by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“…Hitler (was) a brilliant populist manipulator who insisted and probably believed that Providence has chosen him as Germany’s saviour… People were enthralled by the Nazis’ cunning transportation of politics into carefully staged pageantry, into flag-waving martial mass”. — Fritz Stern (The Leo Baeck Medal Acceptance Speech)
President Mahinda Rajapaksa
He is President Mahinda Rajapaksa, ‘The Universally Renowned Lord of the Three-Sinhala Lands’ (Vishwa Keerthi Three-Sinhaladipathy). At least according to the official plaque erected by the state to commemorate the gifting of (another) Sri Maha Bodhi-sapling to India. Together, the event (marking the 2600th Buddha Jayanthi) and the plaque provide a revealing glimpse into the psyche of the President and his political project.
Logically, the focus of this very Buddhist ceremony should have been the South, with its Buddhist-majority. The sapling was brought to the ‘Temple Trees’ to receive Presidential-homage, but it was a non-event even in Colombo. The state-organised ceremonies were focused on Jaffna, a district with nary a Buddhist inhabitant. The Sapling was “brought to Jaffna in a magnificent motorcade with ceremonial escort by Security Forces and Police (…) The route from Palaly airport to Jaffna town and back to Dambakola Patuna had been decorated with Buddhist flags as a symbol of veneration. A vehicle which aired Seth Pirith chanting all the way followed the motorcade” (Cimic – 9.2.2011).
When military-might inundate Jaffna with Buddhist symbols and the state erects an official plaque celebrating the President as the ‘Universally Renowned Lord of the Three-Sinhala Lands,’ such acts, apart from demonstrating Rajapaksa-megalomania, tell the Tamils that they are nothing but guests in a Sinhala-country.
The last time a Buddha Jayanthi was celebrated in Sri Lanka was in 1956 – the 2500th death anniversary. That became the backdrop against which the ‘Sinhala Only’ was unleashed. The teachings of Gautama Buddha are neither tribalistic nor martial. Consequently Buddhism could have been a unifying factor in Sri Lanka. But its universalist potential was undermined by the artificial creation of a nexus between Sinhala and Buddhism, primarily via the Mahawamsa.
The anti-minority nature of the 19th Century Buddhist renaissance, under the tutelage of Anagarika Dharmapala, reinforced this ancient misappropriation. Distorted and enslaved by Sinhala supremacism, Buddhism lost the ability to appeal to Tamils or to create a Lankan Dr. Ambedkar. The correlation between the 1956 Buddha Jayanthi celebration and the ‘Sinhala Only’ ended whatever residual possibilities extant for Buddhism to break this suffocating Sinhala-grip and become a Lankan religion, and thereby, a force for inter-ethnic unity and understanding.
Had there been a significant segment of Buddhist Tamils, with a voice within the Sangha, Sri Lanka’s post-Independence history may have taken a less destructive path. But to be able to appeal to Tamils, Buddhism has to cease being the identity-badge of Sinhala supremacism and reclaim its universalist potential. Forcing Sinhala-Buddhism down Tamil throats, via the building of religious edifices and the holding of religious functions in the North (by the state/military) will merely exacerbate minority suspicions and resentments and add a religious dimension to the ethnic divide
Executive presidencies do not promote despotism in general; but executive presidencies, sans presidential term-limits, do. This key absence enormously enabled the proliferation of life-time presidents and political dynasties in the Arab world.
Hosni Mubarak promised to serve Egyptians “until the last breath in my lungs and the last beat of my heart” (The London Review of Books – 4.2.2011). He also promised to turn Egypt into a ‘Tiger on the Nile.’ To bridge the gap between this grandiose promise and a reality consisting of high growth rates (often around 7%) with higher inflation, inequality and unemployment, Mubarak turned to religion. “Under Mubarak, praying has become as popular as shopping or football and now serves a roughly similar function as a distraction from the insurmountable frustrations of Egyptian life” (ibid)
By removing Presidential term-limits, the Rajapaksas defeated the sole-remaining obstacle to their Dynastic project. The ill-effects of this noxious step will become evident as Rajapaksa’s third presidential-term moves towards Rajapaksa’s fourth presidential-term (and Namal Rajapaksa, in heir-apparent guise, looms ever larger). The resulting political discontent will be reinforced by economic disappointments.
Sri Lanka’s debt burden is set to double in just two years (from Rs. 90 billion in 2010 to Rs. 171 billion in 2012). It may triple or even quadruple in the next few years. For instance, if Sri Lanka’s bid for 2018 Commonwealth Games (for Hambantota) is successful, the construction bill alone may come to Rs. 500 billion. In a country of 25,332 square miles there is only so much land to be sold! And yet, the circuses for the greater glory of our ‘Universally Renowned Lord’ must continue. The outcome would be higher prices and lower living standards, plus a debt-trap requiring a punitive bailing out by the IMF.
That is why the Defence Expenditure will remain high, to save the Rajapaksas, someday, from the wrath of a disgusted populace. This is also why the Rajapaksas will resort increasingly to divide et impera, using race and religion to prevent economic hardships from eroding their Sinhala-base and a pluralist coalescing around an anti-Ruling Family banner. The result is a dual-strategy consisting of faux-patriotism for the Sinhalese (military parades and grand rhetoric, costly pageants and fear psychosis) and increased subjugation for the Tamils.
According to the Tamil media, the Army has launched a drive to photo-register Jaffna residents. Such discriminatory and alienating practices may have been excusable in the throes of war; but not post-war. New state-organised colonisation schemes too are in the offing; according to the Director General of the Mahaweli Authority: “There are about 100,000 families without land and steps will be taken to provide them with land in the Vavuniya and Polonnaruwa districts” (The Island – 8.2.2011).
President Rajapaksa’s historical model seems to be King Dutugemunu, who, in the Mahavamsa version, placed Buddhism at the service of his power-project. The President himself made an implicit comparison between himself and the premier Sinhala Hero-King in his Independence Day Speech (which, incidentally, made no reference to an ethnic problem or a political solution): “King Dutugemunu commenced his journey to unite this motherland with blessings from this sacred land of the deity of Kataragama….. It is with similar blessings that I, as the leader of a mature democratic nation, take on with responsibility and confidence, the task of this era."
Ravings of extremists can become decisive in setting national agendas, when they are adopted and exploited by politicians to capture or retain power. The Sinhala Only cry emanated not from the heartland but from the margins of polity; it would have stagnated there, had SWRD Bandaranaike not embraced it, in his power-hunger. The discourse emanating from the Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist camp against the backdrop of the latest Buddha Jayanthi (Anniversary of the Enlightenment) seems equally deadly.
For instance, at a meeting organised by the Joint Committee of Buddhist Organisations, Ven. Medagama Dhammanada Thera perorated, “Today religious terrorism has replaced LTTE terrorism…. Christian organisations were responsible for spreading disharmony among Sinhalas and Tamils” (Asian Tribune – 14.2.2010). Irrational to the point of insanity, indubitably, but is it more so than calling the President of a post-war Sri Lanka ‘The Lord of the Three-Sinhala Lands’ on an official plaque, in Jaffna?