The Sangakkara episode as symptom and symbol

Thursday, 9 July 2020 00:35 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Quite recently in a town in Germany—significantly in what used to be West Germany, not formerly communist-run East Germany—a statue of Lenin was erected after a court battle, and made world news. Having been a bit of a Lenin buff myself it reminded me of a Lenin quote which ran “…one crucial event, one critical lesson of the past few weeks…was like a flash of lightning which threw more of a glare upon reality than anything else.” (27 March 1921)

That is a perfect definition of the ‘fake news’ of match-fixing and the questioning of Kumar Sangakkara for nine to 10 hours.

Two cricketing greats were questioned during that week. One, Aravinda de Silva, who was named by Wisden as the World’s Greatest Batsman at a certain point in time. He was questioned for six hours. The other is of course Kumar Sangakkara, whose distinctive contribution to cricket made him the first-ever non-British citizen, and I might add, non-white, to be elected the President of the venerable MCC. (Very few Sri Lankans have broken such glass ceilings—Prof. A.J. Fernando, my maternal uncle, elected the first-ever non-white President of the World Confederation of Physiotherapists, was one).

Sangakkara is the world’s most popular and respected Sri Lankan. He is also someone most of us Sri Lankans are proud of, and that’s one of the few things we can agree upon. 

Sangakkara as symbol

What kind of sensibility would it take, to be either unaware or uncaring that the almost 10-hour-long questioning of Kumar Sangakkara would be a social scandal within Sri Lanka and generate bad publicity for this country’s ‘national sport’, overseas?

Why would any Police officer/officers wish to question him for a grueling nine to 10 hours? Who gave the order? Why didn’t a superior officer cut the grotesque ordeal short? 

Sangakkara is the world’s most popular and respected Sri Lankan. He is also someone most of us Sri Lankans are proud of, and that’s one of the few things we can agree upon. What kind of sensibility would it take, to be either unaware or uncaring that the almost 10-hour-long questioning of Kumar Sangakkara would be a social scandal within Sri Lanka and generate bad publicity for this country’s ‘national sport’, overseas?


Why couldn’t the President or Prime Minister (who should know better), intervene to stop this nonsense, especially in the midst of an election campaign which they are spearheading? Is it that the PM couldn’t or tried to and failed? Is it because the Minister concerned has long been associated with the GR brand? Is it that the Sangha were silent on Sanga?

While the question “why now?” is pertinent, the media should have dug into the files for the back-story. I remember Sangakkara’s superb Colin Cowdrey Memorial Lecture delivered at Lords in 2011 which was the perfect vision statement for reconciliation in postwar Sri Lanka; one which transcended ethnic fissures and proclaimed an inclusive Sri Lankan identity. If he had been politically inclined, which he wasn’t and clearly isn’t, that would have been the equivalent of young Senator Barack Obama’s inspiring speech about the USA at the 2004 Democratic Convention which endorsed John Kerry as candidate.

The Colin Cowdrey speech was delivered when Sri Lanka was in the doghouse in the West, and the young generation of Sri Lankans in the diaspora were either anti-Sri Lankan or maintained ‘social distance’ from an increasingly truculent Sri Lanka. Sangakkara’s speech was a clarion call, which, together with his quiet charisma, made him the one public personality whom all young Sri Lankans living overseas could relate to and applaud, which they did. (As our Ambassador in Paris at the time, I remember the moment vividly.)

Sangakkara was (and is) the best ‘brand ambassador’ for Sri Lanka and epitomised the potential for the country to recover its “soft power”—the appeal of narrative, of its ‘story’, in the world community—even after a bloody war with a bloodier finale, followed by controversial barbed-wired camps for Tamil IDPs and the divisive jailing of the war-winning Army commander. 

Even before the echoes of Sangakkara’s Colin Cowdrey lecture and the ensuing applause had died, the same Minister involved in the present-day travesty, had raised raucous criticisms of Sangakkara, and threatened an investigation, literally before he landed back in Sri Lanka. That was how he was welcomed back after his splendid achievement which refreshed our country’s ‘profile page’ and brought prestige to us all. 

The interrogation of Sangakkara took place the week I read about the death back in May of Neville Jayaweera (uncle of the late Rajeewa Jayaweera), a legendary civil servant with a first-class honours degree in philosophy, outstanding Chairman of the SLBC, global anti-apartheid fighter (as Director Communications of the World Council of Churches program to Combat Racism) and Lankan Ambassador. His death never made the local papers. I knew him well because he was a contemporary and life-long friend of my father.

Kumar Sangakkara is a throwback to that generation of educated, internationally accomplished progressive Ceylonese, but his achievement is even greater because he is a product of a Sri Lanka that has long dismantled most of the policies, infrastructure and environment that made such a refined, enlightened (‘Ceylonese’) sensibility possible. 

Lakshman Kadirgamar was a Sri Lankan who was a Ceylonese—“I am not a tribalist”—but that was true of his generational peers and friends (such as my father). It is an exception today. Kumar Sangakkara is an (outstanding) exception.

Given his anti-racist pluralist views, disciplined mastery of chosen craft, and courteous conduct, he is the best example and role model one can offer every Lankan boy and young man. “Be like Sanga, behave like Sanga” is the best advice one could give them.  Sangakkara could have lived comfortably anywhere in the world, especially in the cricket-playing world, but has chosen to live in Sri Lanka—and he was questioned for much longer than Karuna was. The leading politician whose buddy and nominee as head of the Central Bank is sought by the authorities in connection with the bond scam, was questioned for four, at his home. Aravinda was questioned for six and Sangakkara for nine to 10 hours in a Police facility. 


If Kumar Sangakkara could be grilled for nine to 10 hours by the Police on an unsubstantiated complaint by a Minister (which the ICC has exposed as fake) when this Government does not enjoy a two-thirds majority, what will happen if it does wield a two-thirds majority such as that which it voraciously seeks?  

You can’t have a “virtuous” society without a “virtuous” State, and if this is the regime’s idea of a “virtuous” State, how much more “virtuous” will it get (and get away with) if it is given a two-thirds majority?

Opposition split 

Speaking of a two-thirds majority, the same liberal commentators who got so much so wrong for so long (since wartime), are back, opining that the split in the UNP has wrecked the Opposition’s prospects. 

What is absurd is that this was the confident chant of the governing UNP and its supportive opinion-makers not so long ago, in 2017-2018, when the SLFP split. They seriously expected the UNP to remain securely in office for many years owing to that split. What happened was just the opposite. It was precisely the emergence of a new option that re-invigorated the Opposition. 

Today, the counter-contention of the liberal commentariat is that the SLPP had the figure of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the helm and that is why it worked, while Sajith Premadasa isn’t in the same league. 

This contention overlooks the facts that while Mahinda was and is indeed an iconic figure, the rival/obstacle was the incumbent President, the ex-General Secretary of the SLFP who had been made SLFP leader by the defeated MR, heading an SLFP share-holder faction in coalition Government with the capacity to offer patronage. 

Sajith Premadasa and the SJB’s rival, the UNP Leader, is an out-of-power emblem of the Old Guard in a world of accelerated change; the neoliberal Establishment’s face for a quarter-century, leaving neither positive achievement nor association in the public memory. The group of UNP (ex) MPs with the rebel SJB is larger in absolute and relative (percentage/ratio) terms than was the SLFP group with MR at a comparable point.

When a rebel group has the overwhelming bulk of parliamentarians it is because they sense that the parent party’s vote-base is likely to defect as a bloc. If Ranil cared for the UNP he’d have handed over by secret-ballot to a new leader, if not before, at least after the SJB split and in time for the 5 August election. Freed from the ballast of the wooden Wickremesinghe and his out-of-touch UNP, the Opposition is likely to be buoyed.

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson won because the white working class ‘heartland’ voted for them and not the Opposition as it had traditionally. Joe Biden is ahead in the polls (and tipped to win in November) because being white, Catholic and from a blue-collar background, he has broken into the populist Trump vote, leaving the latter with the ‘Confederate culture’ hardcore, while Black voters are solidly with the Democrats. Bill Clinton busted through in 1992 in the conservative South as a centrist-reformist Democrat. 

The UNP had a record of economic success in 1956 but was swept away. It ran on its economic success, the Green Revolution of 1965-1970 and its opponent won a two-thirds majority. When the UNP was fighting for its life against a xenophobic wave in 1988, it took populist Ranasinghe Premadasa to defeat nationalist Sirimavo Bandaranaike. To win, you must be able to generate the chemistry to seize the public imagination. ‘Premadasa’ is the moderate Sinhala Buddhist-populist-democratic brand to counter the ‘Rajapaksa’ ultranationalist-authoritarian-militarist brand. 

Sajith’s Presidential and Parliamentary campaign constitute not just a dry-run but a season of clearing the space and sowing the seeds for harvesting at the Presidential Election 2024. 

The August 2020 result will reflect the base-line for the Opposition and the absolute zenith for the regime. Sajith’s Opposition can only “move on up” from ground zero, while the Rajapaksa regime can only decline. Whether that decline is parabolic or vertical depends on the external environment, chiefly the US election.   No septuagenarian sibling, even with another renunciation of US citizenship, can win a Presidential race as candidate of a top-heavy oligarchic Establishment with a record of claustrophobic authoritarianism, raucous ultra-nationalism and inequitable austerity, running against an energetic centrist-populist in his fifties and the tide of generational change. 

Cardinal Ranjith

Contrary to the assertion of the over-loquacious young Mr. Fernando that the Cardinal swung 5% of the vote, the Catholic swing against the UNP was due to the Easter attack itself, while Ranil’s perverse delay in naming the candidate gave the winner Gotabaya Rajapaksa a far greater lead than anything the Cardinal could have contributed. Catholic voters swung against the UNP in 1970, 1994 and arguably in 2005, all without Cardinal Ranjith.

In his repeated condemnation over the years of the Cardinal and in his rousing endorsement of an immature, ill-timed infelicity, Mangala Samaraweera showed his ignorance of the heavy price the Catholic Church has had to pay when identified with a pro-Western, anti-national UNP that inevitably earned the wrath of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. The backlash cost the Church its superb school system, for one. 

Long before Cardinal Ranjith, the Catholic and Protestant churches, intellectually propelled by progressive Bishops Leo Nanayakkara and Lakshman Wickremesinghe—and in the Catholic case, by the winds of Vatican II—had struggled successfully to reposition their churches as integrated into national mainstream, pro-people and change-oriented. 

Cardinal Ranjith had to manoeuvre and balance between the Sinhala nationalist wave that was rising against the foreign and domestic policies of Ranil-Mangala, as was nationalist-populism against neoliberal-globalism in most parts of the world, and proto-schismatic involution by the Tamil Catholic community.  An attack on a personality who at age 57 was on the electoral college which voted on the choice of leader of the world’s 1.4 billion Catholics and the world’s oldest and largest transnational/multinational organisation, displays spiteful disrespect of that Lankan who has made it to the most exalted heights that any of our citizens has; the Lankan citizen of the highest global achievement and responsibility ever. 

Agenda after August 

Far from pandering to “majoritarian fascism” as Mangala Samaraweera had it in a crassly vicious tweet, the Cardinal was one of the first to accurately identify the danger in an October 2009 conversation with US Ambassador Patricia Butenis (in the public domain thanks to Julian Assange/WikiLeaks).

US Ambassador Patricia Butenis’ Oct 2009 cable identified the key take-away: “SUMMARY: Roman Catholic Archbishop Ranjith told ambassador that…Sri Lanka could suffer revolution from the right or a coup by the military, which now had a very strong position in society.”

The cable goes on: ‘In a September 30 introductory meeting with Ambassador and Pol Chief, Roman Catholic Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith recounted the recent political evolution of Sri Lanka, of which he has been both an astute observer and important participant…Rajapaksa and his brothers were under great pressure from the Singhalese Buddhist right, and…could result in their losing ground to much more extreme elements...Sri Lanka — where democracy was not strong now — could suffer revolution from the right or a coup by the military, which currently had a very strong position in society…The archbishop said this was the challenge that he had been working on — how to get the president not to worry only about the “forces lurking beneath him” and to act as a moderate… ’ (WikiLeaks FILE, 2 Oct, 2009)

Ambassador Butenis’ concluding comment to her boss in Washington DC was: “…It is certainly true that the president is under great pressure from the Singhalese Buddhist right…” (Ibid)

The post-5 August 2020 agenda of that “Singhalese Buddhist Right” is transparent.  Presidential confidant and think-tank tsar Milinda Moragoda (well-connected to the US Republican right) called for the abolition of 13A and scrapping Provincial Councils. Next came a news-story captioned ‘Push for New Constitution that Reflects Post-war Realities’: 

“…Yuthukama Convenor and SLPP National List MP Gevindu Kumaratunga yesterday (5 July) said…In addition to defence, law and order, education, health and land should be handled by the Parliament. The Parliament should have the power to intervene in provincial matters if it felt course of action followed by PCs wasn’t compatible with laws passed by the Parliament…Cumaratunga explained in terms of the 13th Amendment, whatever law related to Provincial Councils couldn’t be amended or repealed without two-thirds approval in parliament, hence a major hindrance to parliamentary powers. Therefore, the Parliament should receive the right to do the needful with a simple majority.” (The Island, 6 July 2020)

TV news (6 July) showed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa addressing the Yuthukama event organised to commemorate his 50 years in parliamentary politics, affirming that “in order to change the transformations effected by the 19th and 13th amendments we require a sufficient vote from the people, which we are certain we shall obtain”.  

Eroding provincial devolution/semi-autonomy means unilaterally retrenching from the main outcome of a bilateral Accord, the “full implementation” of which was the wartime commitment by President MR, thereby securing the external environment for the military victory. He underscored the pledge in writing after V-Day (21 and 23 May 2009). His Foreign Minister (currently SLPP chairperson) Prof Peiris signed-off on “building upon” 13A in 2011.  Reneging is risky.

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