By Ameer Ali –
Theo-militarism refers to the current political experiment undertaken by Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency that combines Buddhist demagoguery with military threat to remain in power. Tissarani Gunasekara brilliantly captioned it as “weaponizing Buddhism”. When the President after entrenching his position with the 20th Amendment circumscribed his dreamy “vistas of prosperity and splendour” with “virtuosity” and “discipline”, what he meant was Buddhist virtuosity to the exclusion of other religions and the fear of jackboot in the name of discipline to enforce compliance to his diktats. As a result, Sri Lanka is in de facto Theo-militarism.
The looming confrontation is not necessarily the consequence of the political experiment but of the regime’s economic mismanagement. There is no running away from the fact that the economy is on the verge of bankruptcy if not bankrupt already. The proof for this imminent or actual bankruptcy is not to be found in the official statistics dished out by the Central Bank and Department of Census and Statistics nor in soothing statements of the ministers and their lackeys, but in the daily occurrences in the market and households. With running shortages in essential consumables and unpredictable and persistent increase in wholesale and retail prices, and with drying employment opportunities and stagnating if not falling income, ordinary business of life has become a life and death struggle for millions of families. Having led the country into the hell hole of oppressive foreign debt a cash-strapped government is printing money in the name providing liquidity which has now created double digit inflation. As money value drops dramatically printing currency notes in larger denominations may become economical. A ten thousand rupees note was rumoured to be on the horizon, although the CBSL chief had denied it. However, flooding the market with currency notes should remind one of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe where hyperinflation at one stage led to the printing of 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar notes. Chambers of commerce have collectively warned the government of the dangers of not changing track and added their voice to seek assistance from IMF.
A regime that came to power with plenty of promises and overwhelming public support has run out of steam within two years, and its finance minister, who is novice to that prestigious position, is running from one country to another in search of economic and financial assistance. China, India, Bangladesh, US, the Arab countries, Iran, and Nigeria are among the countries approached. Despite Nivard Cabraal remaining adamant that seeking IMF assistance would be detrimental to the country and that his six-month road map would provide redemption, the latest downgrading of credit rating by Fitch has sent danger signals to foreign investors warning them against risking their funds in a collapsing economy. Even the expected increase from remittances from expatriate workers would not materialize with Central Bank’s artificial exchange rate policy. The upbeat about tourism revival has received another shock from Omicron. IMF is certainly not the panacea for all of Sri Lanka’s economic ills, but it should be part of a revival strategy. Even then, unless some miracle changes the fortunes, prognosis for economic revival in 2022 looks rather grim.
This explains why there is widespread discontent, and confrontation between the masses and regime is maturing by the day. Already, 2021 has witnessed a series of protests despite Covid related lockdowns and shutdowns. Farmers, teachers, students, doctors, nurses, trade unionists, political parties and so on dared the police and military and came out on streets to show their anger and contempt. What else could they have done? Popularity of the government is at an all-time low. Still, there is one powerful group of citizens who has not come out on the street to join the protesting crowd, and when that happens it would be the last straw to break the camel’s back. So far, no political party or coalition of parties seems to have been able to mobilize this group. These are the millions of ordinary housewives and mothers who are bearing the full brunt of the current misery. Majority of them are finding it extremely difficult to feed their babies and young kids. If they could come out, President’s Jackboots and artillery would be no match to the clattering sound of empty pots and pans.
Given this confrontation, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government seem to believe that theocrats in saffron robes and khaki clad military would protect the regime. Of the two, the military seems to be solidly behind the President for the time being. It has been pampered by GR since he came to power, and in the last two budgets allocations for defence were increased more than proportionately when compared to other vital sectors like health and education. But the same level of support may not come forth from the Buddhist clergy.
In general, the universal respect and reputation which members of Sangha once commanded started showing signs of waning, partly because of the repulsive conduct of some bhikkhus and partly because of the blatant politicization of Buddhism by an ethno-nationalist President. The recent boycott of Colombo University convocation by senior academics and the refusal by graduands to be convoked by GR’s political appointee, Chancellor Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera, if anything, is a sign of disgust by intellectuals at political prostitution of religion. Will the President, if he really believes in the need for religious dignitaries to uplift local and international image of national universities, also appoint the Mufti of ACJU, the Catholic Archbishop and the chief Hindu priest as Chancellors of other universities?
Politicizing Buddhism has reached its climax under GR Presidency, because he sees in it an escape route to get out of trouble if and when the regime loses its popularity as happening now. This tactic is quite evident from the day GR took his oath in the Buddhist precincts of Ruwanwelisaya. Its Latest manifestation was the appointment of the anti-Muslim Ven. Gnanasara Thera to head the One Country One Law task force and allowing him to do what he does best to stir up religious disharmony. He is now demanding the Muslim Minister of Justice, Ali Sabry, another GR appointee, be sacked to bring justice to Zahran’s victims. Is this minister or the President himself the reason for not implementing PCoI recommendations?
There is also another priest, Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera, a former parliamentarian, and a television fame hunger striker, who is crowing against the reinstatement of Muslim gynecologist Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen, who was alleged to have sterilized thousands of Sinhalese women to reduce Sinhala population in the country! There is a third who recently spread the canard over social media that a Sinhalese woman had suddenly disappeared in a Muslim Arab country, which was later found to be untrue. Likewise, the lynching and burning to death a Sinhalese factory manager in Sialkot, Pakistan, by a fanatical Muslim mob, which was condemned right round by every responsible Muslim leader and organization, was whipped up by Buddhist Islamophobes to create hatred of Islam and Muslims. Finally, Ven. Gnanasara did not miss his opportunity to spread anti-Muslim venom when Saudi Arabia banned Tablighi Jamaat. In all this, President GR, the Prime Minister and his ministers kept an unholy silence.
These rabble rousers seem be acting according to a script probably authored by the Viyathmaga and endorsed by the President. In this script the Muslim community is steadily being portrayed as the villain of the peace. That none of the political parties in the opposition has so far spoken publicly on this growing menace is a mystery. Thus, when the time is appropriate Theo-militarism would sacrifice Muslims to misdirect the open confrontation.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia