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Losing Sri Lanka

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“A profound ignorance, boundless credulity, weak intellect, and warm imagination, are the materials, of which are made bigots, zealots, fanatics, and saints….. The saints and the populace are, in the hands of their directors, automatons, moved at pleasure.”
Baron D’holbach (Good Sense without God)

( May 15, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Buddhist flag flying over the Independence Square is symbolic of the anti-Lankan state the Rajapaksas are constructing, post-war.

When UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillai questioned the wisdom of flying a religious flag over a national monument, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had one of his signature fits. He also claimed, mendaciously, that Ms. Pillai had objected to the DS Senanayake statue: “During her conversation with the President, she had referred to the statue of a tall well-built man and asked who he was. The President had said it was the statue of the first prime minister. Madam Pillai had said that it is not appropriate as it represents only the Sinhala nation.”

The UNP, in a rare display of acumen, wrote to Ms. Pillai, asking for clarification. The UNHRC issued a statement emphasising that Ms. Pillai made no reference whatsoever to Mr. Senanayake’s statue nor demanded the removal of the Buddhist flag. She had merely “suggested it might be more inclusive to fly only the national flag, which is a symbol that unites the nation, no matter who they are or what religion they adhere to.”

Sensible words indeed; except where nation is defined as a religious community.

The Buddhist flag was created in 1885. It was an outcome of a political process which advocated resisting Colonial rule with religious (Buddhist-Sinhala) nationalism. The adherents of this political project regarded all non-Buddhists (including non-Buddhist Sinhalese) as anti-patriotic aliens and axiomatic agents of colonialism.

Religious nationalism is the antithesis of the modern, inclusive and secular nationalism. It regards religion (rather than race/country of origin) as the determinant factor in deciding one’s ‘true’ nationality. Its patria is the exclusive preserve of the ‘one true faith’, a consecrated land where non-believers/heretics can exist only on sufferance. Anagarika Dharmapala was the foremost advocate of this project in colonial Ceylon. The JHU and the BBS belong in this tradition.

This is the ‘nationalism’ espoused by the Rajapaksas. The Buddhist flag in the Independence Square symbolises the anti-secular religious ‘nation-building’ the Rajapaksas are implanting, post-war.

Familial Rule is an aberration, a throwback to an anti-democratic and monarchical past. Given the archaic nature of their agenda, it is logical for the Rajapaksas to embrace an equally retrogressive ideology which enthrones religion as the foundation of nation. Religious nationalism has another critically important use-value for the Rajapaksas. With the end of the war, the conditions which created and sustained the decades-long ethnic-over-determination of Lankan politics began to erode. Sans that distortion, Lankan politics would have returned to its normal grooves. For their familial project to take root and flourish, the Rajapaksas needed to install another distorting prism capable of diverting the focus of the Sinhala-South from livelihood and living condition issues. Given Lankan demographics, religion was the obvious choice. The deliberate attempts to ignite religious tensions are aimed at preventing the normalisation of Lankan politics by replacing the ‘racial enemy’ with an even more ubiquitous ‘religious enemy’.

Rulers have always used religion as a tool of legitimacy. Zia Ul Haq imposed Sharia Law in Pakistan. The equally pro-American Anwar Sadat enshrined Islam as the state religion and Sharia as the principal source of legislation in Egyptian Constitution. Vladimir Putin has elevated “the Russian Orthodox Church….as a quasi-state religion supplying the government with its moral force” . Religion is also a weapon of choice of electoral politicians of diverse faiths, from American Republicans to India’s BJP, from Turkey’s Erdogan to Uganda’s Museveni.

The Rajapaksas are using their own version of Sinhala-Buddhism to justify and strengthen their familial rule.

The Buddhist King

A Theravada Buddhist Lanka was Mahawamsa’s first premise, its starting point. And to gain legitimacy for this extremely anti-Buddhist notion, Mahawamsa created its own Buddha-figure. The Buddha we meet in the first pages of Mahawamsa is not Siddhartha Gautama, the Compassionate One, the teacher who exhorted his followers to use their own feelings as examples and never to inflict pain and suffering on another. The Buddha of Mahawamsa is a martial figure who uses terror and trickery to ‘drive forth’ the yakkas and ‘win Lanka for the faith’ . The monks of the JHU/BBS variety are disciples of this Buddha, created by the monk Mahanama, for the purposes of another dynastic project.

The ideal ruler, according to Mahawamsa, is not Sinhala but Buddhist. He must do whatever it takes, including the killing of millions, to propagate and protect the ‘true faith’. Dutugemunu of Mahawamsa epitomises this ideal of religious warrior-king; he “had a relic put into his spear” and waged war to “bring glory to the doctrine” . The Dutugemunu-Elara conflict (as depicted in the Mahawamsa) was a religious war to save Lanka from unbelievers.

The 2004 contestation between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Lakshman Kadiragarmar for premiership was also a contestation between archaic ‘religious nationalism’ and modern ‘secular nationalism’. Mr. Kadiragarmar was backed by the secular nationalist JVP while Mr. Rajapaksa was backed by the religious nationalist JHU. Mr. Rajapaksa’s victory was a turning point, in religious nationalism’s march from irrelevance to power.

The Rajapaksas need Mahawamsa-Buddhism to legitimise and justify their dynastic project. Their post-war nation-building project is not just a Sinhala-supremacist one; it is also an anti-secular, Buddhist-supremacist one. State-driven promotion of Buddhism forms the key axis of the project of Sinhalaisation implemented by the Rajapaksas in the North/parts of the East. Using the military to build temples and Buddha statues and to hold massive Wesak celebrations, in areas sans civilian Buddhists, is symbolic and symbiotic of this anti-secular approach to peace and nation building.

In a recent interview, the head-honcho of the BBS, Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thero admitted that the BBS has applied to be registered as a limited liability company. His future plans include creating a Buddhist International . Obviously the new ‘International’ will seek to unite Wirathu-type fanatics under one organisational-umbrella. It might even become a key component of Rajapaksa foreign policy.

Fanatics of all faiths agree that life and society should be reordered in accordance with religion, the only difference being whose religion. They oppose the secular-humanist values of the Enlightenment, pluralist-democracy and cultural-diversity. Their majoritarianism is primarily a religious one.

The manifestation of one type of religious fundamentalism encourages and fosters fanatics of every other religion, creating a vicious cycle which will lead to not just wars between religions but also wars within religions. This threatens the stability and the viability of pluralist societies. For instance, the US/UK invasion of Iraq gave rise not to an inclusive Iraqi nationalism but to murderously competing Sunni and Shia nationalisms. Iraq became a sectarian killing field because it succumbed to religious nationalism.

For the Rajapaksas, religious nationalism is an indispensable cloak and a valuable dagger. Depicting Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Buddhist warrior-king would be useful in keeping economically-suffering Sinhala masses loyal to Familial Rule. 

SWRD Bandaranaike, with his Sinhala-supremacism, bequeathed a racial war to posterity. A multi-frontal religious conflict may be the most lasting of the Rajapaksa legacies.

  1. Irida Lankadeepa – 8.9.2013
  2. http://colombogazette.com/2013/09/20/pillay-denies-gotas-claims/
  3. David Remnick – New Yorker – 1.3.2014
  4. Mahawamsa pp3,4
  5. Ibid p170
  6. Irida Lankadeepa – 11.5.2014