Cult and its Heretics

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By Tisaranee Gunasekara

The tyranny of unreason does not stop at the borders of politics. It spreads its tentacles to every aspect of human life. In his first post-Trump media briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci provided a telling summation of the existential costs of Trumpism. “The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence what the science is,” the immunologist said, “…it is somewhat of a liberating feeling.”

It is a sentiment many a medical practitioner in Sri Lanka would understand.

Days after Donald Trump left the White House, hopefully forever, Sri Lanka’s Health Minister was diagnosed with COVID-19. Even in a cabinet of outstanding ineligibles, Pavithra Wanniarachchi stood out, a peerless yes-woman who seemed to promote disease rather than health. On the behest of her masters, she obfuscated the gravity of the pandemic, ignored scientific opinion, punished medical doctors for non-adherence to official untruths, bowed before generals and followed charlatans peddling supernatural nostrums. The pictures of her devoutly throwing a pot into a waterway or eagerly consuming the Kali concoction were emblematic of the regime’s anti-science, regimented, and inane response to the pandemic.

Now that she too has contracted COVID-19 and Basil Rajapaksa has become a first contact, will the government abandon its reality-denying response to the pandemic?

Perhaps not. Peddling myths forms the lifeblood of the Rajapaksa project. Take, for instance, the Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian casualties myth; “…our troops went to the battlefield carrying a gun in one hand, the Human Rights Charter in the other, food for the innocent displaced on their shoulders and love for the children in their hearts,” Mahinda Rajapaksa claimed at 2011 victory commemoration. This preposterous lie was uttered with a straight face and received with equal solemnity. By that time, the Rajapaksa base had become habituated into mindlessly accepting whatever lies the Rajapaksas saw fit to dish out from moment to moment.

“What does a perfect group of followers do?” asked Victor Klemperer in The Language of the Third Reich, and answered, “It doesn’t think and it doesn’t even feel anymore…it follows.” Creating a perfect group of followers was what Vellupillai Pirapaharan did with the Tamils, what the Rajapaksas did with the Sinhalese, what Zahran Hashim did with his Muslim brethren. Having mindless followers enabled them to enact massive crimes that were, in the final analysis, self-destructive as well.

The LTTE, instead of winning over the Muslims, targeted the entire community, presenting a massive politico-military and intelligence asset to the Sri Lankan State. The Rajapaksas switched on to the Muslims enemy in 2012-2013, despite the fact that the Muslims made no territorial or political demands that threatened Sri Lankan or Sinhala interests.  Zahran Hashim and his followers targeted Catholic churches in Sri Lanka in 2019, using as their justification the Crusades, a conflict that happened continents away and centuries ago.

These deadly episodes should have served as warning to all Lankans about the dangers of unreason. Yet the opposite seemed to have happened. Vellupillai Pirapaharan enabled the Rajapaksas. The Rajapaksas enabled Zahran Hashim who in turn enabled the triumphant return of the Rajapaksas. What is the next stage of this orgy of extremism? What new beast is birthing in the belly of the existing one? Or will we too be able to emerge from this fetid darkness into some kind of light, to ‘witness a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished,’ as the first US youth poet laureate, the incredible Amanda Gorman, phrased in her Inauguration Poem?

From life to afterlife: ruling myths

The transformation of the LTTE into a political cult was symbolized in Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s metastasis from Thambi to Sarvadesh Thalevar (leader of all lands) and Surya Thevan (Sun God). Hours after his death was made public, Mahinda Rajapkasa, as the victor of that war, styled himself as the Maha Rajano (High King) and Derana dinu devindu (God who won the land).

Post-war Sri Lanka’s future was mapped by men and underwritten by stars. Mahinda Rajapaksa will win a third term, a fourth, perhaps even a fifth term, and be succeeded by a son or a brother. The Rajapaksas, said the royal astrologer, will rule for half a century.

The prophesied fifty year reign came to an end in five years. Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated at the presidential election. Mahinda Sulanga, launched with much fanfare, turned out to be a puff than the anticipated gale. The Rajapaksas lost the parliamentary election as well, and were reduced to languishing in a no man’s land, opposing the government, yet unwilling to officially leave the governing Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

From the inception of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, the family made a conscious effort to transform the SLFP from a Bandaranaike party into a Rajapaksa party by elevating D.A.  Rajapaksa into co-founder status on par with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. It was not this distorted history but ideology which came to the Rajapaksa’s rescue, post-2015. Sinhala supremacism, symbolised by Sinhala Only, was deeply embedded in the collective psyche of the SLFP, making the Rajapaksas rather than the Bandaranaike offspring the true political heirs of 1956. Post-2015, the Rajapaksas failed to regain control over the SLFP, but when they formed the SLPP, they took an absolute majority of the SLFP’s base with them.

The Sangha (or a segment of it) was instrumental in the victory of 1956. The assassination of PM Bandaranaike by a monk dealt a heavy blow to this brand of overtly political Sinhala-Buddhism. Almost 40 years later, this abandoned banner would be picked up first by Gangodawila Soma Thera and, after his death, by the newly formed Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). That banner became the main rallying cry of the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Its identity would not be just Sinhalese but Sinhala-Buddhist, and explicitly so.

The SLPP succeeded in mobilizing a Sangha brigade that cast even the work of SWRD Bandaranaike into shade. Not only did monks carry a large burden of the Rajapaksa election campaigns in 2019 and 2020. They also added an otherworldly dimension to the Rajapaksa project, cementing its cult status. In the run up to the 2020 parliamentary election, Medagoda Abayatissa thera was reported saying, “Gotabaya Rajapaksa needs a strong Parliament to fulfil his task…. For the president to go his way, he must be given a parliamentary power without extremists and racists. If so, one can be happy on the death bed about contributing to that merit (pinkama)”.

The patriot-traitor divide has always been a part of the Rajapaksa political discourse. The above statement added an openly religious dimension to this. Supporting Rajapaksas politico-electorally became redefined as a meritorious act in a religious sense. Though not stated explicitly, opposing the Rajapaksas was turned into an act of religious demerit (paukama). If one can make gains not just in this world, but also in the next one by supporting the Rajapaksas, the obverse too had to be true. If one opposes Rajapaksas, one will be punished not just in this world but even in the next world. In this way, working, speaking and voting against the Rajapaksas become not just treachery, but also heresy. As the advocates of the Inquisition argued, what harm in sentencing a heretic to the stake, since he/she is fated to burn in hell for an eternity?

The chief incumbent of the Mirisawetiya temple is quoted saying, “Mahinda is a religion. Mahinda is a philosophy. Mahinda is a culture and a morality this country needs. As such it is a separate religion-like philosophy. Therefore study that philosophy,” (Lanka news web – 14.8.2020). This is no exaggeration; Mahinda Rajapaksa is the heart, the centre, the galvanising force of the Rajapaksa cult. And before Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency, there was a perfect division of labour within the Family; to borrow from the Mafia terminology, Mahinda was Godfather, Basil was Consigliere, and Gotabaya was Caporegime, Boss, Advisor and Enforcer, Heart, Brains and Brawn.

The 19th Amendment caused these roles to scramble. Now Gotabaya is president, which means officially he is placed above Mahinda, even though in real terms the whip hand would belong to the older brother. This would create some dissonance, especially among the various satellites. These saplings of disharmony are real, but they are not the forest. The Rajapaksas might have disagreements about how the cake that is Sri Lanka is divided. But on the vital necessity of not allowing the cake to slip into non-Rajapaksa hands, there would be no disagreement. This was the lesson a united family forced Dulles Alahapperuma and Kanchana Wijesekara to learn when the two seasoned politicos tried to set themselves above Nipuna Ramanayake, a greenhorn and a Rajapaksa nephew. By ensuring that young Ramanayake came first in the Matara preference count, the Rajapaksas proved that the SLPP and the base is theirs.

The power of sacrilege

Had Mahinda Rajapaksa won the 2015 presidential election, by now, the enslaving of Sri Lankan minds would be almost complete.

Perhaps the most abiding legacy of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is not politico-electoral or institutional but psychological. For almost five years, Sri Lankans knew freedom. They could mock their leaders in safety. Now the Rajapaksas have to put the genie of freedom back into the bottle. That is turning out to be a bit more difficult than changing constitutions or undermining institutions.

The defeat of 2015 was also a dethroning. The president was defeated, but the king was deposed. For nearly five years, the royal family had to live as ordinary citizens. In those wilderness years, they needed their acolytes more than their acolytes needed them. That narrowed the gap between the Family and acolytes, creating a less unequal playing field, at least in the eyes of the acolytes.

The moment they regained power, the Rajapaksas moved to reset this equation. Still 2020 was not 2014. In the ensuing years, even the lay and ordained acolytes of the Rajapaksas had become accustomed to the freedom to air their opinions, about anything, against anyone. Little wonder that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had his outburst about possessing a dual personality. That too gave rise not to a terrified silence but to amused titters.

The Rajapaksas seem to be dealing with this obedience crisis in multiple ways. One is the promoting of political neophytes with no base of their own, and thus owe everything to Rajapaksa patronage, over and above those old political types (such as the elevation of Sarath Weerasekara above Wimal Weerawansa). Another is appointing serving and retired military men to key civilian position. What better yes men than men in uniforms, especially when they have seen the cost of saying no or presuming too much in the fate of Sarath Fonseka.

Rajapaksas will claim individual victims; there will be other Tissanayagams, Lasanthas, Prageeth Ekneligodas and Shirani Bandaranayakes. But fear has not silenced witty comments or mocking laughter. Myth flourishes, as was evidenced by the hordes that flocked to buy the Kali concoction. But so does irreverence, not just towards the nostrum maker and his political and media backers, but also his divine recipe-giver. The mocking of Goddess Kali reached such heights that the head priest of the Munneswaram Kovil was moved to make a dire prediction claiming Goddess Kali will punish those who laugh at her.

The laughter continues. The pillorying extend to the political monks too, a healthy indication of future possibilities, if only the opposition is willing to realise them.

Concluding his research on the effect of Trumpism on race relations, political scientist Daniel J Hopkins argued that “Trump’s rhetoric and the condemnation it received may have made egalitarian race-related norms more salient” (The Rise of Trump, the Fall of Prejudice). Trumpism did discredit white supremacism and politics of white grievance. But it was the result of the Democratic Party’s refusal to buy into the argument that to win in 2020 they had to go slow on issues of racial justice and pander to white middle and working classes. Instead of pandering to white insecurities, the Democratic Party reached out to white voters of the Midwest and even traditional red states by focusing on socio-economic issues.

Sri Lankan opposition seems to be doing the opposite. The Sinhala voter must be won over, not at the cost of Tamils and Muslims, not by pandering to soft or covert racism but by addressing their very real economic interests. The ongoing attempt to curry favour with the political monks who perverted the teachings of the Buddha to put the Rajapaksas in power is not just egregious but also useless. The Rajapaksa cultists (lay or ordained) will never shift their allegiance, the same way the American evangelicals and conservative Catholics continue to back Donald Trump. The Rajapaksas cannot be defeated by building temples, but by using public disenchantment with political Buddhism (which, like all political religions, has been a canker in the body national) to create a definitive break between religion (all religions) and politics in Sri Lanka.

Myths cannot be defeated not with other myths, but with the harsh light of reality.

-The article was originally featured on groundviews.org

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