Unthinking Nation

By Tisaranee Gunasekara –

“It isn’t knowledge as a product or commodity that we need…but a qualitatively different knowledge based on understanding rather than on authority… It is not fact but how facts are connected to other facts…how one is to judge the relationship between truth and interest, how to understand reality as history. These are only some of the critical issues we face, which can be summed up in the phrase/question, how to think?” ~ Edward Said (quoted in Arab Human Development Report – 2003)

It was the spring of infatuation. Millions of Sinhala voters saw Gotabaya Rajapaksa the way he saw himself, a colossus among men, a king reborn. He and his acolytes had spent much time and more effort crafting that image. Yet, from the beginning, cracks showed, signs that the image was not of iron or even solid clay, but of illusions. Almost seven million voters opted not to see the signs.  

While the voters wallowed in delirious joy dreaming their dream, the newly minted president began his work. The timeline is instructive. He was elected on November 17th and sworn in on November 18th. On November 21st he formed the government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. On November 22, he began hunting the CID. 

Seasoned investigators were transferred out to be replaced by reliable neophytes. SSP Shani Abeysekara, legendary investigator and director CID, was made assistant to a provincial DIG. Inspector Nishantha Silva, head of the Organised Crime Investigation Unit, was transferred to Negombo. ASP Tissera was sent to police Field Force Headquarters. The CID was placed under the obedient thumb of a SSP who had been in charge of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s security.

Upending the CID was an omen of what the Rajapaksas would do the economy in the next two plus years. Yet, the country didn’t even notice.

The punishment transfers didn’t appease the wrath of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. His grudge was personal, its main target the man who had prosecuted him for misusing state funds to build a museum for his parents. On November 24th at a temple ceremony he gave voice to his fury. “Shani Abeysekara investigates according to his thinking. Non-governmental organisations don’t ask questions about that. To jail those who waged the war, officials, and navy commander, to jail intelligence agencies, to jail me”. 

Three quarters of the Channel 4 programme on the Easter Sunday Massacre is introduction and prologue. It deals with the Rajapaksas’ blood-caked history, including the murder of Lasantha Wickremetunga. The findings of the CID investigation into that crime, including of the existence of Tripoli platoon, were known to the voting public before the presidential election of 2019. Equally known was the possibility of a relationship between ‘truth and interest’ regarding Easter Sunday bombing. The Parliamentary Select Committee (which the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition boycotted) in its report wondered “whether those with vested interests did not act on intelligence so as to create chaos and instil fear and uncertainty in the country in the lead up to the presidential election.” 

The Rajapaksas traduced the findings and talked of mysterious Masterminds and foreign hands. They also pledged to protect intelligence officers fingered as complicit in various crimes. Gotabaya Rajapaksa demanded blanket immunity for them. “‘If they cannot do it, I will do it when the next government comes to power,’ he vowed” (CID under siege – The Sunday Observer – 4.8.2019).

The findings of the Channel 4 hypotheses remain to be investigated and determined. What is indubitable is that the massacre worked in Rajapaksas’ favour. It gave new life to old fears about minorities as enemies and renewed the desire for tough leaders who would return the country to the golden past of Sinhala-Buddhist imaginings. This was evident in the paintings young Sinhala voters covered every available wall with, the moment their man won. Three types of figures dominated the wall-art – kings, monks, and soldiers – Sinhala-Buddhism’s trinity and the indispensable guarantors of its path to national salvation.

Cardinal Errors

Soon after President Maithripala Sirisena released him via a presidential pardon, rabble-rousing monk, Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara had said, “We are going to make a government of Sinhalese alone (Api thani Sinhala anduwak hadanawa).

The Rajapaksas considered the CID their enemy because the agency had investigated their crimes. True to their habit, they covered their animus in a patriotic patina, accusing the CID of conniving with Tamils and Muslims, terrorists and extremists. For instance, during the 52 day Maithri-Mahinda government of 2018, Nishantha Silva was transferred out of the CID; he was accused of being Tamil and thus pro-LTTE. Shani Abeysekara too was accused of taking money from the Tamil Diaspora to educate his children.

With the Easter Sunday massacre, the enemy corrupting the CID changed from Tamil to Muslim. In the first portentous week of the Gotabaya presidency, a group of Buddhist monks asked President Gotabaya to arrest Shani Abeysekara and investigate all his investigations. On top of their list would have been the case of Dr. Shafi Sahabdeen, accused by the likes of Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, and Channa Jayasumana of sterilising thousands of Sinhala-Buddhist women by squeezing their fallopian tubes during c-sections. Gynaecologists said it couldn’t be done, but most Sinhala-Buddhists preferred to listen to politicians and monks. Ignoring experts was another mark of the times, which would lead to such varied disasters as the organic fertiliser fiasco and bankruptcy. 

The CID, after a thoroughgoing investigation, had concluded that “there is no justification for the arrest of Dr. Shafi Sahabdeen.” When the case was called monks thronged outside demanding that bail be denied. During a June 27th bail hearing, parliamentarian Athureliye Rathana Thera went up to ASP Tissera of the CID and pointed his finger, saying, “Let’s see. The whole world is watching this” (Balagamu, meka mulu lokayama balagena innawa). On July 27th an organisation called the National Lawyers’ Collective held a media conference and insinuated that the CID was being bribed by Dr. Sahabdeen. “Don’t try to release suspects by manipulating the law,” a speaker warned Shani Abeysekara. “If you do so, you will have to face the consequences in the future while in a jumper,” (CID under siege – The Sunday Observer – 4.8.2019). The hounding was so ferocious, SSP Abeysekara was compelled to make a complaint to the police. As The Sunday Observer reported, the “Fort police have been slow to act on SSP Abeysekera’s complaint… The Police Station has taken four days to summon officials to take further statement and commence inquiries into the complaint.” 

Demonising Muslims was the name of the game then; any Muslim could be accused of any crime, including impossible ones. The Rajapaksas and their acolytes ditched out conspiracy theories and the Sinhala electorate lapped them up, preferring lurid accusations to sober analysis. The American Ambassador could be behind the attack, Wimal Weerawansa said. He accused PM Wickremesinghe’s complicity, and opined that the plan was to turn Sri Lanka into a Libya or Syria (Lanka c news – 3.5.2019). The Islamic State was an American cat’s paw, Udaya Gammanpila pontificated. He charged that the Americans were planning to ignite another Black July by using Muslims with Sinhala names to attack other Muslims. The West would then invade the island as peacekeepers, he warned (Lanka c news – 9.5.2019). Commenting on the growth of the Saharan group and other extremists, the then acting head of the TID Jagath Vishantha had told parliamentary select committee, “After the Digana incident they published a lot of posts against Sinhala-Buddhist extremism.  And from our Research and Analysis units we could see that they got many comments and likes.” Just as the Easter Sunday Massacre would strengthen Sinhala-Buddhist extremism and propel the Rajapaksas into power, Aluthgama and Digana attacks strengthened Muslim extremists, turning a group of young and educated Muslims into human bombs willing to sacrifice themselves and their families for the cause of a global caliphate. 

Instead of asking hard questions of how further radicalisation could be stopped, the Sinhala electorate took the easy path of Rajapaksa provenance, the simple road of enemies and saviours. Once Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith joined the herd, all space for rational and fact-based discussion vanished. “The youth who carried out the bomb attacks were used by the international conspirators…” the Cardinal said at a ceremony to re-consecrate the Katuwapitiya church. “I have seen a report that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi is in a military camp which is run by the most powerful country in the world. I won’t mention the name of this country but clearly the ISIS leader is in a military camp which is run by this powerful nation… We question whether this nation knew about the bomb attacks.” The nation the Cardinal alluded to was of course the US, the same ‘foreign hand’ fingered by Weerawansa-Gammanpila cabal. The Catholic Church even backed a no-confidence motion by the Rajapaksa-led JO against parliamentarian Rishard Bathiudeen who was the top Sinhala pick for the Mastermind role for a while. 

Today, the herd is running after the Channel 4 documentary. The charges unveiled by Channel 4 need to be investigated. The findings of President Wickremesinghe’s new committee are unlikely to have any credibility, not after the Gotabaya Rajapaksa-type blustering and tone-deaf statement issued by the Defence Ministry. An international investigation with the cooperation of national authorities might be the only way forward.  

Ignoring Extremism

The new Barbie movie is drawing huge audiences in autocratic Saudi Arabia. Yet it has been banned in the more democratic Kuwait. Hardline clerics had clamoured against the movie. A prominent journalist and TV anchor, sharing a video by an American Christian fundamentalist preacher, had accused Barbie of promoting ‘ugly feminist ideas.’ The ban comes in the wake of a slew of planned and realised measures by elected Islamist politicians targeting women’s rights. A case in point is an amendment to the National Election Commission Law making it mandatory for women to adhere to Sharia Law in order to run for office or even to vote.

Extremism is a two-way stream, top-down and bottom-up. We are familiar with politicians seeding extremism to gain their ends. But extremism can also be a reflection of and response to pressures from the ground, from society. This danger is particularly acute in democracies, as the Kuwaiti example shows. In this sense, the Rajapaksas are only a part of the problem. The interrelated issues of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism and minority extremisms would remain even if Lankan electorate banishes the Rajapaksas to political wilderness forever. Because the Rajapaksas didn’t create the problem; they merely worsened it and benefited from it. 

The real problem is us, the gullible unthinking people, the millions who saw in Gotabaya Rajapaksa the realisation of their wildest racial dreams, the embodiment of their deepest political desires. He may be gone, but they remain. They may not fall for him again, but they’ll fall for someone with some of the same unthinking eagerness.

The young writer Shakthika Sathkumara, who spent 130 days in prison under the ICCPR, subsequent to a complaint lodged by a group of monks, told a You Tube channel that our people have lost the ability to think, that they try to imprison complex problems in simplistic frames. Like waiting for saviours. Like blaming everything that goes wrong on national enemies and international conspirators.

We love to hate Gotabaya Rajapaksa now. But shouldn’t we ask why for many years he could do no wrong in our eyes? Or why we have allowed political monks, cultural monks, and entrepreneurial monks to hijack a noble teaching and turn it into what the Buddha never taught? Just as Tamils should ask why they followed Vellupillai Pirapaharan to Nandikadal, when other less destructive futures were possible. Or the Muslims should wonder how a horror like the IS could come into being and capture the imagination of so many young Muslims. Or why a young mother would set off a bomb killing not just herself, but also her children and her unborn baby?  

Extremism is not the birthright of one community. Some Sinhala-Buddhists, especially monks, want to introduce blasphemy laws, a demand the Cardinal is likely to support. Tamil democrats ignore worsening caste discrimination within their community. 17 Muslim parliamentarians have signed a letter asking the Minister of Justice to block MMDA reforms, obviously forgetting that they cannot justify their demand for religious equality even as they insist on keeping their women subjugated. With or without the Rajapaksas, we remain what we had been for a long while – unthinking bigots of one sort or the other, ripe to fall victim either to the wiles of a demagogue or our own basest instincts.  

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