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The era emerged from “Ruwan Weli Saya”: Aftermath of presidential election in Sri Lanka

By Punsara Amarasinghe and Eshan Jayawardane

Civilizational influence in shaping national political consciousness is an indispensable factor   that one cannot deny or completely abandon albeit how rationalized or tries to be radical he is. The Oath ceremony of the president of the US is traditionally culminated by pledging alliance to the US constitution and God and the people in Britain chant “God save the Queen “as their aged long belief in Christianity is imbued with Anglo Saxon political consciousness. This given examples are the ideal instances proving the gravity of nationalism still prevailing in nation states system and this examples pave the path to ascertain the civilizational message symbolized by the newly elected president of Sri Lanka by choosing the ancient Buddhist stupa Ruwan Weli Saya in its ancient monastic city Anuradhapaura as the location to take oaths.

First and foremost, the recently concluded presidential election in Sri Lanka became a battle between emotions and many appealing dazzled in Sri Lankan society due number of reasons. Mainly majority of Sri Lankans felt anxious about the rule of former president Maithripala Sirisena who came into power in 2015 as a leader committed to restore the good governance and the international image of Sri Lanka. Even though his emphasis on good governance and reconciliation seemed to be appealing at outset, his inefficiency in implanting the promises jeopardized his rule gradually. In particular, people were heavily gutted after an Islamic militant group supported by ISIS carried out a deadly attack on Easter Day this year in Sri Lanka. All this circumstances set the cause in Sri Lanka to revive its aged long romanticism on Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism as it has always played the last resort for the majority of the Sinhalese community in island throughout its history.

The arrival of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a one of main presidential candidates for this year election marked a new revival in Sinhalese Buddhist community and which was further bolstered by the echoing voice of Buddhist monks and so many other social factors. On the other hand, his dynamism as former defense secretary during his brother president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s era in defeating 30 year long civil war in Sri Lanka against Tamil separatist movement and the contribution he made in urban development kept lingering in the minds of the people when they suffered from inefficient bunch of rulers for past five years. However, in comparing the decisive factors that intensified the victory of Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it becomes evident his main opponent Mr. Sajith Premadasa’s manifesto and his political stances became less appealing for the majority of Sinhalese in Sri Lanka as his political campaign was consisted of many dubious characters hated by common people.

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In analyzing the election results, it is evident that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory in Sri Lankan presidential elections was manly attributed to the votes of Sinhalese Buddhists and this simply reminds of the victory of Modi in India from Hindu majority votes and Orban’s victory in Hungary from the votes of the Catholic Magyars. The recent growth of nationalism around the globe has again created a serious concern on returning the Hobbesian idea of strong sovereignties with strong nationalist sentiments. The outcome in Sri Lankan presidential election denotes the continuation of strong global tendency towards nationalism, yet, in the case in Sri Lanka the election results has given a clear sign that Tamil and Muslim minorities are displeased with Gotabaya to be their president as many Tamil and Muslim electorates were mainly won by Sajith Premadasa.  The situation arising from this ethic division should be healed by newly elected president as it appears to be the most important task he needs to accomplish.

Perhaps, it may be an interesting analysis to look at his choice for taking oaths as the 7th executive president of Sri Lanka, because the place he chose for this ceremony Ruwan Wali Saya in ancient city of Anuradha Pura is a powerful icon for Sinhalese Buddhists as how Varanasi becomes important for Hindus and Jerusalem inspires Jews. The ancient pagoda called “Ruwan Wali Saya” was built by King Dutu Gamunu after defeating Tamil Chola ruler Ellalan who ruled Anuradhapura for 40 years. The saga of king Dutugamunu was glorified in the Sinhalese psyche as a civilizational hero who appeared in the most awaited hour in their history to defeat the enemy and restore Buddhism. Also, the Buddhist pagoda he built called “ Ruwan Wali Saya” has always been an inspirational point for the idea of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. The pictured depicted in Sinhalese Buddhist society in Sri Lanka regarding Anuradhapura and Ruwan Wali Saya is a such a venerated one mixed with nostalgia and a yearning to restore its glory. In modern history of Sri Lanka after independence, no leader chose this ancient symbolic place as the venue to take oaths till Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa did so.

The given idea simply proves that Sinhalese Buddhist majority finally reached their awaited moment of choosing a leader who understands their national aspirations. Moreover, it shows the unbreakable role of religion, race and cultural identities in South Asian politics. We do not criticize the emotional symbolism erupted from Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s choice of Buddhist pagoda as a place for taking oath, because history has proven sometimes nationalist leaders have been great leaders who protected every community in the society and in his inaugural speech president Gotabaya mentioned the importance for leading Sri Lanka from its political and economic chaos to a greater future with the support of all the communities. In that context, the man who appeared from the strong communal based nationalist background might be the best leader Sri Lankans have been waiting so far if he addresses the ethnic minorities Tamils and Muslims in the island without isolating them. Furthermore, neutralizing the foreign policy in Sri Lanka would be another crucial factor newly elected president needs to envisage.

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD researcher at institute of law and politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa, Italy. Eshan Jayawardane is an independent researcher currently lives in New Zealand and he holds a master’s degree in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. 

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