On 20 September 2000, Monk Gnanasara was fined Rs. 12,000 by Traffic Court of Colombo 12, after pleading guilty to nine charges including drunk driving, speeding, driving without licence, and failing to report an accident.

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“This country still has a Sinhala police, a Sinhala army. If after today a single Muslim or some other alien lays a hand on a single Sinhalese, let alone a robe, it will be the end of all these creatures” – Monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, pre-riot speech in Aluthgama – 15 June 2014

Last week a curious theft happened. A man broke into a CWE store Galle to steal a few packets of milk powder.

According to a World Food Programme survey (conducted in five districts between December 2020 and February 2021), 50% of the households were either moderately or severely food insecure (Food Insecurity among farmers in rural Sri Lanka and the perceived impact of Covid-19 https://academic.oup.com/cdn/article/5/Supplement_2/248/6292663).

Last week. Moody’s downgraded Sri Lanka’s sovereign rating to Caa2 (poor quality and very high credit risk); two more notches and we’d hit the rock bottom. The same day, Minister Namal Rajapaksa inaugurated a dune racing track in the Port City and promised to set up a billion dollar sports economy.

Thomas Piketty opens the introduction to his Capital and Ideology with a statement and a warning. “Every human society must justify its inequalities; unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in the danger of collapse.” When inequalities turn too rampant for justification, as in Sri Lanka today, diversion is the only recourse. A red herring is needed, as red as blood.

Last week, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a Presidential Task Force on ‘One Country, One Law’ and placed at its head a monk who is a master in rabblerousing and minority-baiting. Is this another bungle by the most cerebrally-challenged administration in modern Lankan history? Or a coldly calculating measure to save the ruling dynasty by turning the clock back to 2019?

The Easter Sunday Massacre demonstrates that a tiny extremist fringe among Lankan Muslims can be provoked into senseless and barbaric violence. And in the game of provocation, none can best Monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara. After all, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Attack did propose that the AG’s Department vet the speeches he made in Maharagama and Aluthgama and assess the possibility of filing criminal charges against him under the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Truth be told, Monk Gnanasara is no stranger to the law. On 20 September 2000, he was fined Rs. 12,000 by Traffic Court of Colombo 12, after pleading guilty to nine charges including drunk driving, speeding, driving without licence, and failing to report an accident. In 2018 he was found guilty of threatening Sandhya Ekneligoda, the wife of the disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, and sentenced to six months of rigorous imprisonment.

After Monk Gnanasara invaded the Homagama Magistrate Court and delivered a speech excoriating ‘the law of black-skinned whites’ (kalu suddage neethiya) and calling the State Counsel ‘a eunuch,’ Magistrate Ranga Dissanayake filed a contempt of court case in the Appeal Court. The Court found the monk guilty of all four charges and convicted him to 19 years of rigorous imprisonment to be completed in six years. The Appellate Court and the Supreme Court refused even to entertain his appeals. Before a year had gone by, then President Sirisena, in another crass betrayal of his mandate, pardoned the monk.

If the ‘One Country, One Law’ Task Force was motivated by Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism, the President would have appointed a hardline monk of a scholarly bent as its head, one unburdened by a criminal record. There are plenty such monks in the Rajapaksa fold. Monk Gnanasara, he of Aba Sarana fame, is there because the taskforce is motivated by Rajapaksas supremacism. Its true task is not the protection of race or religion, but the ruling family.

Commenting on China’s spate of incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone, the CNN called it “a carefully executed show of force – straying into areas where it would provoke a response from Taiwan but not entering the island’s airspace” (CNN – 27 October 2021). China is trying to push Taiwan into providing it with a casus belli.

Is the ‘One Country, One Law’ Task Force ‘a carefully executed show of force’ to ‘provoke a response,’ one explosive enough to make most Sinhala-Buddhists rush into the Rajapaksa arms pleading to be saved? Why else appoint a peerless inciting agent as its head?

The cold war within

The United Fruit Company has a new name, Chiquita Brands International. It no longer has the power to shape US foreign policy or overthrow governments – like in Guatemala in 1954. When the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz instituted agrarian and labour reforms that threatened the United Fruit Company’s super profits, it convinced Washington that Guatemala was going communist.

The Eisenhower administration commissioned an invasion. The invaders were trained, armed and financed by the CIA. The elected government was overthrown and the long night of tyranny descended on Guatemala. (The events also catalysed the transformation of a radical young doctor called Ernesto Guevara de la Serna into the iconic revolutionary, Che.)

The still unfolding drama between Sri Lanka and a Chinese company over a consignment of contaminated fertiliser demonstrates that China too will not hesitate to resort to termination with extreme prejudice to protect its political and corporate interests.

In the latest episode, the Minister and State Minister of Agriculture (the latter a Rajapaksa scion) accompanied by top ministry officials went to the Chinese Embassy to explain their stance, in total violation of protocol. They emerged from the meeting singing different tunes. The Minister said the contaminated fertiliser could not be accepted. The State Minister said the consignment would be checked by a third party.

On 26 October, the Chinese company threatened People’s Bank with blacklisting. The People’s Bank responded by pointing out that an injunction by a Lankan Court prevents it from making any payments. But China clearly has no patience with Lankan law. On 29 October, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo issued a statement blacklisting the People’s Bank.

When China invaded Vietnam in 1979 (just four years after Vietnam’s war of liberation against the US ended), Deng Xiaoping said the purpose was to teach Vietnam a lesson. Now Beijing wants to teach Colombo a lesson in obedience. The dispute could have been managed with less acrimony, and more finesse. But China seemed to have decided to make an example out of Sri Lanka, to turn the island nation into a warning to all client states.

Since the State-owned People’s Bank opened the Letter of Credit before the fertiliser was checked for contamination, Colombo may end up by paying nine million dollars to the Chinese company perhaps just to take the contaminated fertiliser back to China. Does anyone still believe that Sri Lanka will be able to stop China from using Hambantota Port or the Colombo Port City as battleground in its new cold war with the US and India?

In the meantime, the regime’s LNG deal with an American company is meeting strenuous opposition from within the regime’s own ranks. The Rajapaksas made the deal in their usual manner, with no openness, consultation or transparency.

Government politicians who hitherto expressed no discontent with such cavalier conduct, who raised their hands to pass the far more dangerous Port City Bill, are now screaming about sovereignty and national security from rooftops. Pro-Government trade unions are threatening mayhem, including a three-day nationwide blackout. There’s even talk of the LNG plant becoming a US military base, reminiscent of the fuss about the MCC grant. All that is lacking is a monk starting a fast unto death in the Independence Square.

The last time the same cast of characters took to streets was against the East Container Terminal deal with India and Japan. That deal was made by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. The Rajapaksas used the agitation by their own cohorts to get out of it.

The LNG deal is different. It is a Rajapaksa construct, a result of the realisation that they cannot depend on Beijing alone and must make some accommodation with the West. When Minister Weerawansa accused Basil Rajapaksa of getting the agreement through without a Cabinet discussion, he was publicly contradicted by Minister Namal Rajapaksa.

In an even more telling development, Mahinda Pathirana, a favoured Rajapaksa acolyte, posted a Facebook message hinting that the opponents of the deal represent not Lankan interests but Chinese ones. These opponents want to give the deal to a Chinese-Pakistani joint venture which quoted $ 3.1 for one LNG unit, he claimed, while the American company will give a unit at $ 1.4.

“If they have a real concern about national assets why are they pressurising the Government to sign the Chinese-Pakistani agreement despite such a loss to the Electricity Board?” he asked rhetorically.

With the 20th Amendment, and the induction of Basil Rajapaksa, the line of succession is set. Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be succeeded by Basil and Namal Rajapaksa. This is obviously not to the liking of those non-Rajapaksa leaders in the SLPP who dreamt of the Rajapaksa torch passing on to their own hands. Though disillusioned, they are obviously willing to fight for their own place in the sun. The opposition to the American deal seems to stem from this internal power struggle.

The trillion renminbi question is whether Beijing is involved in this Rajapaksa vs. non-Rajapaksa internal power struggle. The entire devastating drama could have been avoided had President Gotabaya not imposed his abracadabra organic agriculture policy on an unprepared country. But the Rajapaksas will have their pet projects, from towers to racing tracks, irrespective of the cost to an increasingly impoverishing nation.

And if the power struggle within the ruling coalition is getting perilously close to breaking the banks, with Beijing fishing in swirling waters, all the more reason for a suitable enemy, to unite the government and the nation once again around the Saviours.

The Task Force as time capsule

Leftwing economists are not the only ones who see increasing inequality within nations as a systemic challenge. Speaking at the Peterson Institute of International Economics in January 2020, the IMF Chief said, “In some ways, this troubling trend is reminiscent of the early part of the 20th century – when the twin forces of technology and integration led to the first gilded age, the roaring 20s, and, ultimately, financial disaster.” She went on to sound a warning: “If I had to identify a theme at the outset of the new decade, it would be increasing uncertainty.”

The Rajapaksas are experiencing this uncertainty in full measure. The farmers, who until a few months ago, formed the bedrock of their support base, who stayed true to them even in 2015, are now burning them in effigy. Sri Lanka has seen demonstrating workers, students and professionals; never farmers. If even a percentage of these farmers abandon the family, the Rajapaksa electoral future might be in jeopardy.

The regime has promised India to hold Provincial Council elections next year. LG Polls too are scheduled for 2022. Any election under existing conditions will mean serious setbacks if not outright defeats to the SLPP. Thanks to the fertiliser fiasco, the Rajapaksas may even lose power in strongholds such as North Central, Uva, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces, places where their polling numbers stayed close to high fifties.

Such outcomes are unaffordable because they will damage the family image and strengthen the non-Rajapaksa elements within the SLPP who dream of stepping into the shoes of Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

So Monk Gnanasara gets to play conjuror, once again creating an enemy image.

The ‘One Country, One Law’ Task Force is expected to give its report by 29 February, perhaps just in time for Provincial/Local Elections. From now till then, doctored versions of the Task Force’s deliberations might be leaked, building up to a picture of valiant Sinhala-Buddhist patriots standing up to encroaching Muslims.

The Task Force is likely to come up with a majority and minority report, divided along religious lines. The two reports can then be used to transform any election campaign into battle for the nation’s soul and future.

In 2013 Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that no one should fear the Bodu Bala Sena monks because they were engaged in ‘a nationally important task’.

Now the nature of that task is clear – saving Rajapaksa rule and ensuring the continuation of the Rajapaksa dynasty. Since the Rajapaksas equate themselves with the nation, since Gotabaya Rajapaksa is on record saying that those who harm him are harming the nation, Monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara will be engaging in a ‘nationally important task’ as he uses the ‘One Country, One Law’ Task Force as a time capsule, to take Sri Lanka back to where it was two years ago. ……-Terrified of Muslims, clamouring for a Rajapaksa saviour!

Courtesy:Daily FT