[Editors note: The intense and interesting debate this article generated resulted in a longer response by the author. Read it here – Political Opposition in a Nihilistic Sinhala Society: Responses and clarifications.]

Taking off from the present

This new year loaded my “In box” with that ritualistic “New Year” wish which said, the year would be “wonderful-happy-prosperous-peaceful and even healthy”. Just one meanwhile opted out to say, this traditionally accepted “wish” had been so for decades and virtually forgets poverty, discrimination and injustice and instead wished “strength to treat all humans as equals with justice”. Unfortunately, both the commonplace wish and its antipathy means little or nothing, in this present day Sri Lanka.

This Sinhala society as a collective entity has no such will, though individuals may show a dislike to what’s around them. Its the societal mindset that matters. Governments reflect that and so are their budgets and plans. Budget for this year (2011) is no good proof. It is obvious that this regime has no political desire and a will to find answers to those long overdue issues of poverty, rural economic growth and national development in an inclusive, plural society with much diversity. The path on which this Rajapasksa regime treads, is definitely nowhere close to the path of decent national development for a disciplined, modern, inclusive society.

With that comes an unavoidable question. How will this Sinhala society that has usurped the responsibility of deciding national politics, react to this regime’s failure in delivering post war dividends ? Or, will they ever challenge this “Al Capone” type regime ?

A case for People’s Power

There is often reason to believe that people would sooner or later react against any “Al Capone” type government. Often there is reference to the Iranian people’s upsurge that removed Shah Phalavi and to throwing out of Ferdinand Marcos, in the Philippines.

Yet, my sad and pessimistic conviction is, this present day Sinhala, Heenayana Buddhist society would not play Philippines or Iran. Not in the foreseeable future. This Sinhala society is awfully different, seasoned over centuries by Heenayana Buddhist ideology. It has turned into a grumbling, cussed entity, very much nihilistic in its culture of living.

Iran had its resentment brewing from the 1930s with senior Shah, General Rezah  accused of “Westernising” Iran. His son President Shah Phalavi continued unchanged from around the 60’s with overt US support. Accumulation of resentment over decades, translating itself into an Islamic upsurge led by Mullahs, Iran finally threw him out of power and out of the country as well, in 1979.

“People’s Power” that came on the roads of Manila as an unstoppable force, was catalysed after a decade and more of Islamic Moro guerillas and the Maoist guerilla outfit, “New People’s Army” destabilised the society that Ferdinand Marcos strangled with his callous power. Thereafter with the assassination of popular Opposition leader Benigno Ninoy Aquino, sections of the army refused taking orders from the Marcos regime. It was finally the Catholic church with its “Radio Veritas” that brought people on to the streets in thousands that saw Marcos flee the country, in February 1986.

As one former President of the University of Philippines, Fransisco Nemenso put on record, “bringing hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets, in hours, in a day, would have been impossible, not just difficult, if not for Radio Veritas.”

Religious contradictions in history

This Sri Lanka is wholly different. This society lacks the religio-political inertia as in Iran and the Philippines, in translating social injustice into people’s actions. In both those countries, religion as an institution, was a socialising factor. Here in Sri Lanka, there are also no “Ayathollas of Iran” and a “Veritas Radio” as in the Philippines. There simply can not be, with Heenayana Buddhism.

Buddhist temples and monks are no organised institute like the “Church” and its clerics. It has no ideological capacity like Islam, to hold its loyal “faithfuls” from birth to adolescence to marriage and death. On a fundamentally individualistic imposition on life, Heenayana Buddhism is the opposite of the Catholic church that mobilises its constituency every Sunday and the Muslim mosque, every Friday afternoon.

There is also a feudal and a trader-business factor, hardly spoken of openly in relation to the Sinhala society and its type of Buddhism. “Nikayas”, as different “Sects” in Heenayana monkdom, were sponsored and patronised by a caste based trader community, ever since the “King” was made absent and the Shyamopali Siyam Nikaya restricted itself to the Kandyan Govigama nobility in 1764.

Amarapura Nikaya was established in 1803 by low country traders who funded a Salagama monk, Ambagahapitiye Gnanawimala thero, to make a sea voyage to Burma and return with higher ordination. Thereafter Karawa and Durawa monks were sponsored to travel to Burma for higher ordination, also by Southern traders and landed proprietors. Ramanya Maha Nikaya was later formed by another Salagama monk obtaining higher ordination, from Ramanna land in Burma in 1863.

All this keeps a feudal tag on Buddhists, with temples run by caste based monks and the trader community opting to assist their own “Buddhist taste” of the caste. To date the Vahumpura caste, making a significant presence in trade and commerce, proudly claim they are a strictly Buddhist caste. All of it in a half grown capitalist society leaves values, attitudes and social relations with rural land ownerships also intact, basically with a functioning feudal mindset, though living in a market economy.

The Old ‘Left’ and orthodoxy

The strength of the old Sama Samaja movement (LSSP) was therefore seen in how it challenged this feudal orthodoxy in an evolving urban life. The pioneering Sama Samaja leadership openly challenged the then existing Buddhist acceptance of Sinhala social relations on feudal structures from late 1920’s. It was thus able to dictate terms politically, in a well entrenched Welfare State, much different to the present day society. With that urban influence on “welfarism”, the 1953 August 12 “Hartal” was perhaps the last of its socio political engineering and the first mass action which challenged social tradition. Within a day, it forced the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to fold up and take refuge in a British warship – HMS NewFoundland – anchored in the Colombo harbour.

The 1953 August Hartal brought out 02 fundamental issues. The first was the fact that political power lies centralised in Colombo. The rural polity has no decisive impact on State power and is only a passive “vote bloc”. Yet they become important in changing governments, with their Sinhala Buddhist feudal life, intact.

The second was that the Sama Samaja movement had no influence outside the Western Province and was to a lesser extent in the adjacent sub urban areas along the coast stretching North and South of Colombo and inland into the Kelaniya valley, towards Sabaragamuwa. It was evident therefore, the LSSP ideology could not challenge traditional rural life and therefore would not form an elected government on its own, for long years to come.

This led to a political faction within the LSSP that in its 1954 Conference proposed a change of strategy. They called for a “worker – peasant national government”, to address the majority rural voter, instead of living isolated and stubborn with its urban workers’ led anti capitalist politics. Having lost at the Conference, some like L.W Panditha, Samarawickrama and K.P Silva joined the Communist Party that was politically closer to their resolution. Thereafter Henry Peiris is said to have influenced political thinking in forming the nationalist MEP, which won the 1956 general elections, led by Bandaranayake.

Revival of Heenayana dominance

With Sama Samaja influence restricted to the urban minority and shrinking, this new nationalist alliance played alternate to the UNP with the type of Sinhala nationalism, that saw a Sinhala Buddhist revival with State patronage. Sinhala State capitalism of this newly revived Sinhala business and trader community, which depended on the Soviet bloc countries, justified the “progressive” nature of this new Sinhala nationalism.

SLFP politics thus defined the cultural potency of the Sinhala business and trader community in post independent Ceylon, that was geared to take total control of the market. This Sinhala business and trader community, perceived Tamil and Muslim business communities as strong competitors and sought State patronage for their own expansion and capture of markets. Sri Lanka thus came to be politico culturally defined as the “land of the Sinhalese” and of “Gauthama Buddha”.

The market component of Sinhala Buddhist radicalisation was amply demonstrated in the pogrom against Tamil people in July 1983. Industries Minister Cyril Mathew was in charge of the Sinhala campaign by then and represented a Sinhala Buddhist community that has specific business interests in society. In 1983 July, Tamil businesses from street corner eateries and groceries to cinema halls and big and established businesses like ‘KG Industries’, were all targeted after prior identifying. The UNP government of the day, used it politically to signal its readiness to allow violence, as answer to Tamil political grievances, that was also radicalising.

Heenayana negativism on social living

With the absence of the Sama Samaja ideology as an alternate platform that in pre independent and early post war period provided an alternate socio political ideology, this Sinhala business and trader dominance with increasing centralised State power once again provided space for Heenayana Buddhism to mould Southern social ideology. Emergence of a Sinhala Buddhist ideology based on historical rights as the superior social force in the island, structured a new and militant Sinhala political thinking (Chinthanaya) that helped decide politics, in the South. This gave legitimacy to Heenayana Buddhism as practised in the South with Buddhist monks emerging to assert themselves as a prominent social factor, embedding religion with politics.

The logical base of this Sinhala Buddhist thinking, though different to the philosophical preachings on “life and thereafter”, by Lord Buddha, stood on the broad Buddhist argument that greed and selfishness, passion and lust in a secular world of happiness and joy, leads to an extension of life in an unending cycle, which is a misery. To attain emancipation according to Heenayana interpretation which is different to Mahayana, “man” has to discipline life to dissociate from all such secular fixations, at the end of which “He” (Buddhism is a macho religion) could attain “nirvana” the sublime conclusion to life’s miserable journey.

A very individualistic and subdued approach to life, this denied the necessity to search for new knowledge in making life, a satisfying social experience. It contradicted the human necessity of seeking comfortable life and working towards such comfort. This explains why Buddhism lacks an enjoyable cultural aspect in social  life, unlike Hinduism and Catholicism, or even Islamism. Introvert in its approach to life, culturally very much subdued, Heenayana Buddhism has left the Sinhala society without a rich tradition of song and dance, of art and sculpture and a culture of entertainment.

Coming of age with neo liberalism

Heenayana religious acceptance turned into individualism and a piously subdued life, the Sinhala mindset with no alternate thinking, was well seasoned to go roller skating with the neo liberal economy, introduced as the “Open Economy” from 1978, under the UNP government of JRJ. The open economy that took away all State controls on imports and exports, introduced a consumer pattern based on heavy competition for economic survival.

Opening of the economy sparked off an economic growth during the first years, that redesigned and redefined competition within a commercially expanding society. Commercialism, running on trade commissions, is very much competitive in a society that lacks both actual socio economic growth and new capital generation. Individuals and individual families, giving up on the traditional “extended family” was demanded adherence to consumer competition, for “choice” in living.

The new consumerist life, settled with home based entertainment and captive social dialogue through TV and FM channels. New and colourful communication brought both simple and soapy entertainment, mixed with controlled and edited political discussion and selected news, to the uprooted and isolated “man” held captive in the house. The fall of the film industry with all its other factors weighing in, is also due to this “locking in” of families to the new high paced lifestyle that allows no free time and social leisure. Within this neo liberal economy, socialising became restricted to seldom and carefully planned “family affairs”, not affordable to the majority in society.

In-house entertainment and FM-TV based communication thus controls the mindset of this new man, living within this highly competitive neo liberal economy. The new media phenomenon is programmed for profits, keeps an “atomised” collection of people fixed on light, a-political, contentless entertainment, all through day and night.

Accepting fate as Buddhists

The lonely, stressed out consumerist home life, especially among the middle class, is now driving people into a new religious trend, that evolves with the urban business and trader community in luxury “Ashrams” with “celebrity monks”. They preach the same Heenayana Buddhist ideology with the same individual approach to life, albeit with a more commercialised spin. This allows the Sinhala business and trader community to weigh heavily on this Sinhala regime that has Heenayana Buddhism providing the base for its official State ideology that talks proud in defeating Tamil separatism.

It has a dual social face. The urbanised middle class adopts the Heenayana tradition as their “Great Escape” from a heavily consumerised, high paced lifestyle, they would not move out from, in real life. The duality lies in being more Buddhist as escapists and more politically Sinhala to gain a bigger market share in a stagnant economy.

In more rural society, it is the strength of the Sinhala State, politicised to the grass roots, sponsored by the Sinhala business and trader community that holds power. Controlled from Colombo by a very centralised authority, akin to their Buddhist Kings, this system goes well, though with grumbling on day to day living, both in urban and rural life. This is no collective issue, for individualism that accepts life as fate, defined according to Heenayana Buddhism.

Will such an individualised, introvert society that lacks alternate thinking, have reason to challenge this regime ? Will it see political issues as common and collective issues that need to be answered on a social platform ? Not that soon for sure, more in the absence of a politically intelligent Opposition.