The nature and speed of Sri Lanka’s economic decline during the past two years and its consequences could be a rich topic for a Doctoral thesis. Outlandish visions about prosperity and splendour, policies on the run dictated from the President implemented by his team of handpicked experts and military officers with little or no understanding of the complexities of managing an open economy, and with an etiolated Central Bank headed by an accountant – all in the midst of a pandemic generated global economic depression – had driven the country into a state of financial anarchy and economic misery. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa‘s (GR) two years alternative way of development is in tatters. At last, with all his grandstanding, the President seems to have relented and given in to the view that without IMF’s assistance the country has no economic future. His Minister of Finance Basil Rajapaksa (BR) is now reported to be waiting for the earliest opportunity to fly to Washington. The cost of GR’s stubbornness and cabinet’s dilly dallying would certainly be felt by the people once IMF lays out its remedial plan to BR’s team.
Once a rich, fertile and peaceful island, which attracted the envy of three Western powers, each conquering and ruling it successively for a total of roughly 450 years, regained its independence in 1948. Even at the time of independence, the country was wealthy and resourceful enough to build a solid economic future for its people and become a power house like modern Singapore. Instead, successive governments and their leaders wasted their energy and national resources in fighting political battles on divisive issues such as language and religion, which ultimately led to a civil war that lasted nearly one quarter of a century and drained the economy. One would have thought that the civil war might have taught a lesson to the victors who are now back in power that without the unity and cooperation of all the communities in the country prosperity and splendour could only remain an unachievable dream. Sadly, that lesson has not been learnt, and the war is still continuing on a different footing adopting a different but holy mantle. This new war is not fought with military weapons and soldiers, but with religious paraphernalia led by a saffron army of Buddhist monks under their Commander-in-Chief, President GR himself. GR fought his election campaign by whipping up Buddhist fervour and since becoming president he had declared himself as the guardian of the Sasana and champion of Buddhism primarily to win the Sangha hierarchy to his side. That hierarchy has now ennobled him as Lankaeeswara Padmabushana, the most prestigious title ever awarded to any leader in Sri Lanka. Yet, one need not be a rocket scientist to realize the political drama behind this holy tamasha. Having failed to deliver his promises to bring prosperity and splendour, GR is masquerading in religious garb and seeking asylum in Buddhism to extend the life of his regime. Buddhism is being prostituted for political purposes.
This marriage of convenience between Buddhism and politics had been the running cause of religiously inspired violence, which had intensified during the last couple of years. As one contributor to this journal noted, there had been a “Stubborn Push for Siege of Hindu Temples in North-East of Sri Lanka” (Colombo Telegraph, 25 Feb. 2022). Such push is encroaching into mosques and churches also. The latest manifestation of this aggression was the overnight destruction of the minaret in Daftar Jailani mosque at Kuragala in Balangoda. Even Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was the chief architect to award Buddhism the foremost status in Colvin’s Republican Constitution, had the magnanimity to respect the religious sentiments of Muslims and allowed that mosque to exist. Her benevolent gesture gained added significance when one realized that Balangoda is the heartland of the Ratwatta clan to which she belonged. Today, that mosque is in rubbles, thanks to the saffron army emboldened by GR’s order to renovate and expand the nearby Buddhist temple. Following this, there is increasing fear amongst Muslims that a mosque in Dambulla would also succumb to similar fate.
Neither the conversion of Hindu temples into Buddhist places of worship, based on dubious archaeological findings, nor the destruction of mosques by demagogues, and not even bombs found inside Christian churches had raised any concern, let alone condemnation by the President. In fact, his Archaeological Task Force filled with more Buddhist zealots than qualified archaeologists, was intended to encourage such brazen encroachments in areas where the minorities are concentrated. GR’s other creature, One-Country-One-Law Task Force, headed by the ex-prisoner Gnanasara Thera, is performing the supplement task of homogenizing the heterogenous cultural landscape of this country. In short, what the Hindu saffron warriors are trying to achieve in India with the patronage of Modi regime, their Buddhist counterparts in Sri Lanka are accomplishing with blessings from the President. With nearly two thirds of the population remaining devout Buddhists and close to 14,000 viharas and 45,000 monks in 1998, Buddhism in Sri Lanka is vibrant, irremovable and would remain the most dominant member of the island’s religious and cultural mosaic. Lately however, it is on a warpath with other members of that mosaic.
Religion is an ultra-sensitive issue and has the potential to create more passion than any other cultural element. History is replete with horrible episodes of inter-religious and intra-religious violence and their detrimental consequences. In fact, every religion is stained with blood, and more people had been killed in the name of religion than in the cause of anything else. A country that has gone through series of riots and a civil war over language and ethnicity does not need any more in the name of religion.
The arrival of Buddhism was a blessing to this island. According to legend, Buddha himself visited Sri Lanka three times. His message of compassion, universal love, tolerance and abstinence, which are needed today more than ever before, could not find permanent abode where he was born, but became the guiding light and philosophy of governance in this country for thousands of years. True, even ancient Buddhist monarchs nurtured unholy motives of capturing and retaining political power through patricide and fratricide. But they did not engage Buddhism in a war against other religions, as the current regime is doing today. This is the tragedy in Sri Lanka. Buddhism has been politicized to such an extent that it is used as a cleanser of unpardonable crimes and a weapon to counter political challenges. Buddhist zealotry is used as cover to hide the regime’s gross mismanagement of the economy. The result is economic and social chaos. It is this chaos that had induced a whole generation of young, talented and skilled men and women, the most valuable asset of any country, to queue up in front of foreign embassies to get visas to migrate. They see nothing but despair and hopelessness in the chaos ruling here, and their decision is an eloquent testimony to the ruination caused by the current regime.
When, how and by whom redemption would come?
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia
Disclaimer: Holy Violence With Unholy Motives By Ameer Ali – - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view