Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Sajith resets the agenda on Sinhala nationalism

Posted by harimpeiris on October 26, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 26th October 2019)

Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose an opportune but inappropriate moment to announce his candidacy for the presidential elections, when in the immediate aftermath of the devastating Easter Sunday bombings, he announced his intention to contest for the presidency. From even before then the network of the organizations promoting his national politics, namely Viyath Maga and Eliya have been quite open about their agenda, that of national security and economic development, the latter along the Chinese agenda and model with high priced Chinese loans. The subtexts of this discourse have been generally anti-minority rhetoric, especially towards the Muslim community.

The UNP were very late entrants into the presidential elections and consequently into a national political discourse of its own. However, young Sajith Premadasa who finally secured the nomination of that grand old party has launched a campaign which seeks to reset the national political agenda. In doing so, he provides Sri Lanka and her voters, with a real choice, a genuine cross road at which the nation can travel in divergent directions.

No overt challenge to Sinhala nationalist dogma

Recognizing that the Rajapakses have been playing and upping the ante on ethnic Sinhala nationalism, Sajith Premadasa makes no attempt to challenge Sinhala nationalist dogma, but he seeks instead to coopt it and redefine it, in his way and style. This is a serious political attempt on his part through the UNP, similar though not identical, to what Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga attempted and succeeded in through the SLFP / PA twenty-five years ago. CBK however, had one and a half years to do it from the 1993 Southern Provincial Council elections through the 1994 presidential elections, Sajith Premadasa, has just one and a half months to do so. But he is gaining traction.

A Sinhala nationalism which is socially equitable and just

Sajith Premadasa, inspired and clearly grounded in the motivational ideology of his late father, has a driving focus on social democracy, justice and equity. He took to public housing, like a duck to water and has a personally impressive track record of deliverables in the past five years, which lay the foundation for a national economy that seeks to strengthen the social safety net, empower the less fortunate and spur the economic productivity and well being of the lower income segments of our society. An economic growth with equity that enhances and strengthens social justice. Sajith argues that this agenda is a crucial aspect of Sinhala nationalism, that a nationalism devoid of justice, equity and democracy, both social and political, actually weakens the Sinhala people and Sri Lanka. The seeds for this argument were actually laid by President Sirisena in 2015, though articulated differently and it may well be the winning argument in 2019 and beyond.

Along the same lines, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaign has some serious credibility issues on its development model. The people of Sri Lanka were clearly not impressed by the post war 2009-2014 economic program of the second Rajapaksa term. The Rajapaksa then and now made two arguments, Sinhala nationalism defined as patriotism, national security and sovereignty and economic development. If one accepts the rather self-evident truth, that Sinhala nationalism is alive and indeed thriving, we have to assume that the Rajapaksa lost the 2015 elections on the basis of economic policy and governance, the absence of a peace dividend in the south, the obvious nepotism and the widespread and credible allegations of corruption. With Gotabaya the people can well suspect they would receive more of the same.

A Sinhala nationalism which is inclusive and tolerant

Sajith Premadasa who unabashedly says he is a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist in all his public meetings and model village openings in the minority dominated Northern and Eastern provinces, defines his Sinhala Buddhist nationalism much more along the lines of the ancient Sinhala kings and kingdoms, who while promoting and developing Buddhism was tolerant and inclusive and created the space for a multi ethno religious society to flourish. It was Sinhala kings who enabled Muslim communities to trade freely and flourish in the Eastern Province and elsewhere, who enabled Joseph Vass to preach Christ in Sinhala villages and strengthen the Roman Catholic Church. Sinhala monarchs and monarchies, which understood then, what is surely even more true today, that no man or nation exists as an island alone, but in community with others, both within and without. This is the type, shape and form of nationalism which Sajith Premadasa seeks to define and articulate. Where after the Easter bombings his Ministry of Housing undertook to rebuild in full, the Tamil Pentecostal Zion church in Batticalo and then also visited all the attacked and damaged mosques in the North Western Province, with rebuilding funds, for those affected by organized pogroms. Terror attacks never justify pogroms against a community, not in July 1983 and not in April 2019. Sajith Premadasa understood and practiced that.

The Sinhala nationalist rhetoric emanating from the SLPP’s Pohotuwa campaigns, sounds sadly like its extremist Tamil counterpart rhetoric emanating from a Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam or the transnational government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE). In fact, in its exclusivist ethnic world view, its exclusion of others, its anti-Muslim tendencies and its polarizing effects, the extreme fringes of Sinhala and Tamil nationalism are eerily similar to each other. It is also similar to the extreme right wing, fascist political movements which gained power in Europe prior to the second world war II and whose political progeny are raising their heads if not making a come-back in some parts of Europe. The pre-war fascism of Francisco Franco in Spain, Benito Mussolini Italy and of course the Nazis in Germany. The results of Fascism were devastating for Europe and indeed for much of the world.

Sri Lanka on November 16th, will decide whether we want as a nation to have our own experiment with extreme right wing ethno-religious governance or traverse a different road of social democracy and economic justice and equity.

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