21 July 2018

Buddhist-Bashing Mangala Samaraweera, the Friday Forum and fraternal tribes

'I am against it, but stand with those who are for it (Cabinet)'

Minister of Finance and Mass Media Mangala Samaraweera has stated that he is against the death penalty. In his opinion, the death penalty, even if implemented, will not stop drug barons. He has said, however, that despite his personal opinion on the matter he stands by the collective decision of the cabinet to implement the death penalty. Noble of him, and honorable too when it comes to the notion of collective responsibility.

Samaraweera pointed out that it is wrong to paint all drug offenders with the same brush. He is correct. An addict is different to a peddler, to a trafficker and a drug lord. He proposes more rehabilitation for addicts. Reasonable. He says, ‘the best solution is to implement the law,’ and one assumes he is referring to enforcers doing their job without being subdued by corrupt and compromised superiors or powerful politicians. We can’t agree more.

However, Samaraweera forgets that a call for the implementation of the law is also a call for implementing the death penalty which, he should know, is part of the law. Someone will inform him one day and then perhaps we can expect the honorable and conscientious minister to present a private member’s bill to axe capital punishment.

He has said that the police operates as judge, jury and murderer, and argues that therefore it is hard to believe that the death penalty would help rid the country of the drug menace. We do not know if he has prevailed on party and relevant friends to question the Police Commission on what’s being done about this sorry state of affairs he has described. 

That’s not all. Samaraweera believes that those who are said to run the drug business from prisons, as alleged, are only second tier operatives. The bigwigs, he said, ‘are members of Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs and Buddhist organizations.’  When he made this sweeping ‘disclosure’ he left out politicians. However, a few days later, Samaraweera rendered an unreserved apology to those involved in Lions and Rotary clubs. ‘It was inadvertent,’ he confessed. He did not, however, say a word about the Buddhist organizations. No regret, no apology. Intentional, then, we have to conclude. 

What are ‘Buddhist Organizations’? Well, it would include the entire Buddhist order and by association castigates the Maha Nayaka Theros of the three Nikayas. Included also is the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (the Bauddha Sammelanaya as he put it), the YMBA, the pirivenas, daham pasal and even the Buddhist Societies in schools all over the island.  

Let’s assume that some other blundering minister had let slip something like this: ‘the drug lords can be found in Christian organizations’ (including Catholic and non-Catholic entities such as the Anglicans, Methodists and even the plethora of evangelical outfits registered under the Companies  Act). We would have ‘civil society’ outfits screaming in horror about religious intolerance, theocratic intent of religious majoritarianism and other choice labels.  

This is Mangala, however, and he’s ‘kosher’ in the book of honorable men and women in such organizations or in Western diplomatic missions or UN agencies. This is Mangala and moreover it’s a broadside at Buddhists and that too is legitimate in their book.

I call it tribalism, and this brings me to a rant by an organization that fits the above description, the Friday Forum (FF).  

A Sunday newspaper picked from the bottom of the text of a FF missive the following headline: Eliya to andura and on to a vipath maga. That’s nothing more than a cheap crack at two organizations, ’Eliya’ and ‘Viyath Maga’. The former concerns itself with constitutional reform and the latter with mobilizing the intellectual resources that a future government would require.  

Prominent individuals in these forums are not exactly fellow-travelers with those belonging to the FF and fraternal outfits. Nevertheless, they can’t be rubbished on account of that alone. Both groups go easy on the Rajapaksas and appear to favor a Gotabhaya Presidency. On the other hand, the Friday Forum as well as related ‘civil (sic) society’ groups are virulently anti-Rajapaksa and are ‘tokenish’ when it comes to wrongdoing and related complicity on the part of Yahapalanists. Their memories begin in 2005 for they are even loathe to revisit Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure leave alone the bloody UNP regimes of the 1980s; indeed they’ve even forgotten their own outrage during Kumaratunga’s time [FF came later but their members were alive back then and quite ‘professional’ too].    

Anyway, the cheap shot alluded to above, betrays the poverty of civility and compromises the intellectual posturing of the FF. Let’s move to the substance of that piece. 

FF strains to revive a now old and tired tirade regarding a reference to Hitler made by a bikkhu at a ceremony attended by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The bikkhu, Ven Vendaruwe Upali, the Anunayaka Thero of the Asgiriya Chapter, calls for a dharmika leader or a righteous leader. Those who castigated the bikkhu either don’t know Sinhala or are mischievous for that word was translated as religious and taken to mean ‘Buddhist’.  FF merely piggybacks on the rant. Sure, they’ve thrown in Vijayakala Maheswaran’s slip regarding the LTTE, but that’s essentially tokenism. 

FF has also referred to comments made by Rear Admiral (Rtd) Sarath Weerasekara on Dr Deepika Udagama, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL).  Weerasekera’s criticism of Deepika Udagama was clearly out of order. It is simplistic and wrong to call anyone supportive of a new Constitution a ‘traitor’ (as Weerasekera has done). It is worse to call for trial and execution, although many in the tribe that the FF belongs use the same narrative when it comes to ‘war crimes’ [‘allege crime and punish the named and shamed’].  

However, anyone who advocates ‘devolution’ without delving into ‘grievance’ and without taking into account geographical, demographic, historical and economic realities is as more more simplistic, and indeed, given the armed land-theft drive of Tamil nationalists, it is a recipe for a divided state. That’s what spokespersons for FF have regularly done. 

FF for example sees devolution of power ‘as a necessity’. Others don’t have to agree, but calling those who are opposed ‘extremists’ or accusing them of engaging in ‘adversarial and divisive politics’ is downright silly. Their opponents could very well use the same descriptives on FF. 

FF once said ‘Cynical exploitation of sectarian fears and insecurities obstruct our common search for truth, justice and reconciliation.’ Well, that’s exactly what FF does, one can argue, except that the sectarian fears and insecurities they exploit are those of non-Sinhala and non-Buddhist communities. 

Udagama stated, ‘I observe the alarming silence of decent people; the brashness of tribal voices that once again wish to unleash ethnic violence.’

What’s ‘decent’ and who is ‘decent’? The FF and its ilk? Well, I see brashness and tribalism in FF statements as well as statements issued by political fellow travelers. No one acknowledges a wish to ‘unleash ethnic violence’. That’s Udagama’s fantasy. However, there are many ways in which ethnic violence can erupt and one can argue that pandering to Eelamists is one such way. The FF and Udagama can be called out for just that too.

She is upset about the silence of the decent. And among the indecent according to her are ‘professional bodies that play politics and abandon ethical obligations’ and ‘opinion makers who think of winning an argument for the moment, and abandon responsibility for the future.’  
The FF is made of many professionals. Doesn’t the FF play politics? Does it adhere to ethical obligations? Are they not about scoring debating points? The truth is they are no different from those they criticize. They are as tribalistic. They are as ‘clubbish’. They are as selective. They are as irresponsible. 

There’s an easy way to find out. Flip the script. Ask ‘how would you respond if the Rajapaksas did this or that (that the yahapalanists do)?’ or simply check the issues that the FF concerned itself with during the previous regime. Immediately the grouse about ‘being partisan’ sounds silly. 

Where, for example, is the righteous rant from the FF about the utterly counter-democratic nature of the yahapalanists regarding elections? And will the FF take Mangala Samaraweera to the cleaners for his crass statement about ‘Buddhist organizations?’  Let’s see.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.