I was more alarmed by what I saw and heard on TV news last evening than by anything I have seen or heard in the Sri Lankan media throughout my life. What I saw and heard was the most dangerous and morally debased public statement, i.e. a statement made in public and concerning public, not private affairs, I have ever heard uttered in this country. It would be the most dangerous public statement that could be uttered in any country in the world.
While it was on TV news on two channels, I need to reproduce fairly, what happened. This is how Lanka C news, a website sympathetic to the occasion, filed the story on June 20th with a slightly embellished title.
“Become a Hitler, even establish a military rule and build the country, request the Prelates of the three Chapters, of Gotabhaya”. The story reads:
‘The Anunayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter, Ven Vedaruvey Upali thero said that he requests former Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to even resort to becoming a Hitler and run a military rule and build the country. He said this at the religious ceremony and alms giving held on the 69th birthday of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa at his residence in Mirihana.
A group of Bhikkhus representing the Three Chapters, attended the occasion. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chamal Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa—[thus] all the Rajapaksa brothers—attended the occasion. In addition, most of the group of Sixteen who left the government were also present.’ (Lankac news, June 20th 2018)
Meanwhile a website hostile to the Rajapaksas carried this report with a more accurate caption, less unfair to the Three Chapters: ‘ “If They Call You A Hitler, Then Be A Hitler And Build This Country,” Asgiriya Anunayaka Thero Tells Gotabaya.’
The story runs as follows:
“Ven. Vendaruwe Upali Thero, the Anunayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter delivering an anusasana on the occasion of an almsgiving marking the 69th birthday of Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that he should opt for military rule if this is what is necessary to build the country.
Ven Upali, noting that Gotabaya is referred to as a Hitler, suggested that if that is the case he should be one and build the nation.
‘What we need is a leadership that has the blessings of Mahinda Rajapaksa and is linked with Buddhism, the Buddhist Order and the Sinhalese. We can see that the law has completely broken down. We need a leader who shows fidelity to the doctrine (dahami naayakayek),’ Ven Upali also said.” (Colombo Telegraph June 20th, 2018)
Let me be very clear. I am NOT saying that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa shares these views or will adhere to this sage counsel. (I didn’t know that Gotabhaya was called a Hitler, and I think it is quite unfair). I am also pretty sure that Mahinda Rajapaksa and almost every politician i.e. elected representative of the people, in that room privately rejected those views and were alarmed by them.
However, it is also the case that one would have expected any religious leader to say to anyone who is called “a Hitler”, that he must be doing something wrong even unintentionally and should ask the person concerned to change his ways so completely that those who called him that would be convinced of the contrary. Religious leaders are supposed to be moral and ethical guides if nothing else! How the need for a “dahami naayakayakek” – a righteous leader—could be congruent with the injunction ‘if they call you a Hitler, just go for it!” Suffice to say that the advice given by the Ven Anunaahimi to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was the exact opposite of what the Bhikkhu said to Emperor Ashoka!
What I am saying is that a dreadful moral rot has set in, in our society and that rot does not only come from the ruling neoliberal elite. In response to its Weimarian decadence you now have the infinitely more repulsive and dangerous open endorsement of Hitler and advocacy of military rule—meaning Fascism. Some may argue that not every military rule is fascist, but the venerable monk was certainly not talking of the Portuguese military revolutionaries of 1974 or of Hugo Chavez. When he mentions Hitler and military rule in the same breath, he’s talking about fascist dictatorship.
Hitler is the worst, most evil leader in recorded history; certainly in modern times. His model of rule and the historical experience of fascism is regarded by every decent society and human being as the epitome of Political Evil. That is one universal truth that is shared across the globe and across the decades, from the USA through Russia to China; from Norway to Cuba.
Even from a crass utilitarian point of view it just doesn’t compute. You can’t build a country by ‘even’ being like Hitler. After a brief upswing Hitler succeeded in causing the utter destruction of Germany, followed by liberating invasion by many armies, a period of Occupation and partition into two states. It is the worst period in the history of Germany. So a commendation to ‘even be like Hitler’ and ‘build the country’ is an oxymoron.
In certain societies there is a revival of fascism and neo-Nazism, but these are not in the political mainstream. No one can commend Hitler as a permissible model in an audience of mainstream society and mainstream political leaders, especially an audience from which the next President of Sri Lanka (any one of three brothers) is likely to emerge. But that is what happened here.
What this tells us is about Sri Lankan society and this current moment in the contemporary history of Sri Lanka. There is a dark force which is gathering. It is not created by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa but is seeking to demonically possess him and thereby dominate this island. In that sense too, he is no Hitler. But what is happening is akin to Germany in the 1930s. Already at the Shangri-La convention, the equivalent of the Krupps and the Thyssens gathered, as the infamous conclave of industrialists in Germany in 1930s when it abandoned its snobbish class prejudices and embraced a petty bourgeois Alt-Right movement. The movie ‘The Sound of Music’, based on a true story, shows how fascism infects the young petty bourgeoisie and how some of the old elite, epitomized by Captain Von Trapp, had the courage to resist.
Now, militant elements of the Buddhist clergy have stepped up their decades-long advocacy that democracy be dispensed with and a strong leader should be installed. They first said this to, and about, Sarath Fonseka in 2009-2010. This is a recipe for Theocratic Fascism or rather, Theocratic-Militarist Fascism, which will wreak still greater havoc in a multiethnic, multilingual, multi-religious, multi-cultural society such as ours.
Meanwhile retired military brass are increasingly the spokespersons of the emerging bloc. Leading ideologues of the gathering bloc (from which I exclude Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Joint Opposition-Pohottuwa) are posting Netanyahu videos with the comment, “this is the type of country we should be” and complaining that “we should have this kind of leader but we don’t”.
These are symptoms of a social sickness. Connect the dots and you know what’s coming. The problem is not Gotabhaya, nor is he the source. But a Dark Matrix is evolving, originating in the dark underside of the Sinhala Buddhist culture and psyche, and he is going to be trapped in it as in a sticky web. The ‘dark side of the Force’ is trying to make him a Darth Vader. The ideology is already out there.
If Mahinda nominates Gotabhaya as the candidate, he will surely win and things will get much better in Sri Lanka for a while, perhaps even quite while in some important respects. None of this prevents me from putting down on the record, as somebody who supports him critically, the misgivings I have, in the spirit of balance and constructive criticism and in the hope of course correction. Not to do so would go against my intellectual conscience, my vocation as a public intellectual, my training as a Political Scientist as well as my experience as a diplomat.
What belongs in the lunatic fringe in any civilized society is now becoming the mainstream. Unless this is stopped, it is not going to end well. It can be stopped by many means, but time is running out. Any aspirant presidential candidate has to be rescued, even wrenched from this matrix. It can be done, but instead the Dark Matrix is mentally infiltrating and psychologically dominating the mainstream opposition.
The surest option to stop this March of the Dark Forces would be for the Parliament to revisit and modify the 19th amendment so as to enable Mahinda to contest the Presidency.
Another option is for Mahinda take the direction that Vasudeva is indicating: to select his elder brother Chamal as the candidate. It is a low risk option.
On the part of the UNP, it must surely make Sajith the candidate if it is not to be buried alive. But the UNP elite prefers defeat to the reappearance of another Premadasa.
The Tamils can de-escalate their political pressure so as not to help the Alt-right cause more than they have already done.
The Muslims have to be mindful of the uncritical saffron surge in solidarity with Ven. Galagodaatte Gnanasara; a mobilization whose discourse seems to indicate that the Buddhist clergy should be above the law and the Constitution.
Finally, the Left. Throughout the world, it is the Left, not the liberals, that has been the driving force of the fight against fascism. This is true from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s right up to the young, college educated Antifa activists in the USA today who are fighting the combination of the neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederates who congregate on the fringes of the Alt-Right which is the ex-Tea Party Movement constituency of President Trump.
What of the Sri Lankan Left, by which I mean primarily the JVP and FSP, in whatever order of prominence? The danger of far right, military backed dictatorship that Wijeweera saw in the late 1960s, warned against and prepared for, did not come to pass at that moment, but perhaps he was prophetic and it will come to pass now, decades after.
Given the lessons of world history, not only of classic fascism but also of military dictatorships and theocratic fascist regimes, all I can say is that if the JVP and FSP do not unite now, they will be forced to unite under the roofs of prisons and torture centers, later. If they do not construct a common political and ideological space today, they will share a common space in common graves, later. If the JVP’s present leadership is the obstacle to a united front with the FSP, that leadership must change so as to facilitate unity. It is an existential imperative; a matter of sheer survival.
Many of these things can be done at the same time, to contain the rise of Hitlerite fascism. Any one of these can be done. But I’m not sure any of them will. Political society is paralyzed by the fascist ideologues as potential victims are paralyzed by a swaying cobra.
If the Hitler-military rule model comes to pass even in the slightest, the Sinhalese and the Sinhala Buddhists will not reach the zenith of their strength as some think. It will not be a Great Rise; a great display of strength. Democracy and social welfare was among our greatest strengths and best served the preservation of our civilizational heritage in the modern era. Instead, the Hitler worship will give Sinhala Buddhism, the Sinhala Buddhists and the Sinhalese in general such a bad name and reputation globally, as well as in the annals of world history, that they will be condemned to a great downfall.
The Sinhala Buddhist state with a ‘Hitler and military rule’ may survive for a while, but it will not retain the island as a whole. Our state, our country, will be shrunk by rebellion and external intervention; we shall lose part of this island, before sanity is restored in the heartland. Unless we pre-empt this nightmare scenario by regaining our sanity first. Right now.