By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“If we lift the hideous rags of History, we find this: hierarchy versus equality and order versus liberty.” ~ Éric Vuillard (The Order Of The Day)The indications are clear, as are the implications. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected on a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist platform intends to rule as a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist president.
For the first time in Independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka, we have a cabinet of ministers without a single Muslim member. Nor is there a Muslim amongst the 38 state/deputy ministers. Of the 54 cabinet and non-cabinet ministers, there are just two Tamils and one woman. Even the state minister for Women’s Affairs is a man.
Sinhalese, who constitute around 75% of the populace, make up more than 92% of the current stable of ministers.
That non-representative nature would have bothered every single previous Lankan leader, not excluding Mahinda Rajapaksa, perhaps. Not Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Since his election as the seventh executive president of Sri Lanka, he has given two major policy speeches. A key commonality in both is what is said about the minorities; and that is nothing.
The new status quo is unashamedly, openly, nakedly, majoritarian supremacist. The minorities (including non-Buddhist Sinhalese) have the freedom to accept this reality and live accordingly. Any other response, however peaceful, democratic, legal or constitutional, would be suspect as a grievous lack of patriotism.
Open adherence to Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism is not only the path Gotabaya Rajapaksa has chosen for himself and his government. It is also his biggest offering to his political and electoral base. The Rajapaksa base isn’t representative of Sri Lanka as it is in reality, a pluralist land with a mix of ethnicities, religions, languages and cultures. It is representative of an imaginary Sri Lanka, a Sinhala-Buddhist country, where the minorities exist only in a demographic sense, and in a shadowy form.
“The history and the future of Sri Lanka do not belong to any group alone,” President Ranasinghe Premadasa once said (Address at the Annual Prize Giving of St. Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia – 1990). Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his base believe the opposite; they think that the history of Sri Lanka was a Sinhala-Buddhist one, and the future of Sri Lanka should also be a Sinhala-Buddhist one. Creating that majoritarian paradise is what Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised to do. It is a promise he seems intent on keeping, at whatever cost to really existing Sri Lanka.
On the road to Paradise
The pledge to turn Sri Lanka into a Sinhala-Buddhist paradise has a political and an economic component. The political component consists of abandoning ethno-religious pluralism both in deed and word. No more bahu katha (talk about pluralism). No more promises of equality. The first task of the state is to look after Sinhala-Buddhists and Sinhala-Buddhism. Everything else follows from that.
So taking Sri Lanka back from the minorities, and giving it to its rightful owners, is the first step in the journey to Paradise. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is fulfilling this part of the paradisiacal promise openly and speedily.
The government might flip-flop when it comes to other matters. For instance, it issued a circular on December 7th 2019, granting a monthly allowance of Rs. 15,000 to executive grade officers in the public sector. It issued another circular exactly a month later, on January 7th 2020, suspending that allowance. The Treasury Secretary said that the government will continue to follow Mangala Samaraweera’s fuel price formula. Less than 48 hours later, a state minister tweeted saying the government will not follow that or any other formula. In the matter of economic policies, the Rajapaksa and Rajapaksa regime seems even more inconsistent than the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.
But there is no such flip-flopping when it comes to putting the minorities in their place. In that regard, the government is moving in a straight line, with no stumbles or U turns. The announcement was made, months in advance, that the national anthem will be sung only in Sinhalese at the Independence Day. No more Tamil national anthem. No more ethnic problem either, so no need for any solution. The matter was resolved at Nandikadal, and that was that. If the minorities feel insecure, it is their own fault. No arguments, no negotiations.
So the prices of consumer essentials can be high and getting higher. There might be a severe shortage of fertiliser. School uniform vouchers are yet to be distributed in most places. The bag of nutrition given to pregnant mothers from low-income families is no more. But for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sinhala-Buddhist base, for his core voters, none of these would be a deal breaker. The political project is going great. The economics will follow.
First we take the country back from the aliens and give it to the true owners. Then we develop it.
The old lie helps, the recasting of class relations in ethno-religious terms, the bourgeois minorities (who are also pro-imperialist) vs. Sinhala-Buddhist workers and peasants (in the SLFP rendering, monks, Ayurvedic physicians and teachers are added). That pernicious lie has remained deeply engrained, in part because no political party has challenged it. On the contrary, almost all political parties have tried to use it to their electoral advantage time and again. The JVP even tried to make the revolution, twice, on that basis.
Thanks to that deeply held belief, that etched-in-stone worldview, there is no visible, audible discontent amongst the core Rajapaksa voters about rising prices and other socio-economic ills. In order to redistribute to, you must first take from those who have stolen our patrimony. Before the game begins, the playing field must be made uneven. The government is doing it. That gives it credibility in the collective gaze of its base. That buys it time.
The best way to murder a pluralist democracy is to depict it as beneficial to the minorities. What is good for them is naturally bad for us. Political freedoms are good for them; an independent judiciary is good for them; a weakened executive is good for them. To get to the promised land, the land promised to us by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, all that must be trashed.
Like the 19th Amendment.
Parliamentarian Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has proposed two constitutional amendments as private members’ motions. One aims to make the president supreme, to give him all the powers to appoint superior court judges, the Attorney General and the Auditor General.
The other would increase the cut off point for parliamentary representation from the current 5% to 12%. The aim is to reduce minority representation in parliament. But it will have a deadly effect on the JVP as well, and even the SLFP. For instance, if that rule is applied to the 2018 local government election, the SLFP will have representation only from 13 districts while the JVP will have representation from only one district. .
Unenlightened self-interest is suicidal in the long term because it is blinding from word go. Closing the doors of the parliament to the minorities and the JVP would be an act of unparallel idiocy. It will pave the way not to moderation but to extremism, not to reconciliation but to new strife.
The Rajapaksas probably know it, but it is unlikely to bother them. Because that will give them an enemy to showcase, vilify, and use as a scapegoat for militarisation and repression.
One of the programmes the government is planning to implement as a matter of priority is to provide jobs to 100,000 young people from low-income families who have not got through their O Levels. On the surface, this seems a measure aimed at combating poverty. But there is more. The Defence Ministry will oversee the programme. The candidates will be chosen and trained by the military. They will then be deployed in government institutions, mostly schools and hospitals. Militarisation of the economy and society will taken one more great leap, under the guise of poverty alleviation. And the Rajapaksas will have a version of Brown Shirts, young, uneducated, malleable, trained to obey, whatever the orders are. They will be a Rajapaksa force in the truest sense in the word.
The fate of the 47%
Almost 48% of the electorate voted against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the return of the Rajapaksa raj. This includes almost the totality of the minorities and more than one third of the majority.
In the upcoming parliamentary election they can play a critical role in denying the Rajapaksas the two-thirds majority they so desperately desire.
The minority parties are struggling to form a response to a regime which is committed to a new order where the dominant ethno-religious group reigns while everyone else has to exist on terms of explicit and structural inequality. In this Sri Lanka, a monk slapping a pastor is pro forma. Or a monk decreeing how much sex-education should be given to school children.
The JVP misread the conjuncture in which the presidential election was held. The moment Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the SLPP’s presidential candidate, any realistic space for a third force dwindled. The JVP should have done better had it committed itself to the task of stopping Gotabaya. That was what the moment demanded. Instead the JVP decided to turn sectarian in the worst sense. Instead of adopting popular front tactics, as the occasion demanded, it tried to create a false equivalency between Gotabaya and the UNP.
The JVP didn’t expect to win. But the extent of its defeat seemed to have stunned it into a near-paralysis state. Its continuing failure to place itself at the forefront of the anti-Rajapaksa component of the electorate cannot but impact negatively on its prospects at the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The UNP’s plight is equally self-made. Instead of becoming a voice for the 47% that voted against the Rajapaksas, the UNP is busying itself with internal battles. Instead of burnishing its image as a Lankan party, it is trying to regress into majoritarianism.
Sajith Premadasa thought he could beat Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist game. He failed then. He will fail again. The Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist component of the electorate can never be weaned away from the SLPP so long as the four Rajapaksa siblings are in the game. They belong to the Rajapaksas, body, soul, and vote. No amount of pandering to Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism can change that situation.
The UNP’s best chance is to understand its strengths and build on those. Its base is not in the hinterland, but in the urban centres. Its winning formula is not racism but ethno-religious pluralism and progressive economics.
The Sinhala-Buddhist core of the Rajapaksa base might be content with how things are going. But the same may not be true of the floating voters. Those floating voters cannot be won over by mimicking the Rajapaksas. To win them over, the UNP must hone in on every broken promise, every flip-flopping by the government. It must talk about prices of consumer essentials and the open nepotism and cronyism in key appointments. It must explain why the government is trying to kill the forensic audit report into bond issues by the Central Bank. It must talk about the social and environmental consequences of the government’s decision to scrap the permit-requirement for the transportation of sand, gravel and soil. It must expose and oppose every misdeed of the government. Instead the new opposition leader is busy organising monthly bana preachings in his new office premises. Not quite a winning formula.
But then Sajith Premadasa is not good at winning elections, as his performance in his chosen base of Hambantota demonstrates. At the presidential election, the UNP scored the lowest in the district its candidate has represented for more than two decades – 25.9% in Hambantota compared to 42% nationally. That abysmal performance belongs to Sajith Premadasa alone. It is not something he can blame of Ranil Wickremesinghe or anyone else.
How can a man who has consistently failed to win his own electoral district or electorate lead the party to victory nationally? On what rational, factual grounds does he demand the UNP leadership? If Sajith Premadasa becomes the leader of the UNP, he will be a second Ranil Wickremesinghe, someone who will cling to that position irrespective until death or a younger contender do us part.
To impede Sri Lanka’s march into an unfree, divisive and destructive future, the Rajapaksas must be prevented from winning a two-thirds majority. It can be done. But will it be done?