The monks of the Bodu Bala Sena have inadvertently done Sri Lanka a favour. Their speeches are so crass and their actions so crude that they have provoked a backlash – the media is full of criticism of their anti-Muslim campaign, much of it coming from Sinhala Buddhists themselves.
People have recognised that these groups are a menace. The question is whether their rise has been properly understood and whether the measures being taken to combat them are likely to be effective.
In my last column, I mentioned and quoted from Dayan Jayatilleka’s new book in connection with the vote on Sri Lanka in Geneva last month, referring to his diagnosis of the mess that the Government is in, internationally speaking, and his prescription of how to get out of it. This is an argument that he has made on many occasions in newspaper articles, but it clearly needs to be repeated, given the near total disjuncture between the world as many commentators on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy see it and anything even vaguely resembling actual reality – implement the 13th Amendment to build up a solid constituency around India and the Global South in order to counter what is inevitable pressure from the diaspora-driven West.
Instead of following this very simple plan, Colombo’s thinkers are busy discussing how best to prepare for sanctions. And if they succeed in bringing this on the country, they will immediately feel compelled to start planning how to dig all the bunkers that they will need to hide from the air strikes that they will then be convinced are bound to follow.
Why risk so much to avoid the 13th Amendment?
The book sets this debate in context, and at the same time explains the rise of groups like the Bodu Bala Sena.
Its central thesis is that the LTTE had to be defeated, since it was a fascist organisation. One of the most interesting sections traces Prabhakaran’s rise to dominate the Tamil struggle. In 1976, when Prabhakaran reconstituted his forces as the LTTE after his split with Uma Maheswaran, he seemed to be at a disadvantage – a relative nobody in his community with no ideology and thus limited access to sources of foreign training. For a long time, the LTTE was also numerically smaller than its competitors. Yet by the time of the Indo Lanka Accord, it had become the preeminent organisation.
Dayan highlights the importance of Black July, which saw the primary contradiction confirmed as being not between the Tamil community and the State but between Tamils and Sinhalese. People supported the group that they considered to be the most effective, and their understanding of effectiveness can be summed up in the massacre at Anuradhapura in 1985. This support enabled Prabhakaran to eliminate his rivals, as he did in the massacres of TELO, EPRLF and PLOTE cadres in 1986 and 1987– a strategy that he continued until his own demise more than two decades later, in the meantime killing everybody from his deputy and top negotiator Mahattaya to TULF leader Amirthalingam to activists and intellectuals Rajini Thiranagama and Neelan Thiruchelvam to Deputy Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat Kethesh Loganathan and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.
Not only was Prabhakaran absolutely ruthless, he was unwaveringly committed to Eelam. As he dared to tell Nirupama Subramanium of The Hindu even after signing the CFA, his famous statement that he should be executed by his followers if he deviated from this goal was still valid.
That is why he went to war against the IPKF, against Premadasa and against Chandrika Kumaratunga, and it is also why he conspired to keep Ranil Wickremasinghe out of power.
He was a fundamentalist.
No state formed by a guerilla movement and no group still engaged in an armed struggle came forward in solidarity with the LTTE, even in its final hour.
The book suggests that the overreach of the LTTE was inevitable.
However, more important in the current context is its analysis of the politics that gave rise to the LTTE and resulted in Tamils ending up with nothing to show for a generation long war. Dayan puts it as follows: ‘The history of Tamil politics in the last quarter century has been blighted by two major errors. The first of these has been the non-use or abuse of united front tactics. The second error has been the substitution of extremism, fantasy and emotionalism, of sheer unaffordable posturing, for serious politics and stone-cold realism.’
None of the Tamil organisations accepted the Chidambaram proposals of 1986, which foresaw the permanent merger of the North and East, minus Ampara, and as a result they were given a merger subject to a referendum in the Indo Lanka Accord, and space was created for the Sarath Silva-headed Supreme Court to effect a de-merger. Similarly, the TULF rejected the 13th Amendment and the EPRLF took office in the North East Provincial Council promising to reopen negotiations, and their adventurism led to Premadasa deciding that the LTTE was less of a threat than the continuing presence of the IPKF – Tamil groups were busy talking of a ‘Cyprus solution’ – and there was no devolved administration in either the North or the East for more than two decades.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of lives were lost.
Where are the self-criticisms by Tamil leaders? They should start by reviewing Dayan’s book – although he is now best known as a spokesperson for the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, he is as much of a critic of Sinhala chauvinism as he is of Tamil extremism.
Speaking of which, what of the failings of Sinhala leaders?
The list of mistakes made is absolutely sickening and far too long to even summarise in this column. I hope that Sinhala leaders will read the book and reflect on it before they make too many more.
Of most relevance to the current context is the claim that these errors led not only to the outbreak of the armed struggle and its dragging on for an entire generation, but also to the rise of an equally ugly phenomenon – Sinhala ultra-nationalism.
Dayan has plenty to say about the early days of Sinhala chauvinism, but he sees a significant difference in attitudes later on. He argues: ‘Sinhala ultra-nationalism was the default option of the Sinhala people in the face of the existential threat posed by LTTE aggression and the vacuum created by the failure or partial and inadequate success of more pluralist, progressive, cosmopolitan or liberal-leaning leaderships.’
In perhaps the most devastating paragraph of the book, he says, ‘Had it not been for the excess and lopsidedness of Chandrika’s ‘package’ and P-TOMS, and Ranil’s CFA, Sinhala fundamentalism would not have enjoyed the surge it did. Sinhala ultra-nationalism, which had been marginalised under ‘Premadasa-ism’ to the point that its key ideologue was sacked by the then VC of Colombo without a social ripple, had reached such a peak a decade later that it was conceded 40 seats by Chandrika’s negotiator Mangala Samaraweera, over the protest of Mahinda Rajapaksa, then PM.’
Ranil Wickremesinghe was of course the leader for whom the least excuses can be made. Although he came to office just after 9/11 when the international mood had turned against the LTTE and when the Sri Lankan Special Forces had finally begun to demonstrate their ability to strike at Prabhakaran’s senior cadres, having killed eight field commanders in as many months, the UNP chose to see how Prabhakaran would respond to appeasement. It exposed its own Military Intelligence in the infamous Athurugiriya raid and agreed via the CFA to disarm the paramilitaries of its Tamil allies, with no concern for the arms of the LTTE and what it would do with them. Without securing access to areas controlled by the LTTE, it allowed the LTTE to move into its own areas and take over as many institutions and functions as Prabhakaran considered useful.
In short, the UNP did everything possible to build Prabhakaran’s confidence, despite the fact that he was the one with the track record of starting wars. Prabhakaran was even allowed to sign the CFA by himself, in his ‘capital’ Kilinochchi, sitting in front of a map of what he very reasonably expected would soon be his Eelam.
For me, nothing sums up the post-war crisis in Sri Lanka as neatly as the choice its voters face even four years after the defeat of the LTTE – Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sarath Fonseka or Mahinda Rajapaksa.
None of these leaders has the capacity to get the better of Sinhala fundamentalism, even if they were motivated to try.
An alternative simply must emerge.
‘Long War, Cold Peace’ shows just how much space there is at the centre of Sri Lankan politics, and provides some much needed hope that it will eventually be filled.
The outpouring of angst about the Bodu Bala Sena is certainly encouraging, as was the sight of those responsible for the attack on Fashion Bug hiding their faces with their robes as they were being taken into custody by the Police, since this implies that they believe that Sri Lankans regard such actions as shameful. They are right. However, it is not just about stopping a few crazy monks and their followers going around throwing stones, although that is essential. There is also an ideology to be tackled.
Sinhala Buddhists are standing up against violence, but they must also stand up against the ideological foundations of the anti-Muslim campaign.
(Kath Noble’s column may be accessed via http://kathnoble.wordpress.com)