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Our Toy Soldiers And A Boorish Political Culture

| by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

( April 20, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The sheer buffoonery and boorishness reigning predominant in Southern Sri Lanka’s political culture was well demonstrated during the New Year by two incidents exposing a rotten and corrupted political reality despite post-war development and the beautification of roads and cities.

The sacred veil that protects the BBS

Last week’s column dwelt on the first of these incidents when BBS monks stormed into a press conference being held by its critic, the Mahiyangana monk, Ven. Watarekke Vijitha Thero and were recorded live on television with their fists upraised. The press conference had been called to clarify a BBS-leveled allegation of the resettlement of war-affected Northern Muslims within the Wilpattu National Park. 

The Wildlife Department clarified this week that no illegal construction had taken place within Wilpattu but that some displaced families had put up temporary shelters within the sanctuary bordering the Park. A magisterial inquiry has commenced into the incident on the complaints of the affected monk and others, into the abuse leveled at them by the BBS monks.

Quite amusingly, the police meanwhile claimed that they had not arrested the BBS monks due to concerns that religious and ethnic harmony may be affected. The question then remains as to whether the hate filled rhetoric of the BBS cannot be said to damage ethnic and religious harmony? What is the sacred veil that is drawn over their activities so that they are rendered impervious to the law? The political patronage afforded to the BBS by powerful individuals in the political hierarchy stands thoroughly exposed. Moreover, the total politicization of the police function in such instances should be the proper subject of comment and inquiry by retired and honourable police officers.

Is this was the Middle Path means?

Further arrant nonsense was to follow. We saw the BBS General Secretary Galagoda Gnanasara Thero, accompanied by his Secretary and Head of Research no less, holding numerous press conferences where it was pronounced that the BBS was following the middle path in ‘speaking firmly’ to ‘tame’ someone (see Daily Mirror, April 17th 2014).

Anyone who has had the doubtful privilege of listening to the abuse and hate filled rhetoric that the BBS engages in against minority communities would be forgiven for laughing out loud at this disingenuous explanation of what being ‘firm’ and what the middle path means. Indeed, one is tempted to ask as to what are the precise functions of this so-called BBS Head of Research? Perchance to collect and store various verbal variations of abuse if not outright filth which may be used on appropriate occasions, one may think.

This is not to say that the actions of Ministers such as Rishad Bathuideen have not been without provocation as we well saw in relation to the mob attacks on the Mannar Magistrate’s Court not so long ago. But there is legal recourse if illegal settlements are in issue. The solution does not lie in inflammatory and racist rhetoric uttered by monks.

And it must be asked as to why there is a deafening silence on the part of the Mahanayakes of the main chapters at least to condemn such behavior, particularly when advice is proffered and statements issued by the heads of the Sangha on diverse topics ranging from the 2014 Geneva resolution in regard to Sri Lanka to the proper functioning of the Sri Lanka Law College.

A toy soldier Mayor and his pistol

In the second instance that is focused on, pro-government political thugs in Hambantota with their sarongs (literally) upraised and brandishing pistols pounced on visiting opposition United National Party (UNP) parliamentarians engaged in a fact finding trip to the Hambantota Port and Mattala Airport. Stones and eggs were thrown at their vehicle. And a pistol brandishing Mayor of Hambantota was merely heard to say ludicrously that he had come there to protect the besieged parliamentarians, that it was only a toy pistol and that he was only a ‘toy soldier’ (see Daily Mirror, Saturday April 19th 2014). As pathetically ineffectual as the UNP may be as a functional opposition, it was a grim reflection as to how dismal our political culture has become. 

These events are sharply distinguished from other manifold examples of abuse by the extreme impunity with which jeering abusers acted in the full glare of television cameras. In the wake of this ugly incident, the police spokesman assured that an inquiry will be held as to the non-action of the police in this regard. We await, of course, with bated breath, the outcome of such inquiries. But it must also be asked as to why only an investigation against the police? What about the pistol brandishing corpulent Mayor? Is he also protected by some magic veil?

Ignoring the dangers at our own peril

In sum, it may well be said that rampaging monks and political thugs operated under previous Presidencies as well. Yet the important distinction is that peoples’ rights were not so openly trodden upon with contempt and crudity. The law was not proved to be so totally ineffectual. The police did not shamelessly permit themselves to be recorded standing idly by while abuses occurred. Perpetrators did not act with such deliberate political patronage afforded to them. These are the crucial distinctions between then and now. Many of us are reluctant to awaken ourselves to realize the dangerous enormity of what is around us. Ignoring this however will only be at our own peril for these images and these crudities have increasingly come to symbolize what post-war Sri Lanka has been reduced to in the eyes of a critical world.

Inevitably, critics point to these incidents and ask as to how complex questions of justice, ethnic harmony and equity between communities can be achieved when the most basic civilities in political life are brushed aside? And they are right in their puzzlement. That much is surely clear.

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