Sri Lanka as Paradox: A Schizoid Republic?

Lakshman Gunasekara, in Daily FT, 14 May 2022, where the title reads:  “Paradoxes of a schizoid Republic”     

Attackers’ roared obscenities, screams of victims, the thunk of metal poles on defenceless humans and, the crack of smashed protester shelters, all combined to almost drown out the Bhikkus’ serene chanting of Pirith emanating from loudspeakers within ‘Temple Trees’, the official residence of the Prime Minister of our Democratic Socialist Republic.

To those being beaten up on the street right outside the official residence, the public watching from the road and later, to the millions watching TV news telecasts and webcasts around the world, this triple clash of brutality, spirituality and official propriety must have seemed absolutely bizarre, even schizoid if not psycho-pathic.

Is the source of chanted Pirith and the fragrance of sacred Araliya flowers also the origin of the mass violence?

After decades of war, and anti-Thamil and anti-Muslim pogroms, this nation’s ethnic and religious minorities might be tempted to say ‘yes’ to that possibly double-layered question. Ashamed Buddhist faithful may also say ‘yes’. But many citizens of all religions and no religions, recalling our bloody history of majoritarian ethnic arrogance and repeated repressive violence against both rebelling ethnic minorities and insurgent rural youth, will acknowledge the violence, including anti-religious violence, on all sides.

If post-colonial Lankan (‘Sri’ is not worth using at present) history is to be understood well, then it must be acknowledged that the cumulative socio-historical experience has been one of constitutional-structural oppression and marginalisation of not just ethnic, religious, minorities but also of various genders, castes (in electoral gerrymandering), and even the differently abled. This oppression of the numerical minorities leaves the religio-ethnic and masculine majority supreme and exclusive in enjoying this island’s serendipity. Note that the political-economic structure of the modern Lankan State is also industriously mauling our island’s serendipitous ecology.

The usually fragrant Araliya flowers that adorn ‘Temple Trees’ must surely be withering in the atmosphere of hate speech, anger and political hysteria in recent days. Known throughout British colonial South Asia as ‘Temple’ flowers because of their constant use in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina ritual in temples and as sacred garlands, the flower is even depicted in the Sigirya frescoes.

‘Araliya Gaha Mandiraya’ was named ‘Temple Trees’ by its British owner of the time, a mid-19th century colonial businessman. It was later sold to the colonial government and became the official residence of the Colonial Secretary. After 1948, the venerable building became the permanent official residence of Prime Ministers and even two Presidents of the country. Given the sacred value of the flower, in addition to its official political significance, the ‘Mandiraya’ and its official occupants are seen as blessed by the ambience of the Temple trees surrounding the building.

Such is its symbolic and political significance, ‘Temple Trees’ soon became a focal point of State power and also a target of those wanting to overthrow the State or to seize power. The 1962 coup d’état plotters made the Prime Minister’s Official Residence their main target and managed to get the armoured vehicles guarding the mansion withdrawn. But the coup plotters were rounded up before they could strike. Similarly, the original JVP movement, in its 1971 insurgency, planned to attack then Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike at her private residence in Rosmead Place. As the insurgency broke on April 5th, the Premier, as well as several top Ministers, were all re-located in the better defended ‘Temple Trees’. In fact, the mansion reportedly became the core command centre for operations to crush the insurgency.

During the Thamil Eelam separatist war, intelligence that the Liberation Tigers were to use their makeshift combat planes to strike at the Mandiraya had prompted the placement of anti-aircraft guns adjoining the compound of the mansion which President Chandrika Kumaratunge used as her official residence.

Ironically, the Governor’s Mansion in the Colombo Fort, which later became the Janadhipathi Mandiraya (President’s Palace), was never seen as such a centre of power although it has always remained heavily guarded.

The 9th of May, 2022, brought a shameful and system-threatening reversal of the use of this symbolically and politically significant mansion. This ‘palace of the sacred flowers’ (Araliya Gaha Mandiraya), this epicentre of Republican power, instead became the epicentre of a violent attack on the people, seemingly engineered by the official chief occupant himself along with several Ministerial colleagues and other officers.

If the Sri Dalada Maligava is the most sacred living religious symbol of the nation, to all Sri Lankans, ‘Temple Trees’ is synonymous with Democracy, whether Westminster-style or ‘Gaulist’. Even the most vociferously hardline Buddhist activist groups, even those led by Theras (let alone the Venerable Sangha Nayakas), have not dared make divisive or exclusivist exhortations (leave aside actual organising activity or plotting) from within the Sri Dalada Maligava’s sacred precincts, nor within similar sacred sites such as in Anuradhapura or Mihintale. Physical violence has never emanated from within any sacred religious site – Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian – on this island that people are proud to call the “Dharma Dveepa”.

But on May 9, not only did the, then, Prime Minister and, some of his ministerial and party associates, clearly organise and host a large gathering of party loyalists, but they also clearly incited the crowd in various ways, some more so and others less explicitly, and mobilised their audience into an angry mob – all inside the ‘Temple Trees’ that gracious official residence of the Prime Minister of the Republic.

Worse, once the mob was aroused, this angered crowd then appeared to have been equipped with metal rods and poles, and they came directly out of the PM’s official residence to begin their violent actions against a notably peaceful civilian protest site immediately outside. Far worse, having beaten up the peaceful protestors and destroyed their Mynah Go Gama campsite, this same mob marched a whole kilometre and similarly attacked the, now historic, Gota Go Gama site right in front of the Office of the President of the Republic!

Not only did this violent, explicitly anti-democratic, rampage begin from within the Official Residence of the Prime Minister, but the violence was perpetrated right in front of both the PM’s Official Residence as well as right in front of the Office of the President. These two official facilities being key installations of the State, the violence was directly threatening national security. Furthermore, the organised violence was perpetrated during a state of Emergency, when the activated Public Security Ordinance was supposed to be rigorously enforcing public order and the security of the citizenry.

Most significantly, the endangering of two key installations of the State brings these acts of organised, pre-meditated violence directly within the ambit of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The video evidence of the hosting of the gathering of (pro-government) party supporters inside ‘Temple Trees’, the arousing of their anger and hostility towards the peaceful (anti-government) protest movement, and, finally, of the movement of this angry mob directly out of ‘Temple Trees’, is available.

There has been no official denial either by the President’s Office or by the Prime Minister’s Office or Official Residence, that this organised violence that starkly threatened national security originated in ‘Temple Trees’.  Nor has there been any denial that the Priime Minister himself had been present and addressed that gathering that eventually stormed forth to wreak violence. That some low-ranking institutional security officials and other functionaries of ‘Temple Trees’ and top police officers, are being questioned is an indirect admission that the violence did originate in the state institution at the heart of the Republic.

What is most evident is that some 48 hours following this flagrantly subversive activity emanating from within the heart of the State and with ample indications of the active involvement of the chief occupant at Temple Trees and others inside the building, there is no move to arrest and question the former Prime Minister or any of the others.

It is possible to relate this terrible behaviour by top State officers inside and outside key State installations to at least three or four types of criminal offences. At the lowest level there is the offence of incitement to disturb the peace. Next there is the violation of the state of Emergency. Next there is the threatening of national security, which is addressed by the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Additionally, these activities inside ‘Temple Trees’ could easily be interpreted as a violation of the Establishment Code and a flagrant misuse of public property.

Instead, the former chief occupant of ‘Temple Trees’ has been allowed to freely resign from office and was courteously helicoptered away, family and all, to what appears to be military protection in our principal naval base of Trincomalee.

Such is the paradox of a former “liberal democratic republic” now turned playground and site of plunder and political rage by a nepotistic regime.

The very person who resigned on the grounds of popular demand, but also openly facilitated mass violence from his official residence itself, is currently enjoying the luxury of State ‘security’ in the comfort of our premier naval base. Meanwhile, the citizenry who suffered from the violence are injured or displaced from their peaceful protest sites and thousands of other protestors round the country now risk lethal firing by troops.

And the causes of all this unrest – namely the massive plunder, politico-economic mismanagement and socio-economic deprivation – all remain unresolved. The principal subject of public calls for removal, the President himself, is also refusing to move aside for other alternative political arrangements to be tried out. The sudden appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister is another bizarre turn: a president who has been labelled ‘Failed’ by his own voter constituency has appointed as PM the person who has been labelled ‘Loser’ by his own party membership and voter constituency!

Is this ‘democracy’ of any sort? The official residence of the PM has become a house of thuggery. Why is there no move to detain the organisers of the ‘Temple Trees’ thuggery? Will the Rajapaksas join the many other dictator families living in luxurious exile? An example

Is Sri Lanka now the living lie to the exceptionalism of Liberal Democracy? Purists and idealists will note the schizoid nature of a political culture that enables thuggery under official auspices, brazenly launched from official venues.

In European medieval times, feudal loyalist troops did sally forth from the castles of the barons to crush peasant resistance. But we have no record of such troops sallying forth directly from our historic palaces and citadels. Certainly, in modern times, there does not seem to be a record of any thugs or troops sallying forth from official residences of any regime or even of despots anywhere in the world. Is this a unique contribution of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the record of political leadership? The Ranasinghe Premadasa regime’s (with Ranil Wickremesinghe as PM) ‘dirty war’ against the JVP’s second insurgency, probably resulted in the same number of death squad victims as did civilian victims in the armed forces operations against the separatist insurgency – up to 100,000 according to some estimates. But even if plotting of this morally despicable activity probably occurred inside official residences and offices, there was not even a hint that actual thug bands or death squads were deployed directly from inside such respectable official facilities.

So even if previous regimes’ barbarities also point to such political-cultural schizophrenia (‘dharma chakraya’ was the slang term for a particular torture method here), what happened on 9th May takes things to a schizoid peak.

How do we re-legitimise such a battered republic? What is the therapy needed to revive social-psychological stability, to bring schizophrenia down to more normal levels? Let us hope the catharsis will not be another bloodbath.



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