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Bold Buddhists and progressive Tamils must interface

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A second Trump term poses intrinsic dangers everywhere

by Kumar David

If ethnic confrontation (the national-question, Sinhala-Tamil animosity, call it what you will) is ever going to be checked and reversed there is no force that can do it except the Buddhist clergy. Progressive Buddhism alone has the persuasive power and moral clout to impact the masses and transform the nation’s history. Imagine my delight when I heard that discussions have taken place between bold monks and Tamils in Europe, and if my information is reliable in the US, on the theme, “This rot must stop; we must repair Lanka”. It’s the Buddhist side that for obvious reasons is crucial; the Tamil component does not call the shots. The Tamil participants included elements of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) and Tamil groups that opine that Eelam-talk is infeasible rubbish and that a solution must be found within an undivided Sri Lanka.

The monks appreciate that a few bold young activists alone are not enough; discussions must penetrate all three ‘nikayas’. Secrecy is counter-productive; information must and will spill out – the sooner the better. Good news unlike good wine does not improve with keeping; I do hope I am not getting excited by a mere storm in a tea cup.

In popular perception the Kandy based Malwatte and Asgiriya ‘nikayas’ (sects) are Govigama, while Amarapura, people say, is open to others. If I am wrong it shows how ignorant of everyman’s knowledge everyday Buddhism. My main point however is not this; it is that the discourse I have referred to must penetrate the Buddhist masses if it is to have political impact.

The Tamil participants included Tamils who though cautious (once bitten twice shy) would be happy to see Sri Lanka return to a multi-ethnic democratic state. The indispensable condition above all else is that the state guarantees the physical security of its citizens from rape, murder, arson and violence. A national minority for which the state cannot provide physical security must seek secession or separation.

What on earth is the use of language, education, juridical recognition, and promotion rights if physical safety of life and limb is absent? In the case of Lanka the state can provide this guarantee only if it ceases to be the agent of Sinhala-Buddhism and the only force that can achieve such a transformation is a bold section of the Buddhist clergy. The DS, SWRD, Sirima, JR and Premedasa led governments were dismal failures on this score. This is the challenge a discourse within Buddhism must have the courage to take on. I am in turn enthusiastic and cautious about the outcome of the current process. If a significant section of the Buddhist clergy is unable to measure up to this challenge, no one else can.

The other force that has accomplished similar feats elsewhere are the Enlightenment that accompanied the French Revolution, and the left in Twentieth Century revolutions. The latter’s zeitgeist in Lanka, the JVP, is as yet unready to come forward on this matter. It seems confused about how to break the stranglehold of Sinhala-Buddhism on state power.

A left perspective

If the discussions I have spoken of are to be meaningful the discourse must enter the public domain. It is not possible and it is undesirable to keep these initiatives hush hush. To have an effect among the Sinhalese people and in order to influence the Tamils, statements have to be issued, at the appropriate time by both sides. After that others like this commentator can enter the debate.

I am now going to make two comments that coming from a hard-core Samasamajist like me may sound sacrilegious. First, the Colvin-Sirima constitution was defective in that Chapter 2 made Buddhism the state religion but this turned out to be a retrogressive (NM disliked it but held his peace because he couldn’t oppose a Republic). Thankfully the monks in the discourse that this essay adverts to are willing to be rid of it.

The second comment is one that I must word carefully if I am not to be misunderstood. Colvin in his enthusiasm to reverse centuries of feudal and colonial rule was enthusiastic in locating sovereignty in the people not in officials of the state. Therefore the Republican Constitution endowed the elected representative of the people (the MPs) with power over the unelected public service.

The Minister at last took precedence over the Permanent Secretary. It was three decades later, after the fall of Coalition Government and the coming into office of the Rajapaksa hoodlum-regime that the power of racketeering MPs over the public service struck disaster into the heart of country’s administrative system. Colvin is not responsible for the economic crisis that caused the fall of the Coalition – that’s a topic in its own right – nor is he responsible for flagrant corruption of Rajapaksa-era MPs who took their cue from their boss and his family. It is only that the high democratic principle that Colvin had championed in 1972 turned out to be a disaster in a different epoch and context, that is, in the epoch after 2005. That’s not his liability.

The International Context

This brings up the need to place these developments within a rapidly changing international context. There are many international developments that will influence this country. I will discuss just one of them here, Trump’s possible re-election because it will have far ranging global influences as I will explain.

Plans are afoot to make the unelected administrative officials and military subservient to the “elected” US President. The July 15-21, 2023 Economist magazine devotes a three page briefing (“Chaos meets preparation”) about the planning for a second Trump term which I summarise in two paras – even the Economist is becoming verbose. The American Heritage Foundation, one of think-tanks that stood behind Regan and an outfit called the America First Policy Institute are in the forefront planning to ‘deconstruct’ the administration and take it over from the inside so that a re-elected Trump will have a pliant instrument in his hands.

Known as Schedule-F, 3,000 – 4,000 administrative officers are being readied as shock troops to “take-over” the state and the 300 administrative offices that issue and interpret federal regulations. It will be an invasion with the clout of the Marine landing on the Normandy Beaches on D-Day. An authoritarian administration that brooks no opposition will only accelerate from the inside the already visible unravelling of American democracy.

Other contingent losers will be global warming, green energy (the US is already the world’s largest producer of oil), countries that “do not contribute enough” to defence spending and Ukraine’s opponents in the war that Putin foolishly unleashed. India which is buying cheap Russian oil with gusto will also come into America’s cross-hairs. Inevitably relations with China will head steeply downward. The setback for limiting global warming and for the environment as a whole as Trump’s Schedule-F team push a pro-business agenda will be hefty.

Take for example the world’s most cherished national parks, Virunga in Eastern Congo (the only remaining habitat of the mountain gorilla) and the numerous Tiger reserves such a Ranthambore that dot India, Both will be erased by commercial-market inroads, alias Capitalism. I cannot resist using a quotation from Jim Corbert: “The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and if he is exterminated—as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support—India will be the poorer, for having lost the finest of her fauna.

” The irony is that public opinion all over the world has rallied to the support of wildlife and wilderness, it is capitalism’s thirst for minerals, lumber, gold and rare-earth materials that is raping the environment. (Of course it is society’s responsibility to protect the livelihood and homes of adjacent communities but this can be done with minimal resource commitments).

A Trump second-term presages a dangerous and different world. The Economist fondly imagines that a second term will be the last as the constitutional limitation on two presidential terms will kick in. I opine differently. With shady characters like Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court unless impeachment or death delivers salvation anything is possible. In a worst case scenario the court could hold that a Trump victory in 2020 was “stolen” and to compensate for this loss he is eligible to stand again in 2028. The land of the free and the home of the brave may, paradoxically, be destined to live in “interesting times” fulfilling an ancient Chinese curse.

I also fear that second Trump poses dangers for the Buddhist-Tamil reconciliation efforts that I have thus far been so starry-eyed about. A Thucydidean Trap between China and the US is emerging and we will be sucked into these gigantic currents. Neither the Gautama nor Elephant Headed Ganesh can defend us from these gigantic conflicts.

For about five decades America championed globalisation, world trade, unrestricted foreign investment especially in China (thank you Deng Xiao Ping) and unregulated currencies. Now the Thucydides Trap has snapped shut for two reasons. First China’s growing dominance in world trade, its real-estate crisis notwithstanding, and Chinese advancement in cutting edge technology such as AI; robotics and green energy technologies. America is losing the global free trade and investment battle.

The second reason is that China is a far greater military threat than it was 50 years ago especially in the Far Eastern, Taiwan, Pacific and Indian Ocean theatres. These are very general comments but surely Sri Lanka is alive to the deadly implications of aggressive Trump incited foreign policy to our survival. I am sure I can leave it at that. That a Trump second term will be extremely uncomfortable for Sri Lanka, the countries of the Himalayan north-east, Southeast-Asia including Taiwan and the Indian Ocean is obvious.

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