The politics of Sri Lanka in the 1970’s underpinned the three decades of war that ravaged the country to its near collapse. A cocktail of factors contributed towards the deterioration of the relationship between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. The unaccommodating visionless state actors were the major contributors for the decay. This has its origins even long before the independence of Sri Lanka. There is cautious optimism that the present government will move some way to deal with the miscarriages and bring about a fair, tolerant and accommodating rule to the island nation.
Chapter II of the constitution of Sri Lanka states that: ‘the Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddha Sasana (teachings of Buddha), while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Article 10 and 14’.
The very fundamental precepts of Buddhism which the government of Sri Lanka adapted by giving uppermost place for Buddhism remain violated across the socio-religious-economic-political divide of Sri Lanka.
Pages and pages can be written or can even be established by just following the present day Sri Lanka to assess disrespect for these very virtuous precepts. These precepts are being vitiated downright in the whole embodiment of governance for far too long. In a true sense, it is a shameful plight of the rule of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Just imagine of Buddha if is reborn to see the state of the Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka. The problems of the Buddhist state is mammoth and even reborn Buddha will find it hard to comprehend or influence for change.
Beyond the visionless state actors, the very many Buddhist Bhikkus (monks) who were supposed to follow Buddha’s noble precepts with innermost purity are shamelessly undermining them by their deepest hatred towards the minorities. The command and control of the Buddhist hierarchy or the Buddhist state does not guide or take procedural steps against those Bhikkus who flout the very Buddha Sanasana they fought to gain a special place in the constitution of Sri Lanka.
Despite all the good things said about Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera (the Chief incumbent of Kotte Naga Vihara) for his outstanding contribution to bring an end to the wild President Rajapaksa’s familial authoritarian regime, he too played his ugly role so unashamedly to whip up his bigoted anti Tamil racism in the 1970’s. He joined hands with the Tamil hating Cyril Mathew MP and the likes and went on to make provocative and spiteful public statements against the Tamils in the 1970’s. His unequivocal hate speeches were so noxious, that it sent chilling waves through the hearts and minds of the Tamils. He was then a matching personality to the present day Gotabaya Rajapakesa who propped up Gnanasara Thero of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
One has to study the life story of Sobitha Thero to establish whether he is a statesmen, nationalist or a racist. He cannot be a nationalist, as he went beyond to portray him as a thorough and a sickening anti-Tamil racist in the 1970’s. His hate mission even extended when India intervened following the 1983 nationwide state sponsored anti-Tamil violence.
His abhorant past has been forgotten following his contribution to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa from office and he is now seen as humble and harmless Bhikku following the fundamentals of Buddhism. Unfortunately, he fermented anti-Tamil racism to the roots of the Sinhala society and did very little to overcome his past to mitigate his failures. There is widespread belief that he wanted to project himself as a common opposition candidate to become the President and was disappointed it did not happen. Following this his health too deteriorated rapidly leading to his demise.
Within this context, it will be worthwhile looking at all what happened in the 1970’s to assess how Ven Sobitha fitted into the stalemate of Sri Lanka.
The blend of widespread anti-Tamil campaign to marginalise the Tamils and the Tamil campaign to move away from the hate body politics of Sri Lanka became the deadly foundation that bitterly fragmented Sri Lanka. A brief look at the decade of the 1970’s will confirm the causes of the deeply embedded mould – the very violation of the Precepts of Buddha of the Buddhist state.
The hotbed of the Tamil militancy was the official affirmative ‘Policy of Standardisation’ introduced in 1971 to benefit the Sinhala students and to disadvantage the Tamils from the north. In 1969 the Tamil population provided 27.5% of the science university entrance but this was brought down to 7% with the systematic introduction of the Standardisation Policy. With the spiralling militancy of the Tamils, this policy was mellowed down in 1977 by President JR Jayewardene with the amendment to accommodate 80% entry with district based raw marks and 20% for the students in districts with inadequate facilities.
The government of Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike under the ministry of Dr Minister Badiudin Mahmud, who served as Education Minister for ten years, introduced the policy that laid the foundation for the Tamil militancy that eventually led to the full scale warfare. The Muslim minority leadership was not able to see the focus of the government to ostracise the Tamils. To get their kickbacks from the government, they did not align with the Tamils to campaign against the racially motivated standardisation policy. The standardisation policy did not benefit the Muslims in any big way for the furtherance of their own destiny despite them camming from the deprived areas.
The 1970’s was the hotbed for the anti-Tamil feelings reaching its peak. The Tamil United Front (TUF) that extended its name to Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976 (with inclusion of the Tamil political groups Federal Party, All Ceylon Tamil Congress and Ceylon Workers Congress) adopted a demand for an independent ‘secular, socialist state of Tamil Eelam’. The inadequacy and the inability of the Tamil democratic political leadership to respond to the crying strains of frustrated Tamil youth, gave birth to the proactive political movements of the Tamil youth that eventually lead to Tamil militancy and the full scale warfare for three decades.
The Tamil militancy was oxygenated when the police violently responded to a public meeting following the International Tamil Research Conference attended by thousands of people in the heart of Jaffna on 9 January 1974. Nine civilians were blindly shot and killed by the police that further fermented Tamil anger. At the age of 24, Tamil youth Ponnuthurai Sivakumar raged over the police attack on the civilians and held the pro-government Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraippa responsible for the excesses of the police. His clandestine activities were monitored by the security establishment and when he was surrounded by the police on 5 June 1974, he committed suicide by swallowing cyanide. His death and the funeral attended by thousands of youth further fuelled the Tamil militancy.
The government responded to the Tamil militancy with unprecedented violence against the Tamil civilian populations. Even the democratic agitations were considered hostile acts. Attacking and looting Tamil businesses in the main Jaffna town became a habitual preoccupation for the army and police. The loots were stored at the Naga Vihara – the Buddhist shine, in the heart of Jaffna before being transported to the south overnight. The Tamil militancy too was growing feverishly. Bank robberies and assassinations of Tamils associating with the government were headline news in the 1970’s.
In the 1970’s, two constitutions were introduced successively. The first one was the republican constitution of the Prime Minister Mrs Srimavo Bandaranaike in May 1972, abandoning the British Soulbury constitution. The subsequent one was the current Presidential constitution of President JR Jayewardene that was introduced in October 1977.
With JR Jayewardene taking office in July 1977, with two thirds majority and Mr Appapillai Amirthalingam, the leader of Tamil United Liberation Front becoming the opposition leader as a result of the weakened Sinhala opposition in the parliament, it was a hotbed for the polarised communities. The island-wide anti-Tamil violence was set in motion immediately after the general election in July 1977 and the Sinhala thugs ran amok whist the security forces remained spectators. The 1977 anti-Tamil violence further contributed towards Tamil militancy.
The introduction of the Anti-Terrorism Law in 1979 gave unhindered powers to the security forces to commit excesses in their operations. President JR Jayewardene validated his stance against the Tamils in his interview to the Daily Telegraph of 11 July 1983. He said: ‘Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhalese people will be happy’. In the cold war political divide, such extreme utterances were ignored by the international community.
These are the highlights of the worsening situation in Sri Lanka, and there were many more issues including President Jayewardene giving special orders to the Army Commander to wipe out the Tamil militancy at any cost.
Ven Sobitha fitted into the hate agenda of the then governments and he played his part under the sainthood robes. He did not think about the insanity of his mission that lead to the deeply fragmented and bruised Sri Lanka struggling to find a way forward to establish cohesive political culture in the island nation.
If the international community was more focussed like it is now, Sri Lanka would have avoided the dark decade of the 1970’s in its history.
There is a lot of hope that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will go a long way to restore the goodwill between the communities and find ways to arrest the inbuilt malaise to regularise the hate ridden structures of the government. Buddhist religious establishments too must also go through self-realising reformation or through broad minded political processes.