“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
-WB Yeats, The Second Coming
The Aluthgama attack on the Muslims was followed by several incidents, the exact nature, causes and perpetrators of which have yet to be ascertained. These are the acid attacks on the Police in Mawanella, the abduction and torture of Ven Watarekke Vijitha thero (a long standing target of the BBS), and the fire that gutted the ‘No Limit’ store in Panadura. To me what seems to be happening is that someone or something is stepping up the pace or is out of control. This is eerily reminiscent of violent neo-fascist movement in Italy in the 1970s, which committed acts of terrorism as part of what it termed ‘a strategy of tension’.
What is most troubling is the possible existence of Sinhala-Buddhist terrorist cells and their possible embedding within, interface with and resonance in the State apparatus itself. In the right conditions and atmosphere of perceived external threat and internal opportunity, a tipping point could be reached, spiraling downward into assassination (as in 1959) and/or a military putsch by mid-level ‘Young Turks’ sanctified and legitimized by Buddhist ayatollahs.
The history of this descent dates back at least to the interregnum of President DB Wijetunga, when the deliberate process of de-Premadasaization took the form of the revival of the Sinhala Buddhist conservatism which was a long running current within the UNP. President Premadasa’s multiethnic, multi-religious, multilingual policy, which didn’t save him from being murdered by the Tigers and probably helped ensure it, was overthrown in favor of a Sinhala Buddhist conservatism best exemplified by President Wijetunga’s creepy line of the majority and minority being akin to a tree and creepers.
The second stage of the rise of contemporary Sinhala Buddhist ultra-nationalism was the backlash against the adventurist ‘union of regions’ political package of President Kumaratunga in 1995 and 1997 (her August 2000 draft was a far more moderate version with bi-partisan authorship). The Rev Soma phenomenon thrived in that atmosphere.
The Sinhala backlash grew most rapidly during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s CFA. The armed forces felt helpless and targeted by the Wickremesinghe administration, especially after the humiliating and wholly unjustified arrest of Directorate of Military Intelligence operatives at the safe house in Athurugiriya. This led to a two-way traffic. The JVP of which the most prominent element at the time was Wimal Weerawansa (who was more of a nationalist and less of a Marxist than his peers such as Anura Kumara Dissanayaka), and the JHU of Patali Champika Ranawake, understandably and rightly championed the cause of the military. Sources within the military began to seek out and ventilate their grievances, again understandably, to these two parties and in the media controlled or influenced by them. It is as part of the traffic on this two way street that the more militant Buddhist monks began to interface with the military.
The PTOMS deal between President Kumaratunga and the LTTE generated a backlash from the patriotic Sinhala nationalist forces that had mobilized in support of her to oust Ranil Wickremesinghe and win the election that immediately followed. The open bloc between candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe and incumbent though outgoing President Kumaratunga in 2005 left Mahinda Rajapaksa with the prospect of an SLFP which had a strong loyalty to the Bandaranaikes and a bureaucracy that was instinctively sympathetic to the UNP. He felt he had little choice but to lean on the JVP and JHU – and their supportive intelligentsia—when taking over the reins of power. This move reminded me of President Premadasa’s desperate attempts to construct a counter-bloc to the Establishment by reaching out variously to the SLMP of Vijaya Kumaratunga and later Ossie Abeygoonesekara, the JVP, the EPRLF, EROS and LTTE.
It is this unavoidable wartime bloc that Mahinda Rajapaksa felt constrained to construct that formed the bridge for the traffic that would follow. When the final war began, the relationship between the ultranationalist Buddhist clergy, the ultra-nationalists political formations and their front organizations such as the National Movement against Terrorism (NMAT) and elements within the security apparatus/the military had reached a level that went beyond the usual invocations and ritualistic blessings. The orders or signaling that resulted in the Trinco-5 incident were traced in the newspapers of that time to an advisor within the security bureaucracy, who was a member of an ultra-nationalist political party.
When the war was won, the most organic representative of the new ideological amalgam—the old amalgam with boots and bayonets—was not Mahinda Rajapaksa but Sarath Fonseka, which is why the latter felt confident enough to mount a serious challenge to the former. In a brilliant move Rajapaksa drew him out of the fortified institutional arena into the much larger national political arena where Sinhala nationalism was far less martial, and bested him. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was correctly moved in to guard the flank, but became Fonseka’s ideological successor –while Fonseka had repositioned.
While all of this went on at the visible and macro level, something had been born out of sight. In other parts of the world and at other times, ranging from the Italian fascists and the Nazi movement to the Ku Klux Klan and the French OAS, such phenomena have involved elements within the armed forces and police or former members of both. In the 1930s they captured the State in Italy and Germany, while in other places they functioned as death squads or armed militia, engaging in assassination and ethno-religious mayhem.
In Sri Lanka these elements grow in a socio-psychological atmosphere. It is vital to forestall their acceptance by the armed forces at large and the successful leveraging of the armed forces and STF as part of their project. The acceleration of their appeal within the ranks of the armed forces will come with the confluence of several factors:
1. The greater visibility and pressure of the UN International Inquiry, now joined by Martti Ahtisaari, Finnish facilitator of separatism in Kosovo and Sudan, who was brought to Sri Lanka by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and resisted by Lakshman Kadirgamar with the support of the JVP.
2. The outrageous slogans emanating from Tamil Nadu
3. The provocatively dissonant slogans and activity of the TNA/NPC radicals;
4. The double failure of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers to (i) successfully defend the armed forces from the UN international inquiry as Sri Lanka did in Geneva in May 2009 by rebuilding that coalition and returning to that strategy and (ii) counter Sinhala extremism by reviving the SLFP’s moderate centrist ideology and appeal to the middle ground;
5. The chronic and utter failure of the UNP to re-profile and re-brand as party of multiethnic patriotism and open the safety valves at the upcoming national elections by a strong showing. (Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawake will wreak polemical havoc on the UNP in an election campaign so long as Ranil Wickremesinghe or CBK is the candidate even with Sajith as backup, but will be unable to do so to a Sajith or Karu candidacy).
The momentum of the Sinhala extremists can be retarded only by a diversion of discontent, but the JVP alone is too small for such a re-channeling. Thus President Rajapaksa will win his election but as JR Jayewardene discovered, that alone cannot stop the real crisis and deeper dynamics. Mahinda Rajapaksa is harboring Sinhala extremists within his cabinet just as JR Jayewardene harbored Cyril Mathew until it was too late. And it was not only Mr. Mathew. How many recall that Ven. Elle Gunawansa had been appointed the ‘spiritual advisor’ to the Mahaweli project? The fact is that having sown the dragon’s teeth, not even Cyril Mathew had the ability to control July ’83 when it happened. JR Jayewardene basically abdicated for days (Premadasa was the only one with the guts to go on radio and excoriate the rioters) for the same reason that SWRD did so in 1958. They were afraid.
The creature is far more dangerous today than it was in July 1983, because it may have greater resonance among serving or former members of the middle and lower ranks of the armed forces and police – and therefore greater training and experience of lethal violence– as well as of Sinhala Buddhist caucuses within the business community. Three decades after July ’83, the current tactic is to set the pace, outflank the political regime, and create situations and ‘facts on the ground’. Today, most disconcertingly, Mahinda Rajapaksa may possess the leadership of the state but not the initiative; it is the extremists who have wrested the initiative and are attempting to keep it. Today, the ambition is almost certainly to trigger anarchy and chaos in the form of a Sinhala Buddhist uprising– thereby providing the conditions and context for takeover or installation.
How then is society to survive? It must learn the lessons of our past and that of other countries. When patriotic Sinhala extremism, albeit in a more radical ideological avatar, went on the rampage in the 1980s, all illusions dissipated and earlier polarizations dissolved in a new alliance for survival. I recall the legendary Sinhala journalist political journalist Surath Ambalangoda addressing the Political Bureau of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) and re-telling the story of how he laughingly told Vijaya Kumaratunga that he for one relished the irony of President Jayewardene, now at risk, having to reach out to Vijaya who had been jailed by him. When Surath had chortled “that son of a whore has only us now”, Vijaya’s terse, sober reply had been “well, we too have only that son of a whore, now”. The story of the second half of the’80s in Sri Lanka was that of the non-racist Sinhala and Tamil Left, which had sacrificed much and had proved its readiness to fight to the death against the State, allying with the State (the Indian State in the case of the Eelam Left) to survive the onslaught of their respective (Sinhala and Tamil) ultra-nationalisms, while the State which had suppressed these Sinhala and Tamil Leftists, reaching out to them in the common and very bloody struggle for survival against ultra-nationalist barbarism.
In facing and fighting the threat of fascism, humanity has learned many lessons at the most enormous cost. For a good ten years or more in the 1920s and 1930s, the best Marxist minds had to fight against the ultra-left (often pseudo-intellectual) petty bourgeois posturing which failed to understand the specificity of fascism, reducing it either to a mere mask or tactic of the existing ruling elite, a more virulent form of existing nationalism/racism or the inevitable excrescence of a decadent capitalism/imperialism. The result of this posturing was the delay in arriving at the correct strategy of resistance. That correct strategy had been suggested by the most diverse array of Left leaders of genius: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Dmitrov and Mao. This was the united front. The discrepancy of views was on the breadth of that united front, whether or not it should include the capitalist class or and any faction of it, or should only include all tendencies of the left and working class movement. History eventually necessitated the adoption of the broadest united front, known domestically as the Popular Front and which at the global level included the imperialist and colonial states (and their leaders): Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and De Gaulle.
The fight against fascism requires the understanding that the aim is the defense, preservation or restoration of basic democracy; not the overthrow of capitalism or the state. This requires the construction of the broadest possible united front, not the narrowest, or most selective. The broadest united front is the one that is most inclusive; this in turn requires a minimum political program, a lowest common denominator, because a maximum political program which examines most questions and proposes a broad raft of radical reform – a highest common denominator– would mean a narrow, less inclusive united front.
In Sri Lanka, a project that frontally opposes the Rajapaksas, the State as a whole and Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as such, stands opposed to pretty much everything in sight, not merely fascism. When you add to that, the proposition that there be no opposition to an international inquiry, and instead there should be solidarity with Tamil nationalism including its claims of nationhood and self-determination, you would get a ‘broad’ consensus of a few percent of the country’s citizens! That hardly accords with Mao’s injunction to identify and isolate the main enemy and build the broadest possible united front while winning over all those who can be won over and neutralizing those who cannot? As Mao derisively said, he who seeks to overthrow everything overthrows nothing! He recommended instead the identification of the principle contradiction. Who is the main enemy in Sri Lanka today? Mahinda Rajapaksa? The Sri Lankan state including its armed forces? Sinhala Buddhism? All of the above – a veritable surfeit of main enemies? Contemporary Sri Lankan political strategy must entail the neutralization of or even unity with lesser evils so as to fight the most dangerous enemy: radical evil.
What is the principle contradiction in Sri Lanka today? Is it not the contradiction between, on the one hand, the interests ( not necessarily the ideology) of the overwhelming majority of its citizens including most certainly the Sinhala Buddhists and the Sri Lankan armed forces—that of a secure, peaceful, stable, sovereign, united, democratic country– and on the other hand, those who threaten national sovereignty, stability, security, peace, unity and democracy, namely the external forces including the Tamil secessionists propelling the international inquiry and the militant sectarian Sinhala Buddhist extremists?
It is by no means accidental that suffering for years in Mussolini’s jails, Antonio Gramsci’s search for a strategy to defeat fascism entailed a revaluation of the contribution of Machiavelli and the project of national unification of the Italian state. Latin America is a graveyard of ultra-leftists (not least in Chile) who failed to understand the specificity of neo-fascism, regarded it as on a continuum with existing systems of rule and paid the price. The electorally victorious left in Latin America today consists of those who rectified those errors, adopted a neo-Gramscian strategy of abandoning frontal assault on the system, built a broad front and shifted to the center until they were recognized by all social sectors, including the business classes and the armed forces, as the best, most enlightened representative of the nation as a whole and of the national interest.
In 1985 the World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow was addressed by two old time revolutionary heroes. One was Miguel Marmol, a leader of the 1933 communist uprising in El Salvador led by the iconic Farabundo Marti. The other was Kurt Julius Goldstein, German Jewish Communist, veteran of the Spanish Civil War, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the head of the World Federation of Anti-Fascist Resistance Fighters, who had fought the Nazis. My encounter was two years after July ’83 and I asked him what the main lessons were that he drew from his experiences and those of his heroic comrades. I recorded his answer in the Lanka Guardian of that time. He said that the biggest error the Left made was to confuse nationalism, chauvinism and fascism: “we should have united with nationalism, even chauvinism, to fight fascism; instead of which we treated them as all the same”. As with European nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s, so also with Sinhala –and Sinhala Buddhist– nationalism. Sinhala-Buddhism as such is too old, rooted, broad and organic to be frontally confronted and ruptured with. Instead it must be externally contained and countervailed, and its plasticity recognized, it must be internally reworked, re-calibrated, re-set and re-assembled so as to fairly and justly accommodate multi-ethnicity, multi-religiosity, multilingualism and multiculturalism, i.e. pluralism. The gap between the interests of the Sinhalese, including the Sinhala Buddhists, and the extreme, sectarian versions of Sinhala Buddhism, must be exposed, highlighted and utilized to combat the latter. This was the strategy of DS Senanayake and Ranasinghe Premadasa (whose 90th birth anniversary falls on June 24th). It requires rediscovery and renewal.
The fight against Sinhala fascism must be waged by and from within the national political mainstream and must resonate with and within it. Sinhala fascism cannot be defeated by frontally opposing Sinhala Buddhism or Sinhala nationalism as such. Nor can it be defeated outside of a national-democratic strategy to build a united Sri Lankan nation and state, resisting external interventionism and Tamil secessionism. This means a patriotic, popular-democratic platform, but may well require the adoption of a populist and nationalist one. This is no time for faddish pseudo-intellectual posturing from a far left lunatic fringe or deracinated cosmopolitan civil society caucus. The price of failure is the ultimate one.
“…somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
-Yeats, The Second Coming