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Right Wing Extremism and Fascism Present in Sri Lanka is Openly Promoted by Prominent Politicians, Influential Monks, Leading Traditional Media Outlets as well as Through Personal Social Media Accounts

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Sanjana Hattotuwa

It’s the birth-rates.
It’s the birth-rates.
It’s the birth-rates.

In June 2018, a senior politician publicly condemned the incarceration of Buddhist monks, noting that the clergy would do well to transform their saffron robes to saffron jumpers. The dog-whistling and coded message was clear to the intended recipients. The infamous Gnanasara Thero had just been incarcerated for criminally intimidating the plaintiff in court, two years prior. The politician went on to say that in the past, there were around nine or 10 in a family, but now there’s just one or two, or at most, three. He unequivocally noted that the Sinhala Buddhist race is also nearing extinction, and that what the current government is doing to reduce the population is quite heinous.

What I’ve done above is to juxtapose the first three lines of a document that the killer in Christchurch, just over a week ago, uploaded to the Internet before slaughtering 50 Muslims and the speech made by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a temple, to a large group of people. The Christchurch killer’s document, just over 70 pages, is disturbing and unhinged.

In an op-ed I wrote last week, I noted that the killer’s language is simple, precise and clear, even if and indeed, mainly because, the logic is so twisted.There is considered intentionality behind the document, written in the format of questions and answers, with a clear political agenda.

The author shows an acute awareness of the media landscape and how violent extremism can be seeded in ways that almost guarantee wide distribution in the short-term and over time. Prejudice is projected as fact. Hate is promoted as reason. Killing is normalised as an entirely justified and necessary response. Though the Christchurch killer’s document is anchored to right-wing extremism and its pantheon of conspiracy theories, reading it, what’s quite disturbing is how much of it resonates with the anti-Muslim rhetoric spewed by extreme Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist monks in Sri Lanka, and their powerful, populist political enablers.

The top 25 words used in the Christchurch killer’s writing are revealing insights into man and mentality, as well as right-wing terrorist ideology. There is an overwhelming emphasis on ‘people’ – his people, or his race. There’s also repeated reference to ‘invaders’, referring exclusively to Muslims. ‘Culture’ is also used a lot, capturing what is perceived as cultural violence brought about by foreigners who are visibly Muslim. The emphasis on ‘land’and a love of the natural environment flows from this, where native lands are portrayed as being invaded by hordes of Muslims, contributing to everything from overpopulation to environmental degradation. This logic frames the more disturbing prevalence of words like ‘death’ and‘attack’in the imperative, with‘victory’ as the ultimate outcome. The document makes specific reference to the killing of children as well, as necessary.

All this and more in the killer’s document is absolutely heinous and horrifying. However, it is neither shocking nor surprising. Anyone who has over the years studied the public rhetoric from Mahinda Rajapaksa, the language used and content generated by supporters of Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Facebook, the symbolism and rhetoric projected by the BBS and their supporters, the explicit references to Muslims by Gnanasara Thero or the hordes on social media who openly associate themselves with the Sinha-le movement and ideology will immediately recognise the targets of hate as unnervingly familiar.

Just last week, there were repeated calls to hang or kill Member of Parliament and Minister Rishad Bathiudeen for his perceived role in the purported deforestation of Wilpattu. One tweet made explicit reference to the recent terrorism in New Zealand, noting that if Bathiudeen wanted to transform Sri Lanka into a Saudi Arabia, the author of the tweet was ready to do what the Australian in Christchurch did. Another tweet quotes a Buddhist monk noting that Bathiudeen should be hanged and killed. The rule of law, due process, robust investigations and the role of democratic institutions are rendered entirely unnecessary to, or weak in the face of what is taken to be, projected and strategically promoted as violence against Sinhala Buddhists by Muslims. Fascism, violence, theocratic fiat and communal uprising are the leitmotifs of this discourse. The strong resonance with the Christchurch killer’s right-wing terrorism is unnerving.

Racism and its promotion is so normalised in mainstream political and social discourse in Sri Lanka, it is invisible. During just the unprecedented political and constitutional chaos late last year, the study of reams of content generated directly by the Rajapaksas, as well as vast constellations of supporters online, reveals that racism, majoritarianism, prejudice and communal bias are ingrained into almost all their political communication. As I flagged early December, “the racism is ingrained in and featured on official accounts, where the text and imagery both explicitly and implicitly hold Tamils to be, by nature, separatists and the TNA to be, by default, terrorists.”

It is entirely unsurprising therefore to find at present, on around 100 pages I monitor on Facebook deeply supportive of and promoting a political future for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a lot of content around Wipattu is almost exclusively through communal frames – calling for the Sinhalese to rise up and respond, violently if necessary. From Muslims portrayed as invaders to prostitutes, content on just one active page calls for the protection of the environment to be given to the Army and the killing of anyone perceived to be responsible for the environmental devastation. Coincidentally, when writing this column, I was also sent links to around ten WhatsApp groups on Wilpattu. A prominent lay person who is officially part of the BBS is in almost every one of them.

Importantly, this radicalisation happening apace and at scale is not just through social media. The counter-terrorism chief of the UK, Neil Basu, in response to the coverage of the Christchurch killer’s material on British tabloids and media, decried how traditional media coverage of violence helped promote fascism. In Sri Lanka, an anchor working for the popular Derana TV channel said on Facebook that New Zealand deserved the massacre for sending Sri Lanka poisoned milk. The post was taken down by Facebook for the violation of community standards. Incredibly, another senior journalist at the same channel supported her colleague’s assertion by false equivalence, noting that both New Zealand sending Sri Lanka contaminated milk and the massacre were wrong.

Now banned in New Zealand from any sort of promotion or distribution in public fora, the Christchurch killer’s self-made video was broadcast on some Sri Lankan TV channels in full. Dozens of gossip sites self-hosted the video in full, promoting it over Facebook and respective websites. It is not just the macabre fascination with mass murder that’s disturbing. It is the justification of it by tropes, expression, symbolism and language that just like the killer, normalises violence and extreme prejudice.

In under a week after the worst act of terrorism in New Zealand’s history, the government banned automatic weapons and assault rifles. PM Ardern completely sided with and visibly stood by the Muslim community as victims, condemning right-wing extremism and refusing to ever mention the name of the killer. City, community and country are united in grief. The mainstream media have been dignified and respectful in their coverage.

Right Wing Extremism and Fascism Present in Sri Lanka is Openly Promoted by Prominent Politicians, Influential Monks, Leading Traditional Media Outlets as well as Through Personal Social Media Accounts

The same right-wing extremism and fascism are present in Sri Lanka. It is openly promoted. From the public stage to political communication, from prominent politicians to influential monks, violence is promoted by personal accounts as well as leading traditional media outlets. Politicians who employ the same racism as the Christchurch killer are blessed by Buddhist clergy. Buddhist clergy that espouses precisely the same ideology as the killer’s right-wing extremism are courted by politicians.

In an election year, where possibly one of the prime candidates is so closely associated with and condones fascism, it doesn’t take specialist knowledge to fear what all this could engineer, leading up to as well as far beyond, electoral outcomes.

Courtesy:Sunday Island

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