLFP (except under CBK’s presidency). There is nothing that the UNP is saying or doing today that Dudley Senanayake, Sir John Kotelawela and the English language Lake House press managed by Ranil’s father Esmond Wickremesinghe did not do decades ago, while his mother Nalini, the daughter D.R. Wijewardena and Helena Wijewardena’s daughter was managing the Sinhala Buddhist ‘Kelaniya’ flank, just as the TNL gave a platform to Ven Soma. The point is that the SLFP and its allies are hugely accustomed to this stance and utilize it to turn the UNP into a target—the paradigm being the ‘Mara Yuddha’ cartoon in the 1956 campaign.
What the UNP is doing on Aluthgama is not wrong but it is wholly inadequate. The UNP succeeded electorally when it combined a pro-minority stance with ironclad Sinhala populist/pro-peasant credentials and profile: DS Senanayake (before the SLFP was formed of course), JR Jayewardene (who moved the Sinhala Only motion at the UNP’s Kelaniya sessions in the 1940s) and of course Ranasinghe Premadasa whose populist patriotism enabled the UNP to fend off a challenge from the archetypal Sinhala Buddhist matriarchal monarch, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
At least until the elections are over, the Rajapaksa regime is positioning itself to do a Netanyahu, i.e. ally itself with the religious Right or tilt to it, and take up a posture of resisting external pressure. However ‘politically correct’ the stance of Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mangala Samaraweera, Ravi Karunanayake and Lakshman Kiriella, and however laudable the dissenting stance of the English language media including the social media, the present day UNP remains vulnerable to the perception that it is on the wrong side of the Mara Yuddha; that its leadership is not even like the strongman Sir John Kotelawela, but much more like Zu Zu Mohamed. Facing the appeal of an opponent like Mahinda Rajapaksa who combines warm affability with macho patriotism, in a country in which almost two thirds of the population is Sinhalese, the UNP is on the road to triple electoral disaster with collateral consequences even for the correct positions it adopts on minority issues.
The current, post-Aluthgama surge notwithstanding, the UNP is electorally foredoomed not only because of the profile of its leadership but because the party’s electoral weakening over the past two decades under that leadership has created an unprecedented situation: a truly multipolar opposition in the form of Sarath Fonseka and Anura Kumara Dissanayake who will take away at least as many votes that may otherwise have accrued to the UNP as they will the votes of the UPFA. Finally, it is the multi-polarity of the Opposition, caused by the implosive collapse of the UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe that prevents the restoration of a healthy bi-polar balance in Sri Lanka’s politics.