What we are today

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What’s the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Waiting for the Barbarians, C P Cavafy

To condone the stoning of Muslims. To boycott their shops and businesses. To say that eating from Muslim shops poisons Sinhala Buddhists and makes them sterile. To say that a Muslim doctor had destroyed thousands of Sinhalese children. To say that the Rule of Law doesn’t work. This is no longer the domain of fringe lunacy, or a renegade monk. Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero is the Mahanayake Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter. He said all this and in public. To my mind, this is by order of magnitude worse than and indeed, going by statements made after Rathana Thero’s farcical fast, entirely counter to more conciliatory sentiments expressed by Gnanasara Thero, who isn’t known for his pacifism or love towards Muslims. Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero’s statement – because of his seniority – take on added significance. In 2017, the Asgiriya Prelate, following a meeting of the senior most prelates in the ‘Karaka Sangha Sabha’, condoned Gnanasara Thero’s virulent words and violent actions, despite the awful harm informed, influenced or inspired by the BBS against the Muslims for years and a campaign of vicious hate directed against Sandya Eknaligoda. After Easter Sunday, the racism of the Sri Lankan state is in full view and indubitable. And every day brings its further entrenchment or, for the more cynical, evidence around how much and to what degree, Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism is and will forever be what animates policies and politics.

Take for example, the President’s sentiments as reported in the media, a few days after the Asgiriya Prelate’s incitement to violence and hate. In Hanguranketha, opening – as one must – a new temple, the President noted in the presence of the Asgiriya Prelate that “the country will never head in the wrong direction if… leaders act on the advice and guidance of the Mahasangha”. That the highest political office has not a word to say against the racism and hate sown by one of the highest Prelate’s in the country comes as little surprise, given the Presidential pardon to Gnanasara Thero last month. At the time of writing, Mangala Samaraweera is the only MP to condemn the Asgiriya Prelate’s speech publicly. Samaraweera is on record questioning why the SLPP and factions of the SLFP are silent. This is pertinent since the Prelate noted the Sangha’s joy around the news that, apparently, Chamal Rajapaksa would be the next President, just before his homily of hate.

As if not more important, for Mr Samaraweera, the PM and the UNP, is to question why former SLFP’er and current UNP MP Mayantha Dissanayake, in the company of and referred to by the Asgiriya Prelate, hasn’t said a single word against or distanced himself from the incendiary sermon. Mindful of the bizarre context in Sri Lanka, where critical reportage on content inciting hate or violence risks arrest more than powerful political or robed producers of hateful rhetoric, I listened very closely to the Asgiriya Prelate’s sermon in Sinhala when translating it into English for subsequent dissemination amongst those who otherwise wouldn’t grasp the import of what was said. Thirty-eight seconds into the most shared version of the sermon, published by Radio Gagana on YouTube, there’s a reference by the Prelate to something that Mayantha Dissanayake had apparently said. The Prelate’s words are unclear. To be safe and maintain fidelity to the original, I translated this segment to English rather innocuously – as the Prelate noting that Mayantha Dissanayake had spoken earlier. However, though unclear, the Sinhala original is far more pregnant with meaning. In timbre and tenor, the Prelate is not berating Dissanayake or expressing something that was distinct from or different to whatever the MP had said before. The Prelate’s words prefacing the segment where he implores Sinhala Buddhists to not go to or eat from Muslim shops – “Maath kiyanawa / I also say” – suggest approbation and continuation of a line of thought that seems to be anchored to whatever UNP MP said, not repudiation or a clear disconnect. What Dissanayake said is not in the public domain. But his silence is telling. We know where the SLPP, SLFP and now the President stand. We do not know yet where the MP, PM or UNP stand, aside from Mr Samaraweera’s timely and courageous rejection of communal hate.

Stochastic terrorism, or so-called lone wolf attacks, is a growing risk in a context where hate and violence is normalised to the degree that one finds in Sri Lanka today. Terrorist acts that are ‘statistically predictable but individually unpredictable’ have no easy fix, since they are given birth to by a larger context of sustained hate mongering. When our President and Prelates openly espouse or condone violence against Muslims only to be met with weak repudiation and resistance at best, and a telling silence in the main, context, country and community risks and is ripe for radicalisation. The targets of hate, quickly and unsurprisingly losing faith in political office, public institutions and electoral processes, choose responses that by design, or quickly become, violent. The majority community, continuously and conspiratorially captured as facing destruction or destitution, out of unwarranted but palpable anxiety and fear, can and will take to violent means to secure their future, especially when the lives of their children are projected as being at stake. No good will come out of this prolonged barrage of hate and violence produced by some of the symbolically and politically most powerful people in the country.

Though subject to debate, the broken windows theory from criminology suggests that that visible signs of violence, if unattended to, encourages even greater and more serious violence. Think of the barrage of hate against Muslims as an endless enfilade aimed at what remains a fragile democracy, hanging on to the faintest of hope that another war or genocide can be averted. The shards of glass, metaphorically, is the permissive context for greater violence – fueled by anger, anxiety or arrack – that the likes of the Asgiriya Prelate and Gnanasara Thero create with total impunity. The hate and violence spewed by Buddhist monks, condoned by Politicians, is after the Easter Sunday attacks very visibly the warp and woof of mainstream identity. It is racist to the core. It is violent by design. It is strategically divisive. It is politically expedient. As someone quipped on Twitter just after the Asgiriya Prelate’s joyful assertion that a Rajapaksa would be the next President, it’s perhaps better to call Sri Lanka a theocracy and be done with it. It is also a useful starting point to critically appreciate the work of ONUR and many other arms of government, over the past decade, anchored to reconciliation in some form or the other. It is a useful reflection for donors and diplomats to also have, given how much and how often they praise strides in post-war development and democracy the country’s made, which I am at a complete loss to identify as easily or confidently.

Let’s be clear about all this and not mince words. This is a systemic problem, beyond just episodic sermonising and specific individuals. We have been, still clearly are, and will for the foreseeable future, be a racist state. The elimination of Muslim lives and livelihoods is what Chamal Rajapaksa’s glowing endorsement from the Buddhist clergy entails. Erasing them from society is what the President condones. The silence of the PM and UNP, save for one conscientious individual, is its own damnation. Despite all this, I am frequently told to maintain hope in light of a ‘silent majority’ of both the Buddhist clergy and Sinhalese that reject this rhetoric. I imagine this must be the same silent majority that was supposed to stop Nandikadal from happening.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 23 June 2019.

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2 thoughts on “What we are today

  1. Shelley Whiting says:

    Hi Sanjana,

    Shelley Whiting here. I hope the PhD is going well. I realize that this is an off-beat enquiry, but I was hoping you might be in London in mid-July for the Freedom of Media Conference (Canada and UK hosted). We are doing a panel on Disinformation and in need of a brilliant speaker, so naturally you sprang to mind. Best, Shelley

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