Upsurge of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism eats into its own constituency

By: J. S. Tissainayagam - Politics

The general election scheduled for 2 April this year has been attributed to an intra-elite power struggle. Though simmering for a long time it was brought to a head when President Chandrika Kumaratunga realised that the UNF government could only be crippled by a swift, decisive move. This was because the UNF was responding to the LTTE according to the dictates of the government’s western backers thereby not only containing the rebels but also laying the foundations for Sri Lanka’s economic prosperity. With this in view the president prorogued parliament, grabbed three ministries she knew were indispensable when polls were going to be called, and once she thought she had consolidated her position to win the general election, dissolved parliament. The consolidation was by formalising an electoral alliance with the JVP, which was the culmination of months of negotiations and a virulent media campaign against the UNF, the LTTE and the ceasefire, which fanned the flames of Sinhala communalism.

When the ceasefire agreement was signed in February 2002, a well-known journalist was telling this writer with a smirk that all the UNF government had to do was to keep the ceasefire going for six months. That would be enough for the LTTE, an inveterate war machine, to either implode or recommence armed hostilities, at which point the south could turn to the international community and point a finger at the bad guys.

The reality appears to be that the political disintegration we are witnessing, is taking place in the south. It is not that such contradictions were not there before, but that the two-year absence of war and the prospect of imminent elections have exacerbated these contradictions.

It will be interesting to note that the disintegration has been taking place with the assertion of ascriptive identities – ethnic and religious – rather than, say class or strictly regional ones. There has been a resurgence of Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness, which has resulted in the polarization between that ethno-religious community and the Christians, both Catholic and protestant (including the evangelical), the Tamils, both northeastern and up-country, as well as sections of the Muslims who do not buy the argument that the biggest threat to the Muslims in the east are the Tigers, and have roundly rejected the theory of a Muslim grand alliance.

The resurgence of such vehement ethno-nationalism in the country, it should be reiterated, is due to the PA with its leader Kumaratunga unleashing a no-holds barred campaign against the Tamil people, supported by the JVP and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) (the latest avatar of the Sihala Urumeya). Though the campaign itself was disguised as anti-LTTE, it was obvious the target was Tamil aspirations. If indeed it were not an anti-Tamil campaign, those forces spearheading such moves would have asserted their belief that the rights of the Tamils had to be protected and fostered because they superseded the importance of the LTTE. Instead, all that the PA could do in response to the Tamil demand for self-determination was to wave its constitutional proposals as a basis for talks with the Tigers, proposals that had been rejected by the Tamils in 2000 elections.

The communal flames fanned by the PA, JVP and the JHU have been compared to Sinhala-Buddhist revivalism of 1956, based on linguistic nationalism and mobilisation of the ‘pancha maha balavegaya,’ variously described as the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie, the rural non-westernised elite etc. The year 1956 has come to symbolise “dawn of the era of the common man.”

Paradoxically, the most demonstrable achievement of the recent upsurge of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism has been disintegration of that constituency itself. We all know that the south is fragmented with Sinhala Christians, Muslims and Tamils eyeing resurgent Sinhala-Buddhism with suspicion and disgust, but ironically, the starkest result of this mobilisation is the deep fissures that have emerged within the Sinhala-Buddhist community itself.

The fragmentation is best seen in the way Sinhala-Buddhism deals with the Tamils. What has been the Sinhala-Buddhist response to the LTTE’s proposals for an interim self-governing authority or ISGA?

The established parliamentary party, the PA, (includes the SLFP, MEP and the left) realises that devolution of power is essential for the ethnic problem to be resolved or even contained. (Observers will no doubt notice that rabid Sinhala chauvinism, which once characterised Dinesh Gunewardene’s rhetoric has been diluted since of late.) The problem with the PA response to the ISGA proposals is that its August 2000 constitutional package essentially seeks to resolve the ethnic crisis through a unitary constitution, which is ridiculously inadequate for the job.

The other grouping is the JVP, which is much more strongly anti-Tamil with its leadership making rash statements, calling to question the ceasefire agreement and its willingness to share power with the Tamils only through decentralisation of administration. The last time even an attempt was made to put such a scheme into operation was through district development councils (DDC) that was seen as an affront by the Tamils, though the TULF was prepared to work it. The JVP however is campaigning on a strong socialist economic platform that it sees as an antidote to the unbridled liberalism of the UNF.

The third element that shares the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency with the PA and JVP is JHU, which believes negotiations with the LTTE will be fruitless and advocates a military solution to destroy the Tigers. However, its ultra-right Sinhala nationalism goes hand in hand with an equally rightwing economic policy that makes it the inveterate foe of the JVP. The chic feature of the JHU’s campaign is drawing Buddhist monks in their numbers to contest the elections. But to many Buddhists this violates the sanctity associated with the saffron robe. Further, the monks’ assertion that they will practice the four virtues of metta, karuna, muditha and upeksha while in the same breath refusing to dialogue with the LTTE, reduces their understanding of Buddhism as well as of politics to a farce.

There is no doubt these groups are drawing on the inspiration from the BJP, the Visva Hindu Parishad etc in India that sought to exploit the sentiments of dominant Hinduism, essentially concentrated in the Hindi-speaking heartland, but with significant pockets in the south and in Bengal as well. The BJP sought to cash in on pan-Hindu nationalism, projecting the Muslim as the ‘other’ that was epitomised by Islamic militancy in Kashmir and of course by its bete noir, Pakistan. The purpose of the BJP’s political platform was to unify all groups under the Hindu flag, which it did – the political mobilisation was good enough to form three governments in New Delhi though in coalition with the unlikeliest of political parties.

Instead of unification however, the Sinhala nationalist ‘line’ of the PA and JVP, now associated in the UPFA as well as the JHU, has created greater division in its core constituency of Sinhala-Buddhists and exposed the fissures in the Sinhala nation. This divisiveness has to be clearly understood. It is not whether the UPFA, the JSU and other such organisations cannot cobble together the numbers required to form a government or not. It is to do the potential divisiveness in electoral politics that has been exploited so mercilessly by these groups.

With these parties displaying a strong Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist line, the UNF has come out as the party that is ready to accommodate and embrace diversity –Tamils, Christians and Muslims. In that sense it harks back to the UNP of the Senanayakes, which was lost under the presidencies of J. R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa and D. B. Wijetunga.

Second, the UNF is the only incumbent party since the ethnic conflict began, which is going back to the electorate on a platform of continuing negotiations with the LTTE. The UNP before the 1994 general election had taken on an ultra-nationalist position with President Wijetunga saying that the minorities were creepers seeking nourishment from the tree of the majority community. In 2000 and 2001, though the PA tried to portray itself as accommodating Tamil aspirations by holding aloft the proposals for a new constitution, the party was in open antagonism towards the LTTE and the suffering heaped on the Tamils through years of war, violence and human rights abuse hardly made it a favourite of the minorities.

Third, the UNF is presenting itself as a party fully cognisant of the dictates of the international community both for the economic progress of the country, as well as for the politico-diplomatic initiatives to resolve the ethnic problem, especially those by the co-chairs of the Tokyo aid meeting. The UNF comes out as party striving to uphold western liberal-democratic norms in the face of PA/JVP caprice.

The liberalism of the UNF and a better understanding of the nature of electoral politics in Sri Lanka’s version of proportional representation (PR), has forced certain smaller political parties to come out as catchall parties, rather than remain parties strictly representing certain ideologies or ethnic groups. This is an election strategy too, designed to break the vote banks of the opposition. And every single vote from any part of the country adds to winning national list seats.

The LTTE that has openly endorsed its support for the TNA at the forthcoming polls, stated the Alliance should be fielding Muslim candidates, which is a way of presenting a more liberal image as well as giving space to persons who are against the policies of the principal parties representing Muslim interests in the northeast – the UNF, the SLMC, the Ashraff Congress and NUA (the last two contesting with the UPFA). This becomes much more obvious in the case of the CWC, contesting with the UNF in the Kandy District, which is fielding a Muslim candidate who is opposed to the SLMC, not with the hope of capitalising on Muslims who will vote for the policies of the CWC, but hoping to profit by the votes of the Muslims who are unwilling to vote for the SLMC and the UPFA. Therefore the depraved action of the president, supported by power-hungry politicians – mostly from the JVP – and of course widely rumoured to be backed by a section of the international community unhappy with the power configuration underpinning the present round of peace talks, has managed to fracture the body politic of southern Sri Lanka. It is important to note that such breaking up will have a negative impact upon the social fabric, with various groups and sub-groups that are part of Sri Lanka’s social formation pulling in different ways in unanchored chaos. As mentioned earlier, it is not just how many votes and seats the Sinhala-Buddhist electorate wins that is important, it is that the electorate has shown incapability of achieving unity even for the limited purpose of capturing electoral/political power.

These processes demonstrate, unlike what was assumed by this writer’s journalist friend whose optimistic views were discussed above, that southern polity and society are beginning to look a little shaky and coming apart at the seams after two years of ceasefire. The northeast on the other hand, buffeted by the winds of adversity during the 20 years of violent conflict, does not seem to have taken the ceasefire too badly.

Very clearly the south unites when there is an external enemy. Up to now the ‘other’ was provided by the Tamils. But the external threat has diminished steadily in the eyes of the Sinhalese who are beginning to feel very comfortable with a ceasefire agreement that is rendering more bountiful dividends to the south than the northeast. The fractious southern polity could be a result of this. If this indeed is the case, the south will have to find ways and means of preventing the crisis developing further. One way this could be achieved is to resume belligerence with the LTTE.Therefore, what is frightening about the possible return of the UPFA at the forthcoming general election is not that it might initiate the resumption of belligerence to control a robust and demanding LTTE, but because only by engaging an external enemy – an ‘other’ – could all-important Sinhala-Buddhist unity be retained.

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