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Wither the New Turn?

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“….the inexplicable actually happens.”
Auschwitz, Our Home – A Letter (Tadeusz Borowski)

( October 16, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Travel restrictions are back. Foreigners can no longer visit the North without Defence Ministry permission.

Why re-impose such a restriction now, more than five years after the victorious end of the war?

“Defence Authorities had received credible information that some elements were trying to destabilise the North and create disharmony among ethnic communities in the country” , claimed the military spokesman. That official explanation can be dismissed as another Rajapaksa lie. In any case those who try to ‘create disharmony among ethnic communities’ are not foreigners but Lankans; and most are ensconced in the Rajapaksa-embrace, officially or unofficially. 

So why travel restrictions? Why now? Why implement a measure which will seriously hamper tourism in the region and discourage potential investors?

The key to the puzzle might be in the timing.

The Rajapaksas are in election-mode. The first full-page advertisements, hailing Mahinda, the Saviour, have already appeared in the Sinhala papers. After reducing gas prices, the President visited the North bearing rich gifts, from trains to land to gold. Everything the Rajapaksas would say and do, from now until the polling day, will have just one object – Electoral Victory.

Is there a connection between the new restrictions and the impending election – and the Rajapaksa determination to win at whatever the cost to the country and the people?

The President’s Jaffna trip demonstrates the importance placed by the Rajapaksas on the Northern vote. The Siblings would know that most Tamils will not vote for them, even with bribery and violence. Their main aim would be to deny the Opposition as large a chunk as possible of the Northern vote. And that means doing whatever necessary to reduce voter-turnout in the North.

Mahinda Rajapaksa won one closely-fought election because Tamils obeyed Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s suicidally-inane boycott-order. Are they contemplating some sort of repeat performance, albeit via a different agency? Do they aim to confuse and confound the Tamil electorate by injecting religious-disharmony into Tamil polity and society?

When violence broke out in Aluthgama, the regime adopted an enabling attitude towards the attackers; it also imposed a de facto news-blackout, arguing that reportage would encourage violence. Since the incident happened in the South it was impossible to keep media personnel away. Many journalists used the internet and social-media to get the truth out to the public. But if there are religious clashes in the North, a de facto news-blackout would be far easier to sustain. Pressure can be applied on media-owners to stop local journalists from going to the troubled areas while the travel-restrictions already in place will keep out the foreign media.

Do the Rajapaksas want to prevent the media from accurately reporting what might happen in the North during the pre-election months? Are the travel-restrictions aimed at an information lockdown?

Buddhist-Hindu Friendship Month

The RSS has turned down the Bodu Bala Sena proposal for a Buddhist-Hindu alliance at the sub-continental level. But that has not stopped the BBS from beating the ‘Buddhist-Hindu unity’ drum. Now the relatively more sedate leader of the BBS, Kirama Vimalajothi Thero, has got into the act. This week he informed the media that the BBS and Sri Lanka Hindu Association are planning to have a ‘Buddhist-Hindu Friendship Month’, beginning on Deepavali Day (October 22nd).

Reconciliation is a desperate need for war-torn Sri Lanka. But when the axis of reconciliation is on the Buddhist-Hindu line, it becomes counter-reconciliatory. A Buddhist-Hindu unity is exclusionary by definition; it embodies within it at least two deadly faultlines - anti-Christian/Catholic and anti-Muslim. It divides Sinhalese and Tamils along religious lines. It does not end ethnic-disharmony, but compounds it with religious-disharmony.

What is the real purpose of the ‘Buddhist-Hindu Friendship Month? Is the regime planning to ignite Hindu-Christian or Hindu-Muslim clashes in the North and elsewhere?

In his unusual take on the Inquisition (Medieval, Spanish and Roman), Cullen Murphy comments on “the power of a name to define a foe into existence” ; the Inquisition would first conjure the heresy and then hunt for the heretics. Are the Rajapaksas following a similar path – first create the crime and then the criminals? The regime has already warned about a plan to ‘destabilise the North and create disharmony among ethnic communities in the country’. The crime has been named. Once the first incidents happen, the hunt for the guilty can begin in earnest.

In 1956, that consummate opportunist and cynic SWRD Bandaranaike used the Buddha Jayanthi celebration to further his own partisan electoral agenda. The Rajapaksas seem to be intent on using the 150th Birth Anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala for their own purposes. At the Anniversary Celebration President Rajapaksa said that Anagarika Dharmapala raised his voice in the darkest period of Lankan history . Anagarika Dharmapala was indeed loquacious. But there was nothing anti-imperialist politically in what he said. His critique of the British was mainly religious and socio-cultural. It was not a critique of political colonialism but of Western cultural influences, Christianity and political liberalism (including democracy). Instead of uniting all Lankans against British colonialists, he sought to unite all Buddhists, against the minorities. The divisive and intolerant ideology he espoused has been a curse to independent Lankan and Lankans; but for power-hungry politicians it is an unending blessing.

Anagarika Dharmapala was the foremost local representative of the virulent ideology of ‘Blood and Faith Nationalism’ which became extremely popular in many parts of the world, especially in Germany. A pioneer in this regard was the extremely popular Biblical scholar, cultural critic and Orientalist, Paul de Legarde who advocated the resurrection of the ‘German spirit’ by breaking with modernism, French cosmopolitanism and Jewish influences. Some of the socio-cultural ills he and his fellow ideologues identified were real ones; but the reasons they attributed and the solutions they offered were noxiously erroneous. As Fritz Stern pointed out, they “sought to destroy the despised present in order to recapture an idealised past in an imaginary future…. They sought a breakthrough to the past, and they longed for a new community in which old ideas and institutions would once again command universal allegiance.” Their work helped to make the collective German psyche more open and vulnerable to Nazism. Today these ideas of racial/religious/cultural purity are present in organisations ranging from the Bodu Bala Sena to Boko Haram and ISIS.

Closed eyes and closed ears need closed minds. Before a nation can be benumbed into crimes and atrocities its mind must be placed behind impermeable walls.

The Zeitgeist favours religious rather than ethnic divisions and conflicts. In any case, religious extremism was creating bloody mayhem long before nations or the nation-state came into being. Therefore religion’s continuing capacity to fuel conflicts cannot be underestimated. If there are religious clashes in the North, it will justify the imposition of greater restrictions, including Emergency, which in turn will render a stolen election more possible. Are the new travel restrictions aimed at preventing the truth from leaking out in time, if such a situation is to arise?

That the Rajapaksas will use the religious card as an election gimmick is certain. The only question is: how far down the slippery slope are they willing to go?


  1. http://www.asianmirror.lk/news/item/4214-sri-lanka-re-imposes-restrictions-on-foreigners-visiting-the-north
  2. God’s Jury – The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World
  3. http://www.news.lk/fetures/item/3007-anagarika-dharmapala-raised-his-voice-during-the-darkest-era-in-sri-lankan-history-president-rajapaksa
  4. The Politics of Cultural Despair