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Playing with Fire, Again

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“In sooth this was a very base madness and a most horrible frenzy.”
Anatole France (Monsieur Bergeret in Paris)

( July 4, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) ‘Nationalist Collective’ is the latest Rajapaksa-concoction, a toxic brew of fanatics and opportunists, ladled together in an effort to convince Delhi that Sri Lanka is being inundated by a spontaneous anti-devolution wave. Addressing its inaugural rally, Rev. Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thero raised the banner of militant Sinhala-Buddhism: “This is not the time for Buddhist monks to meditate in temples…. If politicians are going in the wrong direction, we have a sacred right to step in”1.

‘Sinhala Only’ was not the only scourge SWRD Bandaranaike bequeathed to us; ‘Buddhism First’ is his other baneful legacy. There was no popular demand for either; the clamour came from a vocal minority of fanatics and opportunists. SWRD Bandaranaike, a consummate opportunist, saw in their marginalised demand a path to power, for himself.

At the 1952 election, the UNP trounced the SLFP; plus the combined vote of the left (18.8%) considerably exceeded the SLFP vote (15.5%). With the successful ‘Hartal’, the left repositioned itself as the major player on the oppositional stage. SWRD Bandaranaike had every reason to fear that at the next election the UNP would be defeated, not by his SLFP, but by the left parties.

Bandaranaike pere had a ravenous hunger for power; as the son of his Maha Mudliyar father, he may have regarded power as his due. He was clever enough to realise that he cannot dominate the political space without causing a paradigmatic change in that space. He was unscrupulous enough to choose the path of ethno-religious nationalism despite its obvious and deadly pitfalls.

So SWRD Bandaranaike embraced Sinhala-Only and placed Sangha (the monkhood) at the zenith of his ‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya’ (Five Great Forces). Buddhist monks had dabbled in politics before 1956, but as individuals or as members of lay formations. SWRD Bandaranaike brought the Sangha into the political centre-stage, as a separate and autonomous entity; he recreated the power-bloc to accord them primacy of place and accepted their right to have a critical say in national affairs.

The genie of religious-politics was out of the bottle.

SWRD Bandaranaike’s widow constitutionally-enshrined his ‘Buddhism First’ policy. The 1972 constitution which turned Buddhism into the religion of the state was drafted by a member of the now tamed-and-tainted left, Dr. Colvin R de Silva of the LSSP. That fatal step need not have been taken. The Buddhist-majority was demanding affordable goods and more jobs rather than a state religion. The ‘Buddhism First’ clause was incorporated for opportunistic reasons, as a ploy to retain the support of the Sinhala-Buddhist masses, amidst growing economic hardships.

So the ‘Politics of Salvation’ was formalised and institutionalised; and democracy redefined as government of, by and for the ‘chosen people’, chosen on the basis of ethno-religious identity. ‘Desheeya’ (national) and ‘pragathisheeli’ (progressive) became coterminous with Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism; the minorities were considered ‘non-patriots’ and ‘prathigami’ (reactionary; ‘running dogs’ of capitalism/imperialism, by birth). A patriot had to accept the hierarchical nature of Lanka, with Sinhala and Buddhism at the top. Rejecting that unjust vision became coeval with treachery.

In 1972, the Ceylon Rationalists Association presented a memo2 containing proposals for a new constitution. These included measures to ensure an independent judiciary, a non-politicised bureaucracy and fundamental rights, an end to statal-discrimination along racial/religious lines and a secular state.

Had those suggestions been taken on board, the 1972 Constitution could have become a truly Sri Lankan Constitution rather than a Sinhala-Buddhist Constitution. And many of the bloody tragedies which awaited the country and the people could have been evaded.

‘Poisonous Remedies’

A pluralist country will know neither peace nor stability, if it embraces a mono ethnic/religious identity. By the time the Indians intervened in the First Eelam War, the Sinhala-Buddhist South was beginning to realise this seminal truth.

From mid 1983 to early 1987, the SLFP worked in conjunction with the proscribed-JVP, in the Mawbima Surakeeme Viyaparaya (MSV – Motherland Protection Front). The MSV’s main slogan was uncompromising opposition to devolution. The MSV turned patriotism - defined as total rejection of devolution – into the main dividing line in Southern politics: patriots opposed devolution; traitors supported it.

By early 1987, the incapacity of this anti-devolution coalition to challenge the government was becoming obvious, even to the SLFP. As economic difficulties mounted and inflation and unemployment sky-rocketed, chauvinism began to lose some of its allure. The Sinhala radio service operated by the PLOTE became a favourite of many a non/anti-UNP Sinhala-Buddhist. The campaign for a negotiated political solution to the war, led by Vijaya Kumaratunga’s SLMP began to gain some political traction3.

As economic discontent began to mount in the South, the Jayewardene administration announced its decision to hold local government elections, as a sop-cum-diversion. That move backfired; the SLFP and the pro-devolutionary left mounted the same platform, literally, demanding immediate parliamentary elections. The JVP and the regime both panicked. The ‘Operation Liberation’, which precipitated Indian intervention, was launched partly as a reactive measure, to enable the regime to retake the political initiative.

With the Indo-Lanka Accord, the chauvinist wing of the SLFP – of which Mahinda Rajapaksa was a leading light – gained the upper hand. The MSV revived with the anti-Accord riots. The SLFP dreamt of coming to power on the back of the JVP insurgency. In 1988 “Anura Bandaranaike…said this would be the last May Day rally the SLFP would be holding as a opposition party as he was certain of the party coming into power at the next general election due next year …”4

The defeat of the Second JVP Insurgency marked the nadir of the fortunes of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism. Had moderate Tamils been dominant in the Eelam struggle, a negotiated end to the war based on a generous political solution to the ethnic problem would have been possible and a Lankan peace could have dawned. But the LTTE was in control and, like its Sinhala-Buddhist counterparts, it clung to the dystopia of Tiger Eelam even at the cost of Tamil national interests. The LTTE’s intransigent predominance gave Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism a new lease of life. By ensuring the presidential-victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the legitimate heir of 1956, Vellupillai Pirapaharan, its illegitimate offspring, paved the way for the resurgence of fanaticism in the South.

The Rajapaksas have embraced Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism as the façade-cum-vehicle for their project of familial-rule and dynastic-succession. The saffron-fanatics have been let loosed on the corridors-of-power and encouraged and assisted to raise the flag of militant Sinhala-Buddhism. The military, transformed into a familial tool behind an ethno-religious veneer, has been inducted it into this new power-bloc. The building of temples by the armed forces in the North is symbolic and symbiotic of this Sinhala-Buddhist military which is the ultimate defender of the Rajapaksa project.

The journey which commenced in 1956 has reached its natural goal: a racial patriotism, sanctified by religion and protected by an ethno-religious military. All in the service of Mahinda Rajapaksa, cast as ‘Prince Diyasena’ and his family. This explosion of Sinhala-Buddhist fanaticism will cause an opposite-reaction: a Tamil/Muslim/Christian extremism.

What Daniel Ellsberg termed ‘anti-learning mechanism’5 is in full violent play, and, its tragically-familiar end is all too foreseeable.

1 Divaina – 3.7.2013
2 http://groundviews.org/2013/06/14/ceylon-rationalist-association-1970-memorandum-on-a-new-constitution-for-sri-lanka/
3 The JVP reacted to this slow moderate-shift of the Lankan polity in a manner which foretold its modus operandi in the coming insurgency; On 24th August 1986 it bombed the SLMP meeting in Panadura. Subsequently SLMP meetings in Mt. Lavinia and Negombo were attacked. A grenade was thrown at Kumaratunga’s residence at Kynsey Road.
4 Sri Lanka in Crisis, A Lost Generation: The Untold Story – Prins Gunasekera
5 Introduction to ‘Flirting with Disaster’ by Marc Gerstein

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