The reaction of a downtrodden majority
Posted on November 24th, 2019

by C.A. Chandraprema Courtesy The Island

November 23, 2019, 7:46 pm


* UNP’s Vibheeshana role
* Communalism in minority politics
Opportunity for reset in majority-minority relations

What we just experienced was undoubtedly the most eventful week since January 2015. The people of Sri Lanka have voted to end a five year long nightmare. Gota’s victory was not unexpected, but the sheer magnitude of the victory certainly was. What we saw was the reaction of a down trodden, persecuted, humiliated majority community to all the suffering and indignities they had undergone for the past five years. The events that took place in Sri Lanka between January 2015 and November 2019 will be a valuable case study for all multi-ethnic, multi-religious nations as to what could happen when the majority community of a nation is used as a doormat by the minority communities.

Over the past five years, UNP politicians went out of their way to insult and humiliate the Sinhalese and especially the Sinhala Buddhists. The Tamils and Muslims reacted positively to such Sinhala politicians. The way to curry favour with the minorities and to obtain their votes was to heap insults on the Sinhalese. During the past five years, the well known Sinhala ditty “Sinhalaya modaya, kevum kanna yodaya” was the clarion call of the yahapalana government. At election time, the Sinhalese were divided between the two main political parties, a situation which allowed the minority political parties organized on the basis of either ethnicity or religion to tip the balance in favour of one political party or another.

It is no secret that members of the minority comunities generally held the Sinhalese in contempt because they thought they could always prevail against the divided Sinhalese by manipulating the democratic system to their advantage. This attitude cannot be blamed only on the ethnicity and religion based political parties. Such political parties have contributed to the problem no doubt, but this isolationist, exclusivist anti-Sinhalese, anti-Sinhala Buddhist attitude has seeped into the very fiber of the being of most Tamil and Muslim Sri Lankans. There are exceptions to this no doubt, but the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the Tamils and Muslims in this country are communal minded. One has to call a spade a spade and this has to be discussed openly.

Communal minded minorities

The communal mindedness of the Tamils and the Muslims has to be taken out of the realm of taboo topics by the Tamils and Muslims themselves. If one reads Armand de Souza’s book ‘Hundred Days in Ceylon under Martial Law 1915’ and other sources on the 1915 riots, the cause of the communal disturbances was not due to anything that the Sinhalese did, but because a certain community of Muslims did not want a Buddhist procession to go past one of their mosques. At the same time, another community of Muslims in the same area had no issue with the Buddhist procession going past their mosque.

That was in an era when there was no Wahabism, no Al Qaeda and no ISIS and the Muslims were a minority in British Ceylon. It is mind boggling to think that a communal riot can be sparked off simply because a Buddhist religious procession went past a mosque. One would think that a communal riot would need a more cogent cause such as at least a brawl between two groups resulting in several deaths or something of that nature. The very fact that a Buddhist procession could not go past a mosque without sparking off a riot shows that the Sinhalese were treated with contempt by at least a section of the Muslims even at that time.

What has happened today is that with the Wahabi contagion, that attitude seems to have affected the Muslim community in general. Not that this attitude on the part of minority communities has no justification. The average Sinhalese can be bought for a mess of pottage. A few roofing sheets, and some handouts can change Sinhalese voting patterns but that will not happen to the same extent among Tamils and Muslims. As the old saying goes, you get only what you deserve and as far as the Sinhalese go, any negative attitudes the minorities may have towards them was not without justification.

It’s just that during the past five years, this was taken too far for even the cringing, servile Sinhalese to stomach. Many people thought the anti-Sinhalese, pro-minority bent in the UNP was due to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership. It was so to some extent no doubt. We never saw such an attitude in the UNP during the J.R.Jayewardene, Premadasa and D.B.Wijetunga eras. Nor have we read of such an attitude during the Dudley Senanayake and D.S. Senanayake eras. The only approximation to what was experienced under Ranil Wickremasinghe’s watch would be the Sir John Kotelawala era.

However, the anti-Sinhala Buddhist attitude reached a new level of insidiousness with the emergence of Sajith Premadasa in the UNP. What was open and infantile earlier became hidden and crafty. Maximum emphasis was placed on duping the gullible Sinhalese with welfare measures while pledging what was essentially the division of the country to the Tamils. Just days before the election, the then Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa in a statement described the UNP’s policy as follows:

“The chapter on constitutional reform in the manifesto of the UNP presidential candidate contains provisions to replace the unitary state with a formulation that describes Sri Lanka as an ‘undivided and indivisible’ state. This is accompanied by the pledge that governmental power will be devolved to the provinces to the ‘maximum extent possible’. Identical provisions can be seen in the draft constitution tabled in Parliament by the Prime Minister in January this year.

“The UNP manifesto also contains provisions to expand the powers and functions of the provincial councils, to set up a second chamber in Parliament made up of provincial council representatives in order to curb the powers of Parliament, to allow the provincial units to raise funds independently, to place district and divisional secretaries under the provincial councils and to create a Constitutional Court, which will adjudicate in disputes between the center and the provincial units. Like the draft constitution, the UNP presidential election manifesto also aims to turn Sri Lanka into a loose federation of virtually independent provincial units.

“The draft constitution sought to describe Sri Lanka as an ‘ekeeya rajya’ in Sinhala and as an ‘orumiththa nadu’ in Tamil while carefully refraining from using the English phrase ‘unitary state’ which has specific constitutional connotations. Thus the label of a unitary state would have remained in Sinhala while in Tamil and English Sri Lanka would no longer be recognized as a unitary state. A similar deviousness is to be seen in the UNP presidential election manifesto. Though great care has been taken to avoid using phrases like ekeeya rajaya or unitary state, it has a reference in Sinhala to ‘maubime ekeeyathwaya’, which translates into English as ‘the unity of the motherland’.

“The phrase ‘maubime ekeeyathwaya’ has no constitutional value but it can be used to misleadingly suggest to Sinhala readers that the manifesto seeks to uphold the unitary state. Significantly, the UNP manifesto has refused to use even the Sinhala phrase ‘ekeeya rajya’ that had been conceded earlier in the PM’s draft constitution to assuage Sinhala sentiments. There is a clearly apparent hardening of the federalist position in the UNP manifesto. This is the first time that a mainline political party has included in an election manifesto provisions to dismantle the unitary state and to create a federal state in its place. Therefore this is a matter that needs to be taken very seriously.”

A new level of insidiousness

The SLPP was not able to take political advantage of the UNP’s open sellout to the separatist lobby due to two reasons – on the one hand, the constitutional subterfuge involved was too complicated for the average voter to understand – indeed it was hardly understood clearly even by most politicians. Secondly, even if the issue had been understood by the opposition politicians there was not enough time to get the message across to the public. The question is whether Sajith was aware of the contents of the chapter on constitutional reform in his manifesto until it was in print and drew flak from the opposing side? Even though he went around the country brandishing a copy of his manifesto and saying that it was his own thinking, everyone knows that manifestoes are normally not prepared by election candidates themselves.

It’s always a team of experts who prepares the manifesto for the candidate. So was this chapter on constitutional reform introduced into his manifesto without his knowledge? It is well known that the UNP manifesto was prepared in a hurry and was in fact the last manifesto to be launched by the main political parties. The evidence that we have to the effect that Sajith was fully aware not only of the contents of the chapter on constitutional reform but also its implications was that at a press conference held quite some time before the UNP manifesto was released, Sajith stated that his position was ‘the maximum devolution of power within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka’.

At that press conference he avoided the use of the term unitary state. This indicates that he was well briefed as to the concepts and terminology involved and the chapter on constitutional reform in his manifesto was not something introduced without his knowledge.

Sajith Premadasa is not Maithripala Sirisena. In 2015, when the newly elected yahapalana government went to Geneva and betrayed the country, they deliberately posted a doctored Sinhala translation of UNHRC Resolution 30/1 on the official foreign ministry website in order to mislead the Sinhala reader as to the actual contents of that document. It was obviously this doctored translation that was given to President Sirisena by his foreign minister. So for a while we saw a war of words between the President and the opposition with the former insisting that Resolution 30/1 was a great achievement and the latter shouting from the rooftops that Sri Lanka had been betrayed. It would have taken months for President Sirisena to realize that the opposition was right.  

In Sajith’s case however the situation was obviously very different. He is English educated and quite capable of understanding the connotations of the words used. The indications are, that he knew from the very beginning what the chapter on constitutional reform in his manifesto would contain. In speaking to the Mahanayakes we heard Sajith mention the word ekeeya rajya but that phrase does not appear anywhere in his manifesto. In the manifesto itself we find the phrase ‘maubime ekeeyabawa’ but that is not a reference to a unitary state. However it could be used to mislead those unfamiliar with constitutional phraseology into thinking that it is a reference to the unitary state.

In the last few days in the run up to the poll, Champika Ranawaka went to see the Ven Mahanayake Theras with a letter saying that the UNP was for an ekeeya rajya. This was nothing but the same kind of chicanery that we saw in 2015. Maithripala Sirisena stated publicly that he was going to abolish the executive presidency, and he signed agreements with various political parties and oganisations saying that he would abolish the executive presidency, but his manifesto stated deviously that the constitution will be amended only to the extent that a referendum is not made necessary. That precluded the abolition of the executive presidency. What we saw with regard to constitutional reform in Sajith Premadasa’s manifesto was very similar. The TNA knows that what Sajith promised them through his manifesto was a federal state and they made the decision to vote for the UNP on that account.

All this is a cause for worry because it shows that the younger generation in the UNP has become much more devious and sophisticated in their treachery than the older generation. On the one hand they play the role of a populist politician, patting people on the back, giving people houses and jobs, promising to give Janasaviya on top of Samurdhi, free meals to school children, free school uniforms, free shoes, free sanitary pads for women so as to buy Sinhala votes and then pledging to give the Tamils a federal state so as to get their votes as well. What the 2019 presidential election campaign showed beyond any doubt is that the UNP’s problem is not just Ranil Wickremasinghe, but runs far deeper and getting rid of RW will not cure the problem but will probably make things worse.

Promoting a Vibheeshana

The people realised this instinctively which is why they did not fall for the wolf in sheepskin trick when the UNP and the Tamil and Muslim political parties associated with them dumped Ranil Wickremasinghe and adopted Sajith Premadasa as their champion. They supported Sajith because they thought he could deliver to them what RW could not. Even after this resounding defeat, the Tamil and Muslim political parties have not got out of the “Sinhalaya modaya kevum kanna yodaya” frame of mind. Mano Ganesan and Rishard Baithiudeen now claim that the Tamils and Muslims were not being ‘jaathiwadee’ because they had all voted for a Sinhala Buddhist. Such claims insult the intelligence of the voting public.

The Tamils and Muslims voted for Sajith Premadasa because he was willing to do their bidding – to be a Vibheeshana to the Sinhalese. RW was also willing to do the bidding of the minorities and he too wanted to contest. But the reason why the minority parties backed Sajith was because they thought that the latter would be better able to deceive the Sinhalese. This election result has put paid to that kind of politics. It is certainly true that at a future election the minorities could always pull off another 2015 style coup by ganging up behind a Sinhala leader who was willing to do their bidding, but the reaction to that could well be a 2019 style turn of events the next time around. In 2015, the coup was unexpected. But after the bitter lessons learnt, voters will always be vigilant at every election.

The odds that were stacked against the majority community all these years are now somewhat even. For that we have to thank the yahapalana government formed in 2015. Do we want a ding dong electoral battle between the minority communities and the majority community? That is entirely for the minority communities to decide. There is of course a question over whether the Tamil and Muslim reaction to Gota’s Presidential candidacy was due to his being the main architect of the war that crushed LTTE terrorism and the erroneous belief that he was behind the anti-Muslim Bodu Bala Sena. The BBS was actually used by certain local and international forces including the Jathika Hela Urumaya and Norway, to oust the Rajapaksa government. The US Embassy in Colombo also played a major role in this and we commented on it in this column at that time.

Such factors would have contributed to the extreme reaction on the part of the minorities and it may be surmised that if the candidate had been Mahinda Rajapaksa, the reaction may have been somewhat different. However it is also the reality that the reaction to MR would only have been marginally different. The communal minded majority of Tamil and Muslim voters don’t want to see a proper Sinhala leader in office. Communal politics was first started by S.J.V.Chelvanayagam in the 1950s by mooting a Tamil state A ‘Thamil arasu’. The Tamils of Indian origin were first organised in trade unions which later became political parties. Then the Muslims started communal politics in the 1980s. Because the Sinhaese were divided, it was possible for the Tamils and Muslim political parties to align themselves with various political parties and call the shots in the governments that were formed since the 1990s.

This reached its apogee in 2015, when a President was elected to power without getting the majority of the majority community vote. Outside the north and east, President Maithripala Sirisena had lost the election and he managed to win only due to the overwhelming majorities received from the north and east. Having reached its highest point between 2015 and 2019, the worm has turned, and the Sinhalese have hoist the Tamils and the Muslims with their own petard. Now each Tamil and Muslim individual will have to take a personal decision and decide whether this narrow minded communalism was going to continue or whether they were going to reject communal politics and become members of the SLPP and the UNP instead of being members of Muslim or Tamil based political parties. The choice is theirs.

What the presidential election 2019 showed for the first time was that the Sinhalese can play the same game that the Tamils and Muslims have been playing for decades. Until S.J.V.Chelvanayagam came along in the mid-1950s, the Tamil leadership of the north personified in G.G.Ponnambalam got on fine with the Senanayakes who led the UNP. He was so close to the Senanayakes that he even got involved and fell victim to the internal conflicts in the UNP. Until M.H.M.Ashraff came into the scene in the 1980s with his divisive message, the Musims were well integrated in the two main political parties.

There were more Muslims in the UNP than in the SLFP but both political parties had respected Muslim leaders whose names are closely associated with the histories of those political parties. So it’s not as if national politics has never existed among Tamils and Muslims in this country. In 1952, even Chelvanayagam lost his seat to a UNP candidate. That was before communalism became the main determining force in northern politics. We once had a past that was exemplary. Each Tamil and Muslim living in this country will have to make an individual decision as to whether we are going to go back to the rational past or to continue with the irrational present.

One Response to “The reaction of a downtrodden majority”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    Making Sri Lanka a failed state was Ranil’s main agenda given to him by his masters in the Christian West. The Central Bank Bond Scams, planned well ahead of the Jan 2015 Presidential Elections, the resulting high Bank Interest Rates, higher taxation, pauperizing of the farmers and other agricultural industries put paid to the economy that was running over 7% per annum and now brought down to 1.6% per annum. The food security was compromised by the numerous pressures brought in against the farmers. The export markets were destroyed by the dilution of Sri Lanka brand products with imported look alike trash.

    All these and others were aimed at making Sri Lanka a failed state as well as a country highly vulnerable to foreign sanctions. No country in the world prospers by destroying the well-being of the indigenous farmer. A nation self sufficient in their food cannot be easily cowed. Most developed countries protect their farmers with attractive subsidies, soft loans and outright protection when deemed necessary. In these countries, the farmers are usually rich! It was countries that were self-sufficient in their food supplies that made way to industrialize their economies. The Industrialization of Japan only took place after they became self-sufficient in their rice supplies in the 13% cultivable land in their possession. To this day the Japanese farmer is a highly protected entity! The extent of Ranil’s treachery knows no bounds!

    It is time for the SLFP and UNP to wither away. They are slowly but surely outliving their usefulness and use by date. The division of the majority Sinhalese between these two selfish and impotent political parties led to making racial and religious minorities the kingmakers of Sri Lanka. These Shylocks continue to ask for the proverbial ‘pound of flesh’ in return for their ‘favors’. Their tactics and antics bled the nation ever since the beginning of the 20th Century and then after Independence for the last 70 year and during the 30 year Tamil Racist Terrorist War. The role of the TNA as the main Opposition Party in the Parliament should be an eye-opener for what their intentions are. The end results are Easter Sunday Bombings and the 13 demands from the TNA and the voting pattern we witnessed on 16 Nov.

    It was with the intention of making Sri Lanka a playground for competing powers that Ranil literally sold Hambantota the most valuable asset of Sri Lanka to the Chinese. One can easily see how the Indians and the US are maneuvering in Sri Lanka to get a piece of the action. Sri Lanka will have to be very smart if we are to remain a free and peaceful nation. This responsibility is now on the shoulders of the new President. We also must develop strong bonds with other Buddhist Nations in Asia – Myanmaar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Singapore – for we have much in common on all fronts including economy, security and the well-being of our age old cultures. A lot will depend on how he will perform when he goes to meet the Indians. I sincerely hope it will not be ‘hip shooting’ – like his brother did when he promised 13 plus and more!

    Sri Lanka must be made governable. The traitorous lowering of the minimum requisite voting percentage to 5% ( from 12.5%) at elections to curry favour with the Muslims by myopic Premadasa Sr has made the political institutions in Sri Lanka ungovernable. This must be corrected. Rabble rousers who lost even their deposits including the JVP have no place in mainstream politics. Perhaps they have a role in trade union activity but no other. The behaviour of the JVP in mainstream politics has not been of any benefit to the political process, for their political representation is minimal and does not represent the needs of the nation by any stretch of imagination!

    As for Sajith, he has proven beyond any doubt, he is not Presidential material. His cheap promises, as well as utterances that could only come from a person having an incorrigible inferiority complex, are clear indications of his lack of depth in mainstream politics. Duping of the masses and in the last few days before the elections, his reprehensible attempt to get at the votes of the women with sanitary towels show that he is no different from his myopic and infamous father. Just as on 1 May 1993, on 17 Nov 2019 people of Sri Lanka breathed out a sigh of relief in the knowledge that Sajith along with his cohorts has been soundly defeated.

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