Groundviews

Heard of a Sinhala Buddhist ‘Khomeini’?

Photo courtesy ahfesl.free.fr

“Our future society will be a free society, and all the elements of oppression, cruelty, and force will be destroyed.” – Ayatollah Khomeini (in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Paris, November 7, 1978)

A few days ago, I received an invitation to be in the audience at the unveiling of a set of policies by the “National Movement for Social Justice” (NMSJ) on 15 August, at the Colombo Public Library, auditorium. The invitation letter began saying, the foremost responsibility today is to work towards social justice, law and order, in a dutiful country. None would disagree. All should agree. Even President Mahinda Rajapaksa says, his government is doing just that.

Here is where the political confusion lies. What social forces would be brought around this “Movement” to back such promises ? The present Rajapaksa regime proves, extremist forces consisting of Sinhala Buddhist political elements and the Sinhala business and trader community that helped prop this government, do not allow such rule of law, social justice and democracy for all. During the past few years, during the war and post war years, this regime has basically numbed social structures that could take dissenting positions and established an authoritarian State, entrenching the Sinhala armed forces in civil life, in satisfying the Sinhala politics that back the regime. The all powerful Executive President has been given the Constitutional right to continue through any number of terms, provided he or she could nudge voters to do what he or she wishes. This whole process was justified by war based Sinhala sentiment and was backed by extremist forces in the regime, the remnant “Left” within the government also adding their two pennies worth, into it.

In such political background, the invitation for the unveiling of NMSJ policy was signed by Rev. Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera, one of present day Sri Lanka’s respected elder monks. Undoubtedly a very articulate monk, Sobhitha Thera, was dubbed the “Rebel voice of the Sinhala people” by South Indian media, early 1990. He was a hard line campaigner for war, even in year 2000. Heading the “National Sanga Sabaha”, he led a deputation of monks that met with the Indian High Commissioner on 28 April, 2000 to request assistance to wage war against “Tamil separatist, terrorists.” This was after calling the Chandrika government to place the country “on a war footing” immediately, giving priority to war. “Everything else is secondary. We must first have a nation before we can do anything.” the Rev. Thera told the media on 02nd May, explaining his call for a war footing.

When the war was being fought most brutally in 2008 and early 2009, when Buddhist monks were blessing “heroic” soldiers for their life and victory, Rev. Sobhitha had not changed positions on the war he stood for, all those previous years. His alliance with other religious leaders, as an “inter religious” leader, made him look a “moderate” who did not go the JHU way. He nevertheless retains his political identity as a Sinhala Buddhist leader, who could be trusted by the Sinhala Buddhist polity.

I do accept, any one has a right to learn, to change course and even oppose his or her previous position(s) on any issue(s). Rev. Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera too therefore can now change his position(s) and oppose the very position(s) he adopted then, which position(s) the present Rajapaksa regime still continues to uphold and cherish. The fundamental issue therefore is, has Sobhitha thera actually changed his positions, principally ?

Though critical of this regime’s post war performance, he certainly has not changed positions. If he had, then he would not be chosen to lead this group that calls themselves the NMSJ. He still is a leader with a “special” (which is politically Sinhala) appeal, for the South and Sinhala sentiments and one, who would not falter the loyalty the Sinhala Buddhist polity has in him.

Rev. Sobhitha’s parting with this regime comes with a duality. One, his conviction that this Rajapaksa regime had not adequately honoured the other “war hero”, former Commander of the army, Sarath Fonseka. He believes, Sarath Fonseka has a genuine claim for sharing all honours in winning the war against “Tamil separatist Tigers”. Two, his disappointment, this government has failed to provide the people with the benefits of winning the war. Like most Sinhala voices during war who promised everything good after winning the war, Rev. Sobhitha too expected a “neat and clean” Sinhala government after the war, that would accommodate the Tamils on its own “peace” terms, as Sarath Fonseka openly said in his interview with the Canadian journal “National Post” (September, 2008).  A government that is not corrupt, is democratic and fair, that would keep law and order in society, without “Tamils” in their political vocabulary.

Therefore, his shift against the Rajapaksa regime, is definitely not secular. He would not stand for a secular Constitution, that would revert the Status of Buddhism to that in the Soulburry Constitution. Rev. Sobhitha would also not speak about Tamil political aspirations in terms of power sharing, within a merged Northern and Eastern provinces. Its just a very broad “social justice, law and order, in a dutiful country” statement, as the 10 point policy draft annexed to the invitation reveals.

That said, the next question is, who would want such a “movement” to be led by a Buddhist monk in the calibre of Rev. Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera ? The backing seems to come from three different, frustrated groups, eager to gain political power as soon as possible. First group or perhaps the first “shared groups” are those who went along with Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 Presidential polls expecting him to win as a Sinhala Buddhist hero, now feeling, there is little purpose in pinning faith in one who has no political rights and could also be manipulated by the Rajapaksas to divide the “opposition vote bank”. The other is the disillusioned lot in the UNP “reformist/rebel” group, who now feel, they need a broad “Sinhala” campaigner to gain political power. For them, Ranil is not the leader on three counts. One, he is a proven failure, which is not very wrong. Two, he is now back in his liberal politics with the TNA, which is very good, but the so called “reformist/rebels” think that would not take them quick to power, in a Sinhala society. Three, he would never abolish the Executive Presidency if he ever gets there, which is almost right. Yet, this is a problem the Opposition is saddled with, the lack of a solid political leader with a charisma and a political vision together, that can not be substituted by Sinhala populism.

The third group that has no such issue of a charismatic leader for them is a small lot, that now feel they should move out of the Rajapaksa regime and save their “Left” face, by supporting a candidate who is NOT UNP, credibly “independent” and would actually abolish the executive “presidency”. For this “fly on a chariot wheel” lot, its just their latent conscience, more than the actual political need in defeating Rajapaksa, who is still good enough for them, as their “anti UNP” ally.

This new scouting for another Sinhala alternative within the Sinhala middle class, perhaps was sniffed early by both Rajapaksa and Wickramasinghe. Opposition MP Wijedasa Rajapaksa (UNP) MP’s, private member Bill to proscribe religious clergy from taking to open and direct politics, seems the result of the “nod” he got from both leaders. For Rajapaksa, its a nuisance to answer a challenge by a Sinhala Buddhist platform. For Wickramasinghe, its his political campaign that seems to be getting hijacked.

This platform that has borrowed almost all what Ranil W and the “Platform for Freedom” talks, except the issue of the 13th Amendment and power sharing, is seen as an attempt in deflating the UNP-TNA politics, with a broad, democratic platform. The draft 10 point policy statement therefore clearly highlights the abolishing of the Executive Presidency, now being argued as the “Father” of all illegitimate prodigy causing all ills.  Therefore the main argument is that the presidency has to be abolished and thereafter, the rest can be put in their right places. The NMSJ as a collective of Sinhala sentiment and redundant “Lefties”, led by a Buddhist cleric whose Sinhala bias is historically established, is thus a new possibility pursued in bringing an “independent” Sinhala candidate, who would if successful at the presidential hustings, abolish the Executive Presidency and move out, as the 10 point policy draft indicates.

This seem politically similar to the role that was played by Ayatollah Ruhollah Komeini in 1978. He led the ouster of Shah Mohommad Reza Pahlavi, on a platform that similarly spoke about cleaning up governance, removing terror in society and establishing democracy for all, that he said would only be possible with the ouster of Shah Reza Pahlavi as “King of Iran”. A similar slogan like the abolishing of the Executive Presidency, here. But he said, it is not for him to be the next Head of State, as claimed here, that the independent Common presidential candidate is only to abolish the presidency and step down.

“I don’t want to be the leader of the Islamic Republic; I don’t want to have the government or the power in my hands. I only guide the people in selecting the system.” Ayatollah Khomeini told an Austrian TV reporter, while in his exile in Paris in November 16, 1978, before he landed in Tehran in February 1979, jubilant crowds cheering him, for providing leadership in ousting Shah Reza Pahlavi. The Iranian uprising was backed by democratic political parties, personalities and groups who desisted Shah’s reign of terror. It was endorsed and supported by secular “Left” groups and workers’ organisations. BUT, it was without argument, an “Islamic Revolution” to establish an Islamic Republic with Ayatolla Khomeini as its undisputed, spiritual leader.

Removal of “Shah” as King of Iran was approved on a referendum in March 1979 with a 98% vote. Thereafter Khomeini’s supporters worked to suppress former allies. Newspapers with dissenting voices were closed and those protesting the closure of news papers were attacked. Opposition groups such as the National Democratic Front and Muslim People’s Republican Party were declared anti Islamic and banned. (The Reign of the Ayatollahs by Shaul Bakhash / p.68-9) Through popular support that was pure Islamic extremism, Khomeini gained an overwhelming majority of the seats of the “Assembly of Experts” which revised the proposed Constitution under Khomeini’s personal supervision, to include an Islamic jurist “Supreme Leader” of the country and a Council of Guardians to veto “non Islamic” legislation and screen candidates for office, with power to disqualify those found to be “un-Islamic”.

Under this new Constitution, that of course had removed the “King” – Shah of Iran – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the first “Supreme Leader” as a “Grand Ayatollah” in December, 1979. Once in power, Ayatollah Khomeini was no more sympathetic to the cries of the secular left than the Shah had been to Khomeini’s cries for reform. Many who protested against his regime were killed, The rest is history and a history that is extremely autocratic, undisputedly repressive  and religiously fanatic.

This is precisely how, any promised pilgrimage to a “democratic land” would end up, with an ethno religious leader galvanising support on his or her credibility as a leader of popular ethnic or religious sentiment, often not taken seriously and as a looming fanatical danger.

A man, whose family was German aristocracy prior to World War II, owned a number of large industries and estates. When asked how many German people were true Nazis, the answer he gave can guide our attitude toward fanaticism.

“Very few people were true Nazis,’ he said, ‘but many enjoyed the return of German pride. Many more were too busy to care. I was one of those who just thought the Nazis were a bunch of fools. So, the majority just sat back and let it all happen. Then, before we knew it, they owned us, and we had lost control and the end of the world had come.”