In the Springtime of Tyrants (Original Title)
By Tisaranee Gunasekara (Colombo Telegraph)
“Civic passivity and willed blindness were the preconditions for the triumph of National Socialism….” ~ Fritz Stern Leo Baeck Lecture
This June marks four years of Aluthgama and three months of Kandy. The perpetrators of Aluthgama were never prosecuted. Some perpetrators of Kandy are under arrest, though not charged. The fear that they would be released on bail with no case being filed is a realistic one.
In Aluthgama and in Kandy, ordinary crimes were reinterpreted in ethno-religious terms and used as justifications for ethno-religious violence. Monk Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara played an authorial role in this transformation. He did so openly in Aluthgama, at a public meeting where he made an incendiary speech, summoning the faithful to arms. He did so covertly in Kandy when he visited the funeral house of the Sinhala lorry driver killed by three Muslims in an act of extreme road rage. In both places, hours after he appeared on the scene, the violence began.
Today Monk Gnanasara is behind bars, though not for inciting religious violence or causing murder and mayhem. He is yet to be charged with such crimes. The reason for this governmental inaction is not the absence of evidence but the absence of political will. The Rajapaksas had no intention of prosecuting the saffron-robed rabble-rouser for Aluthgama; after all, he was their man doing their work. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government does not dare to prosecute him for Aluthgama or Kandy; they fear extremist backlash. Though elected to challenge extremism of every variety, the government’s preferred policy is a cross between appeasement and acting the ostrich.
So Monk Gnanasara was found guilty of a relatively less serious crime – that of threatening Sandya Ekenligoda, the wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekenligoda, outside Homagama court premises. Before he threatened Ms. Ekneligoda, he ran amok inside the court, berating and insulting the magistrate. The magistrate filed a case against him which is still being heard.
The fate of Monk Gnanasara reveals the degree of progress made since January 2015 as well as its limitations. Under Rajapaksa rule, Monk Gnanasara could have threatened Ms. Ekenligoda (or anyone else) to his heart’s content; he could have run amok in any courthouse of his choice. Nothing would have happened to him. Ms. Ekeneligoda’s courage and commmitment made the case against the monk possible, but it is necessary to bear in mind that the case was filed and conducted by the AG’s Department. In his remarks on the day of sentencing, the state counsel quoted Martin Niemöller to highlight the dangers of impunity and the importance of drawing lines. Had the AG’s Department tried to act in a similar manner towards Monk Gnanasara during the Rajapaksa years, the saffron-robed arsonist would have invaded the department with his lay and ordained goons, with total impunity.
Political and moral cowardice is a hallmark of this government. But it did restore judicial independence and allowed the AG’s Department to prosecute Monk Gnanasara. It’s much less than what the government promised and what we expected. But it is something, compared to what went before.
In May 2014, the then AG ordered the courts to discharge two men accused of raping a mentally disabled woman in 2010. “The Court had earlier ordered a DNA test to be done because the woman….had subsequently given birth. The test has confirmed that the DNA of one of the suspects had matched with that of the child. Meanwhile the Attorney General had instructed the Magistrate to release the two suspects Susantha Vijitha Bandara and Dharmasiri Bandara from the case. The Attorney General had asked the court to inform him within 14 days of what action had been taken.”
The two suspects were not men of renown themselves. But they would have had patrons in very high places. Why else would the AG move in a manner so contrary to all norms of justice? He would have done so, because his political masters ordered him to do so. And his political masters were the Rajapaksas in general, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa in particular (since he brought the AG’s Department under his direct control in 2010).
This horrendous miscarriage of justice in a non-political case, where the victim was especially deserving of protection and common kindness given her mentally disabled condition, was indicative of the way the AG’s Department and the courts were made to function under Rajapaksa rule. Thanks to the unforgivable incompetence and delinquency of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe, that past is where Sri Lanka is headed right now.
Habits of Amnesia
Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thero was one of the very few Buddhist monks who spoke out against the anti-Muslim violence in Kandy, while the fires were still raging. Recently he used Buddha’s teachings to enlighten and inform another ‘hot-button’ topic – how the end of the long Eelam War should be commemorated. He did so by asking a rhetorical question – what was Buddha’s teaching about war victory? – and answering with a stanza from the Sukha Vagga (Happiness) in the Dhammapada.
“Victory breeds hatred in the conquered. The defeated live in sorrow. Giving up both victory and defeat, the appeased live in peace.”
Sri Lanka could have based her post-war policy on this stanza alone, and gone a long way towards reconciliation. Instead, it did the opposite; a policy of triumphalism was adopted and every possible humiliation was heaped on the defeated; domination rather than reconciliation was the desired goal.
This kind of crass triumphalism will play a key role in the Rajapaksa comeback campaign, especially if Gotabhaya Rajapaksa becomes the SLPP’s presidential candidate. Already Mr. Rajapaksa has ordered the revival of umbrella organisations of former soldiers and their families (Ranaviru Sansada), according to a report in Lankadeepa. Under a Gotabhaya presidency, every pigmy step taken by this government towards reconciliation will be abandoned. The occasional Ifthar breakfast or Nallur pooja notwithstanding, Sri Lanka will officially embrace Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism and the practice of targeting this or that minority whenever the government is in need of an enemy.
When past is poised to become the future, remembering is of vital importance. In the immediate aftermath of Aluthgama, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was moved to unbridled anger. The cause of this anger was not the violent attacks on Muslims in Aluthgama. That he dismissed as a ‘most minor incident.’ His rage was directed at a peaceful protest by Muslims against Aluthgama. “During the conflict period the LTTE killed people irrelevant of their ethnicity. Certain groups that didn’t dare stage a single hartal campaign during the LTTE period have now started them. Large scale (Maha loku) hartal campaigns are organised for even the most minor incidents.”
When asked about the role of Bodu Bala Sena in Aluthgama, in the immediate aftermath of Aluthgama, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa blamed Islamic terrorism: “If you go through a recent speech I made at the Kothelawala Defence Academy, you will see that I spoke of various potential threats to the country and one of it was Islamic terrorism. I spoke of the possibility. Even at that time many Muslims politicians irresponsibly tried to blame me without understanding what I was talking about or the realities.”
That was how the Rajapaksas reacted to anti-minority violence while in power. That is the way they will react to anti-minority violence once back in power.
‘War heroes’ will be another key trope in the Rajapaksa comeback effort. During the Rajapaksa years, the veneration of ‘war-heroes’ in the abstract went hand in hand with neglect and even humiliation of flesh-and-blood soldiers. While politicians sang their praise from platforms, the actual soldiers were forced to sweep sidewalks, uproot weeds and clean city parks.
In 2014, Brigadier Deshapriya Gunawardane, of Weliweriya and White Flag ignominy was rewarded with a diplomatic appointment. When questioned, the military spokesman argued that the posting was a reward for his war-time services. The same government in the same time decided to suspend salary payments to disabled soldiers, even though these soldiers had been disabled by fighting in the Eelam Wars. It is apposite to remember that this decision was taken by an institution functioning under Defence Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Eventually, 292 disabled soldiers, representing the interests of around 6000 disabled colleagues, were forced to file a case in the Appeal Court against the government’s decision to suspend their salary payments arguing that according to military regulations, their salaries must be paid until they reach the retirement age.
That was how Rajapaksa concern for the majority community and the minority communities worked in practice. When a horrendous past threatens to become the future, amnesia is not just a sickness; it is a crime.
Shades of things done and not done
Politico-moral cowardice is in the genes of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. Monk Gnanasara is not the only bully the administration fears. The government succumbed to pressure from fundamentalist Muslim clerics and shelved the MMDA reforms, despite the crying need to redress the egregious practices sanctioned by the MMDA, especially child marriage. The government gave into pressure from Buddhist monks and the Catholic hierarchy and shelved a law allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest and where the mother’s life is in danger. It succumbs every time the GMOA or the private bus operators flex their muscles. It doesn’t have the courage of conviction because it has no convictions.
The government’s support base consists, in the main of political and religious moderates rather than extremists, social liberals rather than conservatives. By succumbing to extremist pressure tactics, the government is causing this base to haemorrhage. As moderates turn away from the government and politics, the door opens even wider for a new extremist surge, led by its organic leaders, the Rajapaksas.
Jean Lacouture wrote that André Gide’s cry, ‘Families, I detest you’ is “a slogan that ought to be framed and hung in every presidential palace in the Third World.” In Sri Lanka too, now more than ever. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa runs, he will do so as the representative of the Rajapaksa Inc. If he wins, it will be because he has the full backing of Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is not a case of bad Gotabaya vs. Good Mahinda. This is a familial project, and whatever the internal discontents, in the end, the Rajapaksa family will opt for the candidate best able to return the Rajapaksa family to power.
The SLFP seemed to have metamorphosed from a Bandaranaike party into a Rajapaksa party during the Rajapaksa years. There is no SLFP vote anymore. There is a Rajapaksa vote. Going by electoral statistics, it could be around 38% to 43% of the electorate. The SLFP came into being and lived most of its life as a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist and socially conservative party. The Chandrika-years marked not a change but an anomaly. The base went along with the party leadership but its core-beliefs remained unchanged. In Mahinda Rajapaksa, the SLFP base found a leader who is akin to them, a leader who gave voice to their innermost desires and fears.
Maithripala Sirisena took the official party, but not the base. In the immediate aftermath of his presidential victory, he could have rebuilt the SLFP as a modern social democratic party. He chose not to. The time for such a transformation has come and gone. President Sirisena might think that by launching regular diatribes against a wide variety of targets he can win back the SLFP base, but it is an illusion. With his antics, he will merely destroy his own legacy and weaken Lankan democracy, perhaps fatally.
We live in the springtime of tyrants. Authoritarianism is once more in fashion, the direction in which the world is moving. This tendency has been enabled by democracy’s inability to successfully address basic living condition issues. Democracy is, in the final analysis, a numbers game, a matter of straightforward math. That is why in times of growing economic distress and hopelessness, candidates who appeal to the baser instincts of an electorate has a better chance of victory. The solution is not to push more people into the hands of would-be autocrats waiting in the wings. The solution is to do something in the here and now to improve living conditions of the masses and, through such concrete actions, reignite hope of a better tomorrow.