Tisaranee Gunasekara

The writer is a senior political commentator in Colombo.

Sri Lanka: Politics of Addiction


“Not only our actions, but also our inactions, become our destiny.” ~ Heinrich Zimmer (The King and the Corpse)

This week marked the 14th anniversary of the ending of the long Eelam War.

This week also saw the re-emergence of BBS head-honcho Galgoda-Atte Gnanasara to save the nation from that enterprising entrepreneur-of-cloth, Pastor Jerome Fernando. Much verbal thundering was heard warning of a new religious war.

Later in the week, a bunch of Sinhala-Buddhist extremists crashed into a ceremony at the Borella Cemetery held in the memory of all the war-dead. They condemned the event as a commemoration of the Tigers, probably on the grounds that those Tamils who died in the war (especially in the Rajapaksas’ Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian casualties) were Tigers, right down to babies and toddlers.

The week ended with another group of lay-and-monk warriors gathering by the Buddha statue outside the Fort Railway Station, pledging to protect rata, jathiya, and agama.

Fortunately, ordinary Lankans, immersed in the real struggle for economic survival, ignored these theatrics, turning what could have been explosions into damp squibs.

The ending of the long Eelam War brought neither peace nor prosperity even for the triumphant Sinhalese. The much awaited peace dividend was swallowed by a defence establishment that continued expanding. The Rajapaksas treated the entire Tamil population of the North and parts of the East like enemy aliens, locking up every man, woman, and child in open air prison camps called Welfare Villages (Indian and international pressure eventually compelled them to abandon this policy of mass incarceration). When the cry of the Undead Tiger failed to impress the South, the regime sought other enemies, flirting with ‘alien Christians’ before settling on ‘Encroaching Muslims’. The harvest of that toxic seeding was reaped in April 2019, three weeks short of the 10th anniversary of Eelam War’s ending.

The war was unnecessary, preventable. Every step towards it was motivated not by national necessity or even popular demand. The motive force was the hellish union between political opportunism and religio-racial extremism. As the events of the last week indicate, that union is far from dead and its current partners are waiting impatiently to return to political mainstream. Unchastened by our blood-soaked history, they want to repeat it.  

Until 1955-56, Lankan politics was cleavaged by class. That classic divide left little electoral space for SWRD Bandaranaike’s ambitions. His newly formed SLFP had challenged the UNP and lost in 1952. In the 1953 Hartal that shook the nation and forced a government to flee, he was an onlooker. The left had a real chance to form a government at the next election, especially if its fractured components could bring themselves to work together. Had Lanka taken that path, there would have been no Sinhala Only, no Sri riots of 1958, no Black July, and no 25-year war.

SWRD Bandaranaike was clever enough to know that in a political battlefield divided along class lines he couldn’t prevail and unscrupulous enough to adopt the noxious race+religion=nation equation as his signature policy. He accepted the Buddhist Commission report in toto. Monks formed Eksath Bhikshu Peramuna and engaged in house-to-house campaigning to ensure his victory.

Our tragedy is littered with paths not taken. The Buddha Jayanthi of 1956 could have been celebrated by focusing on what the Buddha taught, and by commencing a process of spiritual renaissance. Instead, under the guise of restoring Buddhism to its pre-colonial glory, Tripitaka was abandoned for Mahawamsa and the core Buddhist values of compassion, non-violence, and moderation replaced with hate, violence, and extremism.

The Buddhist Commission Report’s title was The Betrayal of Buddhism. The real betrayal had come from within, the work of monks and kings. A universalist teaching had been ghettoised into the exclusive preserve of a single race. A teaching that explicitly rejected caste has been distorted by embedding caste discrimination into its very heart. The Buddhist Commission report could have chartered a course to return debased Lankan Buddhism into what the Buddha taught by ridding it of the twin perversions of race and caste. Instead it ignored the division of a single monkhood into caste-based nikayas (a distortion created by a Kandyan king) and focused on entrenching the racial ghettoisation of Buddhism.

1956 might have become a year of true nation-building. Buddhism, cleansed of distortions, could have become a binding agent for a nascent Lankan nation. Instead, an unholy alliance of monks and politicians turned Buddhism into an agent of division. 67 years later, that spectre continues to haunt us.

Fiction and Unfiction

In January this year, an outcry was heard about a fake Temple of the Tooth being built in Pothuhera in Kurunegala by a man who called himself a Bodhisatva (a future Buddha – a tad like Prophet Jerome). People were donating money and jewellery to fund this edifice, the media claimed. Donations were pouring in from here and abroad. The prelates of Malwatte and Asgiriya together with the Diyawadana Nilame of the Temple of the Tooth wrote to the president seeking political intervention against this fakery. (Incidentally, the chief prelates of other two nikayas did not sign the letter as caste bars them from playing any role in rituals surrounding the tooth relic).

The facts were telling. An enterprising individual thought to build another Temple of the Tooth. There were enough Buddhists willing to believe his claim that once the edifice was complete, the tooth relic would come to him. The entire sorry tale demonstrates how far a rational teaching which accepts the law of cause-and-effect (hethu-pala-vadaya) had degenerated into a myth-ridden superstition in which relics could perform miracles and trees grant wishes. In this version of Buddhism, men are arrested for ‘insulting the Buddha’ (or his relics) while those who claim to be his robed-disciples violate his teachings on a daily basis.

The Buddha, in his final major sermon, set out the path for the sasana’s survival and expansion (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.1-6.vaji.html). He mentioned seven conditions, seven further conditions, seven good qualities, seven factors of enlightenment, seven perceptions, and six further conditions. If monks adhere to these 41 stipulations, the sasana would flourish. He made no mention of state patronage, of his pristine teachings surviving only in an island called Lanka, of rituals or relics. His sole focus was on the conduct of the monks themselves. And in what passes for Buddhism in Sri Lanka today, almost every single one of those conditions are violated daily and in plain sight. Those violations are ignored while talking about them is being turned into a non-bailable crime.

In 2019, the writer Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested under the ICCPR and held without bail. The arrest was the outcome of a complaint made by a group of monks about a short story he wrote (Ardha – Half). The story is about life in a fictional monastery and contains a hint about the abuse of young monks by senior monks. According to a police spokesman, “A group of monks complained that the reference to homosexual activities among the clergy insulted Buddhism.”

Vinaya pitaka refers to sexual misconduct by monks and specifically lists the masturbation of one monk by another as a serious offence. The Buddha obviously understood that becoming ordained will not free a person from human desires. Only the stream-enterers would be free of such yearnings. Since there are no known stream-enterers in Sri Lanka, the kind of misconduct the Buddha made rules against is likely to be present here. The arrest of several monks for suspected child abuse (including sexual abuse) this year alone indicates that what Shakthika Sathkumara’s fiction alleges is present in real life. Unfortunately, in today’s religious universe, the crime is less offensive than talking about it.

A new trend among political monks is to refer to the saffron robe as ‘Arahat dajaya’ (the standard of enlightened monks). This new myth is a marker in the ongoing attempt to place monks above scrutiny and criticism. This is reminiscent of the kind of blind veneration and unthinking obedience rife in many parts of Catholic Europe until a few decades ago and is present in some Charismatic churches even today (in a remake of the Jonestown horror, the head of Good News International Church in Kenya persuaded his followers to die of starvation to meet Jesus fast. Many did. The pastor is alive and well and currently out on bail). Walter Benjamin in One Way Street, provides an example, something he experienced during a visit to Naples, Italy, in the 1920’s. “…a priest was drawn on a cart through the streets of Naples for indecent offenses. He was followed by a crowd hurling maledictions. At a corner a wedding procession appeared. The priest stands up and makes the sign of a blessing, and the cart’s pursuers fall onto their knees.” This is where we headed. A monk does not have to adhere to the teaching. All he has to do is to wear the robe, just as all that Neapolitan priest had to do was to make the sign of the cross.

Superstition can be dismissed as silly. But it stems from the same irrationality which accepts the perversion of a teaching based on compassion and loving kindness to all living beings into one which rewards the killing of unbelievers with heavenly bliss. It also opens the floodgates of stupidity, enabling such political machinations as the Kelani Cobra.

In the infamous Mahawamsa story which debuts the justification for a holy war there is a marker for a different path. In the story, King Dutugemunu is saddened by the human costs of his victory. “How shall there be any comfort for me….since by me was caused the slaughter of a great host numbering millions?” he laments. And the deaths he is mourning are not even of civilians in the enemy territory but of enemy combatants. The call of his conscience is closer to the Buddha’s teaching than the supposed advice given to him by monks. It would also provide a better path to a lasting peace, and a more effective counter to the triumphant return of politics of religio-racial addiction.

The Salvation Mania

In 2019, almost seven million Lankans ignored the evidence before their eyes and elected an economic ignoramus as president, believing that he could guide them to the promised land of development painlessly and fast.

Gullibility has become a national characteristic, something that unites us across racial, religious, class and other lines.

Pastor Jerome Fernando who calls himself a prophet and runs an extremely lucrative religious enterprise seems to epitome that specifically American construct: charismatic preacher who lords it over a fief and turns it into a profit-making venture. Such preachers embody in their teaching and practice the brashness of a certain strand of American capitalism and the anti-intellectual, anti-rational tendencies inherent in unadulterated Lutherism. Martin Luther rejected the concept of free will totally and advocated salvation via sola fide, faith alone. Fortunately for the world, Protestantism evolved into a more tolerant and rational faith due to active mediation by great humanists such as Philip Melanchthon. The American style charismatic preachers are outside this mainstream, advocating political and social stances that are often retrogressive. The role played by this outcrop of Protestantism in propping rightwing populist leaders from Trump to Bolsonaro is well-documented.

            Pastor Jerome can perhaps be best understood by looking at the former Pitiduwe Siridamma thero who reinvented himself as Arhat Sri Samanthabadra and built another excellent religio-commercial enterprise, Umandawa. The one is as much of a follower of Christ as the other is a disciple of the Buddha. Both – and others of their ilk – work on vulnerabilities of people in uncertain times, turning fear and ignorance into lucre.

On October 3rd, 2002 a group of American Evangelical pastors wrote a letter to President George W Bush supporting a war against Saddam Hussein. The ‘Land Letter’ (named after its prime mover, Pastor Richard D Land) gave seven reasons why an invasion of Iraq would be a ‘Just War’. When Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) asked President Bush if he consulted his (far more intelligent) father before invading Iraq, the younger Bush replied, “He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice… There is a higher father I appeal to” (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/woodward-shares-war-secrets/). The world is still living with the horrors that ‘divinely-mandated’ war, each unnecessary death a living reminder of what happens when religious irrationality bleeds into political irrationality.

Pastor Jerome cannot insult the Buddha even if he tries to. The Buddha was accused of worse and to his face, and his response was that since he refused to accept the insults, they would return to the ones making them. The danger Pastor Jerome represents is the same danger political monks and other politically active religious figures represent (including the Catholic Cardinal). Their words and deeds further exacerbate societal gullibility and social irrationality, making another 2019 and national follies of that order far more likely. But the battle that must be waged with such purveyors of blind faith and unquestioning obedience has nothing to do with law and incarceration. It is a contestation of ideas and ideals over the kind of future we want for Sri Lanka. A secular country where faith is a private matter and every citizen is free to follow a religion – or not – cannot be built on persecution and intolerance.  

Sri Lanka’s Aragalaya 2.0: Preparing for the Inevitable


“Too many things have happened that weren’t supposed to happen and what was supposed to come about has not.” ~ Wyslawa Szymborska – The Century’s Decline

For a few hours in early April, 2022, Wikipedia page of Ajith Nivard Cabraal described the then Governor of Central Bank as: “A chartered accountant and the principal scum bag responsible for the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka.” Wikipedia also named the Finance Minister of Sri Lanka as Basil Kaputa Rajapaksa and listed money laundering as a family tradition of Minister Namal Rajapaksa. According to internet reports, this creative editing was the work of unnamed Lankan teenagers prevented by their parents from taking part in the burgeoning protests.

Those were desperate times, and unprecedented ones. According to surveys, more than 90% of Lankans experienced some form of economic distress, from familiar poverty to unthinkable shortages. Primordial and socio-economic cleavages that kept people divided collapsed into the general ferment of want and despair. And from that national condition, the Aragalaya was born.

On 9 April, Occupy Galleface began. On 9 May, in response to a Rajapaksa-sanctioned attack on Gota-go-gama, people across the country unleashed mayhem on ruling party politicians. On 9 July, around a million Lankans converged on Colombo and forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee.

9 June was relatively quiet. Basil Rajapaksa resigned, promising to return. But people didn’t occupy the streets as they had done on 9 April and 9 May. Gota-go-gama activists were as militant as ever. But Lankans were in a wait-and-see mood. Their fury had been appeased by the mob violence of 9 May. The departure of Mahinda Rajapaksa and new prime-minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s frank acknowledgement of the crisis had generated a modicum of hope.

Between 9 June and 9 July, hope died, reviving anger. The crisis was worsening. Instead of dealing with queues, President Gotabaya busied himself undermining PM Wickremesinghe and sabotaging the proposed 21st Amendment aimed at reducing excessive presidential powers. In a clear sign of the coming avalanche, irate consumers, many of whom waiting in queues up to 20 days, ringed the Galle Stadium with empty gas cylinders ahead of the Sri Lanka-Australia test match. But all omens were lost on the Rajapaksas, until the human deluge reached their doorstep.

On 19 April, when people were protesting against the unavailability of fuel in Rambukkana, the police shot to kill and killed Chaminda Lakshan, father of two and the sole breadwinner of this family (Last month, the Human Rights Commission handed over its report on the incident. Its recommendations include identifying the exact officer who fired the killer-shot and taking legal action against him and paying compensation to the family of Lakshan and those who suffered injuries from the attack. Whether the ministers in charge of Police and Justice heed these recommendations, and whether the Opposition takes up this cause remain to be seen).

The Bastille which stood for 400 years as a symbol of absolute power and unleavened tyranny fell in less than a day, between morning and evening of 14 July 1789. It was conquered by 900 citizens, many of them tradesmen. A few months later, the great Versailles Palace fell to an army of mostly Parisian women armed with anger and desperation.

Tear gas and live bullets are effective when protestors are limited to thousands, not when they number in hundreds of thousands, and not when they could include your family and your superior officer’s family, marching side by side. The key is the public mood. When the general public is largely indifferent, repression is possible. When the public is a seething volcano, the police and the army will not obey orders to shoot even if orders are given.

1953 Hartal was born of a class issue. During the 70-77 period most Lankans were affected by shortages, but normal life didn’t collapse. The queues were long but no one had to stand in a queue for days. And no one died in queues. All those unprecedented things happened between April and 9 July 2022.

On 9 August 2022, several Lankan opposition leaders called for another Aragalaya. To make Ranil Go Home. It didn’t happen. By that time, power cut durations had been reduced, gas was becoming available, and fuel pass system was in place. The crisis continued, but there was hope. By 9 September, gas and fuel queues were gone. And the Aragalaya was over.

Angry, Anguished, Amoral

March 2022 began with a candle light vigil of 6 people in Kohuwala against 10-12 hour power cuts. Within two weeks such vigils had spread across the country. March 2022 ended with people surrounding the president’s private residence demanding that he and his family resign.

March 2020 was not just another time but another universe. On the 26th of that month, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned former army sergeant Sunil Rathnayake, a man convicted of murdering eight people, including a toddler of five and his brothers aged thirteen and fifteen. As the Supreme Court judgment affirming the conviction stated, the victims were tied and made to kneel. The killer slashed their necks from behind, one after the other…

Pardoning such a man dealt a body blow to justice, rule of law, and that basic decency without which we cease being human. It also sent a deadly message to the military which had also protected the sole living witness, carried out initial investigations, and arrested the suspected killer. When the pardoned killer emerged from the prison, he was welcomed by defence secretary Kamal Gunaratne. Mr. Hyde had vanquished Dr. Jekyll.

The whole story was one of absolute moral outrage. Yet outrage was thin on the ground that April. The 6.9voters, still caught in the Rajapaksa myth, didn’t care. The Opposition too remained mostly silent. If one accepts that all soldiers are war heroes, condemning the pardon of a former soldier is an act of treachery, even if the pardoned man is a serial killer of unarmed civilians.

The Aragalaya, born solely of economic issues, didn’t, and didn’t have to, question such contentious and discomfiting matters. There wasn’t even a proper analysis of why nearly seven million Lankans voted for a manifestly unsuitable candidate who, in his sole media conference, failed to answer the two basic economic questions put to him. The self-pitying and self-exculpating cry of We were deceived sufficed. The Aragalaya was multi-ethnic and multi-religious, but that unity was as facile as the rich-poor solidarity present in it, for it didn’t bother to address any of the differences that divided us and made us kill each other in the past and continue to divide us and may make us kill each other in the future.

So pity, compassion, or even justice had very little to do with the events of 2022. Perhaps that was why a struggle hailed as non-violent dissolved into mob-violence, with no soul-searching on 9 May. True, the attack by Rajapaksa thugs was outrageous. Yet the essence of a non-violent struggle is to remain non-violent even in the face of violence. There wasn’t much of a difference between the mob which beat two men to death on 9 May and Sunil Rathnayake who slashed the throats of eight people. Little wonder pardoning that killer remains a non-issue.

Before 9 May, Aragalaya contained within it the possibility of birthing a different and a better Sri Lanka. The counter-violence of 9 May and the attitude of justification or denial adopted by leading Aragalaya activists killed that potential. Aragalaya proved to be a microcosm not of a possible Sri Lanka but the really existing one, in good and bad senses. Had 9 May ended on a different note, we might be living in another Sri Lanka today, arguably a better one.

The seeds of the coming dissolution were present even in the early halcyon days. Don’t try to teach Gota-go-game protestors; just learn from them was a popular saying in the resistance space. That sense of inerrancy indicated not intelligence but a kind of arrogant inanity on par with the Rajapaksas. In that sense the Aragalaya lacked what we Lankans lack, an understanding of limits and a willingness to abide by them. That congenital inability was behind every wrong turn we made, from disenfranchising plantation Tamils to Sinhala Only, from Black July to Aluthgama, from 1982 Referendum to repeatedly electing Rajapaksas to power, from the LTTE and the JVP to Easter Sunday killers. For a nation supposed to have been nourished by Buddhism, we have a strange penchant for extremes.

In the end, Aragalaya fizzled out mainly because its leading activists failed to know and acknowledge its limits. People had realised that Gotabaya, Mahinda and other Rajapaksas were responsible for their plight. They wanted those Rajapaksas gone. Sending Ranil Wickremesinghe home was not a popular demand on 9 July but an activist cause. The million Lankans who converged on Colombo to send Gota home did nothing when President Wickremesinghe sent the military and the police to dismantle what remained of Gota-go-gama. Aragalaya was a utilitarian cause and not a moral one. Its sense of right and wrong stemmed almost exclusively from its own needs and interests. Once the public got what they wanted – sending Gota home – they too went home.

The eternal cry for change

In September 2019, retired general Kamal Gunaratne’s book on Gotabaya Rajapaksa was launched and became an immediate and runaway best-seller. At the Colombo Book Fair, people queued to buy the hagiography and get it autographed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. One of those, a young fisheries-businessman said, most of the buyers were young people clamouring for Change. And with President Gotabaya, they did get the change they asked for: tax cuts and Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism, wall art and keeping the minorities in their place, saviours and war heroes. The tale ended in general unhappiness because people didn’t bother to consider the consequences of the change they clamoured for. Once the consequences became undeniable, they clamoured for change again, as unthinkingly as before.

In Sri Lanka everything changes except for the cry for Change.

During the three months of Aragalaya, the Opposition had ample time to study what the Rajapaksas got wrong and come up with a common minimum programme of corrective regeneration. The Opposition failed in that task. The only one with any workable plan happened to be Ranil Wickremesinghe. While the SJB was promising to end fuel queues via the generosity of the Middle East, the Wickremesinghe administration worked on the QR system. While the JVP was promising to end the dollar shortage via donations from comrades domiciled abroad, the Wickremesinghe administration promoted tourism and wooed foreign remittances. Ranil Wickremesinghe still remains the president because he ended the soothsayer-economics of the Rajapaksas. If he didn’t, he’d be ex-president now. And no amount of cultivating the military would have saved him, any more than it saved the Rajapaksas.

In the heady early days of Aragalaya, three young people (two of them women) walked for four days from Kandy to Galle Face, in an act of solidarity. As one of the female marchers told the media: “We managed not because of the strength of our bodies but because of the strength of our minds. We don’t have a personal problem with the Government. We are not asking anything from the Government either… We are saying leave us a country where we can live in freedom and manage with the income we earn through our work.” In other words, freedom and safety to live and to work

Order and democracy as the basic pillars of a liveable life. So far, all attempts to reignite the Aragalaya have failed, because Wickremesinghe has got enough of the combination right. A kind of normalcy has replaced generalised chaos. The economy is better today than it was one year ago. The gradual increase in foreign remittances indicates that life is better today than it was one year ago. So it is too early for Aragalaya Season 2. Whether that second coming is realised or remains a hope for some and a terror for others depend primarily on Wickremesinghe and his Government.

“Once order is imposed,” Robert Kaplan writes in his new book The Tragic Mind, “the task is to make it less and less tyrannical.” With the proposed ATA, the Wickremesinghe administration is trying to buttress order with force, making life more and more tyrannical. If, as some reports claim, that plan has been abandoned, it would demonstrate that this Government understands the limits and is willing to abide by them, unlike its predecessor. If the Government is merely buying time, then the dreams and nightmares of a revenant Aragalaya may yet be realised.

Sri Lanka: Still on the Rotten Bridge

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Homo Sapiens is prone to orgies of stupidity, brutality, and destruction.”
Martin Wolf (The crisis of democratic capitalism)

So back in the Chalk Circle, but this time play ends in Act 2. Grusha never gets across the rotten bridge. She is near the end when the Ironshirts, gathered on the other side, manage to inflame her with their insults. She turns around to give her own back. A battle of words ensues. The Corporal steps on to the bridge. Grusha stamps her foot. The soldiers join their leader. The rotten bridge breaks at both ends, plunging all on it into the abyss below. The play ends not in renewed life but in avoidable death.

Sri Lanka is still on the rotten bridge, precariously balanced between sensible economics and insensible politics. The freefall of the economy has been halted. But it can resume, and spiral into societal anarchy, if the political war of attrition between the President and the Opposition doesn’t end soon in a mutually-agreed ceasefire.

Sri Lanka has avoided collapse, for now. Hyperinflation has been reined in. A run on the banks has been averted. The rupee has stopped plummeting. Prices of essentials remain high, but the crippling shortages and killer queues are over. Tourism is booming, foreign remittances are increasing, and foreign reserves no longer look like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. These gains are not opinions, but facts. And most of the credit for those small but meaningful advances belongs to Ranil Wickremesinghe.

On May 9th, SLPP thugs attacked Gota-go-gama protestors. Angry Lankans responded with mob violence. For two days, the country burned. On May 11th, tanks rolled down deserted streets, occupying urban centres and rural towns with no public opposition. People, having exhausted themselves with an orgy of arson, had retreated into sullen silence and resentful inaction. Gota-go-gama remained but its power of intervention was limited to issuing not quite realistic statements. Mahinda Rajapaksa had resigned. There was no prime minister, no government; only a weak president, a strong military, a wearied public, and a deadly political vacuum.

Opposition leaders declined the premiership, using virtue as an excuse. Ranil Wickremesinghe accepted. Some kind of political normalcy was restored. The alternative was not a pure government of the people, but a Gotabaya-military regime or just military rule.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is no Saviour. But he saved much. Those achievements, while real remain fragile, easily reversible. As with Grusha on the rotten bridge, utter disaster is still one misstep away.

The President has claimed economic health to be his priority. But economic health and political health are interdependent states. One cannot be sustained without the other. The political health of a nation cannot be achieved through tear gas, repressive laws, and baton charges, but through understanding and consensus. As Karu Jayasuriya pointed out, a political ceasefire is the need of the hour, first in parliament, then beyond.

The deftness and the patience the President displayed in inching the IMF deal to the finishing line is absent in his political dealings. His ham-fisted reaction to any protest is indicative of how his political attitudes continue to be shaped and coloured by his acrimony against those who burnt his books. The anger is understandable. But translated into political attitudes and policies, it could create a socio-political inferno which consumes the economic good he has achieved.

Not intelligent self-interest but blinding rage has become the determining factor in oppositional politics. So they align with the anti-direct tax crowd, forgetting that progressive taxation is a sine-qua-non of any progressive economic strategy. Had the IMF refused to sign a deal with Ranil Wickremesinghe, the opposition would have been singing the praises of this Bretton Woods twin.

Meanwhile, the bottommost one third of people struggle to live, dependent for survival on inadequate charity. Their suffering is glossed over by the government and ignored by the opposition. Their anger, if it explodes, will be a flood that takes everyone and everything in its path.

The myth of authoritarian stability

According to media reports, the police are to get 500 SUVs under an Indian credit line. The first 125 fuel-guzzlers have already been delivered.

SUVs for the police are not a priority by any sane economic standards. That economically irrational loan is symbolic of how political insensibility can undermine economic sanity.

The government’s zero-tolerance response to peaceful protests is turning non-issues into issues. The over-the-top reaction to March 7th IUSF protest is a case in point. If the government did nothing, the protest would have come and gone. But the government opted for a course of action which was the mirror-image of protestors’ heedless extremism. Police tear-gassed Colombo University students and staff who were not part of the protest and followed it up by tear-gassing students from nearby schools. A puny protest was met with massive violence. This is the path not to social peace but to endless disharmony.

Authoritarian stability is a myth. By pursuing that myth, the president, knowingly or unknowingly, is placing Sri Lanka on the slippery slope of unending unrest. This unrest will not be limited to the streets but will creep into the very heart of the state, as the attempt to use the legislature to cow the judiciary indicate. If pursued any further, this attempt to neutralise the courts will open another front, with the legislature engaged in a no-holds barred war with the judiciary on the orders of the executive. The necessary balance between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, on which the health of the state rests, will be undermined to common peril.

The attempt by some state-sector trade unions to cripple the country through a continuous strike failed primarily due to the total absence of public support. The strike-leaders shelved their disruptive plans not because of government threats but because of public ire. If the government wants to avoid a repeat performance by state-sector unions, they should focus on propaganda; no hype would be needed; truth will suffice. Instead, according to media reports, the government in its PTA replacement has created a false equation between strikes and terrorism. Such dangerous dipping into tyranny are the inevitable fruits of pursuing the myth of authoritarian stability.  

As the World Bank reminded us recently, poverty in Sri Lanka doubled from 13% to 25% between 2021 and 2022 and will increase by 2% in 2023. This was Rajapaksa doing. And in that doing, the Rajapaksas had the uncritical backing of the likes of GL Peiris, Dulles Alahapperuma, and Wimal Weerawansa, not to mention the Viyath Maga cohort. Thanks to their collective economic insanity, people are eating less, both in terms of quality and quantity. The IMF seems to far more concerned about providing these poorest of the poor with a strong-enough lifeline than the government or the Opposition. The government, instead of focusing on an adequate poverty alleviation programme along the lines of Janasaviya (targeted and time-bound with consumption and investment components and add-ons like skills training), is picking political fights with all and sundry. The Opposition is more concerned with the taxes of the few than the hunger of the many.

The political war of attrition is not just consuming time, energy, and resources of both sides. It can also undermine President Wickremesinghe’s hard-won achievement, the IMF deal. Sri Lanka will not get the second tranche, if the targets of the first phase are not met adequately. Those targets can be best achieved not through repressive laws, riot police or club-wielding soldiers, but dialogue and consensus with stakeholders, starting with the Opposition. Economic moderation on the part of the Opposition in return for political moderation on the part of the government: that is a possible and necessary goal. Sri Lanka, still on the rotting bridge, need the unity of all moderates, a rational politico-economic understanding, to deprive political extremists of political oxygen.

Commenting on the uproar surrounding French president Emmanuel Macron’s plan to increase pension age by two years, The Economist warned “This could be a moment when social rebellion emerges.” If it does, the ultimate beneficiary, if there’s one, is likely to be Marine Le Pen rather than Jean-Luc Mélenchon.  

In Sri Lanka too the political war of attrition will deliver neither economic recovery nor greater democracy. The resultant turmoil will open the floodgates of either anarchy or tyranny or both.

The poverty of alternatives

The world’s first recorded labour strike was in ancient Egypt during the reign of Ramesses III when necropolis workers, tomb-builders and artisans, downed their tools and protested demanding their pay. Since that day in 1170BCE, strikes have often been the only recourse available to the powerless with no other means of making their voices heard.

In Sri Lanka, even that weapon is denied to millions of casual workers providing vitally necessary (even risky) labour in the industrial sector. Like the 2 million Manpower workers who labour in the FTZ garment factories. They are right-less and unprotected since they are not registered under the Labour Commissioner. According to media reports, about one quarter of their salaries go to agents and they are not entitled to bonuses or other facilities. Most of these Manpower workers are women and many suffer sexual harassment in workplace with no recourse to relief or justice (https://theleader.lk/news/16114-2023-03-17-08-20-48). And yet, about the suffering of these millions of Lankan workers, the injustices visited on them, the Opposition is silent.

Of the grade 3 students in government schools, only 34% are literate and 7% are numerate, according to a research by the Education Ministry covering the entire island, done between December 2021 and January 2022. This disastrous inability cannot be blamed on the pandemic alone since only 26% of students lacked online facilities. The fault also lies in the quality of the education and of the educators. If this trend continues, we will have a population that cannot read, write, or do a basic sum, and therefore unemployable except as soldiers, monks or Manpower workers. This too seems not to be a priority for the Opposition.

The SJB and the JVP who agree on very little are agreed on reducing taxes for highest income earners from the current 36% to 24%. This is their economic progressivism. In what sense is Ranil Wickremesinghe more neo-liberal than these opposition leaders who want to tread the same path as Gotabaya Rajapaksa and give tax breaks to those in the topmost bracket?

If the SJB sounds clueless on economic issues, it is because the party is trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hound on contentious issues. The JVP’s cluelessness seems genuine, its ignorance of economic basics as total as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s. The best evidence is a recent statement by Sunil Handunnetti, who will be the finance minister if the JVP/NPP forms a government. Questioned about the recent appreciation of the rupee against the dollar, his response was: “Do you think if the rupee becomes stronger than America, America will let us be? Eh? If so America will bomb us. That rupee is becoming stronger than the American dollar.” His NPP counterpart, an economics lecturer in a university, did not dare to correct him, proving once again that the NPP is a mere cover for the JVP.

Utopia is not an alternative to reality. It is a form of escapism and must be understood as such. There are no painless paths out of this crisis. The Opposition should be focused on minimising the burden on the poorest one-third of the population, the 3.4million people identified by the World Food Programme as suffering from hunger. Instead, opposition parties are vying with each other to curry favour with disgruntled doctors and relatively high earning state sector workers. They criticise President Wickremesinghe, but are yet to provide a rational alternative to the path he is charting.

The JVP might be too like the frog-in-the-well to know it, but the SJB and some SLPP break-offs would know that we are not in a position to impose conditions on anyone, starting with the IMF. They would also know that the IMF today is not quite the IMF of yesteryear and that most of the conditions in the agreement with us are helpful, necessary or both. There is no austerity for the poor in the agreement, only some belt-tightening for the rich and the middle class.

If direct taxes are lowered, indirect taxes will have to be increased, hurting the poor more. If the rich and the middle class do not share the burden of recovery, the poor will have to shoulder an even greater load. If we keep on pumping money into loss-making state enterprises like Sri Lankans, there will be less money for education and health. Those are the real choices any future government will have to make. All the rest, like making good the income-expenditure gap through less corruption or bringing back the stolen money, is rhetoric. Both are worthy and necessary goals. But neither can be realised fast enough to make a difference in the here and now, given how endemic corruption has become and how much legal and paper work will be involved in getting stolen money back.

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa failed, the country paid the price. It will be no different if Ranil Wickremesinghe’s gains are reversed and he too fails. When the healthy difference between opposing political parties descends into an endless war, there can be no winners; only losers.

Sri Lanka: Taxing Times


“…we emphasise that we won’t hesitate at all to unite with all health workers and take tough measures which can paralyse the entire hospital system against this unfair wage cut.”

Statement by the GMOA (23.2.2023)

Sri Lanka’s poorest of the poor, their lives devastated by economic collapse, may face a killer blow soon: a crippling of the public health system.

That GMOA is planning to ‘paralyse the entire hospital system’ in protest against a government decision to institute a ‘wage cut’. Needless to say, ‘the hospital system’ they are planning to paralyse is the public one, used by those Lankans who constitute the bottommost layers of the income totem pole. The fee-levying private health care system, used by middle and upper layers of society, including politicians, will function smoothly. The very doctors who refuse to treat patients in government hospitals will attend to their private practices with usual assiduity.

Hippocrates and our own physician-king Buddhadasa, who, according to legend, stopped a royal progress to treat a sick cobra, would turn in their graves at the conduct of these medical merchants.

We excoriate politicians, and rightly so, for their unconscionable and irresponsible conduct, for their greed and their willingness to risk the safety and wellbeing of citizens who sustain them. Are the doctors, who threaten to hold the poorest of the poor hostage to win a wage demand, any better?  

The UNP president and the SLPP government will probably condemn the doctors’ strike because they are in power. Had they been in opposition, they wouldn’t have.

Will the SJB, the JVP, and sundry opposition parties have the moral and political courage to ask the doctors not to penalise the already pulverised poor in order to win a wage demand? Will Sajith Premadasa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake or Dulles Alahapperuma possess the decency to tell the doctors to find another weapon to attack the government with?

The doctors’ demand may be just. But their tactic is supremely unjust. Weaponizing poor patients is heartless and malicious at any time, doubly so in the midst of a calamitous economic crisis. The strike won’t hurt politicians. It will hurt the fiscally impoverished 36% of the population who are missing meals and missing school, the 600,000 families who might lose access to power thanks to the recent electricity hike. The very people, who through indirect taxes, helped fund the medical education of these doctors. 

When President Gotabaya and PM Mahinda Rajapaksa reduced health expenditure in the midst of a pandemic, the GMOA doctors remained mute. They were too busy enjoying the rich fruits of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 tax cut, the first step in Sri Lanka’s fast-track to bankruptcy. The GMOA bosses were probably among those who whispered sweet lies about tax cuts and instant growth into the ignorant ears of the former Lt. Colonel.

In Sri Lanka’s avoidable tragedy, the only bad guys are not the politicians. The rot in the political class is a reflection of a widespread and deep-going societal malaise. The politicians are the most culpable. But none of us voting age citizens are completely innocent. If any solution is to work, if any change is to be effective, it must move beyond the simplistic formula of bad politicians and good everyone-else and confront special and vested interests, from monks and military to professionals and privileged trade unions.

Are there other predators apart from politicians?

According to the latest IHP survey, while no political leader has a net favourability rating, in a general election, the NPP/JVP and the SJB will win a plurality.

Stirring oratory and pie-in-the-sky promises apart, how will a NPP/JVP or SJB government apportion the economic and social costs of recovery? The answer will depend mostly on how the tax burden is distributed. And on this seminal matter, the SJB and the NPP/JVP fudges at best. The SJB talks about reducing direct taxes for the uppermost bracket, while remaining silent about which income segment/s will have to pick the extra tab for that tax break. The NPP/JVP criticises the current imbalance between direct and indirect taxes, promises to correct it, but says nothing about how.

The reason is obvious. Neither party wants to anger those professional groups who are demanding tax cuts for themselves.

The demonstrating professionals are not saying they don’t want to pay higher taxes to fund such government waste as the silly Janaraja Perahara or the huge stable of cabinet, deputy, and state ministers. The government – any government – must be held to account about how public funds are used. But that is not what the protesting professionals are doing. They don’t want to pay higher taxes, period; irrespective of the identity of the president or the hue of the government. Their reasons have nothing to do with how government borrow and spend and everything to do with how they themselves have lived beyond their means. They too, like successive governments, have borrowed heavily to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle. They want to continue that lifestyle, even as the poorest of the poor are starving. That is the burden of their tax-song. And their tax song will remain unchanged irrespective of who sits in the president’s chair and who forms the government. What is Ranil’s headache today could be Sajith’s or Anura’s headache tomorrrow, if either leader achieves his presidential ambitions.

The Australian TV channel, ABC News did a feature on Finland’s education system. Arguably the best in the world, it is completely free. Not just the teaching, but also lunches, books, and excursions. Teachers are highly paid; teaching is one of the most sought after professions, and one of the hardest to get into. As a school principal told the interviewer, “Schools can’t raise private funds or to charge fees from parents. All schools are equitably funded from taxation” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xCe2m0kiSg).

Finland has one of the highest direct tax rates in the world. And this high rate came into being not after the country became developed but before. From 1945 to 1951, when Finland was dirt-poor and war-devastated, about one third of public revenue was generated through income and wealth taxes. (https://helda.helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10224/3553/pihkala26-47.pdf?sequence=1). That money was used to build free health and education systems of the highest quality, which in turn helped the country to escape poverty without falling into the debt trap.

Taxation, argues Thomas Picketty, in Capital and Ideology, played the leading role in West’s economic triumph over the East. Based on a wealth of data, he points out that by the end of the 15th Century Oriental and Occidental powers were evenly balanced. The West took its great leaps upwards firstly from 1500 to 1800 and secondly from 1930 to 1980. Both were enabled by increases in tax income. Chinese and Ottoman empires declined because their tax revenues remained low. Japan was the only exception, Prof Picketty points out, with higher taxes being a major pillar of its Meiji reforms.

Taxation is not the only issue. The recent electricity hike which disproportionately burdens the poor was caused not only by political corruption but also by the wasteful way in which the CEB was run for decades. Wages for excess workers, bonuses despite huge annual losses, and other privileges all added up to push the unit cost of electricity sky high. Now more than half a million poor families might be pushed back into the kuppi lamp era in consequence.

State owned enterprises (SOEs) were supposed to rescue consumers from exploitative practices of private entrepreneurs. But in Sri Lanka, SOE officials and trade unions have themselves turned predator, preying on citizens. Several recent directives provide examples of how these groups battened themselves on public funds. One ended the practice of top government officials taking their official vehicles home at retirement. Another prevented officials from holding their retirement parties at state expense. A third directed all officials to travel economy class and not business. Are these unearned and unjust privileges only the tip of the iceberg? How come no trade union screamed about these high-way-robbery type practices? Is their silence indicative of a mutually beneficial understanding of the plunder-and-let-plunder variety?

 ]          When rulers are hegemonic, they transplant their own values and beliefs on to the society they rule; and by doing so successfully, they manage to maintain their moments of hegemony longer. From an addiction to unearned privileges to tax phobia, from anti-compassion to indecency, we are still Rajapaksa children.

During a recent parliamentary debate, when MP Rohini Wijeratne was speaking, a parliamentarian was heard scolding her in filth. The Speaker remained silent, during and after. Not a single opposition parliamentarian intervened to defend their colleague. This is what the Rajapaksas have brought the country down to. Unless the President orders the miscreant to apologise publicly (and removes him from his ministry if he happens to be the education minister), unless the opposition in one voice demands such action, then, even if the last member of the Rajapaksa clan departs politics, Sri Lanka will remain a Rajapaksa land.

Why elections?

Mahinda Rajapaksa is correct, for once. The real reason President Wickremesinghe scuttled the local government election was not economics but politics.

In 2020, the timing of the general election became a bone of contention between the Rajapaksa government and the Opposition. The government, knowing it was on a winning streak, wanted to hold elections as soon as possible, despite the pandemic. The Opposition, citing the pandemic, wanted the election to be postponed. The Opposition’s argument was more factual; having an election in the midst of a pandemic was risky. But the real reason the Opposition wanted a postponement was the fear of losing.

Now the opposition wants an immediate local government election because it believes it is ahead politically. The wisdom of spending so much money on an LG election in the midst of an economic devastation is not even considered. In truth, their much shouted fidelity to democracy is but a cover for power. If the SJB was clearly ahead and the NPP/JVP trailing way behind, the latter wouldn’t have been so averse to a postponement and vice versa. And Ranil Wickremesinghe would have found the money for the election somehow, if he thought the UNP could come first. This is how real priorities are decided. This is why Sri Lanka is unlikely to do better in the future than it did in the past.

Elections are necessary for democratic health. But democratic health cannot be reduced to periodic elections. Moreover, if there are powerful groups with vested interests who claim that they have the ultimate right in deciding how a country is run, a democracy’s health becomes precarious, with or without periodic elections. In many countries, it is the military which arrogates unto itself such political veto powers. In Sri Lanka, so far, it is the Buddhist clergy.

During their anti-devolution demonstration outside parliament, several monks argued that the president should not implement the 13th Amendment in full because the chief prelates are opposed to it. In a subsequent interview with a You Tube channel, two leading political monks, Ulapane Sumangala thero and Akmeemana Dayaratne thero reiterated the argument. The former said, “Even if the entire parliament agrees we won’t allow the 13th to be implemented. If 13th is given the country will become a lake of blood.”

Sri Lanka’s bloated military might become a threat to democracy in the future (especially if politicians continue their constant bickering, making an exhausted public turn to the Uniformed Man for salvation). The Buddhist clergy is an actual threat to democracy now. They insist on having the final say in every matter, from how much devolution Tamils should be given to how much sex education children should be taught. (The answer to both is none; no devolution, no sex-education, we are Sinhala Buddhists). The monks obviously think Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist Iran and they are the Sinhala-Buddhist ayatollahs. If every measure needs saffron sanction, why bother with elections or parliaments? Why not save a lot of money by asking the chief prelates to run the show?

Given the key role political monks played in Ceylon/Sri Lanka’s downward trajectory right up to the re-election of the Rajapaksas in 2019 and 2020, their undiminished determination to interfere in governance poses a real danger to the prospects of recovery. If political and societal leaders lack the courage to stand up to rampaging monks and other vested interests (civilian and military), what hope for the future, irrespective of which party comes to office and which politicians hold power?

Sri Lanka: The Sacred and the Profane


“A tangle within, a tangle without…” ~ Jata Sutta – Samyutta Nikaya

In July 2020, Indika Rathnayake, a non-theistic online activist, was summoned to the Organised Crimes Prevention Police Division and questioned for three hours. ‘Propagating fictitious ideas’was his organised crime. The monk-director of the Buddhist Information Centre had complained about Mr. Rathnayake’s facebook posts claiming that Buddhism originated from Jainism. Why a police division set up to prevent ‘organised crime’should take such a complaint seriously is not even a question in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Rathnayake was fortunate; he got off with a warning not to speculate about the origins of Buddhism. Unlike that unnamed 43-year-old woman who was arrested less than three months later for insulting Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, thereby ‘sowing discord among Buddhists and Christians.’

According to Pew Research, 40% of world’s countries and territories have blasphemy laws, including Sri Lanka. Our blasphemy laws were bequeathed to us by the British. Britain abolished its own blasphemy laws in 2008. We still cling to ours and resort to them more than ever before.

The irony is obvious. The concept of blasphemy is alien to the Buddha’s teaching. His attitude to verbal abuse, including the vilest slander, is well known, Akkosa Sutta being an excellent case point. A Brahmin called Akkosa Bharadvaja scolds the Buddha in “foul and harsh words.” The Buddha waits until the tirade is over and asks what Akkosa does when he has visitors. Akkosa says he offers refreshments. The Buddha asks what happens to those refreshments if the visitors refuse them. Akkosa says then they will return to him. Says the Buddha, “You are abusing us who do not abuse, you are angry with us who do not get angry, you are quarrelling with us who do not quarrel. All this of yours we do not accept. You alone, Brahman, get it back; all this, Brahman, belongs to you.” He then explains, that when someone “returns the abuse, the quarrelling, anger in kind, it is called ‘associating with each other and exchanging mutually. This association and mutual exchange we do not engage in.” (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn07/sn07.002.budd.html)

            The British-introduced blasphemy laws seemed to have been observed more in the breach for close to a century. Until the early 1970’s there seemed to have existed in the island an environment conducive to free thinking, debate, and dissent. The response to myth-busting activities by Prof. Abraham T Kovoor, Prof. Carlo Fonseka, and the Rationalist Association indicate a public relatively open minded even about age-old superstitions, such as fire-walking associated with God Kataragama.

Was it this prevalence of critical thinking and writing which made the United Front government introduce blasphemy into its infamous Press Council Law of 1973? Section 15 criminalises any newspaper writing of ‘profane matter’ intending to “insult any religion or founder of any religion…any deity or saint venerated by followers of any religion” (http://www.commonlii.org/lk/legis/num_act/slpcl5o1973298/s15.html). This leap into legal backwardness, this attempt to criminalise free thinking was done by a government which is still considered left and progressive!

In 2000, journalist Manjula Wediwardana was arrested subsequent to a complaint by a Catholic priest that his soon-to-be-published book insulted the Virgin Mary. This was when the reign of the Rajapaksas was not even a blip on the horizon and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was the president. In 2000, he got bail. Today he wouldn’t have, because he would have been arrested under the ICCRP, like Shakthika Sathkumara.

In Sri Lanka, a law that was crafted to prevent discrimination and injustice is being used selectively to promote both. The infamously famous Sammantha Badda thero has openly claimed that the Tooth Relic is really a porcine tooth (දන්ත ධාතුව කියන්නේ ඌරු දතක් – Samantha Badda – YouTube). Nothing has happened to him. But You Tuber Sepal Amarasinghe is in remand custody for insulting the Tooth Relic.

The charges against Mr. Sathkumara were dropped in Feb 2021 (after he spent months in remand custody). Was it because there was no legal possibility of the charges being maintained? Is the ICCRP being weaponised to intimidate those who anger political or religious authorities? In the absence of a legal pushback, will the ICCRP become a tool to stifle any public conversation about Buddhism and Buddhist monks, just as blasphemy laws were in Christian Europe once and are in most of the Muslim world even now?

Who insults the Buddha?

            In cash-strapped Sri Lanka, farce abounds. This month, news broke about a fake Dalada Maligawa being constructed in Kurunegala, using money and jewellery donated by devotees. The heads of Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters and the Diyawadana Nilame were roused into righteous indignation by the news. The latter wrote to the President demanding action. The President ordered the IGP to take action. Mervyn Silva too ordered the police to take action, after visiting the site.

            Had the fake Dalada Maligawa begun its religious services, would those too have been limited to monks of one caste, as religious services in the real one are?

At the 2019 launch of Chinese Academy of History, President Xi Jinping emphasised the need for “history research with Chinese characteristics”. In Sri Lanka, we seem to have a Buddhism with ethnic and caste characteristics. These distortions were created by two key historical corruptions of the Buddha’s teachings. The first was Bhikku Mahanama’s insertion of the concept of just and holy war into a teaching which was based on compassion towards all living beings. Mahawansa’s claim that there’s no sin in killing non-Buddhists in a war to protect Buddhism has seeped deeper into Sinhala consciousness than Buddha’s First Precept.

The second perversion happened in the 18th Century when a Kandyan king decreed that higher ordination be limited to members of the Govigama caste. The story is told, approvingly, in Mandarampura Puwatha by Labugama Lankananda Thero. By the time the second Nayak king, Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe, was crowned, Buddhism had degenerated and higher ordination had ended. The King (with the corporation of the Dutch) brought higher ordination rites from Siam (Thailand). For about a decade, ordination in Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters was open to everyone. Then the King saw that certain monks from oppressed castes (hina janaya) paid obeisance to upper caste lay persons of wealth and power. The king then prohibited higher ordination to anyone outside the Govigama caste.

If this ‘origin story’ was true, the correct action would have been to de-robe the offending monks; not introducing caste into a caste-less religion. When non-Govigama monks in the maritime provinces banded together and established the Amarapura nikaya by bringing higher ordination rites from Burma, the Kandyan king banned it. Fortunately his writ didn’t run very far and the attempt to turn monkhood into the exclusive preserve of one caste failed. Had the Kandyan king vanquished the British instead of the other way around, we would have had a Sinhala-Govigama Buddhism! And many an exemplary monk would have been lost to the Sasana, like Miggetuwatte Gunananda thero of the Amarapura nikaya.

As Prof Richard Gombrich points out, Buddha’s teaching on the irrelevancy of caste in caste-ridden India and the opening of monkhood for everyone including those from the most depressed and despised communities caused “a substantial change in the intellectual climate” (Theravada Buddhism: A social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo). The 18th century introduction of caste into monkhood caused a retrogressive counter-change and split the monkhood along caste lines. Wasn’t that a greater insult to the Buddha than Shakthika Sathkumara’s story or Sepal Amarasinghe’s intemperate remarks?

No religion is a hermetically sealed space. Every religious teaching is affected and changed by the times it lives in and has lived through. For example, according to Prof MMJ Marasinghe, former head of the Department of Buddhist Studies at the Kelaniya University, many of the rituals considered essential to Buddhism came into vogue in the tenth century during the reign of King Sena III – such as offering food and garments to Buddha statues. The story of Ananda Bodi comes not in the original Kalingabodhi Jathaka Pali but in Buddhagosha’s pali commentary. The belief that Ratana Sutta was first chanted by the Buddha to heal the city of Vesali of the Three Terrors was another Buddhagosha add-on, Prof. Marasinghe claims. He cites these as evidence of new rites and rituals being introduced into Buddhism. Once the translation into pali project was completed, the original Sinhala commentaries by Arhat Mahinda were burnt, probably to hide the alien nature of the new practices, he claims (Budu Dahama saha Buddhagama).

The influx of nobles and Brahmins from South India during the Kandyan Kingdom would have played a role in creating the necessary religious and societal consensus for the introduction of caste into Buddhism. Hinduism might not be the only influence in shaping ritual practices. According to John Davy, “I was once present in the Sanctum of the principle temple in Kandy during the whole ceremony of the evening service; what I saw strongly reminded me of the ceremonial high mass of the Roman Catholic Church” (An Account of the interior of Ceylon and of its inhabitants: With travels in that Island).

Not even religious teachings are immune to impermanence and change. The danger is when law is used to criminalise questioning and dissenting from prevailing orthodoxies. At the rate Buddhism in Sri Lanka is retrogressing, heresy and apostasy might follow blasphemy as high crimes, as they were in Christianity once and are in Islam now.

A world of unreason

            The Panadura Debate was a series of six debates which commenced in Baddegama and ended in Panadura. The participants were Buddhist monks and Protestant clergy. The debates seemed to have been both erudite and accessible, exhibitions of scriptural knowledge and rhetorical skills. Both parties cooperated to ensure that the encounters were peaceful and orderly. Once the final debate ended, the British editor of Ceylon Times, John Cooper, published an account of it highly complementary to the Buddhist side. That account introduced Buddhism to many a Westerner and was instrumental in Henry Steel Olcott arriving on these shores.

In his forward to Prof Wimal Abeyasundara’s 1991 book on the Panadura debate, President Ranasinghe Premadasa said, “The most valuable lesson we could learn from the debtate is the peaceful way of settling disputes” (https://www.dailymirror.lk/News-Features/Ven-Migettuwatte-Gunananda-Thera-and-Birth-of-Buddhist-Revival-Movement-years-ago/131-150546). He was right. Unfortunately, that habit no longer prevails in the religious sphere. Today, the way of settling religious disputes is not intelligent and rational debate but verbal and physical violence and/or repressive laws.

            75 years into independence, our minds are more enslaved, our conduct more servile, our intellectual climate more anti-intellectual. In our first national election (the parliamentary poll of 1947), secular left parties performed remarkably well, despite the UNP’s incendiary slogans about communist-threat to Buddhism and the left leaders’ refusal to engage in exhibitionist religious rituals. Today, no politician can get past the first hurdle if he/she is unwilling to worship at some shrine.  

Perhaps Carlo Fonseka’s debunking of the fire-walking myth was the last hurrah of those freer times. Prof. Fonseka organised a fire-walking demonstration as part of the September 1970 exhibition at the Medical College. He and a group of doctors, technicians, and students walked over a fire of 750faranheit after eating pork and drinking arrack. Among those present was Arthur C Clark (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2gAvTp_rak).

In response to numerous public challenges, including from monks, the deputy minister of cultural affairs of the UF government and NU Jayawardane, Prof Fonseka agreed to another demonstration. This was conducted on Feb 8th 1971 (poya day) at the Kataragama Devale in Attidiya. After its successful conclusion, ordinary people, including in far-off villages, conducted similar non-sacred fire-walking experiments.

Today, politicians and monks would have complained to the police and Prof Fonseka would have been arrested and held under the ICCRP for months, sans bail. His Catholic origins would have been held against him. Profs Kovoor and Clark would have been hounded out, one for being an Indian agent and the other a Western conspirator colluding to destroy pure Buddhism (not to mention the Sinhala).

            The consequences of our mental regression as a nation have been dire. The effect of the Kelani Cobra drama needs no belabouring. Would a majority of Sinhala voters have accepted Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Our Hero who Works in 1947 or even 1952? The Buddha, when he was indisposed, turned not to pirith chanting but to a human physician, Jeevaka, for relief and cure. In Kucchivikara-vattu of Mahavagga, when the Buddha comes across a monk neglected by other monks due to dysentery, he washed and treated the sick monk. In Sri Lanka, supposedly the sole refuge of pure Buddhism, the Rajapaksa government promoted the chanting of pirith and divine potions as counter to Covid-19. There was hardly any public dissent. We are happier with divine saviours as we are with human ones.

            Unquestioning obedience to religious orthodoxies is not the Buddha’s way. It is a tactic used by political and religious leaders for their own ends. Critical thinking is discouraged and penalised, not to save rata, jathiya, agama, but to protect vested political, economic, and religious interests. The next time, any politician places a hand on heart and promises to die to protect Buddhism, we should remember yesterday’s picture of Shiranthi Rajapaksa in a hijab attending a women’s conference in Iran. If that iconic image doesn’t make us think twice about the irrational path we have trod for 75 years, nothing will.  

Sri Lanka in 2023: Saffron, Kurahan, Red or Green?

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

Before Gotabaya Rajapaksa, there was SWRD 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 DCR 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. HL 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 ‘mahanakama’ (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, SJ 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 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 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-atte 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, 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 Ranil 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 Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Recently a group of Lankan boat people were rescued by a Japanese vessel in Vietnamese waters and handed over to Vietnamese authorities. The 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, PM Rajapaksa, and Finance Minister 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, 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 Mr. 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. 193billion rupees 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. 6.3million 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. NGD 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).

Ranil 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 Ranil 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.


In 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.

Sri Lanka: Mahindagamanaya 3

“We have not abandoned our people, neither will we do so.” ~ Mahinda Rajapaksa (Budget 2023, second reading debate)

The seminal event of the 2023 Budget cycle was not Budget 2023. The Budget was more good than bad, but too tepid overall to be an inflection point. The real stunner was the speech by Mahinda Rajapaksa during the second reading. To call it the first salvo of his Third Coming is no exaggeration.

The morning after he lost the 2015 presidential election, Mr. Rajapaksa returned to Medamulana, clung to a window in his ancestral pile, and blamed traitors and conspirators for his electoral loss. “We must remember they got their majority vote from Eelam,” he told his supporters. Sinhala-Buddhists, the true owners of the Motherland, have lost power which can be regained only by bringing the Rajapaksas back to power. That anti-democratic and racist interpretation of the 2015 presidential election would form the basis of Rajapaksa political platform for the next five years, starting with the Mahinda Sulanga rally in Nugegoda and ending in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s historic victory.

Like that Count from Transylvania with nocturnal habits and strange appetites, the Rajapaksas won’t stay politically dead. And they can keep on returning so long as enough Sinhala-Buddhist voters wallow in minority phobia.

Traitors and Conspirators form a key thesis of Rajapaksa theory of politics. “It has been revealed who was behind the crisis,” Mahinda Rajapaksa said during the Budget debate. “The people will come to know more information in the near future. These elements are not letting this country rise. Instead they attempt to ensure the country’s downfall… It was their puppets who put on a show recently. The economic collapse was an organised act. They caused the destruction of the economy. As evidenced by past incidents, these groups have acted in the same manner every time the country was making progress.”

The corollary of the Traitors and Conspirators thesis is that the Rajapaksas never have to own their crimes, errors, and stupidities. It’s always someone else’s fault.

The debt crisis, and the resultant sovereign default, for instance, is the fault of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. That government took “the largest debt in the shortest period,” claimed Mr. Rajapaksa, prancing about on his moral high-horse.

The website factcheck.lk analysed the issue factually by comparing interest due to pre 2015 debt and  the increase in debt between 2015 to 2019. Accordingly, 117.6% of rupee debt and 59.3% of the dollar debt incurred under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration was to service pre-2015 debt. So 89.8% of the total debt incurred by the ‘Good Governance’ administration was to pay the interest on the debt outstanding by 2015 (https://factcheck.lk/factcheck/deputy-unp-leader-ruwan-wijewardene-does-no-disservice-to-past-debt-servicing-costs/).

A few days before the 2019 presidential election, then finance minister Mangala Samaraweera asked candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa how he was going to make good the revenues that’ll be lost from his tax cuts. Mr. Rajapaksa didn’t bother to answer because most of the electorate didn’t bother with facts. So the Family slashed and burned the country’s tax base. In one year, tax revenue fell from 11.6% of GDP in 2019 to 8.1% of the GDP in 2020. The money lost to the nation was pocketed by business and professional classes. The ordinary masses who bear the brunt of indirect taxes got nothing. Though VAT was slashed from 15% to 8%, inflation increased in January and February, proving that the benefit of VAT reduction accrued not to poor people but to business owners.

Having gutted national income, the Rajapaksas increased expenditure, burning the candle at both ends. President Gotabaya’s project of providing state employment to 50,000 unemployed graduates and 100,000 Samurdi recipients without OL was quintessential Rajapaksa economics. The military was involved in selecting candidates and training them. Today most of them waste their time and public money in various state institutions. In these already overstaffed entities, there’s no work for 150,000 new employees.

The SLPP’s Rise from the Ashes campaign had to be abandoned because enough Lankans still remember that the ashes are from the fires the Rajapaksas themselves lit and stoked. Meatier issues, more incendiary slogans are needed. Mr. Rajapaksa, in his budget debate speech, gave a hint about the way ahead. No selling of national assets, he proclaimed, not even loss-making ones. Selling national assets equals undermining national security equals betraying the nation. Rata, Jathiya, Agama, Ape Hamuduruwane, Rana Wiruwo, Janathava… Terrify the country into strangling itself with the Kurahan satakaya, again.

Factually-challenged Counts of Medamulana

In 2007 December, Mahinda Rajapaksa, with an entourage of 35, paid a private visit to the UK to watch the graduation of his second son from the Dartmouth Naval College. When the president demanded that not only he but his entourage be accommodated on the return Sri Lankan flight of his choice, the management said a polite no. It was the height of the holiday season. Acceding to the presidential request would have meant offloading 28 paid business class passengers. A furious president chartered a Mihin Lanka flight. Doubtless, like Basil Rajapaksa’s recent bill at the airport lounge, people paid the price. (Was Prof. GL Peiris, now reborn as anti-corruption crusader, a part of that entourage, one wonders).

Emirates-appointed Sri Lankan CEO, Peter Hill, would have thought he was making a sensible business decision. In fact, he was causing lèse majesté. When Mr. Hill’s work visa came up for renewal in January 2008, a petulant government said no, and demanded a greater say in the management of Sri Lankan. Emirates refused and opted not to renew its 10 year contract. (Incidentally Mr Hill returned in September 2022 to manage a local private airline).

Since the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government sold a 44% stake of Sri Lankan to Emirates for 70million dollars, the airline’s fortunes had revived. By 2007/8 its accumulated profit was 9.29billion rupees. In 2007 alone, it made a net profit of 5billion rupees. Then Sri Lankan fell back into the patriotic Sri Lankan hands of the Rajapaksas. In the first year itself, the airline made a loss of around 9billion rupees. By the end of 2021, the accumulated loss was 372billion rupees.

Is Sri Lankan national asset or national liability?

In the year 2020-21, Sri Lankan loss was a staggering 45billion rupees. If that money had been spent on social welfare, the 56,000 children facing severe acute malnutrition and the 2.43million people who are on the verge of malnutrition (according to the WFP) could have been fed not just adequately but sumptuously. That then is the real choice.

At a Himalayan 860billion rupees, the losses of SOEs in the first four months of 2022 is higher than their total loss in 2021. So, do we pump more money into a host of SOEs or do we help the wretched of Sri Lanka to survive? And when the Rajapaksas wage the patriotic battle to save the nation by saving Sri Lankan, where would the Opposition be?

In his budget debate speech Mahinda Rajapaksa said, “There is no benefit to the people by merely presenting the budget or by inciting them.” That was a double swipe, at Ranil Wickremesinghe for just presenting the budget without giving relief to the people and at the opposition for inciting the people.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s claim that Budget 2023 does not provide relief is as specious as his other claims. True, defence costs should have been pruned and were not. Yet, the money allocated to education and health exceeds money allocated to defence (including police), possibly for the first time in a long time. Total defence allocation is 539billion rupees while the total allocation for health and education is 554billion rupees. The allocation for social welfare is 852billion rupees amounting to 10.08% of the total budget. These are positive developments, despite the Budget’s pie-in-the-sky estimates and silly contradictions.

That the Rajapaksas should ignore these positives is understandable. In their eyes, only they can be praised since We did the best work (Api thamai hondatama kale). Unfortunately instead of adopting a nuanced approach, the Opposition too has opted to be blind to these positives. Ranil Wickremesinghe should be criticised for trying to clamp down on constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceful protest. But do his many political wrongs justify voting against the budget wholesale, relief measures and all?

            Has the Opposition decided to oppose anything Ranil Wickremesinghe does, simply because he does it? How else can they accuse him of being right wing/reactionary and then slam him for embracing progressive taxation? It is one thing to question how the tax money would be spent, as the Supreme Court did, when it gave its nod to the Inland Revenue Amendment Bill, stating that “corruption and wastage of public finance must be addressed and violators dealt according to law irrespective of standing.” But it is another thing to scream that people are being taxed. People were always taxed indirectly, with the lower income groups bearing the brunt. The new tax policies tries to right that wrong, a little.

            As world slips into recession, the issue of fair taxation has assumed a global importance. The General Assembly recently mandated the UN to play a global tax leadership role. The IMF has come out in favour of Latin American nations’ adoption of progressive taxation. As Nigel Chalk, a top IMF official said, in backing Chile’s ambitious tax reforms (including a capital income tax), “A tax reform that generates more revenue, and puts more money in social systems, in supporting lower income families, supporting middle class, that’s definitely a more progressive system…” (Reuter – 2.11.22). It’s one thing to savagely criticise increasing Cess on paper (thus school books), quite another thing to oppose re-imposition PAYE taxes. If Ranil Wickremesinghe actually brings in a wealth tax, will the Opposition oppose that too? Where will this irrationality end? In an alliance led by the Rajapaksas to save the Motherland by saving the SOEs?

When the bough breaks

There was no danger of Budget 2023 being defeated. Had that happened, the parliament would have stood dissolved. And the SLPP is not ready to face elections, not yet. It is for that, and no other reason, did the Rajapaksa-led SLPP support the budget.

The alliance between Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas is an opportune one, like most political deals. Both sides have something to gain from it. Each side is using the other. The Rajapaksas do not enjoy playing second fiddle to anyone and would cut the ground under Ranil Wickremesinghe as soon as they feel strong enough. Mr. Wickremesinghe would do the same to the Rajapaksas when he can.

So once the use value diminishes, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa alliance will fall apart. That is a political inevitability. The only question is who cuts whose throat first.

The Rajapaksas are the greatest threat to Sri Lanka’s democratic health, economic sanity, and public well being. As was amply proven in the last two plus years, they are structurally blind when it comes to anything other than familial interests, in the narrowest possible sense. Just one example would suffice. Had the preferential vote contest between Nipuna Ranawaka and Dulles Alahapperuma (not to mention Kanchana Wijesekara) been better managed, the Rajapaksas could have ensured their nephew’s victory without antagonising two faithful acolytes who had served them well for decades. But such restraint is alien to them. Like Vellupillai Pirapaharan, extremist responses are in their political blood.

So the Rajapaksas in power or in a position of serious influence would retard the task of getting Sri Lanka out of this abyss of Rajapaksa creation. Currently, they have no control over economic policy even though they can win some concessions, like the appointment of state ministers. Even that influence will diminish when President Wickremesinghe becomes constitutionally able to dissolve the parliament at will.

Which is why the Rajapaksas will look for an issue that can set the country on fire. It could be the restructuring of the SOEs. It could be a wealth tax. Or a proposal to solve the ethnic problem, or even a prelude to such a solution, such as the full implementation of the 13th Amendment or returning military-occupied North Eastern lands their owners. If none of these happen, there will be the suffering of the masses which is not likely to abate for a while.

The Rajapaksas probably know that any attempt to dress as economic saviours will not carry conviction. But if the Motherland is in danger, if international conspiracies are afoot, if traitors are at work, then the patriotic banner can be unfurled. Mahindagamanaya 3 will not be different to Mahindagamanaya 1 or 2. The Family will divide everyone else, appeal to the worst in Sinhala-Buddhists, and encourage reactive extremism in minorities.

The Rajapaksas are focused on regaining power. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa, and Anura Kumara Dissanayake are preoccupied with hurts and resentment, pique and chagrin. By the time they see the common danger, the Kurahan satakaya might be close to throttling the nation, again.

Sri Lanka: Politics beyond 22


“You are in the end – what you are.” ~ Goethe (Faust)

22 is not perfect. Far from it, perhaps light-years far. Yet, in a season of defeats and setbacks, it is a win for Lankan democracy, and for those Lankans who would be free citizens rather than obedient subjects or terrified children waiting for the next saviour.

The passing of the 22 (officially 21) came hard on the heels of another democratic victory. The Supreme Court effectively killed the deadly Rehabilitation Act. If President Wickremesinghe or the Rajapaksas dreamed of using the Act to punish past dissent and discourage future protests, that dream is now dead.  

The two wins demonstrate that however flawed or even dysfunctional the Lankan political system might be it’s not broken. It can be built on, improved. The better kind of ‘system change’, the sort that harms less, roots deep, lasts long.

By 2014, the Rajapaksas had disembowelled every single democratic institution in the country, from the highest court to the lowliest pradesheeya Sabha. Only periodic elections remained, a heads-we-win-tails-you-lose game the family believed it had mastered. Wrongly. Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency and democracy made a comeback. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration removed the executive’s mailed fist from the collective back of the judiciary and paved the way for more institution-building than any previous administration via the 19th Amendment and the Right to Information Act.

Electoral defeat also revealed the ordinary clay in the Rajapaksa makeup, diminishing the shock-and-awe effect created by the war-victory. High King Mahinda and Supreme General Gotabaya were downsized to normal size, for a while. The memory of that reduction had faded by 2018, but not dead. In 2022, as normal life collapsed under the cumulative weight of shortages and queues, that memory would return. Without its liberating effect, the peaceful revolt of the middle class which constituted the first inspiring phase of the Aragalaya couldn’t have happened.

Thus the importance in the death of the 20th and the safe birth of 22nd, especially if ‘system change’ is a real goal and not just a radical-sounding slogan or an excuse to scuttle reforms. The next step is its speedy implementation. What was done to the democratising 17th Amendment by the PA and the UNP mustn’t become the fate of 22: death by non-implementation. Having taken the sensible step of backing the amendment, the SJB and the JVP should focus on getting the constitutional council and the national procurement commission up and running. That is of far greater democratic consequence than holding local government elections, an exercise which will cost billions and change little.

The composition of COPE, COPA, and the Peoples’ Council has caused much handwringing and derisive laughter. Deservingly. But almost all the undesirables nominated to those bodies were elected by the people in 2020; more worryingly many would be re-elected thanks to the preferential vote system. A new electoral system is as much of a democratic (and anti-corruption) necessity as abolishing the executive presidency.

President Wickremesinghe’s decision to set up a committee to map a new electoral system may – or may not – be a ruse to postpone elections. Either way, it opens up a path to a desirable and popular goal. If the proposal is a Wickremesinghe-bluff, the Opposition can surely call it by coming up with reform blueprints which combine the best features of the PR and first-past-the-post system? Pertinently, what is the Opposition’s stand on the Election Commission mandated campaign finance legislation awaiting cabinet nod? Surely enacting that piece of legislation should be as much of an oppositional priority as calling for elections?

The Quotidian Rot

In the 19th century, there was an American political organisation called the Know Nothing Party which fared well electorally for a while. A nativist entity (not in the Native American but in the WASP-supremacist sense) it was anti-Black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic. That party is now gone and mostly unremembered, but its spectre survives and thrives across the world. From the US to India, from Italy to Sri Lanka, know-nothing (and learn-nothing) voters and politicians are making choices that invite chaos.

US humorist Andy Borowitz asked, “What happens when you combine ignorance with performing talent?” and answered, “A president who tells the country to inject bleach” (Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber). Or a president and a political family who take over a functioning economy and run it to the ground.

Mr. Borowitz divides ignorance into three stages, ridicule, acceptance, celebration. In Sri Lanka, we ridicule ignorance and accept it by voting the ignorant in. When hiring a driver, any sensible person would prioritise driving skills and experience over the width of a smile, the jauntiness of a moustache or the smoothness of a tongue. But the same person may act antithetically when deciding who should be at the national wheel for the next five years. After all, every Rajapaksa fault we decry now was fully or partly in evidence during their previous terms. Accountability is necessary not just for politicians, but also for the people who vote them in and out. If our people fail to understand their culpability for their own plight, how can they be persuaded not to remake the same old mistakes?  

As Liz Truss’ tenure as the UK’s prime minister entered its 6th chaotic week, Daily Star, a British Tabloid, launched the lettuce challenge. Would the premiership of Ms. Truss last longer than the lifespan of an ordinary iceberg lettuce? The lettuce won. And perhaps saved our former imperial masters from going the Lankan way. Had we stuck to the parliamentary system, we could have got rid of the Rajapaksas without the murder and the mayhem (no, it wasn’t all poetic and peaceful; the lynching of two men is murder and the burning of scores of houses, irrespective of the unsavoury nature of many of their owners, is mayhem). Institutional guardrails matter, especially where Know Nothings hold sway.

The rot is not limited to the government. Sajith Premadasa recently held a cosy powwow with that doyen of ideological racism, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, and his majoritarian-supremacist National Organisations Collective. According to the media unit of the leader of opposition, “Opposition leader elucidated the importance of not making further amendments to the 13th Amendment,” and, said that “There are no ethnic minorities, there are different ethnic groups, all should get together and rebuild the country.” According to the Sinhala version, the opposition leader, “will not agree to any proposal that will lead to the fragmentation of the country by empowering the 13th amendment.” No ethnic problem, no need for a political solution: wasn’t that the Rajapaksa mantra too? The 13th Amendment equates division, wasn’t that the abiding cry of the most virulent of racists? Is this an attempt to shift to a Gotabaya-lite position and win with Sinhala votes only?

Mahsa Amini, Nika Shakarami, Sarina Esmailzadeh: three names amongst many unnamed victims of a struggle that began with a simple demand, the right to not wear a hijab.

Lankans probably look with a sense of complacent superiority at the events in Iran. But the rallying slogan of the Iranian schoolgirls, telling clerics to get lost, is valid here as well. After all, we too are plagued with clerics who try to impose their will on secular matters they know nothing about, from economics to sex education, often with distressing success.

            Iran’s ongoing uprising, with its stirring cry of Woman, Life, Freedom, began when a young Kurdish woman died in the custody of the Morality Police. We don’t have a morality police, but morality policing is not unknown here, including on matters sartorial. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday massacre, a coat-and-tie clad top state official tried to make sari-wearing mandatory for female public officials. Banning first year female students from wearing trousers seems to be a fairly standard component of the orgy of cruel and unusual activities that passes off as ragging in Lankan universities.

The dean of arts faculty of the Peradeniya University is on record saying that students studying in the English medium are banned by the Students Union from using common facilities such as the canteen. Universities in Sri Lanka are not havens of democracy, open mindedness, and intellectual curiosity but deserts of intolerance, tyranny, and backwardness. Ragging is both a symbol of that mindset and its progeny. And all this by student unions and organisations under the control of the JVP and the FSP. The two parties can end this barbarism with one command (inner-party democracy is more alien to them than it is to their bourgeois counterparts). They haven’t, yet. In the universities where the two parties hold sway, even simple acts of dissent like opposing ragging is a punishable crime. The Rajapaksas are not the only problem we have.

On the need for deals

The petition filed by the Transparency International against the decision makers of the current disaster, starting with Gotabaya, Mahinda, and Basil Rajapaksa, has been granted leave to proceed by the Supreme Court. The case will hopefully cast some much needed light on who ordered, who enabled, and who consented to what in making this avoidable tragedy.

The 2019 November unfunded tax cut was the first outpost on that road to disaster, the error that made every other error necessary. Repairing that mistake is a necessary step in rescuing the economy without imposing even more burdens on the already overburdened poor. Will the Opposition, especially the economically more sensible SJB, propose constructive amendments to tax proposals instead of taking the easy way of damning the whole? One obvious need is to increase the tax-free threshold from the proposed 100,000rupees per month to at least 150,000rupees per month, to cushion the lower middle class and small businesses. Rates for upper brackets can be increased to make good the loss. (The GMOA is threatening strike action, true to form. Since most of that trade union’s members would not have become doctors without our free education system, their opposition to direct taxes is particularly despicable).

What is morally indefensible and politically dangerous is to increase taxes – any taxes – without touching the innumerable privileges enjoyed by the political class. The opposition can make a deal to combine tax increases with the drastic pruning of these giveaways – the pension system, duty free vehicle permit racket, giving official residences to all ministers and an official vehicle to all elected representatives, to mention but a few. Not likely, since the one subject on which the entire political class is agreed (from the UNP to the JVP, from the Rajapaksas to the TNA) is the sacrosanct nature of these unearned and unmerited privileges.

In her poem Working on the World, A Revised Improved Edition, Polish poet and 1996 Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska, approaches her utopia of a good life and a good death in stages, starting with “fun for fools and tricks for old dogs.” Striving for incremental changes is more effective than dreaming of or chasing utopias. Given where we are, no improvement, however minute, should be scoffed at. Foreign remittances have gone up in August and September. Litro is making profit again and reducing prices. The Welisara Magistrate Court has ruled to provide legal protection to a young lesbian woman from the persecution of her parents (and the Welisara police). Women parliamentarians across the aisle have prepared an amendment defining anyone under 18 as a child. The Orwellian attempt to use the police to gather information on Colombo residents has been abandoned. To a drowning nations, straws can spell survival.

Our descent into economic disaster did not happen overnight. Our emergence from that abyss cannot happen overnight either. A parliamentary election might help that long climb or it might not. How an election impacts on the crisis would depend on the percentage of citizens willing to let facts rather than emotions decide their vote. If even 10% of voters cleave to the Rajapaksas (the real figure is likely to be double) despite their culpability for our common plight, an election is likely to worsen rather than alleviate the crisis.

 A fragmented parliament, and the resultant horse trading for power and influence while hunger soars and poverty deepens, can sunder hope in the democratic system. Once popular faith in electoral solutions breaks down, the Sinhala masses are more likely to seek salvation not from the JVP or the FSP, but from the military, and the monks, their brothers in blood and faith.

The saga of 22 shows that Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a Rajapaksa clone. Had the  opposition put personal rancour and political needs aside and worked with Mr.  Wickremesinghe once he became the president, a better 22 and other reforms could have been possible. Who can doubt that post-election every party currently in opposition will make whatever deals possible to gain a larger share of the power-pie? Better to make some deals now with the Wickremesinghe government, not for the sake of power, but to promote the sort of political and economic reforms that would help Lankan democracy and Lankan people survive the crisis, and perhaps even emerge a little stronger.

Truss’s U-turn and Rajapaksa’s Downturn

“In a year of scarcity…Louis XV was hunting, as usual, in the forest of Sénart. He met a peasant carrying a bier and inquired… ‘For a man or a woman? A man. What did he die of? Hunger’.” – Jules Michelet (Historical view of the French Revolution)

On the sharp edge of the precipice, the UK halted, reversing back to relative safety.

A massive tax cut was the showpiece of the mini-budget of PM Liz Truss and chancellor of exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng. Reaction was immediate. Markets revolted. The pound crashed. The IMF issued the kind of rap-across-the-knuckles-statement it generally reserves for the Third World. The Bank of England pledged to buy UK government bonds worth 65 billion pounds (73 billion dollars) in a desperate attempt to reassure markets and save pension funds.

The prime minister and the chancellor of exchequer remained unmoved.

Then the Tory party’s dissent broke out into the open. With the annual party conference in session, more than a dozen MPs aired their disconcert in public. The naysayers included several Conservative grandees. Party chairman issued an implicit threat to deny nominations to those who would vote against the mini-budget. But the rebellion could not be staunched. Opinion polls showed that the tax cuts, especially reducing the top rate from 45% to 40%, and removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses were deeply unpopular with the electorate. More than half the voters wanted Liz Truss out.

Faced with the prospect of losing a parliamentary vote on the mini-budget and a general election, PM Truss backtracked. “We get it, we have listened,” said the chancellor of exchequer who had reportedly celebrated the tax cut at a champagne dinner with financiers. The worst was averted by throwing the most objectionable overboard – the slashing of the top tax rate. Democracy, and the dissent it enabled, saved the day.

Compare this with what didn’t happen in Sri Lanka when the Rajapaksas unveiled their own crazy tax cut. The objectors were few, the UNP and the JVP, some voices from civil society, international rating agencies. But from the ruling coalition, there was not a word of protest. Those who are now busy painting themselves in saviour-hues, from Dullas Alahapperuma, G.L. Peiris, and Charitha Herath to Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, and Maithripala Sirisena, were as silent as the dead.

Tory MP Damian Green said, “It’s a political no brainer that if we end up painting ourselves as the party of the rich and the party of the already successful, then, funnily enough, most people won’t vote for us and we lose,” (The Guardian – 3.10.2022). In Sri Lanka, the SLPP said nothing about the Rajapaksa-giveaway to the rich, because the Rajapaksas were the party of the Sinhala-Buddhists. The majority safely tethered with minority-phobia, the coming parliamentary election was as good as won.

The Rajapaksas could get away with manifestly disastrous policies for so long because they could count on the backing of a majority of the majority. Another key contributory factor was the absence of inner-party democracy, an autocratic plague common to all Lankan parties. There was also the bureaucracy’s entrenched habit of going along with politicians up to the precipice and beyond. In the absence of the necessary human factor, institutional guardrails became reduced to stage props.

A sovereign default and two popular uprisings later, very little seemed to have changed. The factors that pushed us down the precipice are impeding our puny efforts to crawl out of it, starting with the Rajapaksas and the SLPP.

Politics of hunger

Ranil Wickremesinghe began his premiership by telling the truth to the people about the country’s disastrous condition. That was perhaps his finest hour.

Today the opposite is happening. His ministers, Rajapaksa-acolytes to a man and a woman, have reverted to covering the soiled reality in clean linen. They deny the width and depth of hunger, of malnutrition, of poverty. Listening to them, a visiting Martian could be pardoned for thinking that nothing much ails this country. Most worryingly, even now, these know-nothing politicians can find bureaucrats to corroborate their lies.

This at a time when the FAO and the WHP have included Sri Lanka among the 48 countries identified as hunger hot spots. Recently the Health ministry rejected a UNICEF report on Denial not just covers up the problem. It removes the need to look for solutions, the duty and the responsibility to take action.

Sooriyawewa, that Rajapaksa pocket-borough, is currently in the crosshairs of a malnutrition spat. Medical professionals claim an 80% malnutrition rate. The SLPP part of the Government decry the statistic as calumny. In the meantime, in the Namadagaswewa Maha Vidyalaya in Sooriyawewa, the principal and the staff have set up a food bank to feed hungry children. Teachers bring an extra food packet or two daily and deposit in the bank; needy students withdraw the packets.

This innovative solution was possible because the staff noticed that many students fainted from hunger during school hours. If the staff went into denial, if they blamed the fainting on voluntary dieting or enemy action, the food bank would not have come into being; and increasing hunger would have resulted in mass dropouts.

We must acknowledge the abyss before we can escape it.

Denial is not just counterproductive. It is also stupid. You can lie about growth rates and foreign reserves. But you can’t convince the poor that they are rich or the hungry that their stomachs are full. Poverty and hunger can be hidden only from those who are neither poor nor hungry. And in Sri Lanka, that percentage is shrinking.

We are living in times of dissonance. The IMF chief has warned about people on the streets, again, a global problem. There’s nothing more dissonant than a small percentage of the populace living in the lap of luxury in a time of general want. In his tome on the French Revolution, historian Jules Michelet mentions that for centuries, observers were amazed at the patience of the French people, their acceptance of intolerable economic and political injustices. But there comes a day when even the most worm-like worm turns.

While denying the gravity of the economic crisis and the depth of public suffering, the SLPP is busy pushing for an expanded cabinet. They won the first round when President Wickremesinghe gave in and appointed 38 parasitic state ministers. If he expands the cabinet, he will fail the ‘smell test’ again and destroy his credibility, even among those who are grateful to him for ending fuel and gas queues.

More pertinently succumbing to Rajapaksa pressure will impede President Wickremesinghe’s capacity to implement his economic agenda, to the country’s detriment. After the appointment of that herd of state ministers, the Government has no moral right to talk about inefficient and overstaffed state sectors. Given the public funds squandered on maintaining this herd in a state of luxury, how can the people be asked to tighten their belts any further? The rot is already visible in a tendency to take the easy way out, eschewing the hard road out of the crisis, the one that will address the root causes, the one President Wickremesinghe keeps on referring to in his speeches. The reversion to a disproportionate dependence on indirect taxes and the abolishing of 15% interest rate on deposits by the elderly are cases in point.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a Rajapaksa clone as the more extremist or simple-minded elements within the opposition insist. The ‘Ranil Rajapaksa’ slogan may work as propaganda but it shouldn’t have become the basis of political analysis or strategising. For instance, if the opposition came to a short-term deal with President Wickremesinghe about a common political and economic program and a parliamentary election in 2023, the SLPP could have been deprived of their bargaining and blackmailing power. The Rajapaksas were able to make a comeback partly because the opposition and Wickremesinghe turned their guns on each other. Incidentally this comeback may be electoral as well, going by the SLPP’s huge wins at the Panadura and Gampola cooperative elections. The world provides other worrying examples. In Brazil, more than 43% voted for the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, bucking opinion polls, pushing the election into a second round.

When everything becomes reduced to survival, that very obsession threatens survival. The high security zone gazette fiasco could have been avoided with a little forethought. But the Rajapaksas are hooked on immediate gratification and their ethos is winning in government circles. In August, it looked like President Wickremesinghe with his economic sanity had the upper hand. By the end of September, he seems to be reduced to a voice in the margins, with the Government walking, talking, and smelling like the Rajapaksas.

In history, art can be omen. This year’s top winner at the Cannes film festival was ‘Triangle of Sadness’. A super luxury yacht filled with jetsetters is engulfed in a storm at sea. The turbulence outside creates an upheaval within. Power relations are upended, with a former cleaner gaining control. Real life is not that neat. The last may not become the first; cleaners may not win in the end. But the time before that revanchist end could become filled with violence, visceral and indiscriminate. The democratic narrative is undermined when injustice becomes entrenched. The virtues of stability and order sound hollow, when poverty and hunger overwhelm a populace.

Political illiberalism and economic neoliberalism: a lose-lose scenario

Tsering Dorje was an ordinary Tibetan man who discussed the importance of the Tibetan language with his brother on the phone. For that ‘crime’ he was detained for a month in a re-education facility by the Chinese authorities.

Re-education or rehabilitation centres sit ill with democracy. Irrespective of the name they masquerade under, these are Orwellian entities aimed at turning thinking citizens into mindless subjects.

After the high security zone gazette departed, in ignominy, came an attempt to set up a Bureau of Rehabilitation. Its targets, apart from the usual terrorists and extremists, would be drug addicts (turning drug dependence into a political crime) and ‘any other group or persons who require treatment and rehabilitation.’ Would the ‘persons who require treatment and rehabilitation’ include the thuggish son of state minister Prasanna Ranaweera? Or the ministerial goons who attacked petrol station attendants in Maharagama for refusing to violate the QR code? If not, why not?

The Bureau’s Governing council is to include the secretary of defence. The current holder of that title has a credible claim to the label extremism. At an October 2017 Viyath Maga confab in Gampaha, retired major general Kamal Gunaratna defined the backers of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s draft constitution as traitors who deserve death. They should be denied normal last rites as the JVP/DJV did to its victims during the second insurgency, he further stated.

Commenting on this pronouncement, Mangala Samarweera said, “We need not reply to filthy statements of racists, yet, I should voice the concerns of democracy-loving people who stand against the barking of those blood thirsty and power hungry political elements. If they can make such gory comments on a civil platform when they are out of power, people with some sense could imagine the crimes they had committed when they held ruling power.” To take his argument a step further, what kind of rehabilitation will such people implement if the Bureau of Rehabilitation becomes a reality?

Addressing a memorial meeting for Gowri Thavarasa, lawyer and human rights defender, the former director of CID Shani Abeysekara said, “I had produced so many before courts. But I understood what it meant only when I was produced before the courts”. When Abeysekara was persecuted by the Rajapaksas, he was saved by the commitment of civic-minded lawyers like Thavarasa and by a judicial system that retained the backbone. A functioning system of justice and an active civil society are protectors of the last resort for every one of us.

Whatever the faults of liberal-electoral democracy, it provides the best available protection – however inadequate – for the poor and powerless from the depredations of political and economic power-wielders. By keeping avenues of peaceful dissent open, it also functions as a proven safeguard against violent disorder and systemic instability. The UK may have escaped a fate partially similar to Sri Lanka because, unlike Sri Lanka, its electoral democracy is also quite liberal.

Instead of making the Lankan system more liberal, as he did during the 2015-19 period, President Wickremesinghe is initiating or permitting a return to the illiberal policies, practices, and ethos of the Rajapaksa era. By doing so, he is helping to stifle whatever corrective mechanisms and safety valves still exist. At a time a global economic and political storm is brewing, and more and more families are pushed below the poverty line nationally, this mix of political illiberalism and economic neo-liberalism cannot ensure order or save the Government (it can’t even maintain tourist arrivals; an outsized obsession with terror laws and repression is not a lure for tourists). By increasing societal alienation, it will just bring another day of reckoning closer, a more violent one.

Sri Lanka: The Problem of the People

Was there then no essential difference between the ruler and the ruled?” ~ Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

Sri Lanka, unravelled and unravelling, is mesmerised by a new wonder: the Lotus Tower. When that monumental symbol of Rajapaksa folly was opened to the public last week, people thronged to pay the entrance fee, ride to the top, and gaze down. A monk enthused that he felt close to the highest of Buddhist heavens. Women thanked Mahinda Rajapaksa for enabling them to have this wondrous experience.

It was as if economic ruin and social collapse was happening in another country, to another people.

According to a survey conducted by a group of doctors, 80% of children in Sooriyawewa, in the Rajapaksa home-district of Hambantota, are malnourished (unlike the international cricket stadium the Rajapaksas built in that water-starved locality which gets the water the people are denied). That distressing statistic alone suffices to bare the vacuity of the Rajapaksa brand of infrastructure-led development. In a 2007 cable, American ambassador, Robert Blake, wrote, “An empty port, an empty airport, and an empty vast convention centre would not generate the benefits that Hambantota needs…” One percent of the money spent on these vanity projects could have provided the people of Hambantota with every possible creature comfort for generations to come. Hambantota was poor when Mahinda Rajapaksa first became president in 2005 and is still poor seventeen years later.

Untouched by Rajapaksa development, yet solidly pro-Rajapaksa at every election.  

Infrastructure-led development was a key pillar of Rajapaksa economics. Build airports, ports, stadia, expressways, and prosperity will follow. The strategy enabled corruption on unprecedented scale, satisfied Mahinda Rajapaksa’s colossal vanity, and, against all reason, increased the family’s popularity. The projects, productive or not, often not, were tabula rasa on which dreams of national glory and illusions of popular prosperity could be inscribed.

An actor playing the role of historian once created for the Rajapaksas a lineage going back to the Buddha, via King Dutugemunu. The massive physical infrastructure projects were depicted as modern variants of the infrastructure projects of ancient kings, a historical continuum, Sandahiru Seya the descendent of Runwanweli Seya, Hambantota Port the descendent of Parakrama Samudraya. People were invited to come and admire a breakwater, a runway, a walking path masquerading as a marina. In that way, an illusion of ownership was created. People came, they admired, and they voted.

The habit is so ingrained that, even without the full effect of the Rajapaksa propaganda machine, the Lotus Tower looks like a shortcut to heaven to some Lankans. Not in the same overwhelming numbers as in the past. Not enough for the SLPP to win the next election, but enough for every single contesting Rajapaksa father, son, uncle, nephew and cousin to be re-elected. Perhaps even enough for the SLPP, with its consignment of deplorables, to hold the balance of power in the next parliament.

Basil Rajapaksa can see this future and he is readying the SLPP for it. The party’s new political academy will hone the next generation of Rajapaksa devotee-activists. Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism will be re-burnished with the usual talk of motherland being in danger. Lotus Tower, undead Tiger, and encroaching Muslim in combination can dazzle enough eyes and twist enough minds. And the Rajapaksas will have their path back to national relevance, kingmakers if not kings.

 Absurd Faith

In an interview with a private TV channel during the run up to the 2019 presidential poll, Udaya Gammanpila called Gotabaya Rajapaksa a composite of “the managerial skills of Mahathir Mohammad, farsightedness of Lee Kuan Yew, bravery of Vladimir Putin, spiritual approach of Jawaharlal Nehru, and patriotism of Fidel Castro.” The words seem grotesque now and should have seemed embarrassingly funny even then. Yet the interviewer didn’t laugh or even roll his eyes. The audience would have lapped it up.

An electorate that is predisposed to believe any absurdity, sans proof, sans fact, that was what the Rajapaksas needed and that was what they created with their propaganda. Illusions and delusions were their stock of trade. In August 2005, an outburst of mass hysteria about Buddha statues emanating luminous rays coincided with the Mavilaru operation, and shored up support in the Sinhala South for the fourth Eelam war. An elephant calf was said to have been born on the very day High King Mahinda won the war, a lie that was believed until it was inadvertently exposed in 2013. Credulity was nursed and fostered, turned into a political weapon and election winning strategy. To quote the late, great Hilary Mantel, “Did the Enlightenment really occur, or was it just someone by the Styx lighting a cigarette?” (Is it still yesterday – Children of the Revolution – London Review of Books).

In a recent You Tube interview, journalist Tharindu Jayawardana chronicled the anti-Dr. Shafi conspiracy which helped set the stage for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 victory. A gynaecologist singlehandedly sterilising 4000 Sinhala-Buddhist mothers by squeezing their fallopian tubes during Caesarean operations; a claim that seems too preposterous to rate even a denial. Yet it was believed by millions of people as nothing but the truth. The ‘story’ of a terrorist Muslim doctor working to annihilate the Sinhala nation was published just a month after the Easter Sunday massacre. Channa Jayasumana blessed the tale with his seal of approval. Wimal Weerawansa called it the War of the Wombs. Respected gynaecologists stated that women couldn’t be sterilised by squeezing their fallopian tubes, but most of the public and a large section of media preferred to believe a dentist who insisted it could be done. The CID investigated the issue and dismissed it as a non-issue. The police arrested Dr. Shafi on no evidence, recorded statements afterwards and backdated them. The confluence of the absurd and the illegal advanced Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Saviour pretension.

In Holy Bones, Holy Dust,  Charles Freeman argues that most medieval Europeans lived in a ‘community of the supernatural,’ and points out that “…to shift one’s consciousness to the supernatural, the space between ‘heaven and earth’, is to lessen one’s attention to the immediacy of the natural world…” Rajapaksa politics too operate in a similar politico-psychological space which ignores/denies reality. Delusions of divine signs, illusions of grandeur, and phobia of enemies are used to make voters forget their ordinary, day-to-day earthly problems. The Kelani cobra story was not a singularity, but the final landmark in this road of lies. Not even national bankruptcy has been able to end that mindset, as the adoration of the Lotus Tower demonstrates.  Facts have no role in this spectacle, it never did.

In a functioning democracy, people too bear a share of responsibility for outcomes, be they positive or negative. The culpability of 6.9 million of our fellow citizens in our national plight should not be denied. The people are not innocent or blameless. This is not a fairytale in which the monster holds a land in thrall forcibly. In this story, most people invited the monster to takeover their land and their lives.

Even where leaders are forward looking, progressive projects can suffer defeat if a majority of people are not in tandem. The outcome of Chile’s referendum is an excellent case in point. Such dangers are particularly acute in times of economic and social anxiety. When ‘everything solid melts into air,’ past, or an imaginary version of it, could seem the only mooring left. In Italy, an extreme rightwing party which traces its lineage back to Mussolini’s Fascist party, is expected to gain power this Sunday. The new March on Rome is electoral. A democracy is shaped not just by its leaders but also by its people. A system change is impossible if enough people remain unchanged.

The absurdity is obvious, or should be. A people cannot vote in the corrupt and expect an honest government, vote in the inept and expect an efficient government, vote in the stupid and expect an intelligent government. Holding leaders to account is not enough. Those who vote for them too should be held accountable. The people are suffering, but many of them brought this disaster on themselves. They were deceived but they allowed themselves to be deceived. That is why an election, however necessary, can easily become a part of the problem rather than its solution, let alone the panacea that some claim it will be.

Haunted by old mistakes

Yatharoopa was a highly popular late night magazine programme aired on Rupavahini from August 2016 to March 2018. The programme aimed at debunking myths and superstitions and promoting reason and rational thinking.

In its second season, it was suddenly taken off the air. Media reports claimed that President Sirisena banned the programme at the request of a group of astrologers. Astrophysicist Kavan Ratnatunga made the same claim subsequently. President Sirisena reportedly said that as a state institution, the remit of the Rupavahini was to promote and not debunk astrology. Little wonder he made Mahinda Rajapaksa the PM seven months later.

In 2018, the 19th Amendment was in force. President Sirisena did not have the constitutional right to make unilateral decisions regarding a ministry that was not under him. Yet neither PM Wickremesinghe nor media minister Mangala Samaraweera objected publicly. The reason for their public silence is not hard to fathom. President Sirisena was going off the rails already. The UNP tried to avert disaster by alternately ignoring and humouring his antics. It didn’t save the government. The anti-constitutional coup was defeated not via accommodation but through resistance.

Winning elections is another matter, the pragmatic would argue. One must confirm, be what people want their leaders to be. So Sajith Premadasa distanced himself from the government he had been a part of for almost five years and adopted a Rajapaksa-lite approach characterised by temple hopping and a refusal to do or say anything remotely controversial (the only exception was his courageous stance on menstrual products) – in vain. Mangala Samaraweera felt that he had to leave electoral politics in order to be able to speak his mind. Truth has become a costly mistake in Sri Lanka by then. Telling truth to power could be dangerous. Telling truth to people could be disastrous.

The electorate’s unparalleled credulity in 2019 was the result of a presence and an absence. The Rajapaksas occupied the propaganda arena, promoting irrationality and absurdity. Anti-Rajapaksa forces avoided such propaganda battles or fled them when the cost was deemed too high, as demonstrated by the banning of Yatharoopa. Their evasion and disengagement backfired. How could voters be weaned away from Rajapaksa politics if they were subjected to only one kind of propaganda-diet? A no-holds barred resistance might have worked better.

The present is becoming overshadowed by the shades of those past errors. The appointment of 38 state ministers the same month indirect taxes were hiked is reminiscent of the UNP’s failed attempt to contain Maithripala Sirisena through appeasement. The ongoing repression smacks of Rajapaksa flavour, from the use of PTA to the prosecution of lawyer Dushmantha Weeraratne on September 9th for tooting his car-horn to the tune of kaputu kak near Galle Face. The Rajapaksas too arrested a young motorist for tooting his horn against a road-closure. The difference lies in the judicial response. In 2021, the young motorist was lambasted for exercising his constitutional right to peaceful protest. In 2022, the magistrate threw out the case against the lawyer and warned the police to study the law bef ore taking legal action against a person.

In Geneva, the government opted to reject the resolution on Sri Lanka in toto. This is not the Wickremesinghe-Samaraweera foreign policy of 2015-19 when Sri Lanka was open to the world and willing to take on legitimate concerns of the international community. This is a reversion to the Medamulana foreign policy of the Rajapaksas. The Rajapaksa habit of dealing with challenges by denying their existence or their severity is also making a comeback. Health Ministry rejected the UNICEF report on child malnutrition. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s truth telling days seem distant.

While Ranil Wickremesinghe blunders and the opposition exists in a parallel universe where their electoral victory is written in the stars, the Rajapaksas are back to weaving their web of lies and deception. Those who believe that Aragalaya has rid the popular mind of the Cobraesque myth should watch again the rapturous reception to the Lotus Tower. Lost in that marvel, the contribution that monstrosity and other like it made to our economic bankruptcy is forgotten. More than forgotten; that column of folly is being hailed as the economic way to go, a boon capable of attracting tourists and solving our foreign exchange crisis in one go. If the Rajapaksas resurface their old idea of building airports on various mountaintops and constructing an expressway right round the country, they may even end up being hailed as the only solution to the economic crisis the UNP, the SJB, and the JVP created, with help from Tamil and Muslim parties, traitors all.