Sinhala Buddhist Storm Clouds in the Present Presidential Race

ACL Ameer Ali, in Colombo Telegraph, 25 October 2019, … and Financial Times, 26 October 2019, with this title, “Political Buddhism, Presidential Race & Minorities”

Although the origins of political Buddhism in Sri Lanka goes back to the 19thcentury, it was harnessed as an election winning tool in the 1950s by the founder of SLFP, SWRD Bandaranaike. It was from him that even the CIA is said to have learned to politicise Buddhism to entrench American power in Southeast Asia (Eugene Ford, Cold War Monks, Yale University Press, 2017). From the 1950s onwards, political Buddhism has become a permanent feature of in Sri Lanka’s ethno-democracy. In a sense, political Buddhism adopted a military face during the Rajapakse regime between 2005 and 2009 when it confronted an armed nationalist Tamil militia, and the absolute victory in that confrontation added an element of pride to politicised Buddhists. 

Not surprisingly, the civil war victory in 2009 provided fresh impetus to the growth of political Buddhism. There was a tectonic shift in the Sinhala mindset as a result of that victory.  On the one hand, that victory erased almost instantaneously the menacing fear that haunted the Sinhalese since medieval times that their country would one day be invaded by the Tamils from neighbouring sub-continent. And on the other, that erasure was automatically transformed into an unshakeable ambition of achieving for ever Sinhala Buddhist hegemony over Sri Lanka. Political Buddhism since then was transmogrified into a supremacist movement with a singular mission to reshape the country’s polity, economy and culture on Buddhist image. To these supremacists democratic pluralism is anathema. Although they are still a minority, there are some powerful forces to back their mission.

The supremacist movement has manifested itself politically through a number of ad hoc pressure groups and registered political parties, such as, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Sinha Le, Mahoson Balakaya, Ravana Balaya, Sinhala Ravaya and so on.  There are a few powerful media groups to support this movement. The real power base for this movement however, lies within the Sangha. In fact, two monks Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thera, the secretary of BBS, and Ven. Athuraliye Rathna Thera, a parliamentarian representing JHU, are among the most vocal propagandists for Buddhist supremacy.

In an open rally on June 7th in Kandy, Gnanasara made a stunning declaration, still uncontested by either the President or the Prime Minister, and not even by the Leader of the opposition, that Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhala Buddhists only and that they are the sole owners of this island. Without thinking about the dangerous implications of what he said, Gnanasara virtually disenfranchised all other minorities in the country. On another occasion, and when referring to Islamic fundamentalism, he appealed to government authorities to leave the Muslims in the care of Buddhist clergy so that they would mould and cleanse the Muslim mind of any fundamentalist ideology, and protect the country from Islamic terrorism.  Perhaps, he was thinking of what the Chinese government is currently doing to the Uighur community in the name of re-education. This monk’s most recent and blatant mischief was the cremation of the corpse of one of his colleagues in the precincts of a Hindu temple in Mullaitivu. He did this in spite of a court injunction against his action. It should be noted that this monk was earlier sent to prison for contempt of court, but was pardoned and released by President Sirisena, on the eve of Vesak celebrations this year.

Similarly, Ven. Rathna Thera went on a highly dramatized hunger strike in front of the Dalada Maligawa demanding the removal of two governors and one minister, all of whom were Muslims. They were alleged to have misused their power to enrich themselves. Were they the only ones? Anyhow, he achieved his objective, which prompted en masse resignation of all Muslim ministers and deputies from the cabinet. This monk is also the front man in the campaign against a Muslim gynaecologist, who he alleged to have performed illegal caesarean operations on pregnant Sinhalese mothers, with the intention of reducing Sinhalese birth rate. When the CID investigated and reported that there was no evidence to support that allegation, the monk criticised the CID of inefficiency. He is now on a ‘One Country One Law’ campaign to homogenise all marriage and divorce laws in the country. The fact that he initiated this campaign at a time when the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act is in the process of being amended and legislated reveals his anti-Muslim agenda.      

The most worrying aspect of Buddhist supremacy is the legal impunity with which its members are allowed to operate.  For example, there had been a series of anti-Muslim riots particularly since 2014, which caused at least one Muslim death, several wounded, and destruction of several mosques, Muslim businesses and Muslim properties. In a majority of these riots the police had remained just onlookers. There is video evidence that could be used to identify the rioters and the policemen watching them. Yet, none has been brought to justice until today.  There had been absolute silence about these incidents from the President, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Not even a word of condemnation has come out of these leaders. One minister who dared to challenge these zealots was ostracized by sections of the Buddhist clergy. This shows that the supremacists are operating not only with legal impunity but also with political support.   

It is in this disturbing scenario that the country is in the grip of a presidential election. Of the thirty-two candidates in the field the real race is only between two, Sajith Premadasa from UNP and Gotabaya Rajapaksa from SLPP. Another, Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) from NPP appears to be running third. Neither of the two leading candidates has made their position clear about their support or otherwise to the supremacist agenda. The reason for their silence is obvious, given the importance they attach to the influence of supremacists over the Buddhist vote bank.  Although these supremacists are lying low at the moment, probably as a tactical ploy to help their “Hitler-like” candidate, Gotha, to win, (Ven. Wedaruwe Upali Thera, of the Anunayaka of Asgiriya Chapter, wanted Gota to become a Hitler and run a military rule) they are certain to resume the campaign, once the election is over. Sajit also has promised to give Buddhism the foremost place and pledged to build 1000 chaityas. In spite of all his rhetoric about maximum devolution of power to the Provincial Councils, he is ensnared by the supremacist pressure. Only AKD of NPP has so far distanced himself from any religious commitment and is campaigning on a totally different platform to be discussed below.

What options do minorities have in this race?      

Of the two minorities, the Tamils are in a sad predicament. Having lost the best opportunity they had to secure a federal system of government while the British were in power, and after independence, having self-destructively sided with the Senanayake Government to disenfranchise a whole chunk of their Indian brethren, Tamil leadership nurtured the idea of a Tamil state and dreamt of achieving it single-handedly, even without the support of other minorities. The year 2009 unambiguously proved that it was an expensive and unrealisable dream. Since then, they tried to achieve at least a modicum of self-rule, preferably through a single Provincial Council in a merged North-East Province, and if that is not possible, through two separate councils but with extensive powers. Since 2015, TNA allied with the yahapalana government to achieve at least some of its objectives through constitutional changes. With a dysfunctional government fast losing popularity amongst the Sinhalese, TNA could achieve nothing, and now Tamil leadership itself is hopelessly divided.

However, in a rare show of unity and under pressure from Tamil youth all factions came together and drew up a set of demands, numbering thirteen (what an unlucky number if one is superstitious!), and presented them to the two leading candidates, pledging support to the one accepting those demands. It seems that they deliberately drafted these demands to be rejected by both candidates. It was a strange diplomacy for Tamil leaders to have wrapped their demands within the overall framework of a ‘federal’ solution to Tamil ‘traditional home land’, knowing very well that these terms are poison to any Sinhalese leader to swallow. No wonder they were rejected outright by Sajith and Gota, although AKD accepted the more reasonable of those demands and expressed willingness to find solution, were he and NPP to be elected.  What should the Tamils do now? Should they decide to boycott the election altogether as they did in 2005, which will be advantageous to Gota? Or, should they go with Sajith as the lesser of two evils, and make him win without any commitment to solving the Tamil problem? Or, should they focus their action elsewhere and beyond 2019?

The Muslim community is in a far worse situation than Tamils because, unlike the Tamil leadership, which eschewed ministerial status and positions, in the interest of fighting for a higher cause (whether that cause is legitimate or not is a different matter), the present generation of Muslim leadership is all about self-aggrandizement with the pretext of championing the cause of Islam and Muslims. Like a pre-recorded tape, Muslim politicians repeatedly shout about fighting for and winning the rights of Muslims, without ever spelling out what those rights are and how are they going to fight. Do Muslims have any special rights that belong only to them in a democracy? Fighting to remove injustice to Muslims and demanding the same rights as enjoyed by others are legitimate, and in that fight every democrat and fair minded person in the country would join, whether that person is Muslim, Tamil or Sinhalese. Apart from that, if there are some unique rights for Muslims, their leaders should make them clear for others to make informed judgement on the legitimacy of those rights. True, there are a number of problems that Muslims are confronting today, but many of them are self-created, but made difficult to solve because of dishonest leadership. As usual, in the forthcoming presidential election Muslim leaders are gambling on the winner, with an eye on enjoying personal rewards and prestige afterwards. Even if their wrong man wins this race, they would know how to fall at his feet to save their skin. Interestingly, there is also one Muslim candidate in the race with a meretriciously mediocre manifesto to deceive his voters. He would be the only candidate in history to claim victory by losing. Obviously, he is working to satisfy his paymaster. None the less, the community as a whole is facing a terrible quandary, especially since Bloody Easter.

It is time that both minorities realise that the two major parties vying for power, UNP and SLPP, and their respective presidential candidates, are under immense pressure from the supremacists. Gota is fully supported by them, and Sajith cannot afford to antagonize them. Even if Sajith wins, with minority backing, he would be severely constrained to act against the wishes of supremacists. In the end, the nation’s plural democracy and its economy would be the ultimate victims. What should the minorities do?

They should look beyond the presidential election and towards the next general election. The Tamils cannot win any of their demands unless they have sympathy for their cause from the Sinhalese quarter. In particular, they should look for a Sinhala Buddhist voice that could speak on their behalf, and that voice should speak not only on behalf of Tamils but on behalf of all Sri Lankans. In the prevailing ethno-democracy, in which the ruling party and its opponents are beholden to the dictates of Buddhist supremacy, minorities are bound to suffer. This is why both minorities should look for an alternative that is free of ethno-nationalism, and that alternative at the moment is undoubtedly the NPP.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake is campaigning predominantly on an economy platform with a determination to end corruption, extend equal treatment to all citizens, accountability of all public officials, and reducing the income gap that has become criminally intolerable. He is the only candidate who is talking about improving the country’s deteriorating educational and health standards and achieving self-sufficiency in food production. He is also planning, as part of his educational reforms, to introduce English as subject to be taught in our schools. Swabasha education has deprived the Sinhalese and Tamil medium graduates from accessing to job markets in an integrated world. Their only option at present is to look for jobs in the public sector and that sector is over burdened with file-pushers. According to one report, 1.5 million employees are doing the work of 800,000 in the public sector (The Island, 13 October 2019, editorial). What a waste of money and talent! AKD’s announcements appear to be coming out of a carefully worked out plan, which he should publish in full.        

IN contrast to AKD, the other two candidates are throwing a few populist appetisers like, bringing down the VAT from 15 to 8 per cent, introducing mid-day meal for school children, increasing the daily wage of estate workers to Rs.1500/=, fixing interest rates and wavering farmers loans etc., etc. without a comprehensive strategy or plan to achieve national unity, economic reforms and social cohesion, their promises cannot solve the problems that the country is facing today. The economy in particular cannot be repaired with patch works and in isolation, without tackling other issues at the same time.     

AKD and his NPP may not win the presidential race but their hands should be strengthen to become a powerful alternative in the next parliament. If the Sarvodaya backed NPM could merge with NPP that would be good for the country. Tamils and Muslims should ignore their leaders and throw their support behind these progressive forces. For the minorities and for all Sri Lankans to live in peace and prosper, the country needs a radical change. Having witnessed the open revolt of the masses against corruption, authoritarianism, increasing cost of living and economic disparity, in countries like Lebanon, Honk Kong, Chile and Mexico, one should admire in astonishment the Sinhalese capacity for endurance and patience amidst unbearable hardships, manufactured by misgovernment and mismanagement.

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ONE: A NOTE by Editor, Thuppahi: Let me stress something that i thought (mistakenly?) was self-evident. The presentation of an essay by X or Y in this web site does NOT mean that I endorse the whole or all its parts. Ameer Ali is a former colleague and  a friend (and as an Easterner has important insights on the riseof Wahhabism in that region dting back several decades).

TWO = A  CRITICAL COMMENT from Vinod Moonesinghe on Facebook whihc deserves more ‘permanent’ inscription (with underlining added by Editor): 

Ameer Ali’s analysis is ahistorical, and lacking in colonial context. Firstly, he does not address the privileged position granted to the elite of the minorities, who still have hegemony over their respective ethnic groups. The privileges granted to Afghans, Chetties, Moors and Nadars, as money lenders, traders, and opium dealers, and the hold they had over the Sinhalese peasants (and Estate Tamil workers), and to Jaffna Tamils in government service, caused the resentment of the Sinhalese Buddhists (and Estate Tamil workers).
Even today, a brief analysis of the “business community” shows Buddhist Sinhalese to be in a minority, and Muslims and Christians to be vastly overrepresented. Considering that the “business community” actually runs this country, it is easy for ultra-nationalists to steer the class struggle in the direction of ethnicity.
Instead of making foolish remarks such as “political Buddhism … was harnessed as an election winning tool in the 1950s by the founder of SLFP, SWRD Bandaranaike” (has he NEVER heard of JR Jayawardene, or the Kelaniya bye-election, or the Sinhala Only motion in the State Council, or indeed of the UNP’s inflammatory posters against the LSSP in the 1947 general election, or the Roman Catholic Church’s threat to excommunicate people who voted for the Left?), he could have analysed HOW we got to where we are.
And is he ignoring “political Islam”? Didn’t the SLMC contest on a slogan of “for Islamic Fundamentalism”?
And notice how he simply repeats the Western press about the so-called repression of the Uiygher community in China. Where is his evidence?

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