By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
Almost four years after winning the Eelam War, Sri Lankahas no discernible enemy and a very discernible military. This gross disproportion would not have mattered overmuch had the economy fared better and the people were burdened less. But with a distorted economy and a weighted-down populace, even Rajapaksa supporters might question the logic of maintaining a gargantuan military sans an enemy.
There are two ways out of this Rajapaksa-made conundrum. The logical path is to impose a resources-diet on the obese military establishment; the illogical path is to create an enemy. In Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, the logical way is a non-option. That leaves the illogical way – create an obvious, omnipresent, terrifying enemy.
An enemy can justify dumping endless resources into Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s Defence-cum-Urban Development black hole, in the midst of a biting economy. It can also explain the radical departures from democracy and justice visceral to Rajapaksa rule.
Up to early 2012, the rulers thought that the Tiger-spectre would suffice for the purpose. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa himself made this point: “The re-grouping and the re-organisation of Tiger separatists within Sri Lankais still a threat to national security.…. That is why we must maintain a sizeable defence force as well as defence spending, although there are some people who question why the defence establishment is so large and the amount of money allocated for defence” (LBO – 11.1.2012). But as economic hardships reached new zeniths in 2012, the Siblings would have realised that the Tiger-spectre alone will not do.Geneva too would be inadequate while most Lankans are indifferent about the Hambantota Commonwealth Summit. Once the dreaded electricity price-tsunami hits, even a Canadian-led boycott of Hambantota will elicit nothing more than a collective shrug.
Thus the regime’s desperate need for an enemy terrifying enough to make the Sinhala masses forget hunger, want and insecurity.
The explosion of anti-Muslim hysteria, literally out of the blue and the Rajapaksa-tolerance of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) become perfectly explicable in this context.
Until the attack on the Dambulla mosque on 20th April, 2012, the Sinhala-Buddhist lobby was focused on Christians. The Tamils have been defeated and humbled; and, almost as soon as the war ended, attacks on Christians resumed with a new vigour. Until last April, the Muslim threat did not exist. The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) was actually functioning as a Rajapaksa ally; it even sent representatives to Geneva last March to lobby Islamic nations on Colombo’s behalf.
With the Dambulla attack there was a sudden shifting of focus. A new conjuncture characterised by anti-Muslim hysteria came into being. Suddenly, the main enemy was a man in a cap and a woman in black.
Amidst this new madness, the BBS emerged fully formed, organised and financed, possibly from the belly of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. (The BBS facebook page[i] contains the latest demonstration of the special nexus between the BBS and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa).
The BBS – and others of its ilk – are going around the country trying to convince Sinhala Buddhist masses that they have only one threat and one enemy – the Muslims. Every other problem and concern, from economic hardships to crime wave, is pushed out of sight. To the extent these other issues are acknowledged, it is as by-products of the overarching ‘Muslim problem’. Once one is lost in this imaginary chamber of horrors, the real horrors of Rajapaksa rule vanish, from sight, consciousness and memory. Commenting on the anti-Muslim riots of 1915, the first low-country Sinhala representative of the Legislative Council, Sir Christoffel Obeysekere, said, “These disturbances would not have taken place had it not been, as I believed, for the incitement of the ignorant villagers – poor Buddhist villagers, than whom I have never seen a better set of men – by half a dozen misguided, designing villains, who have been trying to pose as leaders of the Buddhists. Had it not been for this encouragement, these disturbances would never have occurred. I therefore feel most strongly that any of the proprietory peasant villagers – whom I regard as true Sinhalese gentlemen – should have been deluded into this trap for the personal aggrandisement of a few who are nobodies, but who hope to make somebodies of themselves, by such disgraceful tactics”[ii].
That analysis could have been made about the current anti-Muslim hysteria. The Rajapaksas want to remain top-bodies, forever, while the BBS leaders want to become somebodies (who knew the name Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara just a year ago?). And they – following in the footsteps of their nefarious forefathers – are trying to incite an anti-Muslim mania, to retain power and relevance.
Are we going to allow free-rein to these unscrupulous power-hungry opportunists and let them devastate our future, again?
The Muslim Response
Fanatics of every ilk feed from the same trough of extremism and intolerance. They bring destruction and self-destruction.
If the Tamils, instead of accepting the counter-extremism of Vellupillai Pirapaharan, chose a moderate path, they could have avoided Nandikadal. So far, the Muslims have responded with reason and moderation to the ugly and violently provocative campaign of the BBS. The BBS would be elated if the Muslims abandoned that rectitude and reacted with a comparable – or worse – fanaticism. If the Muslims take that path, they will isolate themselves from moderates of other communities. And that is precisely what the BBS and its political masters would want.
Throughout history, ideas and values have been peripatetic; they were never the sole monopoly of this or that region/religion/culture.
When Justinian apostrophised Hellenism as an unclean heresy abhorred by God and banished it from Rome, the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of Antiquity found a home in Persia and (subsequently) in the Islamic Caliphates. As Rome (and the West) receded into a long night of intellectual obscurantism and economic regression, Persia and the Caliphates experienced a golden age civilisation, made possible by the tolerance and openness of most of their rulers who promoted culture and learning not only of the Greco-Roman variety but also of the Babylonian and Indian variety. By the 12th Century, the Arabs were at the forefront of scientific discovery, technological innovation and arts. This intellectual accumulation fed the European renaissance subsequently, via Muslim Spain.
For centuries the Ottoman Turkish Empire was far more tolerant in its attitude to other religions/cultures than the Christian West. The great Akbar practiced many of the Enlightenment values, centuries before Europe.
There is no pure anything in this world; every culture, every religion, every civilisation learnt from and built upon the achievements and advances of preceding ones. We stand on the collective-shoulders of giants and those giants belong to every race, region, creed or none.
Hopefully, in its response to the BBS fanatics, the Muslim community will be informed and influenced by its own traditions of tolerance and moderation. If the battle-lines are drawn between Buddhist-fanatics and Muslim fanatics, all will be lost; but if the Muslims close their ears to the siren song of extremism and face the BBS in the company of moderates of every community, they will win and so will Sri Lanka.