And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats
Last week I wrote and warned against a creeping saffronisation of mainstream politics and the tacit embrace of what the Bodu Bala Sena and its head, Gnanasara Thero stand for, by the sangha writ large. There has been pushback. Several senior monks have publicly disassociated themselves from the Asgiriya Chapter’s explosive statement, providing a rare but telling insight into what is a complex and enduring power-play between and within each nikaya. Strongly worded statements by civil society have been published, admonishing government for not acting against the incitement to violence by the BBS, and the hatred it spouts. Like a kindergarten bully, the BBS acts with impunity on the playground of politics and society, but when occasionally caught and placed in a corner, projects to the public a face that suggest it has been unfairly accused and punished. The cycle continues.
Arguably, the likes of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anarchists, those who believe in and fight for ISIS, xenophobes, racists and bigots are a feature of a healthy democracy, precisely because they are on the fringe. At the margins of society and politics, shunned by mainstream media, opinion, policymaking and politicians, these grotesque groups and their frenetic followers exist only as a reminder of what a society, politics and country should never be, or aspire to follow. Though a full study is impossible to cover in a single column, there are two key reasons why in a developed democracy these groups don’t grow and infect a country writ large with their psychosis – one, the institutional fabric of governance, including the rule of law, is strong and applies to everyone without fear or favour. This provides citizens with a variety of options for the good life no matter who they are, what they do or where they live, within a democratic space – a prospect far more appealing than subscribing to the ideals of, and a sense of belonging that comes from being part of a smaller group. Secondly, more advanced democracies have institutional frameworks and a strong civil society that stem the growth of radical extremism and fascism. Rechts gegen Rechts (Nazis against Nazis), an initiative against right-wing extremism in Germany is a key example, where residents and local businesses of villages and towns that suffer neo-Nazi demonstrations and marches, give ten euros for every meter participants in the rallies advanced to a group called EXIT-Germany, which supports those who wanted to leave fascist, right-wing groups. The idea was that the more neo-Nazis marched, the more funding would be raised to undermine their very existence. Like drops oil in a body of water, extremist groups in more developed democracies find meaning in their existence but within a very circumscribed space.
Content featuring or published by French journalist Nicolas Hénin on ISIS also offers another perspective on the likes of the BBS. Hénin, held hostage by ISIS for ten months, in an article penned in The Guardian newspaper late 2015 notes that the likes of ISIS are drawn to ugliness on social media, and “heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia”. He notes that central to the world view of ISIS is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and that finding supporting evidence is what they are geared towards. He ends the article with a key, strategic idea, noting that what they expect is bombing, but what they really fear is unity. In a video interview with the Independent, Hénin goes on to note that “the winner of [the war against ISIS] will not be the party that has the newest, the most expensive or the most sophisticated weaponry, but the party that manages to win over people”.
It is with these points in mind that the developments last week give further cause for disquiet. The argument is often made the government and President came to power because the minorities voted for them. While electorally accurate, neither President nor government openly embrace this fact because they perceive it will somehow reduce their appeal amongst the majority community in the South. What you find as a consequence is a government with an ostrich mentality in the face of growing fascism, intolerance and violence – that hopes it will all go away if silence is maintained and its gaze averted. This author believes the situation is in fact much worse – that instead of or in parallel to strategic disengagement, there is also tacit support of what is essentially the agenda of the BBS, voices through individuals who are proxies to those higher up in power. Over the course of just one week, we have heard the kind of rhetoric from the present government that stripped of context, could be mistakenly yet easily identified as being produced under the Rajapakse regime – a political order many of us thought we had overturned and left-behind, for all the obvious reasons, in January 2015. NGOs are yet again to blame for everything that is going wrong in the country. This isn’t new – the same voices that rail against NGOs today earlier this year noted that the Consultations Task Force – that architected one of the most comprehensive consultations around transitional justice in any post-war context and appointed by the Prime Minister – was also not to be trusted because it consisted of individuals from NGOs. Individuals from civil society who state facts, which are openly in the public domain, are now forced into exile and hiding. Individuals who spout conspiracy theories, appear shoulder to shoulder with the BBS, who repeatedly call people lunatics and mad for being opposed to violent extremism, who say all temples are beyond the control or remit of government, are allowed to speak and act with impunity.
There is a dangerous design weaved into what is seemingly chaos and a lack of coordination. Just like Trump’s manic tweets, inflammatory statements by powerful voices in government generate a lot of short-term attention and opposition, but a larger design around majoritarianism’s creep seems to be going unnoticed. In February 2015, at the height of the euphoria around yahapalanaya and its promise, one of the first decisions of the incumbent President was to appoint Rakitha Rajapakshe, the son Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, as Media Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. And while the Cabinet of Ministers and the Prime Minister spoke against intolerance and the rise of extremism, the President has remained largely silent. In the company of MP Rajapakshe, the President last December railed against social media for maligning judges. MP Rajapakshe in Parliament last month launched a diatribe against UN Special Rapporteur Monica Pinto’s report on Sri Lanka, which reflecting the current state of affairs, was far from rosy. The President last week placed the blame on Facebook and social media as impediments in building national unity and reconciliation, forgetting perhaps that not unlike the time of his own Presidential campaign, one of the only open and free spaces available for civil society to actually strengthen both is social media, and Facebook in particular. A terrible tag-team, this, but a telling one at that.
The government, if it is really serious about reconciliation, national unity and suchlike, needs to win people over. Right now, it’s not. Coupled with an economy in a mess, it is haemorrhaging public support. What one arm says, another disavows. What one person says, another undoes. What one person promises, the actions of another undermine. What ONUR wants, the Minister of Justice undermines. What the Prime Minister says, isn’t what the President echoes. What the Foreign Ministry promises the international community, isn’t what is actually delivered or given life to on the ground. What the BBS wants, however, is what is being slowly but surely mainstreamed. Note the silence of Gnanasara Thero, after his both defiant and prescient last words outside court. A larger community of sangha and politicians, from within government, partial to the concerns of the BBS, powerful and predatory, are making their presence felt. President Lincoln said that a test of a man’s character was gaining power. The narrative when the President and this government were desirous of power is markedly different to the narratives they give life to when in power. Which is stronger and which endures remains to be seen, but with heavy heart, I wouldn’t bet against saffron.
First published in The Sunday Island, 2 July 2017.