War, Peace and the Manufacturing of Rajapaksa Myths

Photo courtesy the Daily Beast

“Twenty-five years ago, I said there would be a hero-king from Ruhuna…now he’s the one we believe, President Mahinda Rajapaksa.”

Sumandasa Abeygunawardane, Astrologer; Executive Director, National Savings Bank; Director, Employees Trust Fund; Advisor, Independent Television Network[i]

Lankans in general are distressingly indifferent to the plight of the country’s most majestic mammal, the elephant. But an unaccustomed wave of public outrage ensued when a plan to send two elephant-calves to a private zoo in South Korea leaked out. One of the claves marked for exportation was five year old ‘Dinuda’. And Dinuda, it was claimed and believed, was born on the day the Tigers were defeated. Thus the name, Dinu-da: ‘Victory Day’.

Omens, both propitious and unpropitious, occupy a decisive place in the politico-psychological landscape of Sinhala-Buddhists. According to Mahawamsa, the appearance of an elephant-calf was one of the many auspicious omens which attended the birth of the baby-prince who was destined to become Lanka’s ultimate hero-king, Dutugemunu[ii]. The birth of an elephant-calf on the day the Long Eelam War was won would have been regarded by the Sinhala-South as an equally convincing sign of divine approbation.

As the Dinuda-controversy mounted, President Mahinda Rajapaksa intervened to cancel the exportation. An investigation was launched to discover the identity of those who tried to deprive the nation of this ‘national treasure’[iii].

And the truth behind the miracle was revealed.

Dinuda was not born on Dinu-da, the ‘Victory Day’ or even the ‘Victory Year’. He was born eight months earlier[iv]. Someone, at some point, decided to fudge the truth and create a politico-ideological myth about a divinely-blessed victory, which would resonate with the Sinhala-Buddhist majority.

The birth of an elephant-calf was not the first ‘miracle’ associated with the Fourth Eelam War. The unofficial commencement of the war in 2006 coincided with another ‘miracle’. In the first week of August, as the LTTE-engineered Mawil-aru crisis neared its violent dénouement, a story of luminous rays emanating from Buddha status spread over the Sinhala-South. For three days, crowds gathered near Buddha statues, in expectation of beholding this miracle. Live media coverage increased the hysteria to a fever-pitch. President Rajapaksa was reportedly ecstatic that the first sighting happened in a temple in Hambantota. The JHU proclaimed that the ‘miracle’ heralded a victorious war.

Genuine mass-delusion or Dinuda-type official lie, the ‘halo-sightings’ bolstered the leadership credentials of and public confidence in President Rajapaksa, at a critical time.

Though the teachings of the Buddha are non-theistic, Sinhala-Buddhism believes in a pantheon of 3.3 billion gods. The special care of these gods-of-faith (samyakdrushtika devas) is to protect Lanka and the people-of-faith. It is to these gods that ordinary Sinhala-Buddhists turn, in troubled times, for protection and consolation[v]. Any ruler who seems to enjoy the blessings of these interventionist gods would be automatically acceptable to many Sinhala-Buddhists.

Joseph Campbell argues that myths serve four basic functions: mystical, cosmological, sociological and pedagogical. The sociological function consists of “supporting and validating a certain social order”[vi]. Myths can be extremely effective in creating and maintaining a sense of identification between a political group and a community of people.

The post-war Rajapaksa meta-narrative is aimed buttressing the connection between the majority ethno-religious community and the country’s new rulers. It is premised on three main myths – the myth of eternal national insecurity, the myth of miraculous development and the myth of the infallible hero-king. The three myths reinforce each other; in confluence they create and sustain the socio-psychological soil necessary for the new Rajapaksa dynasty to take root and flourish.

The Myth of Eternal Insecurity 

Ancient Lanka’s relationship with South India was a complex one, consisting of friendship and enmity. For millennia, South India was a source of hostile armies, indispensable mercenaries, royal wives and useful gods. With the advent of European colonialists and the weakening of South Indian power, the cooperative aspect of this relationship gained predominance. When the last Sinhala king of Kandy died without a legitimate royal heir, his brother-in-law, a scion of South India’s Nayak dynasty, was invited to mount the throne – a choice which seemed to have been endorsed by monks, aristocrats and people.

This multifaceted relationship was interpreted and depicted as a straightforwardly inimical one by Anagarika Dharmapala. He and his fellow religious nationalists believed in and popularised a ‘clash of civilisations’ worldview, according to which Lanka, the only haven of the true-faith, and Sinhala-Buddhists, the chosen people, are perennially threatened by the far more powerful Christian/Catholic, Islamic and Hindu worlds – and their local agents, the minorities.

This phobia of being encircled and undermined by far more powerful and numerous alien forces became a leitmotiv of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism. The Rajapaksas plucked up this politics of paranoia from the margins and placed it at the very heart of the state.

Post-war, there is a constant attempt to reinforce the belief that Lanka, the only home of Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation, remains under constant threat from a host of ‘inimical Others’. Only a ‘mystical union’ of religion, race and the armed forces, under a ‘leader rooted in people’ (‘Janamula Nayakaya’), can save Lanka and Sinhala-Buddhists from inundation/subjugation/extinction.

The myth of eternal insecurity is indispensable in providing a patriotic aura to a host of post-war measures actually aimed at protecting familial rule – maintenance of a mammoth defence establishment, militarization of the economy and society, absent political solution, changing North-Eastern demographics, violation of basic rights, media censorship, extra-judicial murders….

The Rajapaksa refusal to accept the existence of an ethnic problem dovetails perfectly with this ‘clash of civilisations’ outlook. If there is no ethnic problem, if the war was an outcome of a regional/international conspiracy by enemies of Sinhala-Buddhism, ranging from Tamilnadu Tamils to the White House and the Vatican, then the military defeat of the LTTE does not end the existential threat. A key purpose of organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena is to stoke these phobias and to keep the pot of suspicion-cum-hatred boiling.

How can permanent heroes and permanent saviours be, without permanent threats and permanent enemies?

The Myth of Miraculous Development 

If keeping fear alive is the main ingredient of the myth of eternal national insecurity, keeping hope alive is at the core of the myth of miraculous development. Irrational hope can become as delusive as irrational fear. And dazzle is the way to create/sustain the myth that under Rajapaksa rule, Sri Lanka is reaching First World Status, by leaps and bounds. Keeping this prosperity-mirage alive is one of the most salient functions of the often economically dysfunctional projects prioritised by the regime.

Imposing the superstructure of a developed nation on a cash-strapped and indebted base is not sustainable, but it has a perverse logic seen from the perspective of familial rule. Hungry people cannot be assured that they have full stomachs. But they can be assured that soon, their hunger will be over. That is the expected psychological effect of these projects. They are not just megalomanic projects; they are also razzle-dazzle projects. Their beneficial effects on surrounding communities might be miniscule to non-existent. But for the majority of people who live away from this reality, these mega-structures indicate that the Rajapaksas are busy winning the development war, just as they won the war against the LTTE.

Only Tigers died in the ‘Humanitarian Operation’. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa claimed that most victims of white van abductions were “rapists, murderers….underworld people”[vii]. In his May Day speech Mahinda Rajapaksa dismissed Rathupaswala protestors as dupes of economic conspirators. In his Al Jazeera interview, he stated that the only Muslims attacked by Sinhala-Buddhist mobs were child rapists.

The hapless victims of the ‘development miracle’, from Colombo’s poor to Ragamwela peasants are being repackaged. There are no victims. There are only happy beneficiaries – or economic traitors impeding Lanka’s rapid march to glory.

The Myth of the Infallible Hero-King

The hailing of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the ‘High King of Sri Lanka’ began soon after the war was won.

Since then, state propaganda has made a persistent effort to depict Mahinda Rajapaksa as a divinely blessed and infallible hero-king. Creating a mythical pedigree for the Rajapaksas, which connects them not just to King Dutugemunu but also to the Buddha, marks the nadir (or apogee, depending on one’s political position) of this endeavour.

Democracies have citizens. Kings need subjects. Absolutist monarchs need absolutely servile subjects.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is hailed as the ‘Lion in the Lion Flag’, ‘Father of the Nation’, ‘Wonder of the World and the Universe’, ‘Golden Sword which defends the nation’, ‘Golden Thread which unites sundered hearts’, ‘Leader who conquered the World’ and ‘The Sun and the Moon to a country which defeated Terror’. He has been proclaimed by the Sangha as the ‘Universally Renowned Lord of the Three Sinhala Lands’.

“Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic,” cautioned Victor Klemperer[viii]. The unceasing outpouring of servility which is Rajapaksa propaganda aims at transforming critical and irreverent citizens into mindlessly obedient ‘good subjects’.

Days after the Presidential election of 2010, the victorious Rajapaksas attended a state sponsored musical show, ‘Jaya Jayawe’. The final panegyric of that evening of panegyrics was dedicated to the President’s mother. As the songstress crooned, “Mother, are you watching from heaven, as the Son, whom the gods and the Brahmas sent to your womb from golden palaces, is protecting the Nation?” state TV showed the said ‘heaven-sent son’, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, listening with manifest complaisance. His matter of fact demeanour indicated that he considered such idolatrous outpouring to be his due. It was the attitude of a man who sincerely believes that absolute power and lifelong rule are his right and will do anything to prevent anyone from interfering with this destiny – be it ordinary citizens, the war-winning army commander or the chief justice.

The Shape of the Future

In June 2009 Chandrasiri Bandara, a popular astrologer, was arrested by the CID for predicting the imminent ouster of President Rajapaksa[ix].

Most Sinhala-Buddhists have an abiding and implicit faith in stars. And until the Rajapaksa-era dawned, Lankan astrologers predicted for and against incumbent regimes without suffering any ill consequences.

Given the local belief systems, stars can play an important role in creating or debunking myths. The Rajapaksas are determined to ensure that only those astrological predictions favourable to them are available in the public domain. The carrot and stick method, which had been used successfully to tame politicians, entrepreneurs, militarymen, media personnel, judges and bureaucrats, is used with astrologers as well. Astrologer Sumanadasa Abeygunawardane predicted a half-a-century of Rajapaksa rule, soon after the war was won: “President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksas will rule this country for a long time…. The Rajapaksas will become beloved leaders of this country…. The next chapter in Sri Lanka is reserved for the Rajapaksas.”[x] Today he is the country’s foremost astrologer[xi], a man of wealth, positions and influence.

The Rajapaksa state is benevolent to the faithful, malevolent to opponents and neutral/indifferent to the vast majority of ordinary people in between. This neutrality will be affordable so long as the Rajapaksas can maintain their hegemonic position in the Sinhala-South. But the waning of economic hope can erode, undermine and eventually destroy this hegemony. And economic hope is waning, as the CPA’s Top line surveys demonstrate. To mention just one example, in 2011, a mammoth 70% of Sinhalese thought that the general economic situation will get better in the next two years. In 2013 only 38.5% of Sinhalese thought that the general economic situation will improve in the next two years – a decrease of 45%, in just two years.

President’s Rajapaksa’s speech at the CICA meeting of May 2014 indicates that the Siblings are aware of this danger and plan to respond to it with increased doses of racism obscurantism and repression. “….it is imperative that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our nations are secure. Sadly, we have watched this fundamental right of States, being violated…. Creating domestic disharmony is their start point. We have witnessed the corrupt use of social media including the internet, to create domestic unrest and cyber crime. Youth have been targeted, and they have become pawns of the misplaced agendas. These are dangerous trends that need to be arrested, and addressed…. We should also place youth, centrally in our policy priorities, in a bid to inculcate correct value systems in accordance with their indigenous cultures, and take on board their requirements.”[xii]

The myth of the ‘reincarnated Tiger’ does not seem to be resonating with the Sinhala South. Consequently, the Rajapaksas may resort increasingly to religious-racism. And that is an extremely dangerous game to play in a religiously pluralist country. If we want to save the ‘nation state’ from fracturing along religious lines, we need to keep politics as separate as possible from religion. This necessary demarcation is impossible so long as the Rajapaksas rule.

In the five years since the war ended, the Rajapaksas have caused more harm to Sri Lanka than Vellupillai Pirapaharan did, in thirty years. There is no reconciliation, forgetting or forgiving; instead there is more hatred now, more suspicion, more fanaticism and more violence, less common-ground, less kindness, less humanity and less ordinary decency. ‘Bunker mentality’ is becoming normal, and ethics and morality are not prized qualities in bunkers.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Sri Lanka is one of the saddest places on earth, according to the latest (UN-sponsored) World Happiness Report. Of the 156 countries rated, Sri Lanka ranks 137[xiii].

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The well known Mahawamsa story about Dutugemunu’s conscience can be read as the contestation of two antithetical worldviews. The king is saddened by the human costs of his victory. “How shall there be any comfort for me….since by me was caused the slaughter of a great host numbering millions?” he laments[xiv]. And the deaths he is mourning are of enemy combatants.

The monks’ response is to dehumanise the mostly non-Buddhist enemy-dead: “Unbelievers and men of evil life….not more to be esteemed than beasts”[xv], they assure the king. Killing such sub-humans is of no consequence.

The war against the LTTE was a necessary war, given the nature of the LTTE. Had the Rajapaksas responded to the victory in the spirit of Dutugemunu, with humanity and humility, many of the problems the country is encountering nationally and internationally could have been avoided. Instead the Rajapaksas opted for the path advocated by the monks; they succumbed to Sinhala-Buddhism and wallowed in merciless triumphalism. They dehumanised their victim, and in doing so, they dehumanised themselves, made reconciliation impossible and created conditions for new conflicts.

The electoral playing-field today is far more unbalanced than it was in 2010. The Rajapaksas have managed to turn almost every arm of the state into a tool of familial rule. In such an inimical terrain, opposing the Rajapaksas, during and in-between elections, will be truly a labour of Sisyphus. But it is an effort which must be made, given what is at stake. Like Sisyphus, we are powerless; but like Sisyphus, we must be rebellious[xvi].

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[i] http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2001/pix/PrintPage.asp?REF=/2009/09/06/spe03.asp

[ii]“….by the power of his merit an elephant of the six-tusked race brought his young one thihter and left him here and went his way. When a fisherman named Kanduala saw it standing in the jungle on the shore opposite the watering –place, he straight-way told the king… He was named Kandula” – Mahawamsa.

[iii]http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=local/dinuda-stay

http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=local/special-committee-probe-dinuda-issue

[iv] http://www.dailymirror.lk/news/46884-dinuda-not-born-on-victory-day.html; according to other accounts Dinuda was born a few weeks after the war was won, and happens to be a she.

[v] According to Sinhala Buddhist beliefs any living being can be born a god/goddess in the six heavens if he/she/it accumulates enough merit. But gods/goddesses themselves cannot accumulate merit. Therefore, to continue their heavenly existence, they need pious humans to transfer merit to them. In return they protect these pious humans from harm and promote their wellbeing. This quid-pro-quo relationship also explains the occurrence of miracles, because gods are expected to upend nature in favour of the pious.

[vi]The Power of Myth

[vii]The Sunday Leader – 27.5.2012

[viii]The Language of the Third Reich

[ix] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8120859.stm

[x] Silumina – 7.6.2009

[xi] http://sri-lanka.theglobalmail.org/brothers-grip

[xii] http://lankamission.org/index.php/front-news/929-let-us-work-collectively-to-create-a-peaceful-and-stable-new-asia-president-rajapaksa-calls-on-cica-leaders

[xiii] http://issuu.com/earthinstitute/docs/worldhappinessreport2013_online

[xiv]Mahawamsa

[xv]Ibid

[xvi] “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious….” Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus)

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.

  • Fitzpatrick

    What a wonderful write up T. Some folks still trying to cling on to “their” victory over “enemies” (i.e west) and still praise our Mahinda and suggest that he is the best hope for the country.

  • Kevin

    The true Buddhism that has been discarded now in Sri Lanka was so clearly enunciated once upon a time
    by a white man – Sir Edwin Arnold – who was a founder member, together with Anagarika Dharmapala, of the Mahabodhi Society of India. He was fluent in Pali and Sanskrit. These verses are extracts from his poem, “The Light of Asia”, and is so relevant today to superstition driven Sri Lanka, as described in the above article

    http://www.bps.lk/olib/wh/wh159-p.html

    Dances so lightly down by bloom and lawn

    Only to pour its crystal quicklier

    Into the foul salt sea. The veil is rent

    Which blinded me! I am as all these men

    Who cry upon their gods and are not heard

    Or are not heeded–yet there must be aid!

    For them and me and all there must be help!

    Perchance the gods have need of help themselves

    Being so feeble that when sad lips cry

    They cannot save! I would not let one cry

    Whom I could save! How can it be that Brahm

    Would make a world and keep it miserable,

    Since, if all-powerful, he leaves it so,

    He is not good, and if not powerful,

    He is not God?–Channa! lead home again!

    It is enough I mine eyes have seen enough!”

    Nay; it may be some of the gods are good

    And evil some, but all in action weak;

    Both pitiful and pitiless, and both

    As men are–bound upon this wheel of change,

    Knowing the former and the after lives.

    For so our scriptures truly seem to teach,

    That–once, and wheresoe’er, and whence begun–

    Life runs its rounds of living, climbing up

    From mote, and gnat, and worm, reptile, and fish,

    Bird and shagged beast, man, demon, Deva, God,

    To clod and mote again; so are we kin

    To all that is; and thus, if one might save

    Man from his curse, the whole wide world should share

    The lightened horror of this ignorance

    Whose shadow is chill fear, and cruelty

    Its bitter pastime. Yea, if one might save!

    And means must be! There must be refuge!”

    Pray not! the Darkness will not brighten!

    Ask Nought from the Silence, for it cannot speak!

    Vex not your mournful minds with pious pains!

    Ah! Brothers, Sisters! seek

    Nought from the helpless gods by gift and hymn,

    Nor bribe with blood, nor feed with fruit and cakes;

    Within yourselves deliverance must be sought;

    Each man his prison makes.

    Each hath such lordship as the loftiest ones;

    Nay, for with Powers above, around, below,

    As with all flesh and whatsoever lives,

    Act maketh joy and woe.