Tisaranee Gunasekara

The writer is a senior political commentator in Colombo.

Sri Lanka: The Sacred and the Profane

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“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?

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“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.

Correction

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

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“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

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“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

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“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

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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.

Sri Lanka: Prelude to Elections

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“What are we supposed to do when the system consistently yields terrible candidates?”

Nanjala Nyabola (The Kenyan Kakistocracy – The Nation – 12.8.2022)

Most politicians have a questionable relationship with reality. The Rajapaksas operate in a reality that is all their own. Asked why brother Gotabaya fled the country, Mahinda Rajapaksa replied, “Who accuses him of fleeing? He went for a medical check up.”

So the SLPP, that quintessential Rajapaksa party, acts as if the recent popular uprising happened in a parallel universe. As poverty engulfs new swathes of population and malnutrition ravages the young, the SLPP is planning to present a cabinet paper authorising the payment of 117million rupees to favoured ex-officials (civilian and military) on the spurious grounds of political victimisation. This in a land where the main children’s hospital is making urgent appeals for orthopaedic surgical supplies.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa might be fleeing from country to country; his family has learnt nothing from his fate. Sons and nephews remain as clueless as fathers and uncles. Namal Rajapaksa sent a letter to the Minister of Environment recommending two names as CEO of a subsidiary of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, one a Pradesheeya Sabha member and former secretary to acolyte-politician DV Chanaka. (Ranil Wickremesinghe set up a committee to review and approve appointments and transfers in the upper bureaucracy probably in response.) When outrage ensued, the Rajapaksa scion clarified matters by explaining he gives such letters of recommendation frequently!

The SLPP has submitted a should-be-ministers list to the president. This roll call of favourites sounds (in most part) like the broader populace’s index of undesirables. (Whether President Wickremesinghe accedes to that request will say much about his ability to chart a path that bypasses some of the worst Rajapaksa excesses.) Unfortunately, if an election is held today, SLPP faithful will ensure that many on that list are back in parliament.

The SLPP will not gain a majority in the next election. But it won’t be wiped out either. The Rajapaksa family party is likely to command a significant minority with around 20% of the vote, especially if Mahinda Rajapaksa leads the campaign. The diehard Rajapaksa voters, the kind who sees a national threat in every Tamil and every Muslim (and Christian too), will vote for the SLPP to save the Motherland from these encroaching enemy-aliens. And their preference will go not to the least objectionable but to the most deplorable.  

Commenting on the upcoming US midterm polls, Senator Mitch McConnell warned that rival Democrats are likely to retain the senate due to ‘candidate quality’; the fringe-nature of Trump-approved Republican candidates may propel many moderates either to vote Democrat or abstain. In a first-past-the-post system moderate voters have a considerable say in deciding the winners. In a preferential vote system, it is the died-in-the-wool party faithful who determine who’s in and who’s out.

If the next Lankan election is held under the preferential vote system, many of the most unsavoury characters on both sides of the aisle will be re-elected. The kind that had other priorities on the day the parliament was to debate the state of the economy. The debate was cancelled for lack of a quorum with a majority of SLPP and SJB members busy elsewhere; this in February 2022 when the economy was freefalling and a sovereign default looming. Then again, given the abysmal quality  of the current parliament, the debate would have degenerated into a slanging match. It is hard to imagine a sober, well-informed, fact-based discussion of the economy or any other subject in this parliament.

Down with 225 is a popular cry. But we elected 196 of them. If the next election is held sans a change in the electoral system, we’ll be back ere long shouting, Down with 225!

This counter-meritocratic polity

Almost every job imaginable requires some basic qualification or skill set. Politician is perhaps the sole exception.

“The purpose of government is not to look after the gifted minority,” Eric Hobsbwam argued, but to care for the ‘ordinary run of people’. “Any society worth living in is one designed for them, not for the rich, the clever, the exceptional, although any society worth living in must provide room and scope for such minorities” (On History). In other words, a meritocracy which is committed to ensuring a liveable life to the ordinary majority.

Lankan system has been engineered and habituated to look after not the ordinary majority nor the gifted minority, but a supremely mediocre political caste and its business, professional, religious, and societal satellites. Ours is a counter-meritocracy where the worst own the earth (and pass it on to their progeny) while the better are forced to leave.

In our political culture brawn trumps brain and willingness to violate all norms of decency is a prized quality. The preferential vote system amplifies this twisted ethos. Non-partisan voters may decide which party wins how many seats, but who adorns those seats is decided mostly by the hardcore of each party, via preferences. And the hardcore of whatever hue prefer loud-mouths to sober minds, slavish loyalty to knowledge or capability.

Our elections are billion rupee affairs. The source of this money is as much of a mystery as how it is spent. Campaign finance is lawless territory. The resultant absence of limits, oversight and transparency has turned elections into corruption hotspots. Where do parties and candidates get their money? If the money is their own, how did they earn it? If the money is donated, who are the donors? What are their affiliations and interests? None of these are known, since there is no law to compel parties and candidates to reveal how they got and spent their money. All we have is the reasonable assumption that a donor would give a bunch of money only if the potential return is high enough.

Ending this dangerous opacity through the introduction of a campaign finance law before the next election will go some way in correcting the distortions inherent in our electoral system. A related priority is to change the electorate from district to constituency. As long as district remains the electorate, money, family connections, political and muscle power will play a disproportionate role in deciding winners.

A hybrid system which combines the positives of proportional representation and majoritarian (first-past-the-post) systems might give moderate voters a greater say in electing our next lot of representatives. Incidentally, all professional politicians (including retired ones) should be banned from the national list which should be for people with knowledge and expertises. Such a hybrid system together with a campaign finance law could weed out some deplorables and reduce the oversized role money plays in our elections. If the opposition does not want to join an all party government, it can perhaps focus on electoral reforms and the abolition of the executive presidency in the six months between now and the earliest constitutionally possible date for a dissolution.

Given the enormity of the challenge we need parliamentarians who can think beyond the old shibboleths of the left and the right. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate and former World Bank chief economist, has been a harsh critic of the IMF for decades. But his stance has changed in response to the IMF’s own shift away from the neo-liberal Washington Consensus. He has praised the IMF’s 2022 agreement with Argentina for its non-insistence on austerity hoping it “may set a precedent for dealing with debt restructuring and financial crises” in other countries (Argentina and the IMF Turn Away From Austerity – Foreign Policy). In its official proclamation, the IMF stated that the Argentine deal included the government changing its spending priorities to accommodate “higher energy subsidies and appropriate social assistance to protect the vulnerable from the food price shock.”   

In this post-Washington Consensus climate, a deal with the IMF need not lead to austerity for the people. The choice of who tightens belts and how much will be made in Colombo. For instance, if the government hikes defence expenditure or re-embraces the failed infrastructure-led development model, budget deficit will be controlled by axing health, education and social welfare.

The ball is in the national court. Much will depend on whether the government can stand up to vested interests, be it politicians, business class, the military, monks, or state-sector trade unions. The role played by the first four in pushing through policies harmful to the national economy needs no belabouring. But the last might need a word of explanation.

The recent hike in electricity has been justly condemned for imposing a greater burden on low income consumers; the exception is the CEB. The hike might compel many old and new poor to lose access to electricity. But the CEB’s beef is that the hike is not high enough. It demands more rate-increases to reduce a 45billion annual loss while insisting on its right to bonuses.  If this is not a vested interest that works against common good, especially the good of the poorest of the poor, then what is it? Are state owned enterprises which burden the budget, and thereby ordinary people, national assets or national liabilities? 

An election sans electoral reforms, may land us where Lebanon is. There, no party got a majority, former PM is caretaker PM, politicians are trying to cobble alliances, and the president is busy promoting his son-in-law. The people suffer. Sounds familiar?

Motherland returns?

The brutal attack on Salman Rushdie reminds us again what obscenities the marriage of religion and politics spawns. As writer Adam Gopnik said, the attack “is horrific in the madness of its meaning and a reminder of the power of religious fanaticism to move people” (Salman Rushdie and the power of words – The New Yorker)

Religion and race played a decisive role in the 2019 and 2020 elections, and here we are. Minimising these deadly influences is necessary to ensure that the next election produces a parliament that is more moderate and more rational.

The unbanning of some Tamil Diaspora groups has created a hype among Rajapaksa supporters and other extremists. The Rajapaksas initially banned the Diaspora organisations in 2014, five years after the war ended, to shore up their waning Sinhala-Buddhist support. The ban was lifted by Mangala Samaraweera in 2015 and re-imposed by the Rajapaksas upon their return. The ban was always a political gimmick. Now it will be used by majoritarian extremists to raise the Undead Tiger in all its striped glory. The decision to sing the national anthem in Tamil at the upcoming 75th anniversary of Independence and the proposed return of some of the military-occupied lands to their original owners will be further grist to the Motherland-in-danger mill.

There are countless grounds on which the Ranil Wickremesinghe presidency can be criticised, starting with the ongoing repression targeting Aragalaya activists, a practice even the courts have questioned. The inclusion of poet Ahnaf Jazeem in banned people’s list is both silly and dangerous. Using the PTA to clamp down on democratic dissent will create a deadly precedent (This abuse is the best argument for the abolition of the PTA). Rising inflation, non-appearance of the promised social security net, the continuation of corrupt practices such as giving chairpersons of dissolved provincial councils and their attendants thousands of litres of fuel – all are condemnable and should be condemned.

The SJB is currently not playing the race-religion card, but the advent of the Weerawansa-Gammanpila group and the Dulles Allahapperuma group into the oppositional space might change this. These grouplets are likely to use the Motherland cry out of necessity (to cut into the SLPP base), inclination or both. Even if they fail electorally, they will shift the political discourse to the extreme, making ethnic and religious racism fashionable again.

When Pope Francis visited Greece, a Greek-Orthodox priest called him a heretic. That charge would have led to a gruesome death by fire in most of Europe just a few hundred years ago. If that past seems not just another time but another universe, it was thanks to the work of Christians and Catholics who struggled for religious reforms and the secularisation of politics, often at the risk of their lives. It is the inadequacy of such struggles or their failure that creates spaces for fatwas against authors and their brutal implementation.

The Rajapaksas regained power by riding on the collective back of Sinhala-Buddhist monkhood. Their disastrous performance discredited religion-in-politics for a brief moment. Political religion regained credibility and relevance by changing its tune. It is now back in its self-appointed role as supreme guide in all matters secular, from politics to economics, from marriage to why girls are born (A monk called Mahamewunava Saddaseela preaches that daughters are born to parents as punishment for the sin of lying. He obviously lack the gray matter to understand that going by his own logic, if all Sinhala-Buddhists eschew lying, the race will become as extinct as dinosaurs in one generation).

In times of national distress, when a secular path towards political, economic, and social justice is absent, the door opens for political-religions. If the idea of common good cannot be pursued, society will fragment and into the resultant chasms irrationalism will creep. That is why in this interim time before the election, the more moderate parties should form an understanding about not giving nominations to clergy of any religion and keeping religious symbols out of politics in general and electoral politics in particular. Allowing extremism of any kind a role in politics will take us not to a better future but to the worst places in our past. Those who believed in the Kelani cobra are still with us.