“Have you learned nothing from history?” -Freud (The Future of an Illusion)
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Independence Day speech contained three main themes/ideas.
It reiterated national sovereignty, which, in today’s Sri Lanka, is a cover for Rajapaksa absolutism. The Siblings want a free-hand, and, as the impeachment-travesty demonstrated, they abhor even judicial restrictions.
The speech also indicated that devolution is not on. The Rajapaksas do not want even a minute-dilution of their power; they are as allergic to separation of powers as they are to devolution. Their current concern is how best to do to the 13th Amendment what was done to the 17th Amendment, the Chief Justice and judicial independence.
The President’s speech also contained a tacit acceptance of the anti-pluralist version of Lanka’s past and a coded endorsement of the Sinhala supremacist vision of Lanka’s future peddled by the JHU and the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
Remaking history as Sinhala Buddhist
The President began his speech with a brief history of Trincomalee and it was a Sinhala-Buddhist history. It need not have been. Had he wanted to, he could have used proven historical facts to highlight the rich pluralist past of Trincomalee. For instance, when he said, “the monks who brought higher-ordination from the ancient land of Siam also arrived at Trincomalee”, he could have added that those monks came as a result of a mission sent to Siam by the non-Sinhala monarch Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe (the second Nayakkara ruler of the Kandyan Kingdom). He could have also mentioned that this momentous event could not have happened without the cooperation of the Dutch because Trincomalee harbour was under Dutch control during that period. That one incident could have been used to showcase the rich pluralist history of Trincomalee and the momentous non-Sinhala contributions to the protection/promotion of Lankan Buddhism. Instead it was depicted as exclusively a Sinhala-Buddhist triumph.
At a BBS meeting in Matale (December 2012), the organisation’s titular head Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi Thero said “This is a Sinhala Buddhist country; we created its history, culture and civilisation”. The President could have torn this dangerous myth apart by allowing real history into his narrative. For instance, he could have mentioned that the same non-Sinhala Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe also built the inner temple of the Temple of the Tooth; or mentioned the ancient Koneswarm Kovil of Trincomalee
Alternatively he could have showcased the secular history of Trincomalee; such as its mention in Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographica; or its connections with the famed world-traveller Marco Polo.
The President’s decision to ignore the pluralist and the secular histories of Trincomalee and to give that multi-ethnic/religious city an exclusively Sinhala-Buddhist past was not an accident, as is demonstrated by his subsequent mention of the controversial Trincomalee Buddha statue: “You will recall what the LTTE Tigers subsequently did to gain control of this port and city that had become a nerve centre in the Indian Ocean. The Buddha Statue at Trincomalee was protected with barbed wire fencing round it. There was no peace or freedom even for the sacred statue”.
The Trincomalee Buddha statue story
The Trincomalee Buddha statue was not a creation of an ancient Sinhala king. It was installed, literally overnight, by the Three Wheeler Drivers Association of Trincomalee, in 2005. The pre-fabricated statue was transported and set up near the Trincomalee bus-stand under cover of darkness. The JHU was believed to have been the prime-mover behind this ‘guerrilla-style operation’ and a section of the Navy reportedly backed it.
Trincomalee city was already seething with ethno-religious tensions, stoked by the Tigers and by Sinhala-Buddhist extremists. The sudden appearance of a huge Buddha statue intensified these tensions to a fever-pitch. The Tamils called a protest-hartal; Tamil and Sinhala mobs clashed causing one death. The Muslims, who held the demographic balance, sided with the Sinhalese.
The sudden erection of the statue was not only an act of studied provocation. As it was installed on state-land sans permission, it was also illegal. As the Town hovered on the edge of calamity, the Attorney General filed a case, seeking judicial permission to remove all unauthorised religious structures in the town. The Trincomalee magistrate granted the permission.
The judicial order was loudly decried by Sinhala supremacists of all stripes; JHU monk-parliamentarians disrupted parliamentary proceedings. The Chief Incumbent of the China Bay Temple petitioned the Supreme Court, against the AG and the UDA. Eventually a bench headed by Chief Justice Sarath N Silva gave the statue legal approval.
The Trincomalee Buddha statue is thus not a symbol of consensual peace or ethno-religious harmony. It was installed for the most profane of reasons, by opportunistic and voracious Sinhala politicians (lay and ordained) who misuse Buddhism to gain/hold power. It is also a symbol of Sinhala supremacism and of a Sinhala as opposed to a Lankan – peace. The President’s needless endorsement of this divisive structure in his Independence Day speech is a coded-acceptance of the JHU/BBS vision of a Sinhala-supremacist Sri Lanka.
Sinhala supremacists, even at their most venomously anti-minority, do not think they are being racist. According to their worldview, the Sinhala-Buddhists can never be racists; racism is a malady which can affect only the minorities. Thus there is no cognitive-dissonance in the likes of BBS/JHU calling themselves anti-racists, while accusing their minority-victims of being racists. Or in the fact that the BBS’s Facebook page contains resounding rejections of racism, cheek-by-jowl with crude anti-minority ranting.
Or that President Rajapaksa rejected racism in a speech dripping with Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist symbolism.
Doing Business with Fanatics
The BBS, like its ideological progenitor the JHU, belongs to the global trend of temporal religious revivalism, which aims at making the state more religious and religion more political. This revanchist movement seeks to negate one of the most important legacies of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution the secularisation of politics.
In the post-Socialist world, religious over-determination had trumped ethnic-over-determination. Every major religion has staked out its ‘natural/hereditary’ territory and aims at claiming/reclaiming it for its beliefs and values whether it is the American evangelicals, the ultra-right Catholics in Africa/South America, Afghan/Pakistani Taliban, the BJP in India or the JHU/BBS in Sri Lanka. They promote a brand of anti-secular, religious nationalism/patriotism based on the trinity of race-religion-armed forces. They promote a ‘politics of salvation’ (in the here-and-now, rather than in after-life). Their version of democracy is rule of, by and for the ‘chosen people’, chosen on the basis of primordial identities.
Bringing religion into the public sphere is a dangerous venture, politically, economically and socially. Extremism knows no limits; its constant search for the ‘other’ can threaten the very existence of pluralist societies, such as Sri Lanka.
Currently the Rajapaksas might be puppet-masters and the BBS the puppet. The Siblings might be intending to use the BBS, as Washington thought to use Islamic extremism against the Soviets in Afghanistan; and the Mossad’s plan to use the Hamas to weaken the secular PLO. But it is a dangerous business, doing business with fanatics. Fanatics inhabit a different mental universe, a psychological-wasteland in which reason does not exist, excess is the norm and barbarity is permitted, against the ‘Inimical-Other’.
And once summoned, fanatics assume a life of their own, uncontrollable and uncontainable, even by their one-time masters.