In the end, it does not matter how it happens but unless that tyranny ends, there is no hope for sustainable economic revival
The 2022 Independence Day would be celebrated in an environment of a unique economic crisis never experienced by any previous government since 1948. To millions of people in this country, even one meal a day has become a luxury. Economic misery rules and the rulers are scapegoating the pandemic for causing it. That the pandemic exacerbated the misery is never questioned, but the damage done to the economy by two years of faulty economic policies coupled with a gross underestimation of the real cost of the ethnic civil war that ended over a decade ago in bringing about the current crisis need to be acknowledged.
Over all, the prevailing economic disaster is the cumulative effect of Sri Lanka’s majoritarian democracy, which failed to incorporate the synergy of the nation’s ethnic and cultural heterogeneity in the struggle for economic growth, a factor sadly ignored by local economic experts and development advisers. In other words, the tyranny of majoritarianism has sapped the economic vitality of this nation like an undetected cancerous growth.
Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism is the product of political Buddhism, a strange phenomenon in the context of Buddha’s principles and philosophy on state governance. This was clearly spelt out in a recent televised dialogue between two eminent scholar monks, Ven. Galkande Dhammananda and Ven. Uduhawara Ananda, from the Kelaniya and Colombo universities respectively. Had the Sangha advised the post-independence rulers on the true nature of Buddhist governance as the two scholars implied, Sri Lanka would have checkmated the growth of majoritarian tyranny. Needless to emphasise that it was such virtuous advice from the Sangha in the past that made Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial Buddhist monarchs the architects of a peaceful, prosperous and resplendent island. In contrast, the so-called virtuosity injected by the monks surrounding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has produced a republic of chaos.
Historically, the seeds of majoritarianism as an outgrowth of political Buddhism were sown in the late 19th century in the thick of a Buddhist nationalist wave started by that Buddhist zealot and national hero Anagarika Dharmapala, who ironically wished to be reborn not in Buddhist Sri Lanka but in a Brahmin family in Hindu India – a less known fact among his living disciples. Although political Buddhism in the immediate aftermath of independence arose as a legitimate response to nearly 450 years of political and cultural subjugation of Buddhists by three Western Christian powers, it blossomed thereafter and metamorphosed into an aggressive ethno-religious ideology aiming not only to claim total ownership of the country but also to deny equal citizenship to members of local minority communities.
Today’s authoritarian GR regime, brought to power by a coalition of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists, represents the epitome of that ideology, which has made other ethnic and religious minorities composing nearly 30% of the country’s population disconnected to the regime’s so called development efforts.
From the 1948 disenfranchisement of Indian Tamils through to the 1956 Sinhala Only Bill, the 1972 constitution elevating Buddhism alone to the foremost place followed by series of state initiated pro-majoritarian policies under different governments on education, public administration and land distribution, and right down to the current agenda of legal homogenisation under a controversial One Country One Law task force headed by a militant Buddhist monk, has left the ethnic and religious minorities experience the tyranny of Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism. It is in understanding this tyrannous impact of majoritarian democracy on a big chunk of the nation’s population and in taking measures to reconnect the disconnected with the struggle for economic growth that the country could be ridden of its prevailing misery.
The current regime is incapable of doing it, because the ruling Rajapaksa dynasty with its Viethmaga power cartel is wedded to Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism. From the day when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took his oath of allegiance in the precincts of Ruwanvelisaya in 2020 to the day when he was ennobled by a team of Buddhist monks as Lankaeeswara Padmavibushana in 2022, his presidency and government has vowed to protect and promote Buddhism alone and govern primarily in the interest of the Sinhala Buddhist majority. The cry of the minorities for justice and equal rights have fallen on deaf years. The struggle over the 13th Amendment by Tamils and the Catholic Cardinal’s crusade for justice to victims of that Easter infamy are just two episodes among many where the regime has shown callous disregard to minority demands. This is why they are forced to seek assistance from external powers and that in turn has economic implications.
Regrettably, none of the opposition parties except perhaps JVP/NPP is prepared to speak out openly against majoritarian tyranny. Even within JVP/NPP different leaders are speaking in different tones when touching on this thorny issue. Opposition’s sensitivity to the Buddhist vote bank is the main reason for this weakness. However, like manna from heaven the severity of the current economic crisis seems to teach the Buddhist masses that they too have been hoodwinked by majoritarianism. With civil societies working closely with a political party like JVP/NPP the majoritarian tyrannous nut could be broken.
In the end, it does not matter how it happens but unless that tyranny ends, there is no hope for sustainable economic revival. There is nothing more valuable as productive assets than a country’s people. The larger is their participation greater will be the gross national product and per capita income. It is not development that would remove evils of majoritarian tyranny as GR mistakenly assumes, but it is the removal of that tyranny that would guaranty development and prosperity.
(The writer is attached to the School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia.)