I woke up to the headline that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had appointed Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara, Head of the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS), nationally one of the most divisive and internationally one of the most notorious of Sri Lankan personalities, as the Chairperson of the newly-minted Presidential Task Force on One Country, One Law.
One couldn’t have thought of a worse and more surreal choice. No US President, not even Trump, appointed the head of the Ku Klux Clan as Chairman of a Presidential Panel on Racial Equality. Venerable Gnanasara’s unsuitability for the post is manifestly evidenced by his speeches, most memorably at Aluthgama, and his actions, including his conduct in a Court of law, and the invasion of a Ministry in search of some transgressor or transgression. Going by media reports, Ven. Gnanasara was mentioned in the voluminous report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter bombing as a factor for the radicalisation of Muslims.
Racism, not nationalism
There is consistency and continuity here. As Secretary/Defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke approvingly at the opening of the BBS Political Academy. In remarks to the Daily Mirror, he said he couldn’t disagree with much of what the BBS said.
The optics of this appointment impact negatively on the international image of the Sri Lankan Government. It could kill off GSP Plus and tighten things at the UNHRC. Sri Lanka could lose us the support of the Islamic nations, the OIC. Domestically, it amounts to an ideological declaration of war against the Muslim and Catholic/Christian communities. Taken together with the consistently negative Presidential signalling on the 13th Amendment, this could take us further down the road to former Yugoslavia.
Certainly the regime’s kowtowing to China over the fertiliser consignment, the sell-offs of strategic national economic assets to US and Indian corporates and the unprecedented photo-op of President Gotabaya with a controversial Indian billionaire, when taken together with the Gnanasara appointment, prove that what is at work here is not patriotism at all, but ultranationalism, and that is not about caring for the majority of actual Sinhala-Buddhist working people or else the ‘backbone of the nation’, the Sinhala peasants would not have been subject to shock therapy and be facing destitution. It really isn’t any kind of nationalism; it is simply ethno-religious chauvinism and racism.
Is the President dog-whistling in order to swing Sinhala voters at a referendum on the new constitution which will entrench his rule and concretise his hegemonic vision of a post-war order? Then again, why would any leader lose for himself, his Government the ruling party, the Muslim and Catholic votes, having lost Tamil votes, and now the votes of the peasantry in the Sinhala rural heartland as well as the urban consumers, unless he and his inner circle do not have an electoral end-game in mind?
Excerpts from The Gnanasara gambit and peasant power published in FT