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‘Sinhalese will be granted certain limited rights as long as they obey the Rajapaksas’

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“A society that has been centred on protecting, maintaining and furthering the oppression of another people produces and indeed rewards hate. This is not unique to Israel or Israelis – it’s human.” Emily L Hauser (Daily Beast – 6.4.2012)

April has been an educative month, so far. In the first week of April, white-vanning reached new levels of omnipotence and omnipresence.

The sudden disappearance and the equally unlooked for reappearance of Premakumar Gunaratnam and Dimuthu Attygala has compelled even the generally soporific opposition to bestir itself, and ask for a parliamentary debate on abductions.

In the second week of April, on Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s Day, seven Tamil houses in Dilithura (a village in Elpitiya, Galle) were looted and burnt, because one young Tamil man did not call a Sinhala soldier on leave, ‘sir’. Instead of arresting the perpetrators of this orgy of arson and looting, the police arrested two Tamil youths

In the third week of April came the ‘mosque-fracas’ in Dambulla, a political thunderbolt in a month known for its massive thundershowers.

Ostensibly the issue was the ‘illegal construction’ of a mosque on a land belonging to a temple. If this is the actual bone of contention, it is very much a law-and-order issue which could and should have been settled via courts of law. But instead of seeking legal redress, a demonstration with anti-Muslim overtones was organised, demanding the immediate demolition of the mosque.

The day before the demonstration the mosque was patrol-bombed. No perpetrators have been caught and “when contacted, police spokesman SP Ajith Rohana said he had no information about such an incident” (Sri Lanka Mirror – 20.4.2012).

The organisers decided to hold their demonstration on Friday, for maximum explosive effect. According to media reports, the demonstrators did not content themselves with demanding the removal of a supposedly unauthorised structure: “The protestors were calling for the demolition of the mosque claiming that Dambulla is a holy area exclusive to only Buddhists and that the mosque is situated in a sacred area” (Ceylon Today – 20.4.2012).

If this contention is accepted and the mosque is demolished, it will create a deadly precedent which will embolden religious extremists across Sri Lanka. And ere long, Sinhala supremacists will insist on the removal of all non-Buddhist religious edifices from areas already declared ‘sacred’; or demand that more areas be declared ‘sacred’ as a prelude to removing Christian, Hindu and Muslim places of worship from them.

Was the mosque a new one?

Was it constructed illegally?

Does the land on which it stands belong to the temple?

None of these questions can be answered because there was no impartial investigation, no due process, no judicial inquiry, no legal ruling. There was just mob power with a pinch of terrorism (what is the fire bombing of a place of worship but an act of terrorism?), a supine police and an accommodating government.

According to media reports, the Masjidul Khaira mosque “had been in existence since the 1960s and had been a place of worship for the Muslim residents in the area. Expansions and renovations to the mosque began recently….” (ibid). The demonstrators want the destruction of the entire mosque, and not just the recent extensions. They also intertwined the issue of ‘religious conversions’ with their anti-mosque campaign, thereby giving the issue a political provenance of national significance.

Is this just a flash in the pan incident?

Or an omen, presaging another battle, against another minority?

Sinhala supremacism and Rajapaksa supremacism are two sides of the same coin. Most Sinhala supremacists support Rajapaksa Rule while the Rajapaksas accepts the core beliefs of Sinhala supremacism. Sinhala supremacists need the Rajapaksas to stay in the game while the Rajapaksas need Sinhala supremacism to give their Familial project an acceptable raison d’être.

Without the Rajapaksa Siblings, Sinhala supremacism will cease being politically relevant and Sinhala supremacists will find themselves relegated to the fringes of the polity. Similarly without the politico-ideological cover provided by Sinhala supremacism, the Rajapaksa project will become revealed as nothing more than an attempt by a megalomaniac family to stay in power forever.

The relationship between Sinhala supremacists and the Rajapaksas is thus not just mutually beneficial; it is also a necessary precondition for the political survival and prosperity of both perties. But maintaining that relationship requires each side to make accommodations, to concede, to take a step back, to support, condone or at least refrain from opposing measures which are outside its agenda (and perhaps even somewhat deleterious to it).

The story of Gen. Sarath Fonseka is an excellent case in point. Gen. Fonseka was a Sinhala supremacist. Indeed he was the first Army Commander to advocate and justify a Sinhala First agenda openly. And as a true believer he played a key role, together with Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, in giving the Fourth Eelam War a Sinhala supremacist shape, tone and tenor.

For most Sinhalese he was a hero second only to President Rajapaksa.

The Rajapaksa-Fonseka fallout was not beneficial to the Sinhala supremacist cause; it was an internecine battle the Sinhala supremacists did not desire and could have done without. But pushed to make a choice between the Rajapaksas and Gen. Fonseka, the absolute majority of Sinhala supremacists opted for the former, forcing the latter to moderate his stance and locate himself in a more centrist position politically, in order to gain a degree of electoral relevance.

The Rajapaksas too would make minor concessions to satisfy their core-constituency, so long as these measures do not interfere with their political project or their personal lifestyle. Thus, in the contestation between a chief prelate and a Rajapaksa offspring on night races in Kandy, the Buddhist priest lost. But where the needs, interests, whims and fancies of the Family are not involved, the Rajapaksas would be quite accommodative towards Sinhala supremacists.

Though the relationship between the Rajapaksas and the Sinhala supremacists is of critical importance to both parties, it is not a relationship of equals. It is the Rajapaksas who are in command, who have the upper hand, who have the final say.

In his epic poem Wavuluwa (The Saga of the Bat), the outstanding Sinhala poet of the previous century, Rapiel Tennakoon, contended that the relationship between a Sinhala ruler and Buddhism can take two forms: either the ruler uses Buddhism to further his own political project; or the ruler, as a true believer, genuinely tries to be guided by Buddhism.

Mr. Tennakoon’s example for the second model is King Sirisangabo who gave up his kingdom and eventually his life to remain true to his Buddhist principles, a course of action the poet so obviously disapproves of. He contrasts this with the conduct of King Dutugemunu who “rode the (Buddha) sasana to destroy Tamil power” (“sasuna pita nega, Demala bala binda”). Here the ruler is the controller, the rider, the decider; religion is merely the vehicle he uses to achieve his temporal objective.

That is the model the Rajapaksas seem to be pursuing vis-à-vis Sinhala supremacists. SWRD Bandaranaike tried it first with ‘Sinhala Only’ but he was unable to control the forces he unleashed and was ultimately destroyed by them. Mr. Bandaranaike was a political liberal at heart, who took the opportunist’s path of using Sinhala supremacism for his electoral ends, hoping that he would be able to rein it in once in power. He failed spectacularly.

The Rajapaksas are not political liberals; their despotic political vision dovetails perfectly with the revanchism integral to Sinhala supremacism. They both hark back to a past, to a county ruled by Sinhala monarchs with absolute powers. Thus Sinhala supremacism and Rajapaksa supremacism can and do work in tandem in general, even though when it comes to a choice, major or minor, Rajapaksa supremacism wins hands down.

Was last week’s Dambulla fracas a Sinhala supremacist project which the Rajapaksas acceded to, in a quid-pro-quo spirit? Or was it part of a Rajapaksa effort to create new conflicts and new enemies to divert Sinhala attention from growing hunger pangs? Or was it a bit of both, a project in which both sides have a stake, a project on which both sides can and do work together?

Sinhala supremacism presupposes the acceptance of Sri Lanka as a land sacred to Buddhism with Sinhala Buddhists as its chosen people. According to this vision, minorities, including Sinhala Christians, are not co-owners of Sri Lanka but guests in it. They have no inalienable rights and their treatment depends on whether they accept their unequal status willingly or not.

Under Rajapaksa rule we are all subjects, including the chiefest of the Buddhist prelates. To be a good subject, Sinhala Buddhists have to submit to Rajapaksa dictats, willingly and unquestioningly. The ones who do not, like Gen. Fonseka, are immediately branded a traitor and hounded out of the patriotic community.

To be a good subject, non-Sinhala Buddhists have to submit to Rajapaksa dictats and accept Sinhala Buddhist dominance.

The Tamils have been put in their place. Now it is the turn of the Muslims.

Monsters cannot be appeased, because they are maximalist by nature; maximalism helps make a monster and no monster is complete without it. The Tigers began their bloody march towards sole-representative status in a gradualist manner, targeting one competitor at a time, always offering bogus excuses to justify their violence.

So the TELO was attacked because it was pro-Indian and wallowed in criminality; the EPRLF was attacked because the EPRLF attacked first. There was always a ‘reason’, whether the target was an individual or an organisation. This approach prevented the Tamils from seeing the nature of the danger and creating a broad unity to defeat it in time.

The future targets believed that they were safe so long as they avoided the mistakes attributed by the Tiger to the current victim. It was an illusion the Tiger did nothing to dispel and perhaps even encouraged deliberately. It was useful, because it effectively concealed a fundamental truth – that under Tiger rule no other organisation or entity will be permitted to exist, except in the capacity of a LTTE appendage, that total and unquestioning obedience to every Tiger demand will be the basic precondition for survival.

The Rajapaksas seem to be travelling in an analogous direction. A Sinhala supremacist, Rajapaksa supremacist Sri Lanka might be marginally more accommodative than a Tiger Eelam – it will not expel all minorities and kill/drive out all opponents, as the Tigers did. Minorities will be permitted to live so long as they accept their status as second class subjects who must submit to not just Rajapaksa dictats but also Sinhala Buddhist demands. Sinhalese will be granted certain limited rights so long as they obey the Rajapaksas.

That seems to be the lesson of April.

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