Ven. Rathana’s roar of ‘blasphemy’


by Dilshan Boange

The spinal slogan of the present government’s call for popular support rests on its assertion that the LTTE and the 30 year separatist war were ended under the presidency of His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa. And complementing this accomplishment is the claim that any further threats to national security from foreign factors can be defeated only under the leadership of MR. As a secondary element closely tied to the reason why MR’s government should continue in power are the mega scale infrastructure projects, which incidentally are ‘urbanisation accelerators’ in character, and commonly labelled as ‘development’.

The catalyst that caused fissures in the present coalition in power under MR and thereby bolstering the opposition’s mission to oust MR from power at the next presidential election can be effectively traced to the openly pronounced ultimatum made by Ven. Athuraliye Rathana thero who redoubtably pledged that he will muster all his strengths for the cause of defeating the incumbent president.

One cannot help but take note at this point in time, that credit for the war victory is claimed as more or less the sole province of the President. However government propaganda over the course of the years since 2009 have very effectively attributed the victory over the LTTE as a feat that was engineered solely by MR and his close circle. One must also take note in this context that unlike any government before, campaign slogans of the present government harp on a ‘culturally engineered’ appeal, calling upon the people to show their ‘gratitude’ to the government in power, who ensured the victory over the LTTE. ‘Gratitude’ after all is a virtue that the Buddha himself has extolled as a rare human quality. But interestingly the JHU has so far called upon neither the people nor MR to show ‘gratitude’ for their instrumental role in initiating the path to defeating the LTTE.

I wish to state for the record that I have not personally met Ven. Rathana thero and that my commentary is based on what I gather from the public discourse in the political landscape today. On YouTube the whole of the speech made by Ven. Rathana denouncing the present regime is available for reference and serves as a record to deduce the reasons as to why the JHU’s leadership decided to withdraw its support for the Rajapaksa regime. If one scrutinises the core arguments the Venerable thero establishes, one can see that his discourse goes to the very core of what ‘republicanism’ is and that a key facet of it being empowerment for the ‘civil voice’ to not be subservient to the ‘elected ruler’ whom they should not treat as a ‘master’.

An important point to note is that Ven. Rathana’s appeal to the people is a cry for ensuring economic independence. At the core of what he advocates as a drive to ensure economic independence is firstly to do with the restructuring of agrarian policy in Sri Lanka. Secondly there a stress on the need for empowerment of local entrepreneurship, local industry, as opposed to multinational corporations.

In his revolutionary struggle to free Cuba from despotic rule, Fidel Castro in his manifestoes on the path to revolution in Cuba placed a strong emphasis on the need for not only ‘political independence’ (Cuba having been a former colony of Spain) but also ‘economic independence’. If one pays attention to some of the core ideas presented by Ven. Rathana, what he proposes is review and reform of present policy towards ‘economic development’, and suggests critically deciphering the real ingredients beneath the veneer of slogans and labels as ‘open economy’ and ‘development’ which are stereotyped through facets of ‘intense urbanisation’ and infrastructure increase alone. Today those stereotyped slogans and labels work almost as ‘payoff lines’ in public debates and discourses the way that a striking payoff line functions in an advertisement to project the image of a product to a prospective buyer.

MR’s chief battle cry is that the separatist war is over and must not be allowed to raise its ugly head again and disrupt the economic programme he has set forth in motion. And that to do so would be unpatriotic. In effect it is a patenting of patriotism as the exclusive forte of the present regime and bound to the present presidency. But what Ven. Rathana indicates is that patriotism is the protection of the country’s sovereignty through the protection of the ‘people’s sovereignty’ to not be gradually, speciously lulled into a position of being victim to an unarmed, non coercive, covert, silently invasive and ultimately perilous future in respect of economic subservience to the West through neo-liberal economic policies.

In a multi ethnic and multi religious country like Sri Lanka it would be understandable for moderates to be apprehensive of political views of monks in parliament and particularly of a party as the JHU. However what I find remarkable and worthy of consideration to any moderate who believes in the spirit of democracy and republicanism is Rev. Rathana’s political statements represent a salutary sense of a spirit of statesmanship as an ardent upholder of the spirit of republicanism and does not by any means romanticise notions of ‘modern monarchism’ for Sri Lanka by glorification of the bygone era of Sinhala kings and advocating such forms of government as being suited for our country. These views clearly set Ven. Rathana apart in his stance of modern statesmanship as opposed to other far right groups and monks who have taken to political activism who at times may romanticise a return to Sinhala monarchism through a supremely powerful executive Head of State whose authority goes unquestioned.

What Ven. Rathana asserts is that the ruler should not be allowed to act with impunity and the spirit of republican democracy must be preserved in this day and age by disallowing the elected leaders opportunities to enable consolidation of power to the extent that the essence of a republic –the nation’s sovereignty being vested in her people, and the practical workings of electoral democracy –the freedom to manifest ones choice of a candidate to exercise powers of the state on behalf of the people, would be compromised.

What Ven. Rathana asserted in his stance to oppose MR’s bid for a third term of executive presidency was a fearless critical response and posited it as the right of a country’s people to question the bona fides of the leader in this premature call for presidential polls. In citing the 18th Amendment as a legislative move that was to serve solely the ambitions of an executive that refutes constitutional curtailment in respect of opportunity to secure successive terms of office, and openly professing his regrets in retrospect and further the admission/confession that supporting the said amendment was an error can be seen in the light of ‘statesmanship’, since very few elected representatives today will constructively admit that a decision made in the past was unwise and take active steps to undo the damage for the future. What is now being called for in essence is a reform of government policy for a revolution of collective thought in the long term for a salutary national ethos in the spirit of republicanism.

In questioning the arbitrariness with which the 18th Amendment was enacted and the manner in which snap elections were called consulting none of the parties in the collation, Ven. Rathana asserts that the overarching objective of the executive is an excessive consolidation of power which disregards the spirit of democratic republicanism. In questioning the will behind MR’s decision making Ven. Rathana raises the question as to what people should do in the face of what seems executive arbitrariness? He asks whether the public must simply take it lying down? "Don’t we have a backbone? Don’t we have strength of character?" roars the statesmanship of Ven. Rathana in which one may find the spark of overt disregard for the ‘status image’ that has been built up of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the people’s psyche over the last few years.

The hyper inflated image of a leadership that can never be matched or outdone, concentrated around the purported abilities of a single person and administrative machinery and designs of his choosing is what the government projects today. It is in some sense a grandiose superhuman form that is being imbued in MR which post-war government propaganda has been artful to develop through use of various media flirts with the image of ‘royal stature’ being integral to define MR as a never before seen phenomenon. Never before in ‘republican Sri Lanka’, but resoundingly found in earlier times of Sinhala monarchy.

It is plainly observable to anyone of reasonable thinking that the image now built of the president is one that elevates him to being something more than ordinarily human. It is an image that posits him as a personality that is sacrosanct. It is in relation to this that I say that Ven. Rathana’s outcry acted as an initiative to challenge the pervasive unspoken norm that was being projected on the populace, which is that it is unbecoming of any civic minded Sri Lankan to denounce MR.

Blasphemy is irreverence towards what is sacred. By saying that, I do not mean that Ven. Rathana’s denouncement of MR suggest that his words were in fact blasphemous. What is intended by this article’s title is an oxymoronic assertion of how Ven. Rathana’s stance, while surely being ‘blasphemous’ to unquestioning MR loyalists, would otherwise be saluted as a noble stance of statesmanship by those who value the spirit of democratic republicanism.

The writer is a graduate in English (Hons) from the University of Colombo, holds a Higher Diploma in International Relations from the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies and is a Final Year student at the Sri Lanka Law College.

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