By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
Basil Rajapaksa is the Rajapaksa family’s thinking man. Unlike his brothers and nephews, he doesn’t shoot his mouth off. His remarks should be taken seriously, because, often, they point to the shape of the future.
Alarm bells need to clang when Basil Rajapaksa says he wants to model the SLPP on China’s Communist Party and India’s BJP: “I want our party to be a party like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and how they act… We can also be like the Indian Bharatha Janatha Party (BJP)” (Daily FT – 29.7.2020). There cannot be a clearer warning of the politically unfree and ethno-religiously divisive future awaiting us if the Rajapaksas get their two-thirds.
The only thing that is communist about the Chinese Communist Party is its name. Under the one-man rule of Xi Jinping, the CCP has used big data and face recognition technology to create a 24×7 surveillance state, obliterating even the pretence of a private/personal space for its billion plus subjects. But President Xi’s truly original contribution is to transform the Peoples’ Republic of China into Han People’s Republic of China. He has turned Han-supremacism and anti-minority phobia into instruments of rule and weapons of dominance. Using terrorism as excuse, a horrific repression is being visited on China’s Muslim minority, especially the Uyghur people.
This deliberate and successful use of majoritarian-supremacism is something that President Xi’s CCP has in common with Narendra Modi’s BJP. After his failure in promoting economic development and combating corruption, Mr. Modi has become almost totally focused on transforming India from a multi-national secular state to a Hindu Raj. Regulations such as the openly anti-Muslim Citizenship (Amendment) Act are being accompanied by moves to create and popularise an exclusively Hindu history for India. A committee of scholars have been set up to fabricate this ‘fake history’. Its aim is “to ultimately shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus’.
The Modi administration is also cracking down on those who oppose its Hindu-supremacist agenda, thereby vitiating and obliterating the space for critical thinking, open debate and peaceful dissent. It is also making a systematic effort to disembowel India’s independent institutions, to turn them into nothing more than instruments of BJP rule. For example, in August 2019, the registrar of the JNU wrote to famed historian and merciless critic of the BJP Romila Thapar, asking for her CV to determine if she could continue to be an emeritus professor! India’s National Herald called the move madness. Madness, yes; surprise, no. What else can we expect once the insane starts running the asylum.
So the CCP, which has always been non democratic, is moving towards majoritarian-supremacism while the BJP, which has always been majoritarian-supremacist, is moving towards tyranny. These are the two parties Basil Rajapaksa sees as models the SLPP. The future of Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa rule cannot be clearer.
Dreaming of Black July from January to December
On July 27th a group of monks led by Galagoda Atte Gnanasara and Aturaliye Ratana descended on the office of the ACJU, the apex religious body of Lankan Sunni Muslims, with an ultimatum. They demanded the immediate abolition of madrasas and halal products and the banning of burqa and niqab. “We have a programme of action,” saffron-rober, Galagoda Atte Gnanasara said, addressing the media soon afterwards. “After the election we will definitely implement that programme. Irrespective of who opposes or not we have a non-violent programme. That is boycotting Muslim businesses in this country. We will bring that programme forward. We will have to make them kneel, teach them obedience… Why? Because the Sinhalese have no other country in the world. To protect the only country we have, we have to carry out that struggle”
What better way to divert Sinhala attention from rising prices, growing unemployment, and plummeting living standards than the drama of a boycott of Muslim shops? If the Rajapaksas gain absolute power via a massive majority, Sinhala mobs led by saffron-robed thugs will become even more of a norm, interfering at will and with impunity in the polity, economy and society.
A boycott of Muslim businesses, though outrageous enough, will be a just a first step in a new orgy of violent intolerance targeting the minorities. Saffron-rober, Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara has claimed on multiple occasions about a threat to his life, including from the IS. Last month, one of his saffron-robed acolytes made clear how this supposed threat might play out in reality. “If anyone even spills a bit of his blood, then they can all find out who we are…” thundered Ambale Rathana, the chief incumbent of Dehigolla Viharaya in Mahiyangana. “…if a Muslim or a Tamil even touches him and see if we do nothing…”. He went on to tell the audience that killing to protect Buddhism is no sin, a reference to the deadliest and the most anti-Buddhist of the many Mahawamsa lies – the myth of sinless war.
So here we are, twenty seven years after Black July, publicly threatening Tamils and Muslims with future pogroms. The police which arrested and remanded Ramzy Razeek under the ICCPR will not lift a finger against these saffron-robed thugs who are openly threatening the minority communities with violence.
Though Muslims are the primary targets this time around, even Tamils are not safe. For example, flash points can be created as the Sinhala-only presidential task force gets down to work to protect the archaeological heritage of the East. An early indication of what might happen was the July 4th incident in Wellawelli PS division, when task force member Panamure Thilakawansha thero, accompanied by the army, descended on a Hindu kovil prompting protests by Tamil residents.
Imagine how easy it would be to incite the next conflagration, and the next and next…
Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism bred Tamil separatism. From the disenfranchisement of plantation Tamils of Indian origin to Sinhala Only of 1956 and standardization, majoritarian extremists demonstrated that there is no Lankan identity and that Tamils can live in Sri Lanka only as second class citizens who accept not only legislative discrimination but also regular bloodletting as their fate and due.
Black July proved beyond reasonable doubt that no Tamil can be safe in Sri Lanka, pushing even moderate Tamils into the separatist corner. The best arguments for separation were created not only by opportunistic politicians but also by true fanatics who sincerely believed that they were battling separatism.
In BJP led India, cow-vigilantes are killing Muslims to save cows while the Modi government promotes beef exports. For example, the BJP administration reportedly reduced beef export tax from 10% to 6% and India has become one of the three top beef exporters in the world. This hypocrisy is lost on BJP supporters, the same way Rajapaksa supporters are unaware that it was Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa who in July 2014 suspended salary payments to disabled soldiers.
The Rajapaksas created the disabled soldiers’ salary cut issue in 2014 and used it to win the presidential election in 2019. That is how Rajapaksa patriotism works in real life. It is first and foremost a mantle to hide their anti-democratic politics and anti-people economics from Sinhala eyes. It is a way to make Sinhalese forget their hunger and homelessness, their poverty and joblessness. It is faux-empowerment of the Sinhala majority at the expense of the minorities. Though its immediate victims will be the minorities and a few anti-Rajapaksa Sinhalese, before long it will condemn the country and all its people to another period of political and societal violence and economic collapse.
Still something left to lose
In the Rajapaksa playbook, election times are when weapons are unearthed and conspiracies discovered.
On July 30th, several pro-Rajapaksa websites highlighted the discovery of a ‘large amount of bombs and other weapons’ in the North. If one reads between the lines, it is clear these were buried by the LTTE before the final defeat. But the overall impression given is that armed separatists are at it again.
In the meantime, the SLPP has lodged a formal complaint with the police about a plot against Basil Rajapaksa. That will probably be used to lock up a few more Rajapaksa opponents.
In her Come September lecture, Arundathi Roy talked about the paranoia and ruthlessness of power. The Rajapaksas suffer more than most rulers from the first and generously employ the second as the remedy. Thus we have the arrest of Shani Abeysekara, one of the best sleuths Sri Lanka has produced (if not the best). He is being accused of fabricating evidence, by the same CID which made a barefaced attempt to fabricate evidence against Hejaz Hisbullah just a month ago. Those CID officers who tried to get supposed child witnesses to implicate Mr. Hisbullah in the crime of terrorism are at large while Shani Abeysekara who brought so many criminals to justice is in jail.
The darkness is growing, but light still lingers. Magistrate Ranga Dissanayake not only stopped the CID from fabricating evidence. He also revealed the truth in open court. And this week, Ratnapura High Court imposed the death sentence on Premalal Jayasekara, a SLPP candidate. Former parliamentarian and deputy minister Jayasekara and his associates were found guilty of the murder of UNP activist Shantha Dodangoda on January 5th 2015. Mr. Dodangoda was helping to organise a meeting of Maithripala Sirisena when he was shot and killed.
The SLPP had no compunction about giving nomination to a man who had been accused in a court of law of murder. Whether SLPP voters show themselves to be equally lost to all sense of decency and civility, and reward this convicted murderer with a huge win remains to be seen. Be that as it may, there is little doubt that President Gotabaya will pardon this killer of a fellow Sinhalese just as he pardoned the convicted mass murderer of Tamils, army sergeant Sunil Ratnayake.
President Donald Trump caught flak even from his own party when he demanded that officials slow down Covid-19 testing, as a way of hiding the virulence of the pandemic. In Sri Lanka, a former American citizen has trumped Trump with very little fuss. According to the head of Epidemiology Unit, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, though Sri Lanka has done 150,000 tests, about 110,000 of these are repeats. Meaning only 40,000 people have been tested in Sri Lanka for Covid-19. In other words, a miniscule 0.18% of the populace had been tested.
A recent news story adds an element of dread to this smoke and mirror way of combating the pandemic. The Ravaya of July 17th, quoting the secretary of the PHI Association, reported that the army had taken away self-quarantining members of military families and non military families in the districts of Anuradhapura (Kekirawa, Nelubewa, Shrawastipura), Hambantoa (Ambalantota) and Matara (Morawaka). These ‘forcible removals’ happened mostly in the night. The relevant PHIs were not informed of the removals or where the families were taken.
We have seen how the police used the pandemic to ban peaceful protests by Rajapaksa opponents. Will white-vanning be given a Covid-19 makeover, post-elections? Will Rajapaksa opponents be taken away from their homes to undisclosed locations and kept for an indefinite period of time, using the pandemic as an excuse?
The darkness need not become Cimmerian, not if the electorate denies the Rajapaksas a massive majority. To prevent Sri Lanka from becoming a Rajapaksas fief, we need to vote for the elephant, telephone or the compass, and within those formations, for candidates we think are least likely to cross over to the Rajapaksas either for money, or out of fear or ideological affinity.
In his haunting collection of stories, This way for the gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Tadeusz Borowski described the station to Auschwitz as “A cheerful little station. Very much like any other provincial railway stop: a small square framed by tall chestnuts and paved with yellow gravel.” Horror often comes not in monstrous garbs but in ordinary everyday guises. A normal looking station can lead to hell. A periodic election can open the doors to disaster. If in commercial transactions, the watchword is caveat emptor, in elections the watchword should be caveat suffragator.