Attackers roaring obscenities, screams of victims, the thunk of metal poles on defenceless humans and the crack of smashed protester shelters all combined to almost drown out the Bhikkus’ serene chanting of pirith emanating from loudspeakers within Temple Trees, the official residence of the prime minister of our Democratic Socialist Republic.
To those being beaten up on the street right outside the official residence, the public watching from the road and later to the millions watching TV news telecasts and webcasts around the world, this triple clash of brutality, spirituality and official propriety must have seemed absolutely bizarre, even schizoid if not psycho-pathic.
Is the source of chanted pirith and the fragrance of sacred araliya flowers also the origin of the mass violence?
After decades of war and anti-Thamil and anti-Muslim pogroms, this nation’s ethnic and religious minorities might be tempted to say yes to that seemingly paradoxical question. Ashamed Buddhist faithful may also say yes. But many citizens of all religions and no religions, recalling our bloody history of majoritarian ethnic arrogance and repeated repressive violence against both rebelling ethnic minorities and insurgent rural youth, will acknowledge the violence, including anti-religious violence, on all sides.
But if post-colonial Lankan (‘Sri’ is not worth using at present) history is to be understood well, then it must be acknowledged that the cumulative socio-historical experience has been one of constitutional-structural oppression and marginalisation of not just ethnic, religious, minorities but also of non-hetero-masculine genders, castes (in electoral gerrymandering), and even the differently abled. This oppression of the numerical minorities leaves the religio-ethnic (and hetero-masculine) majority supreme and exclusive in enjoying this island’s serendipity. Note that the political-economic structure of the modern Lankan state is also industriously mauling our island’s serendipitous ecology.
The usually fragrant araliya flowers that adorn Temple Trees must surely be withering in the atmosphere of hate speech, anger and political hysteria in recent days. Known throughout British colonial South Asia as temple flowers because of their constant use in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain ritual in temples and as sacred garlands, the flower is even depicted in the Sigirya frescoes.
Araliya Gaha Mandiraya was named Temple Trees by its British owner of the time, a mid-19th century colonial businessman. It was later sold to the colonial government and became the official residence of the colonial secretary. After 1948, the venerable building became the permanent official residence of prime ministers and even two presidents. Given the sacred value of the flower, in addition to its official political significance, the mandiraya and its official occupants are seen as blessed by the ambience of the temple trees surrounding the building.
Such is its symbolic and political significance that Temple Trees soon became a focal point of state power and also a target of those wanting to overthrow the state or to seize power. The 1962 coup plotters made the prime minister’s official residence their main target and managed to get the armoured vehicles guarding the mansion withdrawn. But the coup plotters were rounded up before they could strike. Similarly, the original JVP movement, in its 1971 insurgency, planned to attack Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike at her private residence in Rosmead Place. As the insurgency broke on April 5 the prime minister as well as several top ministers, were re-located in the better defended Temple Trees. In fact, the mansion reportedly became the core command centre for operations to crush the insurgency.
During the Thamil Eelam separatist war, intelligence that the LTTE were to use its makeshift combat planes to strike at the mandiraya prompted the placement of anti-aircraft guns adjoining the compound of the mansion that President Chandrika Kumaratunga used as her official residence.
Ironically, the governor’s mansion in the Colombo Fort, which later became the Janadhipathi Mandiraya, was never seen as such a centre of power although it has always remained heavily guarded.
May 9, 2022 brought a shameful and system-threatening reversal of the use of this symbolically and politically significant mansion. This palace of the sacred flowers, this epicentre of republican power, instead became the epicentre of a violent attack on the people, seemingly engineered by the chief occupant himself along with several ministerial colleagues and other officers.
If the Sri Dalada Maligava is the most sacred living religious symbol of the nation to Sri Lankans, Temple Trees is synonymous with democracy, whether Westminster-style or Gaulist. Even the most vociferously hardline Buddhist activist groups, even those led by Theras (let alone the Venerable Sangha Nayakas), have not dared make divisive or exclusivist exhortations, leave aside actual organising activity or plotting, from within the Sri Dalada Maligava’s sacred precincts nor within sacred sites such as in Anuradhapura or Mihintale. Physical violence has never emanated from within any sacred religious site – Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian – on this island.
But on May 9, not only did the former prime minister and some of his ministerial and party associates clearly organise and host a large gathering of party loyalists but they also incited the crowd in various ways, some more so and others less explicitly, and mobilised their audience into an angry mob, all inside Temple Trees, that gracious official residence of the prime minister of the republic.
Worse, once the mob was aroused, this angered crowd then appeared to have been equipped with metal rods and poles, and they came directly out of the prime minister’s official residence to begin their violent actions against a notably peaceful civilian protest site immediately outside. Far worse, having beaten up the peaceful protestors and destroyed their MainaGoGama campsite, the same mob marched a whole kilometre and similarly attacked the now historic GotaGoGama site right in front of the office of the president!
Not only did this violent, explicitly anti-democratic rampage begin from within the official residence of the prime minister but the violence was perpetrated right in front of both the prime minister’s official residence as well as right in front of the office of the president. These two official facilities being key installations of the State, the violence was directly threatening national security. Furthermore, the organised violence was perpetrated during a state of emergency, when the activated Public Security Ordinance was supposed to be rigorously enforcing public order and the security of the citizenry.
Most significantly, the endangering of two key installations of the state brings these acts of organised, pre-meditated violence directly within the ambit of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The video evidence of the hosting of the gathering of pro-government party supporters inside Temple Trees, the arousing of their anger and hostility towards the peaceful anti-government protest movement and finally of the movement of this angry mob directly out of Temple Trees is available. How does the public throughout the whole world know this? The video recordings have all been broadcast and webcast several times around the world in both formal news bulletins by licence-holding, recognised, news channels as well on social media.
There has been no official denial of these acts of organised violence that starkly threatened national security, either by the President’s Office or by the Prime Minister’s Office. Neither has there been any formal denial that the violent mob emerged out of the prime minister’s official residence. Nor has there been any denial that the prime minister had been present and addressed the gathering that eventually stormed forth to wreak violence.
What is most evident is that some 48 hours following this flagrantly subversive activity emanating from within the heart of the state and with ample indications of the active involvement of the chief occupant at Temple Trees and others inside the building, there is no move to arrest and question the former prime minister or any of the others.
It is possible to relate this terrible behaviour by top state officers inside and outside key state installations to at least three or four types of criminal offences. At the lowest level there is the offence of incitement to disturb the peace. Next there is the violation of the state of emergency. Then there is the threatening of national security, which is addressed by the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Additionally, these activities inside Temple Trees could easily be interpreted as a violation of the Establishment Code and a flagrant misuse of public property.
Top and lower ranking elected state officers have not been questioned about their role in the thuggery and veritably subversive or terrorist activity. If it had been any other individuals by now they would have been in indefinite detention under the PTA without any charges or in detention under emergency laws also without any charges but for a fixed period. At the very least they would have been declared most wanted in a countrywide search.
And if it had been other individuals belonging to ethnic minorities, from past experience, they would be risking various extra legal actions like secret detentions, torture, abduction and disappearance or extra judicial killing. The PTA has been used to imprison award-winning journalist simply because of some sentences published in print; not because they gathered a political mob and incited or hinted at political violence.
Instead, the former chief occupant of Temple Trees has been allowed to freely resign from office and was courteously helicoptered away, family and all, to what appears to be military protection in the naval base in Trincomalee.
Meanwhile, other public officials, such as the security officials at Temple Trees and top police officers are being questioned with regard to security lapses during the mayhem at the prime minister’s official residence and ensuing thuggery from that location. A few hundred GotaGoGama activists have suffered not only physical injury but also severe trauma on being subject to this unexpected violence that emanated from the very place they least thought it would come – Temple Trees.
Such is the paradox of a former “liberal democratic republic” now turned playground and site of plunder and political rage by a nepotistic regime.
The very person who resigned on the grounds of popular demand but also openly facilitated mass violence from his official residence is currently enjoying the luxury of state security in the comfort of our premier naval base. Meanwhile, the citizenry who suffered from the violence are injured or displaced from their peaceful protest sites and thousands of other protestors round the country now risk lethal firing by troops.
And the causes of all this unrest – namely the massive plunder, politico-economic mismanagement and socio-economic deprivation –remain unresolved. The principal subject of public calls for removal, the president himself, is refusing to move aside for other alternative political arrangements to be tried out. The sudden appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister is another bizarre turn; a president who has been labelled failed by his own voter constituency has appointed as prime minister the person who has been labelled loser by his own party membership and voter constituency.
Is this democracy of any sort? The official residence of the prime minister has become a house of thuggery. Why is there no move to detain the organisers of the Temple Trees thuggery? Will the Rajapaksas join the many other dictator families living in luxurious exile?
Is Sri Lanka now the living lie to the exceptionalism of liberal democracy? Are the supposedly liberal, technocratic elite who have stepped in to propose best options out of the current parliamentary political deadlock, actually covering up the blatant ravaging of our republic’s sacred institutions? Purists and idealists will note the schizoid nature of a political culture that enables thuggery under official auspices brazenly launched from official venues.
In European medieval times, feudal loyalist troops did sally forth from the castles of the barons to crush peasant resistance. But we have no record of such troops sallying forth directly from our historic palaces and citadels. In modern times, there is no record of thugs or troops sallying forth from official residences of any regime or even of despots. The Ranasinghe Premadasa regime’s (with Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister) dirty war against the JVP’s second insurgency probably resulted in the same number of death squad victims as did civilian victims in the armed forces operations against the separatist insurgency – up to 100,000 according to some estimates. But even if plotting of this criminal and morally despicable activity occurred inside official residences and offices, there was no hint that actual thug bands or death squads were deployed directly from inside such respectable official facilities.
So even if previous regimes’ barbarities also point to such political-cultural schizophrenia (dharma chakraya was the slang term for a particular torture method here), what happened on May 9 takes things to a schizoid peak.
How do we re-legitimise such a battered republic? What is the therapy needed to revive social-psychological stability, to bringing schizophrenia down to more normal levels? Let us hope the catharsis will not be another bloodbath.