By Gehan Gunatilleke
There are things that have political currency in Sri Lanka – free education and healthcare, a reduced cost of living, and anti-corruption are usually among these things. Apart from this usual inventory, there are stranger things that can gain currency in this country. Their value is often difficult to see or measure. But it is possible to observe – like one observes a gentle wind in the rustling of leaves. Likewise, the actions of politicians can reveal what else has gained in political currency. Their rustlings tell us of a breeze. And it is chilling.
The Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), is a figure of great enmity today. His words have poisoned his followers to commit acts of grave violence in the name of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Then, somewhat unexpectedly, an emboldened judiciary spoilt his campaign of hate when it incarcerated him for contempt of court. Although he continues to enjoy impunity for inciting violence, his imprisonment is important for two reasons: As a matter of principle, it signals that he is not totally above the law; as a matter of pragmatism, it physically restrains him from inciting further violence.
Despite the principled and pragmatic reasons for his continued internment, some Sri Lankan politicians indulge and endorse calls for a presidential pardon. President Maithripala Sirisena recently granted the BBS an audience, and it is reasonable to speculate that the thera’s pardon was on the meeting’s agenda.
Last week, Buddha Sasana Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera formally endorsed a request for such a pardon. Some members of parliament also called for his release citing logic-defying reasons, such as his value to promoting inter-religious harmony.
These politicians have an instinct for changing winds – a nose for detecting a certain kind of political currency in calling for the thera’s pardon. They understand that investing in this currency gives them a share of political capital, which they hope to convert into popular legitimacy, and electoral gain.
A similar trend of political signalling and investment may be observed in the debate on the death penalty in Sri Lanka. Whenever public outrage is expressed over an appalling crime, politicians queue up to cash in; the call for the re-imposition of the death penalty appears to be the currency. The latest of these calls is led by the President himself, and is made in response to reports of increased drug trafficking in the country. Politicians and bureaucrats are seen making comically ominous near-Nazi salutes to pledge their allegiance to this deadly campaign.
Of course, the death penalty is not (necessarily) what is literally being sought. There are doubts as to whether this President, or any president for that matter, would actually sign a death warrant. No, the death penalty has become a symbol. It stands for a decisive, strong, and merciless response to crime and instability, in direct contrast to the indecisive, soft, and weak response sometimes associated with the former Coalition Government. Leaders willing to wield this symbol pose as the standard bearers of security and stability.
The calls for the thera’s pardon and the re-imposition of the death penalty may seem mutually incompatible. One call is for clemency, the other for retribution. Yet together they signal a growing appetite for something different to the status quo. We know of this appetite because we observe how politicians sense it, and attempt to appease it opportunistically.
Yet, it is unclear as to whether they fully understand what this appetite is for: A new brand of populist leadership that stands in sharp contrast to the perceived pluralism and inefficiency of the establishment. It is a brand that promises to militantly advance Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. It is a brand that promises to ruthlessly implement policies of majoritarianism masquerading as security and stability.
Gnanasara Thera is unlikely to be that new leader who transcends the fringe and assumes the mainstream helm. History, however, warns us against complacence. If he is pardoned, his transformation from the average hatemonger to the quintessential martyr will be complete. A dangerous man with dangerous ideas once spent a few months in jail, only to be released early, and eventually assume the leadership of the Third Reich.
The toxic environment in which he spectacularly rose to power bears similar features to the context that has befallen Sri Lankans: Growing frustration with the economy, local and international “liberal” conspiracies that threaten the dominant race, and a “prosperous” and “cunning” minority to cast as the scapegoat.
These are times ripe for the rise of a populist – a ruler with a despotic disposition, who will gladly dismantle many democratic institutions we take for granted today. The thera’s pardon will herald his coming. If the thera is merely the anti-Baptist, the anti-Messiah waits in the wings.
When it is difficult to predict the weather, it is sometimes useful to observe the behaviour of creatures with natural instincts. These are the politicians. How they behave during the “calm” can help us understand the storm that lies ahead. But, like the fish and the fowl that signal impending danger, politicians are just reacting on instinct. They do not really care about the actual storm. At the appropriate time, they will seek shelter, or simply join the tide. We the citizens, however, stand to be drowned.
It is difficult to prevent the perfect storm. But, surely, not all futures are irredeemable? It is with this hope that rational citizens must vocalise contempt for contemporary populism. For these dalliances with dangerous ideas may eventually open the floodgates.
So the pardon and the penalty must be fiercely resisted. Such resistance is not merely for the sake of preventing impunity and promoting humanity – it is for the sake of preventing the arrival of the populist and a truly dystopian future.