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Politicising Archaeology, Militarising Virtue, Gaslighting the Electorate

Photo by Eranga Jayawardena/AP Photo via HRW

“From now until the elections, we will not know when, and where, and how the fireball will fall on us, and what the nature of that fireball will be.” Arundathi Roy (Election Season in a Dangerous Democracy – The New York Review of Books – 3.9.2018)

The Eastern province is the most ethno-religiously pluralist slice of Sri Lanka. It is home to more Tamils and Muslims than Sinhalese; its predominant language is not Sinhala but Tamil; and it has more kovils, mosques and churches than temples. Homogenising the East has been – and remains – a dream of extremists of all stripes, from Sinhala-Buddhists supremacists through the LTTE to Wahabi fundamentalists. For anyone who wants to trade in ethno-religious strife, there’s no place richer with possibility than the East.

Now the East is in the political crosshairs again. Making good a promise he made to his Buddhist Advisory Council, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has set up a task force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province. There’s no argument that the island’s rich archaeological heritage needs to be protected and preserved. But why restrict that necessary endeavour to the East? Is the country’s archaeological heritage limited only to the East? Or is it just in the East this heritage is perceived to be in danger?

Weaponising archaeology is a favourite tactic of extremists. The urge to use a ruin from the past to turn the future into a ruin is probably hardwired into the extremist brain. When a papyrus fragment said to be 2,700 years old was found in Judean desert in 2016, Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu rushed to use it to further his occupationist agenda. What the BJP and Narendra Modi owe to the Ayodhya controversy is no secret. When the previous Rajapaksa administration held an Independence Day celebration in Trincomalee, then President Mahinda Rajapkasa used his speech to give a distorted version of the history of this ancient city, painting it in exclusively Sinhala-Buddhist hues.

“This is a Sinhala Buddhist country; we created its history, culture and civilisation,” claimed the BBS at a 2012 meeting in Matara (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EleUZQw71k). This majoritarian supremacist view (which denies and seeks to erase Lanka’s diverse history) seems to be the founding and guiding principle of the new task force. In composition it’s entirely mono-ethnic. The inclusion of the doyen of Sinhala-Buddhist archaeology and founder-chairman of the JHU, Ellawala Medananda Thero is another warning sign. (This monk informed the BBC in 2007 that Christian fundamentalist doctors are planning to infect leading monks by using HIV-infected blood. His approach to archaeology is almost akin. According to PK Balachandran, the monk claims that before Koneswarm was a kovil, it was a Buddhist temple). Another member, Panamure Thilakawansha Thero, is reportedly involved in the dispute over the Kanniya hot water springs. With such a membership, the task force cannot but promote a Sinhala-Buddhist agenda in the country’s most ethno-religiously pluralist province, pitting Sinhalese against Tamils and Muslims. It is like setting up a bonfire in a munitions factory.

Mahinda Rajapaksa removed all fetters on majoritarian supremacism. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has gone one step further, putting it on steroids.

In the run up to the 2019 presidential election, a story spread over the internet claiming that Muslim extremists have razed statues of the Buddha’s eighty great disciples built by the Rajapaksa administration in 2013. If the UNP wins the election, the same fate will befall the Samadhi statue, the Tholuwila statue, and Gal Viharaya, the story warned. In truth, the construction of the statues commenced in 2017, and ones lying on the ground are there because they had not been raised. This tale is a warning of how the worthy task of protecting our archaeological heritage can be turned into an anti-minority feeding frenzy. Given the mono-ethnic nature of the new task force, the question cannot but arise – will it use ‘Sinhala-Buddhist heritage’ to displace living Tamils and Muslims?

Setting mini-fires in the East might help the SLPP to widen the margin of its electoral victory; it might help burnish Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s image as the country’s new Sinhala Buddhist maha raju (high king). But weaponising the past as way of dominating the present often ends up killing the future. It is easy to set off ethno-religious fires but nearly impossible to manage them. The East can be a showcase of Sri Lanka’s rich demographic diversity, or it can be the country’s Achilles Heel. The LTTE might not have died an ignominious death, had Vellupillai Pirapaharan not mishandled the East. Are his conquerors reading to follow him down the same destructive and self-destructive path?

A Company of Virtuous Esquires

Soon after Mahinda Rajapaksa won his second presidential term, the state-owned ITN held a musical show titled ‘Jaya Jayawe’, one long panegyric to ‘King Mihindu’ and ‘Chief General Gotabaya’ who defeated the ‘demons’ threatening the motherland.

Today, the roles are in a state of flux. Chief General Gotabaya is president and King Mihindu is his prime minister. One kingdom, two kings is nothing but a recipe for chronic strife and instability. The jostling between the two brothers – and their acolytes – for primacy is likely to remain a defining factor in Lankan politics in the foreseeable future.

The brothers have common and contending goals. Both want to stymie all opposition and win a two-thirds majority at the parliamentary election. Once/if they move past that goal, contention rather than cooperation might become their dominant mode of engagement.

The setting up of a presidential task force ‘to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful society’ makes sense when seen in this context. The new task force is likely to function as a weapon of Rajapaksa power and Gotabaya power. Comprising of retired and serving generals, admirals, air marshals and police chiefs (all of them honoured with a suffix esquire, in contravention of the standard use of this word today), the task force is likely to protect Rajapaksa rule and, within it, Gotabaya dominance.

As with the task force on the archaeological heritage of the East, this task force too is headed by retired general Kamal Gunaratne. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the new Sinhala-Buddhist high king, Kamal Gunaratne is his chief general (maha senevi). That the retired lieutenant-colonel has such trust and dependence on the retired general is understandable, given their obvious political and moral-ethical affinity.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa once shared with BBC’s Stephen Sackur expressed a desire to hang war-winning army commander Sarath Fonseka for being a ‘traitor’. Speaking at a Viyath Maga seminar in October 2017, Mr. Gunaratne branded as traitors anyone supporting a new constitution; they deserve death and must be denied normal funeral rites, as the JVP notoriously did during the Second Insurgency, he claimed. With such men in charge, the kind of security, discipline, virtue, and legality Sri Lanka will experience is not hard to imagine.

Kavinda Isuru was remanded on April 25th 2020 and was dead by May 3rd. The authorities claim that he fell off a rope while trying to escape and died from the ensuing injuries. His parents have lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission alleging that he was beaten to death. Both his legs and one arm were broken, apart from other injuries including to the head, the complaint states (https://theleader.lk/news/3170-young-detainee-broke-his-throat-in-mahara-prison).

In Dharga Town, the police allegedly assaulted an autistic boy for breaking the curfew. According to Thariq Ahmed’s father, when he reached the scene of the incident, he found his 14-year-old-son with his hands tied behind his back. When the boy was taken to hospital, the JMO reportedly scolded the father and the child, accusing them of belonging to the ‘nation’ (jathiya) who kill cows and spread corona. The four policemen on duty were suspended. Initial reports claimed that the suspension was due to their possible involvement in an assault on an autistic boy. A few hours later the story was upended; the policemen were suspended because they did not take the curfew-breaking child into custody but let him go. Not abuse of power but kindness of heart, not brutality but lenience was their crime.

In Elpitiya, the police was searching for a man suspected of purchasing a stock of stolen cinnamon. The man was not at home, so the police took away his 14 year-old-son instead, leaving a toddler all alone in the house. The police say they asked the minor to accompany them to assist in locating the father. Can the police ask a minor to accompany them, in the absence of any adult? Weren’t the guardians of law breaking the law? Is it ethical to get a child to turn in his father?

Are these not forewarnings of the sort of security, discipline, virtue and legality awaiting us in a Gotabaya country?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned a former military sergeant convicted of murdering eight civilian Tamils including a five year old boy. When the freed killer emerged from the prison, Kamal Gunaratna was at hand to meet and greet him. A good part of the world was appalled when they heard George Floyd begging for a chance to breathe, minutes, seconds before he died. What the last words, the last thoughts of that five-year-old child must have been we can only imagine. We can also imagine what virtue means in a land where such a murderer walks free, thanks to a presidential pardon. What virtue means, what discipline means, what security and legality means.

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa studied American history in order to become an American citizen, he may – or may not – have come into contact with Senator Joseph McCarthy. Like that modern day Torquemada, the Rajapaksas too see enemies everywhere, and believe in keeping the country on a permanent war-footing. The tasks allocated to the Company of Esquires include dealing with ‘anti-social activities and illegal activities of social groups, harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society at present in some places of the country.’ The wording is so amorphous, it probably can be interpreted in any which way necessary, including killing democratic dissent and snuffing peaceful dissenters.

Electoral highway robbery

The election will not be free and fair. We have been warned in advance. The pandemic will be turned into a bridge for the SLPP to reach its heart’s desire of a massive electoral win.

The police launched a brutal assault on a Black Lives Matter demonstration by the Frontline Socialist Party. The police acted brain-dead when confronted with massive crowds at Arumugam Thondaman and Marshall Perera funerals.

In the difference between the two antithetical official responses the current nature of electoral playing field is clearly visible. It is so uneven as to be more vertical than horizontal.

The SLPP will be allowed to act above the law, including social distancing regulations imposed by health authorities. The opposition will be persecuted for failing to keep even the most minute or impractical of health regulations.

The Rajapaksas can win a simple majority in a free and fair election, especially since the UNP and the SBJ are intent on self and mutual mutilation. But both Rajapaksa siblings want a two-thirds majority, albeit for contentious purposes. Their opponents will be persecuted for violating health regulations, for committing anti-social activities, for endangering the nation. The election commission might lodge protests, but the police are likely to turn a deaf ear. Any election official trying to uphold the law might end up like the principal of the Lumbini Royal College of Kandy who had to be hospitalised after being assaulted by the SLPP chairman of the Harispattuwa PS. A complaint was made, but 24 hours later the police was yet to even question the suspect.

When Attorney at law Swasthika Arulingam went to ask why the organisers of the BLM protest was arrested, the police promptly took her into custody. This is the second instance of a lawyer being arrested for what he or she did in line of professional responsibilities. Hejaz Hisbullah was the first. Many more lawyers may join the list in the coming weeks and months, rendering it increasingly difficult for anyone facing Rajapaksa ire to get legal representation.

A deluge of minority phobia will be used to fill the gaps left by persecution and suppression. We might hear of resurgent Tigers, of Islamic Jihadists, even Christian/Catholic fundamentalists, all of them helping the opposition to prevent the true protectors of the country from safeguarding its true owners.

“The International (sic) has brought various ideas into our society…” complained Gotabaya Rajapaksa, when he was the defence secretary, in an interview with the ITN on 24th February, 2010  “‘Human Rights’, ‘Media Freedom’, various ideas such as these are given to us by The International (sic) to control our society.” As President, he is now trying to put his ideas into practice.

There is no such thing as a little bit of tyranny any more than there can be a little bit of a pandemic. Both are elemental forces which are hard to contain once they are unleashed. A truth we will know fully, starting August 6th, if the Rajapaksas get the two-thirds of their dreams.

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