A new play

The theatre of racism does not entertain coincidence. When the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter, following a meeting of the Karaka Sangha Sabha, issues a statement and the very next day, Gnanasara Thero of the BBS, after over a month in hiding and with two arrest warrants against him, surrenders to the courts, one sees a plan, process, purpose and indeed, peril.

Despite official statements around coexistence, diversity and religious tolerance by the Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers, coupled with the surveillance and investigative powers of the entire Police force and our intelligence services, Gnanasara Thero remained hidden until he was ready to come out. The verbal acrobatics of the Police spokesperson when grilled by the media clearly suggests the Thero enjoys the protection of powerful politicians and political elements. The Thero may well be, unknown to himself, a pawn in a greater game. The context that led to surrender, and his subsequent kid-glove treatment by the Police, mark disturbing and dangerous trends that will undermine the 8th January promise of fully realizing Sri Lanka’s democratic potential. The events of last week also indicate a hidden pulsating power grid, within and outside of government, discernible only by looking at the systemic collapse around a clear, coherent response to what is clearly a fascist threat. The head of this snake is the BBS, but its venom writhes and slithers through the veins of government.

The statement by the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter is unprecedented. Even at the height of the anti-Muslim violence under the Rajapaksa regime, almost three years ago to date in Aluthgama, the chief prelates of maintained a silence and distance from Gnanasara Thero, affording at best a rare audience. They didn’t condemn. They didn’t condone. They just didn’t engage. And while their silence was damning enough, allowing the space for the BBS to grow, the statement last week is a dramatic reversal in the dynamics of their engagement – and for the worse. English mainstream media, which featured the statement penned in Sinhala, focussed on a single sentence that noted the Karaka Sangha Sabha did not approve of the aggressive behavior and speech of Gnanasara Thero. In his first interaction with the media after he was arrested, then released on bail, arrested again, and then re-released on bail, Gnanasara Thero indirectly references this concern, and says that the campaign henceforth will be in the hands of other monks, who are more civilised, cultured and well-mannered. What was a campaign of the BBS, in concert now with a statement by the Asgiriya Chapter, is now a campaign of all monks. This is congruent with the tone and thrust of the original statement, couched in a considered, even cunning Sinhala. A gentle knuckle rap on Gnanasara Thero is the entry point into what really is a statement that articulates and amplifies what the BBS has noted in the past. It suggests that many are disrespectful of Gnanasara Thero, particularly in how they address him, and denounces this. It denounces the purported silencing and targeting of Buddhist monks who flag what they perceive to be racist comments by politicians. It denounces the introduction of what it says are new laws targeted against Sinhalese-Buddhists in Sri Lanka. It denounces what it says are acts conducted in the name of reconciliation, around the destruction of ancient archeological artifacts in the North and East, and the appropriation of protected lands. It calls for the intervention of the President. The statement rails against what it says are attempts in the media to destroy the Sinhala race, and reminds that it is the duty of the government to act in this regard. The statement says that there are those in the guise of Buddhists, speaking on behalf of Buddhist as well as non-Buddhists who are engaged in a concerted effort to destroy Buddhist culture and the Sinhalese. It asks the government to hurriedly bring about and enact laws that address these concerns and protects the Buddhist culture and Buddhism. Its final point is the most chilling. The statement reminds all non-Buddhists that Sri Lanka’s Buddhist population has always protected and respected them. It condemns the acts of those, from other religions, who act against the core values of Buddhism and suggests that this destructive plot is also supported by various domestic and foreign forces. The statement ends on a rallying cry, noting that it is the duty of the Sangha and a patriotic public to stand up against the discrimination of the Sinhala-Buddhists.

To my knowledge, a full and accurate translation of the statement has not been published in any English media. This itself is revealing. The thrust and tone of this extraordinary statement, aimed at the majority community and religion in the country and with the powerful symbolic imprimatur of the Asgiriya Chapter, lays the foundation for the internalization of all the BBS stands for, by the sangha writ large. Those like the Ven. Dambila Thero, who have been openly against the BBS and Gnanasara Thero, and are now also in opposition to the Asgiriya Chapter and the Karaka Sangha Sabha, stand to be even more marginalized than they are today. The end result of developments this past week is to make the agenda, concerns, fears and targets of the BBS, the same as that which the Asgiriya Chapter and other senior monks will support, secure and indeed, strengthen. Mark how fundamentally different this response is to how in Myanmar, in May this year,  the Sangha Maha Nayaka (MHN) Committee, a government-appointed group of monks responsible for regulating the country’s Buddhist clergy, announced a four-point order effectively banning Ma Ba Tha, the equivalent of the BBS.

This places Sri Lanka is a precarious situation, and to my mind, more incendiary than what it faced in 2014, which is saying a lot. The BBS may well have same electoral impact as  the odious UKIP before the Brexit referendum, in that it moves the centre, fearful of losing a majority vote, far more towards the right and into a new normal that is in fact the cementing of fringe lunacy and continuation of deeply racist responses, structures and discrimination by the State against minorities. The pernicious political project isn’t in fact the generation of votes to enter Parliament. Rather, it is the rejection of an alternative future proposed at a referendum or any other electoral contest through uncertainty, fear and the generation of distrust around everything and everyone. To this end, far more than Gnanasara Thero and the BBS, it is the Asgiriya Chapter’s statement that I find deeply troubling, catapulting strained ethno-political relations in polity and society into a mine-field of uncertainty, ripe for spontaneous violence that can easily lead to sustained conflict. That all this happens before a promised constitutional referendum is also not mere coincidence – it is the hacking of our democratic future by targeted, timely measures to undermine the government’s confidence and public standing. None of this is helped by those like the Minister of Justice, who is the equivalent of a computer virus that undermines and sets out to destroy a network from within it. In targeting lawyer Lakshan Dias for what he went on record saying in public using research also in the public domain, as well as for what the Minister has said, done and not done since his appointment, any statement, any project and any desire of government to meaningfully address racism today is a cruel joke as long as he holds the position he does.

Large sections of the Sinhala-Buddhist and even the Sinhala-Catholic communities are being primed to countenance, if not directly engage in violence against religious minorities and Muslims. Rwanda had Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, broadcasting content that normalized hate, violence and othering. We saw in Aluthgama, three years ago, what impact a single rally could have around the incitement to violence. The stage is being readied for a new play. And in the wings are saffron guillotines, ready to be pushed centre-stage at any moment.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 25 June 2017.

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