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Checkmate, Rajapakse! The UN report, militarism and public religion in Sri Lanka

In the Hague, the International Criminal Court had issued arrest warrants on Libyan leader Gaddafi and his son for crimes against humanity. Both, whom the emergent Rajapakse dynasty in Lanka had been cultivating, had their assets frozen.

9 June 2011,/By Darini Rajasingham Senanayake

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of I –The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayvam

Many things in the international arena came together to cast a shadow on the second anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lanka Government’s victory over the LTTE, after three decades of war on May 19, 2011. The United Nations had recently released a semi-official report on alleged war crimes which implicated both parties to the war and laid the groundwork for future action against the Government of Sri Lanka and what remains of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In neighhouring Tamil Nadu, India, the newly elected Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jeyaram urged Delhi for a war crimes trial of Mahinda Rajapakse, president of Sri Lanka, and subsequently passed a special resolution calling for economic sanctions against the regime.

In the Hague, the International Criminal Court had issued arrest warrants on Libyan leader Gaddafi and his son for crimes against humanity. Both, whom the emergent Rajapakse dynasty in Lanka had been cultivating, had their assets frozen. Meanwhile, protests were escalating in-country due to the spiraling cost of living and a sense that the peace dividend has been denied the working-classes who most deserved it, signaling the waning of the southern polity’s extended honeymoon with the Rajapakse regime for ending the war with the LTTE. The shooting to death of a protesting worker in the Katunayaka Free Trade Zone by the police, drawing legitimacy from the Emergency Regulation still in force, solidified public disaffection. The killing and the subsequent army take-over of the FRZ underlined the erosion of democratic space through ongoing militiarization.

Checkmate in chess and other Chaturanga board game occurs when one player’s king is threatened with capture (check ) , or under direct attack: The player who is checkmated loses the game. If a king is under attack but the threat can be met, then the king is said to be in ‘check’, but is not in checkmate. If a player is not in check but has no legal move (that is, every possible move would put him in check), the result of the game is stalemate and the game ends in a draw but is effectively a loss for the stalemated player. In practice, most players resign an inevitably lost game before being checkmated since it is considered bad etiquette to continue playing in a completely hopeless position.

The semi official UN report had put the President of Sri Lanka comprehensively in ‘check’. To survive he will need to transform his game. Although a stalemate exists at this time the writing is on the wall and the direction of the game clear. The UN report has also put some members of the ruling Rajapakse family, US citizens subject to US jurisdiction, in ‘checkmate’. The groundwork for further action including for command responsibility against the regime is in place and this fact has not been lost on the professor of law who is the Foreign Minister.

Command Responsibility, established in the Hague and the Geneva Conventions, pertains to accountability in war crimes. It establishes that though soldiers of the armed forces and paramilitary units are directly responsible for the war crimes committed first-hand, the military officials who ordered and supervised these acts are also guilty, along with the head of state who controlled the military units. The Government of Sri Lanka has strenuously avoided the UN Secretary General’s repeated requests for a response to the semi-official UN report. Perjury may become an issue later.

In the aftermath of the semi-official UN report, Foreign Minister G.L Peries rushed off to New Delhi for support. While there, he was read the Riot Act and required to sign a statement that called for the repeal of Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Meanwhile the United States and European Union assured the government that ‘regime change’ was not on the agenda at this time (but perhaps later, depending on how the Rajapakse regime’s game evolves). Right now the Western powers have their hands full with the Arab Spring, but the Tamil diaspora and international civil society seem focused and determined that justice be done at war’s end in Sri Lanka. GoSL has also asked or time and space for reconciliation – but it will need to be genuine. Official ‘truths’ generated by State propaganda machines are now being challenged by non-official truths, presented by ordinary people and easily disseminated through the new media technologies, as amply demonstrated by the Arab Spring.

In short, the wheel of international justice, like the wheel of samsara, turns slowly but surely. The protests by university dons and students against government policies, low wages and the militarization of higher education, as well as protests by women workers in the Free Trade Zones against a private sector pension scheme, herald the gathering storm. While the government claims it cannot afford to pay university dons a decent wage, it has spent billions on vainglorious military celebrations and kitsch Vesak festivities that constitute a distortion of the doctrine, spirit and practice of Buddhism, with its core values of non violence, tolerance and simplicity. It is now evident to the citizenry that the long awaited peace dividend of post-war economic growth has been gobbled up by the ruling political elite, and the jambo Cabinet of Ministers while the laboring masses are still footing the bill for the excesses of Rajapakse’s egoism, manifest in funds spent on foreign public relations companies and extravaganzas like the Commonwealth Games bid, SAARC beach games in Hambantoa, 3 new international cricket stadiums, Bollywood awards nights, state subsidized military businesses and a swollen and costly military that provides illusory comfort in the face of the semi-official UN report hanging like the Sword of Democlese over the Rajapakse Triumvirate.

To avoid ‘checkmate’ the regime will need to resolve the root causes of the ethnic conflict and learn to share power with the minorities at the center and in the regions. Enabling or disabling genuine reconciliation, democracy and power-sharing in Lanka will be the litmus test of the international community’s resolve. The statement signed in New Delhi called for “genuine reconciliation”, signaling that Delhi was not sold on the “Senate” idea in lieu of genuine devolution of power to the north and east. Minimally, the already existing articles for devolution of power to the provinces need to be implemented in the north and east within the next six months. Currently military rule and occupation continues unabated and local governance is effectively in the hands of the military

Singapore, Sri Lanka and Minority Question

Mr. Tharman Shanmugratnam, of Ceylon Tamil immigrant descent was appointed Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore in May 2011 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, although 78% of the population is ethnic Chinese and the South Asian, largely Tamil, population is less than 9%. Independent Singapore’s first Foreign Minister was also a Ceylon Tamil. Singapore’s first PM, Lee Kuan Yew, who had great respect for Rajaratnam (after whom the Rajaratnam School of International Studies is named) recently dismissed the Rajapakse government in Sri Lanka as racist

Sri Lanka has never had a President or Prime Minister from a minority community. Presently, the United States has a president from the African American community, and India a prime minister from the Sikh minority, which had also waged armed struggle against the Indian state.

If President Rajapakse and Professor G.L Peries are serious about sharing power at the center they should request current Prime Minister D.M Jayaratne to resign and replace him with a citizen from a minority community, preferably a Tamil because it is this community that has suffered the most due to state discrimination, the root cause of the war. The new PM would need to be a person of integrity, intellect and moral stature. Needless to say this would rule out the Tamil warlords morphed into stooges who currently support the regime. The current Prime Minister, D.M Jayaratne, has demonstrated that he is not of the requisite caliber for this office in a country recovering from political and cultural conflict and deeply in need of reconciliation. For instance, school children in Jaffna were forced to sing the national anthem in Sinhala in his presence on December 26, 2010, despite protests, displaying a singular insensitivity to the need for reconciliation and respect for cultural diversity. He also claimed, in Parliament a few months ago, that there were LTTE camps in India in an attempt to justify extending the Emergency Regulations, but was corrected by the Indian Government: while at an International Women’s Day event in March this year he claimed that there was no discrimination against women in any sphere in Sri Lanka – even though women have less than 5 percent representation in government. It is indeed time that women and minority communities in the country were enabled to share power at the center as well as govern themselves in the provinces where they are the majority linguistic community.

Of Guns and Robes: Securing and Salving a Conscience?

On the second anniversary of the defeat of the LTTE, in May 2011, rather than declaring a national reconciliation month, a War Heroes or Ranaviru month was declared by the regime. The second anniversary was also channelized into the celebration of Vesak and the Sambuddhathva Jayanthi, with billions spent on construction of a Buddhist Information Center. The President engaged himself in a merry-go-round of public religious activity.

He inaugurated various religious projects such as the Buddhist Museum in Kandy, visiting the Mahanayakes of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, and gave alms to 500 monks at Gangaramaya temple in Colombo. The Vesak celebrations and decorations organized by the army, navy and air force is a sign of the militarization of public religion in Lanka. Buddhism seems increasingly in need of rescue from its self-appointed guardians – the Rajapakse regime.

Professor Gananath Obeysekere, one of Sri Lanka’s foremost scholars of Buddhism and Comparative Religion, has written about the Conscience of Duttugamunu who (like Emperor Asoka), being troubled after the killing of the Tamil king Elara, felt compelled to make amends and atone for the violence and suffering. But the public religious rituals that President Rajapakse indulged in seemed to reflect a still troubled conscience, more akin to that of Macbeth. For while LTTE terrorism has been wiped out, state terrorism continues in many forms, given immunity by the ER and the PTA. The extravagant, grandiose and kitsch celebrations this May lacked a sense of perspective and the true spirit and practice of Buddhism – ahimsa or non-violence, annicha (impermanence – including of power) and simplicity. The official Vesak celebrations, with the stamp of the armed forces seem to characterize a “political religion”, mobilized for the personal political gain of a ruler who wishes to project himself as a God King for having “defeated terrorism in the country”.

Religion has always been used and abused by nationalists and self-declared liberators of the ‘wretched of the earth’, in ways often contrary to the spirit and practice of their doctrines. Nowhere is this fact more evident than in Sri Lanka where the Buddhist principles of Ahimsa, Metta and Karuna has been twisted, commercialized, vulgarized and marketed beyond recognition by official public and politico-religious authorities and nationalists – also manifest in the building of ever more grandiose stupas and statues, extravagant Bodhi and pahan pujas to celebrate war victory, rather than considering the victims of violence and meditating on Samsara. As Osama bin Laden used Islam to promote violence, Mahinda Rajapakse uses Buddhism to legitimize continued militarization, occupation and oppression of minorities and the poor. Osama Bin Laden wanted to create a religious state, but the uprisings in the region have challenged both his and the western Orientalist version of Islam. Buddhists in Lanka will need to challenge the current construction, use and abuse of Buddhism by politicians.

Beyond the public religious nationalism of the Rajapakse regime and its celebration of the Sambuddhathva Jayanthi, there is another kinder, gentler and truer history of religion in Lanka where Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians; Sinhalese and Tamils have co-existed and shared gods, and one might add, goddesses for centuries before the birth of the modern state and the invention of ‘religion’ as a form of nationalism in South Asia. Ironically, Sinhala nationalists who have become self-appointed ‘protectors’ and ‘guardians’ with guns to defend the Sri Lanka regime’s version of public religion have actually internalized colonial constructions of “Protestant Buddhism”.

‘The past is another county’

The scholar Dr. Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne, has suggested that “the legacy of Sinhala Buddhism can be rescued from the forces of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism”. In current national public religious discourse in Sri Lanka there is the suggestion that (Theravada) Buddhism belongs primarily and almost exclusively to the Sinhala people, appointed as guardians of the faith (since Hindusim is today the dominant religion in India and Nepal, the birthplaces of Buddhism). The Mahawamsa, an ancient chronicle subject to various readings and misreading by Sinhala patriots was to be the vehicle of the parochial projection of Rajpakse’s greatness as the protector and promoter of religion. The three new chapters to be added to the Mahawamsa would now have to include the UN report’s statement on “credible allegations of War Crimes’, against which Rajapkse Bros. Inc. has sought to protect itself with hyper-militarization of the country and invented traditions of public religion.

Buddhism, a ‘great world religion’, ’however, cannot be that easily parochialized to serve the interests of political ambitions. Buddhism is transnational and pan-ethnic in character, spirit and practice. It does not belong to Sinhala nationalists or the Rajapakse regime. Indeed it is time that true Buddhists rescue and reclaim the spirit and practice of Buddhism from the nationalist political discourse.

Until the release of the UN report, the Rajapakse ruling family had aspired to be Lanka’s rulers in perpetuity, having awarded themselves carte blanche as a reward for the defeat of the LTTE and buoyed by subsequent victories in presidential, national and local government elections. Hence the speedy and surreptitious removal of Presidential term limits via the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 2010. But these victories were delivered by a public relieved that the war was over and aided by the fact that the opposition United National Party is in tatters due to the lack of internal democracy under Ranil Wickramasinghe who has lost too many elections but refuses to retire. The JVP has emerged as the only opposition party able to challenge the Rajapakse war machine, now increasingly directed at the southern polity.

In the absence of genuine power-sharing and reconciliation with minorities and civil society uneasy lies the head that wears an increasingly hollow crown in Sri Lanka – hence the current excess of militarism and public religion. For,

Within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and mocking at his pomp,


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