By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“The history or the future of Sri Lanka does not belong to any group”. Ranasinghe Premadasa (Speech on 12.11.1990)
Character can be fate, for both individuals and collectives. The answer to where Sri Lanka is headed depends, at least in part, on what Sri Lanka is.
In 1956, the dominant Sinhala opinion deemed that Sri Lanka was a Sinhala country; after two decades of resistance, the dominant Tamil opinion abandoned the struggle for equality, accepted that Sri Lanka was a Sinhala country and demanded a separate Tamil state on that basis.
None clung to the myth of Sri Lanka not being a country for Tamils with greater assiduity than Vellupillai Pirapaharan. In 1956, SWRD Bandaranaike used the Tamil-bogey to come to power. Today the Rajapaksas are using the Muslim-bogey to perpetuate their power. Just as their politico-ideological forefathers told the Tamils to get back to Tamilnadu/India, the Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists of today are acting as if every Lankan Muslim is a dual citizen of Saudi Arabia, by birth.
Nothing reveals the reach of this toxic nonsense than a memory shared by Jezima Ismail: “Some years ago at a lecture session at the BMICH a professor waxed eloquent on the feelings he had for Sri Lanka and that this was the only place for him. In the course of this talk he turned round to me and said that if anything untoward happened I could of course seek refuge in Saudi or the Middle East”i.
Ms. Ismail is as Sri Lankan as can be, a pedagogue who has served her country and her community for, decades. It was to a woman of such calibre and achievement this remark was made, not to some Saudo-phile extremist wallowing in Wahabism or Salafism. And the person who made this remark was not a raving BBS monk or a common or garden mobster, but a professor, if not a man of learning at least one of education.
Clearly the ‘hosts and guests’ concept of Sri Lanka is not the sole property of the lunatic fringe.
From the rejection of the pluralist nature of Sri Lanka flows the refusal to accept that minorities are co-owners of the country. This cements the belief that minorities do not consider Sri Lanka as their motherland and that they are creatures of divided loyalties, not to be trusted.
This mindset can be explained using Aristotelian syllogism:
1) Only Sinhala-Buddhists can love Sri Lanka.
Tamils/Muslims/Christians are not Sinhala-Buddhists.
Therefore Tamils/Muslims/Christians do not love Sri Lanka.
2) Aliens want to destroy Sri Lanka.
Tamils/Muslims/Christians are aliens.
Therefore Muslims/Tamils/Christians want to destroy Sri Lanka
From the belief that minorities are untrustworthy aliens, forever conspiring to take ‘our’ country away from ‘us’, stems the concept of a beleaguered Sri Lanka, in constant danger of being conquered by external enemies or subverted by internal foes. From that phobia to the hallucination that Sinhala Buddhists are the most endangered species on earth and that great religious and temporal powers are consumed with a desire to undermine us is but a short step.
That is where the global conspiracy theory comes in. Depending of the politico-ideological views of the believer this can either be an imperialist conspiracy or a Christian one, an Indian/Tamil conspiracy or a Muslim one. The villain of the piece may change from time to time, but the plot never does. Someone is always conspiring to deprive the Sinhalese-Buddhists of their one and only country. The ‘reason’ for this varies, again according to the belief system of the believer – it can be Trincomalee, our strategic location, the need to destabilise India or the desire to destroy Buddhism. And those who hold these views regard them as self-evident and axiomatic truths, immune to facts, beyond dispute or debate.
There is an omnipotent postscript to this narrative of ‘ever generous’ Sinhala Buddhists welcoming alien races/religions to their motherland and giving them space to live and opportunities to thrive. When the Sinhalese feel ‘betrayed’ by the ‘minority guests’, when Sinhala ‘patience’ runs out due to ‘minority encroachments’, the Sinhalese go berserk. And Black Julys happen. The inevitable flipside of ‘we are generous and trusting’ is ‘we have been betrayed’.
Much of the bad which happened to this country, post-Independence, are sourced in these myths, hallucinations and phobias and the maniacal manner in which a segment of Sinhala society act under their collective noxious influence.
The professor who told Ms. Ismail that she has a home in Saudi Arabia/Middle East would never publicly use same raw language as the BBS/JHU. His type would never say ‘hambaya’ in public. They will not scream threats. They will repeat the same errant and dangerous nonsense as the BBS/JHU in polite language and well-modulated voices. Their contribution to the coming conflagration will be far more potent because many a Sinhalese alienated by the BBS’ ravings will succumb to the ‘opinions’ of these pseudo-moderates. And when the ‘outraged’ majority attacks the minority, the Professor and others of his ilk would not join the mob. They would shake their heads sorrowfully and say that the rage – and its lamentable manifestation – had just causes.
When the resulting conflagration turns the country into a living hell, they will migrate to some Western haven; from that safety and comfort they will inundate the internet with their patriotic twaddle.
It is in the enabling environment created by respectable middle classers like the Professor that the Tigers and the Talebans, the Shiva Senas and the Bodu Bala Senas of this world thrive.
The Rajapaksas may or may not believe in the racist ravings of the BBS; but they are certainly determined to use the resultant hysteria for their benefit, to strengthen their Sinhala base, to justify the unjustifiable (from defence costs and waste to high prices) and to worm their way into American/Western good books. As the Sunday Times confirms, the recent initiatives by Ambassador Jaliya Wickremasuriya indicate a possible new direction for the Lankan foreign policy. Public Relation firms are reportedly being used to present a friendly image of Rajapaksa Sri Lanka to American policy makers/public.
The Rajapaksas would think that being seen as a target of Islamic terrorism will help them to save the Hambantota Commonwealth, win over the West and rule forever.
The possibility that Sri Lanka may end up being the Asian Serbia would not occur to the limited imaginations of the Ruling Siblings.
Already the Muslims live in fear, not knowing when and how the next attack will come. The inability of democratic Muslim leaders to construct a moderate, non-racist response to this challenge will create a deadly vacuum. If sane Sinhala/Buddhists fail to rally round Lankan Muslims, if they allow the BBS to determine the agenda and wreak havoc in their name, a Muslim counter-extremism, deadlier than the Tiger, may emerge.
And the Rajapaksas will have the war of their dreams. That such a conflict will condemn most Lankans to an unprecedented and unending nightmare would not matter to the Siblings. All the Rajapaksas care about is Familial Rule and Dynastic Succession. They will not hesitate to sacrifice anyone and anything to buy themselves a few more years of unbridled power.