90th Birth Anniversary of President Ranasinghe Premadasa

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“….the best defenders of our democracy are an enlightened people. Constitutional provisions alone can never guarantee democracy… People must know what democracy means. They must acquire experience in managing it, in resolving the problems it generates. They must have a stake in it. Only then will they fight for it”
Ranasinghe Premadasa (A Charter for Democracy).

( June 22, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Just days after the fires of Aluthgama subsided, ‘No Limit’ showroom in Panadura went up in flames. 

2011 witnessed one of the most successful struggles in the annals of Lankan working class movement. A broad coalition of trade unions, political parties and civic organisations managed to beat back the Rajapaksa regime’s attempt to impose a kleptocratic pension scheme on workers (one worker was killed). The era of ethnic-overdetermination seemed to over.

Then in April 2012, a monk-led mob attacked an old mosque in Dambulla; a month later, the BBS was born. Minor religio-cultural disagreements were turned into massive political problems. The ‘Muslim Issue’ raised its head and grew and grew. Two years on it is dominating political and public discourse, pushing every other problem out of national sight.

For instance, forgotten is a real life-and-death issue which is devastating villages in the Sinhala-Buddhist heartlands of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa - the Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). Disease, death and ignorance are causing havoc in the lives of ordinary people, turning the health crisis into a multidimensional social crisis. According to Dr. Asanga Ranasinghe, Director of the Provincial Renal Disease Prevention Unit of Anuradhapura General Hospital, “patients’ families found it difficult to marry their relatives because prospective partners often feared higher susceptibility to renal failure.” Hemantha Vithanage, Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice, concurs: “People suffer from a fear psychosis and lack awareness. There is a belief that CKDu is communicable and even genetic. If family members are diagnosed with CKDu, others will have reduced chances in marriage. This health stigma is driving youth away from homes.”

If remedial measures are not taken, immediately, the NCP will face a depopulation problem, due to increasing death rates and migration. This in turn will impact adversely on the province’s economic output and productivity as well as the national economy. Even more worryingly, “there is evidence, according to WHO research, that the disease is spreading to the Southern, Uva and Eastern Provinces.”

CKD is disproportionately affecting Sinhala-Buddhist paddy farmers. Yet the issue is not a priority either for the regime or for the likes of the BBS. The self-anointed defenders of the nation were more agitated about a small Muslim prayer centre in Anuradhapura than about the sickening and dying farmers. 

In the absence of bread, circuses alone cannot occupy public attention. There are two ways in which Oliver Twist’s demand for ‘More’ can be responded to. Dickens wrote of one way – punishment. The other way is to point the finger at a fellow orphan, who is different from Oliver primordially, and tell Oliver that he cannot have ‘more’ because the ‘greedy, avaricious alien’ (Jew/Black/Tamil/Muslim…. depending on the place and the time) is gobbling more than his share.

So the enemy is created and demonised. “The more a leader promises, the more he or she will subsequently have to apportion blame…. This brings us to the most dangerous use of scapegoats – the blaming of certain individuals to give governments the freedom to act in certain ways.”

Politics of Overdetermination

The four years of Premadasa Presidency was a time when growth and equality went hand in hand. Despite the outbreak of the Second Eelam War (and the devastation of the Second JVP insurgency), the economy grew while inequality decreased.

Today Sri Lanka is moving in the opposite direction. The economy is growing but so is inequality. As the ILO has warned, Gini Coefficient is on the rise; so is youth unemployment . Given the nature of their dynastic project the Rajapaksas are incapable of shifting to a more balanced developmental strategy which offers some relief in the here and now to the majority of the populace. Given that critical inability, the obvious way out is to use the racial/religious card to give the majority the illusion of having a stake in the system. This is a key purpose of the refrain, ‘Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist country’. It is by bringing race or religion to the fore that the regime can create a sense of identity between the Ruling Family and the Sinhala-Buddhist masses. That is the Faustian bargain the Rajapaksas have offered Sinhala-Buddhists: the belief that the poorest Sinhala-Buddhist had more destructive ‘power’ than the richest Tamil or Muslim.

Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism almost always had its right and left wing. The minorities were seen as rich and reactionary, pro-capitalist and pro-colonial/imperialist. This notion of the ‘privileged Tamils taking away the future of hardworking Sinhalese’ was a favourite refrain of Cyril Mathew’s anti-Tamil hysteria. JR Jayewardene allowed it for far too long because it served a useful political function . The focus on the Tamil enemy kept Sinhala attention away from the real reasons for their growing economic problems. As Newton Gunasinghe pointed out, class contradictions became overdetermined “in the Althusserian sense by the ethnic conflict” and how the Sinhala discontent “with the existing state of affairs has taken a false external direction against what is perceived to be the unreasonable demands advanced by already privileged Tamils” .

The BBS et al are performing a similar function today. The anti-factual hysteria over halal, birth rates, the violation of Sinhala women and conversion through marriages are aimed at confusing and confounding Sinhala-Buddhists. The story of the reincarnated Tiger just does not fly. The story of the encroaching Muslim, who wants not a separate state but an Islamic Lanka, seems to have a greater resonance.

As we saw in the 1980’s, this is path to instability and upheaval, violence and bloodshed. But this too may not be unanticipated. Responding to the demands for reducing the military footprint in the North, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa maintained that it cannot be done because, “The government is particular that there should not be another war in the county” . Similarly, recurring outbreaks of violence (of the Aluthgama/Panadura sort) is the best excuse to increase military presence in the South.

Colombo Central is the most ethnically and religiously pluralist electorate in Sri Lanka outside of the East. Growing up there enabled Ranasinghe Premadasa to understand that nexus between Lankan unity and the willing acceptance of Lankan diversity: “Part of our cultural heritage is a pluralist society. Sri Lanka has always had many ethnic groups, many religions and many social traditions. Our country and its integrity as a country do not depend on uniformity. The history and the future of Sri Lanka do not belong to any group. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Malays and Burghers have equal places in our society. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are all religions of Sri Lanka. Any government that is committed to a free and united Sri Lanka must be committed to these concepts.”

Aluthgama happened because these self-evident truths were forgotten. They require belabouring because the alternative is horrendously unaffordable, to Sinhalese, Muslims, Tamils and Sri Lanka.

  1. Mystery kidney disease spreads in Sri Lanka – Dilrukshi Handunnetti – IRIN – 6.3.2014
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People – Charlie Campbell
  5. Tax policy breeding inequality, injustice – DEW – Jude Denzil Pathiraja http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=80927
  6. He was dismissed in 1984 from his ministry.
  7. Facets of Ethnicity in Sri Lanka – Charles Abeysekara and Newton Gunasinghe
  8. http://www.ceylontoday.lk/16-60896-news-detail-gota-says-army-in-north-to-prevent-another-war.html
  9. Address at the annual Prize giving of St. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia -12.11.1990