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2023: Saffron, Kurahan, Red or Green?

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Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera

“Winds don’t blow as ships desire.” Arabic proverb

Before Gotabaya Rajapaksa, there was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Before organic only, there was Sinhala only. And the related transformation of Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara from monastic colleges to secular universities. Like Sinhala only, this was an election promise; like Sinhala only, this was implemented with no forethought or planning.

The first signs of the coming malaise were evident by 1962 prompting the government to appoint a three member Universities Commission, headed by D.C.R. Gunwardane. In its report, made public in 1963, the commission called the 1958 bill an “ill-considered and irresponsible” piece of legislation pushed through by “political Bhikkus” who “dictated policies, dominated public affairs, and incited actions which people in their normal senses would have considered even possible.” These political monks were also “responsible in large measure for inflaming the racial and religious passions that erupted in such sickening fashion in the early part of 1958,” the report pointed out. The commissioners, all of them Buddhist civil servants, concluded that as “the higher education of Bhikku and higher education of the laity cannot be brought under one organisation, the two pirivena universities should cease to exist at the earliest possible moment.” The fusion, if continued, “would have a disastrous effect on the entire Sangha,” the report warned. (All quotes are from Prof. H.L. Seneviratne’s The Work of Kings).

The warning was ignored and the report consigned to oblivion even though the commission was appointed in response to widespread societal concerns about the effect of the two universities on monkness and the Buddhist way of life. Sixty years later, those fears have been fully realised. A new definition of monkness and of Buddhist way of life is now entrenched. The horrendous tales emerging from the Buddhist and Pali University are not anomalies but symbolic of these transformed notions of monkness and Buddhist way of life. Monks (with a few honourable exceptions) have become key engines of violence, intolerance and ignorance in society.

In Buddhism Betrayed, S.J. Tambaiah tried to understand and explain how a teaching based on compassion and loving kindness towards all beings became a religion of violent hatred. The monks of today are the rightful adherents not of what the Buddha taught but of this betrayed Buddhism, a creed devoid of all moral-ethical underpinnings and reduced to a body of mostly meaningless rituals.

During the initial idealistic phase of the aragalaya, a young protestor in Kandy was pictured holding a hand drawn poster depicting a rogues’ gallery of top pro Rajapaksa monks with a telling caption: “Become ordained at least now.” In the same week, when a political monk tried to join a protest in Battaramulla, he was respectfully told to leave. In those early days, the aragalaya was not only non-party, it was also secular. That promise would soon turn out to be a mirage. Saffron robes and cassocks became a common sight with some even acting as the public face of the movement.

Political Bhikkus are a key component of the Sri Lankan malaise. Yet, like politicians, they see themselves as the solution. Walavahangunawave Dhammarathana thero, the chief incumbent of the Mihintale temple, is the latest monk to succumb to this delusion publicly. In June 2020, he was praising Gotabaya Rajapaksa for his “wise leadership” and thanking him for “saving the country from Covid-19 and promoting indigenous production”. In August 2022, he was calling President Ranil Wickremesinghe a leader with “foresight”. Now he is on the warpath against all politicians. He has given the authorities a month to relieve the poor of their economic miseries. If the government fails to do so by next poya day, he wants people to get out onto the streets and throw out, well, basically everyone.

Whether this is another flash in the pan or the prelude to a serious upheaval remains to be seen. Equally unknown is the story behind this sudden emergence, as sudden as that of Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara. Is this new saffron robed rebel chief his own man or an unwitting pawn? Either way, this latest attempt to fuse religion and politics even more tightly to uphold the myth of saviour-monk again doesn’t augur well for 2023.

Last week, Iran publicly executed a second unarmed protestor, Majidreza Rahnavard. It is instructive to remember that the mullahs were once liberators, courageous resisters to the Shah’s authoritarianism. Religion and politics is a deadly combination. Bad for politics, worse for religion and worst for the people who fail to maintain an unbridgeable wall between salvation in this world and next.

A Worrying Vacuum

The latest results of the Institute of Health Policy’s opinion tracker survey paint a picture that is fascinating and disturbing in near equal measure. If the question is “Who is the most popular of them all?” the answer seems to be none (at least according to the data made public). If the question is “Who is the least unpopular of them all?” then the answer is President Wickremesinghe. His net unpopularity rating is the lowest at 45%. Sajith Premadasa is the most unpopular political leader with a net unpopularity rating of 57%. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a net unpopularity rating of 51% and Anura Kumara Dissanayake a net unpopularity rating of 55%.

If that is the fascinating part, the worrying part is the remarkable decline of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unpopularity. He is now less unpopular than either Sajith Premadasa or Anura Kumara Dissanayake and within touching distance of President Wickremesinghe.

Recently a group of Sri Lankan boat people were rescued by a Japanese vessel in Vietnamese waters and handed over to Vietnamese authorities. The Sri Lankans were headed to Canada but didn’t mind being sent anywhere so long as it wasn’t Sri Lanka. That wasn’t the country the Rajapaksas inherited in 2019; that was country they were compelled to relinquish in 2022. Not that they consider themselves blameworthy in anyway. “If people were patient a little more, the economic crisis would have been resolved,” Basil Rajapaksa said in a recent TV interview.

“The aragalaya is over, what is the difference?” Basil Rajapaksa asks in the same interview, opting not to see, for example, that there are no fuel or gas queues, because aragalaya got rid of President Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. His answer to the SLPP being a family party is to tell us to look at North Korea, Kim Il-sung succeeded by his son and grandson. When questioned about the preponderance of Rajapaksas in the SLPP, he answers, “If that is what the people of this country hopes for…” When asked if he’s willing to give up US citizenship or angling for another constitutional change, he turns coy saying he is willing to act “according to need”.

The Rajapaksas still create their own facts, live in their parallel universe, believe themselves to be inerrant and are committed to familial power and dynastic succession. And at least one of them has become way less unpopular, which turns a Rajapaksa comeback from a mere theoretical possibility into a very real one.

Commenting on Jair Bolsonaro, Yascha Mounk says, “Brazil is yet another indication that the threat from authoritarian populists is here to stay” (The Atlantic –4.11.2022). He calls this the new normal, something democracies must learn to manage. A truth applicable to Sri Lanka as well. The Brazilian case is instructive in another sense. Jair Bolsonaro was a deeply unpopular incumbent. Lula da Silva, the challenger, was probably Brazil’s most popular politician. Yet the presidential election went into a second round. Lula’s eventual margin of victory was disturbingly narrow. Populism’s obituary is ever premature. It’s more a vampire that rises from the dead when democracy undermines its own credibility and democrats are too busy with their childish squabbles to see the looming shadow.

As Basil Rajapaksa makes clear in his interview, the family, like President Wickremesinghe, is playing a waiting game. If President Wickremesinghe fails to maintain living standards at least at the current low levels, if there are huge hikes in the prices of essential goods or services or long power cuts, if the necessary privatisation of state enterprises is not handled carefully (as Mangala Samaraweera did with Telecom), the SLPP will move into the oppositional space. Given current economic trends, that day may not be far ahead.

Three examples suffice. Economic contraction worsened in third quarter. Rs.193 billion worth of gold was pawned in the first 10 months of 2022, mostly by middle class people, mainly for educational and agricultural purposes. According to a study by Prof Wasantha Atukorale of the University of Peradeniya. 6.3 million people are food insecure.

The breakup of the UNP in early 2020 was a key causative factor of the current disaster. Had the UNP faced the election as a single party, the Rajapaksas would not have gained a near two thirds majority. Without that massive majority, and the validation conferred by it, the Rajapaksas may have steered clear of some of the more extreme measures, such as organic only and the 20th Amendment.

Correcting that seminal error might be a way to prevent a Rajapaksa comeback either as kingmakers or kings. The main differences between the UNP and the SJB are not political or ideological but personal; a sense of pique, thwarted ambitions. If leaders on both sides can rise above their personal animosities and petty concerns (not an easy thing to do, as history demonstrates again and again), an understanding is possible. A reconstituted UNP can then build the same working relationship with the JVP that enabled the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 and the progressive reforms that stemmed from it such as the 19th Amendment, the restoration of judicial independence and the right to information act.

Healing the UNP-SJB breach might be the only way Sri Lanka can emerge from the economic morass with not too high a cost. If the breach continues, it could hasten a descent into social violence, a return of the Rajapaksas or possibly, and sequentially, both.

The Extremist Gene

“People began to feel that the Ceylon University catered more to the elite society, absorbing western ideas and ignoring all that was indigenous,” wrote Ms. N.G.D. Sirimanne (Ratnapala) in her MA thesis, The Evolution of Higher Education in Sri Lanka.“The emergence of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna in 1956 was the result of this grievous Cultural Consciousness. Thus began the need to establish a University ‘much like ourselves’.”

A key impulse behind the changes of 1956 was the desire to level down instead of raise up. Those who stood in the way of that drive towards the lowest common denominator were condemned as traitors, reactionaries or both. Tribalism, racial, religious, and social, was made coterminous with patriotism. Insularity was enthroned as a moral good, forgetting the positives we received from across the seas, starting with the teachings of the Buddha.

Sixty years on, we have universities much like ourselves where no difference is tolerated, ignorance is no bar to advancement and violence is the first and preferred way of settling a dispute. The relationship between society and university is a two way street, microcosm and macrocosm interacting with and on each other in an endless spiral. We are a less civilized and more barbaric country than we were before these changes were introduced.

During a ceremony to honour outgoing US Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Republican congressman and former speaker John Boehner, said they often disagreed with each other but were never disagreeable to each other. “You can disagree without being disagreeable,” he emphasised. If democracy is to survive, political and civil society must practice the art of disagreeing forcefully without resorting to force.

This is perhaps the tolerance we lost when we turned universities into spaces of exclusion, racial, religious, and social. If this tolerance survived in our universities, ragging would not have become torture and last week’s mob attack on the house and person of a former vice chancellor of Peradeniya would not have happened (even if the former VC’s son was inebriated and verbally abusive, as student leaders claim, as in mitigation).

President Wickremesinghe’s repression of unarmed demonstrates and the JVP’s inability to unequivocally condemn Peradeniya mob violence are but two sides of the same intolerant coin. Janaka Thissakuttiarachahi of the SLPP and Nalin Bandara of the SJB were being equally uncivilised when they hurled sexist remarks at female parliamentarians. Hirunika Premachandra’s recent remarks on President Wickremesinghe demonstrate yet again how far we have moved away from common decency. Politeness is not a class virtue, it’s a human virtue.

“We are a disaster.” This is a phrase Latin Americans use to refer to their contemporary condition, according to Ariel Dorfman in Other Septembers. If Sri Lanka’s economic disaster is not to turn it into a societal one, if this country is not to become an ungovernable, unliveable wasteland in 2023, restraint on the part of everyone would be necessary. Political, economic, social and religious leaders should take the lead but waiting for them to do so is no longer an affordable luxury. There is very little to choose between statal and anti-statal violence if you are an ordinary citizen caught between those contending forces. We have lost much, but we could lose way more. 2023 may be the year we made the turn around, economically or socially, or the year we plummeted a depth too horrendous to contemplate yet all too easy to imagine.

CorrectionIn my November column I said that the parliament would stand dissolved if the budget is defeated. I was wrong. It is the cabinet of ministers that would stand dissolved as per Article 48(2) of the Constitution. I apologise to the readers for this error. My thanks to Gamini Viyangoda for kindly bringing it to my notice.

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