‘Have the Sinhalese been struck blind?’
Posted on November 4th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala 

A simple solution to the tyranny of minoritarianism. This is just a personal opinion for what it’s worth. 

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, threatened national security, sovereignty and independence.

The title is an English rendering of a line from a ‘freedom song’ written by Tibetan Buddhist monk S. Mahinda Thera (1901-1951): ‘aesgedivalata hena gahalada sihalunne?,’ lit., ‘Have the eyeballs of the Sinhalese been struck by lightning?’. As an author and poet writing in Sinhala, he made a passionate contribution to Ceylon’s independence movement in the 1930s and 40s decades by inspiring nationalism among the Sinhalese, whom he criticized for what he thought was their ignorant indifferent laid-back attitude towards the grave injustices they, especially as Buddhists, were being subjected to under British colonialism. Current happenings in the Sri Lankan political scene brought this striking line of verse to my mind.

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 population 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. Fortunately, they are not of the type that is likely to set the mainstream Christians and Muslims against Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils. Apparently, religious fundamentalists are a problem to the respective mainstream Abrahamic religions as well, giving rise to internecine doctrinal disputes. 

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, 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 this evidence.) The problem is worsening because politicians of both the main parties seem to be following 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.

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 Diana 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 Diana 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 reflections 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 deteriorated 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?   

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 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 ‘philosopher ruler’ that we have got since independence in the non-partisan GR (I believe GR is free from political ambitions that distort his vision and that cause him to baulk at taking action when it is necessary but difficult to do so). 

Communalistic behaviour is out of character for Sinhalese MPs. However, for the time being, there is no alternative for them but to act as if they were communalists themselves. 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. 

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 for the time being. 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. 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 separatism as well.   

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