Photo courtesy of Kumanan
“On this earth there are pestilences and there are victims – and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.” Camus (The Plague)
“Patriotism,” wrote Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary is “The combustible rubbish ready to the torch of anyone ambitious to illuminate his name.” Patriotism is not the last refuge of the scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson famously said, Bierce added, it is the first.
In Sri Lanka, a group of politicians and political monks are making a concerted effort to inflame Sinhala-Buddhist “patriotism” to regain relevance. A chilling case in point for this pyromaniac politics is what didn’t happen in Kurundi on August 18.
On August 16, parliamentarian Udaya Gammanpila (who once upheld Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a composite of Vladimir Putin, Jawaharlal Nehru, Fidel Castro, Mahathir Mohammad and Lee Kuan Yew) called a media conference and proclaimed that Tamil politicians were planning to build a kovil in Kurundi on August 18. Posters went up exhorting Sinhalese to wake up and save Kurundi in bald red letters. The goal was obvious – rile up enough Sinhalese and make them congregate in Kurundi on August 18 to save this essential piece of motherland from the modern day descendants of Kalinga Maga.
Mr. Gammanpila’s story about a plan to build a kovil on August 18 was a barefaced lie. A group of Tamil residents had been permitted by the Mullaitivu magistrate court to hold a Hindu religious ceremony in Kurundi under conditions imposed by the Archaeological Department. That was all. But facts would have been irrelevant if the plan to enrage Sinhala-Buddhists had succeeded.
Had thousands of Sinhala-Buddhists descended on Kurundi, had they tried to prevent Tamil residents from holding their court sanctioned and Archaeological Department permitted religious ceremony, an outbreak of violence might have ensued. In this age of social media, a tsunami of rumours would have followed with bloodcurdling tales of how venerable monks and pious devotees were attacked by marauding Tamils. Monks led mobs would have appeared in the East and the South, willing to kill and burn for the motherland.
Fortunately that plan failed. Some Sinhalese did turn up but not enough for the situation to get out of hand. The police played a constructive role, restraining the “chief incumbent” of the Kurundi temple, Galgamuwe Shanthabodi Thero, and preventing him from inciting an incident. One policeman was heard advising the monk to make a complaint to the police and to seek judicial assistance.
So a disaster was prevented. This time.
Kurundi was not an isolated incident but the most prominent link in a chain spanning North and East. For example, last week a group of monks blocked the Nilaveli road at Periyakulam protesting against an order by the Governor of Eastern province to temporarily halt new construction at the site of the ancient Boralukanda temple. As in Kurundi, the monks didn’t lodge a police complaint, seek judicial assistance or even inform the Buddha Sasana Ministry. They took to and took over the street, literally, impeding traffic and chanting slogans. Since this event took place in a Tamil-majority area (538 Tamil families and two Sinhala families) an incident was an imminently possible outcome. Fortunately the Tamil residents did not react, while the police did, politely but firmly.
Sixty years ago, the Universities Commission of 1962 (consisting of three Sinhala Buddhist members) in its report stated that political monks were “responsible in large measure for inflaming the racial and religious passions that erupted in such sickening fashion in the early part of 1958.” 1958 came from 1956; S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, having lost badly to Dudley Senanayake in 1952 and rendered irrelevant by the Hartal of 1953, decided – cold-bloodedly and knowingly – to incite Sinhala-Buddhist racism as a fast track to power. His bargain with Mapitagama Buddharakkitha Thero ended in murder and mayhem.
Sixty years on, with a new wave of weaponising Buddhism and archaeology in the make, is 1956 about to return?
From ruin to ruin
When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa established his Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management (honouring a promise to his Buddhist Advisory Council) he set the stage for the organised weaponisation of archaeology in the country’s most ethno-religiously diverse province. The Task Force went around identifying “ancient Buddhist monuments” in the East. Each new discovery was hailed as proof of Sinhala ownership of the province. In many places, once an ancient ruin was identified, monks moved in and began new construction in the guise of restoration. Since these ruins were located mostly in areas with non-Sinhala-Buddhists majorities, door to acrimony and conflict was further opened.
While Gotabaya Rajapaksa remained president, monks and their politician backers had a free hand, protected by officials and the military. Lawlessness was the norm, power everything. For instance, in 2018, the Mullaitivu magistrate had issued an order preventing further construction at Kurundi by a group of monks. Under the Gotabaya presidency, this order was violated in plain sight with the military becoming involved in the construction work. The new religious edifice was inaugurated in February 2022 with several ministers in attendance including Channa Jayasumana. Even as the regime was prioritising its divisive majoritarian-supremacist agenda in the East, ordinary lives everywhere were turning unliveable. Power cuts had begun and more than 2000 containers with essential food items were held up in the Colombo Port due to lack of dollars to pay for them.
Once Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled, impunity receded and the rule of law made a kind of comeback. The Mullaitivu magistrate issued another order in 2022 banning further construction in Kurundi. In other parts of North and East, faced with public protests, the military was compelled to walk back their many attempts to claim land for Sinhala-Buddhism by planting bo saplings and placing Buddha statues. Examples include February 2023 attempt in Aachchuveli, Jaffna, where the army placed a new Buddha statue under an old bo tree; the March 2023 attempt in Kachchativu where the navy planted a bo sapling and built a Buddha statue; and the June 2023 attempt in Ulliyamkulam in Mannar where the army planted a bo tree and tried to build a temple. (The ultimate irony is that had a casteless sasana preached Buddha’s teachings to depressed caste Tamils, a Tamil-Buddhist community could have been created peacefully. But many of the temples in this area belong to the Siyam Nikaya, which does not permit ordination to even Sinhalese outside of the Goigama caste).
There is a pattern in the conduct of these political monks and their politician backers. They seem to eschew legal channels, preferring lawless protests and gatherings and, where possible, political pressure. When courts give orders unpleasing to them, they use racist slurs against the judiciary. What Retired Admiral Sarath Weerasekara said explicitly, safe behind his parliamentary privileges rampart, others do using innuendos. Incitement is their game, combustion their goal, incendiary words their torch, power their end.
In their playbook, retaking North and East for Sinhala-Buddhism (which is the antithesis of what the Buddha taught) is axiomatically tied with visceral opposition to even minimum devolution. Parallel to this runs a refusal to acknowledge the very existence of the ethnic problem and denial/downplaying of past wrongs done to the minorities. In this parallel universe, Sinhala-Buddhists are eternally persecuted, if any community deserves consideration it is them, and whatever Governor Brownrigg did or didn’t do to defeat the 1818 rebellion has a bearing on how we relate to Tamils today.
Retired Admiral Weerasekara’s attempt to downplay the horror of Black July is a case in point, especially for the ludicrous ignorance/malicious denial of facts characterising this mindset. In his piece he tries to efface the horrors of Black July by erroneously stating that the “International Commission of Jurists declared that 50 out of 350 deaths were Sinhalese.” No, the ICJ did not. This is what it said in its only report on the subject, on page 25 of the ICJ Review No. 31 of December 1983: “Under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, acts of murder intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such are considered as acts of genocide. The evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhala rioters on the Tamils amounted to acts of genocide”.
Without Black July, the armed Tamil insurgency might not have grown into a full scale war. Forty years later, political monks and their politician backers are willing to risk another conflagration. Ruins from the past must be saved even at the cost of turning the future into ruins.
Patriotic fires and national ashes
Gotabaya supporters inhabited the more extreme end of the Rajapaksa alternate universe, a dark place where Hitler was a patriot and his enemies the real bad guys of the Second World War. Prominent examples were Wendaruwe Upali Thero who asked Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be a “little like Hitler” and Theshara Jayasinghe (chairman of Litro Gas when gas canisters exploded and the crippling gas shortage began) who was a proud fan-boy of Mein Kampf. Blinded by their own extremism, they didn’t see what Hitler’s “patriotism” did to Germany (let alone the rest of the world): destruction, defeat, occupation and partition. Little wonder that Gotabaya presidency ended in an unprecedented popular uprising, forcing the hero-leader to hide briefly in an underground bunker and then to flee via a secret tunnel.
Most Gotabaya fans still retain their warped vision of the world, going by Retired Admiral Weerasekara’s remarks. “In the Second World War we know how the British and US armies treated the Germans who surrendered. Most of them were tortured to death and starved to death.” He had to have got this information from a Holocaust-denying, neo-Nazi source for any ordinary history book would have told him that torturing, starving, shooting and gassing subject people to death was what the Nazis did as policy, especially and specifically in the Eastern Front. Before launching Operation Barbarossa, the German OKW (high command of the armed forces) issued three secret – and criminal – orders. The Barbarossa Decree permitted every officer in the occupied east “to perform execution(s) without trial without any formalities on any person suspected of having a hostile attitude towards the Germans” and to take “collective measures again residents in the areas” if “perpetrators of anti-German acts could not be found.” German soldiers who committed crimes against humanity in this theatre were exempted from criminal responsibility. The second order, Guidelines for the Conduct of the Troops in Russia, identified the operation as “the old battle of the Germanic against the Slavic people, of the defence of European culture against Muscovite-Asian inundation, and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism.” In other words a racial war of annihilation. Finally The Commissar Order mandated the murder of political commissars attached to the Soviet Army and any Bolshevised soldier taken prisoner. In the end, Hitler’s extremism would blind him not only to Germany’s real national interests but also his own political interests. Transporting ordinary Jews to extermination camps were given greater priority than transporting soldiers to the besieged Russian front. Extremism helped Hitler to gain power; it also destroyed him.
Had S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike not succumbed to the pressure of political monks and abrogated the Banda-Chelva Pact, we could have avoided a 30 year war. Similarly, failure to implement the 13th Amendment in full coupled with attempts to destabilise the North and the East on ethno-religious grounds could sow the seeds of a new conflict. But the political monks who try to propel themselves back to relevance via total opposition to the 13th Amendment are as blind as Herr Hitler to the consequences of their ideological obscurantism.
At a recent seminar, Omare Kassapa thero warned all 225 parliamentarians against “coming back to the village” if they don’t oppose the 13th Amendment (such thuggery is not Buddhism but anti-Buddhism). Professor Induragare Dhammarathana Thero said that implementing the 13th Amendment fully is tantamount to dividing the country. Since the amendment is a part of the constitution, does it mean that the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is a separatist document? Does he know that in 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that even federalism (which is a power sharing model far ahead of the 13th Amendment) is not tantamount to separatism? Is he aware that by stating that the implementation of the 13th Amendment should not be permitted, he is taking a stance that is effectively anti-constitutional?
This year, the Colombo High Court acquitted Sivalingam Arruran from the charge of conspiring to assassinate Gotabaya Rajapaksa and released him after 17 years in jail. Justice Navaratne Marasinghe said he would give his judgements regardless of the status of the people and the accused would be acquitted due to lack of evidence. The only evidence against him was a confession made under duress which the judge refused to accept.
This was justice at its best. But as Retired Admiral Weerasekara’s dangerous remarks about the ethnicity of the Mullaitivu magistrate demonstrates, what the lay and saffron Sinhala-Buddhists supremacists want from judges is not even handedness but bias. A judiciary that will always rule for Sinhala-Buddhists is their idea of an ideal judiciary.
Where this sort of thinking can lead is best demonstrated by what is happening in Israel currently.
Bibi Netanyahu’s new government has introduced a new law to undermine the Israeli judiciary – an override clause that will enable 61 parliamentarians to annual any Supreme Court decision that rules a new law unconstitutional. This will open the door not just to greater discrimination and displacement of Palestinians but also to the disembowelment of democracy and secularism in Israel. As Daniel Kaheneman, Nobel laureate and Jew, said, “This is the worst threat to Israel since 1948.” Supreme Court president Esther Hayut condemned the clause as “an unbridled attack on the judicial system, as if it were an enemy that must be attacked and subdued” dealing a “mortal wound” to democracy.
This is where Mahinda Rajapaksa would have led us had he won in 2015 and Gotabaya Rajapaksa would have led us had the aragalaya not disposed of him. Now their lesser followers want to lead us down the same disastrous path to ensure for themselves a slice of future power. The question is, are we going to allow these pyromaniacs to lay waste to whatever is left of Sri Lanka, again?