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Sri Lanka: Putting President’s Address to Nation in Perspective

It is a fact that in Sri Lanka there is a simmering problem of religious fundamentalism, which is an incubus that takes away the peace of mind of the majority of the people and disengages their attention from the more vitally important problems that the country is facing as a nation. 

by Rohana R. Wasala

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his address to the nation, on completion of his first term in office, on November 18, 2020, touched on a number of crucial points. Any less committed executive president would normally choose to fight shy of the foremost of these: the ever growing threat to the survival of the Sinhalese as a race, their country, their Buddhist religious culture, and their ancient archaeological heritage; he also made mention of the challenges of extremism and foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs. These are directly connected with national security. He called for investment rather than loans from friendly nations; the president also briefly outlined how the government is managing poverty alleviation, Covid-19 containment, and improvement of public administration. Excerpts from the president’s speech as gleaned from the media (some parts of the following are my own renderings - unmarked - from the Sinhala text):

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

‘A year ago, more than 6.9 million voters in this country elected me as your new President. It is no secret that the majority who voted for me then were Sinhalese. They rallied (round me) because they had legitimate fears that the Sinhala race, our religion, national resources and the heritage would be threatened with destruction in the face of various local and foreign forces and ideologies that support separatism, extremism and terrorism. The main appeal made by the people to me was to, Protect the Country. (There is overwhelming evidence to show that, throughout their very long history, the Sinhalese fought to protect the country from foreign invaders for all those who lived there; they have real patriots, not racists. - RRW)

‘During this short period of time we have taken steps to ensure the security of the country as requested by the people. The public should not have any apprehensions in this regard any longer. …..We have contained the danger of any kind of extremism raising its ugly head. There will be no room for indulging in drug trafficking or directing the underworld from within the walls of prisons as happened in the past.  The era of betraying our war heroes, of accepting any agreement for short-term gain, of allowing foreign forces to interfere in the internal affairs of the country, has come to an end…… I act on the principle that the post of president is not a position of privilege, but that it is an onerous responsibility….. An administration that protects the rights of all citizens regardless of racial or religious differences will be established during my tenure. I have always acted in accordance with the pledge I made in the sacred precincts of the Ruwalweli Maha Seya to protect the unitary status of the country and to safeguard and nurture the Buddha Sasana as per the Constitution, the supreme law of this country. I meet with an advisory council comprising leading Buddhist monks of the Three Chapters every month to seek their advice on matters pertaining to governance….It was because the people highly rated the manner in which I performed my duties within this period that they gave a two thirds majority in parliament. Public opinion is the perfect measure of my success, not the organized false propaganda spread by political opponents through the social media……...I am a person who has constantly faced challenges and successfully dealt with them. I am not afraid of empty threats. I am not used to running away from problems instead of solving them. I don’t want to please anyone in expectation of votes. What I want is to usher in an era of prosperity for the people as promised. I will not hesitate to take any step in accordance with my conscience in pursuit of that goal. I love my country. I am proud of my country. Teruvan Saranai!’

Post-independence politics in Sri Lanka has been characterised by a continuous struggle between exclusive minority communalism and inclusive majority nationalism, in the form of roughly thirty years of cold war between the two and another thirty years of open conflict, which ended with the defeat of armed separatism in 2009. Minority communalism has gradually acquired a religious dimension with intensifying fundamentalist Christian and Islamic subversive activities targeting Buddhists and Hindus; Islamists have been active particularly since the early 1970s. On top of this, Sri Lanka’s strategic geographic location has led global and regional superpowers to be actively engaged in exploiting these anti-majority movements to their advantage, thereby condemning Sri Lanka to constant political destabilization, economic stagnation, and deterioration of national security, sovereignty and independence.

It is a fact that in Sri Lanka there is a simmering problem of religious fundamentalism, which is an incubus that takes away the peace of mind of the majority of the people and disengages their attention from the more vitally important problems that the country is facing as a nation. It is being used as a weapon of destabilization by the powers that be that want to exploit Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian, lately Indo-Pacific, Ocean.  There are numerous fundamentalist Christian and Islamic sects that have been active in the country for many decades. For a long time we thought that they are not of the type that is likely to set the traditionally peaceful mainstream Christians and Muslims against Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils. But we were wrong. It is now clear that religious fundamentalists are a problem to the respective mainstream Abrahamic religions as well, giving rise to internecine doctrinal disputes within those communities. This particularly applies to the Muslim community, sections of which seem to have been radicalised under the influence of foreign sponsored Jihadist groups. It was reported that some young Muslims travelled to Syria to join the IS, and even got killed there. The monks said that they were approached for help by some persecuted Muslims who told them that  there were clashes between Jihadist and traditional Muslims, involving attacks on the mosques of the latter and even murders in the eastern province, where all three communities live though Muslims dominate.

Unlike in the case of traditional Christians and Muslims, the fundamentalist attitude to Buddhists and Hindus is not one of peaceful coexistence. They treat the latter as spiritually misguided subjects  ripe for conversion. The twofold fundamentalist  menace shows no sign of abating in the near future. The most virulent form of religious fundamentalism that is posing a formidable challenge to Sri Lanka’s intercommunal unity and peace right now is Islamist extremism. Activist Buddhist monks and their lay followers claim, allegedly based on evidence, that Jihadist agents have already infiltrated practically every department of life in the Sri Lankan state. (It is upto the authorities concerned to check the veracity of these claims.) The problem could worsen if politicians of both the main parties choose to follow the Three Wise Monkeys’ example: See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil where evil is seen and heard, but nothing is said against it. Unfortunately, successive governments have failed to grab the bull by the horns for reasons that are not far to seek.

An online Sinhala news website, Lankacnews, reported October 24, 2020 that, according to government sources, there was a possibility that state minister portfolios will be given to two of the nine MPs of the Opposition who voted for 20A. I, for one, originally believed that this was not true; the website could have been reporting an unfounded rumour or somebody’s fabrication. But, another online publication, Colombo Telegraph, which is usually critical of the present government, lamented in a headline: ‘20A Once Again Proved: Muslim Political Opportunists Are Up for Sale’. Meanwhile, the more authoritative and reliable website referred to at the beginning, Lankacnews, again reported (26) that Dayana Gamage, one of the nine SJB MPs who voted for 20A with the government, as saying that she would like to accept, if offered, the post of minister for child and women’s affairs though she did not support 20A in expectation of a ministerial portfolio or any other reward. This faintly hints at such offers having probably been made, after all. If that is true, isn’t it possible that the Muslim MPs were enticed with even bigger quid pro quos? The marked cordiality that minister Chamal and MP Rishad greeted each other with in that picture that shocked us all would not help neutralize such speculation. 

But there was absolutely no need for horse trading with questionable characters in the circumstances. What is the use of legislation passed with assistance from wheeler-dealer politicians who the majority consider duplicitous? (In the case of 20A, however, their help was not critical; their votes were actually redundant.) Besides, these MPs were (and still are) in a politically vulnerable situation of their own making in which they didn’t know (and still don’t know) which way to look. The latest news I read about Hakeem was that he wanted to launch an internal inquiry into why his four MPs violated his party’s policy of opposing 20A! This is in spite of the fact that he had given his four MPs tacit permission to vote for the amendment. National list MP Dayana Gamage of the SJB told a You Tube journalist that her leader Sajith Premadasa knew beforehand that she was going to vote for the amendment, for her husband had phoned him and told him the night before about her decision, though, later, like Hakeem in the case of his MPs, Premadasa threatened to take disciplinary action against her. There is no doubt that both Premadasa and Hakeem are partly trying to salvage the little prestige that they ever had and that they have now irretrievably lost. Be that as it may, until the government establishes clarity in this respect, negative speculations will not stop. More important, what about the just anger and frustration that the ambitious MPs of the SLPP and allied parties must feel at the danger of some crooks of the Opposition who worked for the downfall of Gotabaya and Mahinda getting ministerial positions that even they were denied?  

Doesn’t this mean that a government which has got an overwhelming popular mandate to rule by restoring law and order, national security, and political and economic stability (all of which had appallingly worsened under the previous administration) could not even take the first step towards that goal by abolishing the controversial 19A and bringing in the stopgap 20A, without having to buy over MPs or to engineer desertions from the Opposition benches? It is no ordinary mandate: it is a doubly confirmed mandate in the form of a president elected by 69.9  million voters and a prime minister leading an alliance that won 144 seats in parliament, the kind of huge mandate that is not likely to be repeated unless those who have been given that mandate act sensibly.  Whenever is Sri Lanka going to make headway as an independent sovereign nation?  Seventy-five percent of the voters are Sinhalese, who don’t cast their vote on a communal basis. They overwhelmingly account for the above people’s mandate. The passage of 20A with due amendments was what they wanted. If a few anti-majority extremists were allowed to be in a position to decide on its fate, who was to blame for that grievous anomaly? Wasn’t it the fault of the Sinhalese MPs elected by their own people to serve the nation whether they happen to sit in the Government or in the Opposition? (By ‘nation’, Sinhalese Buddhists and the sensible majority of the minorities mean all those who make Sri Lanka their home; that is what ‘people of Sinhale’ had implied before Western imperial powers destroyed the healthy social cohesion in the country through their ‘divide and rule’ stratagem; it is difficult if not impossible for religious and racial extremists among the minorities to understand, let alone appreciate, this fact. On the other hand, the unsophisticated Sinhalese cannot understand, nay, don’t know, that they are being misunderstood as racists and religious extremists in the outside world because of diabolical misinformation about them propagated through the English medium by the minuscule minority of  real racists and religious bigots among those opposed to them.)   

The appointment of two more ministers is constitutionally defensible thanks to a clause that is being retained in 20A as a salutary feature from the now abolished 19A, which nevertheless set limits on the numbers of cabinet and state minister portfolios respectively at 30 and 40. Currently, there are only 38 state ministers; so, there are two vacancies. The Yahapalana coalition rechristened itself as a national government in order to increase the number of ministers beyond these limits until practically every government MP was some sort of minister.  Awarding ministerial positions to corruptible MPs as mere political sinecures just to ensure their mechanical Ayes and Noes on appropriate occasions in the legislature is a despicable ruse that must be put an immediate end to. If it had to be resorted to particularly at this juncture (when the undeniable fact of the majority community being victimized by a few communalist opportunists is so evident), it was all due to there being not enough patriotic Sinhala MPs in the Opposition. Not that all Sinhala MPs in the Government are patriotic either. What I found as an independent observer living abroad trying to penetrate the real motives and concerns that drove them as revealed in their speeches and occasional acts during electioneering prior to the August 5 general election was that nearly all of them, with a very few exceptions, were unashamedly narrowly focused self-seekers worried only about their personal ‘political careers’, not about their mandatory obligations to the country/nation. 

But still there is time for them to think, and support, from wherever they are, the only technocrat that we have got since independence in the non-partisan Gotabaya Rajapaksa. I believe GR is free from political ambitions that might distort his vision and that might cause him to baulk at taking action when it is necessary but difficult to do so.  Their detractors do not denounce the Islamic terrorists who bombed some Catholic churches and hotels, and killed and maimed hundreds, but only insult the few innocent Buddhist monks who had been warning persons in authority in vain about what they were up to for years. But the truth cannot be denied that both Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa are real national heroes who have served the country in ways that no other leader has ever done since independence. Had it not been for them the separatists would have survived to this day. The country achieved a lot of economic development (highways and vastly improved infrastructure, particularly in the war-damaged north and east provinces, to mention just one example among many) for the country between 2009 to 2015 in the wake of the civil war and despite its disastrous legacy. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s quick response to the first signs of the Covid-19 affliction wiped it out completely before, unfortunately, it made a mysterious re-entry courtesy some unseen or unrevealed agency.  He has just completed one year in office amidst untold obstacles mounted by oppositional elements with communalistic and extremist affiliations sponsored by meddlesome foreign powers as well as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Communalistic behaviour is out of character for Sinhalese MPs, whatever their other defects.  However, for the time being, there is no alternative for them but to act as if they were communalists. Yet, on the contrary, right now, it looks as though most Sinhalese MPs in parliament are behaving like willing dupes of some Islamist extremists or their sympathisers; they seem to voluntarily assist the miscreants in their stratagems. Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kirielle has asked the Speaker in writing (as reported in the media October 31) that a special seating plan on the government side be made for the nine SJB members that he claims have been expelled from the party. Seven of these are Muslims, one Tamil, and one Sinhalese. In effect, the SJB is palming off the extremists that it fostered and used to prolong the Yahapalana misgovernance onto the government, in the apparent vicious hope that they initiate a cankerous relationship with it. Kirielle and the rest of the SJB hierarchy cannot be expected to take kindly to this criticism, but this is my gut feeling.

State minister Dayasiri Jayasekera has long been complaining that the SLFP MPs are not receiving the recognition they deserve within the government. Its leader, former president Sirisena, who was expecting an agrapalaya or an ultimate reward got nothing, but the PM was reported to be ‘creating’ a suitable post for him. Anyway, do these people worry as much about vital national issues including the Grim Reaper abroad in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic? Are the disgruntled SLFP’ers within government ranks trying to rock the boat? The President twittered November 1st that he was presented with a locally produced Lion Flag by state minister Dayasiri Jayasekera. A former provincial Governor Rajith Tennekoon has complained that the Lion in this flag is holding the sword by its blade, not by its hilt! and that this is a grave violation of the Constitution, because disfigurement/distortion of the Flag is a criminal offence. Probably, Tennekoon, who is another political activist, is exaggerating an apparent shortcoming in the drawing of the flag. A careful look at the image of the locally produced flag will reveal what I mean: the cross guard that separates the blade from the grip part of the handle of the sword is not properly drawn; it is as if it is not there. Having said this, it is a big defect that must be corrected. Is it a result of a genuine oversight or of an act of deliberate sabotage? Tennekoon’s demand that the circulation of this new local flag be immediately halted must receive the attention of the authorities. (It was later reported that Dayasiri Jayasekera acknowledged this error and took immediate action to rectify it.

The few communalists and religious extremists that there are will try to cripple the government whether they are in it or in the Opposition. However, it is clear that they get little support from the general public. Foreign interventionist powers are laying siege to the country, but they can’t do much damage if Sri Lankans manage to put their own house in order. In this all Sri Lankans have a collective responsibility. Each community must be united within it and act in solidarity with other communities as equal Sri Lankan citizens, and this must be reflected among the MPs in parliament. Partisan politics must be shelved while bracing to deal with the manifold crises before the nation. People of each faith must take responsibility for and deal with the extremists among them, without giving in to their extremist ideologies. If there is any terrorism, let the government security apparatus deal with that, as they did with the separatists. People of all faiths must be united as a single nation. It will be of the strongest support for overcoming religious fundamentalism in general and the Islamist terrorism in particular if Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus, who share similar peaceful nonviolent religious and cultural values, overcome artificial divisions and enmities of the past and decide to find refuge in each other as children of Mother Lanka against both overt and covert aggression and oppression. That will be the end of meaningless fratricidal separatism as well.  

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